Monday, July 30, 2007


Culture Clashes in the Kitchen

The Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute provides a church deaconess to clean teachers’ apartments at all of its nearly 40 locations in Korea. For an additional sum of money, she will also cook for teachers two or three times a week in many of the smaller schools.

At my first institute in Suncheon, the deaconess was a quiet lady nicknamed “Marsha,” who couldn’t speak English well but was beloved by all teachers and church members for her generosity and smiling demeanor. While I worked in the mid-morning, prepping my lessons plans and grading papers, she came in, washed the clothes, cleaned the dishes and mopped the floor, often without my realizing that she’d even been there.

I’ve since come to believe that she was part of an ancient custodial guild that perfected the art of stealthful sanitation under the cover of darkness long before the white man conquered the Western Hemisphere.

When I transferred to Chuncheon, pleasant memories of Marsha compelled me to enlist the services of their deaconess to both contain the out of control maleness of my housekeeping tendencies, while preparing food for me occasionally.

However, what I got at this apartment was not the silent avatar of clean clothes and empty trash bins I had expected. Some Korean men might even say that what I got wasn’t even a woman. Some would say that she actually belonged to Korea’s third gender, the ajuma.

The word ajuma is usually translated into “aunt,” but is often applied to all Korean women of middle age who have gotten married, had children and — is there any way to put this delicately? — lost many of the appealing characteristics of womanhood.

No young woman wants to be called ajuma because of this, and also because of certain manners they show in social settings. Because of the long-standing tradition of showing respect to elders, ajuma get a pass in many situations. In subway stations, they will push younger people out of the way when boarding a train, rather than walk around them or say the Korean equivalent of “Excuse me.” Such tendencies are the norm here, but much harder for the non-Korean, especially the Western male in his 20s, to accept.

The deaconess in Chuncheon had no foreinger-friendly nickname. She was simply “the deaconess,” and she could not say single complete sentence in English. Whereas Marsha’s deeds and amiability translated into any language, her Chuncheon-based counterpart sought to overcome this and any other communication barrier with sheer volume. There were many afternoons where I, were it not for the impressive vocal cord strength she exhibited in cell phone conversations, would’ve been trapped in a hopelessly refreshing nap.

On most days in which she was in my apartment, I would enter through the front door around 9:30 or 10 a.m. and she would rotate her head away from whatever maintenance task she was undertaking and shout in my general direction.

“Robot-uh!” she would say. “When eat-uh?”

I would often instruct her to wait, because, having taught for a couple of hours, I wanted to exercise, sleep or just generally avoid human contact for a short time.

“Eleven-thirty eat-uh? Twelve eat-uh?”

I would shrug and say okay, usually hoping that she’d leave me alone until then. At 11:30, she would the door to my bedroom, regardless of the state of my dress (“It’s okay!” she’d say. “I have a son!”) and announce “Lunchytime! Now eat-uh!”

I would pray silently that she’d made curry, or at least something other than one of her concoctions consisting of little more than ketchup and rice. Usually, it was something in between: a utilization of vegetables, bread and/or rice that, while not repulsive, felt more like labor than cuisine.

Over time, I developed a technique for pacing my biting and chewing in such a way that would allow me the appearance of food intake, but would buy me time until she left my apartment. Then, I could put what she made in the refrigerator and have a peanut butter sandwich.

Several months and more than $100 worth of food passed before I realized something known by many historians and but not many officials currently serving in the U.S. Department of Defense: clashes between cultures leave few winners. I asked her not to cook for me anymore, and just to clean up around the place. She was disappointed, but our relationship took a turn for the better from then on.

“Hello, Robot-uh!” she would say while cleaning.

“Hi,” I’d respond. I’d then add something, like, “You know, one of the nice things about having a cell phone is that you don’t have to yell so loud that your daughter can hear you from across town.”

She never comprehended when I said such things. Then again, even if we’d spoken the same language, I doubt we’d have ever really understood one other.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Pete's speech at the Tennis Hall Of Fame - Part 2

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Pete's speech at the Tennis Hall Of Fame - Part 1

He struggles more with his emotions than he ever did with his opponents.

