Alex in Asia

Month: December, 2013

Schooling and a Theory

There is something about the Korean educational system that seems to evoke well-meaning condescension in every westerner that comes across it. The issue—for the 99% of you who are unfamiliar with the Korean schooling ethos—basically comes down to memorization. Korean students memorize a lot, as in almost exclusively. They don’t so much teach to the test—a term that implies that there is some idea beyond the test that it is intended to measure—as they teach the test itself. The test doesn’t measure knowledge; it defines it.

There is a great enthusiasm and reverence for tests here. A lot of career paths are guarded by infamously difficult exams, like so many trolls patrolling so many bridges. If you manage to pass one of these exams, for instance the foreign service exam, your life can more or less be considered successful. If you pass two of them, you are obviously destined for greatness. Three, and you’re a legend.

Backtracking a bit, all the memorization and test prep tends to crowd out the things that are near and dear to my liberal-arts-majoring-heart: critical thinking, analysis, understanding concepts, and so on. Believe me when I say I’m not trying to fight the system. I have yet to walk into class and set the textbook on fire.  This is not the story of a dedicated teacher risking his career to inspire his students—white saviors are a bit old fashioned anyway. Theirs not to reason why, right? I do what I’m told.

Besides, who says they have it wrong? Koreans do tend to kick our American asses on standardized tests, and they more than hold their own when they go to American colleges. This is the part when someone says, “yes, but did you know that there are, like, zero Korean Nobel prize winners! Their approach fails to promote creativity!” Because creativity is generally considered something that can be taught in schools, and most (if not all) great artists credit their primary school educations with providing the impetus for their later work. In all fairness though, the above straw-man has a point. Creativity and innovations are somewhat lacking in the country. Samsung copies Apple. Much of Korean cuisine is highly derivative of Japanese/Chinese dishes. Fine. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame the schools, and luckily for the people who are still reading (hi mom! How are the pups?), I am prepared to put forth an alternative theory.

By the way, this is my own particular brand of well-meaning condescension. I never said I was immune.

Korea is a country that values conformity. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Korea is not a country that values nonconformity, but either way you get the idea. Individualism and nonconformity are so ingrained in the American psyche that we just assume they must be universally considered positive qualities. Not so in Korea. Maybe it’s the Confucianism history, or maybe it’s the ethnic, racial and cultural homogeneity,  or maybe it’s something else, but it’s definitely there. Just to give an example, I saw a commercial the other day that featured an entire city, dressed in the same clothes, singing and holding hands. I kept waiting for the twist, like when that blonde girl in the orange shorts broke the screen in that apple commercial from the 80s, but it didn’t come. It was an ad for a bank.

SIDE NOTE: Before I go on, yes I realize that there is a lot of conformity in America. Yes, the ideals of nonconformity, individuality and “being yourself” are often used to sell people the same clothes and music that everyone else wears and listens to, but the important part is that they are selling points, so shut up. You never read a children’s book or watch a movie (or even see a commercial) where the moral of the story is to do your best to fit in.  Sensibilities would be offended.

Innovation, meanwhile, is a fundamentally rebellious act, rugged individualism taken to its practical extreme. Before you reinvent the wheel or discover a new way to measure the age of ink, you have to start with the assumption that not only is the old, accepted way of doing things wrong, but that you can do better. For all our other faults, this is a notion that comes easily to Americans, who are taught to sneer at tradition, but not Koreans, who learn to revere both their elders and the way things have always been done.

OK, the sermon is over. Most of that is probably wrong, or worse, unoriginal, but there it is. I hope everyone understands I’m not trying to say “hey Korea, your doing it wrong.” I’m just processing my experiences the only way I know how, by comparing them to what know.  If anyone wants to talk about it, or maybe just compliment me, email me @

Anyway, hope the think piece wasn’t too boring, and I promise next time I’ll just tell a funny story about going out and drinking with the locals. Until then, bye, and  have a great new years for me. I will be working 9 AM on January 1st


Alien Registration and Moral Relativism

            The South Korean government is not concerned with the convenience of foreigners. I got a visa before I came, but for me to do anything that would leave a paper trail—opening a bank account, getting a cell phone—I need something called an Alien Registration Card, and to get an ARC, I need to do all sorts of different things. The school where I work has a guy to walk me through the process, so my job has mostly been to show up, decipher a lot of hand gestures and pointing by Korean-speaking bureaucrats, and pass a drug and health test.


            There was no reason I should be worried about any of this. I’m in reasonably good health as long as no one makes me run, and I knew the drug test was coming so I was sure to be on my best behavior for the ninety days prior to my flight—but still. Some part of me was sure that twenty-four-plus years of hedonism, amorality, and degeneracy would catch up with me, that even though my blood and urine might be clean, some part of me would still carry the detectable traces of every questionable decision I have ever made, every “why not” and “maybe just one more.” I assumed like this whole process was meant to weed out people like me, to ensure that young Korean minds would be entrusted to only the most upstanding of citizens—something I have never, ever been accused of being. In short, I thought I was going to pay for my crimes, both real and imagined.


