Friday, June 26, 2009

Shanghai: Opera School and Yuyuan Garden

Consider this a follow-up to Nana's last post on academic pressure in Korea: on the first full day of the 9th grade class trip to Shanghai, we visited two veritable shrines to academic success as the foundation of filial piety--namely, the Shanghai Opera School and the Yuyuan Garden.

Shangahi Opera School

In the morning, we took a tour of the Shanghai Opera School, a boarding school where students aged (roughly) 8-16, in addition to their academic studies, learn the range of skills necessary to perform classical Chinese opera.

In other words, they learn singing, gymnastics, stylized martial arts, stylized operatic diction, costume-making--even how to apply their elaborate makeup. If the demonstration performance they showed us is any indication, by the time the kids are 16, they're really exceptionally skilled.

The shots above and below are from a beloved farce scene in the classical opera literature. The figure in white is the bodyguard of a popular general. The figure in black is an innkeeper who mistakenly thinks the bodyguard is an assassin. The conceit is that they're fighting in pitch dark, so neither can see the other.

Even so many hundreds of years after it was written--still hilarious!

Yuyuan Garden

Our second stop that day was Yuyuan Garden, a few blocks off the river near the Bund. It is a classic Chinese city garden, rambling and shady, rocky and green.
The garden was meticulously built over the span of several decades by a Ming-dynasty official for his beloved father, also a high-ranking Ming official. Back then (and even today, to a degree), it's assumed the first-born son will assume responsibility for the care of his parents in their old age, and this fellow went above and beyond the call of duty.

He got the money to do so, of course, by acing his exams. No joke--the modern East Asian exam system dates back to the old Chinese imperial exams, which secured top performers lucrative and powerful positions in the government.

Apparently this is the #1 destination for school trips to Shanghai.

So let that be a lesson, kiddos. If you don't mind letting your parents starve in the gutter, sure, keep playing that video game. Otherwise, crack open those books!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The International Educator article: "Korean student despairs over intense academic pressure"

"Korean student despairs over intense academic pressure," by Hyung-Tak Han, a student at Jakarta International School, appeared in the April 2009 edition of The International Educator, a trade paper for... international educators. (And I teach writing?) I thought it provided some interesting perspective.
Some manage to survive in this world [Korean schooling] and get into their dream college, but others end up in a coffin or as ashes flowing on the Han River.
Ouch. Really, ouch. But this point (although delivered a bit melodramatically) has some basis in fact: there are high teen suicide rates in Korea. Han later argues that they have "the highest rate of suicide at college and universities," but I don't have a citation to back that up. I wrote about teen suicide before here.
Since the day they enter primary school, Korean students are manipulated and brainwashed into going to institutes, where they learn matematics, science, social studies, and even how to take stantadized tests. At dawn, on the streets of Korea are twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, carrying stuffed backpacks as they travel back and forth from home to these institutes [aka hagwons]
Personally, I'm a big opponent of the hagwon system (more comments at the link above). If your school doesn't offer clarinet, okay, go to a clarinet hagwon, but you don't ALSO need a literature hagwon, a math hagwon, and a science hagwon, for one hour each, all on the same night. I know elementary students who don't get home until midnight. And hagwons are often completley ineffective. Since grades there don't count, hagwon teachers tell me they have no way to create a learning environment. Many kids in my building are hagwon English students who can't say anything besides the obligatory "Hello! Nice to meet you!" hollered across the playground.

