Monday, July 28, 2008

Korea: Where Creepy is Not Actually Creepy

It’s omnipresent. Every time I step outside of my apartment and into the public eye, somebody is going to be staring at me. Probably multiple people will try to bore holes through me with their eyes. It’s similar to the degree of staring one might entice back in Canada Land were they to parade out of their house naked. In December. Sweaters, hats, sunglasses – none of it reduces the degree of eye rape that I endure. Conservative dressing has been known to reduce the number of creepy men that follow me around the subway platform, so it’s not a complete waste. Still. I long for the day that I can dress for 30 degree weather with humidity as if it’s actually 30 degrees and humid, and not leave the apartment adorned in a sweater and long pants.

Somebody somewhere would probably like me to point out that in Korea, one doesn’t have to be a menacing sexual predator to knowingly eye rape you or follow you around the subway platform. They’re just curious! And staring like it’s the last sight you’ll ever take in is socially acceptable here. Still. Twenty five years of conditioning has led me to immediately be suspicious of and disgusted by all individuals who stare at you like you’re tonight’s dinner, who refuse to let up after you’ve made it clear that their level of creepdom has been noted. It’s led to me being unable to deal with this behaviour on a daily basis without offering up the occasional retort.

Somebody somewhere would probably like me to know that retorting to the barrage of eye rape that I endure from the locals is socially unacceptable behaviour in Korea, and that I’m an appallingly rude foreigner with whom they would be embarrassed to be associated with. They wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. It is rude for me to retort here, especially to an older man. But I’m not sorry.

Somebody somewhere would probably be upset to find that I have something negative to say about Korea. They may feel that I’m being culturally ignorant, and that I clearly fail to understand the intricacies of Korean culture. While there are undoubtedly many things that I don’t quite get, I understand this particular aspect just fine; I merely think that it’s fucked up. Also, my bitchiness is not saved just for Korea. I have negative and positive things to say about everywhere I’ve been. I could do up a blog about why Canada sucks, and I probably will once I’m living there again. Where I’m living is the key here. I currently live in Korea. Hence, I bitch about Korea. At length. Some things about Korea are nice. But some things are terribly, terribly broken. That acting like a menacing sexual predator is considered socially acceptable is inexplicably fucking broken.

Somebody somewhere would probably like to opine that my definition of what constitutes menacing sexual predator behaviour is culturally bound, and that it’s ignorant of me to apply in Korea. This isn’t entirely incorrect. My concept of what is absolutely fucking creepy was formed in a culture that is very different from this one. In no way does this refute my assertion that this particular aspect of Korean culture is broken. In Canada, I’m expected to award even the most abysmal restaurant service with a tip. For me to leave nothing at all is considered by many to be rude. This aspect of Canadian culture is broken. It’s slightly less offensive to me than living in a world where menacing sexual predator behaviour is considered acceptable, but it’s broken nonetheless. Just because something has become culturally ingrained, doesn’t negate it from being totally fucked up.

I regularly wonder what behaviour, exactly, does one have to exhibit for your average Korean to sit back and think “Jesus fuck, hide the children!”? Aside from, “gee, they don’t look like they’re from around here”, of course. Because apparently all the indicators that give me the desire to flee in terror (some combination of: menacing staring, stalking, uninvited touching, unkempt appearance, and stumbling drunkenness) don’t apply here. Yet, if my students carrying rape whistles is any indication, apparently there is some code here which determines what creeps the locals out.

When I return to Canada Land, I will do so with my ability to use a butter knife seriously compromised. I will be confused when rice is not served at breakfast, saddened by the expense of public transit, and unsure as to how to work a dryer. I will not, however, have lost my desire to flee from those that creep me the fuck out. For this I can thank my inability to accept that broken aspect of Korean culture whereby acting like you might be a menacing sexual predator is A-Ok.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Flashing Lights: The New Bad Man Repellant

I’ve been a little lax on the posting lately. This is primarily because, while I’ve been keeping track of everything in the old fashioned paper and pen way, I’ve been too lazy to continue thinking once I get home. That and I’ve been a little cranky and pathetic recently, making my ability to complete projects even more crap than usual. Sniffle. I chalk this up to the exhaustion that comes with passing through my 34th I Hate Korea Phase. It will pass. Maybe.

A while back, my students began showing up at school with orange plastic doohickeys dangling from shoelace necklaces. They were too ugly to have caught on as a trendy Must Have, even for here, so I assumed that they must serve some sort of function. My suspicions arose further when I saw that if one of the students threatened to pull the cord that dangled from the bottom of the orange plastic blob, the others would cover their ears and grimace, as if something loud and terrible was about to occur. Clearly my new goal for the day was not to persuade my students from saying “change-y”, but to find out what the loud and terrible was.

