Thursday, December 29, 2011

2012 Will Be the Year of K-Pop. Forget the Mayans.

I had a long talk with my wife about which K-pop group could make it in America, if any. Two years ago, I would have said probably not. Now... I'm starting to believe. I read an article this year suggesting that, with the rise of K-pop, this is the first time in a long time, that South Korea is attracting more of the world's attention than North Korea with its military brinksmanship, and I think I agree.

In previous conversations, the reasons I posited that K-pop hadn't made it so far were as follows:

1. To make it in America, as a person from a different culture, a number of things have to converge. You have to have most, preferably all of these features...
  • Be fluent in English and/or cool enough to come across in an English interview (see this post
  • OR have some transcendent/singular ability in some area (Ricky Martin's dancing talent, Shakira's ass-shake, Gloria Estefan's stunning voice to draw examples from the latin invasion)
  • There (probably) needs to be a star - an individual at the center of it (sorry SNSD: too many, too indistinguishable.)
  • That star needs to have an attitude that appeals to American audiences -- some sass and color. (This is one of the main places where Boa fell short - the "kid works really hard and makes good" narrative goes over well in Asia... to make it in America, more is needed. The Mickey Mouse Club graduates who never established their own persona have evaporated. Without the nude photo leaks, nobody'd remember Vanessa Hudgens, and Justin Timberlake really established his own uniqueness as a star not with the Mickey Mouse club or his solo work (good as some of it is) but with "Dick In A Box" which was something we hadn't seen a popstar do before. 
  • You need a sound, and maybe also a look, that's not like something else... or you need to take the sounds that are out there and do them better than anyone else.
  • You need a really, really great song for your debut. I think this is where Boa fell short -- she's an amazing dancer, and a decent singer, but "I'll Eat You Up" just wasn't there. 
2. You need to work to make it in America -- my last post talked about BNL touring 300 nights a year, for years, to build up a following ready to spread the word once they had that really great radio song ready (even they needed a really, really great song to finally catch on).

But my stance on this one is changing... because of YouTube, which is basically achieving the same thing bands used to gain with those endless tours: establishing a fanbase ready to buy tickets next time you're in town.

The crucial question is simple: is YouTube (even with its dedicated Kpop channel) enough to get people out of their chairs and buying concert tickets, ordering CDs, posters, and t-shirts? I don't know if it is -- it's certainly less likely to do so than a friend excited about the show they went to, burning me a copy of their CD, or inviting me to join them at the concert, next time the band's in town.

On the other hand... Hyuna's video for "Bubble Pop" has 23 million views on YouTube, as of this writing. And you know what else? Justin Bieber got there mostly on strength of his YouTube channel. I'm not sure how many video views equals the threshhold these days to say "OK. Time for this singer to tour America and try to consolidate those YouTube views into a real fanbase" -- and maybe (as with Bieber), YouTube only works with stuff targeting tweens. Who knows? But I'm asking these questions now, where I used to sniff contemptuously at K-pop's chances of making it in America.

3. You need An American Producer/Promoter With Clout and Connections IN AMERICA to get your foot in the RIGHT doors.

This MIGHT be why the Wondergirls never quite took America by storm (though they might yet). Hero, as good as it was on its own (and hot on the coattails of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), also got a big boost when Quentin Tarantino, with all his credibility among film lovers, stuck his name on it. Somebody from America - who knows that well what sells there - needs to invite Kpop to America, saying "Hey. I think you're going to sell here. And I'm gonna help." With all his YouTube fans, Bieber still needed an agent to agree with his YouTube fans about his talent.

4. As a scene, K-pop is too narrow, and not robust enough to generate world-class talent.

When K-pop was all just lines of boys or girls dancing in step and singing songs written by Swedish songsters (or plagiarized by Korean songsters), under one of three all-powerful labels -around 2009- I'd have agreed with you... but strangely enough, the audition shows and the survival shows -- Superstar K and "I Am A Singer" have brought actual singers and musicians into the forefront over the last two years, in a way that makes me believe that Korea's media is approaching a point where real talent will find a space that will let it find an audience, and grow. Older singers, and raw-talented ones, are finding the stage they needed, and kids who didn't pass the JYP audition are getting "Korea's Got Talent" love and "Superstar K" love, and radio play. And concert tours. I feel a lot better about the scene now, that it'd capable of generating sustainable talent, and letting real talent rise.

Who's tried to make it so far?

Wondergirls didn't have one star for people to latch onto, and "Nobody" was almost there - the retro look was cool, but anybody in America would spot it as being copped from "Dreamgirls" - so much for "something we haven't seen before." I also don't think their English songs were different enough from what else was out there for them to make a splash... add to that the language limitations (and how their pronunciation and intonation sounded a touch off when singing in English)...

Boa is extremely talented, but didn't stand out from the crowd enough, and (worst of all) her song and video didn't. WonderGirls made more noise, partly by zeroing in on an audience (Tweens, by opening for the Jonas Bros.), and having a more distinct look.

Rain's English wasn't good enough, despite getting a lot of help from Stephen Colbert. And he's too old now to lead the next stage of the Korean Wave.

Who has the best shot?

So what now?

If Lee Hyori were 23 right now, and had just two ounces more sass, I'd pin my hopes on her. She came along eight years too early, or she'd be the clear choice.

If Wondergirls were going to catch on, they probably already would have. As it is, they'll probably be remembered as a good second try (after Rain) but not quite the charm.

Girls' Generation has too many members, and the aegyo will never play outside of Asia, and Asian fetish circles (who, rest assured, will find their YouTube videos without a US Tour's support)


Honestly, as handicapping goes, she can 'pop' well - the ass-shaking dancing move in the video "Bubble Pop" - but Shakira, Beyonce, and a few other performers who are also great dancers have more to pop (sorry). Hyori's stomach was closer to being a unique selling point than Hyuna's popping will ever be. Meanwhile, I don't hear enough from her musically to set her apart, and she simply isn't charismatic enough in her videos (Hyori was), to convince me that she has a real shot. I like what she's doing for K-pop in Korea (more about that later), but I don't think she'll be the flag-carrier to bring K-pop abroad.

