Sunday, December 30, 2007


Passing the Ajuma Test

I was away in America for the last week, so I was unable to post. That, and unable to sit down at any computer long enough to produce anything worthwhile. However, I should have another of these for you about midweek. Happy holidays.

I don’t always have the presence of mind to bring the $500 piece of photographic equipment I have in my possession. However, when I do, I use it to take pictures of little Korean girls. I do so to prepare for the next time I see my mother.

I know what she’ll do when she catches a glimpse of the little brown-eyes and shiny dark hair: she’ll gasp, coo and compare the appearance of the subject of the photo to that of a doll. This will give her warm feelings, both about the time I have spent abroad and the $500 piece of photographic equipment she bought me for my birthday.

She will see that I have been spending the last two years recording unforgettable memories amongst an unforgettable people, as opposed to spending that time avoiding the payment of bills while under-using costly pieces of photographic equipment.

I also take pictures of the little Korean girls so that I might contemplate what they turn into later. In about 20 years most of them will, at first, become charming young women like Catherine, my fiancée. Then, about 20 years after that, they will turn into the micromanaging models of maternity that Koreans call ajuma.

An ajuma would give anything to see her offspring succeed, (usually) short of living their children’s life for them. The heartening side of this is that the child need never wonder whether or not the mother cares for them. The less-heartening side of this is often seen through the eyes of the prospective son-in-law, especially when the son-in-law is foreign.

We can be certain that there will be a test we must pass in order to win the ajuma’s favor. We cannot be certain of how much of a curve this test will be graded on, or what language it will be taken in.

For this reason, I have postponed meeting mother-in-law-to-be-in-the-fairly-near-future. I have justified doing so by saying that I need to have a better grasp of the language that she will use to either bless our future or threaten me with the Korean version of a restraining order. I have studied and I have practiced the language on many of her friends, and at times think I may be ready for the task.

It’s easy to think that while the test date is many squares on the calendar away from today. But, as many a devious literature professor knows, the best way to ensure that the student is preparing for the exam is with a surprise quiz.

Catherine and I were to fly to America four days before Christmas. On the evening five days before Christmas, I called her on her cell phone, thinking that she’d still be in her home packing. I was surprised to hear that she was at her mother’s house, and a little more than surprised to hear that her mother wanted to say speak to me.

I responded the best I could. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that the best I can respond is limited to “Hello” and “Excuse me?”

“Hello,” the deep yet distinctly feminine voice said in Korean.

“Hello,” said mine, distinctly unfeminine but considerably higher-pitched than usual.

What came after that, I don’t know. I heard a smattering of sounds that I did not recognize from my Korean textbook. I hoped that she was not saying “Can you understand me?” “Why can’t you understand me?” or “I’m going to file the Korean version of a restraining order.”

All I could say in reply was “Excuse me?” “Uh, excuse me?” and “I don’t speak Korean well.”

Within a few moments, Catherine was back on the line. I asked her, in my language of choice, what her mother had been saying, while mentally preparing myself for the worst.

“She told you to tell your parents hello for her,” she said.

On my first report card, my grade for participation was an A, my mark for speaking was a C-, and my score for listening ability was an F. The good news is that the last category may be considered extra credit.

For the next week, Catherine would be taking a similar examination in America with my family. She approached the date with a dread matching, perhaps exceeding my own. Why she should be so apprehensive I don’t know, seeing as how she knows the language my parents speak, and mothers who originate from Michigan inspire nothing even close to the kind of dread that ajumas provoke.

I was concerned about how a young Asian woman in her first trip to the US would be perceived in the South, choosing to watch her carefully and steer her away from anyone sporting visible tattoos, having long hair in just the back of their head or who pronounces the word “boy” with two syllables, such as “Boway, I tell you…”

On the other hand, I wasn’t at all worried about how she’d be taken to by my mother. While they are of different ages and ethnicities, they are both nurses, both have very giving personalities and both share a near-inexplicable liking of me.

We arrived on the Friday before Christmas, and by Saturday afternoon it was clear to all that I had accomplished much more in Korea than simply escaping the paying of bills.

Hopefully, my next achievement will be passing the ajuma exam. If I succeed, maybe someday I can use that $500 photographic equipment on my mother’s new Korean grandchildren.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Among the Koreans and the "Rench"

Back in 2002, I heard on the radio about an incident in South Korea in which an American military vehicle struck and killed two schoolgirls, prompting a series of anti-American demonstrations, particularly against the US military presence in their country.

