Posted by: benevolentjerk | August 19, 2008

Discussing Deutschland and Beijing


A clear-sky day in Beijing?

The eldest group of students at my hagwon is cursed with a really inferior text in terms of real, applicable vocabulary.  (It is called Expressways, if you are curious).  As a supplement to this required text, I thought it would be beneficial to print up some relevant reading material about the Olympics.  This is a particularly relevant topic these days and even from a young age, my students seem to have relatively formed viewpoints of foreign countries that interact or neighbor Korea.  In this way I think young kids are limited (but accurate) barometers of their parents.  We all accept what we are told first before we get to the novel notion that our thoughts are perhaps more relevant.  Alas, these particular students were roughly 9th grade level, well into the age bracket that critical thinking discussions are waged in American classrooms.

As I perused the internet 5 minutes before my class (this is funny because making copies usually takes longer than this), I was unable to find anything that I thought was easy enough relating to this issue.  Even high school kids learning a second language will read at around a 2nd-3rd grade reading level.  Finally I saw a TIME magazine archive link, sort of a “this week in history” type thing.  The article was difficult but I thought the concept of history repeating would be an easily graspable one with the help of my explanation as a crutch.  It discussed all the changes being undertaken in 1936 Germany to appease the impending international flock of sightseers and sports enthusiasts.

These included such radical measures as removing large signs that said “Get out Jews” and hiding or detracting attention from other anti-Semitic displays.  I have not since been able to find the article but I will surely post it on here as soon as I do.  It discussed some people already being displaced and persecuted and even those politicians who opposed the opposition to the suppression of anti-Semitic propaganda.  I felt that in some very critical ways, the article reflected things from the modern Olympic “preparations.”

Now this does not mean I think that China, with its seemingly unsustainable growth and exponential consumption, is in any way headed towards a Nazi-esque political state that single-handedly begins its own campaign of racial genocide.  If you have gleamed this point so far, I urge you to keep reading so that I might explain.  I feel the disaster awaiting China (and the rest of us) will be much different.

I feel that the Olympics have so much to offer a country in terms of prestige, notoriety, and a large economic boost that in many ways overshadows the more important humanitarian aspects.  The phrase that comes to mind is “temporary appeasement.”  Think about China, pulling 30% of automobiles off the road, cutting back factory usage, banning smoking in the streets, and killing millions of cats all in drastic attempts to curb the unsightly side effects of unchecked urban sprawl.  Even if China manages to clean up the air enough to have the approval of even the most asthmatic athlete, do you think they’ll propagate these benefits after the Olympics?  For the good of their people?  HELL NO.  And neither did Germany in terms of hiding their anti-Semitic propaganda longer than necessary. There are a billion people in China who are finally seeing some of the benefits of industrialization and they are not about to halt this process when it means such an increase in quality of life for the individual.

The then-new Stadium in Berlin

The then-new Stadium in Berlin

New Olympic venue in China

New Olympic venue in China

The Olympics were dug up in 1896, brushed off after centuries of hiatus, and re-implemented as a sign of goodwill and comraderie between nations.  Oddly enough they have come to be a distraction that in some very crucial ways, detract from their own benevolent aims.  Perhaps these are just symbols anyways, never meant for the good of all mankind. The goal instead seems to be putting the best foot forward while quickly shoveling the crap behind with the other. They (Olympic hosts) invest huge sums of money to improve the sports, transportation, and lodging infrastructure, and these buildings can continue to be used in the future:

“To accommodate all this, Berlin, cheated of the 1916 Olympics by the War, spent $24,000,000 on municipal improvements; a 325-acre Reichssportfeld including four stadiums, an outdoor theatre, basketball courts, pools, a polo field, a gymnasium; and an Olympic Village conveniently close to Staaken Airport which can use it for barracks when the Games are over.”

From Time Magazine, “Olympic Games” Aug. 10, 1936 view article here

We know how this story turned out in this case so it’s easier to draw conclusions that would have been impossible back then, however China remains a huge question mark for many people.  And true to form they have done a great deal to hide the (many) less desirable aspects to improve their world image.  Again, I am not saying China is going to begin an arms race or invade Poland or any such thing.  I’m simply saying that there are parallels between the behavior of China for the Beijing Olympics and EVERY other Olympic event in history.  This one is just perhaps a bigger scandal than normal.

I thought this would be a rich topic for discussion even though I knew the numerous barriers would prevent us from even scratching the surface, however it was met with the usual indifference.  I tried to suggest a scenario where a student went to China and saw a huge sign that said “NO KOREANS” or “NO INDIANS” or anything, fill in the blank.  And then they witnessed the sign being taken down.  Well, was this because of political tides turning towards an enlightened side?  No, of course not.  It was another unsurprising side-step of humanity and common decency to allow for the making of money and a general economic boost.

