Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Sound of Summer: the Korean 매미

As you all know, I’m a bit of a fan of summer.  Summer makes me happy – even the really hot, stifling weather.  I’d prefer to be sweaty all day than freezing.  No contest.  I’ve recently realized, not for the first time, that there is a comforting and yet oddly annoying feature of summer which I greet with emotions almost as mixed as the previous adjectives: cicada season.

South Korea, unlike some parts of the US, has cicadas, also colloquially known as locusts (they aren’t) and katydids, every single year.  Where I live, we have some every year, but we also get the dreaded seven-year cicadas.  In Korea, they’re called 매미 (may-mee), and they are here every year without fail, usually by mid- to late July.  Well, they are here, and they are damn hard to ignore.  Anyone who has ever lived in an area that gets katydids knows that they are noisy – really noisy, actually.

I have a love-hate relationship with katydids.  On the one hand, their song, which only the males sing, is the sound of true summer arriving, at least in my mind.  On the other hand, they’re really freaking loud!  The males have these little noise-makers on their torso called timbals.  Their abdomen is largely hollow, which allows for the sound to reverberate, sort of like a tin drum, if you will.  When they contract and expand their abdomen, it produces their song, which is apparently used to attract mates.  They tend to sing most often and most loudly during the hottest parts of the day.  That would probably explain why they’re going nuts right now.  The heat just makes them crazy!  Fortunately, they do tend to quiet down somewhat at night, although it seems like around here, they never stop singing.

In all its glory – the Korean maymee.

If you’ve ever walked past a tree full of katydids and had to cover your ears, well, it’s probably a good idea.  Some species of katydids (there are about a gajillion, in case you were curious) can sing at up to 120 decibels, which is actually loud enough to damage your ears at close range.  Not that most people would want to hold a katydid right next to their ear, but this does at least give those of you who don’t have katydids in your area a fair idea of how obnoxiously loud their song can get.  My husband and I were walking through the wooded area of our apartment complex yesterday morning on our way to get the car, and we both had to cover our ears, they were so loud.

Unfortunately for the cicada, their love song may as well be their swan song, as well.  When you hear a cicada sing, try not to be too angry at them, because you’re actually hearing them at the end of their lives.  Cicadas spend the bulk of their lives living underground.  When they finally emerge, they attach to trees and shed those strange little brown shells, born again as giant, veiny-winged noisemakers, often complete with a set of freaky red eyes. Basically, they sing because they’re hoping that they can get laid before they buy the farm.  Oh, to be an insect!  It’s like being a desperate teenage choir nerd, but with the threat of death sitting much closer to your doorstep.

Folks at home aren’t especially fond of the seven-year cicadas, as they come on in such droves.  In middle school, I remember them literally raining out of the trees, they were so thick.  They covered all the plants, porches, and grassy areas.  You really couldn’t go outside without having some chance encounter with them.  However, our regular cicadas seem to be mostly ignored, their song taken as a sign that the hottest summer is upon us.  It’s as natural a part of summer as drinking lemonade, playing in sprinklers, having BBQs, or Roman candle fights.  Also, most American kids don’t seem to be genuinely afraid of them.  Grossed out, perhaps, but not just terrified of them.

It seems like most of my Korean students can’t stand a bug of any kind.  I have one or two boys who will take it upon themselves to bring one of the big deer beetles (I actually don’t know the English for them, but the Koreans call them 사슴벌레 – sah-seum-beol-lae) into my class or to catch dragonflies.  Mostly though, my kids will run screaming in horror at the sight of even the tiniest bug.  Think I’m joking?  My sixth grade boys will dive under the table in fright at a small bee – or one of the huge horse bees we have here.  A moth was enough to send my first graders running for the hills. A moth.  Lord, I hate bugs, and even I was never scared of a moth!  Knowing this, you can imagine how they react to a giant cicada!

Every once in awhile, I’ll see a boy trying to get hold of a cicada, but it’s always with a net or something.  I’ve never seen a kid here try to pick up one that has fallen or landed on the ground.  Usually they look at it with disgust and then kill it.  I mean, fair enough.  There are lots of bugs in the world.  But still, it kind of cracks me up how scared they are of a bug that can’t hurt them.  … Well, it could give you a little “bite” with its proboscis if it mistakes you for a tree, but they can’t hurt you.  They’re really just big, noisy, and kind of ugly.

With an ugly mug like that, you’d have to be a pretty darn good singer to ever get a girlfriend!  These are the type we have at home, I think.

Anyway, they are a solid staple of summer in Korea, and they sing all afternoon when the weather is hot like it is now.  The song comes in waves through the woodsy areas.  They won’t really go away until September sometime, when the weather starts to cool out.  You won’t find cicadas in cooler areas, although it seems like a bulk of the United States experiences them at least occasionally.  My husband, being from England, land of dreariness and rain (sorry English, but it’s true), had never heard a cicada song until he came here.  Northern Europe isn’t really warm enough for them.

Whatever the case, I suspect my alternating feelings about the maymee will continue.  I guess I mostly love what they symbolize – the warmth and vitality of summer, singing out your best songs and having a good time before it’s all over.  I do wish they’d shut it sometimes, but hey, I guess if I were in good enough health to be a singing fool on my deathbed, I’d probably live in the moment, too.  So South Korean expats, don’t get too miffed with the maymee.  It’s their last hurrah.  Might as well kick back, pop open a cold one, and let ’em have it.

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The Dark Knight Rises Review

And now, because nobody asked for it, everyone else on the Internet is doing it, and you’ve probably already seen it, anyway… A review of The Dark Knight Rises!

I’ve been looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises all summer.  The Avengers was quite good, but I’m an admitted Joss Whedon lover.  I gave Spiderman a miss because I’ve never liked him, as a superhero. However, I’ve loved the first two Nolan Batman movies, so I figured I would enjoy this one just as much.  I went to see Batman Begins with my friend, Maurice, while I was in Germany.  I was highly resistant to watching it, actually, as Batman was never really one of my favorite comics.  I was always an X-Men fangirl.  And yes, I still can’t believe how badly Ratner butchered the Dark Phoenix, but that’s another rant for another time.  I was pleasantly surprised by the first Batman movie, and the subsequent two movies have not disappointed, either.

It’s hard to even talk about this movie at the moment without some reference to the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  I have a feeling a lot of people would disagree with me on this, but I feel like perhaps the media is placing too much importance on the fact that it was at a premier of The Dark Knight Rises.  The shooter was a nutcase.  He was most likely looking for a venue that would have a lot of people, and a midnight showing of a surefire blockbuster is a pretty good ticket, no pun intended.  It seems like there’s this subconscious blaming of the movie somehow, and that is just ridiculous.  The movie had nothing to do with the fact that the dirtbag in question was insane.  Crazy people do crazy things.  To place blame on anyone other than the person who committed the crime is ridiculous. Now, review.

Well, I’ve read some less-than-favorable reviews about this movie, but I think some of that comes from being let down that the movie wasn’t as earth-shattering as expected.  Sometimes folks build up their expectations to somewhat unrealistic levels.  That said, I have read some fair reviews of it, and I agree with many of them on some levels.  Let’s starts with ball bats and get that out of the way.

The major problem with this film is the plot.  The plot in and of itself isn’t really bad, but it’s far from inspired, in my opinion.  I will not deny that it has plenty of thrilling little twists and turns, and it certainly isn’t boring, but it isn’t groundbreaking.  Also, it’s not exceptionally cohesive in parts.  There are several plot holes that, because I tend to overanalyze movies during and after watching them, bothered me somewhat.  I won’t spoil the movie by revealing precisely what they are, but elements of “Batman rising” rather put me off.  Also, the main plot twist, for anyone who was paying even decent attention, will not come as a serious shocker.  (Also, bear in mind that I was never a Batman fangirl, so I didn’t read the comics and was unfamiliar with pretty much everything except the phrase “the man who broke the Bat.”)

