Friday, September 11, 2009

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


    Now that it's getting toward the end, I figured it was time to show you around the places I spent most of my time—my apartment and my classroom—and also to give a sense of where I've been and gone.

The Job1
    The CCTV is all-seeing and ever-watchful:

    What I saw:

    What they saw:

    Student art:

    Advertising to people who already patronize you is the key to business success, as 9 of 9 CDI branch managers will tell you:

    The bowl of rice is the centerpiece of their latest advertising campaign. The pitch—they pitched it to the teachers—begins, "Koreans eat a lot of rice. We want CDI to be like rice...."

    In light of CDI's implicit 'No sick days' policy—one that is shared by many students' parents—I believe these stickers, which were put up during the swine flu scare, are a kind of truly sick joke:

    We were asked to pick an inspirational quote for our portraits:

The Crib
    This picture has the fortuitous effect of making my apartment look five times larger than it is. Except for the laundry room and the closet, behind and to the left, respectively, this is the whole thing.
    Note the layout of the bathroom.

The Country

The City
    I took a subway map of Seoul to scribble on, despite the busyness, because otherwise the city is unrecognizable to me. I hope it's not too confusing:

1—I hear it's gotten worse since I left. But it was always worse at the beginning of a new semester.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

On The Streets

Korean Snack Foods: Judgment Day
    For our final installment of this waning series, I want to write about what I was going to write about from the beginning, but didn't because there was a crucial piece of the puzzle I was—was—unwilling to eat. What it was will become clear. Now then: The following foods, mostly baked or fried and filled with something, come from red pojangmacha (포장마차), individual little tents that line the sidewalks around train stations, tourist attractions, and major events. They smell of carbohydrates and boiling fat, and in the winter they put out stools and space-heaters and are actually pretty cozy.

    This pastry, which is shaped like a fish for no particular reason, is filled with red bean paste and is extremely delicious. It's also very hot and will burn the taste out of your tongue if you eat it too quick.

    I've overdosed on Belgian Waffles (pronounced belgi wapeul and transliterated 벨기와플), which are served with honey and cream and come in several varieties—vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, ice cream—but only one flavor: scrumptious.

    The sign said either gamja twiseuteo(감자 튀스터) or gamja toneido(감자 토네이도). The vender took a whole potato, unscrewed it, speared it, and dunked the Archimedian delight in frying oil. After he handed it to me and I was about to walk away, he gestured emphatically to a pile of orange dust on the countertop: "Chijeu! Chijeu!" The cheese adhered nicely to the oily twister.

    Not everything is starch and oil. The squid's a little tough, but it's good. I like it better than beef jerky.

    Not strictly pojangmacha grub, but street vittles all the same. The kebab cart is manned by a man who calls himself 'The Kebab Man', close kin to the cooler-toting 'Swarma Man'. This jolly, rotund Middle Eastern gentleman appears in Hongdae in the night, sawing hot slices of chicken from a pole and spreading good cheer to hungry sots.
    The bags are sold at the takeout window of a bar called Vinyl. The takeout window is called the 'minibar', which becomes funnier when you go inside and see that all the tables and chairs are kindergarten-sized.

    From far away, this looked like a crispy squiggle of fried dough, very tempting. But actually it's a limp flap of tofu meandering around the stick. The oil only made it smell as foul as it tasted; I tossed it.

    Ddeokbokki (떡볶이) is just red sauce with vegetables poured over round soft rice-cakes. You spear the rice-cakes with a toothpick to eat. The sauce is spicy and slightly sweet, and the rice-cakes absorb it perfectly. One of my favorite street foods.

    A lot of what you find in street stands has a State Fair-ish quality, stuff that came from people thinking things like hey-what-if-we-fried-that or hey-lets-put-this-thing-inside-this-other-thing. This is a hot dog stuffed in a bun, fried, and spritzed with ketchup. 'Sokay.

    You have to be extremely careful when eating the scalding, syrup-filled griddlecakes known as hoddeok (호떡), lest you bite into one with vigor, receive symmetrical second-degree burns across both lips, contract infections in the burns, and spend a month explaining to the women you meet in bars why your friends are calling you 'Herpes Nick'.
    But if you're smart, hold the hoddeok with both hands, and nibble on it till it cools down, you'll really enjoy this sweet treat.

