A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Slaving Away in South Korea



There are cultural divides that we sometimes have a hard time wrapping our heads around.  A good example of this is the American vs. Korean understanding of slavery.  Slavery is a defining aspect of American culture, and we learn at a very young age about the dangers of slavery and the effect it has had on African American communities (primarily).  That is, at least, my experience with slavery.  Meanwhile, the Korean children we are teaching have seemingly little to no comprehension of slavery.

The other new instructor at our school is teaching a class on “Spies of the American Civil War” and during his class he had to explain what the word slavery meant.  He told me that he asked the class if slaves could leave at any time…they said yes…he said no.  He asked if slaves were paid…they said yes…he said no.  They weren’t sure what it meant to be a slave, and that could be because they are unfamiliar with the English word, but we are also teaching a group of people who are young, very wealthy, and don’t discuss the topic of slavery in their daily lives like we do as Americans.

For the South Koreas, slavery isn’t a particularly racial issue.  It wasn’t something one race forced upon another in the same culture at a point in recent memory.  When the instructor asked his class if Korea ever had slaves and they replied with a confident no, they were probably both right and wrong.  South Korea likely didn’t have the American version of slaves, but it does have forms of slavery (like the US) today.

There is a certain animosity many South Koreans hold toward Japan that largely stems from World War II, and I’m not completely sure how many of the children in our classes understand exactly why.  A statue of a young girl sits across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and old women protest outside the building regularly…because of slavery.  The Japanese would take “Comfort Women” from the local populations to have sex with Japanese soldiers.  The women were not paid, they couldn’t leave when they wanted to, and they were definitely slaves.

Today, sex trafficking is the most common form of slavery across the world.  There is sex trafficking in the USA and there is sex trafficking in South Korea.  This isn’t really a topic I feel we could bring up to the kids.  It’s kind of adult.  I would be happy to talk to children about it, but I’m not confident their parents would find it appropriate – “I sent Billy to your school to learn about English, not sex trafficking.”  You could probably get away with it in the highest level classes, provided it related to the topic, of course.

Frankly though, I don’t think these kids care that much about slavery or sex trafficking.  They’re rich middle-schoolers in South Korea.  The material we teach is interesting and surprisingly deep, but it’s really just meant to help them learn English.  We teach words, pattern recognition, and skimming, not sociology.  But I never imagined it would be hard to explain slavery to a student, even in another language.  “What’s wrong with you, Billy?  Ain’t ‘chu’ever seen Roots?!”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Horrible Taste in Music

There's a phrase I like to use to explain my musical tastes to other people: "I like most everyone's music, but nobody likes mine."  I base this assertion upon two facts.  The first is that whenever I mention a musician I enjoy that another person hasn't already brought up, I'm typically met with a confused glance before the topic of conversation changes to something else.  The second is whenever I actually play some of my music, nobody listens to it.  Their eyes glaze over.  They bring up something else.  They switch out my iPod for theirs.  So I have long since stopped trying to encourage others to take an interest in my music.

The unfortunate side effect of that is the more isolated my musical tastes are the more isolated they become.  My bands become progressively stranger and people become even less interested in them; they give me odder looks whenever I start "rockin out" to it.  This would be fine if I were some cool hipster vying for perfect genre obscurity.  I would note, "They're too underground.  You've probably never heard of them."  But I'm not trying to be cool, I just like some pretty weird crap.

It would be easiest to describe most of my music as high energy, electric music you can dance to in your underwear when no one else is around...at least that's what I do.  There's a lot of foreign music, a lot of "dancey" music, some good drum beats, but maybe it would just be easiest to show you an example of one song I absolutely adore...



That's "Marina Gasolina" by the Brazilian group Bonde do Role.  I think I first heard the song on a commercial and tracked it down from there.  A lot of my music was discovered that way.  During a short stint of television addiction pretty much every offbeat song I heard managed to find its way into my collection, along with their respective albums.

I'm certain their are consistent themes running throughout all of my music, which could easily be used to summarize my collection, but fast paced isn't really one of them.  Yes, I do enjoy a lot of energetic tunes, but I can definitely appreciate more melodic songs.  Elliott Smith, CocoRosie, and Coeur de Pirate are all great...



I discovered Coeur de Pirate in a college French class.  The last day of testing our professor presented each of us with a mix CD she made displaying a diverse collection of French music.  "Comme des Enfants" was the song that got stuck in my head and on repeat.  I'm not the kind of person who listens to an album before a single.  I can't stand sitting through the "less interesting" songs waiting for the "good ones," so I'll cling to one I like, playing it over and over again.  A few months later I'll find another good song on the same album and repeat the steps.  I did this with Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black", Adele's "Rolling in the Deep", and TsuShiMaMiRe's "Sex on the Beach"...