One more reason why he'll always be my favorite.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Looking in on the Internet Generation

Nearly all Americans of the past century have felt a profound sense of belonging to the respective generations which they could identify themselves with. The Greatest Generation overcame the Great Depression and gave us a world safe from totalitarianism. The Beat Generation gave misfits a sense of belonging through their vast volume of literature which convinced millions disgruntled English majors that surely they couldn't write poetry that made any less sense.

Then there's the Baby Boom Generation who, for what they lacked in literary achievement and military accomplishment, more than made up for it in terms of sheer numbers. Their legacy is not in doubt; their contributions to the US budget deficit and discretionary spending will be remembered long after they have left the mortal coil (sigh).

What is less certain is the fate of my peers, who are now being called the Internet Generation. This is the generation that has popularized instant messenger, online friends' networks, and internet encyclopedias which allow the entire online community to share knowledge.

On the upside, this generation of Americans will have a network of social and business opportunities that was never enjoyed before. On the not-so-upside, this generation of Americans spends so much time networking at these places that they probably won't be winning any track meets in the foreseeable future.

All of this leads many people to speculate about the future of the Internet Generation: will they create a world where geographical and national boundaries are erased, and people of all nations may socialize and trade freely? Or, will all societies be crippled by the great Carpal Tunnel Epidemic of 2018? Many from outside this generation are speculating about its chances, and I count myself among the unbiased observers. You see, I'm the same age as the Internet Generation, but I'm not one of them; I'm just watching along with the rest of you.

I can pinpoint the cause of my alienation as stemming from many factors, but if I were on trial I'd have to blame my upbringing. It wouldn't be a hard case to make: I grew up in Tennessee. In fact, not just anywhere in the Volunteer State, actually; but 10 miles outside the metropolis of Paris, Tenn. Places such as this are the mountain peaks that the dam burst of technology floods last.

My family started using CDs in 1993. We first got cable TV just after the 1996 Olympic Games. We got our first dial-up Internet connection in the latter half of 1998. In my childhood home on the outskirts of Paris, that dial-up connection is still in use today.

Over the years I have attempted to make contact with many of those that I grew up with in the late '90s, during the Internet Generation's formative years. All I have hoped to discover is that a few people I grew up with use the Internet to regularly communicate with old friends, the way God intended it be used.

However, it seems that all the people I know who are my age fall into two polar opposite categories. The most technologically astute of my former classmates are so deeply embedded in the Web that a novice like me will never find them. The other group are those who long ago logged on and saw that they could make friends around the world, start an online business, or at least regularly keep up with friends who live far away.

With all these opportunities ahead of them, they each decided that they would use this technology to play Internet billiards each night when work ended. "It's just like real billiards, except it's less physically strenuous!" they've all probably exclaimed at one point or another.

So, my best bet for getting good mileage out of the 'Net rests not with old friends, but with the new ones all over the globe who are probably sitting in a comfortably padded chairs allowing them to preserve their rear quarters even as they exacerbate their astigmatism. It doesn't take more than a simple Google search to discover that there are hundreds of sites, blogs and list serves for whatever your interest may be: rugby, Scorsese movies, the pre-Glass Houses albums of Billy Joel.

Once in awhile I'll look at blogs and sites featuring things I'm interested in and sometimes leave comments. Meanwhile, web-philes apparently visit these sites daily and leave their mark, sometimes getting excited over who can post first. When I visit these sites, I wonder, not only what it takes to bond with people like these, but also whether I'd even want to.

If the highlight of someone's day is to post online comments on a Billy Joel site, are they really going to be good company? Is the Internet Generation's push toward a global community and a robust marketplace creating a world full of unhealthy people who don't know their neighbors? One day we'll know for sure.

Until then, billiards, anyone?

Monday, July 16, 2007


The Perilous State of My Self-Deprication

A little late this week because of our summer camp in Cheonan, but here you are.

