Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Why I WON'T Vote for John Edwards

I just read this article about John Edwards. Now, there are actually about a hundred different reasons why I wouldn't vote for him, but this article gives me several more to add to the list. It is exactly this type of two-faced politician that makes the average American totally disgusted by politics in general. On Edwards' campaign website, it lists "Eliminating Poverty" as the number three item under the "Issues" link. Now, I am no economist so maybe I don't have a right to speak about this issue, but I am pretty sure that getting $400 haircuts is something the average American has never experienced. In fact, I pay about $5 per haircut and with my Blue Club Membership Card every tenth haircut is free. I admit, getting a $5 dollar haircut is kind of like a box of chocolates, but I will spend less in one year on haircuts than Edwards does on just one! Can you imagine if you were a poor American citizen who has bought into this poli-speak of Edwards' and had contributed some of your hard earned cash to his (and presumably your) cause? Does he really think that his supporters want to donate their money in order to support his extravagant habits, things they will never afford themselves? I am sure that he will probably come back and "reimburse" the campaign for the haircuts, but wasted money is wasted money. A person is known by his habits.

So my political advice for Mr. Edwards: Remember, your actions speak louder than your words. No matter how many you use.

A Different Kind of Grief Observed

As I read the news this morning regarding the VA Tech tragedy, I came across the fact that the shooter had been identified as a 23 year old man originally from South Korea. I didn't know exactly how this might affect the comments I was sure to hear from my South Korean co-workers, but I knew that it would have some impact. I was, however, surprised at the result.

At first, I assumed that knowing the attacker was South Korean born, it would somehow temper the comments I so often hear about the violence of U.S. society and the almost barbaric persona most Americans seem to portray to the rest of the civilized world (ironic that we, the world's foremost demcratic institution, should have such a stigma). I have heard these comments many times before and have rarely had adequate answers to excuse this perception. Really, you try to explain to a group of people that while fireworks, something you can readily and legally buy in almost any store in Korea, are ILLEGAL in most U.S. states because of their perceived "danger", it is nonetheless LEGAL to own, and in many states carry and conceal, a whole aresenal of weapons. I know that the first response of many Americans to yesterday's tragedy was to run out and apply for their own gun permits, but isn't this just a micro-cosmic rehashing of the same ideals that started the cold war? If you build nukes, then we will build more nukes. As a child of the 80's, I watched the movie War Games and I know about "mutally assured destruction". As George Santanyana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemened to repeat it." But I digress...

The first word uttered by anyone in my English class this morning was "shocking". Defintely le mots juste. But I did not correctly perceive the reason for the shock. It was not shocking that someone else had killed a large number of people in the U.S. Sadly, the international community is becoming far to accostumed to such stories. What was shocking was the fact that a South Korean had commited yesterday's crimes! Surely, such things would bring little shock north of the DMZ, but for South Koreans to learn that one of their own was capable of such a blood-letting, it is really quite shocking. But as we discussed it further (it was the only subject of our English class - except for my ill-conceived history lesson trying to explain in 100 words or less the ideas of the "Bill of Rights" and the "Right to Bear Arms"), I discovered what they really meant by shocking. Yesterday, the Korean news sources were stating that the gunman was Asian, probably Chinese, a fact that caused many Koreans to exhale (this was actually acted out by one of my students). When they discovered this morning it was a South Korean, they were "shocked". Embarassed. Ashamed. In fact, they told me that the shooters father had committed suicide yesterday, and his mother had tried but failed. I have not yet been able to confirm the truth of this fact, but I was shocked at this story. I was shocked because my students said they understood why his parents would do this and that they would probably do the same thing in their position. There is no glorification of the criminal life in Korea, which is probably why hip-hop culture has not ever fully caught on here.

But the fact remains, regardless of which side of the world you are living in, yesterday's tragedy is shocking. Let's hope that it always will be.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Green Revolution?

