Monday, February 28, 2011

GEPIK Does not Want High Quality Teachers? Memo to Korea: You Get What You Pay For

If this comment under Brian in Jeollanamdo's post about GEPIK budget cuts is true, then it seems that it's true, the rumor going around that Korean educators are giving preference to low-level, less experienced, less qualified teachers, rather than experienced and qualified teachers.  Can any other readers corroborate similar experiences?

This draws into stark relief, the pure hypocrisy of the Korean media bitching and moaning about "low quality English teachers" when that's all the ministry of education is willing to pay for.

This makes articles like these (covered by Popular Gusts) even more contemptible and disgusting: trotting out the ugly "unqualified teachers are in our classes" scapegoating trope in the aftermath of a frigging suicide, when the choices of Korean education policy and decision-makers chose to bring those 'low-quality teachers' in, is lower than low.

There is lots of talk about providing counseling and services to help others who come to Korea: specifically, the immigrant brides in the countryside -- yet instead of using the suicides of two teachers in a week to start a discussion about extending further support and services to expats having trouble adjusting, instead they gasp that some of the mentally ill and suicide prone people teaching Korea's children are foreigners.  (What is the suicide rate among Korean schoolteachers?  Anybody have that on hand?  What about the crime rate of Korean schoolteachers against students?  Hurting kids has GOT to be higher on the "education-related social outcry" totem pole than self-harm, hasn't it?)

On the other hand, I guess it makes sense that counseling is only being considered to be provided for immigrant wives, when they're the ones mothering little Korean (or at least half-Korean, which seems to count now) babies.  (Don't get any ideas, English teachers.)

In the meantime, since it becomes clear that emergency and services and counseling help are clearly nowhere near the interests of the powers that be, it's time for English teachers to counsel themselves.  I'm gathering sources from a few different places, and I'm preparing a post that will list them, as completely as I can.  If you know of emergency counseling services that expats and English teachers can use, paid or free, in person or online, let me know.

Dear Korea:

Re: low quality English teachers:

You get what you pay for.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

A little more about Blackout Korea, and then I'm done

The last post about Blackout Korea was fired off in a hurry, so I'd like to add/refine/retract a little, before I'm done with this topic.

The comments below the original post have been really awesome, though: thanks, readers, for your contributions.

1. It's interesting to note that the person who started the "English Teachers Out" blog seems to be having second thoughts about the wild generalizations s/he made in the original post.
The writer of English Teachers Out has also impressed me, no so much with his logical reasoning, but with his willingness to put his own name and other blog address out there, after being called out by the Metropolitician.

2. As several readers pointed out in the comment: I overstated things when I said "Public drunkenness is a national disgrace"... it's fairer to say that Korea's drinking culture can be polarizing: in the comments I said:

then again, the WHO's recent report tags Korea as the world's biggest per capita consumer of spirits, and the fifth biggest per capita consumer in the IS kind of embarrassing that I have to tell my friends visiting Korea, "Unless you want to see Korea in its worst light, be back in your hotel room by eleven"
To qualify that, I wouldn't say that to all of my friends, but certainly to the friends of mine who don't like drinking, or who get embarrassed or upset by seeing that kind of...uh...unrefined behavior.  To other friends of mine, I'd say that the drinking culture might well be the best thing about visiting Korea, depending on their position, age, background, concern about stepping in vomit puddles, etc..

So yeah.  Off my puritan high horse now.

The fact remains that, the amount of public drunkenness in Korea makes the country/drinking areas ripe for the formation of blogs like this: low hanging fruit gets picked.

3. Black Out Korea seems to be plugging along unapologetically.  For now.  We'll see what happens next.  I don't know who or how, but last year a few other K-blogs got traced to their homes by netizens, such that one told me in an e-mail that s/he even moved houses because s/he didn't feel safe.

4. Black Out Korea DOES show the faces of some of the passed out people.  I was incorrect to assert that faces weren't shown.

5. Passing out in public is one thing.  Taking pictures of a passed out person is another.  Posing with a person who's passed out like a "trophy" - one phrase I read somewhere - is stupid and reprehensible.  Whether we want to be or not, we're cultural ambassadors in Korea, because we look different, and we're making our group look like assholes with these kinds of frat-boy pranks: Korea is not one big college town, and Koreans are human beings, and those who act as if those two statements were untrue make things harder for those of us trying to make a good life here, and for those who come after them.