I guarantee China will not resume trying to make more of these so called “clear sky” days, an already fatally flawed measurement system, for its people.  The factories will resume operation, the streets will continue to see 25 thousand new cars every day (as explained by Ted Koppel on the Daily Show).  And the struggle for and unchecked consumption of natural resources will continue.

I don’t really consider myself overly critical of China, the Olympics, or even all environmental factors for that matter.  This doesn’t mean these don’t have completely valid and important points, I am just content to point out issues

Posted by: benevolentjerk | July 14, 2008

Trouble in Paradise

In the news: Top South Korea party seeks talks with North on killing

Yeah that’s right, a South Korean woman was shot and killed in the Geumgangsan Tourist/Military district recently. The duality of this resort is uncanny. You are a tourist, you are encouraged to get excited about the trip and then you are frightened about it. You are informed that you are entering a military compound and should never take any pictures unless explicitly told so. You are closely supervised, counted, and branded with a make-shift passport that must be worn at all times. And despite all of this, someone actually managed to freaking die.

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to hear about this, and despite the rhetoric of how Geumgangsan is supported by leftists working to put money in Kim Il Sung’s hands, I was a bit saddened by this event. Not for the woman’s death (which honestly is as tragic as any death brought upon its victim by its victim through blatant disregard for the rules), but for the fact that the tourist traffic has been suspended indefinitely. No indefinitely here does not mean infinitely as it is often construed. It simply means that no one is talking about that at the moment and it is closed until further notice.

My Experience at Geumgangsan

I managed to go to this military paradise back in February. Forgive me if my tone is not readily discernable as sarcastic or not. I do not pretend to condone the actions, particularly the anti-humanitarian ones, of the Northerners but for me personally there is a very strong allure to the north. Geumgangsan really was quite a stunning sight. I consider myself a better than average-educated person when it comes to North Korea. I suppose the majority of my attraction is to understand the prolonged stalemate of this largely defunct society. I feel like I know enough about things to at least get why they’ve been so “uncooperative” in the eyes of the west. In general I feel that the western nations need a large dose of humility but with regard to North Korea a deeper understanding into the beliefs that are so broadly ingrained into the 22 million+ people in the north would actually benefit everyone. Understanding Juche does not have to mean embracing it or condoning it.

If you bothered to read my previous post you would know that I had really really wanted to go and was shut down by my benevolent employer. I cannot escape the morality issues involved here but the curiosity and the draw towards the unknown remain quite strong. Maybe I will be on this side of the earth for the next mass games.

Anyways, going in Winter to Geumgangsan is about half price and every bit as beautiful…just colder, a lot colder.

Here are a couple shots that I took: (click for larger view)

Commercial compound

Commercial compound

Anyways, as I was saying. It was sad to see that this will be shut off, it is surely a political relations nightmare. There is no telling how exacerbated this tale will become and how few people (South Koreans) will be willing to go in the future. They tend to latch on to urban legends and tales of one person having bad luck and it tends to be spread around as a general warning for everything.

Like others who have posted blogs about this, I am equally baffled as to how this could have happened. It seems like maybe she even snuck out and deceived the people who are put in place to keep guests from doing just that. Maybe she felt she had just as much right to be out in the world as anyone else (she would have a point there). I really have no idea. The point is that whatever she was thinking, she paid the ultimate price for it.

From the second hike, a much more arduous one

In my experience we were well supervised and even the above picture of us drinking Korean beer (which by the way is delicious) on the lake was a staged photo-op that took much reassuring to the guides of the benign nature of what we were trying to do. They always seem a bit on edge about the tourists there, perhaps embodying the precarious nature of the entire arrangement. This is open to interpretation of course.

I’ll leave you with an account of a woman in our group who claimed to have tried to do something similar and what she said she saw. This is unverifiable of course.

A Canadian girl from our group claimed to have tried walking back on the main road to the hotel complex from the commercial complex. I suppose the 15 minute bus wait had proven too much for her. Anyways she was spotted by some employees and they immediately recognized the danger of the situation and herded her into their makeshift pre-fab house to avoid an approaching vehicle. She claims to have stayed there for about 15-20 minutes and been served tea. She said that the tiny room had a small speaker that spouted propaganda and could not be turned off (this is much like other reports within Pyongyang and other places). Every meager item in the place was stamped Hyundai-asan. I suppose this is to keep it out of the hands of the native people. I suppose the employees were the ethnic Chinese that are allowed to roam a bit more freely but are still restricted.

Drinking North Korean lagers on frozen Lake Samilpo

Drinking North Korean lagers on frozen Lake Samilpo

Anyways there is a lot more to say about this but in the interest of keeping a semi-concise blog (minus the content) I’ll end it here. Take this information for what you like.

View from the commercial complex
Posted by: benevolentjerk | July 3, 2008

DSL-Riffic (forgetting the DPRK)

So this week I basically gave up on my dreams of going to P’yongyang (or Pyeongyang for you new romanization system purists).  I had been bizzarrely pining over the notion of visiting the capitol and being one of roughly 1,000 Americans to cross over and head deep behind the borders.  The seed was planted back in February when I took a 3 day soujourn into the Geumgangsan (Hyundai-Asan) district over Solnal weekend.