    I've smelled them for a year. Time and again, I blustered, Now is the time, here is the place!, but I never managed to do it; the necrotic stench and the revolting idea repelled me like a magnet every time I came close. I despaired, and reasoned that, just as there are some sights that must be left unseen, some experiences that must be left unfelt, likewise there are certain foods that must be left uneaten—perhaps Bombyx mori was, for me, to be one such foreseen regret.
    But today I was reckless, today I had courage: today was the time, Insadong was the place! Today, I ate the bugs.
    Taking a swig of coke, I held the silkworm above my mouth, closed my eyes, and chomped.
    The exoskeleton was giving and chewy and slightly slimy, like you think a bug will taste. Inside, the guts were mealy and had the flavor of dirt. It was gone quickly and I think, if I didn't know what it was and never had to smell the soup it was stewed in, it wouldn't have been so bad.
    But I will never eat that shit again.

Friday, September 4, 2009

3 Panoramas

    I hiked Inwangsan (인왕산) today. It sits a little west of the Blue House, where the Korean President lives and where this happened a long time ago. Whenever I took a picture, armed soldiers or unarmed young men in blue shirts ninjaed out of the trees and demanded to inspect my camera and collect my name. There is a long stone wall, like the one on Bukhansan, that runs along the north face. It continues up Bugaksan (북악산), directly behind the Blue House. I wanted to follow it, but the trail was closed and under guard.
    I've been doing a lot of climbing to the top of tall things and looking at the city from above, so here are some wide-pan shots that I stitched together. Click through to see the full images.

Seoul as seen from just below summit of Inwangsan:

The western half of Seoul, as seen from Namsan Tower:

The downtown districts as seen from the Namsan Tower plaza. I believe, but won't swear to it, that the mountain on the left is Inwangsan, the near mountain in the center is Bugaksan, and the rearmost peaks are Bukhansan:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Spectacular Views

    It's big vista week, apparently, here at The Innocent Abroad. Yesterday I went hiking on Bukhansan (북한산), which is cool because it sits right in the middle of downtown Seoul. You saw it yesterday:

    After getting lost outside the subway station and looping the wrong way around a massive construction pit, I entered the park from the west side. It's very pretty there, and feels more remote than Dobongsan or Soyosan. The water was beautiful and looked extraordinarily clean, but I was afraid of parasites (The water in Seoul is notoriously toxic) and held back.

    This chain of mountains formed a natural defense for the city in days of yore, and the Koreans bolstered it by adding gates, fortifications, and a wall along the ridge.
    This gate was two or three kilometers down from the ridge, so I imagine it was either an earlier defense or a checkpoint.

    This is Daenammun (대남문), or 'Big North Gate', located on the ridge. Not to be confused with Namdaemun (남대문), the North Big Gate in downtown Seoul.

    It was five and a half kilometers from the trailhead to the summit, and I arrived just as the sun was setting. There were two peaks, of smooth exposed rock, to either side of the wall. The light shone off the west peak and below, I could see the entire city.

    When I took that last picture I thought, Huh. I could follow that ridge all the way down right into Jongno, if only there was a trail.
    There was a trail. It was much shorter than the ascent. Along the way I became incredibly thirsty (I'd brought a flashlight but not enough water), and the rivulets became more and more tempting. Finally I stopped and stepped over the NO ENTRY ropes. I was still worried about bad water, so I cupped my hands under a stream coming out fast from between two rocks. It was very clear and very, very cold.
    I popped out right in downtown, just as I'd thought, though it was a swank part of downtown far away from tourist attractions. High stone walls and houses like this one everywhere:

    A five-minute bus ride later and I was standing on Jongno (종로). The wide median that splits the boulevard has been under construction for as long as I've been in Korea, but it's finished now and looks really cool. They surrounded the statue of I Sun-sin with a ground-level fountain that changes colors, and underground they dug out a tiny gallery space. Last night, the exhibit was on European Squares.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


    I'm done at CDI but I'm not finished with Korea. I have a week and half to go before I fly and I'm going to spend it doing the touristy things I never had the time or chance to do when I was still employed.
    Yesterday I went to COEX, which is among other things the largest underground shopping mall in the hemisphere. It's full of jarringly attractive and well-dressed people, and has a museum of kimchi.

    The museum was closed and Google doesn't want me to go to its website, so I guess that dream will have to die. There's an aquarium too.

    They put fish in places fish don't go:

    I think he's juicing:

    Leafy sea dragons swim by fluttering the transparent fins along their back and on either side of their head, resembling a mohawk in a strong wind.

    N Seoul Tower sticks up in unexpected parts of the sky whenever I pop out of the Seoul metro. Today I stood inside it and surveyed my realm.
West. I don't know these neighborhoods at all.
    North-east. City Hall &c.
    South. Itaewon and lands beyond.
    North. Myeong-dong.