The artists I think have a legitimate shot at making it in the west?

The aforementioned 2NE1 might be on their way - Will.I.Am joining the 2NE1 brigade certainly won't hurt. 

More on 2NE1's chances:
These four ladies have an attitude that will play well in America's celebrity culture, and a style that works in the post Gaga pop scene. If their English is good enough, and they're ready to be caught by a paparazzo, pouring beer on a producer's head? They have a better shot than Boa.

The other one I like:

1. She's actually talented. Like, legitimately.

2. She can sing the lights out if she wants to. (embedding disabled) And she'll need to.

3. She was trained in the Kpop machine (including this abortion of a song, released before they figured out what to do with a person who had actual talent) - which means she can dance, she's trained in the image and media stuff, and knows how to put in a day's work on her musical craft. Watch her dancing with the backup dancers on her latest song: her movements are clean and intricate: she's good at it (even though dancing won't be her stock in trade: she'll go as far as her voice takes her, and no farther.) She's ready to do the work required of her.

4. Her videos are cool (except that marshmallow song) - and once her company figures out how to make them 1.5 (or sometimes four) minutes shorter each, they'll be even better.

5. She's pretty. And young. All of that together: I think she's the only Korean artist I think has even a remote shot of making it in the West without being fluent in English. (Bonus if she is, though)

My only remaining caveat: if she develops a little more personality and color (her face is kinda blank in the latest video, which won't sell her - not with Lady Gaga out there making monster snarls) and finds a way to make her clean image also be sexy (which can be done), I'd say she's the closest we've got - considering age, talent, image, etc., to a solo artist poised to make inroads in the West. And honestly? I'm rooting for her. She might be my favorite right now.

WonderGirls' song "Act Cool" is kinda catchy, frankly. Sassy - if an attitude infusion is what JYP thinks will get WonderGirls over the hump -- it caught my ear in a 7-11. It's a "boast track" where the newest WonderGirl tells everybody how awesome she is...

only problem to me: the sound of her rapping reminds me of another rapper I know:
Jaden Smith, Will Smith's kid. (here featured on a Justin Bieber track... see where I'm going here?)
(yes, I listened to Justin Bieber's album. Had to look into him - 12 million followers on Twitter, Canadian, etc.. Kid's talented. At 12 years.)

Seoul Sidewalks: Two Great Videos

Got a few bigger, more interesting posts coming down the line... and when I can find other people to hold the baby, I'll finish them... till then, two great videos about the pedestrian experience:

One of these is a little old: "Defensive Walking in Seoul" is a hoot, though, and worth re-watching.

This one I just saw today, on a facebook friend's status: a great way to deal with slow walkers. It's a Japanese video, but I bet it'd work here, too.

The needed tool can be found for 6-10000 won.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Little More Kim JongIlia

a funny Chinese commercial that riffs on Kim Jong-il/North Korea's totalitarian state and mass games:

One of the most important Korea blog posts out there:
"How to Disarm Kim Jong-Il (Kim Jong-eun too, I suppose) Without Bombing Him"

also: more about information leaking out of North Korea

Friday, December 23, 2011

Some reading Material...

My Life! Teaching in a Korean University has a post I think you should read if you're thinking about teaching in a Korean university, titled "Ten Tips for Newbies to the Korean University Teaching Experience"


One of my favorite things about December/January is the year-end listifying. I don't have enough time to keep up on the numerous websides I'd have to keep up on, to really be on top of the best new music being made... but at the end of the year, every music website and writer makes these wonderful year-end lists that allow me to skim the cream of the year's reviews, and give me tune jollies all December and January.'s list is linked above. So far, the two I've liked best (that I hadn't already found during the year) are two albums ridiculously outside my normal range of musical preferences: electronica(!) and hardcore metal(!!!) To make it more (or maybe less) surprising, both were also follow-ups to previous albums I'd loved... and found on year-end best of lists. "Looping State of Mind," by The Field - a follow-up to their similarly amazing "From Here We Go To Sublime" (aka the most unexpected bliss-out I've ever had) -best track off that one: "Silent"

You don't have to like it... but I assure you, over a 50 minute album, these loops become something else entirely.

And... yep. Death Metal. the band Fucked Up impressed me a few years ago with "The Chemistry of Modern Life" -- by creating the most uplifting death metal I'd ever listened to, and have done it again with the sprawling (and about 15 minutes too long) "David Comes To Life" Here's the lead-in to the album -- the slow builds pile up into moments of transformation, and the band has a great knack for knowing exactly when to mix things up with a shift in the sound, pace, or feel.

I got into a little back and forth with John F Power on Twitter about this story: A feminist blogger complained to a toy store about sorting their toys by "Boy's Toys" and "Girls' Toys." John thought the feminists were nitpicking, and trying to limit free speech for the sake of political correctness (which is something people like to complain about when it's not their group being marginalized with casual talk)

I say things like that ARE important... sometimes for subtle reasons. I think this comic explains why quite elegantly.

Source. There's more to it than that, and hopefully parents are playing an active role in helping their kids not feel limited by the gender expectations created by toys... but that's a good conversation starter at least, that.

Alien Teachers Korea has a post worth reading in response to the Native English stuff: "Why Korea Needs Native English Teachers, Now More Than Ever"

"If I Had a Minute To Spare" has a three-part "On Becoming a Writer in Korea" that, if you are, or want to be a writer in Korea, is worth reading.
Part 1
Part 2 (with links on where to submit stuff)
Part 3

And last but not least... go read this. Just... read it. Maybe I'll write about it more later. I have three other blog posts coming down the pipeline that I'd like to finish first, as well as a family thingy for Christmas/New Year.
"Who Is Korean? Migration, Immigration and the Challenge of Multiculturalism in Homogeneous Societies"

Annual "Don't Let Your Pipes Freeze" Post

Put some insulation over the water pipes that are exposed in your front or rear verandah at your house tonight, if you live in Korea. 'Cause it's hella cold.