As an aspiring humorist, I’ve built the foundation of my musings on two techniques. The first is the ability to make insightful and occasionally biting commentary on life using words infrequently employed words. The other jutting edge of my two-pronged approach is healthy self-criticism (which is similar to self-deprecation, but easier to spell). The utilities of the latter tool are also two-fold: 1) it allows me to vent the frustrations I have with myself to an audience that seems to relate more often than I’d expected, and 2) takes the edge off of said occasionally biting musings.

For example, when I was senior in college, it certainly seemed to me that just maybe the computer science majors regarded themselves as the only ones in the post-9/11 market who were guaranteed gainful employment, and treated each of the rest of us as if our most complex hardware program were toilet training that we could all handle if we’d just unlatch our nappies for a minute.

Once in awhile, I might have opined that maybe such scholars of the computational disciplines would be able to discern the discourtesy of their actions if they had more vitamin D in their bloodstream; preferably from natural sources such as sunlight.

However, later in the same article, I would find a clever way to say “I haven’t had a date since sophomore year.” Many of the partisans of computing would still detest my very existence, but more of the moderate “swing readers” would consider my rantings fair and balanced, and I’d prevail via plurality.

One reason that I chose to work for the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in South Korea two years ago was that I’d be exposed to a greater breadth of subjects to rant/muse about. However, I fear that my capacity for self-deprivation has come under consistent attack since my arrival and my entire ability to compose succinct life commentary will fall asunder.

It’s not that anything about me has changed; I’m still the quiet, bookish male whose complexion leaves him vulnerable to sunburns during the Winter Solstice. All that has changed is how I am viewed. Frankly, any young man with a modicum of charisma and an appearance that does not prompt spontaneous vomiting would probably be looked upon in the same way.

There aren’t many jobs where, at the end of a shift, one of the clients will say, “Your face is very good,” but I’m happy to say that I have one.

At the summer and winter camps that our institute hosts for its teachers and students, I have been repeatedly asked to pose with young girls for photographs.

“Teacher, you are very handsome,” they say, before passing their camera to someone who will take pictures for them. From time to time, our impromptu photographer will ask if these are my students, to which I will respond that this is our first time meeting each other.

“Why would you take a picture with someone you don’t know?” our unplanned picture-taker sometimes asks.

There are two possible responses, both of which are correct: “Because it quenches a deep-seated yearning for attention that I have long cried out for in the hidden depths of my psyche” is probably the most accurate response, but “Because I’m a missionary” requires less dexterity in my diction, so that’s how I tend to answer.

It’s not just the flattery that boosts the self-esteem of the foreigner, but they way some of them react to me makes me feel better about my own sense of poise. Unfortunately, a few of the young people on this side of the Pacific lose all sense of self-respect in the presence of foreigners.

In a recent trip to a supermarket in Seoul, I met such a person, if by “met” you mean “was followed around and asked a series of questions in a language I am not fluent in yet.”

My first hint as to his age was the long hair that flowed down the back of his head even as it receded in front. My initial clue as to his mental state was the way he stopped what he was doing when he saw me and began waving his hand as if he were scrubbing a very persistent stain from and imaginary window. My usual reaction to friendly Koreans that I don’t know is to smile uncomfortably and wave. In his case, I walked away as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, he found me on the downward escalator and began peppering me with questions that I believe were related to my MP3 player, my nation of birth, and other assorted topics. I wanted tell him that a) I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and b) he is a grown man and should act like he has at least a microscopic amount of dignity. However, I can’t express either of these well enough in Korean, and so I fell back on repeated use of “I don’t know” until I could escape into the check-out lane.

After such encounters I can tell myself that, even if I did have a miniscule social life between my 20th and 23rd birthdays, I would never act that way around anyone on this earth, except maybe Pete Sampras.

