Sunday, October 28, 2007


Which are Scarier: Misquitoes or Pigeons?

One of the definitions of "roommate" that you can find at is "a person with whom you share a room or rooms." By that definition, since I came to Korea I've had three types of roommates: Americans, South Africans and mosquitoes.

The closeness of the relationships I've shared with my roommates has varied. I've become good friends with some of them, and with others communication consisted of little more than "Can I borrow some bread?" and "Can you please turn the light off when you're done in there?"

Then, there are the roommates who want to be really close to me, so much so that they want a share of my sleeping hours and portion of my blood. Of the three categories I mentioned in the first paragraph, you ought to be able to tell which kind I mean (unless there are stereotypes about South Africans I'm not aware of).

This is a subject that weighs heavily on my mind at the moment because it's been autumn for more than a month, and the weather here in Seoul is getting colder. So, the effects of this particular seasonal change that I had grown accustomed to, such as cool evenings, the increasing occurrence of cold symptoms, busier schedules in schools and universities, along with the failure of the St. Louis Cardinals to advance in or even reach the MLB post-season are all in effect.

Why then, are the mosquitoes still here? Why must I go to sleep almost fully clothed and with my oscillating fan blowing at full blast upon my face in order to avoid being awoken by the sound of high-pitched buzzing in my ear? When I apply that mosquito repellent I bought in Thailand, do I still wake up with red spots all over my upper extremities because Korean insects are immune to substances manufactured in other Asian countries?

There are plug-in devices I could use in my room, but if I ask a native for help finding one, will I be wearing down their willingness to help me with possible future needs, like computer maintenance and/or blood transfusions?

Above all, why must I concern myself with this subject at all when the change of seasons could be taking care of the problem for me? I'd like to invest more time and energy in teaching the students proper English, or at least convincing them to show up. Why can't Mother Nature give me a break?

Maybe it's because, sophist old spinster that that she is, she knows that this is the closest thing to wildlife I'm likely to encounter here in Korea. With a population of 12 million-strong, Seoul is the third city in which I've resided since coming to Korea, after living in two of the nation's tiniest municipalities, Suncheon and Chuncheon, which had populations of a mere 250,000 each.

The determination of the locals to develop into an economic and industrial powerhouse has had its benefits: after almost total poverty following the Korean War it is now the 12th largest economy in the world and literacy is almost 100 percent. On the downside, they've lived in cities for so long that they have no idea what to do with animals.

Some Korean women, in particular, are scared positively witless by a variety of creatures, including house cats, cocker spaniels and/or earthworms. If an anonymous survey asked them to choose which was the scariest threat their facing society today, most women here would probably not choose A) a nuclear-armed North Korea, or B) a rapid economic downturn, but C) pigeons.

I've had female students who made plans to study in Western countries only to back out, simply because they heard that these places have large fowl. I have asked them why they would be afraid of an animal that human beings have been successfully eating for thousands of years, and the most eloquent answer I can get from them is, "Birds' feet are very … not good."

So, perhaps I should welcome mosquitoes into my room at night, since they carry relatively few diseases here. Maybe I should abide the cockroaches that occasionally show up in the floors and the walls, along with the ants who have forced me to leave my cereal box in the refrigerator lest they become part of my breakfast.

After all, within a year I expect to be married to a Korean woman. After that, given my future female roommate's superior household maintenance skills, along with her discriminating tastes in pets, I may have much less nature in my life.

She seems friendly to the idea of dogs, and possibly a cat, but my suggestion of the African Grey Parrot was promptly shot down.

"But they can learn up to a hundred words, and distinguish between colors, shapes and numbers," I said.

"I told you," she replied. "Scarrrrrryyyyy birds' feet."

I lost that debate. I always do.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Enjoy the Small Victories of Learning Languages

As the summer of 2002 began, I was determined that I would make long-distance running a habit of mine. I woke up early in morning, before the Chattanoogan heat and humidity would saddle my journey with an extra couple sandbags of sweat, and jogged the oval-shaped track on Southern Adventist University’s campus.