Or this might happen. (HT Brian in Jeollanam-do)
The older your building is, the more important it is to follow this advice. Leave your tap adrip overnight, so that the water doesn't sit still in your pipes, and run the chance of freezing. And maybe flush your toilet twice when you wake up in the morning.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-Il is Dead... What Now?

[Update: More links]
Andrei Lankov's analysis is the one I trust the most. I've listened to him talk about North Korea in person, and he grew up in Stalinist [Correction:] Communist Russia, so he knows a thing or two about how these kinds of countries are run.
Two Posts from the Marmot's Hole with tons of links to coverage to other places.
AsiaPundits includes pictures and video clips.
I like Kushibo's analysis a lot.
LA Times
Toward a Kim Jong-il Reading List (from a Marmot's Hole commenter)

Before we get into speculation, here is something that every article about North Korea should include:

North Korea still operates concentration camps. There is only one limit on how shocking the scale of the human rights crisis in North Korea is: how much information we have on it. The fact Camp 22 exists, and has done so more or less quietly, is a damning repudiation of whatever lessons we were supposed to have learned in Auschwitz, and on every Human Rights organization in East Asia.

A documentary/presentation about a North Korean refugee who grew up in a North Korean gulag.

Get started at LiNK - Liberty in North Korea

More on North Korean death camps.

Come back to this post for updates as I'm able to write them:
I'll post some (pure) speculation on what might happen next, with my own (only somewhat informed) thoughts on how likely it's going to happen:

So... hit refresh and stuff.

From Kimchee GI via The Marmot's Hole: The Announcement on North Korean News: (warning: watching this might make you a traitor to the South Korean government)

The Diplomat on "What Next?"
Foreign Policy doesn't pedict a Pyongyang Spring.
English Chosun predicts a possible power struggle.
Blog: North Korea Leadership Watch "Kim Jong Il has Passed Away"
Wall Street Journal's KJI Announcement plus Analysis
A piece of analysis I like:
Ask A Korean! on why North Korea's ONLY priority is, and must be, regime survival.
Open thread at ROK Drop - new links and revelations might pop up here in the comments.

[Update: don't bother with the Marmot's Hole. The commenters there are being even more asinine than usual on this occasion.] The Marmot's Hole - new links and revelations are highly likely to pop up here in the comments.

In my opinion, The absolutely crucial factor in what happens next is simply this: how well has Kim Jong-il's heir, Kim Jong-un, had consolidated power before Kim Jong-il died -- if he hasn't, all bets are off, and we could have civil war in North Korea by Christmas. If he has, then a lot will depend on what North Korean civilians do with the news bombshell, and how the government/military reacts.

The Key Variables:

  • The level of loyalty North Korean civilians have toward the Kim dynasty (fed by propaganda), balanced against self-interest.
  • The level of loyalty North Korea's military has toward the Kim dynasty, balanced against its loyalty toward its own military leadership - which could change drastically depending on how Kim Jong-un treats that military leadership.
  • The North Korean military's available resources, and whether they have the ability to quell an angry village here and there without losing grip on other areas.
  • The amount of residual anger that remains, after the failed currency reform (shorter summary here), and the level of conviction among North Korean citizens that the underground market system will take care of them better than the Kim dynasty has.
  • The true amount of influence China has in the region... which might be a lot more than we expect, but which might also be a lot less.
  • China's long-term strategy for North Korea, which, given that China's the only country North Korea's had serious contact with over the last decade, will influence events here more than any other nation.

Whether Kim Jong-un has or hasn't consolidated power, here are some things I predict either way:

1. More bluster and tough talk. When has anything in North Korea ever NOT led to more bluster and tough talk from the leaders?

2. Some shit will happen at the border, or in the disputed waters near the border, of the South. Some shots will be fires, some sabers will rattle, some fur will bristle.

3. There will be an increase in defectors across the northern, and probably also the southern border.

4. Information will flow into North Korea faster than ever before. Either because Kim Jong-un is busy consolidating power, or because he sees this as a good time to become more open, or because he's distracted making sure things are stable around Pyongyang, the borders will become even more porous than before.

5. Once information pours into North Korea faster than ever before, it will continue becoming harder and harder to govern the nation.

6. Groups in South Korea and China that have been working with refugees, or with getting information into North Korea, will benefit from global attention (if the world media gives any damn at all about the people, and has any follow-up at all... so I might have to put this one under "maybe")

7. North Korea connections, spies, and Nork friendly useful idiots in the south will also be active trying to intimidate or silence those groups, or minimize their actions.

8. There will be renewed talk about trying to get aid into North Korea, and North Korea will try to get as much aid as possible without making any meaningful concessions... or maybe even WITH concessions.

9. USA and South Korea will both make plays for more influence in North Korea, but will be frustrated to find that, because of their confrontational or silent policies in recent times, they will only get as much influence as China wants them to have... without offering more than they want to offer, or on terms they would consider unacceptable.

10. Some act of belligerence will happen, probably at the border. If North Korea gets away with it, the leader, or those gunning for leadership, will try to take credit for it. If North Korea doesn't get away with it, those same people will be blaming their rivals for power for the botch.

11. If there's a power struggle, and even if there isn't, the new leader (presumably Kim Jong-eun) will be executing a few former high-ranking officials and administrators, to be sure he has no rivals to power, and people loyal to him surround him.

12. Reunification will not happen in the next three years. It will not happen until South Korea has a viable long-term reunification plan, if South Korea wants it then. It is more likely North Korea will be absorbed into China than into South Korea in the next three years, or slog through trying to make it on its own, with help from both South Korea and China.

13. Some useful idiots will suggest expelling all South Korea's foreign workers and replacing them with North Koreans to do DDD jobs. And here's why that won't work.