On this radio program, I may have heard an English sentence spoken with a Korean accent for the first time, saying, “Yankee, go home!”

Around that time, Roh Moo-hyun, the eventual winner of that year’s presidential race, was accused of running an anti-American campaign, to which he responded, “Is going anti-American a big deal?”

Nonetheless, in 2005 I came to their country, suspecting that this wasn’t a universal opinion. Nonetheless, if anyone asked, “Are you an American?” I had a ready reply of, “Yes, sorry about the last couple years. We didn’t really mean it.”

As it turns out, nearly all people in this country are perfectly capable of distinguishing individual American citizens from government officials they may not care for. Actually, though they may spend more time class than most American students, they have about the same level of interest in governmental affairs.

Rather than singling me out in a crowd and saying, “There’s one of the imperialist pigs who supported our authoritarian government in the 1970s,” they prefer to come to me and say, “Uh … hi.”

Instead of acidic observations regarding our military-industrial complex, they say things like, “I am very … nice to meet you.”

And, rather than calling me “Yankee” they say (to pretty much any foreigner who has most of his hair and doesn’t have a cleft palate) “You are very handsome man.”

Americans are scattered throughout the country, particularly in Seoul, and so I had expected to encounter a few of them when I registered for Korean language classes at Seoul National University. In fact, I was the only American in a classroom dominated by Europeans, along with a few attendees from other Asian countries.

As class began, the teacher began calling us by name, and attempting to guess our nationality. Looking at one of the lighter skinned members of our class, he asked, “David, you are … miguk saram*?” This prompted other members of the class to exclaim “Ooooo!” as though the marital status of David’s parents at the time of his conception had just been questioned.

One of my classmates who particularly stands out is Mathieu, who works for a company is Seoul and who, at 6’7 requires the most looking-up-to of anyone I’ve met in this country. Mathieu also stands out in that his country of origin (I’ll give you a hint, it’s found in western Europe and ends with the letters “rance”) has had interesting relations with my own.

Fluent in English, Spanish and his native language (which ends in “rench”), Mathieu and I regularly have insightful discussions about life in Korea and our own personal hobbies.

On Korea’s Natural Beauty

M: Have you ever climbed that mountain?

R: No, I haven’t. Do they have a lift to the top?

M: Of course not! Don’t be so American!

On Physical Fitness

R: I’m feeling a little sore today.

M: Why?

R: I hit the weights pretty hard last night.

M: You Americans, you lift too much. You should try swimming instead.

On Minor Maladies and the Use of a Very Impolite
Adjective that I Will Replace with the Word “Purple”

M: When you have a headache, you usually say, “My head hurts,” right?

R: Well, yeah …

M: Or, actually, if you’re American, you say “My purple head purple hurts,” right?

R: Well, I …

That sentence is a hard one to finish. Of course, not all Americans use this highly impolite adjective (as well as its verb, noun, interjection and expletive infixation form), but how many of us, especially those in their 20s, do talk in this manner? When I think back to the time I spent in America, I recall that the answer is: far too many.

I’m sure Mathieu knows that not all Americans are the same. After all, in my beginning level Korean class, there were three others of his nationality (which ends in “renchmen”).

Two of these were university students younger than us. Mathieu would make the occasional attempt at expressions of national solidarity with them, such as “Did you hear about the football game the (name ending in “rench”) team won?” They would look at him blankly at first, before responding, “I don’t give a purple.”

Then there’s David, a husband and father of two in his late 30s who doesn’t speak English or Korean particularly well (fortunately, his Korean wife is fluent in that tongue ending in “rench”). Unoccupied by the concerns his younger countrymen might possess, he seems primarily focused upon the family he has started.

For him, that concern would be greatly aided by learning the language his in-laws use, and which his children will grow up speaking. It’s a complicated tongue to learn at times, especially since communicating with family means learning different words meaning (just for example) “younger sibling,” “a woman’s older brother,” “a man’s older sister,” “an uncle on one’s mother’s side,” “an aunt on one’s mother’s side,” and so on.

Knowing of my future plans with my Korean girlfriend, David occasionally looks at me and asks, “Are you zure you want to marry zomeone who speaks zis language?”