6. It's disheartening that after a really successful event on Sunday, talking about improving the image of English teachers in Korea, and exploring the confluence of cultural phenomena that led to English teacher scapegoating, that this has been the main focus of attention on many expat k-blogs and forums I've visited this week.  ESPECIALLY when two English teacher deaths in Busan SHOULD be the subject of a rallying cry for more support for English teachers and expats in Korea.

7.  Blackout Korea, particularly when it's publishing the "trophy" pictures of white people shaming Koreans, is pretty asinine, and it should be made clear to anybody that the vast majority of foreigners and English teachers think so.

However, it's not even close to the offensiveness of the worst "korean culture" blog: Texts From Korean Girls, which, while the work of just one blogger out of the tens of thousands of expats living in Korea, really takes the cake for making Korean women look like idiot whores... and by doing so, makes western men look like vile scumbags who first take advantage of them, and then laugh at them afterwards...

The only good thing I can say about Texts From Korean Girls is that it hasn't updated since October.

Come on, guys.  Seriously, fucking grow up.  This is the reason Wifeoseyo, shortly after telling her family she was dating a Canadian English teacher, had to have a conversation with my future mother-in-law, to assuage suspicions the had developed after reading some news reports about foreign English teachers in Korea.

And I'm done. The outliers on either side don't deserve any more attention from me.  Or you.

Update: to be fair, after talking so much shit, I should link Blackout Korea's defense/explanation of what he's doing, and how it should be understood.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Google "Is Chungdahm a Good School to Work At?"

This is very interesting.

Chungdahm recruiters are going to regret their school operators are allegedly trying to stiff the English teachers working for them: from now on, every time a recruitee thinking about coming overseas to teach googles "Is Chungdahm a good school?" this article will show up.

Kudos to Kangnam Labor Law Firm for taking up their case, and kudos to The Korea Times for helping the teachers find a voice.

And anybody who's getting stiffed by their school:

There ARE options. Don't walk away from a situation where you're getting screwed, because that just empowers a dishonest employer to try to screw the NEXT teacher who replaces you, even worse.

Seoul Global Center's Support Page
Kangnam Labor Law Firm (associated with the case linked above)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

English Teacher (probable) Suicide in Busan...Counseling Services in Korea

Got this from ATEK: good job preparing a quick response here.

Press Release: Contact: Rachel Bailey, Communications Officer

ATEK Responds to Recent Death of “Teacher K” in Busan
Busan, South Korea – February 21, 2011 – As reported earlier this week on, an American English teacher based in Busan, identified in the report at Teacher K, fell to his death from the 14th floor of his apartment building on February 19, 2011. The teacher had apparently been absent from his hagwon for some time prior to the incident, and, while it’s not explicitly clear that his death was a suicide, it does appear that alcohol abuse contributed to his death.
We at ATEK are deeply saddened to hear of Teacher K’s death. We recognize that life abroad can cause stress and alienation that sometimes result in tragedies like this, but members of the English-teaching community should know that there are systems in place to help them in times of need. ATEK has local emergency needs officers in both Gangwon and Gyeonggi as well as a president and vice president whose doors are always open to those suffering from substance abuse or severe mental distress. We stand ready to offer support and assistance in finding appropriate treatment programs and counseling for anyone who needs it, whether or not they are part of our membership. Any English teachers who are in need of help can visit for information on how to get it or email our emergency needs officers at the addresses listed below.
We would also like to take this opportunity to invite anyone interested in assisting members of the English teaching community in need of assistance finding counseling or treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues to join our Emergency Needs Committee. Please email for more information about how to join.
Gangwon Emergency Needs – Caroline Barsellotti –
Gyeonggi Emergency Needs – John Fojut –
ATEK President JaeHee Oh –
ATEK Vice President Adrian Lake –

I'd like to add a few other links to free counseling services in Korea:

KoreaBridge has this web discussion about counseling in Korea.

The excellent website Korea4Expats also has these directories where you can connect with communities also counseling groups, and hospitals or doctors.

Don't try to go it alone, folks.  There ARE people who want to listen.