If Kim Jong-un hasn't consolidated power...
1. The military, and probably a few other people, will make a run for leadership.

2. If there's a struggle for leadership, the losers will be executed.

3. If the struggle for leadership becomes long and drawn-out, the chance of a "Pyongyang Spring" and a grass-roots revolution will increase.

4. If Kim Jong-un dies during the "Game of Thrones," the chance of a peoples' revolution skyrockets, limited only by North Korean civilians' ability to communicate with eachother (better than the military's lines of communication)

5. The candidate who has China's backing will almost certainly prevail, except (but then, maybe even) in the eventuality of an all-out civil war.

6. I would be utterly unsurprised to see a puppet government installed by China at the end of this. I don't think any other country in the world is prepared, or has enough influence in North Korea, to have a realistic shot at this.

7. China won't, however, want to do a naked takeover move, because it would lead to a standoff between China and North Korea, and South Korea and USA (and probably Japan). Given how enmeshed those economies are with each other, China is probably more likely to shut down the North Korean border, tell refugees to flood south, and allow North Korea to lapse into anarchy, than to risk actions that will lead to enough alienation between China and its main trading partners, to actually damage that trade.

8. Signs of weakness or instability in North Korea's leadership will lead to a resurrection of the black market system in North Korea, and a flood of refugees heading north and/or south.

9. Seoul/South Korea will be utterly unprepared for that flood of refugees, and once world headlines stop covering it, will mostly be left to their own devices to deal with them.

If Kim Jong-un HAS consolidated power...
1. Like a new departmental manager, changing things needlessly just to show he's boss, he's going to do a few things to leave his mark on the new state -- including the possibility of another act of aggression toward South Korea, like the Cheonan sinking or the Yangpeyong Island bombing, and subsequent propaganda campaigns, and also including the possibility of economic or military or foreign policy reforms that will have to make him appear strong, while also making political sense for his relationship with the two biggest influences on his ability to rule North Korea: China and the Nork Military.

1.1 If these changes go well, who knows how much longer we'll see a totalitarian regime in North Korea?
1.2 If these changes go poorly, like the failed currency reform, the people might not be far from taking to the streets... but that's hard to tell, because we know so little about North Korea.

2. His survival depends on how well his father's administrative structure was designed -- if he has any ropes still to learn, things could get ugly.

3. His rule and authority depends, most of all, probably, on continuing to limit his citizens' access to information -- once civilians can communicate freely with civilians in other villages and towns, all bets are off, unless they take to him real well... but it's hard to know how he'll be able to make life better for average North Korean citizens, without opening the borders to more trade and aid, and having more news and information get in as well: information which might destabilize his regime, and turn people against him.

What I'd like to See...
I'd like to see Kim Jong-un come in, and take power peacefully.
I'd like to see more food aid, overseen by international human rights organizations, so that it isn't diverted to the Military.
I'd like to see the black market flourish, and turn into a trade infrastructure by which most North Koreans can provide for themselves.
I'd like to see the border get more porous, but slowly enough that there's a transition, not a bloody revolution.

(Ding Dong) Kim Jong Il is Dead

The post I'm updating with links and speculation/predictions is here.

I'll be updating as more news comes available, and as I have time to add more thoughts between baby feedings and diaper changes.

Yonhap News is reporting that Kim Jong Il died of fatigue on a train at 8:30AM on December 17. That seems to be all we've got so far. And since North Korea's official news outlet is blocked on the South Korean internet, readers abroad will be able to read his hagiographies sooner, or more easily, than I will.

I have never felt less inclined to say "Rest in Peace" in fact, if the afterlife really is, as TV makes it out to be, a world of ironic punishments, then he'll be reborn as a political prisoner in Camp 22.

The big question is, "What's next" and while I'm hitting "Publish" right now, check back at this blog very soon for a following post with some thoughts and links on what's happening in North Korea, and what I think will happen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Carping on about Christmas Music...

Every year I rant and whine a little bit about Christmas music -- because the songs are overplayed, and come back like zombies year after year, instead of disappearing after a reasonable amount of radio play. But this year, I've had a realization that changes everything... but first, a quick recap of my old ramblings about Christmas music:

five artists that shouldn't, and five artists that need to make a Christmas album
(anything yet from Neko Case, Regina Spektor, Jack White, Alicia Keys, The Flaming Lips, or Tom Waits? I mean, we had one from Justin Bieber this year)
one Christmas song I liked
Tim Minchin's Post-Christian Christmas song
Sufjan Stevens' fabulous Christmas albums

And, good enough to rate re-posting: the funniest Christmas Music youtube video (in my opinion)

OK then...

I can't believe I haven't looked more into Christmas music by Jazz artists before.

Why? Because my problem with Christmas music summarizes thusly:

Christmas music always either reinterprets a classic song, or composes a new song.
If you reinterpret a classic song, your version probably won't stand up to a version done previously by another artist... and the classics have been done to death. If you write an original song, given that Christmas classics are some of the prettiest, most majestic, and enduring songs ever written in Western music, your new song probably won't stand up to the sheer songwriting featured in other christmas songs. You can't win.

But jazz is a no-brainer, really. Why? Because the whole thing many jazz artists do is reinterpret "standards." What does that mean? Taking a song that's been sung many times before, and bringing something new, unique, and special to it. And that was exactly the problem I described with Christmas music.

How many artists have sung "Mack the Knife," "Cry Me A River" or "My Funny Valentine"? Tons. And more will. And jazz artists work to take something that's been done before, and bring something new to it, to make it fresh again. Some artists have done especially memorable versions of some of those songs, but there's always room (if you're a good jazz musician) for another stab at it. So... starting with Verve and Blue Note records I'll be giving Jazz Christmas music a try.

One more thing:
Added to my list of artists who need to make a Christmas album:
Jamie Cullum


Jazz artist Avishai Cohen, from Israel... is invited to do some excellent Hanukkah music, if he prefers.