Actually, I’m pretty sure I do. I have a whole nationality to represent while I’m here.

*Literal meaning: “American person.”

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Korea: Growing Economy, but More Skiing

Only now that I have left do I appreciate certain things about Tennessee. At this moment, I can especially appreciate that, during the 25 or so winters I lived through in my home state, no one ever asked me if I wanted to pay money to experience a painful and humiliating lack of coordination while wearing very uncomfortable shoes.

Of course, no one in Korea has asked me that either, but they have asked me to ski, which is essentially the same thing.

Don't get me wrong, because I do enjoy learning new things sometimes. One thing that I am not so fond of is having to relearn things I thought I'd mastered years ago, like standing, walking and stopping myself from moving.

Like learning a second language or playing an instrument, skiing is one thing that would certainly have been more convenient when I was younger. When you're a small child, people expect you to fall and hurt yourself at completely random times. Also, you don't mind nearly so much having others help you accomplish basic tasks.

However, by the time you reach your late 20s, an utter lack of coordination is no longer expected nor cute, and having someone rush to your aid when they notice that you can't stand up is rather the opposite of an ego boost.

The Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute where I teach hosts a three-day winter camp for its staff and students every January. On one of those days, all who are interested can try skiing or snowboarding, and all those who are not interested can lounge about and wait. Two years ago, not knowing any better, I decided that I had not chosen to leave Tennessee and travel abroad to sit around not doing things.

The choice was made easier in that I had a young woman from a more snow-and-mountain-inclined region of Canada offering to teach me how to ski. She also happened to be my ex-girlfriend, but I can't remember if that made the process more demeaning or not.

Once I had the skis on, she told me that I had to dig them into the snow, making a "snow plough" effect that would prevent me from moving uncontrollably. Once I started going downhill, she told me that I had to point my skis slightly toward one another, making a shape that some call "A," others call "V" and she called "pizza slice." If I was unable to control my direction or my downward descent, she told me it would be safest to simply fall over sideways.

And so my hour-long slide down the beginners slope began, with me progressing a few meters at a time before she would begin shouting, depending on the situation, "Snow plough!", "Pizza slice!" or "Okay, just fall down!"

Having been able to enact only the latter of her suggestions, I would lie in the snow, checking to see if my skis had become detached and if my legs still bent in the proper direction.

"You had the cutest expression of pure terror just now," she would say as she looked down at me.

"This is what you've been doing without," I would say as soon I had spat most of the ice out of my teeth. "Can you live with that?"

When the next January came around, I was unable to attend our winter camp. My absence had nothing to do with skiing, but I did consider it a happy coincidence.

However, this winter, my current girlfriend suggested an afternoon jaunt to the slopes while I was visiting her in Chuncheon. Despite a few ominous warnings about my lack of skiing ability, she persuaded me to come along. Even though nearly two years had passed, I can say that this experience was quite different from my first.

It was different because this time my shoes didn't fit. We are in Korea, after all, and I buy a size 13 when I'm in Tennessee. Over here, they measure by millimeters and the biggest pair of snow boots the resort could muster up was a size 285, which felt considerable smaller than it sounds.

Also, this time the woman shouting instructions at me didn't speak English as a first language, so the instructions she shouted my way were "Make A!", "Bend your body more!" and "Just fell down!"

I am happy to say that by the end of the day, I'd learned how to successfully navigate the beginners' course without falling. She then suggested that we try the intermediate slope, which I assumed was different in that it was longer.

Actually, it's different mainly because it's steeper and has more curves. It is also notably longer, giving one more time to contemplate how a task easily accomplished at an angle of 30 degrees is virtually impossible at 60.

But like all pastimes we do with loved ones, the most important thing is time spent sharing new experiences.

"It will get easier," she told me.

"My feet hurt," I responded.

"The first time I did it I fell down a lot, too," she confided.

"My arms are sore from picking myself off the ground," I replied.

"After you get used to it I think you will enjoy it," she said, hopefully.

"Did I mention that my feet hurt?" I told her.

Next winter, when I live in Chuncheon, I'm told that we're going to get our own ski clothes and go more regularly. I'm told that skiing is an excellent form of exercise during the winter.