If anybody knows of other sources and services, please please add them to the comments.  Moderation is on because of the previous post, but they'll show up as soon as I can.

International Counseling Hotlines - south Korea suicide hotlines - can't say which have English service.

Google search for "International Suicide Hotline"

On Netizens finding Blackout Korea, And Rampant Public Drunkenness

So that one-joke novelty site blackout Korea got discovered by the Korean netizens.

And while a few comments on the blog post that brought BOK to the Korean blogosphere include sentiments like "Yah, public drunkenness is kind of a cultural embarrassment," others were quick to blame the usual scapegoat: English teachers.

One blog, the subtly titled: "Englishteachersout" even compares the pictures on BlackoutKorea to the photos at Abu Gharib.

Now that's just stupid. The English teachers didn't trap these Koreans, force-feed them alcohol until they passed out, and THEN take the pictures.

Also: the passed-out Koreans' faces aren't shown. I don't know if the writer of EnglishTeachersOut noticed that... so when people aren't personally being singled out (other than the dumb foreigners who DO show their faces in shaming them), what remains is the cultural shame, I guess, of one of Korea's dirty secrets (rampant, extreme public drunkenness) being posted on the internet.

I wrote about the mean-spirited battle between stupid, mean-spirited expat blogs in Korea, and knee-jerk raging K-netizens back when death threats prompted a number of K-blogs to shut down last year.

Those points still stand.  In fact, I encourage you to go read them.


A few points, then I’m out:

1. The "hate Korea bloggers" and the "why are you hate the Korea go home" netizens deserve each other.

2. Nobody deserves to have their personal details published, or their life threatened, because of their practicing of free speech.  Even if their free speech is offensive to some people.

3. The people in these pictures ought to have thought more carefully about including their faces in the photos: you own everything you put on the internet, forever. Generally, Koreans behaving badly are smart enough not to publish pictures of their hijinks on the internet. They know how the K-internet works: they all remember dog poop girl. Expats in Korea ought to take a page from their book.

4. While it would be nice to let the "Hate Korea" bloggers and the "Why are you hate the Korea?" defenders just cancel each other out, but it doesn't end there. The bad blood generated there contributes to the poisonous English Education atmosphere in Korea, because English teachers are always blamed: notice how nobody suspected any of the expats in the pictures to be investment bankers or engineers. It also raises the pitch of the mutual alienation between the archetypal "complaining expat" and the "crazy netizen defender," and worst of all, sometimes legitimately interesting K-blogs are caught in the crossfire: Korean Rum Diary started off kind of mean-spirited, but as it went on, the tone became much more thoughtful and fair, but because it started off on the wrong foot, the K-defenders kept hounding the writer, and when he left Korea, he took the entire site down. That's a loss for the English K-blogosphere. The fact that the defenders' English may not be sharp enough to catch the nuance, or that they only skim the angriest post (which got linked) and decide to hound the writer, leads to undeserving writers getting treated like trolls, from time to time.

5. Nobody knows the real motivation of Blackout Korea: we've seen before that international attention of an embarrassing kind can be the thing that prompts some self-reflection in Korean society, and maybe Blackout Korea was pitching for bringing it home to Korea that the amount and degree of public drunkenness here is a national disgrace.  Maybe the writer tried every other method he/she could imagine before resorting to a stupid blog like Blackout Korea.  And yes, I think the blog is stupid.

6. There are better ways to bring that point home.


7. Public drunkenness in Korea IS a national disgrace. It is.  Undeniably.  Shooting the messenger doesn't change the fact I had to dodge street pizza walking to work at 7am on Wednesday mornings, back when I worked in Jongno.

My final point:
Some people say Blackout Korea is just a funny website.

As I wrote in the Lousy Korea post: Is the laugh that South Park got for taking cracks at Mohammed worth the mutual alienation that develops between Muslim and Western society when their controversial episode airs? I don't know.

Is the laugh that BlackoutKorea got for taking cracks at drunk Koreans in public worth the mutual alienation that comes out of the K-netizen backlash? I don't know, but I'd rather not have to be asking the question.

And to the people whose faces are now on this guy's blog front page (see below): does it still seem like a good idea?

[Edit: the pictures have been blacked out on the English Teachers Out page, so I'm taking it out of this post.]