Portishead shouldn't make a whole Christmas album, but they'd make the saddest Christmas song ever made, and that would be worth it.

Stars should, too.

Friday, December 16, 2011

First Smile, and...

This video was taken the day Babyseyo did his first smile -- before this, there's been smile-like expressions, but always followed by puke. Sunday was his first smile that was clearly a response to my talking to him.

But as you'll see... I don't think he likes baby talk.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

North Koreans instead of Migrant Foreign Workers? Why Not?

This is a cut-and-paste from a comment discussion I had here with a commenter who was convinced South Korea's labor shortage (aging population) could be solved by expelling foreign migrant workers currently manning South Korea's assembly lines, and replacing them with North Koreans.

I think you're being a little naive if you think that North Koreans will happily be imported to work as South Korea's labor force, and happily swallow, en masse, the second-class treatment DDD workers and tradespeople receive here.

Meanwhile, a group of people who have been raised and educated under such a vastly different ideology than the South, have been regularly instructed on why the South is inferior, and why they should hate or mistrust South Koreans, and whose lack of proper nutrition during childhood have left many physically or mentally stunted... do you really think it'll take any less work and cost integrating them into Korean society, or changing Korean society to accomodate them, than it has to bring South-Asians into South Korea? I don't. Perhaps more... with extra frustration, because while Korean society's dealing with their challenges, both sides will also be dealing with disillusionment: "I thought reunification would be easier than this" where with immigrants, at least everybody on either side already recognizes it won't always be a smooth ride.

Will North Korean workers have the skills and training to fill the needed roles? Or wil NK electricians be lost on any system with technology newer than 1982? Will enough of them have the capacity (poor nutrition = stunted mental capacity) to be trained/retrained? And if there are Indonesian or Filipino electricians with their tradesmen's cards in hand, wanting to immigrate, who are excited enough to come to Korea that they've already completed a survival level Korean course? Why would we turn that guy away in favor of a North Korean who may or may not be able to complete the training?

Finally, have you read much about how North Korean refugees are treated in South Korea? It's kinda shitty. Why do you think that would change if more came... and if enough came to, say, occupy Gwanghwamun square for a protest, what makes you think they wouldn't, and disturb shit in a host of other ways? --and the South wouldn't be able to deport them easily, the way they do with south-asians who demand collective bargaining rights.

The "because we're one blood" anodyne just won't cut it here, and everybody'll get to say that just once to delay actually dealing with the issues, before people get upset at not having their grievances addressed. I'm one blood with my sister, but we used to fight like cats and dogs.

You Can Never Go Home

Soundtrack: hit play and start reading.
Tom Waits: "Pony"
Tom Waits sings about home like a man who's been lost a long time.

"I lived on nothin' but dreams and train smoke
Somehow my watch and chain
Got lost...
I hope my Pony, I hope my pony knows the way back home"
-Tom Waits 'Pony'

"I remember that time you told me, you said, 'love is touching souls'
Surely you touched mine,
'Cause part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time"
-Joni Mitchell, 'A Case of You'

I mentioned earlier that at 8:15 (or so) every Friday morning, I'm on TBS radio (101.3), yamming about the topics that have been catching blog column-space, and commenter love (where applicable). This week, as Christmas approaches, maybe it's appropriate to talk about home: December's the month I always feel the most homesick, the month I hanker hard for the foods and friends I left behind me in Canada, and the last Christmas I had in Canada was the hardest, but most intimate and intense Christmas my family experienced, or likely ever will: the first one after Mom had received a terminal prognosis for her stomach cancer.

This week, Chris in South Korea had a guest post from "Gone Seoul Searching" about reverse culture shock, and Bathhouse Ballads talked about why he dreads going back to his home in England. Gone Seoul Searching writes about missing trips to Daiso and kimbap, and the accidental "got back from Korea" blunders, where you refill your friend's drink with two hands, or bow when you meet someone, ultimately seeking out Koreatown: "anything Korean felt like home to me in a strange world that was not my own." Gone Seoul Searching clearly still has one foot in Korea, planning to return perhaps, and reaching out to her former students through facebook and email. Meanwhile, Bathhouse Ballads talks about the comfort and ease of living in Korea, and does not look forward to going to a country where restaurants and taxis are way more expensive, and the streets simply feel less safe: "Going back to the UK is a massive step down in terms of lifestyle, cultural opportunities and quality of life and even the massive hike in terms of pay can’t compensate for living in an expensive, insular little enclave surrounded by a cultural wilderness," he writes.

I have experienced this myself, most powerfully when I spent seven months in Canada taking care of my sick mom: I craved the jimjilbang (I have no idea what it says about me that I missed opportunities for public nudity so poignantly), and spicy food - I once went to a Thai restaurant and ordered the spiciest thing on the menu, just to remember. My heart still races to remember that meal. When I first got back, or when I vacation in Canada, I find myself being far too chatty with waiters and store clerks, because they can speak English! or being sullen and non-communicative, as is my habit here, so I don't have to tax the clerks' English ability, or their ability to understand poorly-pronounced Korean (and my ability to form it). My hand reaches for the not-present kimchi dish several times a meal, and when I am out socially, I fall into the habit of starting every third sentence with "You know, in Korea..." as my own, world-traveller version of "This one time... at band camp..."

The smell of world travel doesn't leave me, or other people. I can spot, in some odd way, people who have lived outside their home cultures, and those who haven't. This is also true of the Koreans I meet: the ones who have lived abroad speak (and I don't mean pronunciation) and think differently, for the most part, than the Korean Koreans I meet. They bring back interests and knowledge that simply don't arrive in Korea through the usual channels - their favorite western artists are Fleet Foxes and Frightened Rabbit, rather than Abba and Beyonce.