There's pressure on parents to send their kids. Sometimes it's as a rival form of conspicuous consumption ("My child goes to FOUR hagwons" can be the Korean equivalent of "Check out my new Lexus!", and sometimes costs as much). More often, I think, it's well-intentioned fear of not doing right by their child, of failing as a parent by letting their child fall behind. These parents respond well to our explanation that being too busy is actually a disservice to the child's education and health. So I agree with Han that hagwon pressure exists and can be really crushing for the student and the parents, emotionally and financially, but I've seen willingness by parents to reduce the load. Fewer hagwons but more learning at each.
For a Korean student, a 90 percent on a test should be hidden, crunched up insaide [sic] their backpack. Because perfection is the expectation of a typical Korean parent.
Obviously, I can't give examples and violate student confidentiality, but this was one stereotype that did not come true for Justin and me. I've had students and parents who freaked out at perfectly reasonable grades, but I've also had students and parents who accepted low marks, both for students doing their best and for students who were underachieving. If I were Jamie and Adam, I would proclaim this myth BUSTED.
Some school counselors say that high SAT scores are merely something for parents to brag about to other parents.... Moreover, parents seem to know more than their children do about their schoolmates, what their SAT's [sic] are, the kinds of grades they get, and the colleges they are applying to, etc. Nothing hurts us more than those kinds of comparisons.
Qualified agreement. There is pressure on parents to have successful children. The Korean language, for instance, has many, many verb conjugations used to indicate your level of respect for the person you're speaking with: not just the "formal" and "informal" of Spanish or German, but a whole gamut of conjugations. Usually these are dependent on age, but I've been told that parents of students may use their child's class rank to determine which parent "ranks" the others and thereby earns a more respectful conjugation. My Korean remains less than basic, so I can't confirm this personally.

I've had many parents ask me for their student's class rank at conferences (my general answer: "There are some higher and some lower," and just hope those two end parents don't ask!) But I've also had parents respond very positively to a nudge to think only in terms of their student's progress against him or herself, to look at grade change over time or skills improvement in writing and such. I wonder sometimes if they might be secretly relieved not to have that information.
It's ironic that parents educate their sons and daughters to be successful but they don't educate them to be satisfied with what they have. Is it possible to be successful without satisfaction?
I love this quote because it goes massively beyond Korean education, Korean parenting, or even Korea. Every parent and every teacher - and every person - in the whole world could stand to take a step back and ask, "I'm trying to get ahead? Ahead to where? Can I just get there and stop?" I'm not implying it's a modern problem - heck, Buddha made "giving up wants" one of his Four Noble Truths. We could probably all use a refresher on that. I know Justin and I have been pondering it as we decide whether or not to pursue PhDs - would we be doing it for us, or to compete with other people?

Han is correct, though, that there is an extra cultural burden on Koreans to keep pushing ahead. I recommend the excellent cultural/historical comic book Korea Unmasked (if you can find it!) for that author's perspective on the Korean affinity for taking things to extremes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reflections: Top Ten Meals in Asia

(Note: Justin and I had this conversation over our Gmail messengers. I cleaned it up for coherence and added the hotlinks. Any errors are probably original, but I did improve the grammar/spelling that we rushed for time. And now, prepare to get much more inside our relationship than you ever probably wanted to be!)

Nana: We'll go your 5, my 5, your 4, my 4

Justin: sounds good. ready? 5. Onion naan and dipping sauces in Little India, Singapore

Nana: Ah. That's higher on mine. It was darn good.

Justin: More of a snack, I guess, but I'm counting it as a meal. I liked how light it was. The naan was spongy, the consistency of that Ethiopian bread. And the raw onions cut through the oil in the sauces.

Justin: The chana masala sauce was probably the best I've ever had

Nana: Yes. That's why it's higher on mine. My #5 is Japanese-style soy ramen with egg, Tokyo, Japan.

Justin: I thought about putting Tokyo-style ramen on my list. It was, like, 5a

Nana: I could drink that broth forever. I feel very strongly about salt.

Justin: Japanese ramen is so rich and subtle. There's a lot going on.

Nana: I still have cravings for it. And then I go get Korean ramen, and I am so depressed, because it's not even vaguely alike.

Nana: And the egg! Sort of semi-hard boiled. A perfect yolk.

Justin: Mine had egg-drop-style egg, and some fried tofu in it, and a big slice of mildly salted pork

Nana: I had mine at a Tokyo Disney hotel food court, so maybe my love is also connected to my DisneyJoy

Justin: actually, the ramen we had in hokkaido was as good, I think

Nana: I don't remember Ramen in Hokkaido

Justin: at the ski lodge

Nana: Oh, yes. Good, but not as good as my Tokyo ramen.