On Friday morning as I was walking to work, I happened upon an ajuma (Korean woman older than 40). This woman was probably in her mid to late 70s, although it is difficult to tell as the VAST majority of Korean men and women dye their hair black as soon as the gray begins to creep in. It was just before 9 AM and it was obvious she had already been out and about doing what many senior citizens do in Korea: collect recyclable garbage. I watched with marvel and curiosity as this squatting little dynamo methodically dismantled a cardboard box in order to strap it to her pile of other treasures she had accumulated and placed on her cart. As I watched, I was struck by the fact that this senior citizen plays such an integral part in the defense of the environment in Korea. I smiled to myself at this thought, pleased with the direction humanity seems to be flowing. When I bowed, smiled warmly, and greeted her, I noticed her toss to the curb the many large pieces of tape she had previously ripped from the box. As I watched the tape, propelled by the wind, skid across the ground and off into the city, I realized, this woman is not an environmentalist, she is a capitalist.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Driver's Ed: Korean Style

Having lived in a city of 10,000,000 people for the last year, I have learned all kinds of new things about driving that I never knew nor would have ever become acquainted with in the comfortable confines of Midwestern towns. I was thinking about a few of these rules tonight as I was weaving among the pedestrians, cars, scooters, and other obstacles as I was driving home. So, for your education, I thought I would string together a few of these pearls for you. They are not necessarily in order of importance nor in which they were learned.

1. Side mirrors can do more than just show you how close the cars behind you are. They are an EXCELLENT measuring stick for helping to determine how close the car, building, bicycle, or school girl is to the side of your car. When you make contact, you're too close. Quite simple really.

2. You can actually stop much more quickly than you realize, if the need should arise. Consequently, you can drive much more quickly in congested areas than you realize.

3. Checking your blind spot is for sissies.

4. 30 - 45 minutes is actually a short drive.

5. 30 - 45 minutes is an even shorter distance.

6. Always use the shortest imaginable car when trying to stay two car lengths back from the car your are following.

7. If you do stay two car lengths back from the car you are following, it will soon become 4, then 6, then 8...you get the point.

8. 3 flashes of your hazard lights="Thank you." 4 flashes of your hazard lights="I'm sorry." You have much more opportunity to use the latter of these two.

9. There is nothing wrong with double parking, especially in a parking garage. Just leave your car in neutral and make sure you are on flat ground.

10. You never know if the other car will stop until you try, so always try.

Because posting 11 things is an uncomfortable number for me, here is the last one by itself. It is, however, probably the most important of them all.

Who says that pedestrians have the right of way?

Hopefully this has all been excellent training for moving to New York this fall. I'm sure New Yorkers are not nearly as forgiving as Koreans.

Seoul is ranked number 5 in the world for "Most Congested City". You can access the article here.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Crazy, Wacky, English Teacher Man

Since coming to Korea, I have had the opportunity to do many new things. Some of these I have done with great enjoyment (going to the beach, visiting the Pusan Aquarium, touring the DMZ); others I have done with great endurance (eating squid, smelling garlic EVERYWHERE, squeezing into an overstuffed subway car). There is one thing, however, that has required a particularly high level of endurance lately: teaching English to 3 and 4 year old children. Yes, you read that correctly. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I get to lay aside my many years of training and teaching as a Classicist and take up the mantle of "Crazy, Wacky, English Teacher Man". This Jeckyl/Hyde transformation is a truly singular challenge. As you might have already guessed, students of the belles lettres are not necessarily best suited for such an endeavor. But nevertheless, 3 days a week you can find me, or at least a person resembling me in appearence only, "teaching" English to 31 screaming, crying, oozing pre-kindergarten children.

And to think that I might actually be at Harvard this fall!?!?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Kum Ba Yah

On Monday night, the English class that I typically teach to a group of employees at my companies Southern Branch Office was canceled. Unfortunately, through a series of mis/failed communications, I was not informed of this fact until I actually arrived at the branch office. I walked into the classroom in which I typically teach to find one of the students sitting at the conference table studying. Only he wasn't studying English. He was studying for some type of regulatory laws exam that all of the company employees (except me, of course) are taking this week. Although he can hardly speak a complete sentence of intelligible English, I understood quickly through the ubiquitous Korean sign for "No" (forming an "x" with your hands) that there would be no class.

So I quickly turned around and got right back on a bus for home in order to minimize my losses. Although I had indeed gotten on the correct bus, it was not at the right point in its circuit to take me quickly (that means 30-40 minutes in the city) back home. After realizing this fact 30 minutes later, I got off the bus and jumped into a taxi. As the taxi driver and I sat in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, taking in the glorious cityscape (construction, trash, and high rise mounds of concrete), and enjoying the smells of diesel exhaust and unwashed humanity (the taxi driver was not the most hygenic I have had), the sweet sounds of "Kum Ba Yah" come drifting dreamily through the radio. What a truly transcendental experience!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Eroding Values

"We need the most talented people; we need the language skills. We need patriotic Americans who exist across the board in our population. We don't need moral judgment from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs."