And maybe not everybody who goes overseas experiences this personal shift: maybe there are people who manage to live here (or elsewhere), tottering, without ever planting a foot here, by hunkering in expat enclaves, avoiding the activities and foods and places that would make Korea a part of them. Perhaps that is possible. I've met a few who tried, but I'm not sure how it turned out for them, because I didn't seek out their company, once I saw that they'd hit the reject button, and were utterly uninterested in hearing about my attempts to engage with the culture and people here. I don't know how I'd relate to such people anymore, even if I once could, or wanted to.

And this is what it is like to live with one foot in two different cultures. Does it make me better, smarter, and wiser? Not than other people (how could I compare?) but perhaps than myself when I was the product of only one culture, and lacked the self-awareness to spot what of my beliefs were the prejudices of my upbringing, and what were actually my earned and owned self. Travel is certainly not the only way to identify those distinctions, though I might have trouble understanding the journey of someone who had done it through some other route.

On the other hand, the sacrifice I must make is that I never quite belong anywhere, except perhaps with others who have feet planted in more than one place: other long-term expats, whose roots stretch entirely across oceans. Koreans all ask me about Canada, though it's been nine years since I lived there, and I can't relate to a lot of the things my Canadian friends want to tell me about anymore, unless I ask them for tiresome explanations, and I can't explain things without that same long-winded background.

This is why I say that you can never go home: part stays behind, and part hankers for pieces of that other place. You have reference points that you didn't have before, and will always have them.

So, readers, in Korea or Canada or elsewhere, where have you lived, and what footprints have those places left on you? What did you miss of the place you went to, once you came back home, and is it possible to come home again?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

How to make EBS's Racism Video Mean Something

Update: for two great views on this topic, please read these pieces side by side:

The Metropolitician: "Be White"
Adeel "Taking the Metropolitician Challenge"

You've seen this video, if you read the K-blogs. It's been discussed elsewhere...

1. This video is from May -- which pleases me. This video was made by Koreans, for Koreans -- unlike "banning" dog meat during the olympics, this video isn't a performance for a foreign audience. It's Koreans trying to start an earnest discussion. We expat bloggers and viewers didn't figure into it at all. I like that Koreans are deciding to start these kinds of conversations.

2. It's only two guys, and a 5 minute video: who knows what story the original footage told. I'd be surprised if the narrative was as clean as it's presented to be.

It's impossible to make a general statement about whether Koreans are racist or not, just from this. Absolutely impossible. (Though the youtube commenters have been quick to do exactly that.)


Here's a research proposal of sorts: How to Make This Experiment Actually Tell Us Something About Racism in Korea.

(soundtrack: Mashup-Germany - Top of the Pops, 2011. Love these year-end mashup things.)

A. Count the number of passersby in the full hour of filming, or film until a set number of pedestrians pass by. Or until the subject of the experiment (the white guy, or the SEAsian guy) has approached and spoken to a set number of people (say 200, or 500). Send them out so they spend an equal amount of time approaching strangers on the weekend, the daytime, the afternoon, the evening, and lunch break.

B. Make a few categories of responses, say:

1. stops longer than ten seconds and helps
2. gives less than ten seconds of help
3. passive negative response - averts eyes, moves to other side of sidewalk, walks faster, etc.
4. active negative response - says "no" or responds with hostility
and maybe
5. does not notice

Log the responses from video footage, so that different subjects can be compared in terms of their rate of the different types of responses.

C. Train the subjects to use the exact same wording and body language in their approaches.  If you have the budget, have one set of subjects being more direct, and another set being less direct... in the exact same way, with the same wordings and gestures, as much as possible.

D. Ensure there are equal numbers of male and female, good-looking and unattractive, tall and short subjects in each group.

E. Find that variety of subjects across more than two races: South-east Asian, South-Asian, Middle-Eastern, North-African, Central-African, Caucasian, Latino/Hispanic, and East-Asian.

F. Repeat the experiment using similar groups, similarly trained, or the same group in:
1. a residential area
2. a busy downtown area
3. a popular tourist area

or/and in

1. a big city
2. a medium-sized city
3. a tourist town/area

G. If possible, have an equal number of subjects approaching people speaking Korean (the local language) and English (a commonly spoken cosmopolitain language).

H. Repeat the exact same experiment, as closely as possible, in several major cities on each continent, or in a big city, a medium-sized city, and a tourst town/area in several countries on each continent/region of the world.

Gather statistics. Crunch numbers. Compare.

IF, across all those factors, Koreans still treat the white guy more favorably than the dark guy, TO A GREATER EXTENT THAN the average of all the groups of people, from all the places, in all the data we've gathered... and far enough above the average that it can't be accounted for with the margin of error inherent in gathering statistics...

we can say that this video shows Koreans are more racist than other countries.

Friday, December 09, 2011

SMOE to Phase Out Native English Teachers: Turnover, Gatekeepers, and Alternate Sources

Long post, so... SOUNDTRACK TIME!
Hit play and start reading: Suckers: "2 Eyes 2 C"

So SMOE is talking about getting rid of its high school English teachers, which has, of course, sparked outrage and shock in all the familiar places. Talking about education in Korea is always a sure way to get tongues (or keyboard fingers) wagging, and the K-blogosphere has been true to form, with every bit of grist flying off the mill in every direction (try here, for starters). Much of what's being said now has been said before (some just a few days before) so I'd like to tie together what happened on one blog post, with some of the talk about the new SMOE decision, and toss a few ideas out there for the sake of discussion.

The Context

On Tumblr, a blog post titled (at the time) "What do Koreans Really  Think About Native English Teachers" asked one Korean. A new title helps the post make more sense, but it kicked off a storm of 80+ comments: Girl and the World probably didn't expect this. She's been conscientious about responding to comments on and off her blog (here, for example), and clearly underestimated the hornet's nest she'd stirred up. So go easy on her.