I may be a purveyor of biting social commentary, but seriously, the guy won seven Wimbledons.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


I'm a Thriller in Korea

Korea is one of those countries where it is very difficult to identify the natives strictly by their appearance. When westerners discuss a Korean that they both are familiar with but may not be able to identify by name, we often say things like, “Do you know Rachel? You know … kind of short … has dark hair … talks with an accent?”

The nation as a whole is quite homogenized, and especially so outside of Seoul, where most of those with Anglo-centric origins have gathered. As such, I have found that it’s very easy to feel scrutinized while doing virtually anything in Korea that requires me to venture out into the public.

Many times, the people whisper words to each other they assume I won’t understand. At times, their glances linger on my personage for a substantially longer than average period of time. Then, of course, there are the children.

The best example I can offer of how children react to foreigners in this country took place on a typical Saturday night in the city of Chuncheon, when I was buying groceries (and yes, this is a typical Saturday night for me, and has been ever since the days of my youth, when my parents would organize the epic weekend trips to Super Wal-Mart). I stood at the checkout line, holding two bags with about $30 worth of goods in my hands, not sensing an extraordinary amount of attention being cast my way.

It was only due to a chance glimpse behind me when I notice the two kids: one boy, one girl, both of whose heads were geographically located at an approximate parallel to my waist. Another common feature of the two was the expression of absolute glee found on both of their faces: their lower jaws both extended to their respective nadirs, their lower lips tucked over the teeth on said jaw, and their eyelids spread so wide that their baby browns seemed ready to emerge and become satellites orbiting their larger planetary heads.

My reaction was the typical awkward smile: closed mouth, lips curved upward to reach both cheeks, and eyes glancing sideways to be certain of where the exits were, just in case. “Uhm, hi,” I said.

Their mother tapped the girl, the older of the two, lightly on the shoulder and instructed her to give me the traditional Korean greeting of “Annyeong haseo” (literally, “Are you at peace?”).

The young girl responded with lisped version of that: “Annyeong hatheo!” They were obviously not English speakers, and my knowledge of their language does not extend far beyond the phrases which I find handy when answering the phone, such as “I am not Korean,” “I don’t speak Korean very well,” and “There are no Koreans here.” Therefore, I assumed our interaction was at an end and I could go back to focusing on the check-out line.

That’s when I felt their hands. I suppose I’m asking for it whenever I wear summer garments, because most Asian people have almost no visible body hair, while my arms and legs resemble a kind of blond rain forest. The children stroked at the hairs on my forearms for several minutes, perhaps enjoying its texture, or maybe to see if I would purr.

Such attention from children is not hard to understand. I can distinctly remember when I was slightly younger than their age and I met a very burly man who was probably in the neighborhood of my current height, which is 6’3. Although we were the same race and nationality, his physical stature inspired me to ask him, “Are you a giant?”

It’s hard to imagine how a person of that height and a vastly different appearance would have affected me at the time. Fortunately, imagination is not all I have to rely on, because many of the children in Korea are very expressive, even when they are not so happy to see me. Small girls have seen me, stopped what they were doing and started to bawl out loud. Small boys at dinner luncheons have refused to eat until I left the room.

Fortunately, excited curiosity is more common than unbridled terror. I used to refer to 3 p.m. as “magic hour,” because that’s when youth all over Korea emerge, wearing their school uniforms, ready to react to foreigners as if everyone of them were Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

For a long time, my response to this attention used to be one of great discomfort; I would try to convey via body language that I was just a regular guy trying to buy 2 percent milk, not a pop star who’d one day be brought down by a bad habit of spending the night with his pre-pubescent fans.

More recently, however, I’ve embraced my status. These days, if a child says “Hello!” to me as I’m walking by, I will pivot directions as if they held me on a yo-yo and immediately walk in their direction.

“Hi!” I shout. “Nice to meet you! What’s your name!? Hey, where are you going!?!?”

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a celebrity. One thing I have learned is that, when dealing with kids, dignity will only hold you back.