Yeah I know you probably don’t understand, no one else did either. The country is basically defunct, its economy is at a virtual standstill.  It is responsible for countless acts of inhumanity on its own citizens and continues to pursue a nuclear arms proliferation program.  It is one of the most vehemently anti-American countries on the planet.  I mean, what an unwelcoming shithole, right? (see below)

Rush hour in Pyongyang

Rush hour in Pyongyang

The point is, I wanted to go.  I really really wanted to go.

The story:

The trip was insanely expensive and required travelling through China and therefore getting a dual entry visa which, if you weren’t aware, has gotten shittily expensive.  As an American I would only be able to go in a brief two month window of selected tours through Koryo Tours.  They claimed reduced costs for groups fares.  “Why would I want to go there when I could see so much more with the same money?”  This was the most common response from people I thought might want to accompany me.  Not a single soul was to be found willing to go.  I accepted the fact that I’d be doing this alone if I seriously wanted to.  I finally got my lazy self motivated and began to tentatively plan it out.

My mental re-enactment: “Hey look at this.  There’s a September 9th-13th trip that falls near Chusok.  It’s perfect.  I can have more time in China to justify that extra visa expense and I can satisfy my lust for the unknown (and largely undesirable to most people).”

What happened next:

So, plan in hand and a full 3 months in advance, I politely requested the time off for September.  This of course was not done directly to my boss.  What ignorant foreign mooncalf would attempt such a thing?  No, I discretely mentioned it to the right subordinates and within a paltry 6 days found out that my request had been denied!  Why, you ask?  Because I was defaming the school in my spare time and drinking on the job?  Because I was teaching German 60% of the time in my classes?  NO! NOT EVEN! Because I had requested 5 days off in a row!  Yeah, what a damn travesty.  Apparently 3 is the maximum!  Not sure if I could take 3 days off 3 weeks in a row in the same month…

So needless to say I was pretty pissed off.  Bear in mind this falls 9 vacation-free months into my contract.  I feel like I’ve done more for this school than I needed to.  Back in April I was forced to work when my parents came because my school hadn’t hired a replacement teacher (they don’t like dark-skinned folks).  We were short-handed for 10 weeks but this did not accrue any sense of preferencial treatment in the eyes of my employer.

And yes I know it’s against the labor guidelines to deny requested vacation time.  I was about to launch a shit storm as well.  But then I pussied out.  So what if it’s the 60th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK workers party?  Those things happen all the time, right?  I’ll be around Korea next year with 4k in the bank to blow on such a trip, right?  Sure why the hell not.  In the end I decided it’s just not worth being antagonized and given “subtle” shit for the next 6 months when I am completely entitled in the first place.

The Denouement:

Sullenly pissed off at my school and ashamed of the poor structural integrity of my spine, I just settled and have begun to care even less about my job performance  (lately they have insisted that we greet and bid farewell with a “warm heart” because “we are a family”…BULLSHIT).  Anyways, I took a small chunk of my well-deserved earnings and I got a great deal on a DSLR D50 when the offer came along.  So far this has helped me to feel better.  Ah, material possessions, you always say the right things.

my high-tech security blanket

my high-tech security blanket

Feelings felt today:

remorse, anger, frustration, anti-warmheartedness, and uncertainty

Words learned today:

mooncalf- ass, idiot, imbecile, jackass

Posted by: benevolentjerk | July 2, 2008

Ahhh Korea

Yes, Korea. My home for the past and next 6 months. And no, the “Ahhhh” in the title wasn’t the type that you scream as your significant other reveals with their teeth that they know about your “other” significant other. No I mean the relaxing kind that you utter in a sighing sort of way. The one that mixes both the completely ridiculous situations and semi-opulence that expats here tend to find themselves in. It contains the headaches from classes that are usually at least 70% good students, with the remaining 30% being spawns of Satan and Maury Povich (of course Papa Smurf filmed it and beats off to the tape later). It encompasses the free apartment you are promised in your contract and the shit they never tell you about (i.e. how to recycle, pay your bills, how to wake up the security guard from his lengthy naps, etc.). Yes, this sigh is roughly the same to many expats despite the variety in the elements it results from. In my new blog here I will attempt to describe these things as I experience them and occasionally (frequently) go way off topic and shamelessly promote my own niche sites.


On the upside, I’ve been here 6 months and the shock of the highly mundane things has likely worn off. You will not see ridiculous blog entries such as “OMG I HAVE NO BATHTUB” or “My hagwon is a stinky pile of poo”. No, they will be much more sophisticated, relevant, and laden with curse-words. Shit Piss Farts Maury Povich

I’m off to a great start.

Posted by: benevolentjerk | July 2, 2008

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