    What surprised me looking down wasn't how small Seoul is, by major-city reckonings (I knew that already, as a fact but not an intuition), but how dense and also how wooded. The Tower's in the middle of a park, so that skewed my perception; but even so I saw more green than Seoul, from the ground, seems able to accommodate, a lot of it on hills and mountains too sudden to build on. Perhaps not coincidentally, I was able to trace a brief arc from Seoul Station to Myeong-dong to City Hall to Dongdaemun and realized I could have covered the line in a walk in under two hours. I've visited all these places many times and never felt that Seoul Station and Dongdaemun were in the same universe. But maybe my sense of space up there was just as confused as it is down here.

    A film crew was filming a film on the plaza at the base of the Tower. When I went in they had a couple walking down from a gazebo, throwing bread at pigeons. When I came out a girl, whom I'd thought was an extra, was picking up the bread. She looked sad. For the next shot they had that girl and another smaller girl stand in front of the gazebo looking sad. They put the camera on a track to pull one of those slow rotating shots. The director said, "Hana...dul...Go!". Someone off-camera was reading loudly from the script. The smaller girl shouted about her father and started crying and shaking the other one's arm. The director said, "Cutuh!", and the older girl shook her arms out and said something to the boom operator.
    I'm a sucker for behind-the-sceens stuff like this, so I filmed one of the takes:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Which Our Hero Comes to the End

    So that's it. I taught my last class on Friday; I'm done with CDI—probably English instruction entirely—forever. And forever sounds fucking good to me.
    CDI has this effect on people. The last teacher to leave the company spent her final semester bitching about her 'idiot' students and muttering 'fuck Korea' in the break room; the guy who went out before her ended up drunk—hungover on good days—on the floor of his classroom, chucking markers at the whiteboard with such violence that they exploded; another employee got so fed up with being sexually harassed by the owner that she packed up and flew home seven months into her contract; they stole a million won from her on the way out. The guy before her, whom I replaced, was fired under circumstances never fully explained, and the teacher before him bloated into an unshorn, semi-hygienic beast the students called 'Fat Jesus'. Oh, and the knife guy. Remember the knife guy?
    There are plenty of reasons otherwise sane people come out the other end of CDI hateful or damaged or imprisoned. The head instructor for most of the last three years (until a semester ago, as a matter of fact) was a dimwitted company man who inspired only contempt in his students, teachers and managers. He was bad at giving advice, inept at liaising between teachers and management, and loathsomely obese. He insisted on making us follow R&D's always-unrealistic dictates, but was completely unwilling to defend them.1
    There were contractual issues, such as the company owning our visas, lying about holidays, denying vacations; physical issues, like twice-daily 3-hour classes, five or six days a week, for months on end; and instructional issues, such as berating teachers for making mistakes but giving no correctives, offering no praise—or indication of—when the job was done properly, giving no guidance on actual techniques in instruction, etc. Sum it up and you'll find you have some desperately bitter employees.2
    I'm not saying I got a bad turn despite being a good teacher, because I wasn't a good teacher. I didn't have the necessary energy, the stamina required to spend three hours calming screaming 4th graders and three more energizing limp middle-schoolers. I don't have the natural authority to command the kind of respect to which I felt I was entitled, or the discipline the classroom requires, and I wasn't confident enough to insist on either. I was seldom creative in giving lessons—altogether too much straight presentation—and I am painfully aware of how inadequate many of my explanations were. You could say, more concisely and less charitably, that I was lazy, weak and boring, and be entirely correct; sometimes I was non-functionally hungover, too. If the several classroom sketches I've posted to this blog gave a contraindication of what was really happening in my classroom most of the time, well: the temptation to give a good account of oneself, to oneself as much as to others, is powerful.
    I got better. I remember in my first term screaming at a student to turn over her cell phone and being laughed at; I remember in my second term ripping into the same student for the same reason, and her look of surprised terror as she surrendered the phone; and I remember in my third and fourth terms needing only to offer my open palm to a student, with a sort of curt, expectant motion, to collect contraband electronics. I figured out the proper rhythm, to a degree of competency: how to move around the classroom and in front of the board; how to vary my speech in such a way as to draw and keep attention (within, and sometimes ignoring, the broad restriction of talk slow); how to yell and when not to. Even if I didn't get good, exactly, I got better.
    There was one area I believe I excelled in, and I think most English teachers get pretty good at it. This was communicating with students: picking up and remembering the pop-culture touchstones, speech patterns, and vocabulary the kids used and using them myself in future lessons. Practically, a lot of the time this meant breaking my English to bits and throwing the word 'crazy' around as an all-purpose modifier; but it also meant knowing to prefer, say, 'trash' to 'garbage'; or 'change' to 'switch'; or 'angry' to 'mad'.
    Understanding these things wasn't enough to make me a top-notch—or middle-notch—instructor. But it helped me talk with my kids, and, as I think anyone who's been following this blog will have recognized, my bright, sharp-tongued kids have made me happier than anything else over this past year. Certainly, some of my students were stupid, obnoxious, arrogant, lazy and disrespectful; but many more of them were scary-smart, clever, observant, funny, and exultant with the possibilities of their new language.
    Six months ago, I taught a student named Bill (I've written about him before, as 'Will'), who was short, round and nasal, with a weird habit of randomly spiking words up an octave or two. The other students teased him badly, eventually driving out of the hagwon. His pronunciation was atrocious—he sounded like he was speaking through a cardboard tube filled with cotton balls—his vocabulary was desperately uneven (he knew 'nutrition', for example, but not 'angry'), and his syntax was a mess.
    But Bill was damn smart, and even though he could barely speak the language, he had an intense linguistic curiosity that I recognized and adored. Once he asked me what the difference between 'huge' and 'monstrous' was ("Teacher, huge and...monstrous, different is...what?"). I explained that they both meant very very large, but that 'monstrous' contained an additional sense of evil or wrongness. "Ah!" he cried, "I think, 'huge' is big than 'monstrous'!" He hadn't missed the point at all: he was expressing (he asked a lot of questions like this and often used the same formula in restating the answer) the fact that 'huge' lays claim to a wider semantic territory than 'monstrous'.
    Another time he asked me about telomeres (we were reading a chapter on DNA). I spent fifteen minutes scrawling double helices and phallic chromosomal tips and textbook-style zoom-in cones and trying to explain what a 'chromosome' was before another student whispered quickly to Bill, then raised his hand and clarified what Bill had been asking. He hadn't wanted to know what a telomere was; he'd wanted to know the etymology of the word. How can someone like me resist a kid like that?
    I feel bad about Bill. I never stopped the kids from making fun of him, and often used him as an example, usually unflattering, of this or that word or concept. I assumed he enjoyed the attention—mine and theirs—because he never complained or seemed to mind. He quit in tears.