And memo to all non-ethnic Asian expats in Korea: go ahead and act however you like, but don't put pictures of that shit on the internet, and don't do it in my neighborhood, because you can do what you like (within the law) but I'd rather not be held responsible for your behavior, just because neither of us look like Koreans.

(more background links: Asian Correspondent, Chosun Ilbo (who found the site), the Korean blog of the guy who wrote the EnglishTeachersOut blog, and an interview with Blackout Korea... let's say of all the motivations to create the blog... the ones stated are somewhere at the bottom of the barrel.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Embassy Conference... Smashing!

The Embassy Conference happened today; I'd like to report back in detail, but that will probably be over several posts that discuss different aspects of the topics.  If the video taken by the Canadian Embassy turns out well, I'll be posting video as well.

The turnout was very, very good for such a beautiful day, the presentations were awesome - I felt a bit out of my league, sitting next to Popular Gusts, Metropolitician, and Prof. Ben Wagner, but I got a lot of positive feedback, and best of all, the three organizations I discussed: ATEK, KOTESOL, and AFEK, all showed up in style, to represent their groups.

Great day, thanks to everyone who came, and especially thanks to the Canadian Embassy for putting on the event.  I hope there will be many more like it.

More later.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Itaewon Hannam Seoul Global Center Living in Korea Info Session

Just got this e-mail from ATEK, and thought I'd share it with you:

Seoul's Itaewon-Hannam Global Village Center was established to help foreigners living in Seoul with any difficulties they may face and to facilitate cultural understanding between foreigners and Koreans. This month, they will be holding a Living in Seoul Orientation for anyone interested in learning more about the city and some tips for living there. Though this is not an ATEK function, it may be beneficial to our members living in the area. Below is a description of the event from the Global Village Center, as well as information on how to RSVP.

On Friday February 25th at 10:30am the Itaewon-Hannam Global Village Center in Seoul will be having a Living in Seoul Orientation Session. At this session you will be able to learn about the services and opportunities that are out there for foreigners living in this city. Seoul is an exciting place with lots of great things to see and do. Whether you are new to Seoul or even if you have lived here for years, you will be able to get some useful tips and learn more about what Seoul has to offer.

The session will consist of an informative presentation, a Q&A session, and finally refreshments and a chance to mingle with the other guests at the end. All those who attend will also receive a package of brochures, maps, and guides that will help make your life in Seoul a lot easier and more enjoyable. This event is free of charge and anyone is welcome to attend.

Please RSVP by phone or email:
Tel: 02-2199-8884
Email: itaewon at

For more information and to find directions to the center please visit the website:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Things I've Learned about Korea by doing the Radio Show

Soundtrack: Press play and start reading.

Haven't done a bliss-out in a while, and you don't know this one is going to be one, until the last minute of the song, when it keeps celebrating, and then ends with about fifteen seconds on an entirely different plane... but like other good bliss-outs, you have to listen to the whole song, or those last fifteen seconds don't have the support to actually launch you into that other place.

I've always liked Stevie Wonder, but those ten seconds at the end of this song made me love him.

So yeah, I've been doing a section of The Evening Show for TBS eFM: the show's hosted by a fella named Mike, whom you can find here @MikeOnTBS.  You can also keep up with what The Evening Show's doing at @TheEveningShow.  Or follow me on twitter @Roboseyo (didn't see that coming, did you?) or friend me on facebook (  I'm a facebook friend whore: I'll totally accept.

The show's been hella fun so far, mostly due to the awesome callers we've had call into the show.  (and you can be one of those callers, readers!)

Anyway, before I turn into a pure pimp, one of the fun things about the show, to me, is this:

Every day I get a new Korea-related topic, and I have to become a fifteen-minute expert in it.  Fifteen-minute expert means not that I spend fifteen minutes researching, and bluff, but that I have to learn enough about a topic to talk about it in an informed way for fifteen minutes.  Every day the topic's different, which means I've learned about all sorts of things since I started the show three weeks ago.