            And yet… nothing. I passed. They let me in. The ARC is in the mail, and soon I will be on the grid and in the system and officially legitimized by the power of the Senate and People of South Korea


            Obviously this called for a celebration.


            So in keeping with the tradition of exonerated criminals everywhere, I went and got drunk. Since It will still be a few more days before I am eligible for cell phone ownership, and since some cursory knocking on a few friendly doors went unanswered, I went off on my own to Commune’s.


            A quick digression on drink prices: one whiskey will cost you about as much as a three course meal, which is still only about $7 American. Imported beers are equally expensive, and Korean beer makes a Keystone taste like ambrosia. Wine is just about the one thing in this whole city that costs more than it does in the states, with a bottle of Yellowtail—you know, the one with the kangaroo label—going for $15 American at your nearest 7/11. The most popular drink is something called Soju. It is about 40 proof, comes in 12 oz bottles, and tastes like Smirnoff Ice mixed with rubbing alcohol and the tears of children. Just vile, awful stuff.  I usually go with whiskey, and maybe an imported beer or two for variety.


I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Jameson, neat, and started talking to the guy sitting next to me. Stefan was 30, Canadian, and a veteran expat, having already completed a one year teaching contract. He could tell right away that I was new—I wasn’t drunk enough (yet) to lose the self-conscious stoop in my shoulders signifying my status as a unwrapped, fresh-off-the-boat Americano—and invited me to tag along with a group of locals and fellow expats.  I have to go teach soon, so I’ll just give you the bullet points.


There are a lot of little pop-up bars that serve “bag drinks,” which are drinks that come in, you guessed it, plastic bags. They are usually the about the size of a walk-in closet, covered floor to ceiling in neon graffiti. There is a straw involved as well.


I really have to do a whole post just on dating in Korea, but really the best way to think of it is to take the sexual mores and gender equality of the 1950s, then add cell phones. It is, in a lot of ways, a deeply misogynistic country, full of things that can make a liberal westerner start to squirm a bit. Late in the night, one of the local girls in our group  got aggressively hammered, and her friends—both male and female—encouraged me to seize this opportunity to hook up with her. They were earnestly perplexed when I refused, and couldn’t understand why I would have a problem with it. The usual disclaimers apply: this was a group of people not necessarily representative of blah blah blah, you get the idea.


Honestly, I’ve thought a lot about that moment: not just the way this girl’s friends offered her up to me, trussed and prepared like a sacrifice to the American lust gods, but about my condemnation of the act, and the sense of moral superiority it gave me. I’m keeping an open mind about everything I see and experience, and I know I have no real right to judge a culture and people that are not my own. I’m just a tourist, really, and guests don’t make the rules. But on the other hand, some things are just objectively wrong—like nonconsensual sex. If I had touched that girl, it would have been rape. If someone else touched that girl later in the night—which I didn’t witness, but unfortunately seems kind of likely—it would have been rape, too. I can’t explain all the different ways I don’t want to be a missionary, saving the souls of the barbarous locals via forced baptism into the church of the secular humanist. I’m really all for moral relativism, but there are limits.


Here is the place where I draw a conclusion, where I reconcile the part of me that is fascinated with the country with the part that is repulsed by it. But I got nothing.  I’m sorry if this was a little dark, but I figure I might as well write the things that are on my mind.


I’m still loving it here, and it’s been, on the whole, a fun and exciting first week.


Peace and Love friends

The City and Alex Finds a Bar



Daegu (or Taegu. One is the new spelling, the other is the old, not sure which is which) is the third largest city in Korea, and looks like what would happen if Joseph Stalin got drunk one night and let his mildly handicapped nephew design a shining new Soviet metropolis, then sobered up and stopped the project halfway through. There are two kinds of streets, large, four-lane main roads and side streets, which are like alleys, only it’s possible to walk through an alley without getting run over by a mid-sized Kia. The side streets are straight, narrow, and arranged seemingly at random. Sometimes, you can detect the faintest trace of a grid, only to have it interrupted by a street cutting through at an oblique diagonal.  Koreans also maintain a strong cultural taboo against street signs, agreeing only to name, number or label the most major roads, and probably not even those without a lot of polite but insistent complaining.


            It is an ugly city by day. Everything (except the coffee shops) is marred by corrosion, and the bright colors of the storefronts are faded, like cake frosting without enough food coloring. The architecture really does look Soviet. Most of the buildings are squat, square and concrete, with the occasional gleaming skyscraper only serving to make its neighbors even less impressive by comparison.