    I hope I did better by the many other students I became attached to, the artists, ironists, punners, actors, writers, laughers, sleepers, cursers, hungerers, crazy boys and sad-eyed girls—Steven, Nick, elementary-school Sarah, Marcus, Jass, Jeong-hee, Jeff, Sean, Ji-you, middle-school Sarah, Granger, Julia, Sylvia, Diana, Yun-jin, Albert, Chang-hyeon, Laura, and Jason, the hulking, gray-haired twelve-year-old—but I can't say that I know what I mean by 'do good by', because most of the time, I felt perfectly useless.
    I was teaching boring stories by dreadful textbooks in which every lesson was exactly the same. There was a heavy emphasis on memorizing, not vocabulary, but seven- or eight-sentence summaries of the story we'd just read; I felt this method was despicably pointless. There was no follow-up; no grammar; no relationship between the in-class material and the test; and no aim, no sense of where the students were supposed to arrive had the class been taught properly. The discussion of the story occupied only forty-five minutes to an hour out of the three-hour class; everything else was rote bullshit, fill-in-the-blank regurgitation. Or worse, the 'critical thinking projects' introduced, on a trial basis, at the beginning of the third semester.
    These were a good idea—language-intensive group tasks like writing a letter or interviewing classmates—implemented catastrophically. The students were supposed to sit and talk to one another, about a topic they had never seen before, without using their dictionaries or speaking any Korean. Try to keep dry in a rainstorm by yelling at the clouds, and you'll have a good idea how well this worked out; but when the students did speak Korean, the teacher got chewed out. At the end of the semester, CDI reviewed the execution of the CTP across every branch and found that not one had performed the thinking project in the way they'd wanted. The CTP was made permanent for all levels.
    Did I accomplish anything in that goddam place? Yes. I know because I can remember when it happened. Non-English speakers are notoriously bad at conjugating verbs, and the students in my EC2 class a semester ago were prime offenders (which is entirely normal). They never put 's' on the end of third-person-present-singular verbs, but they would add 'is' before every verb (as in, "He is die") except for the present progressive (as in, "He dying"). During a daily section where students are supposed to describe what is happening in a picture, cleverly called 'Picture Talk', I drilled them mercilessly on their verbs. Every time they made a mistake I called them on it ("He die?? He die??"). Nothing ever improved until, in one of the last classes, as if by magic, it did. Without prompting, without reminding or chiding or chastising, every single kid spoke about the picture in fluid, flawlessly conjugated verbs.
    I can't remember another time when Education made itself so thunderbolt-from-heaven obvious; but there was that one time, and I can think that however else I fucked up before and after, I did it right just then.

