Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Meetings, More (Meaty) Meals

Last night we had a "meeting" at the Samcheok County Office of Education. We went with a teacher and two administrators from our school, and when we got there discovered banners reading "EPIK Conference 2008 - September 17, 2008 (Wed) 16:00". I've never before been to a conference that was identified by its time!

After being brought on stage and given roses (our second presentation of flowers from government), we sat in a big hall for ninety minutes with all the other foreign teachers in the county (and multiple handlers for each) while our contracts were read in Korean. I suppose it's good that the administration was forced to get familiar with the contracts, but wow was that a long ninety minutes.

I suppose as a reward for sitting quietly, we were then all (100+ people) taken to a restaurant for bulgogi - the famous Korean beef dish. Melanie and I are vegetarian, or almost so, and this was the second time we've sat at a table with the administrators while they eat meat and we eat rice. It feels like they're starting to resent us for it, but I suppose it's more likely just alienation. After dinner I was thinking about my pre-vegetarian days and the few occasions when I ate with vegetarians. I remember not making any effort to understand where they were coming from. I remember feeling like they were "soft". And I definitely remember feeling like they were different - out-group, if you will. And so it is here, by refusing the school lunches and the group dinners, we've alienated ourselves and excluded ourselves from the group, to whatever additional extent is possible from the starting point of being, literally, an alien.

On the upside, a Korean teacher overheard our boss talking, in Korean, about us not eating meat, and recommended to us a vegetarian restaurant here in Samcheok. It's called Cheongralae, and they serve Ssambap - rice and vegetables and fish wrapped in lettuce. I guess it's a locally famous restaurant. He even left the dinner table to get us business cards for the place. Seven days till payday, and then we'll definitely check it out.

Coming soon: book reviews. I've been meaning to review (and compare and contrast) Jarod Diamond's Collapse, Derrick Jensen'sThe Culture of Make Believe and Kalle Lasn's Culture Jam - three books about what's wrong with our society and what we need to heal - for some time now. And I've just finished Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent novel Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which definitely deserves a review. I had a dream last night that I was recommending books to my Aunt Ann - Derrick Jensen and Arundhati Roy. Perhaps I'm looking to push a certain perspective. See yesterday's post for a fleshing out of one aspect of what that perspective is.


Chad said...

Jonathon Safron Foer is great. I read Everything is Illuminated last year... I've been wanting to read Extremely loud too. I'm assuming you recommend ?

Michael Levy said...

Definitely recommended. In fact, I was working on the review at work this afternoon, it'll be up soon. Perhaps we could work out a book trade??? In fact, I'll bring it over when we come for tonight's GGG party! See you soon!

Anonymous said...

Hi..your blog is most helpful. I want to work in South Korea and my first choice is Gangwon-do (it's beautiful and more holiday). I have 2 concerns. First one that I am vegeterian (no fish) which you have solved, since vegetarianism is obviously possible.

Another is I am non-white (brown to be specific) female. I understand that there is a degree of racism in Korea. I am not softie by any means, and I would like to experience Korean culture, learn the language, and hopefully give them bit of insight into non-white foreigners. How hard (assuming I can get a job) can I expect life to be?

I guess rural provinces are likely to be more racist than big cities - but ideally I would really like to be in rural area.

Michael Levy said...

I'm glad you're finding it valuable. Regarding vegetarianism, it's certainly possible, there are lots of vegetarians here, and my first year here I was nearly vegan. You won't be able to eat the school lunches with everyone else at school (if you work in a public school), and your school will think you very strange for that, but your strange here anyway! Restaurants will be hard too, but in a pinch you can always get bibimbap - mixed rice and vegetables, without the beef and egg -- "kogi upsi" and "gaeren upsi," respectively.

Korea is definitely racist, no doubt about it. To give you an idea of how overt and widespread it is, there are these conversations with cartoon characters in the book we use, and when I assign students a character to read, no one ever wants to be the black kid. In fact, they sometimes make fun of each other by pointing to the black kid and saying "you."

That said, there were quite a few black and brown folks at the orientation for the province. I haven't stayed in touch with any, but they're here, so it's certainly possible.

Honestly, I suspect the harder aspect of Korea is the xenophobia. Koreans are very proud of their culture (and of their history of fending off invasions), and are, as a generalization, not very friendly to foreigners.

I'm going to write a big entry on my thoughts about teaching in public schools in Gangwon-do soon. Keep an eye out for that as I have some new, not too positive things to say.