Friday, February 15, 2008

Korean High School Graduation

The middle week in February (for Mokpo schools and I'm guessing everywhere else in Korea) is Graduation Week. And the pinnacle of that week is Graduation Day and the pinnacle of that day is the Graduation Ceremony, celebrating the 3 years that students have spent in high school. It's also the last requirement in my 4 days of work in February. I won't be back online until March 3rd.

I brought my little point and shoot video camera with me to document what turned out to be no more than an hour of high school pageantry. Here's what I learned:

The ceremony took place during the day, around mid-morning in the gymnasium, a fairly recent building with no heating. The floor was covered in tarp and the Grade 3 students were given the seat of honors on the main floor while the school band played the equivalent to pomp and circumstance. Grade 1 and Grade 2 students sitting in the bleachers were forced to attend, although their numbers were suspiciously low. And in select areas portable heaters were trotted out, giving places for the standing parents (and teachers) to congregate in the back of the gym. Everybody was cold.

Flowers are apparently mandatory gifts during graduation. Flowers are suitable for both boys and girls (and even teachers) but must be as Koreanly ornate as possible. Bouquets stylized along the lines of Disney Princess Prom are perfectly acceptable for all genders and ages. I couldn't figure if there's some timing involved with the presenting of flowers, some students seem to have them right from the start whereas other produced them after returning from the back of the gym and taking the snapshots of parents, students and smiling diplomas. By the end of the ceremony everybody seemed to had flowers and were proudly displaying them in the numerous camera friendship photos.

Hair is the big thing for the graduating student. Like flowers, hair is another area of great cross-gender investment. Some girls had gone the extra pretty distance, but for the guys, perm, waves, coloring, etc was all the norm and done according the current Korean trends, something I am utterly clueless about. One of my favorite students became the poster child for Korean Perm today. I'm going to make a English-Korean dictionary and put his photo under the word awesome. Okay?

The Ceremony
The ceremony itself is what you expect: classes come up on stage, get their piece of paper, and go back to their chairs. But the way that they did it is completely different from North American. I guess ceremoniously is an adjective that does not translate well from English to Korean:

And it's easy to see that same je ne sais quoi here, during the principal's speech:
This is during the principals address to the students but it's clear that the students are done. Done with school and done with him since they're all chatting about their upcoming two weeks of vacation before back to university.

Flour and Eggs
Unfortunately I missed the flour and eggs:
What was comical however was the Korean tradition (from what has been explained to me) of what the students do once they've graduated. Because theirs no offical ceremony of passing the certificate to the students, the students just show up in their uniforms....and at this point, they're "itching" to rip it off for good. So after all of the formalities are over, and the parents have gone back to the work, the students whip out......flour and eggs; Lots and LOTS of eggs. What happens next is hard to witness, as the flour somewhat blocks a clear view. However, when the "dust" settles, what you have are students covered head to toe in egg yolk, shells, and tonnes of flour everywhere - most importantly, all over their uniform.
It was only when I was in the car heading to the retiring teacher's farewell lunch that I saw the students walking along the streets with flour all over their uniform. I guess they're done with the uniforms too.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day

Valentine's day in Korean kicks off a trilogy of consumer love holidays. Now given the recent tragedy, the national sense of mourning, and the hyperbole abuse in the national media I don't know how much attention Valentine will get this year so if you've haven't experienced it in Korea you can easily use Pepero Day as a basis. It's commercially driven but without the corporate monopoly.

February 14th has a Sadie Hawkins twist where it's the women who give chocolate and other presents to the men in their lives (co-workers included). The sequel, one month later on March 14th, is White Day. There, men buy expressions of love and affection for their women, in theory returning the chocolate favors with white chocolate. And then there's the reject day on April 14th, reserved for everybody who didn't hook up to commiserate their patheticness over a bowl of 짜장면 (aka Jjajangmyeon), long noodles in a soybean sauce. Despite oozing with irony the name Black Day actually refers to the black sauce in 짜장면 instead of a westerners perception of despair. Fortunately you don't have to be single to enjoy 짜장면; it's available year round.

Valentine chocolates on the other hand are apparently becoming an endangered commodity:

The stock market plunge and concern on inflation seems to be inducing lovers to cut expenditure on Valentine's Day gifts. Imports of expensive chocolates, an icon of Valentine's Day presents for loved ones here, have decreased, substituted for by cheap candies, the Korea Customs Service said Wednesday.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Working in a Mokpo Winter

Galbijim gives Mokpo a winter temperature of -5℃ but to a foreigner who is living in Mokpo this simple statistic doesn't explain the whole story. North Americans and other westerners will probably bring an assumption to Mokpo that they will work within a heated (or aleast well insulated) work environment. That assumption is sorely misguided.