Cherry Filter MV_Happy day

My second favorite Korean group, Cherry Filter. I have yet to decipher the meaning of this chorus.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


All About Neil

In the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute of South Korea, teachers encounter many students who frustrate them: young people who almost never study, who frequently come late, and who take advantage of a system that allows them to miss class as many as seven times. We understand that they have university classes and sometimes work that also bids for their time, but we can’t comprehend their apparent belief that English can be learned through the osmotic transfer of information.

Periodically, though, we encounter those whose dedication is inspiring, even if their actual ability leaves much to be desired.

When I think of students like these, Neil will probably always be foremost in my mind. As a 40-something computer software company employee in Chuncheon, Neil started attempting to learn English later in life than most others. Also, he lived in a small town, as opposed to the national hub of Seoul, where English is heard more commonly.

Neil attempted to compensate for his disadvantages through as much immersion in the language as he could attain. In addition to having perfect attendance at his 7 a.m. class nearly every term, he has also taken part every evening in our religion classes, which are a kind of workshop we that exposes them to English through Bible stories.

He also goes to our church nearly every weekend to talk to other students and teachers. Outside of class, he studies for two or three hours every evening.

His first term in studying with SDA was in July-August, which was also not long after I came to Chuncheon as a teacher. On a Saturday afternoon near the end of August, some of the students and church members made plans to go bowling that night, and I was told that Neil would transport us there in his van. As confirmation, I asked him, “Will you drive to the bowling alley?”

He looked back at me as though he were some manner of hooved mammal caught in the headlights of a Hyundai Entourage. As I often do with beginning students, I had to resort to pantomime, first by making an under-sweeping motion with my right arm, then pointing to him and gripping and imaginary round object utilized for steering.

“Bowling … tonight … you … drive?” I said, clearly enunciating with each gesture.

“Oh, okay!” he said. “Yes.”

Virtually every student who makes an effort not to go over our absence limit passes level one, as do most in level two. This is done to give them encouragement, and at least expose them to conversation practice and their teacher’s voice. Unfortunately for many students, from levels three-six we must grade by ability, and not necessarily by diligence.

In level three, Neil’s teacher was Pieter, a former South African minister who speaks multiple languages himself. Among the ideas Pieter had for his class was that they would take a vocabulary test every day, in order to prove that they could write correct sentences. In that same term, he also attended my religion class in the evening.

“He tries very hard but I don’t think he’s going to make it,” Pieter said of Neil one evening early in the term.

However, during those two months, a noticeable change took place in him. He has always said very little, but by this time he could understand nearly every word of English that was spoken to him. Pieter told me that although his sentences often came out broken, he wrote his daily vocabulary tests almost perfectly each time. As such, Pieter was conflicted about whether or not to pass him.

Ultimately, when Neil failed the final exam his teacher chose to repeat him in level three. His amount of effort did not change, however. For the next four months, he came to his morning and evening classes without fail and was a consistent presence in our church. I eventually moved to Seoul to write and edit textbooks, but at the end of April I received word that Neil was going to pass level three after six months of trying.

I visited Chuncheon just before May, and saw him in the institute church. As soon as he saw me he came over to say hello.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I am fine.”

“And how is your English?”

“Oh,” he said, shaking his head. “I am very difficult.”

Those of us who have taught him can at least take consolation in the fact that he said “difficult,” and not “hard.”

Many people study a second language to get a better job. Sometimes, it’s to make friends you wouldn’t be able to communicate with otherwise. Other people want to travel easily in places where their own language isn’t spoken. There’s also the most noble reason of all: because your Korean girlfriend wants you to.

However, there are many benefits to trying something new that people rarely think about. Neil has found kind of home at the Chuncheon institute, and befriended many students and teachers. While starting a new language is more complicated at his age, these new relationships would be harder — in some cases, impossible — without the knowledge he has gained.

While studying Korea, it’s hard to see the progress at times. However, periodically I can see that I’ve advanced from where I was just months ago. I know I’ve already learned some useful phrases in the language. For example, Choneun mani oh-ryo-eun (translation: “I am really difficult”).

Hard as it may be, it’s good to have someone like Neil to look to for inspiration.

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