seams of organic matter

On the way to school today I ran into a funeral party. A man in a suit, about 15 years older than me, was carrying a child and weeping uncontrollably. He was followed by women in hanbok. I guess here in the country they still wear traditional white for funerals, unlike the black you see in Seoul. It registered as odd, so early in the morning; no cemetery nearby.

Later, my co-teacher uncharacteristically shared some news with me. “Did you hear?” (as if) “They found bodies behind the school!”

My first thought was “Great. I guess I’ve been too cavalier, walking home from the subway at night. Only to hear, “They were from the 50’s though.”

So, these mountains are still spewing forth remains of the war. And sons of men missing in action are grieving fresh wounds, while the deceased’s parents have long been interred.

The chilling sound of shovels scraping the earth has been going on all day long, as crews of young infantry turn all the ground around the school searching for any further remains.


This past weekend I went with a friend to a lecture on the history of military camptown prostitution. The U.S. military’s representative made a point to condemn the exploitation of E-6 (entertainment class) Visa workers who migrated/were brought here only to be exploited by the sex industry and qualified how he tells the troops that this is participating in human trafficking/slavery. However, there was no mention of any consequences for ignoring these enlightened training sessions. Similarly, the Korean government outlaws prostitution yet has no laws against human trafficking, nor are the sponsors of these “entertainers” held accountable for their charges breaking/being forced to break the law. This is how it has been since the Japanese occupation, and how it will continue to be, because it just doesn’t pay to stop these practices – in fact it it would be a deep cut to the Korean economy. It’s all good as long as there are other services that can be taxed and these areas can be euphemistically be labeled anything but the red light districts they are.


Less than two weeks ago Korea made world news again with the decision to chemically castrate a pedophile. But I know pedophiles. Testosterone is not what it’s about, though a reduction of it might damper violence. It’s about feeling impotent. It’s about control. It’s about the thrill of someone being weaker than yourself.


I’m feeling so impotent right now. And yet, I’m not releasing my frustration by killing people or dehumanizing people or manipulating children, or violating rights or bodies, and stealing innocence. But this madness never ends. And there are so many casualties left and right. This is our legacy and it is so often not a gift. There is being and then there are bone fragments. Dog tags amid the detritus.

Maybe we should all get dog tags. Just in case…


Am feeling the weight of Korean history today – indirect product that I am. I still don’t know how to make sense of it in my life. Korea’s history is so not personally mine, yet its events had everything to do with me having no history. It can really unsettle a person; turn you into a lunatic, if you think about it too long.

Day of Reckoning

Today my worst class – the entire class – is under review by a tribunal, if you will, consisting of the school administrators, teachers, and parents to answer for the constant insubordination, truancy, violence, and chaos they have inflicted thus far this year.  A couple of students are being threatened with expulsion!

Somehow I doubt that will happen.  But if it does, it might restore my faith in Korea. 

Divide and Conquer

Every year in Korea the laws governing student discipline change. I haven’t kept up on the student civil rights movement, but it doesn’t matter because I know what its effects are instantly. First severe corporal punishment was eliminated, and then mild corporal punishment, and in its place was put:


No. That’s not correct. In it’s place was put teacher evaluations by the students, which is like placing a loaded gun in their hand.

Now, in theory I’m all for abolishing corporal punishment. And I think evaluating teachers can be an effective method of feedback for teachers to improve, but that’s not how it’s used here. Here, because principals don’t involve themselves with their teacher’s performance and seniority trumps excellence every time, written evaluations are punitive and can be utilized as ammunition in whatever school politics exists. As a result, all the teachers are shaking in fear over getting bad evaluations. To further dis-empower the teachers, discipline has been turned into a bureaucratic nightmare of recording and creating a paper trail of reports for every. single. thing. concerning a student.

In the Korean public school system, you have elite districts which have their own school systems where only the top teachers can ever hope to get a job at. Then there is a hierarchy between Seoul and the outlying provinces. My last co-teachers lived in Seoul yet commuted daily to my little town because they felt unqualified to even apply to public schools in Seoul. In my province, teachers are sent to five year school assignments sometimes two hours commute from where they live, which they quickly come to resent. They get no choices, and the ones who are assigned to a technical school in the country are already thinking of every day being a prison sentence.

If you are a Korean English Teacher (KET) this is even worse, because English has even less relevance to most of the student’s lives here in the country, and they have rejected it early on and put less effort into mastering any skills. This means the classroom is that much more challenging, because the curriculum is the same nationwide and geared for the university entrance exam. So the ONLY reason most kids study English is to pass their SATs. The concept of getting only one shot to get ranked for university entrance is foreign to most Americans, but then consider too what it would be like if a foreign language like Arabic was a compulsory class and a major portion of the American SAT. Arabic would not be very popular if that were the case. Many of our students don’t plan on going to university, so to them the only reason to be at school is social.