From a very unscientific survey of foreigners here it's clear that proper heat conservation is a concept foreign to Koreans. Windows are opened and promptly forgotten about. Taking off your coat is only done in the bathroom. And while your school does have heating it will only exists in certan locations, most notably not where they put you.

My office temperatures hovers around 3℃ and with my little space heater I can bump that temperature reading up to 7, maybe even 10 if I'm lucky and stand directly in front of it. But I am incapable of heating both feat on the ground and hands at the keyboard unless I curl up in a fetal position on the cold cement floor. Normally I would suck it up like I did during December, but these past couple of days have been brutal. For graduation week I was explicitly instructed to come to school despite having no classes to teach. I have nothing to do except 'prepare lessons' using facebook, gmail, and blogger.

Today my space heater was failing miserably. After a couple hours deciding which I value more, my toes or my fingers, I abandoned the space heater, my computer, and the general sad existence that is my office and headed to a known source of heat, the main staff room. There I found a little corner and started reading the book I normally save for the bus, subscribing to the illusion that I'm on call for any native speaker emergency that could rear its ugly head. Time passes and then I took it up a notch and broke out the Nintendo DS. This helped me get to lunch at which point I leave and don't come back.

End rant.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


BombEnglish is another project by the Metropolitician that offers podcasts of English conversation accompanied by a complete transcript and glossary.

I caught it on its 3rd episode, Foreign Perspectives on Korea and just this episode alone makes me want to use it. Unfortunately my students' English is not quite prime time and I feel like they won't like it unless I've some how made it into a game or bribe them with candy. On the flip side I'm sure that this would work well for my mythical teacher workshops since (at least) the teachers can study the podcast and transcript as homework and come prepared to class for comprehension activities.

I should clarify mythical: My teacher workshops are often canceled by the head of the English department despite the interest expressed to me by other teachers. The results is sporadic conversations based on chance meetings in the main staff room. On one hand I like this arrangement since it's one less thing to plan, but on the other hand my conscious is telling me I'm shirking my responsibilities as a cultural ambassador. BombEnglish is a good start in a new year's resolution to try something more structured and introduce the teachers to Korean issues faced by ex-pat community.

But regardless of my efforts the podcasts serve as excellent primers for foreigners looking to live in Korea. Podcast #3 definitely puts together something that I've felt but couldn't articulate well enough:

Michael: Exactly. And the, it’s all from perspective because no one makes policies or plans, it seems, based on looking as foreigners as people living here as opposed to “Oh, you’re all tourists! We’ll smile for you, we’ll accept your money, but we don’t think of you as neighbors.”

Jennifer: It kinds of reminds me. I grew up in Oregon and for awhile Oregon had this sort of crazy motto for the tourists. Went something along the lines of “Welcome to Oregon, have a great visit and then go home!” I’m very loosely paraphrasing it but the gist was thanks for the visit, now go on your way.

Michael: Well I think that the Korean, the Korean unstated motto is “Thanks for coming to Korea, spend a lot of money, and please leave.”

Jennifer: I don’t know that it’s so much “please leave” as it is “Eh? You would want to stay?”

Monday, February 11, 2008

Indian Education: The New New Thing

I just happen to be in India when I caught this headline over breakfast: Losing an Edge, Japanese Envy Indian Schools. The article describes the emerging Japanese opinion of India as an educational superpower to the point where Indian practices are favored over the current Japanese system.

Given that the story came out a month ago I'm surprised that I can't find any feedback about the move. There's another article from an Indian internet portal and a commentary from college newspaper site but that's about as much as Google gives me. The basic situation is something like this:

Japan, an Asian powerhouse, is losing its international engineering and math prestige to the likes of China and India. The Japanese can write off China as being that wacky idea communist military country across the sea, but India is a unknown maverick and harder to excuse. A former colony turned democratic power that has surpassed Japan in crucial (i.e. lucrative) knowledge industries is in sharp contrast with Japan's image of India being stuck on the short bus and it's only now that Japanese are recognizing the discrepancy. The solution is to use the ancient India teaching ways to help Japan regain it's edge in the Asian world.