I linked this comment on her piece, which tells a story I've heard too often: awesome, dedicated, well-liked teacher... leaving Korea. There are different reasons:  bureaucracy, coworker crap, people in the street giving the stank-eye, curriculum insultingly beneath their training, coteachers embarrassingly unprepared to work with an NET, age discrimination, gender discrimination, race discrimination, a terribly low ceiling for advancement and pay increase, and even education office foreigner-handlers treating them like backpackers, idiots and criminals... bottom line: great teachers are leaving Korea. Too many great teachers are leaving Korea. And Korean education policy makers need to figure out why, and stanch the bleeding.

The Tumblr link prompted a conversation between Burndog (Korea's most famous blogger, and an indefatigable dragon-slayer in his own right) and a few others, which you can read here, here, and here. (It's a little hard to keep track of Tumblr conversations if you're not used to the format. It might be hard or confusing for all you wordpress users. Hint: scroll down.)

The Commentary

This Chosun English article has been linked the most, and it cites the cost-benefit of NETs.   That article mentions a survey: "A survey conducted for us showed that Korean teachers with outstanding English and teaching skills are more effective in the long term." If that survey is this survey... "Parents prefer 'Capable Korean Teachers' over Native Speakers" Burndog rightfully points out, no shit, sherlock. Anybody'll take an awesome capable teacher, all things being equal... but are the Korean teachers who'd replace NET's the English teachers described in the survey? Not necessarily. I want to know the wording of their description of a Native Teacher. Meanwhile, this report on that same survey gives contradictory results  -- "60 percent of students were happy with native speakers' lessons, compared to 55.3 percent said for Korean English teachers" -- so while people would like to have those mythical high-fluency, well-trained, proficient and awesome Korean English teachers... that's not who they seem to be getting.

Forming educational policy based on surveys make me uncomfortable... especially surveys that have possibly loaded questions like "Would you rather have a capable, highly fluent Korean teacher or a  foreigner who knows fuck-all about teaching in your class?" -- which probably isn't exactly how the question was phrased, but I'd nevertheless appreciate some transparency on how that survey was worded, if SMOE is going to make a radical decision like phasing out native teachers in high schools, based on it.

And really, I'd rather educational policy were developed in consultation with education experts, through analysis and research, not through populism and polls of people who know nothing about pedagogy and language learning, or who are thinking about the College Entrance Exam rather than the global marketplace, when they state their preference for Korean teachers.

January Wedding: by The Avett Brothers. I like this one. It's sweet.

The Turnover

I want to highlight I'm No Picasso's post in response to Girl And The World's interview, because most of it totally fits this topic as well. The first seven paragraphs pertain more to the "Girl and the World"  interview, so if you're not invested in that, skip it. But once INP gets into it, she's makes her point beautifully, and I recommend you go read her whole post, "On Being a Foreign Teacher"

Here are some of her best parts, but you really should go read the whole thing:

But the part that I just really cannot abide is this notion that foreign English teachers are pointless. I am so sick of hearing that, from both sides. I'm so sick of hearing foreign English teachers talk about how they are made useless in their classrooms, and I'm sick of hearing it out of the Korean media...

Take any teacher in the world in their first year of real live classroom experience. No matter their qualifications or degrees or certificates. Observe the mistakes they make, and how utterly inefficient they are bound to be at times. Now, take a group of teachers who primarily exist within that realm, and judge them by that reputation. What does that end up looking like?

If fully qualified, 100% fluent Korean English teachers were rotated in and out as quickly as foreign English teachers are, the entire system would probably be in shambles.

And it would be so amazing if Korea could afford to just kick out every inefficient foreign teacher in the mix, and carry on with some kind of imaginary abundance of grade A educators. It would also be amazing to see a lot of the terrible Korean teachers I've worked with get the boot, as well. But it's not going to happen. Because this world has more students than it does good teachers.

...come sit in on my class sometime, and I'll show you what I really do. Until then, I don't want to hear what you have to say about it anymore.

If the average Native English teacher in Korea stays less than two years, it's no surprise Native English Teaching is a mess: the first two years, and especially the first year of teaching are where people take their lumps and learn from their mistakes. Obviously, if the system is not paying enough to hire teachers with experience away from their teaching jobs elsewhere, or keeping them here once they come, we're going to get that revolving door of incompetence, near-competence, finally-competent-but-about-to-leave-and-be-replaced-by-another-incompetent.

Would paying a little more and offering full teacher status, rather than assistant teacher status, and a little job security, and maybe opportunity for promotion, really ultimately cost the system more than the recruiting and training of a constant flow of new teachers does? Hard to say. Has that possibility even been looked into?

My Questions

From here we can talk in circles for a long time (and have), here are my questions, and then my solution:

I apologize for using "Korea" here as if all Koreans and Korean bureaucrats were a monolithic, one-minded mass.

1. What are Korea's goals for having Native Teachers in high school - or any - classrooms?
(note this quote: "Personally, I think Korean teachers are more helpful in preparing for exams" - if that's their purpose, fire whitey. They'll never compare with Koreans for teaching the test.)

2. Is Korea willing to pay market value for the competitive teachers they seem to want in classrooms, and complain about not having? Enough to lure them away from their teaching jobs in other countries? I bet Saudi Arabia has some great English teachers, and keeps them for as long as those teachers are willing to live overseas, because the pay is off the hook there. So far Korea seems content to settle for warm bodies who are willing to teach for the lowest of lowballs they can offer.

3. Who are the gatekeepers choosing cheaper, less experienced and qualified teachers? Who is holding them accountable, or why are they not being held accountable? As Teachacrajy says, on NET's being blamed for ruining Korean education with their unqualifiediness: "Who the hell hired us?"

Feist: Gatekeeper

4. If native teachers disappear from high schools, how will SMOE and the Seoul government help less-advantaged kids, who can't afford hagwons (which will doubtless pick up the slack here) get exposure to native speakers of English, and the benefits that come from exposure to other cultures? Because the underprivileged are going to be the ones missing out on the Native Teacher experience (if we agree that the native teacher experience is an inherently valuable experience).

I mean, if they don't care about those benefits, just be honest enough to admit it.

My general assessment: not enough culpability is put on the gatekeepers, and in general, with English native instructors in Korea, as with anything, you get what you pay for.