Justin: then again, everything tastes better after you've spent a morning in waist-deep powder!

Nana: Or spent the day at DisneySea!

Justin: okay, moving up the list: 4. Beef wanggalbi with Dr. Kim last weekend. A recent entry

Nana: Ah! My #4 is also Korean BBQ!

Justin: Which one? The one on the way to Vivaldi Park?

Nana: I couldn't pick - I'm bad. That was one of the three. Vivaldi Park BBQ, the orange Hagye restaurant, and the wood paneled restaurant here in Wolgye

Nana: The wood one is better for Samgipsal and the egg souffle

Justin: I never liked that one quite as much . . . though they DO have the best samgyeopsal

Nana: I love the gaedanjip/egg soufflé and the mushrooms. And that is the best samgipsal I've had in Korea.

Justin: I think I like galbi stuff better overall, so I lean towards the places with good galbi

Nana: Dr. Kim's had the best side dishes, I think.

Justin: Dr. Kim's place, though, wasn't just about the meat--those were the best Korean side-dishes

Nana: Ha! Read my mind!

Justin: I loved that spicy salad . . . the pickles . . . the pumpkin

Nana: What was the other one I liked so much... Oh, the horseradish (If that's what it was in English)

Justin: And that naengmyeon was incredible--I didn't even know there could be a difference with naengmyeon until then!

Nana: Yes, that was the best of that. But it wasn't as good as Japanese ramen!

Justin: I don't know--overall meal, I'd repeat Dr. Kim's KBBQ before I'd repeat the Tokyo ramen.

Nana: See, now that I think about it, I totally might switch ramen over barbecue

Justin: anyway- #3: Mongolian hotpot (in Beijing and in Shanghai)

Nana: DANG! That was on my list yesterday and I forgot it today! Good thing you're representing!

Justin: I love spicy food, and I'm a complete sucker for lamb--those lamb meatballs, mildly spiced--those things are delicious

Nana: I like the lotus root. It stays nice and crunchy

Justin: I liked the one I went to in Shanghai a bit better, I think, because you got to mix your own spicy sauce. I added a little sesame oil to mine, to round out the spice, and it was awesome. But the noodles at the beijing place were crazy, how they pulled them at the table.

Nana: I'm totally watching the video of that now (NOTE: At the above "Mongolian Hotpot" link)

Justin: The Shanghai place didn't serve noodles at the end--I missed that. So I kind of couldn't choose between the two. Oh, also--the broth was lighter in shanghai, not as oily. It meant you could eat more meat before getting full.

Nana: My #3 choice was the Chinese food meal we had that night in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Justin: oh, that was a good one. I forgot about that.

Nana: I really enjoyed the sweet and sour/hot shrimp, and I love teh tariq

Justin: Yeah, it was just very good, mild, simple Chinese food

Nana: and I loved playing with the stirrer with Gia and coming up with stupid things it might be, like a microphone or a miniature flagpole. They made very good fried rice, if I recall

Justin: oh, no--you're talking about a different night. Not the place in Chinatown?

Nana: No, not the little corner place. The big one with the lazy susan, where we all went as a groop.

Justin: The place in the mall by the Petronas Towers

Nana: Yes

Justin: he he, groop

Nana: Shut up. You spell "hee hee" wrong.

Justin: yeah, though that was more of a fusion place--they had Malay dishes, too

not just Chinese

Nana: That's why it was a good place. Lots of variety, and everything was good

Justin: I loved the beef rending, though it had coconut, so you couldn't eat it

Nana: That's not the dish's fault, though.

Justin: true

Nana: The strange thing is, I don't remember too many individual dishes from that night. (a hazard of dining out with Dr. Kim and his shotgun-spread approach to ordering). But I remember being thoroughly pleased with it.

Justin: man, I should have remembered that one. Though I don't know what it would have bumped from my list . . .

Nana: It's okay, we can poach from each other.

Justin: anyway-ready for #2?

Nana: Yes

Justin: #2: Sushi in Hokkaido

Nana: That's my number one. We'll have nothing to say about it when we get there. Thanks a lot.