Basically, there were some plot holes.  I wonder if they wouldn’t be resolved somewhat in a director’s cut, but I guess I’ll have to wonder at that for awhile.  Given the overall cleverness of the dialogue and the fact that I consider Nolan’s take on Batman to be a bit of a step up from the usual action film, I was disappointed by this fact.  It wouldn’t prevent me from seeing the movie again, but it is a gripe, and I think it’s a legitimate one.

Others have complained a lot about the running time of the film, and I have to admit, two hours and 45 minutes is a bit gratuitous.  The film was not hard to sit through, although the first 45-60 minutes were a tad bit slow.  I think some of this could probably have been sacrificed somehow to tighten up the film a bit.  Given the fact that the movie already had a few plot holes in it, in spite of the long running time, I really don’t think shaving off a few minutes in the beginning and tinkering with the plot a bit would have hurt things.  That said, the length didn’t really bother me.  I didn’t get bored with the movie at any point, which is obviously a plus.

One thing I had did have some trouble with was the somewhat under-used, mildly non-sensical Miranda Tate-Bruce Wayne love diversion.  Truthfully, it made no sense to me at all.  I thought they could have played it up more and made it seem more authentic, but at best, the whole idea that Bruce would go from moping over Rachel Dawes to the point of being a hermit to jumping into bed with the first doe-eyed, accent-having chick he encounters… It just doesn’t ring true to me, frankly.  That was one of the hardest plot points for me to swallow.  Aside from that one, the bit where “Batman rises” kind of bugged me, as there were some elements of it that remained somewhat open and honestly annoying, at least to me.  While I’m sure they would have just made the running time longer, things like that still bother me.  I guess I need to have everything spelled out for me.

As I previously stated, I’m not a mouth-breathing, foaming-at-the-mouth Batman fangirl, so I don’t have a lot emotionally invested in original canon.  However, I didn’t like the segue into the initial Batman/Bane confrontation.  Again, this was a plot failure.  There was really no emotional build-up leading to this crucial moment, at least not for me.  I knew it was coming, because I know enough about comics generally to know what happens between Bane and Batman, but I was really thinking that there would be more drama and suspense leading up to such an iconic fight scene, but it ended up feeling somewhat precursory, as though this moment, which I would expect was highly anticipated by true Bat-fans, was just a filler and a way to advance the plot forward, when the honest truth is that it should have been a big, defining moment of the movie.

Also, the movie generally, especially in the first 90 minutes or so, seems to be hinting at lots of Occupy Wall Street themes.  While part of me thinks that the film was just trying to be current, another part of me thinks that Nolan may have been trying to make some sort of political statement.  I think he succeeds on being current, but if this move was meant to arouse sympathy for the movement or make some sort of moral point, it failed, at least for me.  It’s a hard to buy into that “rich guys are bad” and “more regulation!” when it’s obvious that, in this series, private enterprise generally does a better job of crime management than the government authorities do.  Maybe Nolan wasn’t trying to make that point, but that’s what I took away from it.

Now, the bouquets.  First off, I thought the acting was generally quite good.  Anne Hathaway got sold seriously short by my gossip sites.  There seemed to be a lot of chatter about how she was too wholesome and mildly neurotic to be a good Catwoman, but I thought she owned it.  I think I was expecting to be disappointed, due to my reading so many sites that would have had me believe that she wasn’t going to be much good, but Nolan made a good choice with her.  I really enjoyed all the scenes with her in them, and I thought she added a nice little kick and some humor to a movie that needed a bit of  “je ne sais quoi.”  I thought she took the part and made it her own, and it was an interesting take on Selina Kyle.

Christian Bale has always put forth a good, brooding performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman.  I thought he shined better in his Batman moments, but maybe that’s because, you know, it’s Batman.  It seems like most of all of Bales’ characters that I’ve seen him play have been rather moody, bachelor types, and part of me thinks that he might not be acting the broody-moody part.

Marion Cotillard was lovely as Miranda Tate, although I would have liked to have seen more of her on the screen.  She really didn’t get a let of screen time, which is a shame, because for such a pivotal character, I thought she got rather short shrift.  Her character was well written for the short time that we saw her onscreen, and I can’t help but think she could have added more to the film, given the chance to do so.

Gary Oldman is awesome.  That is all you ever really need to know about him.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt was quite enjoyable to watch as the rookie cop John (Robin) Blake.  Some diehard fans might complain that “Robin’s” name was changed for this movie, but not being a serious Batgirl, it didn’t bother me one iota, because the character was interesting and nicely acted.  I thought he added a wholesome, hopeful touch to a movie that had more than its fair share of cynical moments.

The two characters that I found to be the weakest were Bane and Alfred, which is a damn shame, because I love Alfred, and Michael Caine is fabulous. Alfred’s lines in this particular installment just seemed to be… cheesy.  He was there for the purpose of setting up future actions in the movie, and I found it a bit painfully obvious at points.  I mean, I’m not stupid.  Some moderate allusions would have done nicely.  Let it be said that I fault bad writing of the part and not Michael Caine.  I think he did well with the lines they gave him.

I think it’s somewhat fair to say that, after Heath Ledger’s Joker, pretty much any villain was going to be something of a letdown.  The Joker was just plain frightening.  He made the second movie for me, and Ledger owned every single scene in which he appeared.  And in spite of the fact that it’s not fair to compare Tom Hardy’s Bane to Ledger’s Joker, let’s face it, it’s hard not to do so.  I should probably have bumped this up into the outright ball bats section, but I didn’t think Bane was written as well as he should have been.  Again, I don’t fault the actor, because I think he worked with what he had, and the character seemed a bit off-target from the beginning.  Only once in the movie did I really have the feeling that Hardy/Bane was owning the scene, and it was fairly short-lived.  He just didn’t inspire the feeling of dread that he could have done, and I think that it had a lot to do with disjointed plot development.  (The disjointed plot development is really the great failing of this movie.)  The rumor about Bane being hard to understand, unfortunately, turned out to be somewhat true.  I had a few “Huh?” moments, but fortunately, I had Korean subtitles to fall back on, although in one instance, they didn’t help much, as I didn’t know the verb.  He cleared up during the second half of the movie, but there are certainly moments where some would have to go back and listen two or three times to get what he’s saying.  Again, that’s a production problem and no fault of Hardy’s, in my opinion.

The action sequences, while somewhat few and far between, were generally satisfying.  There should be more than enough explosions, big Bat gadgets, and physical stunts to keep action-hungry viewers mostly satisfied.  It doesn’t have quite the flash-bang of say, The Avengers, but it does the job.  Towards the end of the film though, one ought to be feeling perhaps a slightly stronger sense of urgency, and here the length of the movie prevents that from happening somewhat.

I stated initially that I liked the movie, and I stand by that, although looking through my review of the film, it might come off that I didn’t.  Please don’t think that.  For the most part, I really enjoyed the characters and the acting, and I think those were the high points of the movie.  If you’re a Bale, Hathaway, Oldman, JGL, or Cotillard fan, you will not be disappointed.  Also, I was pleased to see that Cameron from Ferris Bueller had a bit part as a CIA agent in the beginning.  Of course, I muttered, “Let my Cameron gooooo,” but nobody was listening, and the Koreans wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.  Whatever the case, the acting is absolutely the high point of the film.

Unfortunately, the plot tends to meander a bit, and while the end of the film is satisfying in and of itself – a fitting end to the trilogy, I think – there are various points where you feel somewhat rushed or confused on how you got there, in spite of the time it took to get there.  I think the length of the film could have possibly been used to dramatic effect, if Nolan really wanted to make a film that long, but it could have been better accomplished by streamlining a few things and perhaps doing more to build up certain plot elements that felt lacking.  As I said, for someone like me who values a seamless plot (think The Usual Suspects)parts of the film were hard to get around, and I found myself raising my eyebrow and wondering how we got there.