My Solution (Pie in the Sky)

And finally, my solution... hold onto your hat. And to qualify: I've never taught in a public school... so you're welcome to ignore everything I say. I'll even kick off the comments to that effect.

Yes, Korea should work to retain the kickass teachers that are in the system. And incentivize teaching in such a way that it's worth it for good teachers to stay -- that they can imagine having a career, and even a family, and have a respected role in Korean society, through teaching in public schools, as Korean teachers do. Make it rigorous to qualify for that stream (it is for Korean teachers)... but make it worth the rigors. Right now, many people find the just visa rigmarole too much trouble to bother staying longer, much less think of building a life here.

Expats and native speakers should be put in charge of the curriculum native teachers have to teach, and native teachers should be training the other native teachers. What they do shouldn't be on the CSAT test, and Native English class time should be sacrosanct: you can't steal the English class to practice the school concert or do extra test prep. That there's never again a "training seminar" where a Korean bureaucrat with poor pronunciation a manual out loud, word for word, to a room full of teachers who vary from completely new to years-veteran. That part of the curriculum should be kept separate from the test stuff the Korean English teacher is doing.

And (sorry, guys, but...) yeah. Get rid of the marginal teachers. The ones who were hired because SMOE, or GEPIK, or whoever, needs to fill a quota of warm bodies. Send them back home, or into the hagwon system. If they don't have training in English, Linguistics, TESL, or Education, if they can't even spell the word "pedagogy" and they've never taught a class before, if they can't pick an intransitive verb out of a list or spot a comma splice, they have no place in Korea's public schools sullying the reputation of the teachers who are good at what they do, and give a damn.

And to fill those spaces?

Bring in trained, native speaking TESL educators from the Phillipines, from India, from the Middle-East, from English speaking countries in Africa, and other non-first-world countries. The hagwons and the demanding moms will make sure that whitey always has his/her place in Korean English education, but the variety of skin colors and accents in public schools will give kids a perspective on English as a global language that nobody in Korea gets right now, without traveling abroad. They'll probably take less pay - maybe quite a bit less - than the marginal native teachers they're replacing, and still be doing way better than the job they'd have had in the Phillipines, or India, or Nigeria (all countries with generations of first-language native English speakers), as well as teaching better than some greenear with no background in language or education... and probably act a little less entitled to boot, which I'm sure would suit the school administrators just fine. Have them be trained and managed by the kickass teachers three paragraphs ago, who'd have the power to decide that this or that school doesn't get a native instructor next year, if they start pulling funny stuff on those teachers. Rotate teachers among schools, so that students get a year of an Indian accent, a year of a Scottish accent, and a year of a Farsi accent during middle school. And make the benefits, promotions and pay available to Western teachers for being awesome, and staying, available to those teachers, too. For the same pay, once you become a manager... the system will flood with EXTREMELY good educators from those countries, pitching for that kind of a position.

Kids get the qualified teachers they want, administrators save in the budget, Korean students get a totally new look at what it really means for English to be a world language, teachers get trained and managed by people who understand their issues, and have a reason to stay longer, so that native English classes aren't so often a gong-show of first-year mistakes. Everybody wins.

And to any Ministry of Education officials who read this: you have my permission to steal my idea and take credit for it, which, as we all know, is the last element missing from this plan, in order to actually get it implemented.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

63 Years On - Screening on Sunday

I got an e-mail from a buddy named Shannon, who's a heck of a lady, and who's associated with the "House of Sharing" home for comfort women.

On Sunday, December 4, from 2-4pm in the theatre of Jogye Temple, one street over from Insadong, there's going to be a screening of a documentary film about the lives of these women, which I think you should go and see.

The poster: (click for full size)

the Facebook event page.

The press release ('coz I'm lazy)

‘Comfort women’ tell their story in a documentary film 

The documentary film “63 Years On” will be shown at a free screening at Jogyesa Temple Theatre on Sunday,  December 4th 2011.

This is an opportunity for both the Korean and International communities to further engage with the ‘Comfort women’ issue and to support the continuing fight for justice.

A brief Question & Answer session will take place after the film, an opportunity for those who wish to share their thoughts on the film and ask any questions to members of the House of Sharing’s International Outreach Team.

In this film, award-winning Korean director Kim Dong Won presents the harrowing experiences of 5 international survivors of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery during World War II. The very personal telling of their experiences is supported by excellent research and archival footage to create a powerfully honest, determined, and often heartbreaking documentary. While this gripping film may evoke great sadness and anger, the bravery displayed will truly inspire all who see it. The House of Sharing’s International Outreach Team works to raise awareness of the issue of Japanese military sexual slavery during World War II and to support the survivors, called Halmoni, in their on-going struggle for historical reconciliation and justice.  The team is composed of both foreign and local volunteers who lead English tours to the House of Sharing and the onsite Museum of Sexual Slavery by the Japanese Military.

The House of Sharing’s International Outreach Team also works to highlight continuing crimes against humanity, including the form of sexual violence during war and international sexual trafficking, that women and children across the world continue to experience on a daily basis. This screening provides a window to an episode of Asian and International history which has been willfully ignored by so many for more than 63 years. You are invited to join the House of Sharing and show your support to the survivors who continue the fight for justice.

Two Quick Bits: Crazy Tow Truck and Othering

This video of a towtruck driver trying to be the first to the accident site (and thereby winning the tow) is pretty shocking. It's making the rounds right now.

THe thing that bugs me most about it is the illegal siren: I've seen REAL ambulances caught in a snare of cars that won't pull over, because so many tow trucks and veterinarian hospital house visit vans have illegal sirens on them, that nobody trusts a siren to actually indicate a pull-over-worthy emergency...and that puts people in danger.

The Three Wise Monkeys, who have been putting out good stuff lately, has a really interesting article about "otherness" -- a topic I've been thinking about lately, and plan to write about soon.

Go read it.