So, here are ten things I've learned about Korea by doing The Evening Show's call-in segment:

1. Korea's actually doing quite well in trying to improve its environmental standing.

Given that Korea has very few energy resources of its own, it's important for Korea to use the oil it imports, or the nuclear energy it generates, as efficiently as possible; Korea's currently the world's fifth largest oil importer.  That's bad news.  The good news: Korea's actually put a LOT of energy and money into environmental initiatives.  Natural gas buses, public transit, bus lanes, Samsung's lithium batteries, smart, efficient buildings (which, I learned, burn more fuel than cars): Korea's working hard.

Now if only the country also took care of its wetlands...

The four rivers' project has become too politically embroiled to get a straight story about it from either side.

2. Korea's traditions of gift-giving for marriage are really interesting... and the richer you were back in the day, the more ridiculously extravagant the gift-giving became.

Chests full of silk, carried by the bride's family, bribed into the groom's house, watches, clothes, three keys (car, office and house) and more: the gift-giving expectations for Korean weddings are mad lengthy, and the higher your position you'd attained, the more your family demanded from your spouse-to-be's family.

3. In recent years, the largest demographic decline in Korea's smoking rate was in middle-aged men.  Young men (20s and 30s) has remained about the same.  Meanwhile, the smoking rate for women is probably waaay under-reported.

4. The secretary general of the Korea smokers' association doesn't like people using the term "smokers" - he prefers "cigarette consumers" because it's less stigmatized.

5. The experts we spoke to think the black market (where food is traded and distributed in North Korea, when the centralized food-distribution system falls short) is good for North Korea, for two different reasons: one because that's where North Koreans learn about how life is in the South - that's where Korean wave illegal DVDs are bought and traded - and the other because a mini-free enterprise system will help North Koreans adjust to living in a free market system, in the event of reunification.

6. North Korea has its own international economic zone, called Rajin-Sonbong.  So far, the main investor there is China.

7. There's a movie called Bangga Bangga about a Korean who pretends to be from Bhutan in order to get a job in a factory.  Sounds super-interesting: I heard about it from Paul Ajosshi, and I hope he has a chance to write about it sometime on his blog.  On that same topic, another reader commented that a farmer he knows started hiring migrant workers not because they were cheaper, but because the Koreans she employed kept stealing from her.

8. I already kind of knew this, but covering it from different angles really brought it home: long working hours, women's workplace rights, the low birthrate, lack of government support for parents, the aging population and the approaching welfare crisis, and the need to give migrant workers a more recognized place in Korean society, all connect to each other in a big, ugly bundle.

9. Pay day loan companies in Korea are very, badly under-regulated, and though it's illegal, some of them charge interest as high as 3000% per annum on their loans.  Yep.  All those zeros are supposed to be there.  The payday loan companies are supposed to be regulated by their gu office, but those offices are too under-staffed to be properly vigilant.

10. Standard versions of language are a kind of expression of cultural hegemony, and the degree of connection between language, culture, identity, and power, are quite inextricable.

More later, readers.

And all the best...


Winter 2011 so far, in two-second bursts...

I think two seconds is a perfect amount of time to make an impression, and then move on.  You get to know what's happening (unlike with those MTV videos), but even if it's boring, it's only two seconds.

Here are some of the clips I couldn't fit into full videos, but wanted to share.

Memo to The Korea Times

I'm willing to let the alien graveyards slide for a little while...

Just make these maddening little text-obscuring popup ads go away...

and once you've done that, we'll talk about putting ads on the side of your paper that include spankable anime ass, or gross dental clinic ads featuring pictures of the insides of mouths, as well as what it says about your newspaper site, that the hotlinks for the "First in the Nation" English newspaper are in Korean.

first things first, though.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How the Internet Gets Inside Your Head

Great article from the New Yorker about how the internet changes the way we think.

Go read it.  "How the Internet Gets Inside Your Head" by Adam Gopnik

Best line - from talking about anonymous commenting:

Thus the limitless malice of Internet commenting: it’s not newly unleashed anger but what we all think in the first order, and have always in the past socially restrained if only thanks to the look on the listener’s face—the monstrous music that runs through our minds is now played out loud.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Royal Asiatic Society Event, Canadian Embassy Event

Tomorrow night, the Royal Asiatic Society of Koreais hosting a "Badaksori" performance.

This is Pansori.

