Thursday, March 12, 2009

That's the night that the lights went out in Nowon

At 5:32 AM (according to coworker Charlie, who was awake), our apartment building in Seoul lost electricity and water.

Compare/Contrast time!

Initial reaction to power loss, US Midwest: Must be a tree down someplace.
Initial reaction to power loss, Seoul: Did we forget to pay our power bill?

Second reaction to power loss, US Midwest: Never had one, since it was always the trees.
Second reaction to power loss, Seoul: Oh GOD, the WAR started.

I realize that I'm a bit of a fruitcake, but I want to point out that coworker Shelby experienced the EXACT SAME SEQUENCE of power loss reaction. Justin, of course, thinks it's a corporate conspiracy: our landlord fell behind on his bills and the power company cut his service at an inconvenient time for the tenants to put the squeeze on him. As if Kim Jong-Il has nothing to do with this! He's so naive.

For the heart-attacking moms reading this blog, I'm joking, of course. As everything else appears to be running normally, I think we can say that war is no more imminent than it's been for the rest of the time we've been here. My toilet is perhaps less strategically significant to North Korea than it is to me. (Although they eat kimchi, too, so who can say for certain?)

Anyway, it's been weeks since we lost heat or internet... I think it was about time for one of these, don't you?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Give me a break, gimme a break . . .

. . . break me off a piece of that KicKer Bar!
Don't know what they did with all that money they saved on brand development . . . they sure as heck didn't spent it on taste.

(E-mail subscribers: click through to the blog if you can't see the photos.)

South Korean Education Public Service Announcement

From a recent AP article on President Obama's new education policy:

Children in South Korea spend a month longer in school every year than do kids in the U.S., where the antiquated school calendar comes from the days when many people farmed and kids were needed in the fields.
"If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America," Obama said.
Yes, Korean students have a longer school year than Americans. You know what else they have?

- Class sizes of 40 to 50 by secondary school.

- No or few writing assignments, because if you teach 50 kids 8 periods a day, you have 400 students by the end of the day and there's no way to grade that meaningfully. (Drowning under a pile of essays on 19th century treaties, I have to keep reminding myself that it's worth it).

- Corporal punishment. I just got a journal entry from a student who described an experience in a Korean school being hit with a stick by a teacher - in elementary school.

Fantastic quotes from the linked article:

According to the report, 74.7 percent of those polled think that teachers should be allowed to beat students on the condition that it is being done only for educational purposes. [Note from Nana: Well! As long as it's an EDUCATIONAL beating!] In contrast, 25.3 percent were against corporal punishment.

In particular, fathers were more supportive of corporal punishment than mothers with 78.9 percent of them in favor of beating students physically. Only 71.6 percent of mothers recognized the necessity of corporal punishment.

"Necessity" of corporal punishment? And that's the REPORTER talking.

- Foreign language teachers, especially English teachers, who don't speak the foreign language, and students who study for six years but can't talk.

- A high teen suicide rate, often connected to school performance

- A burden on parents to supplement school education with after-school academies (hagwons) to the tune of, on average, several thousand dollars a year. And that means some spend far more, often leading to competitive advantages for wealthier families (see above link "Foreign Language Teachers"). In the US media, Korean kids' test scores are entirely due to their public educations. This omits the fact that many of them spend almost as much time in a hagwon as they do at the school. Obama is wrong: Korean kids don't spend an extra month a year in school. By the end of the school year, they've probably spent at least four extra months in hagwons alone. And then they go over vacation - I had a kid who went from 9-5 last summer, a longer day than his academic year schoolday.

- Families who split up across continents to raise their children in non-domestic schools.

Do I think American schools are busted? You bet. Do I think many of Obama's visions are sound, especially teacher merit salary (if it can be well executed?). You definitely bet. Are there many things that are better here, including classroom discipline, a culture supportive of education, and (for many kids!) work ethic? Absolutely.

But man, I am so tired of the American press holding up East Asian test scores in math and science (two things an Asian-style rote-memorization curriculum is well-equipped to teach) and saying, "Wow, I wish we could be just like them!" Take a closer look, please. All systems have pros and cons, and there is a downside to these test scores - enough downsides, in fact, that demand exists here for American-style education at schools like APIS.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

San Nakji: Live Octopus

Found this funny article on a famous Korean delicacy: San nakji, or live octopus. (Warning: gross video.)

Nana and I have forsworn octopus amid all the recent indications that they may actually be intelligent. Though the little guys in San nakji probably aren't, at least it gives us a good excuse to avoid this dish!

Seoul Philharmonic

Last Thursday night, rather than sit at home alone missing Nana (who was in Tokyo, wrangling 8th graders), I accepted an invitation to see the Seoul Philharmonic perform, among other things, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Bonus: One of the APIS music teachers is married to one of the orchestra's trumpets, so a handful of us were able to get good seats for free.

Now, I used to be a regular symphony patron back in Pittsburgh and New Haven, but I fell out of the habit during my year in DC (priced out of the market for the good stuff--stupid lobbyists), and most nights here in Seoul, the long trip back from downtown makes every concert a pretty late night. But for free seats at a performance of one of my favorite pieces, I would not be deterred.

On the whole, the concert was very enjoyable. It being a Thursday night, the hall was maybe only two-thirds full, and as is common for Thursday night concerts, the energy level was a bit low. Acoustically, the hall itself was also a bit of a liability--the Sejong Center is home to several opera, dance, and musical theater companies, so even with the sound shell down, a lot of precision was lost in the back corners of that cavernous stage.

The audience, though, ate it up.

As it turns out, the conductor, Sung Myung-hoon, is one of Korea's most beloved sons, the beneficiary of that familiar dynamic in which any Korean who achieves some success abroad instantly becomes a national celebrity at home, regardless of the particulars (see: Hines Ward). Sung Myung-hoon conducts the Paris Opera, and as such the audience Thursday night seemed to have determined, before the first note was sounded, that this was going to be the best concert of their lives. (Best Korean conductor = best conductor in the world = best concert of your life. These folks are very good at math.)

Now, I don't want to sound like some kind of Anton Ego, tearing down great achievements as a way of burnishing my own self-importance. Thursday's performance was very enjoyable, the orchestra played well, the soloist--while a bit of a ham, but aren't most soloists?--executed a very satisfactory Mozart piano concerto. And the Rite of Spring was its good old bombastic self. But the audience applauded the soloist through eight curtain calls and two encores. Then, after the Rite of Spring, there were another eight curtain calls, a standing ovation, and another short encore, to boot. (Don't get me started on this encore--they simply played the last 90 seconds of Rite over again. It doesn't work that way. Stravinsky makes you earn that ending. You can't just go back and play it again! Argh!) Let me say again that this was in no way a disappointing concert--but was it standing-ovation material? I mean, if we give every satisfying concert a standing ovation, what do we do to recognize those truly outstanding performances? Riot?

Anyway. [Steps down from soapbox.] That's about enough out of me!

No excuses!

We kind of just fell off the face of the earth for this week, huh? Nana had an excuse--she was chaperoning the 8th grade trip to Tokyo (more on that later)--but for me . . . I got nothin'. Stay tuned for a couple meaty posts this week.