The entire oval was one-fourth of a mile, so I decided that I would start by doing four laps on it. My build is naturally thin, so I figured it was only matter of time before it adapted.

My body did not agree with this reasoning, because it knew something that I did not when I was making these plans: one mile is still a pretty long distance to run.

I attempted to convince my body that it could do it by breaking the task down into small victories. While the body would play the Washington press core, always drudging up and using whatever negative sentiment it could find, I assumed the role of the White House press secretary, assuring it that everything was going to be fine if it would just be positive for four more years … I mean, laps.

“The mouth needs water,” the body would tell me. “It’s dry and wasn’t properly watered before the mission began.”

“It’s okay, we’re 1/8th of the way there,” I would respond.

“Pain has been reported in your sides and will continue to worsen unless there is a change in strategy,” it would tell me.

“We’re halfway there, so stop emboldening the aches,” I would respond.

“That sensation in your shin is not soreness, it’s the beginning of a stress fracture,” it would tell me.

“We’re three-quarters of the way there, and we owe it to our brave fighting shins to complete what we’ve started,” I would respond.

I learned a lesson through these experiences that has remained with me to this day: people who enjoy distance running are psychotic, and should be treated as such. Law enforcement should be called upon to lock them in appropriate treatment centers, provided law enforcement can catch them before developing shin splints.

However, I can recognize that distance running is one of many tasks that requires one to recognize and appreciate small victories. If a would-be distance runner gave up at the first sign of difficulty, he or she would have to accept their inferiority in all-important categories like “resting heart rate” which are used everyday to determine one’s status in life.

Likewise, if one gives up early on in their attempts to learn a foreign language, they are missing out on the many memorable embarrassments that lie ahead.

Virtually all foreigners who come to Korea arrive without even knowing how the people here say “Hi.” Then, they spend the next several months, maybe years, wondering what the people are saying about them. This often happens to those of us who work for the SDA Language Institutes, especially in the churches we attend.

The first few times, all we hear is: “Blah blah blah blah Robert York blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah …”, and we are at the mercy of whoever is working as a translator. After a few months, a few works that are often used occupationally by the natives start are learned, and a little progress is made.

Then, we can hear: “Blah blah teacher Robert York blah blah blah blah people blah blah Korean blah blah women blah blah clap blah blah…” In time, once one learns the local writing system, it become apparent that most concepts that weren’t realized until after Korea discovered the West still have their English names, but in Korean pronunciation. This why my health insurance card is addressed “Robotuh Yokuh”, and signs in most department stores have one sign pointing to the “escalatuh” and another to the “elebatuh.”

Then, the message you hear is “Blah blah teacher Robert York blah blah term break blah blah blah Korean women blah blah clap blah blah.”

There are many other things one can try in order to make the language more decipherable: buying a pocket dictionary, taking classes, or maybe making one of the natives your significant other. I’ve tried all of these things, and I learn new words all the time. It’s rarely enough to understand exactly what a person is saying about me, but it’s often enough to guarantee that I understand the topic.

The translator is still necessary, however, if only to fill in the blanks.

“We’re heard that teacher Robert York proposed to his girlfriend during the term break and is going to get married. Many of the people who come to Korea do end up marrying Korean women and staying here, and we hope that he will do the same. Please clap for him”

“In case you don’t know who teacher Robert is, he’s the one six rows back with the bright red face.”

As I spend more time experiencing the language and culture of this place, there are sure to be more experiences like that.

It beats shin splints, however.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


The Korean Education System Breeds Jerks

In this term, like every other, my students took a midterm test consisting of 30 multiple choice questions and five listening. All students seem to recognize its challenges, while some clearly struggle more than others. This term, one of the latter was Peter, a young man in his 20s whose test grades up to that point in the term were consistently lackluster.