Badaksori a group of artists who are producing Changjak Pansori. Pansori is the traditional Korean singing/speaking storytelling performance art; Changjak Pansori are new compositions of Pansori (the Pansori version of modern classical music) - since Pansori became a Korean cultural property in the '60s, it got sort of standardized, with a recognized canon of Pansori songs.  But that's not how Pansori originally worked: it used to be a free-flowing storytelling form that the singer could adapt to the audience's responses.

Badaksori are trying to present THAT version of pansori: the one that still has life and spontaneity. They make social commentary and such, and compose pansori about modern events that are still happening in Korea; songs are also a lot shorter than the old, classical ones, which have been called "Korean Opera"... in part because they're really, really long, and maybe also because they're primarily enjoyed by old people.

Anyway, if you want to attend this performance, it's in the Resident's lounge, on the second floor of the Somerset Palace hotel, near the north end of Insadong, at 7:30pm on Tuesday Feb. 8th.

More info at the Royal Asiatic Society website (

If you're a long-termer in Korea, and if you have a long-standing interest in the culture, etc., the Royal Asiatic Society is a good group to get connected with. Some of Korea's longest-term scholars, residents, embassy workers, and business owners are frequent attendees, and after each event, there's a little beer time when people sit, chat, and network. They have regular lectures, as well as tours around the country, some of which are family friendly.

For most lectures, admission is 5000 won for non-members, and free if you sign up and pay the annual membership fee. Tours are also cheaper if you pay the membership fee.

Second... and I figure into this one...

Members of the English teaching community are invited to an event on Sunday, February 20th.  There will be two sessions, one about Education in Canada, to help arm you with answers to your students' parents' questions about sending their kids to study in Canada, and the second one, to discuss issues affecting foreign English teachers in Korea.

Matt, from Popular Gusts, Mike Hurt, from Metropolitician, Ben Wagner, who's working on the HIV testing challenge in Korea's courts, and I, will be speaking about media scapegoating, foreign crime, and building the English teaching community, and you're invited to come.

The full text of the invitation poster (and the image above) are at Popular Gusts.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Ten Facts about Driving in Seoul

So a little while ago, Grrrl Traveler rented a car for a five hour road trip, and came back with these ten observations about driving in Korea.

The most relevant one:

You need either an international driver's license, or a Korean driver's license, to drive in Korea.

Fortunately, getting a Korean driver's license isn't too difficult, actually.  Simon and Martina from Eat Your Kimchi  (and aren't their early videos cute, compared to the polished stuff they make now) go through how to get one from a driver's examination center.  The Constant Crafter also describes that process.

Fortunately for you if you're Seoul based, the Seoul Global Center makes it even easier than it was before: the one in Itaewon, or the one by City Hall, will take you through it pretty easily.

You'll need a little cash, your alien registration card, your passport, a few passport size photos, and your driver's license from your home country.

The other thing Grrrl Traveler got right, is that GPS is hella useful here.  Seoul has TONS of roads.  Apparently you can pay a lot more for a GPS that speaks to you in English... but to save the dough, it just takes a while to get used to reading the GPS visually, and tuning out the Korean until your listening is good enough to make sense of it.

Well, readers, after getting married, Wifeoseyo and I got a car, and after getting it, I drove to work, about a thirty-five minute drive (if traffic is light), for ten weeks.  We've also driven out of town, to various places in the nearby provinces, and as far as Gyeongju, in the six months or so we've owned the car.

So here are my own observations about driving in Seoul:

1. Driving in cities is just batshit, period: if you lived in a small or medium-sized Canadian town, and moved to NYC or LA, you'd say "Americans can't drive" just as surely as you would say "Koreans can't drive" if you moved to Seoul instead.  If you move to Seoul from a small or medium sized town, never forget that some of the things that are culture-shocking you are not about Korean culture, but about urban culture.  City driving is nuts, compared to driving in the towns and countryside, and the number of cars you come across inevitably increases the chance you'll meet some dumbass drivers, or some jerk-ass drivers.  Don't go saying "Koreans can't drive" without figuring that in.

2. Like dating, driving follows different logic in different countries.  For people who always drove, or dated, in one driving/dating climate, the way it's done makes sense, for that context.  Take someone from one context and put them in another, and things get sketchy.  It's not that aegyo doesn't make sense in the context of Korean dating, but it doesn't make sense to this Canadian.  Same with driving: put a Korean who learned to drive in Korea on Vancouver's streets, and that stereotype that Asians can't drive makes sense, not because Asians can't drive, but because they're driving by a different set of rules.