As you can see from some of my examples above, I do like popular music (TsuShiMaMiRe was kind of an oddity next to the other two).  Hip hop is a particularly beloved place to find good music.  Kanye West's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was incredible, and most everyone I know went wild for it.  Aside from that album and the Wu Tang Clan (for some reason) I mostly stick to specific hip hop producers.  The beats, the music, those are what resonate with me the most in hip hop and a great producer can pull out the best from accompanying artists, better than many can do on their own.  Nujabes is a great example of this...



My love for Gertrude Stein's poetry seems to imply that what one says is not always as important as how one says it.  A singer is not just there to sound pretty while reading generic, abstract non-sense about love.  The voice can be a lot more interesting than how it is often used.  Let us examine Old Dirty Bastard...



Old Dirty Bastard is not a good singer, or particularly deep for that matter, but he has a playfully distinct voice.

I don't understand a word of the Czech group DVA, but they know how to use vocals to do a lot more than just sing the lyrics.  They turn them into instruments as valuable as guitars and drums.  Normally, you could remove the vocalist from the song and not change the atmosphere much.  Remember The Royal Tennenbaum's version of Hey Jude?  Remember how Paul is completely removed and it's still a great song without him?  But then it gets to the chorus and the "Na na nas" are still there.  That's because they aren't just vocals.  They're instruments.  If they were removed the song would feel incomplete...



One thing that can be said for my tastes is that I don't always "appreciate the classics."  Typically, I don't listen to a lot of older music.  There's very little for me to be found in Frank Sinatra or The Beatles.  I have a little bit of Nina Simone and some musicals like Cabaret that keep finding themselves onto my iPod, but most of my music was produced in the last ten years.  Like I said, there are exceptions.  One of which is Patti Smith, who uses her voice in the wildest ways.  If you told me to analyze her lyrics I probably couldn't do a very good job, but man, does she have a distinct way of getting them out there...



So there are a few examples of my music.  If you're eyes haven't glazed over yet then I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  I find it amazing that obscurity is somehow a valuable asset to certain people.  Why would you want others to not connect to your favorite music like you do?  Music, to me, should be a celebration of life and an extension of one's own personality.  While I'm not sure exactly what my music says about me, I definitely feel it meets that criteria.  I would much rather share it than let it sit in my head collecting bits of dust, even if not everyone appreciates the same things I do...

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Hobbyist

Being hired for a job where the primary requirement is your ability to speak English might sound like a sweet gig to any native English speaker, but once you're in front of a class and have to give them a rough summary of yourself, you (or at least I) probably find it hard to bunch together the right words.
"Hi, I'm Mr. M and I graduated from Wright State University in Ohio, USA with degrees in English and Women's Studies."
 Oh, no!  That sounds awful!  For one, no child cares about what college you graduated.  Whether it be Clark State or Yale, they all sound the same to a middle-schooler.  An English degree is confusing enough to a South Korean child because it doesn't sound like the "Study of English Language Literature" it is, and few people outside the English-speaking world think of English as anything more than a language, but Women's Studies is a coupling of words they might never have heard of before (especially in my language).

So think, man, think!  What are some hobbies, some leisurely activities you like to do?  I like to write, but that's a pretty boring practice to children, what with their stick ball and yo-yos.  I enjoy poetry.  We're sledding backwards downhill now... Upon retrospect, I really haven't kept many of my childhood hobbies: kayaking, Boy Scouts, violin, bass guitar, and drawing classes are far, far in the past.  Though I too often long to traverse white water again, it's just not something I do.

You might be looking down your lengthy nose, saying "Why not just make something up?"  That wouldn't solve anything!  Sure I could lie to children and build myself up to be the world's greatest wilderness explorer/painter-pianist, but at the end of the day I still have to consider the fact that I lack any hobbies or skills beyond "speaking English," which is an increasingly common talent thanks to...people like me...  I've really shot myself in the foot on that one.

What if one of the children were to call out me on a lie?  "Oh teacher, you like baseball.  I love baseball!  What is your favorite team?"  Well Jimmy, I find myself partial to the Cincinnati Reds.  "And who is your favorite player?"  Ken Griffey Jr. of course, shouldn't you be studying (My knowledge of baseball is clearly dated)?  I guess I could fake that.  Of course, then I would probably be forced to allude to baseball in some of my examples to help Little Billy understand gerunds: "Hitting a ball is easiest with a stick."
"It was the seventh inning and the bases were loaded, however the batter striked out and they lost the game."
Can you spotting the context clue in this sentence?