If you are a Native English Teacher (NET), your foreign presence steals precious time away from the KET’s test preparation. The novelty of you and your departure from teaching to tests can be received with giddiness by the students as an opportunity to not only let their hair down, but to go wild. So, the KETs not only question the value of your presence, but the entire dynamic of classroom management in all the English classes is upset as a result of your presence. In addition, you are handicapped so they must intervene in classroom management situations in your classroom.

If you are a Korean high school student, you are free to apply to any school in your school district you want to go to. However, application is competitive, of course. This means only the rich can go to good public high schools. Good school districts pop up near areas where the English hogwan industry concentrates. Upper middle class families move to be close to those districts. (The rich send their students to Private International schools or send them abroad to boarding school) Students can’t be competitive unless their parents have invested a fortune into private supplementary education prior to high school. The poor, well, they are pretty much stuck where they are.

Now, combine all of the factors above and imagine yourself being the only foreign teacher in the lowest level school in the most remote part of Korea with grumpy Korean colleagues and students without hope to reach their aspirations.

It can be challenging.

In my school there are two girls who have the entire school held hostage. Back-talking, cruel, sneering, argumentative, and defiant, these girls are THE most unattractive people, personality-wise, I have ever had the misfortune to meet in my entire life. The reason I’m writing is I was having nightmares of one of them, curling up her nose and sneering at me so her upper lip was drawn back with her dirty braces exposed while laughing and mocking me. (which happened earlier in the day) I mean, even girl gang members in the states have some respect for something, but these girls respect nothing.

Those teacher evaluations are seriously held up to all the Korean teacher’s heads by these girls. It’s a real problem because the girls are influential to a dozen others, who spread the joy of this power imbalance to others and encourage everyone around them to do no work and disregard all the rules. And nobody will take any disciplinary action against them.

The first week of school my KET was arguing with them and it took up most of the class period. I told her that will happen every time, so don’t even try to reason with them. I am more experienced than they are now, but they don’t listen to me, as I’m the foreign teacher. This same teacher is the one who told me to give them handouts to make them quiet, as if they would actually even do any handout! She wants me to plan a tightly controlled lesson plan to keep their behavior in check, as if they will even follow along! But she won’t enforce my very clear and consistent rules about no cell phones or doing their makeup or any rule these girls violate, because now she’s afraid of arguing with them, which is all you can do if it’s not serious like assault and you don’t want to be continuously writing reports…So instead she blames everything that doesn’t go right in the classroom on me, and she wants me to come up with fun activities for them because the girls complained that every lesson was too hard and boring. Yet I know that no matter what I/we come up with, they will find a way to complain about it. Because complaining is fun. Complaining is power. (Complaining is also distinctly Korean, btw, one of the few methods of power any Korean citizen has) Arguing is power. Teacher evaluations are the ultimate in power.

The KET’s solution is to micro-manage ME with her ideas, to the point I am totally irrelevant. I suggest you do this. I suggest you do that. Do you mind if I just do this in Korean? (Today I was just left to hit >enter< to my own presentation because she thought she could present it better than me) They are close to being in the position of telling her to jump and her asking "how high?" She can't believe I've learned anything in how to deal with these girls and their posse, which is to establish and enforce clear rules we can all understand (which have since been undermined by the KET) and then basically let them use/waste their time how they wish and be pleasant to them because there are still 2/3's of the class that are teachable that deserve attention too and to let them come along for the ride when they want to. And her micro-management of me put me in a foul mood where I broke form in weakness and now I am a target of their ridicule. (I scowled – they thought that was hilarious. sigh…) IF I could speak their language, it would be possible to engage them in conversation and establish a friendly relationship with them. But I can't do that. I DO know where she is coming from, but she doesn't care where I am coming from. Or that undermining me doesn't help our classroom management situation. Or that maybe I like to have some purpose in my work as well. Or that if something I'm doing doesn't work to her, that obviously what she's doing doesn't work either. Or that it is not just her burden but that I also have to deal with it. Or that she needs to be more flexible and relax if she's going to survive the next four years of her term at this premier assignment.

Sorry, KET co-teacher, we are all going to get bad evaluations and there's nothing you can do about it. Except throw the students a party every day, with the ringleaders as guests of honor…and these girls will not be the last to hijack your class. Korean teachers are going to have to earn respect from now on. And hopefully be given some more meaningful mechanism to give students consequences for their actions.