There are some finer details in the article though that are worth examining. The education in questions is only engineering and math and the magical education systems seems to differ only slightly from previous systems that focused on memorization. In fact the ancient Indian secret is to just start the kids younger, faster, and harder--and Japan is doing it, albeit at a specific school in some suburb:

Most annoying for many Japanese is that the aspects of Indian education they now praise are similar to those that once made Japan famous for its work ethic and discipline: learning more at an earlier age, an emphasis on memorization and cramming, and a focus on the basics, particularly in math and science.

India’s more demanding education standards are apparent at the Little Angels Kindergarten, and are its main selling point. Its 2-year-old pupils are taught to count to 20, 3-year-olds are introduced to computers, and 5-year-olds learn to multiply, solve math word problems and write one-page essays in English, tasks most Japanese schools do not teach until at least second grade.
Anther point is the erosion of Japan's nationalism, almost as if the international pressures are forcing it to acknowledge systems outside of the itself:
But in the last few years, Japan has grown increasingly insecure, gripped by fear that it is being overshadowed by India and China, which are rapidly gaining in economic weight and sophistication. The government here has tried to preserve Japan’s technological lead and strengthen its military. But the Japanese have been forced to shed their traditional indifference to the region.

Grudgingly, Japan is starting to respect its neighbors.

“Until now, Japanese saw China and India as backwards and poor,” said Yoshinori Murai, a professor of Asian cultures at Sophia University in Tokyo. “As Japan loses confidence in itself, its attitudes toward Asia are changing. It has started seeing India and China as nations with something to offer.”
Notebook has an interesting take on the matter:
The up shot to this scare is the realization that maybe Japan was too arrogant, too full of national pride, to recognize that their close-mindedness shut out new ideas from other cultures. This could push Japan into opening its immigration program to include incentives for other ethnics to come in and contribute.
Now where have I heard of external pressures challenging a nation's (maybe) racist and xenophobic policies? But really, after re-examining this article it seems that Japan is just 'Riding the Indian Wave' or more precisely, some Japanese people who do like to ride waves are now riding an Indian one. I suspect that a Japanese take on Indian education will not find solid ground in mainstream Japanese education and won't be the magical cure-all for Japan's lagging test results.

My up shot to this article is that, like the circumstance behind Korean's influx of foreign brides, this article does describe another facet of a monocultural society dealing with an economically forced multiculturalism. So while importing Indian education techniques may be written off as a fad, the fad's simple existence creates an interesting footnote in some larger study on emerging multiculturalism in monocultural societies. Maybe I'll get around to writing that someday.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Great Korean Bank Customer Service Questionnaire

I've mentioned once or twice in the past about my frustration with Korean banks, but the JoongAng Daily has recently confirmed what I've largely suspected: Korea banks have separate and discriminatory policies when dealing with foreigners living in Korea:

According to Lee, each local bank has different policies on issuing cards. Some banks issue the debit card without any restriction on foreigners while others limit the amount of money a foreigner can withdraw with the card to 10,000 dollars on a given trip out of the country. Many banks simply won’t issue any debit card to foreigners.
While researching this article I came across a KEB survey via Korea4Expats. It's a real nice effort and explains why the bank was tied for first place in Teaching Kimchi's bank poll. However I'm still sold on CitiBank for it's almost scary global dominance.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


설날 (aka Seollal) is on the 1st day of the 1st month of the lunar calendar and is may be more recognizable as Lunar New Year in Korea. Like Chuseok, the pre and post days are also included in the holiday and all are family intensive days that drives every Korean to return home in a country wide mass migration. The celebrated ghost towns phenomenon is in full effect and so it's a great time to wander the streets and see some sites, provided they're open.

But it's also the day where all Koreans age a year:

Several East Asian cultures, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, share a traditional way of counting a person's age. Newborns start at one year old, and each passing of a New Year, rather than the birthday, adds one year to the person's age; this results in people being between 1–2 years older in Asian reckoning than in the Western version. Today this system is commonly used in Koreans' daily life, with exceptions to the legal system and newspaper.
So happy birthday, Korean people.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Incheon Airport to Mokpo Bus

If, after you're done escaping Mokpo, you actually want to get back here, the easiest way is to grab the same Korean Komfort Mokpo to Incheon Airport bus, except in the other direction. It's the same deal at ₩33,600 (plus ₩2,000 booking fee) per seat, except that now your two choices Mokpo choices leave Incheon Aiport at:

  • 8:40 am
  • 6:20 pm
And again, if you miss the Mokpo bus you can always catch the more frequent bus to Gwangju.