I'm also told that Korea experiences an average of 5 percent annual economic growth, but by this time next year I think I may be missing Tennessee and its lack of ski resorts, nonetheless.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


My E-mail Inadequacy is Not My Fault

The year was 1998: we had trouble with Iraq, many people wanted to impeach our second-term president, and one of baseball’s oldest records was topped by a slugger with a physique that had grown conspicuously burly in recent years.

You can probably tell, just by that sentence, just how different life has become in the last nine years. It especially was for me, as a university freshman still entertaining the delusion that I could successfully major in a scientific field. However, before this personal fallacy would be shattered, I had a life-changing event take place in my freshman orientation class at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Generally speaking, our class required us to show up and listen to the advisor tell us how to pay our tuition and which buildings we could go to in order to “appreciate” various liberal arts programs, such as “Guy with Graying Ponytail Plays Series of Random Chords on Classical Guitar.”

However, if we were to pass our all-important one-hour orientation course, he required that we complete one task I had never attempted before: I had to use the account that UTM had generously provided me with to respond to one of my advisor’s e-mails.

Now, as a teenager growing up miles outside of Paris, Tenn., I had considered e-mail to be one of those things I need never be interested in. Maybe the city slickers in Paris, with their teeming population of nearly 10,000-strong, their prevalent supply of stop signs, and their fully functioning indoor plumbing needed to “electronic mail” people, but we were simple country folks and the phone was fine for us.

Even so, I was taking College Algebra and General Biology that semester and I needed a good grade in at least one of my classes, so I went to the UTM library and resolved to conquer this daunting task. After logging in to my account and planning what response I wanted to type, I then had only to confirm a couple of complicated technical aspects with the lab supervisor, such as whether or not the “Reply” button opened his letter and ‘Send’ completed this whole vexing process.

Two hours later, I had accomplished my goal: I would receive a “P” to go alongside the D’s and C’s on my report card. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had also become a neophyte user of e-mail. In order to complete the process, I had to move away from rural West Tennessee, because having grown up there, the only people who actually wanted to talk to me were those I saw on a daily basis (and not all of those, come to think of it).

Another thing I didn’t realize at the time is that I was playing directly into the hands of an insidious worldwide conspiracy. You may have heard of shadowy groups like this, who start wars in places like Iraq to gain power for themselves, who are behind the election of our unpopular two-term presidents, and randomly pick baseball players to suddenly transform into burly record-breakers.

Well, I believe that these sinister forces are also determined to make most of us feel behind the times technologically.

You see, just after I sent that first fateful e-mail, I chose to get my own Hotmail account, based on such criteria as 1) a friend suggested it and 2) “Hotmail” as a name is cheesy and unimaginative, but in an endearing way. For years it served me well, and I could use it to contact people who wrote regularly (the people I like to call “Mom”) and those who write with much less frequency (the people I like to call “everyone other than Mom”).

Then in recent years, I came into contact with more and more people who used Gmail accounts, all of whom insisted that, as far as innovations go, it lay somewhere in between the wheel and nine-iron. I resisted the transition, however, because A) Hotmail had served me for so long and B) you had to be invited to use Gmail.

Finally, this year, one of the less-snobbish Gmail users opened the door for me to begin using this product. Instantly, those behind the conspiracy sprung into action. Realizing that they’d snagged the last possible sucker who will never be up-to-date no matter how hard he tries, within months they had negated the triumph of my acquisition and made it possible for anyone to get an account just by signing up.

But they weren’t finished: for years they’ve been planning to make irrelevant the form of electronic communication I was just starting to master. Their efforts seem now to have reached fruition, as I read at on Nov. 14, in an article entitled, “The Death of E-mail.” This piece said:

According to a 2005 Pew study, almost half of Web-using teenagers prefer to chat with friends via instant messaging rather than e-mail. Last year, comScore reported that teen e-mail use was down 8 percent, compared with a 6 percent increase in e-mailing for users of all ages. As mobile phones and sites like Twitter and Facebook have become more popular, those old Yahoo! and Hotmail accounts increasingly lie dormant.

Don’t be fooled! Articles like these and others that our technological tormentors have engineered are designed to make us think that they want to make communication easier, but their true agenda is to make us feel hopelessly behind the times.

Well, they will only succeed if we play along with their schemes! The time as come for us to resist!

From now on, I say that we use only post-it notes.

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