My final review would be 3 1/2 out of 5 possible stars.  I would definitely see the movie again and will likely rent it some night when I have three hours to kill, but for those who were expecting a film equal to The Dark Knight, you’re going to be somewhat disappointed, I think.  (I own The Dark Knight and return to it semi-frequently, as I supremely enjoyed that film the first time and every subsequent time I’ve seen it.)  The movie was good, but it was not Nolan’s best.  It was enjoyable and fun to look at, but you might find yourself scratching your head at parts.  I would not let those gripes deter you from seeing it, because it is highly unlikely that it will cause you to come away from the theater, wondering why you spent $10 on a movie ticket.  No.  If you like action movies or had fun at the previous Batman films, you’ll like it.  But you might not love it.  Keep expectations realistic, and you’ll be in for a good three hours of entertainment.

 

 

Racism and Xenophobia in Korea

I have been contemplating a post about race and xenophobia in Korea for a long time, but I wanted to wait for a night when I felt motivated to actually tackle such a heavy and potentially explosive minefield.  Racism is a tough topic to tackle, regardless of time or place.  My intention on writing this is mostly to talk about my personal experiences, how it has changed my thinking, and what I think the future may hold for Korean society.  Please bear in mind, this is entirely my own opinion, based on my experiences.  I would also like to state up front that not all Koreans are racist, and I certainly don’t think all Koreans are assholes or anything like that.  I know a lot of great people here, and it’s always best to judge people based on their personal merits (or lack thereof).  My commentary on racism here is based more upon what I feel is embedded in the culture and institutions of Korea, and perhaps how institutions here perpetuate those stereotypes and xenophobic tendencies.

The first thing that one would generally notice in Korea is that, as a foreigner, you get stared at.  A lot.  Daily, in some cases.  It is not uncommon for children to blatantly point at an obvious non-Korean and yell, “EO-MAH!  WAEGUKIN!”  (“엄마!  외국인!”)  I was amazed – amazed – the first time I had this happen to me.  It was baffling that someone would allow their children to be what I felt was incredibly rude to someone in the street.  I know that children only do what they’re taught and allowed to do, so even though it’s tempting to blame the child for his/her behavior, it’s really the parents who are at fault, in my opinion.

What does this situation, which just happened to me at HomePlus Express two weeks ago, tell us about the situation in Korea?  Well, I’ve heard a lot of people explain it away as an almost cheerful ignorance, that Koreans are so ignorant about foreigners that they will blatantly point and stare and say things to them that they would never think of doing to other Koreans.  To some extent, I suppose this is true, but after being here for nearly four years total, I am beginning to wonder if that is really the case.  All one has to do is look around and realize that Western faces are hardly new on the scene here.  My husband and many others in our area have been here for nearly a decade or longer.  Many of the faces staring benevolently down at us as we ride the E-Mart escalators are white, blond hair and blue eyes prominently displayed for all to see.  Many of the most popular blockbuster films come out of Hollywood, and most of my students have been to see a good number of these.  On top of all of that, a good portion of Korean children, particularly those from even moderately middle class families, have attended English hagwons and been exposed to at least one foreign teacher.  In short, I don’t believe that Koreans are quite as ignorant about people from different countries as some seem to believe.

Unfortunately, what is telling about this is how parents teach or don’t teach their children to behave towards others who are different from themselves.  When the boy at HomePlus, who must have been at least 10 and attending the local elementary school, which has a South African teacher, pointed at me and loudly proclaimed, “FOREIGNER!” as though nobody else in the place could look at my dumpy build, blue eyes, blond hair, and clearly Caucasian features and tell I wasn’t Korean, his mother didn’t even bat an eye.  I mean, she didn’t even look up from paying her grocery bill.  You’d think I wouldn’t get to cheesed off by this anymore, but it still goads me, and I usually match their gob-smacked look, point a finger in their face, and exclaim, “한국인이야!”  (“It’s a Korean!”)  A couple of people tittered uncomfortably, but I honestly think it was lost on the rest of them.

And that’s the problem.  They don’t see what’s wrong in this kid telling everyone that there’s a foreigner standing there.  In the first place, I would never want my kid to look like that big of an idiot by stating something so damned obvious.  I mean, honestly, have sense, child.  But what I think this really points to is the Korean mentality: us and them.  If you don’t conform exactly to what is Korean, then you are “other,” and therefore worthy of inferior treatment and mockery.  This does not just apply to foreigners, in case you are curious; it also applies to Koreans who, for whatever reason, fail to meet the normative standards of Korean-ness.  Incidentally, most Koreans I have known who fall short of the cultural norm have spent time outside of Korea, and it seems like a good number of them aren’t long for the country once they come back.  This is not universally true, but it has generally been my experience.

Many foreign teachers particularly complain about the discrimination they face in Korea.  There are a lot of stereotypes about foreign teachers, some  a bit deserved (in my opinion) and some not, some good and some bad.  My experience has been that Korea has a confusing relationship with Westerners generally and Americans particularly, and I am sure that some of that has to do with the US military presence here since the Korean War, which is still not officially over for Korea.  On one hand, there is the stereotype that Western men want to bed Korean women and generally tear-ass around and make mischief, and I honestly believe that there is truth in that.  Of course, it’s important to remember that Korea didn’t exactly discourage the prostitution that sprang up around the US military bases.  Still, that doesn’t excuse poor behavior on the part of our soldiers.  There are also the stereotypes that foreigners have AIDS, that we’re on drugs, that we are more apt to engage in criminal behavior, etc.

On the flip side, I personally have also occasionally found that I get preferential treatment as a foreigner.  Also, thanks again to the US military presence, English is somewhat widely used (though not well), and we therefore enjoy that special privilege of being able to use our mother tongue in a country that is otherwise somewhat alien to us.  (Ah, the perks of being imperialist in all but name!)  Koreans have also expressed their feelings of gratitude about the US being here and protecting them, although I don’t agree with that assessment of the situation.  (Colonization by any other name is still colonization.)

The other thing to remember is that, while there is certainly no shortage of work-related horror stories here, the honest truth is that compared to the other migrant workers in Korea, English-speaking teachers do enjoy a better standard of life here than, say, the immigrant workers from India, Indonesia, and others.  There are a good deal of those very workers here in the Changwon area, as we have many plants and factories here, and on weekends, it is not hard to spot them out around town.  If English teachers think they have a hard time fitting in, these chaps – and they are all men, from what I’ve seen – seem to be completely and utterly ignored by the Koreans around them.  I have heard that this treatment would be far preferable to the treatment they receive on the job.  By all accounts, migrant factory workers in Korea have a damn difficult time, and I certainly don’t envy their positions.

So why the bad feelings towards migrant workers?  Well, as far the darker skinned migrant workers in the factories go, part of that seems to be based in tradition.  Historically, the wealthy in Korea stayed inside all day and had whiter skin – a sure sign of affluence.  Farmers and day laborers were outside, and thus they usually cultivated not only the fields but a pretty fine tan, and this was a symbol of the lower classes.  Koreans still value pale skin and tend to scorn even those Koreans who are darker complected.  I’m sure those of you in Korea have noticed the women who look like they’re wearing clown makeup, between the white face paint, bright lipstick, and sometimes dramatic blush.  Yup, that white skin?  Pretty much a priority here.  That’s why many gals here elect to carry parasols on sunny days – wouldn’t want that light complexion marred by Korea’s eternal enemy, the sun.  My boss is naturally a bit darker, and he will completely cover up at the beach, and has told me in no uncertain terms that it would be bad for business and that the parents wouldn’t like to see his darker skin.

Another major factor to consider is the influence that imperial Japanese occupation had on Korea.  Korean nationalism borrowed some moves from the Japanese fascists and began to promote the idea of “pure blood” as a unifying trait around which all Koreans might be able to rally.  The Japanese tried to convince the Koreans that the two countries were of the same race, I suppose as grounds for assimilating Korea into the empire.  As stated this idea sort of stuck with Korean nationalist movements, and the thrust of the idea is that nation, blood, race, and culture all go together.  In a nutshell, it means that Korea is Korean because of their race and blood, and this is obviously an exclusive notion.  I think that North Americans particularly have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a “pure” nation, as North America, perhaps more than any other place, is a hodgepodge of just about every kind of person imaginable.  If I’m being totally honest, I really miss the diversity of the US.  Korea is very much a country of sameness.  As with (I think) all East Asian cultures, individuality is not encouraged but rather somewhat shameful and a thing to be avoided at all costs.  Strength lies in the group, not the individual.