Let's move on...

So I've decided I need to find a hobby.  Something that develops a skill.  Maybe one isn't enough.  At this point hiking and painting come to mind, but those will take some slightly warmer weather and money to achieve.  It is a start though.  I should also find a sport beyond iPhone Scrabble that interests me as well.  For example, I like badminton.  Now I just have to find some people to play it with...and rackets...and birdies...and wait for winter to end...  Why does everything have to be so complex!?!

This self-portrait feels surprisingly important.  It is literally me defining myself, and somehow that is incredibly hard to do.  Maybe I'm too complex to explain in two sentences.
"Hello class, my name is Mr. M.  I'm a twenty-three-year-old smoker with limited teaching experience and degrees in two fields which have relatively little to do with educating you.  I am an outspoken liberal, pro-choice feminist, registered democrat, and agnostic.  I enjoy listening to spoken poetry, but I rarely read the stuff silently.  And I hear that you guys think I look like Neil Patrick Harris and one of the guys from the gay couple in Modern Family.  That's awesome, and no I'm not gay, but I do like to keep an open mind.  Any questions?"
Or maybe I just have a really boring and generic personality, and lack any actual noteworthy traits.  I think I'll just tell them I like to travel.

I think they think I look like the one on the left...
...but this is probably a more accurate portrayal.

When Cultures Collide

The Museum of Bad Ideas has officially relocated to the beautiful, east coast city of Gangeung, South Korea, and I couldn't be happier about this particular outsourcing.  But, with every move comes the oh-so unfortunate cultural shift.  It occurs whenever one finds oneself in a new city, new county, or even on the other side of the world.  Its the realization that people in this new home see the world slightly different from the mover.  College courses, such as Women's Studies, seem to challenge themselves by emphasizing two contrary things: cultural relativism and want for equality, and there is a precarious balance one must maintain between these two things.


Looking at South Korea, and other East Asian cultures, gender roles are often firmly locked into place.  Just talking to the people I work with, I've heard the normative Korean family might look something like this: The father's role is to assure the financial stability of his family.  He goes to work.  After work, he might go to a bar and come home late.  His duty is not to take care of children because that role is handled by the frequently non-working mother.  Marriage does not necessarily mean the father is required to be monogamous, but the wife likely should be, and she shouldn't enjoy sex.

The outline above is not an intensely researched conclusion, rather its completely taken as hearsay, but it also reminds me of normative marriage roles from other places and times throughout history.  On one hand, I can observe this information and decide it entraps women in what I perceive as an awful and unfair subservient position.  On the other, I can observe this information and decide it is not my right to tell South Koreans how to live their lives, that's their job.  South Korean mothers are an incredibly powerful and influential (and frequently referred to as "scary") force.  If they decided to demand greater equality within their family structure, it is theirs to take, but none of my business to ask for them.

That's the kicker about being raised in an over-opinionated melting pot like the United States.  There I can shout my world views and talk about how "we should do things this way" or "this group is being marginalized and its wrong of us to do that to them", but when I enter a different culture, I have bite my tongue...and boy do I have to bite down hard sometimes.  If I were to shout my opinions it would not be at a "royal we," but at a "plural you" - "YOU should do things this way", or rather "YOU should do things MY way" - and what right do I have to tell a perfectly capable people how to live their lives?  I would like to hold off on the Imperialism for as long as possible.

That might sound pretty simple, but let's look at some other cultures to show how much more challenging it is to keep an open mind.  Female circumcision is practiced in plenty of Asian and African locations today and is more frequently referred to as female genital mutilation in Western Culture, however, to the people who practice it, female circumcision is thought of as an important ritual for girls, as male circumcision is for many boys in some Western groups.

Some cultures demand women wear burqas.  Some cultures do not only frown upon homosexuality, but deem it a crime.  Some cultures view any form of contraception as murderous.  Some cultures allow men to marry multiple wives while denying women the same luxury.  These issues are a fair bit more complex than the ever varying family unit, and are a lot harder to not speak out against or at very least argue over.  I am of the firm opinion that a little discourse is good for any society.  Speaking openly, including to the particular community you discuss, allows people to think about "why" society is structured the way it is, and even if the conclusion that group comes to seems wrong, at least it was brought up.  That is a far more effective way of communicating compared to loudly criticizing.  At least, it helps everyone better understand each other, which makes everyone a little better.

Or perhaps, I am wrong and my discussions are nothing more than the Imperial Me trying to sway others to agree to my own world views.