            At night, though, it becomes something else entirely. If you are standing outside at just the right time, you can see the neon lights flick on one by one all up and down the street, and you almost expect the cars to start flashing their headlights in solidarity with their suddenly beautiful city. In an instant, the drab, sun-starved tangle of thoroughfares and alleyways transforms into a Technicolor retro-futurist acid trip. And the people change, too.


            During the day, most Koreans dress like they spent the previous night studying mismatched scraps from an LL Bean catalogue. There are sports coats, there is tweed, and by god there are sweater vests, none of which do a particularly good job of matching anything else a person might be wearing. But at night, like vampires, the freaks come out to play: K-pop wannabes with androgynous clothes and faces, hair bleached and teased into elaborately impractical polygons, girls in shiny white thigh-high boots and mini-dresses, showing off the specific stretch of thigh for which Korean men have a particular affinity (there’s a name for it, but it escapes me), and couples walking and holding hands in matched sailor costumes (I know). It’s spectacular.


            It may be early, and I usually try to avoid this type of commitment, but I think I found my favorite bar. Two nights ago, I went out to dinner with Molly (southern bell, sad she went home), Nicole (engaged to a local boy, apparently difficult to pry away from him), and Eliza (a wonderful blend of fun aunt and kindly grandma, a surrogate for whichever female relative you happen to miss the most at that moment) as a sort of farewell party for Molly. After dinner we went to a place called Commune’s. I’ll try to describe it.


            The bartender, Hen-Shi, speaks fluent English, though Commune’s isn’t like Traveler’s, which primarily caters to expats and has a website where you can vote on which football game they’ll show on tape delay that night. Commune’s attracts a nice mix of locals, Americanos, and, for whatever reason, Slovakians, all of whom coexist in peace and drunken harmony. The décor would make a Brooklyn dive proud—thousands of old records line the bar, and the walls are covered with vintage posters of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and all their friends. That night Hen-Shi played great music and showed us pictures of his trip to China, everything from the Great Wall to skewers of spiders and scorpions sold by street vendors as delicacies (EWGROSSEWGROSSEWEWEWWWWW). We talked, we laughed, we drank, and even made some abortive attempts at dancing. It didn’t quite feel like home, but that would defeat the purpose of leaving. Ill just give it the best compliment you can give a bar, and drink there again tonight.


            Bye for now, and more to come

Welcome to Daegu

OK, Korea. Alright then.


            I wish there was a first thing I noticed, something so immediately and insistently different that I just had to share it right away. But there isn’t. Instead, things are different here in a million little ways that add up to something completely alien.

           They don’t do sizes in coffee shops. If you want a coffee or a latte, you get one small 8 OZ cup no matter what. It’s pretty expensive, at least compared to everything else. I just got back from lunch, where I had a bowl of udon noodle soup with fried tofu, a sushi roll (they don’t call it sushi, which is something different, but there was seaweed, rice and crab) and a drink, which came out to under $6 American, or 5,600 Won. A coffee will run you about as much as an American Starbucks, but when you can get a three course meal for the same amount, it starts to feel pretty steep.

            Also, no tipping. They don’t tip here. Some restaurants, but by no means all, will leave a tip jar on the bar, but tipping for service is neither required nor expected. I still feel guilty dropping a 10,000 Won bill for a 9,500 Won meal then waiting for change, but the one time I tried to leave something on the table the waiter ran after me and gave it back. Oh well, when in Rome I guess.

The Koreans are largely friendly, though there is a definite strain of xenophobia in the country. They have spent their entire history as a consolation prize in the endless war between China and Japan, with each country taking turns occupying the peninsula in accordance with a rise or fall in their military fortunes. The Japanese had them last, and there is still a lot of bitterness about WW2 around here. Some of my students have helpfully explained the perils of trusting the inherently devious Japanese, and none of them particularly like the half Japanese kid in the class, the poor guy.

Their work ethic is incredible, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about it later, but for now I’ll just let everyone know that the Korean people have collectively discovered a miraculous new synthetic material. It is harder than diamond or quartz, and completely resistant to any pressure applied to it. Instead of using this new material to enhance their space program, or even as a form of body armor, they have decided to make their mattresses out of it. I can only assume that they mistrust a comfortable night’s sleep, regarding it as a gateway to sloth and idleness.

I’m going to have to save most of my cultural observations for later, since it’s almost time for me to head to work and do my part to mold young Korean minds. I’ll only say that I am exploring and learning new things each day. I have been spending a lot of time with my predecessor, Molly a 23-year-old Tennesseean (Tennesseeite? Tenneseeian? She’s from Tennessee) who is basically straight out of central casting as the sweet, pretty southern girl. She leaves tomorrow, and I will definitely miss her.


Goodbye everyone, and more to come

Alex in Asia

Wait until I get there for updates