I thought that Kumho, the people responsible for the buses leaving Mokpo, would also be responsible for the buses leaving the airport. But there's no airport option on their website. Instead there's Airportbus where tickets can be bought in a pimp-like fashion that explains the extra ₩2,000 service charge.

The Airportbus site is only in Korean and the routes and fees table seems to only care about major routes, i.e. Mokpo is missing but the information for Gwangju (광주) is accurate. The color coded words at the top of the table (일반, 우등 and 심야 ) translate into general, superior, and late night services, and demand different prices. There is a schedule posted at the airport, photographed and included here for your planning pleasure:

Update: There is an English Schedule maintained by the Airport itself. It's simple to use and presents Mokpo is a nice little table & map combination.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Google Reader

I've had some questions about my blog roll, that list of blogs in the side column of the page. Mine is different and some people like it and want to use the same style. Unfortunately I can't take credit for the style since the blog roll is generated by my Google Reader account.

Since I set this blog up I've come to fully embrace our Google overlords. I search with Google, I blog with Google, I translate with Google, I even schedule, map, mail, and chat with Google,
and thanks to $1.65Bn I now use Google to watch naughty videos. I'm starting to wonder if I have a problem -- I mean with Google, not with watching naughty videos. And of course, I use Google Reader as my news reader to keep track of other blog-sandboxes that deal with with Mokpo, Seoul, and other parts of Korean life.

As a news reader in itself Google Reader is okay and has some faults. But it works well for me since I'm a big fan of thin client computing; I use the same application over multiple computers during the course of the day and don't want the hassle of re-synching (or re-installing) every time I log on. Another feature (and the one that connects Google Reader to my side panel) is the 'add a blogroll to your site' function that spits out code that you can add to a blank panel in your blog layout. The only extra work that I've done is to organize blogs into various categories by tagging them with labels, like Mokpo, Korea, Seoul, etc.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Happy Together

Ms Parker sums up all of the cliche elements of Korean TV perfectly. I've talked about some examples in the past but I good one is a show that I've been calling the The Five Stooges since it seems to always involve the same collection of wacky Korean men performing mild, jackass-light stunts. I finally watched enough of it today to catch a commercial break and learned its true name, Happy Together. Apparently it's gone through various incarnations over the years:

The hosts('MC's', called by Korean popular culture) of Season 1 were comedian Shin Dong-yeop (신동엽), once K-pop artist Yoo Sung-jun (유승준), who was quickly replaced by entertainer Lee Hyo-ri (이효리). Later in 2003, the two were replaced by comedian Kim Je-dong (김제동), and comedian Yu Jae-seok (유재석), who continued the run till the end.

In Season 2 (Happy Together Friends), it was hosted by Yoo Jae Suk, entertainer Tak Jae Hoon (탁재훈) and Kim Ah-joong (김아중). Tak Jae Hoon and Kim Ah Joong was replaced by Lee Hyo-ri, and comedian Lee Soo-geun (이수근, served as a joint panel) came along later. In 2007, Lee Hyo-ri was replaced by K-pop singer Eugene (유진), and Lee Soo-geun was replaced by comedian Shin Bong-seon (신봉선).

In Season 3 (Happy Together: Let's Go To School; which the name was changed to Happy Together Season 3), it was hosted by Yu Jae-seok, comedian Park Myeong-su (박명수, a long-time colleague of Yu Jae-seok since co-hosting the Muhan Dojeon), actor Park Joon-kyu (박준규), and Shin Bong-seon. Recently, Park Joon-kyu has left the show.
I actually found part of the episode that I was watching, where the five stooges and special guest friends play the game where they are trapped in a sauna and must karaoke their way to freedom:

Or this game where they all are forced to where school girl uniforms and karaoke their way to freedom:

Or this game where they are all forced to karaoke their way to freedom from the dreaded falling platters from the sky:

And of course there are fan sites.

Friday, February 1, 2008


Wow. There are people reading this blog from outside my circle of, well, me.

The public education teachers in Jeollanam-do province are in the middle of their winter break, something that looks like two weeks paid vacation on paper but is really one or two months depending on the individual school's discretionary usage of their native speaker. Fortunately I'm one of the lucky ones; I've been away in India, backpacking since the end of Christmas, and I'm back to fulfill my February commitment of three working days. Then the new terms starts in March.

I was contemplating a quick hop over to China, but the weather may put a hold on those plans.