Justin: The. best. sushi. I. have. ever. eaten.

Nana: Absolutely.

Justin: let's leave it at that for now.

Nana: Okay. My number two, though, we also talked about. It was the chana masala/poori combination in Little India, Singapore.

Justin: the onion naan?

Nana: No, I didn't like the onion naan as much.

Justin: yeah! We had poori, too. I forgot that

Nana: That chana masala was unbelievable. Chick peas are so frequently bitter, but they were butter-sweet.

Justin: yeah, the chana masala was the platonic ideal of chana masala. Sweet, a bit of sour, still that tangy-salty-mildly-spicy thing you get

Nana: If we lived in Singapore, I'd go there every week. I'd eat my way through the entire menu. And then go to that dessert place.

Justin: absolutely. I was torn between that place and the murtabak, but I liked the onion naan better

Nana: Okay. Your #1. I know it!

Nana: Your #1 is going to be Xinjiang food.

Justin: I know you know it! #1 XINJIANG FOOD

Nana: Ha!

Justin: it was like FOOD and GEOGRAPHY ALL IN ONE

Nana: Did you guess that mine would be the sushi?

Justin: Yeah, I knew yours would be sushi

Nana: I think I would love that restaurant more if we went back and ordered some less spicy dishes. And also if I didn't have a fever. I do remember that the bread was unbelievable.

Justin: There were just so many different flavors on the table. Chinese flavors, Indian flavors, middle eastern flavors, blended in so many unusual ways

Nana: It was a thick, spongy, almost focaccia-style bread, which I didn't expect

Justin: oh yeah, the bread. Like turkish bread

Nana: yes, that's it.

Justin: plus the little Chinese pocket bread, for the szechuan-style pork

Nana: I remember some terrific kabobs, right? Lamb.

Justin: Yeah, the lamb kebabs

Nana: You're such a sucker for lamb

Justin: wow. I am, aren't I?

Nana: Okay. My number one, Hokkaido sushi

Justin: yeah, it was a close second for me

Nana: I think this one wins overall champ, if you add up your placement and mine

Justin: It's actually difficult to describe why or how it was so darn good

Nana: I can! It was insanely fresh

Justin: But still tender--not chewy

Nana: The fish was sweeter than any fish I've had in sushi before or since

Justin: There were simply extra flavors in there somehow

Nana: Instead of a saltier fish in salty soy sauce, it was sweet fish in salty sauce with sweet rice and spicy mustard... it just combined so elegantly. I have to specifically shout out two sushi rolls: the mackerel first.

Nana: Which was not actually a roll, but whatever

Justin: yeah, I loved the mackerel

Justin: usually, you get mackerel and the fishy flavor is overpowering

Nana: yes, too fishy. But there it was perfectly savory

Justin: yeah, it was just right

Nana: And the other one was the Salmon roe

Justin: oh my yes

Nana: Never before and never since have I had salmon roe like that

Justin: yet again: often, it's overpoweringly fishy, but this stuff, the fishy stood to the side a bit, let the other flavors come out

Nana: Somehow it came out tasting sweet.

Justin: a bit of a champagne flavor in there, too. or sweet white wine. So good.

Nana: You bit down on the roe, and the texture was perfect - a perfect little pop - and out came this cold sweetness with just a hint of fishy. Fantastic.

Justin: Yeah, it's strange--those are two things I don't usually like at other sushi places, but they were absolutely my favorite things on the table

Nana: Okay. Now for the head smackers.

Justin: ?

Nana: The "D'oh, I forgot that!", or the "I'm surprised you didn't mention"s.

Nana: I'm surprised you didn't mention the Korean duck.

Justin: smack

Justin: I'd completely forgotten about that meal

Nana: You rhapsodized about that duck and the purple wild rice with beans that it was stuffed with.

Justin: That was really, really, really good. An unusually complicated flavor for Korean food--not bland, not sweet, not spicy

Nana: Sometimes, you call out its name in your sleep.

Justin: "DUCK!"