However, it was clear that Peter saw the midterm as a turning point, and realized that coasting by every day in class was no longer good enough. That's why, at the end of this class time, Peter resolved to make a change.

"I need your signature," he said, as he handed me a sheet that said "Refund Request."

There are many reasons why a student at the SDA Language Institutes in Korea may request a refund. On the sheet, it lists several possibilities for students to check, including "Teacher's Method is Unsatisfactory" and "Teacher' s Pronunciation is Difficult to Understand."

However, Peter, like the overwhelming majority of my students who have refunded, selected "Schedule Changed." This option was designed to include students who undergo a change at work or in the university classes, but most refund requesting students select it because there is no box with the words "I Know I'm Not Studying Enough to Pass, So I Think I Should Get My Money Back While Blemishing My Teacher's Record."

I figure there is no point in convincing them to continue if they'll probably repeat the course anyway. So, I simply sign the forms and enter their grades into our online database. In Peter's case, his grade for pronunciation is "Slacker," his score in conversational grammar is "Loser, " and his mark in conversational fluency is "Jerk."

Don't misunderstand me, thinking that I can' t relate to students who are feeling overwhelmed by their class schedules. Only eight years ago, I was in my sophomore year at Southern Adventist University, holding in my hand a sheet of paper signifying that I no longer wished to be classified as a pre-pharmacy major.

If I had known that the professor was going to look at me … that way ... I would have brought a sheet of tissue paper with me. Perhaps I should have shown him the knack for science I have cultivated over the years. I could have demonstrated the horror that is my handling of microscopes, or told him that "AU" on the periodic table of elements actually stands for Auburn University.

Had I done so, after I left his department he probably would have uncapped a bottle of ginger ale (this was an Adventist school, after all) in celebration. Instead, he looked at me in a manner more befitting a pre-pubescent beagle, and said, "You don't like pharmacy?"

Regardless of the situation that causes them to change their schedules, many university students are almost always required to confront their professors with sheets of paper signifying that they 'd rather be anywhere else than in their class. Why schools would persist in using this method is mystery to me, because student and teacher consider it to be about as comfortable as having freshly cooked tomato soup poured in one's lap.

In my junior year, I went to my taciturn Spanish professor and told him I had to drop his class. He signed it, and with nary a look up, said "Muchas gracias " In my last semester, I had to do the same thing about three weeks into my auto mechanics class. This was even harder, given that the instructor was not only very friendly, but fixed my car on many occasions.

"Uh oh, " he said, before thanking me for “hanging in there as long as you did.”

Until recently, I never really thought about what those professors of varied trades and temperament really wanted to say to me.

Since I became an English teacher in Korea, I've had plenty of opportunities to think about it. In this country, teachers in private institutes not only get to experience the joys of meeting students bearing memorandums signifying departure; the teacher 's signature allows the student to take back much of the money they paid to attend our classes.

For the better part of the first two years in which I taught with the SDA Language Institutes of Korea, I assumed that it was because our teachers are "missionaries," and the liberal refund policy was a way of drawing students into our program.

I could almost imagine a commercial in which a Korean inside a giant chicken suit stands in front of our school and says, "Here at crazy SDA's, we're practically giving our classes away! If you're not completely educated in six weeks, your money back!"

Later on, I found out it's actually a government policy enforced upon all private institutions. This year, Korea required that all institutes allow refunds up to six weeks after the class begins. Our classes only last for eight-nine weeks in total.

"The government is cracking down on the private institutes," this person told me. "They want to draw people to the public schools and away from the institutes."

This is completely understandable. After all, governments everywhere have done such a great job taking care of the environment, safeguarding people's civil rights, and most of all, managing relations with other governments, shouldn't they be in complete control of education, too?

After all, wasn't it the Korean Ministry of Education that cultivated the current environment, in which students study up to 16 hours a day in the hopes of attending one of the country's top universities, none of which are ranked in the world's top 50 schools of higher learning?