Given that the students were reluctant to share the loud and terrible with one another, it was going to take a little effort on my part to get to the bottom of this. At least, that’s what I thought. Then I remembered that some of my students are 8, which usually makes being tricky a practice in futility. After the first few students merely giggled uncomfortably when I asked them what was with the orange doohickeys, one of my younger introductory level students decided that he would let me into the loop. He pretended to pull the cord, then waved his hands around and made a beeping noise. I asked why he needed this, and he proceeded to look embarrassed and giggled like the rest of the class. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that one of my students finally provided me with the why: “Teacher, there are bad men”.

Right. Of course! Half of my students had taken to wearing what were essentially rape whistles. The exact same model. I later learned that the hand waving my student had done during his demonstration was meant to indicate that there are red lights on the side which flash when the cord is pulled, presumably because Bad Men are known to be scared of flashing lights.

I feel much better for my student’s safety having learned this.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Student Requests Wham!; Teacher Obliges

Two things happened today. Independent of one another, each event may have been considered terrible. In combination, what resulted can only be described as magical.

First, Al Student decided that there was no time like when Rebecca Teacher was rambling on about plurals to request music. “Rebecca Teacher, you know that song… that song, with the… you know...” Al Student stands up and proceeds dancing at this point, to illustrate the soundtrack that is looping in his mind. I stare at him blankly. Al Student has a penchant for interrupting me with randomness which is rarely relevant to the lesson but is almost always related to English class in some way, so I tend to give him a pass on these distractions. Al Student is frustrated that the music hasn’t moved from his mind to reality, and stops dancing. “Rebecca, you know… wake me up before you go…. Go?”

As it turns out, today was Al Student’s lucky day. I assured him that I knew it and waved him over to my desk. I pulled my MP3 player out of my desk, cued up my copy of Wham!, and told Al Student to listen. Al Student began dancing again. “Teacher, song is so exciting!” I smiled and nodded. I wrote “Wham!” on the board and asked why on earth he knew that song. He told me that he had no idea and went back to dancing.

The other students had started playing tic tac toe during this exchange, totally oblivious to the awesomeness of The Wham! Experience.

Reflecting on this later, a couple of things beg explanation. To start, of all the songs that Al Student could possibly have had floating in his head… Wham!’s ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.’? Really? Is there a nifty new Korean computer game that sports this as its theme song? Because not only would that explain everything: that would be awesome. Let’s just say it’s that; any other explanation would compare inadequately at this point. With that solved, there is a second question: why on earth is Wham! readily available on my MP3 player? I’m reminded of the time that I was rocking out to the theme to Jesus Christ Superstar on the subway one day. My friend looked at me, horrified, and asked: “Why?” After responding with the obligatory, “Why wouldn’t you have Jesus Christ Superstar on your MP3 player”, I advised her that I thought it was ridiculous, ridiculous things make me happy, so I had added it for purposes of immediate ecstasy. A short time after that, I retired Jesus Christ Superstar and found room for Wham! Everybody wins: Me. Al Student. Wham.

Of course, next time somebody takes a listen through my MP3 player and says something like “Rebecca… Will Smith? Really?” I can save myself some shame and claim that one of my students requested it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

And Then Things Got A Little Lispery.

It was bound to happen sooner or later: The dreaded pronunciation lesson. Nearly 9 months of teaching and I’d managed to avoid it. But it had never entirely left my mind; I knew it was coming.

I finish my week early Friday evening with a couple of our most advanced students. They’re well behaved and actually like learning, so I enjoy my time with them. One of the required activities in each unit at their level is a review of basic pronunciation of (and ability to differentiate between) similar English sounds. The students are provided with three sentences, each missing two words. The missing words are a pair which contain similar English sounds (thigh/sigh, Sue/Zoo, etc.). The objective is to listen to a CD rhyme the sentences off and fill the correct word in each blank, then read the sentences back to me. Given the level of these student's English, the activity is fairly elementary and bordering on ridiculous. Hence, I usually pass on simply playing the CD and instead try to build conversation topics out of the material provided; a challenge when the sentences are often even less intelligible than “She let out a sigh as she cut the chicken thigh”.