However, in some way, I feel that while these things somewhat explain the beginnings of racist feelings in Korea, they don’t explain the perpetual nature of this problem.  The honest truth is that my students make fun of pictures of black people.  An African-American friend of mine who has since left told me once that he had kids come up to him and try to rub the black off of his skin.  I routinely hear my students call Southeast Asians “dirty Asians.”  Again, I have heard some explain this away as simple ignorance, but I think past a point, that is a weak excuse.  They know that your skin color won’t rub off.  Koreans are not stupid people, although the culture can be baffling at times.  Xenophobic feelings have existed since Koreans initially came into contact with the outside world, and there is something at work that persists in maintaining these beliefs and attitudes.

I think, though I can’t say for certain because I don’t work in public school, that it has become institutionalized in the educational system, and I would hazard a guess that this aspect probably dates back to the Japanese occupation.  Prior to that era, there was no formal school system in Korea.  Anyone worth their salt in the propaganda departments knows that it’s best to get ’em young, and it’s not hard to imagine the Japanese-run schools in Korea teaching the students about the pure blood ideals.  It is also not hard to imagine how it might have persisted after the end of the Japanese empire.  I know that Korean students are required to take morality classes, although I do not know the content of these classes.  I do know that Koreans do not study geography until middle school, at least in my area, and they are incredibly ignorant about where in the world anything besides Korea and Japan are.  Many of my students think Hawaii and California are different countries and that Canada is located somewhere around China.  I try to disabuse them of these notions, but it’s tough.  I would like to remind folks here that “ignorant” does not mean “stupid” – it just means that they simply don’t know for lack of teaching.  However, not teaching geography, off-hand, would lead me to think that the Korean powers-that-be must be of some idea that it is not important for Korean children to know about anything outside of Korea.

It’s not hard to imagine that the old prejudices are nursed somewhat by the deeply ingrained Confucianism in Korea.  Confucianism is based on hierarchies, and given the above information, it’s not exactly tough to imagine that Koreans might place themselves above others.  I’m not saying that all Koreans do this, but from a cultural standpoint, one might understand how people could naturally make this leap, that they are somehow above others.  In Confucianism, you must necessarily be above or below someone else.  Equality was never part of the scenario.  Men are above women, older people are above younger people, bosses are above employees, and so on.

Returning to the example of kids in the street yelling about the foreigner or yelling as many English sentences as they can at someone and then giggling uncontrollably to their friends, while perhaps not overtly racist, is certainly not a sign of someone who respects you.  I have never once in the years I have been here seen or heard kids doing that to a Korean.  Quite simply, it would be unthinkably rude to treat one’s elders in such an impertinent manner.  That should give you some clue that Korean children have been, in some way, taught to believe that foreigners are somehow beneath them.

At this point, some folks might be tempted to point out that the US is far from perfect.  That’s true.  We have indubitably had our fair share of racial tension over the years, and it is far from gone today.  The defining difference between the two examples is that Americans are generally quite aware of racial problems, and at least acknowledge that we aren’t perfect.  While there are Koreans who see racism for what it is, on the whole, it is still far more pervasive here than it is in Western society.  One saving grace in the US is that money can pretty well buy you privilege and respect, regardless of skin color or origins, and that is something that I think is somewhat unique about it.  You will not find that to be the case in Korea.  You will always be a foreigner here.

It seems as though even children born of one Korean parent and one American parent have trouble being fully accepted as Koreans.  While I know a fair few folks, mostly men, who have married Koreans and had at least one child here, there is also a larger minority group cropping up in Korea, the result of farmers marrying brides from Southeast Asia.  They do this because many Korean women aren’t interested in marrying farmers, as farmers today are seen as quite low-ranking in Korean society, and in a society as rigid with its ranking system as Korea, it is a serious priority for Korean women to marry as well as possible.  ESL teachers may come and go, but children who were born here and will stay and live here forever can’t be treated as outcasts and foreigners.  This could have serious repercussions for Korea further on down the line.

My final thought on the whole thing is that racism and xenophobia are very real in Korea, and if you come here for work, you will most likely experience it on some level.  I will say that the racism exhibited here is, by and large, not dangerous and might even work to your favor, in some cases.  Koreans are not going to lynch you for being white or black or whatever.  Taxi cabs might give you a miss here and there, and kids will definitely call out to you and probably make fun of you, but your experiences will not seriously prohibit you from living a reasonably comfortable day-to-day life.  One of the reasons that English teachers make so much fuss about it is because most of us are white, and we are simply not used to much, if any, discrimination in our home countries.  Once you experience it, you become more aware of it.

That said, I think change is going to be a long time coming here.  There have been foreigner advocacy groups, but they seem to come and go.  With the high turnover rate, particularly of teachers, it seems like it would be an uphill proposition to keep a foreigner equality movement going or for it to have a significant impact.  That sort of change doesn’t happen overnight; it takes years and years of education and persistence for such things to take root, and honestly, most of us just aren’t going to be here that long.  I would have already gone, were it not for the economic situation back home.  It will be up to those waeguks who decide to stay for the long haul to push for serious reform and change in this country.  Most of us here will  make a stink about it as long as we’re in country, but once we’re back home, that will be the end of it.  Korea will be just another chapter in our lives, left on the shelves of our personal histories.

No, that’s not exactly an uplifting picture, but it’s a realistic one.  I can honestly say that I don’t do much towards ending racist sentiments in Korea, and part of that is because I don’t consider myself, at this point, to be invested in Korea for the long-term.  I would feel differently if I were planning on staying another 20 years, but I’m not.  Someday, I’m going to have to go home.  I’m not going to kid myself into thinking that the ESL market will remain static and that I will forever be employable in this country.  No chance.

I do hope that Korea finds its way into the modern era sometime in the next 50 years, though at this point, I think they’re always going to lag a bit.  This is not surprising, given their history and culture.  I still wish that kids wouldn’t point at me, that I didn’t have to worry about people taking pictures of my as-yet-unborn child without my permission (happens to my friend’s kid all the time)… I try to educate my students as best I can, but it’s damn hard to derail what they’re being taught at home.  Believe me, teaching has led me to the conclusion that it all starts at home.  Government-funded schooling (a.k.a. mass indoctrination, regardless of country) will finish the job.  Making those kinds of inroads is going to take time – time that I simply do not have.

 

The Thing I Hate Most in the World This Second: Drain Gnats

Living abroad always presents a unique set of challenges in daily life.  Getting past the language barrier is always pretty interesting.  One of my first graders thought she was being clever by calling pictures of cat food boxes “cat boxes” would be a prime example.  Getting past cultural differences is always pretty interesting and often comes in conjunction with the language barrier.  To paraphrase Margaret Cho, Koreans will talk smack about you to your face or, in my case, about your face, as evidenced by my boss calling my face “ratty” after I explained the word to him.  Ha ha.  Of course, there are also the strange culinary delights to navigate, as well as not being able to find clothing or shoes in your monstrous Western size, having children point and stare at you like you’re Godzilla, and struggling to find Pop-Tarts.  Fortunately, I’ve gotten pretty good at taking crap in my stride.  Except for one thing.  Motherfucking drain gnats.

I think I’ve complained about this before.  It was probably on this blog, though it might have been on Facebook.  I’m glad that I can keep things straight in my old age.  Anyway, if I haven’t whined about this before, many Korean bathrooms have gray water drains, including mine.  Many Korean bathrooms, particularly ones in studio apartments, don’t have a real shower.  Instead, they have a bathroom with a detachable shower head, a sink, a toilet, and possibly your washing machine.  The shower and the clothes washer water goes into the drain.  Thank God the toilet water doesn’t, or it really would be a sad scenario.  We’re somewhat fortunate in that we have a bathtub.  Of course, I despise taking baths – who wants to sit in their own filth like a pig? – and never use the tub in this capacity.  Frankly, the tub is so abnormally high, this seeming to be a trend in Asia, that I would honestly deem it more of a safety hazard for short-legged imps like myself. Getting back to the real point, though – the gray water drain.