I've spent a little time in other countries, and they follow different logics in different places, too: in Canada, honking the horn most often means "I really don't like what you did." (not for kinda: only for really) in the parts of China I visited, they usually meant, "I see you there, but I can't, or won't slow down for you."  In Vietnam the horn just meant, "Aay, buddy! I'm here."  In Korea, honking the horn means either "I don't like what you did" or "Move along, buddy: let's go."

So while I have almost ten years of driving experience in Canada, I had to learn how to drive in Korea.  If I drove the same way I did in Canada, I'd hesitate and shoulder-check myself right off the road.  Once again: it's easy to say "Koreans can't drive" it takes a bit more effort to figure out how Koreans do drive, and roll with it.  And you have to.  If you follow the rules from back home, YOU'LL be the one who's making the mistakes, because you don't fit in.

3. Lines on the road: One of the biggest difference between the way Korean drivers handle themselves on the road, and the way Canadians do, is how we abide by the lines painted on the road.  See, Canadians are sticklers for the road signs and the lines on the road much more than Korean drivers in the city, who straddle lanes more often.  On the other hand, Canadians expect all drivers to follow those painted lines and signs so carefully that they don't pay as much attention to what the other drivers on the road are doing.  People on Korean roads, for the most part, are much more aware of what the other cars on the road are doing, because one of them might weave into their lane at any time.  Anticipation here is much better.

Plus: Koreans know the dimensions of their cars way better, and can park their cars in mad tiny spaces.

4. Buses are scary: Not just because they're so darn big, but because they move in and out of lanes.  The right lane is always a wildcard, because there are taxis, scooters, and buses dodging in and out.  Pick the middle or left lane.

Anybody who's lived here for a while knows that bus drivers in Seoul (I can't speak for out of the city) are way better than they used to be, as are bus lanes.  It's much less often I have to do that bus-driver drunk-walk to the back of the bus, where it looks like I'm off my gourd because I'm compensating for so many changes in speed and direction from the bus driver.

However, when a bus wants into your lane, it's still scary.  Every time.

5. Bikers are even scarier:  See, the bus drivers?  They've been trained to drive their buses, and they drive all day, every day, and many of them have been bus drivers for years.  Bikers?  Many buy their bikes because that's all they can afford, often it's the first road vehicle they've ever owned.

So you get these bikes, which can weave in and out between cars, driven by drivers who aren't as experienced at reading the road and anticipating traffic.  When they're bobbing to the front of the line up at a red light, that's alright.  When they're on the sidewalk, that sucks for pedestrians, but in my car, it doesn't affect me.  But when we're all in motion, and they're still popping in and out of lanes, it's scary as hell, because they appear out of nowhere, and when it's car vs. bike, the biker loses, and I really don't want a careless biker plastering himself across MY hood.

6.  People in expensive cars with dark tinted windows are the biggest assholes:  Yep.  People in small cars are more likely to be driving the first vehicle they've owned, and thus less attentive/aware, because of that inexperience, so you've got to be careful around them, but people in expensive cars - the Ssangyong "I'm A Big Deal," the Daewoo "Freud," the Hyundai "Long Car Important Driver," and all the imports with dark tinted windows know that, because of the way car insurance works here, people REALLY don't want to have even a tiny finder-bender with a really expensive car.  A lot of owners of those cars drive with the sense of entitlement that comes of knowing other drivers don't want to touch them, because they'll get the short end of any kind of accident.  You are likely to get cut off, or have your lane invaded by an inattentive driver of a cheap car, but you're more likely to be intentionally, brazenly cut off or around, or  nearly hit by the yellow-light-running, impatient daring of an expensive car.

7.  There's really, really no need to drive a car into town.  None.  Parking, traffic, traffic, parking, parking, traffic, traffic, parking, parking, traffic, parking, and gas prices.  Only if you really need to.  Given that Seoul has one of the best subway and bus systems in the world, you almost never do.