The aforementioned sentence brings me to Friday’s pronunciation activity, which focused on differentiating between “s” and “th”. Given that I don’t properly differentiate between those sounds myself, my teaching this lesson as usual would have ineffective; hilarious, but ineffective, inappropriate, and probably unprofessional. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said either “mouse” or “mouth” in context relevant to the lesson during one of my other classes, only to have a student think that I said the other one and end up horribly confused. I’m perfectly happy lisping my way through the English language; I just have enough sense not to intentionally teach a generation of Korean students to develop my speech impediment. It’s been pointed out to me that many of them are going to do it anyways, on account of it being difficult to produce such a subtle difference in sound that apparently doesn’t exist in their own language. Still. Some of my students have an excellent ear for language, and it would be wrong of me to teach them incorrectly for no better reason than my own amusement.

It pained me to do it. I couldn’t go through my usual turn-the-pronounciation-lesson-into-a-discussion plan. I really didn’t want to do it. But I took one look at the lesson, which clearly stated “Differentiating between ‘s’ and ‘th’” and enthusiastically spurted: “Yeah, that’s not going to happen... Today we’re going to do something fun and different and listen to the CD!” My two students looked very confused. I didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth: that Barbie Teacher sounds much like a 5 year old.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Quite Possibly the Worst Student Nickname Ever

It is common for Korean students at hagwons to adopt English nicknames. There may be several really fantastic reasons for this, but so far I’ve uncovered just two. First of all, every single one of my Korean co teachers has told me that they adopt English nicknames so that the foreign teacher has an easier time learning the student’s names. I’ve always thought this was a terrible reason, as it discourages us from learning the student’s real names; while I don’t necessarily link names to identities, I do consider them important. It also effectively eliminates what would otherwise be an excellent chance to improve our Korean. Korean names are, to simplify, composed of Korean sounds. Being forced to verbalize them on a daily basis would improve both our accent and our ear for the language. It’s from this frustration that I’ve deduced a second reason for the adoption of English nicknames: English nicknames are composed of English sounds. Any venture that requires English students to practice English sounds is a worthy one. Even if it results in unintentional hilarity that really ought to be embarrassing for everybody involved.

It’s not uncommon for the students, or their Korean English Teacher, to select an English nickname that nobody in the English speaking world would ever assign to a human being. For example, just the other day one of my students stopped short of begging me to switch his nickname from “Howard” to “Genesis”. I looked at him quizzically and asked, “The beginning of what, exactly?” Howard Student looked confused. After explaining to him what his desired name meant, he agreed that this was less than awesome. As further illustration, one of my students has been assigned the name Gate. Apparently his mother insisted that he be named after Bill Gates and somebody dropped the ball on either naming him “Bill” or “Gates”. While even “Gates” would be adequately stupid to suffice a mention here, seriously: why drop the “s”? Now, instead of carrying the name of a millionaire dweeb, he’s represented by the word for a movable barrier which covers an opening. We may as well just rename him Hymen.

It’s also not unheard of for the students, or their Korean English teacher, to select an English nickname that nobody in the English speaking world would assign to another human being. That is to say, that they may select the name of an individual who happens to be infamous rather than famous. And this unfortunate hopefully-not-a-growing-trend brings us to what I intend to be a weekly supplement, but probably won’t on account of Total Laziness: Student Name of The Week. I informally polled a number of my friends, and while I should probably save the best for last, I simply can’t sleep another night knowing that I’m withholding this level of Absolute Awesome from the world. Of course, by "the world", I mean the 5 of you who actually read this far. So, without further adieu, I share with you the best English nickname ever; and by "best", I do mean worst: R. Kelly Student.

No, seriously.

R. Kelly Student.

Yeah, that R. Kelly.

Take a few moments to digest that, if need be. It really doesn’t get any better. There is absolutely no reasonable explanation for this. Somewhere along the line, somebody dropped the ball. Huge. And the end result is that some prepubescent kid in Korea has named himself after a suspected pedophile. Yes, R. Kelly was recently acquitted on all counts of diddling. That doesn’t make this okay.

Thankfully, R. Kelly Student is not one of my own. If he were, I would spend my days in class with him wondering if he had any idea that R. Kelly was suspected of diddling. It would dawn on me that perhaps the kid knew and thought he was pulling a hilarious prank. Or worse, he knew and felt that R. Kelly was a real man’s man; a role model, even. Here, I start to feel queasy. But it gets worse. Much worse. I realize eventually that it’s quite likely that neither the student nor his Korean Teachers have any idea that R. Kelly is a suspected diddler; that R. Kelly Student simply fell in love with the “music” of R. Kelly and decided to honour his idol. The idea that somebody might feel that moved by R. Kelly’s “musical works” might actually be more upsetting than the possibility that we have a future diddler on our hands.

When I get to about this point in this line of thought, I start to convulse and try to forget that this ever happened.

But it did.