Gray water drains are repulsive by nature, and I honestly feel like they’re the mark of living in a basement.  My bathroom is probably scarier than your basement.  When we moved in, the back part of the shower tiles were covered with this colorful blue contact paper.  For the longest time, we assumed that it was for decorative purposes.  After about a year and a half, it was disgusting and covered with mildew, so we decided to take it down.  Turns out, that contact paper was the only thing holding half of the bathroom tiles together.  They promptly came tumbling down, and now we have about 30 tiles missing off the back of our bathroom.  My boss has yet to pony up to fix them.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband bleached the bathroom to get rid of the mildew-mold crap that was permeating everything.  The builders, in their wisdom, neglected to include an exhaust fan to pull out the moisture.  There are no windows, so opening the window is not an option.  Basically, our bathroom is rotting.  Which is horrible.  Anyway, he took down a couple of the ceiling panels to dry them.  Now they don’t fit back in.  So we have some exposed concrete ceiling.  We really need to try and wrestle that thing in again.

Are you getting a decent picture of what our horrible bathroom looks like?  It’s literally the worst bathroom I’ve ever had.  The rest of the apartment is pretty okay, but the bathroom is just… Ugh.  Because our house, like most Korean houses, lacks carpet of any sort but instead includes this linoleum-type flooring, we’re actually going to bathe our child in the living room.  For real.  We’d rather clean up baby water in the living room than bathe her in the bathroom.

Because of the disgustingness of the gray water drain and the general dampness of our bathroom, we have these obnoxious moth gnat drain fly thingies, and they will not fucking die!  I have tried everything.  I have poured bleach down the drain, which I hate doing because bleach is terrible for the water supply.  I have used baking soda and vinegar with a dash of boiling water.  I have used other forms of drain cleaner.  Nothing works.  NOTHING.

It wouldn’t be such a problem if we could contain them to the bathroom, but we have to leave the bathroom door open (see lack of exhaust fan above) or the bathroom will actually rot before our very eyes.  You think I’m joking?  The ceiling drips water if we don’t open the door in the summer.  That’s how humid it is here, and that’s how damp our bathroom is.  How the hell are we supposed to get rid of these little buggers, given that scenario?  I have looked it up on the Internet, and nothing I have tried works.  According to some online extermination specialists, things like BacOut or Earth Enzymes will work, but where can I find them in Korea?  Ugh.

The thing that drives me the craziest is that they seem to love my room the most, once they’ve escaped the Bathroom from Hell.  I usually have my big light on when I’m home, so they seem to gravitate towards it.  Then they like the computer screen.  I’ve killed two already this morning.  Are you grossed out yet?  I am.  They’re actually totally harmless, but they’re annoying as hell, and I’ve had it.  I mean, I have reached my tolerance capacity.  Something has got to be done.  I’m going to find some organic enzyme drain cleaner if it kills me.  And then I’m going to lay out a vinegar and soap fly trap to trap the little fuckers.  I might even do that today… Like, as soon as I’m done wingeing online.

The moral of the story behind all of this is that you people back home should be thankful that you have a real bathroom that doesn’t include a disgusting gray water drain from whence all the evils of the Earth come.  Seriously, if I discovered that we had a ghost in the house, I would naturally assume that it came out of that drain.  Hell, if there was a homeless man in our house when we got home today, I would assume that he came in by way of the drain.

If you live in Korea and have never had some trouble with mold, mosquitoes, gnats, cockroaches, or other obnoxious filth in your apartment, be thankful, because I’m thinking you’re the rare exception.  Almost everyone I know here has had to combat the crap that naturally accompanies living in an apartment that hasn’t been renovated since it was bombed to the ground in the Korean War.  If anyone else has any brilliant suggestions for ridding my apartment and therefore my life of drain gnats, I’m all ears!  And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and hopefully trick some of the little winged beasts into believing soap and vinegar are their friends.

Why All the Hate Between Moms?

I think most moms-to-be, especially if they are first-timers like yours truly, can identify with the fact of having moderate freak-outs every once in awhile.  About once a week, I come across something that sends me into a tailspin.  I sit around, wondering if I’m going to be able to handle motherhood, work, a husband, and whatever else life throws at me.  Generally, I calm down at some point, but I’m okay with admitting that, thanks to my insane hormones, I usually end up quietly weeping in a corner.  Yes, hormones suck.

I’ve been trying to get a handle on breastfeeding, since that’s what I intend to do.  If I’m being totally honest, there is a ton of pressure on mothers to breast feed.  You absolutely wouldn’t believe the vitriol leveled upon moms who, for one reason or another, are not breastfeeding their child or children.  It’s incredible.  You’d think that formula was sent from Satan and boobs were gifts from Jesus (they are).  Still, just because boobies rock doesn’t mean that formula is equivalent to Satan’s urine.  It’s not that simple.

I try and stay away from forums on places that I know are hardcore one way or the other, but the truth is that finding a reasonably unbiased article about breastfeeding is like finding a positive article about poison ivy – ain’t gonna happen.  Even websites that I would normally consider to be more or less mainstream seem to be firmly on the boob bandwagon.

And I get that.  I agree that breastfeeding is better, not to mention cheaper.  Formula can cost up to $1,500 a year back home, depending on which brand you buy.  Nothing is going to be better than breast milk.  It can’t be recreated in a lab, although to be fair, companies are doing a much better job today than they were even 20-30 years ago.  Still, I think even folks who have formula fed would probably agree that breast milk is best.  It seems like a lot of people fail to recognize, however, that breastfeeding isn’t necessarily the best option or even an option at all for every woman.

I’m lucky in that I am legally entitled to three months of (unpaid) leave here, so I can breastfeed my daughter, if that ends up working out.  Most moms in the US who are working don’t have that kind of leave time, and maintaining a breastfeeding schedule from an office or workplace might not be an option for everyone.  Employers in the US are required to provide a place (other than the bathroom) for new moms to pump milk, but the honest truth is that this just isn’t feasible for every workplace.  It’s far more feasible for someone working a cushy job that includes her own private office, where the blinds can be closed and 15-30 minutes can be devoted to pumping while working.  What if you work at McDonald’s?

For my part, there is no place besides the bathroom where I can go to pump.  The classrooms in my school are always full and in use.  The office has windows, and I have to share it with my boss.  It’s that simple.  I can’t expect life at school to stop for me, and I wouldn’t want it to.  So if I want to pump between classes (I have 15 minutes), that’s when it will have to be.  I’m fortunate that we have a fridge where I can store things, and the bathroom is usually quiet and vacant, albeit freezing from November until April.  If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to pump enough to keep the baby going while I’m at work.

But what I’m not?  What if my milk never comes in?  What if she doesn’t take well to breastfeeding or I get mastitis or clogged ducts or… And the list goes on.  I’m considering, after returning to work, doing a combo of breastfeeding at home (morning to noon and evenings), and sending her to daycare with formula.  That way, I can continue giving her the benefits of breast milk, assuming that’s possible from the start, while not killing myself, trying to make sure that she isn’t going hungry.  I want the healthiest option for my baby, but I also understand the fact that this may not fall under the “ideal” category, according to the militant milk moms.  And let’s face it: life isn’t always ideal.

There have apparently been lots of studies about children being breastfed having a higher IQ and getting sick less.  I have no doubt that these studies are true, but interestingly, breastfed children tend to come from higher income families.  That’s not always true, but it is a general guideline.  The honest truth is that folks with higher incomes tend to be better educated, and people will higher educations tend to have the time and know-how to give their children a lot of home education.  If you’re working two or three low-paid jobs, how likely is it that you’re going to have the time or energy to come home and spend gobs of time teaching your kid about the aquatic animals on his play mat?  What’s the likelihood that you’ll have time to pump?