8.  The farther you are from subway stations, the more fun, varied and interesting the city becomes.  But because driving in Seoul is such a pain, I recommend bicycles.  Folding bicycles fit nicely on subways, there are a few shops near Hongdae, and a few near Apgujeong, where you can get a folding bicycle for less than 500 000 won.  It's worth paying the extra for being able to carry it more easily on a bus or a subway.

9.  You've got to assert yourself... but take some time getting used to how that's done.  What do I mean? People don't give you space on the road: you have to take your space.  This is done by indicating with your car - nosing in, or drifting partway into the lane - so that people know where you're going to go, before moving all the way into your space.  It's similar to how you can help people not bump into you when you're walking in a crowd, by setting your shoulders in the direction you're walking.  The turn signal helps, but you've got to take your space, and indicate that you want it.  Nobody gives it to you.  Spend some time driving more cautiously on the roads, to see how other drivers do this, before getting too assertive.

10. I think I know why the Car on Pedestrian Death Rate is so High - There are countries that have more traffic accidents per 100 cars or 1000 drivers than Korea, but Korea's usually first or second in car-pedestrian fatalities.  And it's because people tackle side-roads and lanes near apartment blocks and pedestrian areas, where kids play, with the same "Look at my big car" entitlement, aggressiveness, and impatience, as they tackle big thoroughfares where nary a pedestrian steps.

So that's what I have to say after half a year of driving in Seoul.  It's been fun so far, it can be stressful, but for the most part, Seoul's infrastructure is pretty good.  Driving here will improve your awareness and anticipation, by necessity, because anything can happen, and will.  And sometimes, you just have a "stupid driver day" when every dumb driver on the road seems to come across your path.  Whee!

I Lost My Talk: Poem

After that post last week about Jeju Island's dialect disappearing, here's a lovely, touching poem that my sister sent to me, about Canadian first nations groups losing their languages.

I think the writer is correct that power is inextricably linked to language: the language I choose to speak with you sets the terms for our interaction, especially when one of us speaks the language better than the other.

Put simply: If I argue with my wife in Korean, she wins.
Writ large: the language people speak, or study in school is one of the clearest expressions of which group in a mixed society/world holds (or is believed to hold) the keys to opportunity.

Lost My Talk by Rita Joe

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my world.

Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.

Canadian Museum of Civilization
First Peoples of Canada Online Exhibit

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Happy New Year! Is Korean Seollal Changing?

Happy new year, readers.

It's a good day, the weather's finally not so bone-chilling, and the wife is away on vacation.

Not that I'm up to any mischief... I wouldn't be here blogging if I were, now, would I?

Since I've come to Korea, one of the things I've noticed is a big change in how the Korean traditional holidays (that is, Seollal/Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Harvest festival) are practiced.

The typical/normative Korean Traditional Holiday(tm) experience remains that of going to the grandparents' house, having a ritual for the ancestors that involves big tables full of traditional foods that take a long time to prepare and clean up, the women spending hours in the kitchen, the men playing cards or games in the other room, and the consuming of chapchae, ddeokkuk (new year) and songpyeon (chuseok).  Grandparents give money to the children, and the children bow to the living ancestors (parents, uncles, especially grandparents) and some or all of the family goes up the mountain to trim the grass and perform maintenance on the family gravesite.  And the children wear really cute Hanbok.

Frankly, I'm not the guy to describe all those ceremonies.  The Korean does an admirable job of it.

I'm interested in the way the holiday's changed: my first year in Korea, Seoul was a ghost town during the new year celebration.  The usual complaints were raised: traffic is a pain, it's impossible to get tickets,  the women do all the work, it's boring sitting around at your grandparents' house all day.

Meanwhile, this year Seoul's museums are staying open, and a lot of the palaces and plazas are featuring cultural events, displays and performances this Seollal.  People are traveling overseas instead of visiting the family.  Meanwhile, a recent survey reports that only one in five Koreans consider their grandparents part of their family.

Tonight's topic on TBS eFM is the ways we celebrate Seollal/Lunar New Year: what do you do, and is it different than it used to be?  It's a holiday, so we're picking a happy topic, and I'd love to hear from readers, how do YOU celebrate the new year?  Have travel concerns changed the way you celebrate? Have you spent holidays away from family? Why?  Have you ever attended the cultural events instead?Whether you're Korean or not, we'd love to hear what you get up to on Korea's traditional holidays.