~House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Such were the great words uttered by the esteemed Nancy Pelosi yesterday in her response to General Peter Pace's comments regarding homosexuality in the military. Having served 4 years in the Marine Corps alongside a man whom I knew to be a homosexual by his own admission (I can explain that to you if you ask), I feel as if I have some right to pontificate about both Pace's comments and the "Don't ask don't tell policy." But I won't. My friends (i.e. those people who know me well), should already know my position on these issues. Not only this, but my real beef is with the comments of Nancy Pelosi.

Having seen her name printed alongside numerous outrageous comments in the past, and attaching the "value" that I typically attach to comments of the majority of politicians, there is really no surprise in her statement. But let's consider it more carefully.

Pelosi argues that it is not appropriate for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to make what she calls "moral judgements". On what grounds can she make such a claim? Better yet, if we are to exclude moral judgement from the evaluative criteria used by the Joint Chiefs, then what criteria ought they to use? The wikipedia entry for the Joint Chiefs states under "Roles and Responsibilites" the following:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff also act in an advisory military capacity for the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense. In addition, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acts as the chief military advisor to the President and the Secretary of Defense. In this strictly advisory role, the Joint Chiefs constitute the second-highest deliberatory body for military policy, after the National Security Council, which includes the President and other officials besides the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

And so, their words have a lot of power to influence the Commander-in-Chief. For example, should the President seek to go to war against an oil rich, Middle Eastern country which is being led by a murderous dictator, they would be the ones to consult. Can we assume that Speaker Pelosi would prefer that they abstain from passing any moral judgements about the potential loss of life involved in such an expedition? Surely, they should restrict their judgements to the military readiness of the forces and disregard any moralistic rationalizing when executing their advising duties. Decisions should be made purely on the basis of military superiority and dollars and sense.

In fact, it is probably not moral judgments from which Speaker Pelosi wants the general to abstain, but rather she wants him to abstain from any judgments that might disagree with her own moral compass. She values freedom of speech and religion in so far as they are free to agree with her. Although I consider myself to be a fairly apolitical person, it is difficult for me, at this distance, to swallow such ill-thought criticism.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cultural Baptism by Fire

It has been 1 year and 2 days since we first arrived in Korea. Let me say, if you ever have the opportunity to live in a foreign country for an extended period of time, you should definitely take advantage of it. And the more "foreign" the country, the better. Having grown up in the U.S., I thought that I not only understood what it meant to be multi-cultural, but also what it meant to be culturally sensitive. I grew up in "the great American melting pot" and probably even knew most of the words to the School House Rock song bearing that same title. However, I have come to realize that liking to eat at a variety of ethnic restaurants does not qualify a person as being "multi-cultural" and "culturally sensitive". In fact, because those restaurants have usually been adapted to suit American tastes, it is all the more misleading.

No, in order to truly understand what cultural sensitivity means, it requires something much more drastic. Living as a foreigner is definitely the best way. If you are also an ethnic minority, it is twice the experience. I, fortunately, get to experience both as an American living in Korea. It is because of these experiences that I feel myself to have earned the right to speak more openly (i.e. not politically correct) about our experiences. Actually, it is less of a right and more of an ability. To comment on the differences between my own culture and Korean culture is not an exercise in bigotry. Neither is it the biblical concept of "speaking the truth in love." Rather, it is the practice of careful observation. What I have learned is that it is possible to make a statement without making a value judgment, and to make an observation without forming an opinion. It is actually a very liberating experience.

It is kind of like buying a 2 LB (.9 KG) bag of M & Ms. Before you open it up, it is just a big bag of M & Ms. Pour them into a bowl, and you have a big bowl of M & Ms. But if you separate them by their individual colors, you have somehow changed them. They are no longer just M & Ms. Now, they are red M & Ms, and yellow M & Ms, and brown M & Ms, and green M & Ms. You might combine them in various different ways, but unless you dump them all back into the same bowl and mix them around, they will not be "just" M & Ms again. But maybe, just maybe, even if they are mixed back together, it is now easier to see the individual colors. I realize that this analogy lacks elegance almost as much as it lacks utility, but it is the best I could come up with at the moment. If you have something better, I am open to suggestions.