It's enough to make one pity the young people of this nation. Well, except for Peter. He's a jerk.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Males Everywhere Need Help

I have two towels for use after showering. One is solid white, the other is light blue. Besides their hues, they are distinguishable in more than one way, including texture, thickness and store of origin.
However, perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the rather prominent reddish spot on the blue towel. Though this towel is more expensive, and made of a fabric that appears more luxurious, the white one has no odd-shaped spots of any color marring it. The light blue towel is not without company in this regard, however: there's an older pair of white socks that I, somewhat fortuitously, never use for anything but exercise, as they have little black blotches on them.
Rounding out this tarnished trilogy (or befouled foursome, should you count the socks as two objects), is one of my three pairs of khaki shorts, which also bears evidence of the dark spots. I know the origin of each of these defacements: each one I discovered after pulling them out of the washing machine. Each time, I have found the offending source in the pocket of my pants or one of my shirts.
My reaction to such events used to be one of anger, or of self-loathing. Now, I simply shake my head and say: "Well, guess I need a new pen."
Before you make judgments, consider this: At the end of a day's work, clothes are regularly tossed into laundry hampers, perhaps directly into washing machines. Not all of us have the same concerns; not all of us have the same work schedules. Also, not all of us are male.
Some people are in more of a hurry when they toss their clothes into objects of clothing containment, and some are more distracted. Furthermore, some are afflicted by the unhelpful genetic shortcomings known in the world of biological science as Y-chromosomes. There was a time when I would excoriate myself when I stuck an uncapped pen in a shirt pocket and added an unsophisticated splotch of ink to its pattern.
These days, for all of the reasons I just mentioned, I've simply come to accept it. Like flat tires, blizzards, and Britney Spears, there are some things in this world that aren't going away no matter how we might wish. Likewise, as one of today's mobile professionals who needs to diversify his interests in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace, I have a lot of things on my plate.
Having a lot of tasks on one's plate often leads to having a lot of thoughts on one's mind, and if that mind happens to be male, accidents will happen, especially in the realm of decorum. Since I began my teaching career in Korea a little more than two years ago, I have had my share of incidents where I came to school and was approached by someone, possibly a student, maybe another teacher, who felt compelled to cup their hand to my ear and whisper the following declaration: "Uh ... (clears throat) ... zipper."
The best reaction to this situation, I believe, is to simply look down, pause thoughtfully and say, "Indeed," before taking corrective measures. One may lament their state of thoughtlessness, but this is pointless and only adds to life's difficulties.
By contrast, fewer things in life are more liberating than the knowledge that, yes, I am a male, and there's nothing I can do about it. Nothing, that is, except live with one's mother forever, or get married, thus outsourcing the task to someone more capable.
The first option is probably the easiest, and I certainly know males who've tried it. The inherent shortcoming of this strategy is that mothers are, generally speaking, older that the males they sire. Therefore, unless your diet consists of little more than Skittles, Seven Up and cigarettes, your mother won't always be there to do your laundry and to dress you appropriately.
The second of the two options is one I've given a lot of thought to and plan to explore later. I've long harbored a theory, but never stated it out loud, mainly because I wasn't sure which gender would hate me more for espousing it.
The theory states that males aren't usually given charge of household tasks, not because of any longstanding prejudices, but because they aren't the best ones for the job. We're all gender roles reversed over the course of a generation, nearly all business/governmental functions would operate at the same plateau of competence (I mean, how much worse could they get?).
However, all manner of table wear across the globe would be covered with little spots of moisture and dish soap, and nearly everyone would have to wear black to work everyday to conceal the ink stains on their dress shirts.
Women of the world, is this what you want? Of course, there are some unsavory males out there who consider doing the laundry beneath them, but most of us have had our own apartments, and had our share of experiences washing the dishes ourselves.
No one would like to shake off these stereotypes more than me, but I need your help.

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