NEXT DAY: To add to my being irrelevant she has recently taken to not just take over my classes, but also my class periods. Of course, she always asks in a nicey-nice way to do this. She must have read this post about throwing parties, because today’s take-over was some raucous game with loudspeaker and lots of candy rewards. I hope she has a lot of energy, because 5 years of that for a control freak to muster is a lot. I shouldn’t worry about her. Only six more months of being micro-managed class time left to go.

This is the last year for Seoul’s high school positions and Gyeonggi has stopped any new hiring and letting attrition take care of the positions remaining. The speaking with foreigners has produced some improvement at the elementary school level, but for the older kids it is remediation after trauma, which doesn’t work too well. Even though there is some success at the elementary school level, they want to replace native speakers with robots. Because robots don’t have foreign culture and ideas that clash with Korean teachers, I’m guessing.

I guess I’m just disappointed. I did so want to think my birth country was smart and not just intelligent. But what does it matter: pretty soon the whole world will be scrambling to learn Chinese anyway.


I put quite a lot of time in on my latest comment at Transracialeyes. It’s kind of a summation of what I’ve learned about Korean culture in regards to adoption while living here.

I also posted on Facebook today:

Please DON’T CALL ME an adoptee. I WAS adopted. I am not adopted now. Don’t define me by my former adoption.

I am now free to be whoever I want to be. Like a person liberated from slavery, they cease to be slaves once they fully embrace their liberty. I WAS in bondage. Now I am free.

Kevin Ost-Volmers of Land of Gazillion Adoptees wanted to interview me about “What’s next?” Well, that quote above is kind of a summation of that. I’m going to go back home to America and do all the same things I did before, only I have my own internal compass now that is no longer warped by the iron attraction of unaddressed adoption issues. I think it’s going to be great.

Benny should come to Korea…

since he likes America so much.

Benny Lewis, btw, is an Irish bloke who moves to a new country nearly every year and chats people up all over the world to add notches to his polyglot belt.

I admit it’s an impressive achievement, but also I’m still waiting for him to conquer Asian languages at the same pace he’s conquered Western languages.  I’ll wager it’ll take him a lot longer.  I’d also like to stick him in an Asian body as a foreign language teacher out in the country where no one wants to suffer his language exploration.

Anyway, my personal bitterness aside, I got a kick out of his blog post, 17 cultural reasons why this European never wants to live in America.

He doesn’t seem to get that a lot of New Yorkers might have the same viewpoint (1. Americans are way too sensitive), or that the kind of company he keeps (2. Everything is “awesome” ? Sheesh…) on the not real life that constitutes touring (3. Smiles mean NOTHING [God, I miss the GENUINELY liberal smiles you get from random folks in America] ) might also have something to do with it.  He also has a lot of valid observations (4. Tipping, 5. False prices on everything, 10. I.D. checks and stupid drinking laws) that are blown a little out of proportion or lack understanding of what a Federation of states is but aren’t without some basis and that cracked me up.  Instances of him just being himself an overly sensitive semantics jerk when people are trying to find a way to connect (9. Heritage) and then things that made me a little somber (11. Religious Americans, 12. Corporations win all the time, not small business, 13. A country designed for cars, not humans, 16. Unhealthy portions). But whatever – the entire time I was reading it, I kept thinking:  Holy shit.  He should live in Korea a few years. (6. Cheesy in-your-face marketing, 7. Wasteful consumerism, 8. Idiotic [Korean] stereotypes of other countries, 14. Always in a hurry, 15. Obsession with money, 17, Thinking [Korea] is best.)

Just like the astute daughter of my Korean friend told me, ” Korea copies the worst aspects of America and ignores the best aspects of America.”  Such a bright, bright girl…

But I’d totally disagree with him about 17.  It makes me wonder how many yokels he spent time with, since every country has their own nationalistic yokels…And I disagree because I know a whole lot of people who criticize America and don’t think it’s best.  And the primary reason I like America is because I’m free to do that…and you know, that’s another thing Korea is following as well…and that’s a good, badly needed thing.

I think Benny really isn’t qualified to make such black and white opinions since he’s just passing through a place – like whirlwind passing through.  Nor do a lot of Europeans really understand what a dual curse and blessing vast spaces are and how they affect ideas of freedom, expansion and manifest destiny or wreak havoc on density and pedestrian communities that little islands have no choice but to honor.  I think he’s missed one of the great opportunities one can experience while traveling, and that is to try and understand the perspective of the people in the places he visits, how they came to be that way, or what he can learn form them.

I think another twenty years and Korea will be just like the conflicted, messy, yet ever exuberant and dynamic America I miss, and if Benny doesn’t want to live here or there, then that’s mighty fine by me.