The point that I’m making is that there are probably socio-economic factors that are contributing in part to these results.  Again, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think breast milk is best, because I do.  Wholeheartedly, in fact.  I want to breastfeed my child, if I can.  But does that mean that I have the right to browbeat another mother who physically couldn’t breastfeed, didn’t have time in her schedule to breastfeed, or simply didn’t want to?  No.  It is not child abuse to give your child formula.  Child abuse is not feeding the baby at all.  We are living in a modern society here, and we have choices now that other mothers in the past didn’t have.  We should be thankful that we are fortunate to live in an age wherein we have choices and understand the fact that everyone else is not obliged to choose the same things that we do.  For God’s sake, shouldn’t women be supporting each other here?  Isn’t parenthood stressful enough without having to worry about what other moms are saying behind one’s back?

I wish that people could learn to have more respect for others’ circumstances and choices.  What’s good for me might not be good for another mom and her baby, and I respect that.  I have a close friend who breastfed for 18 months and another whose milk never came in adequately and who formula fed.  I think they’re both great moms, and their boobs have nothing to do with it.  Both of them are doing their best for their kids, and they both have smart, active, healthy children.  Why in the world wouldn’t I support both of their choices?  It’s none of my business, anyway!

I also wish that these websites would provide straightforward, honest information about both sides of the equation, instead of guilting or pressuring women one way or the other.  Put the facts out there, let them speak for themselves, and let parents decide what is right for their family based on those facts.  I know that what I’m essentially begging for is people to be more rational and objective, but Lord, what’s wrong with rationality?  Rationality is, by definition, making a choice about something based on logic, as opposed to having a knee-jerk reaction.

Whatever the case, you all know my stance on breastfeeding: it’s best.  It’s natural, it’s cheap, and if you can do it, it’s of great benefit to your child.  But you know what I’m most in support of?  Healthy moms and babies, both physically and mentally, and if formula allows for those two things to happen where it might not otherwise, does it make sense to condemn it?  Obviously not.

So to all of the shrill voices out there, seriously, you need to sit down.  Folks need to stop screaming “Child abuse!” about everything with which they don’t agree.  I mean, I don’t agree with casting Anne Hathaway as Catwoman for The Dark Knight Rises, but hey, it’s not my movie.  I don’t like the way Koreans carry their babies on their backs in these weird blanket/baby holder things, but it’s not my child, and I’ve never seen a child fall out of one.  Just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good choice for someone else, and I hardly consider it child abuse to carry kids in one.   When it comes to parenting, let’s all try something new and be rational, calm, and supportive.  Parenting is hard.  There are so many choices that have to be made about the child’s welfare.  Why are we trying to add to others’ stress?

Smart Phones, Tablets, Computer Games, and the End of Civilized Conversation

I would just like to announce to the Internet world that I have been having this insane pregnancy craving that involves Pop-Tarts, a food that has, to the best of my knowledge, never been sold in Korea.  I was going to write this post last night, but I got so involved in my craving that I flopped over, had a pregnancy fit (if you’ve ever been pregnant, you know whereof I speak), and moaned around until my husband returned with ice cream.  No, ice cream isn’t Pop-Tarts, but it is a cure-all for most things that ail cranky, crazy pregnant girls.  In case you were curious, I never really believed the hype about nutso pregnant girls until I became one, and now I freely admit that I’m straight trippin’ most of the time.

What I really want to rant about today, however, has nothing to do with Pop-Tarts or pregnancy.  I’ve been teaching a sixth grade conversation class, and our topic of the last couple of days has been computers and digital advertising.  Anyone who has lived in Korea knows that kids here live for computer game time.  They wait all week so that they can get online over the weekend to play Starcraft, Minecraft, Bubble Fighter, Maple Story, or whatever other game is the hit of the moment.  Korea has long been renowned for its love of all things game-related, but I feel like over the last three years or so, what with the advent of smart phones and tablets, that the craving for computer games has reached a fever pitch.

I’m understandably somewhat out-of-touch with what’s going on today in America, in terms of computer games.  It seems like the trend has been more towards iPad and iPhone apps than anything else.  My kids are always asking me if Americans play Starcraft, and my usual answer is that I didn’t even know what it was until I came here.  Then again, I’m not much of a gamer, and I’m all at sixes and sevens on computers with anything beyond Facebook, writing this blog, and sending email.  I took a programming class in high school, during which I freely cheated off of the computer geeks around me who were kind enough to take pity on the fact that I have zero logic skills.  The point that I’m making is that perhaps I’m not the best person to be making commentary on the American zeitgeist of gaming, but I’d be willing to bet that the situation isn’t remarkably different, overall.  I tend to think that this generation of youngsters, whatever their letter or name is, has become completely and utterly addicted to anything with a shiny screen, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign that it’s going to stop anytime soon.

Why would I care about kids having access to iPhones or what-have-you?  They’re convenient, they’re fun, and they put a world of information at our fingertips.  Well, all of those things are true.  But here’s the thing: how often do children use smart phones to do research for anything besides FIFA scores or Facebook or whatever happens to be trendy at the moment?  At least adults might be using their apps to scan bar codes and get nutrition facts on foods at the grocery store.  Of course, I think a lot of adults have trouble using smart gadgets properly, too, but honestly, most children aren’t going to use smart phones for anything other than personal entertainment, and therein lies the problem.

I did a poll of my sixth grade students, and approximately 75% of them told me that they would rather chat with their friends in an Internet cafe or via online messenger than actually meet up with those same friends in person.  Does anyone else see a problem with this scenario?  What individual in their right mind prefers interacting with a computer screen to interacting with a real, live, talking person?  Am I the only person who thinks that that is frankly a bit fucked up?

Why is this happening to kids?  Is it because they’re too lazy to go outside and play?  Is it because they’d rather stay at home and play computer games while they’re talking to their friends?  Is it so they can illicitly talk to their friends while their Asian tiger mothers force them into hours and hours of relentless studying?  I honestly don’t know, but I think that it’s more closely related, at least on weekends, to spending hours upon unproductive hours playing computer games.  And that is just sad.

It is not uncommon for me to come into class and find half of the students on their smart phones, playing some game or another.  And the kids who aren’t on their smart phones are typically gathered around the others, watching them play and offering helpful advice to explode the zombie or roll the ball into the right corner of the puzzle or whatever the task at hand might be.  It’s mind-boggling.  I have to stay on them constantly to keep them from playing with their phones or attempting to message or take calls in class.

I’ve done other polls where I ask them if they could live without their phones for a week.  Most of them look at me, horrified at the thought.  I then politely inform them that, when I was young (and yes, I’m well aware of how old that makes me sound), we called our friends on the land line, made plans to meet up, and you made it your bee’s wax to get there on time.  The streetlights coming on or your watching pointing soundly to 6:30pm were the clues to get your butt home for dinner.  There was no Mom calling or texting incessantly to check up on you.  Mom had to trust that you weren’t off killing puppies or getting hit by cars, and you, in turn, got a few hours’ peace.  I always thought it was a nice scenario.  Those days are clearly over.

My kids can’t live without phones.  They use them for watches, games, information, and social interaction.  I can get over most of that, to some extent, but the gaming and social interaction aspect is actually beginning to trouble me, especially in light of the fact that many of my students would rather chat online than meet up with people and go do a real, hands-on activity.  Yes, one can make the argument that they’re getting “social interaction” by talking to their friends online, but are they really?  Is it the same kind of interaction, or is it semi-distracted interaction that involves carrying on many different activities whilst giving divided attention to the friend or friends with whom you are talking?  It hardly seems like realistic interaction to me.