Justin: no, that's just my war flashback . . .

Nana: And I will never forget Naomi-sensei panicking because she thought we were going to a dog restaurant

Justin: oh, yeah. "duck" & "dog" = phoneticized the same way in hangeul

Nana: same as "tteok," too

Nana: The other thing, which doesn't really count for me probably because I had it the first time I came to Asia, was the Peking Duck in Beijing

Justin: Yeah, I toyed with the idea of including that, but it just didn't make the cut. It was a great meal, don't get me wrong--but I liked my five better

Nana: I really love Peking duck. The skin was so perfectly crispy, the pancakes were great and the scallions and hoisin sauce... yum yum

Justin: The hoisin sauce was really good.

Nana: whose dumb idea was it to have just five?

Nana: Oh, mine.

Justin: I don't know if I can think of any head-smackers for you

Nana: Chicken Tikka in KL?

Justin: maybe the Dongbei food in Beijing? The basement place with all the dumplings?

Nana: Barley rice?

Justin: we liked the barley rice, but I don't think it was top-5 material

Nana: The kaffir lime soup you had in Singapore?Again, good but not top five?

Justin: I was also tempted to include the mee siam (rice noodles in spicy-sweet kaffir lime broth)

Nana: HA

Justin: hey, I was just typing that

Nana: I can read minds.

Justin: yeah, it was really good, but I'm not sure it was quite top-5. It would be a staple of my diet if we lived in Singapore, that's for sure

Nana: OH. There was that OTHER Chinese food in Malaysia, too. The one we had the afternoon of the rainforest walk. That's the place with that pumpkin-battered chicken that I wanted to grow a second stomach so I could finish

Justin: oh, yeah. That was good. Wow! How'd we forget that?

Nana: I think it blurred for me with the other KL Chinese restaurant

Justin: that's going in at #6 for me

Nana: OH! And the Korean barbecue in Japan! Didn't you fall in love with the tripe?

Justin: oh, yeah, that was also really good.

Nana: So are you sticking to your choices or do you think you'd reorder anything after our conversation?

Justin: You know, I'm pretty satisfied with my list

Nana: Let's take a minute and use our conversation to expand to a top ten each, and we'll finish the post with that.

Justin: okay

Top Ten Meals in Asia: Justin

(Note from Justin: "My 1 and 2 are solid; 3-6 are a tier, followed by 7-10")

10. KBBQ in Japan--especially the tripe

9. Mee siam in Singapore

8. Breakfast curry and paratha in Singapore

7. Korean duck

6. The Chinese/Malay restaurant in KL we went to after the rainforest walk

5. Onion naan in Singapore

4. KBBQ with Dr. Kim

3. Mongolian hotpot

2. Sushi in Hokkaido

1. Xinjiang food in Beijing


Top Ten Meals in Asia: Nana

(Note from Nana: I'm pretty comfortable with 1 and 2, but 3-5, 6-8, and 9-10 could move around based on what I'm craving on a particular day.)

10. Korean duck with wild rice, Korean countryside, Korea
9. Korean barbecue - Hagye/Wolgye versions
8. Malaysian mix dinner, mall by Petronas Towers, KL, Malaysia
7. Ethnic Chinese food lunch post-Rainforest Walk, KL, Malaysia
6. Korean barbecue - en route to Vivaldi Park, Korea
5. Japanese-style soy ramen with egg, Tokyo, Japan
4. Peking Duck, Beijing, China
3. Chinese hotpot, Beijing, China
2. Chana masala and poori, Little India, Singapore
1. Japanese sushi, Hokkaido, Japan

So, the overall verdict for travelers to Asia? In Korea, try the BBQ. In Japan, get ramen or sushi. In China, check out the different regional foods - Mongolian, Dongbei/Northern, Xinjiang, etc. In Singapore, hit up Little India. In Malaysia, try for a Chinese restaurant with a mixed menu.

PHEW. So there you have it: we're a couple of amateur-foodie windbags (which may or may not be related to what's in the food...) But it was a really fun trip down memory lane for us, so I hope we weren't too self-indulgent.