    My final classes were held on Thursday and Friday. I brought bundles of moon pies for my younger students, and ordered pizza for the older kids. A few of the students brought me letters and little notes. Elementary-school Sarah, a gale-force lass whom I taught my first semester, gave me a small note, as did her friend Grace (whom I had this last term in EC1). Judy tore the cover off her storybook and turned it into a farewell card. Kelly gave me a letter and necklace with some sort of oven-fired charm; Irene gave me her own letter, and together they collaborated on a Warholian interpretation of my face.

    Sean gave me candy; middle-school Sarah spent most of the class excitedly explaining how to make egg soup (gyeran tang, 계란탕) and coloring in another student's rendering of 'girl Jamie'. Both she and Chang-hyeon stayed chatting with me after 10 o'clock. Everybody in that class wanted my email, which touched me surprisingly deeply; Steve wanted to friend me on Facebook, which I thought was a little strange but also touching. My whole EC1 class, the lowest, youngest level, drew a farewell message on the board.

    On Friday night, in last hour of my very last class, everyone was eating pizza or playing a balance game that resembled a kind of hot-hands where the loser falls down, and Nick asked me if it was my dinner for the night.
    "No, I'm getting chicken after, with the other teachers."
    "Ah, chicken! Today, you will eat pizza and chicken and bread."
    "Um, uh-huh."
    We went back to eating. When class ended, Nick insisted I stay "ten or fifteen minutes, OK? Not leave!"
    I stayed, quietly relishing my freedom by grinning at the wall for a very long time. After 20 minutes, I started making slowly for the elevators when the doors split open. Two elderly cleaning ladies exited, and from between them a small child came charging out. Nick ran up to me, breathlessly deposited a satchel of muffins in my hands, and declared righteously: "I said, you will eat bread!"
    And then he was gone.

    Nick loses to Steven in the balance game.
    Marcus, Michael, James.

    EC1: Grace, Bella, David, Paul.

    Kelly and Irene.

    Chang-hyeon says goodbye.

    Kelly, Irene, Sarah and Chang-hyeon.

1—His personal failings include messy eating, bribing students with cash, holding interminable meetings, being Canadian but referring to Americans in the first-person plural, having taken 10 years to finish his bachelor's degree, being a former financial-industry worker, a dislike of spiciness and seafood despite having lived in Korea for five years, never having left the Seoul metro area despite having lived in Korea for five years, an inability to speak or read Korean despite having lived in Korea for five years, wearing his belt too low so as to make the top of his pants pucker out, constantly hiking up his pants, talking shop at the bars, being at the bars while I was at the bars, and an unseemly level of physical ugliness.

2—One of the many long-running battles was over whether or not to have a firewall up during class. We said we needed the Internet to play videos and research pictures for class. They assumed we were using Facebook, which wasn't precisely untrue. In my third semester, teaching a book called "The Roots of Rock & Roll", I was playing YouTube videos of The Crystals and Fats Domino; when we went on break, I let the kids blast K-pop. When I got back, the Web was dead. Here is my conversation with the boss:
Me: Jamie, why is the Internet off?
Jamie: Mmm. You know why.
Me: Um. No I don't.
Jamie: You are using, videos.
Me: Yes! I'm playing...I'm teaching...the book is about rock & roll, I'm playing videos of the songs in the book!
Jamie: Yes, I understand, mmm, but if parents see maybe they will think you are, only playing, not studying.
Me: But it's the songs in the book! It is studying!
Jamie: Yes, but, maybe if you only play videos during, the breaks...
Me: They were playing the videos during breaktime! That's why you know!
Jamie: Mmm. You have the Internet, before 4 o'clock. Maybe, you can, save the videos before the class. And then you can, play them.
Me: But that's the same thing! That's playing videos in class!
Jamie: Mmm. The Internet will stay off.

    But nothing that woman ever said filled me with more Kafkaesque awe than the time, in my second semester, when they told me and Castaneda (already well into his drunken marker-breaking) that they were swapping our classes. I was miffed and confused, since the class they were taking from me was a favorite of mine: I loved the kids and they loved me right back. The class they were giving me was filled with monsters from my first term with whom I shared a mutual loathing. I asked Jamie about this.
        Me: Jamie, why are you changing classes?
        Jamie: They are too comfortable with you.
    And she left it at that.