What’s going to happen to these kids when they get out in the work force?  What’s going to happen if we’re ever in a situation where we no longer have phones or computers to do everything for us?  Are they familiar with the art of polite dinner conversation in a swanky restaurant?  (The last time I went out to dinner, I saw a family eating out, and they were all playing games on their phones instead of talking to each other.)  Will they know how to interact with their co-workers or the higher-ups in the company without seeming like emotionally-stunted monkeys?  Will they have attention spans of longer than two minutes?  Do they know how to use a paper card catalog or do research using the Dewey decimal system?  I hate to gloat, but I know how to do all of those things without seeming like a complete and utter moron, as do most semi-educated people of my generation and the ones previous.  How will the next generation or so turn out?  It will be interesting to see.

The other point to make is that I don’t really think that gaming itself has any real value beyond entertainment.  My husband enjoys online strategy games, and he tries to make the claim that they’re good for his brain.  It’s possible that this claim is true, but really, I think he has just chosen to be entertained by something to which he is already somewhat inclined.  I think these sorts of games are a waste of time, so I don’t play them, as they aren’t entertaining to me.  I’m one of those (seemingly) increasingly rare individuals who can be entertained by reading and writing, rather than TV and games.  I find no value in what TV has to offer, for the most part, and it is completely passive absorption that caters to the lowest common denominator.  Games can be entertaining for a few hours, but I can no longer spend hours and hours playing them, as I did when I was younger, and I wouldn’t want to.

I’m afraid that people today are addicted to being entertained.  The movies are flashier, the TV is louder and crazier, and the games are more life-like and interactive.  They suck you in, and they also make it tough to going back to being entertained by things that aren’t necessarily flashy, like a good book or a good group of friends.  Whatever happened to people being the main interest of people?  Have we really reached the juncture whereby we no longer feel that cooperation and social skills are necessary to our goals?  It seems like a lot of people depend more on the iPhone than on their friends.

I’m not saying that good things haven’t come from this technology, because that’s simply not true.  The point that I’m really stressing is that I feel like, used to excess, it can be dehumanizing.  One of the great essences of humanity is our ability to interact, empathize, communicate with, and enjoy one another’s company.  Humans are social creatures.  Deprived of that social interaction, I worry about what happens to the human brain.  We need time to just be with other people, to learn how to behave, to learn to enjoy simple things.  The greatest moments of your life, hopefully, will not come from time spent in front of a glowing computer screen.  The greatest moments of my life have been made just hanging out with my friends and family, laughing, sharing a beer (or ten), going on road trips, having parties… Unfortunately, many of my students have said, in all honesty, that the greatest moments of their lives have been spent in front of the computer screen.  What is wrong with this generation, that a day spent in front of Starcraft brings them more joy than going out for a fun day with their friends?  It seems wrong to me.

Some will probably call me an old fuddy-duddy for writing this post, but I do think that the effect of games and interactive software on people will have tangible results in the future, and it probably won’t be the distant future.  I’m thinking about challenging myself to stop all usage of the computer, except for work-related times, like when I have to write and print tests, for one week.  No Facebook, no blogging, no celebrity gossip.  I want to see if I can do it.  I know I can, and I want to see if my life will be better for it.  Will I read more?  Exercise more?  Talk to my husband more?  What will be the end result of eliminating computer stimulation from life?  I’m thinking about starting on Monday.  Stay tuned!

A Drugstore Revelation

Calling all waeguks!  I have just made an amazing discovery via a vegan blogger.  I don’t tend to use words like “amazing,” “phenomenal,” or “game-changing” lightly, but this particular situation calls for it.  I have discovered a website that is basically an online pharmacy/health food store/vegan/vegetarian/eco-nut paradise – AND THEY SHIP TO KOREA!

I am a big believer in alternative medicine, as some of you may know.  I try to avoid chemicals and medication wherever possible.  As campy as it sounds, I believe that Earth provides us a wealth of good medicine and that we would be wise to learn to use it.  But I’m getting preachy.  The real point is that for vegans, vegetarians, and alternative medicine-lovers, it can be frustratingly difficult to find products here in Korea.  Every time I mention vegetarianism or veganism to Koreans, they just laugh and tell me that’s crazy.  I’m not a veggie anymore, but I can appreciate why people do it, and I can definitely understand how Korea would be frustrating for these folks.  For my part, I just get annoyed that I can’t get Doc Bronner’s soap for less than $25-$30 when I feel like it ought to be $8-$12.

Well, health nuts, your troubles are OVER.  Thanks to this blogger, of whose website I have already lost track (I will be giving her a trackback, if I can locate her again), my life has just gone from annoying in parts to far less vexing.  This is the only thing you need to know: www.iherb.com

iHerb has everything, and I do mean everything.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s probably crazy-expensive and only a viable option for single bobo-hippie types with massive disposable incomes and/or rich parents.  Nope.  In fact, most of their products feature rock-bottom prices.  As in, you might not be able to get it cheaper off the shelf in the US.  It’s that good.  Doc Bronner’s goes for around $12-$15, which I would imagine is probably the price at home nowadays.  You can get – wait for it – cilantro for Mexican food.  Cilantro.  I mean, sweet Jesus, I have been hoping and praying that someday I would find this miracle somewhere in Korea.  Let me tell you – the minute it arrives, I’m going down to the New Core grocery store and seeing if they still have avocados, ‘cuz it’s guacamole time!

To give you some idea of what you can expect to be amazed by, here are just some of the things I have found so far on this website:

-A huge selection of regular and herbal teas
– Bagged herbs – everything from red raspberry leaves (great for pregnancy) to bentonite clay (!!!) to whatever you want, really
– Organic baby lotions and diaper creams
– Fluoride-free toothpaste for adults and children
– Organic snack foods
– Colloidal silver, including a salve (I use it for colds when I’m not pregnant)
– Phosphate-free laundry soaps
– Doc Bronner’s, Doc Watson’s, Jason, etc.
– A large variety of herbs and spices for cooking
– Bob’s Red Mill products (whole wheat flour, spelt, rice flour, etc.)
– Vegan/Vegetarian baking products, including chocolates
– Chlorine-free diapers (for cheaper than regular diapers bought at the large Korean marts)
-Anti-aging creams and other beauty products

Basically if, like me, you are a serious sucker for pharmacies and health food stores, you’re going to go apeshit.  The stuff is so cheap as to be unbelievable.  I had to exercise some serious restraint.  I ordered some vitamins that my husband likes ($7 per bottle, normally about $20-$50 per bottle in Korea), bentonite clay (good for internal cleansing, removal of radioactive iodine, and topical application for relief of spider bites, burns, etc.), and cilantro.  The product total for 1.25 pounds of clay, four bottles of vitamins, and a bottle of cilantro was $41.  Shipping came out to $10 total using Korea Post, which will give you a tracking number and should deliver within 7-10 business days.  There is no option for International Priority, but Korea Post is about $1 more expensive and twice as fast, anyway.

Delivery is available to just about every country, including the US, if shelf prices are exceeding what you see on this website.  When shipping to Korea, you do have to give your name and Alien Registration Card (ARC) number for customs purposes.  You can use your US bank or credit card or, if you have a Korean debit card (KEB issues them), you may choose to use this, too.  I haven’t received my first order, since I just placed it, but I will post an update here when it arrives and let you know how long it took and how everything looks.

Long story short, this website is probably going to change shopping for me.  Goodbye, buying overpriced organic products at Lotte Department Store!  Goodbye, desperate searches for affordable organic baby products!  Goodbye, being pissed off because my bentonite clay gets stopped at customs (I hope)!  For vegans and vegetarians, this site could be a serious Godsend, and as a mommy-to-be who believes that pretty much everything in the world is going to poison my child, I’m relieved to have found a place where I can get fluoride-free toothpaste, organic children’s vitamins, and organic diapers.

To be fair to Korea, they are doing much better about making organic products available to the population here, but you do need to live in a bigger city that has large department stores catering to an upper-middle class or wealthy clientele.  For a lot of waeguks in Korea, the option of going shopping in the city every weekend just isn’t realistic.  If you’re a cheapskate like me or stuck in BFE like some of my friends, I really hope this website helps you out in your quest to maintain your preferred lifestyle.  And if you’re in the US or another country where these things are available but possibly more expensive, I hope you save a buck or two!  Saving money rocks!

*Note: I am not being paid to endorse the above website.  As stated, I found it via another blog, and I was so impressed with the selection that I felt compelled to share it in the hopes that it helps out other foreigners in Korea or other countries where organic and vegan products are in somewhat short supply.  I will post an update giving my review of the timeliness of their processing and shipping.  

Update: I received my first order within three days – yes, three days! – of placing my order.  It arrived at my academy this afternoon.  I placed the order on a Sunday, and it arrived from California in Korea by Wednesday.  That is amazing, as far as delivery times go.  Everything is exactly as promised and was securely and neatly packaged.  I will definitely be using iHerb again, probably within the next week or so.  I’m wicked impressed.

An Interesting Think about Pandas

A friend of mine posted something on his Facebook today about pandas – a post that some might find controversial.  In a nutshell, he said that pandas are kind of useless and that we should stop spending money on them and let them go.  I’ll come out and state right now that I agree with him, but his comment intrigued me because I’d read a similar article somewhere in the past.  Since insomnia has been plaguing me – I blame the baby – I decided I may as well Google it, since I wasn’t getting anything else done.  As it turns out, a British conservationist named Chris Packham made that claim back in 2009 and caused a good bit of uproar, so I’m thinking that I must have read one of those articles at some point or another.

I’m not much of a conservationist.  I enjoy animals, and I don’t think that we should go out of our way to harm them or the environment, but I also put myself and other humans above them.  In most all aspects of my life, I try to live by the motto that, “Whatsoever you do unto others, you do unto yourself.”  I find that provides a reasonably good guide for morality, and I think it applies quite well to human-animal relations.  No, I don’t like to see companies and people pollute the Earth, but I also recognize that, in order for humans to enjoy a certain standard of living, some of this is unavoidable.  Is this a cynical view?  Not really.  It’s a realistic one.  In order for people, at this stage of our industrial and scientific development, to enjoy a certain standard of living, some harm must come to the environment around us.  Perhaps not a pill that some want to swallow, but you know, being honest with oneself is always a good exercise.

The panda has long been the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund.  Let’s face it – pandas are damn cute.  They’re fat, they look kind of sad, they’re furry, and they’re sort of lazy.  Fat, furry, lazy animals are cute.  People love koalas, and there’s another fat, lazy, furry animal that honestly isn’t that well adapted for survival in the post-industrial world.  Like pandas, they have a generally nutrient-poor diet that is not varied and is vulnerable to destruction.  The point that I’m making by telling you that pandas and koalas are cute is that cute animals are generally more apt to evoke feelings of sympathy and goodwill in most people.  Who’s going to get excited about Arizona’s cave amphipod, a small, nearly colorless shrimp that isn’t fit for eating?  Nobody.

Packham, in his original article, rather made the point that people don’t mind dumping millions into trying to get pandas to reproduce or exist in zoos because they’re cute.  They bring in lots of money to zoos.  In the Washington, D.C. zoo, there are two pandas, and they attract about 3 million visitors every year.  I don’t think it’s tough to believe that people would rather go to the zoo to see a giant panda than an iguana or a tarantula.  Pandas attract money because they’re cute.  However, the mere fact of something being cute doesn’t necessarily make it a good investment.

I know that it’s not politically correct to talk about endangered animals as monetary investments, but I’m not P.C., and when a group or a government pours millions of dollars into an animal and its conservation status, that’s exactly what it is.  In the case of the giant panda, folks invest money in the hopes that we’ll be able to look at it in years to come.  We also invest in it hoping to assuage some feeling of guilt that we rightly or wrongly have about the panda ceasing to be a viable animal in this world.  Pandas have become, in a sense, a symbol for saving the Earth, but Packham rightly questions whether or not they are worth saving.

Most any conservationist nowadays will tell you that we need to focus on conserving the land where endangered species live.  Pumping money into reproduction or sustaining them in zoos is pointless if the animal can never be released from captivity.  The truth of the matter where pandas are concerned is that they have a non-nutritious diet of bamboo.  That bamboo is found in certain areas of China that happen to be densely populated, and the bamboo is ceasing to exist day by day.  Pandas are actually listed as a carnivore, but their diet has adapted to become almost exclusively vegetarian.  The reason their birth rate is so low is because they have no natural predators and therefore don’t have to worry about their young being eaten by say, a hungry pack of wolves.  This in contrast to small rodents, which will eat pretty much anything but have a high predation rate.  Incidentally, rodents tend to thrive just about anywhere.

For pandas, the combination of a poor diet and low sex drive equals disaster in modern times.  The honest truth is that conservation money would have been better spent on buying up land in China to preserve the bamboo forests.  It wasn’t, and now it’s too late.  The pandas’ natural habitat will soon all but cease to exist, and without its natural habitat, the panda too, will be gone, probably in the next couple of decades of so.  Nobody wants to hear this, but it’s the truth.  Even if we took action today, it probably wouldn’t be enough to save the panda.  And yet, folks are still willing to spend money on the bear itself.  Packham was right: it’s time to get real and realize that it’s too late.  We’re wasting a finite resource (money) by throwing it into a bottomless pit that will yield no tangible results, all to make ourselves feel better.  Well, at least we tried.  Trying is well and good, but we have to try with intelligence, and we also have to know when to redirect resources to better use.

I’ve seen some Internet commenters try to compare saving the panda to saving the life of a dying man in the hospital, and that is not necessarily the same thing.  The individual and the family have a choice in whether or not to continue spending their money on self-preservation.  In this case, we’re trying to do the most good for the most species and ourselves by making intelligent decisions about how and where to spend conservation money.  There is nothing wrong with admitting that a program has or is failing.  There is nothing wrong with adjusting a strategy when previous ones have failed.  What is wrong, in my mind, is repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results.  Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

Packham wasn’t trying to say that he hopes pandas will die.  He’s a conservationist, and I don’t think anyone really wants pandas to die out.  He was just telling us the truth: they will die now, regardless of how much pity money we throw at them.  He was arguing for us to make smarter decisions about conservation and to look past the cute face.  There are lots of ugly, small, strange critters that are more important to biodiversity that also need saving, but more importantly, the focus needs to be on saving habitats, not on individual animals.  In this case, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  If we save habitats, all the species within that habitat will benefit, not just one.  Doesn’t that make more sense, especially financially?

I feel like I’m probably going to get someone, at some point, popping up and telling me that I’m an ogre for wanting pandas to die.  I don’t want to them to die.  I do think that they’re unfit to survive in the world as it is today.  They are not adaptable.  I have not and would not give money to a group doing research on panda reproduction or keeping them alive in captivity, because I see no benefit in it.  I’d be far more likely to give money to a group protecting an area of the world, like a rainforest, river, or nature preserve, not only because I get more joy from the environment itself, but because I view that as more productive.  What’s wrong with approaching conservation like one would approach a business?  Because conservation is a business, like it or not.  It might not be for-profit, but it is a business.

I do hope that I’m wrong and conservationists can find a way to save enough panda habitat to allow them to survive.  I don’t really think I am, but at the end of the day, I think there are more pressing concerns than saving the panda.  Callous?  Perhaps.  But just remember, folks – I am a cold-hearted libertarian!

 

Hannah Montana Coon Repellent

I think by now you all know that I’m a fairly shameless follower of celebrity gossip.  Celebitchy, Lainey Gossip, and D-listed are all part of my evening repertoire when I get home from work.  They all update early in the morning, which translates to after work for me, and the commenters on Celebitchy have been the highlight of my day from time to time.  Of course, when I really want no-holds-barred smut, D-listed is it.  D-listed posts some of the most offensive, hilarious commentary and videos on the Internet.  Tonight, I am delighted to be stealing this video and reposting it for you.

For your Friday viewing pleasure, I give you “Hannah Montana Coon Repellent.”  Only in America.

Hannah Montana Coon Repellent