Saturday, April 26, 2008

that's all, folks

It's 5AM and I'm at the office, transferring files to my memory stick (thanks for the stick, Tom). I've done just about all that can be done-- I've thrown out everything unnecessary, shipped most personal items to friends (thanks again, Joe and Sperwer), given away other personal items (thanks, Terry), gotten my replacement teachers up to speed, and done about as much cleaning and scouring as I care to do. All that's left is to make sure my travel paperwork is organized, pack my bags the rest of the way, and move on out.

I'd like to thank the friends who've been so helpful-- they've provided everything from moral support to monetary contributions to storage space. Guys, your friendship means more than you can know, and I owe you all big-time.

I'd also like to thank Sookmyung Women's University (my mother's old school) for having given me the best job I've ever had in Korea. My students know how much I've complained about working in hagweons before I came to Smoo. University life has been very, very different from life in the hagweons; I was pleasantly surprised about that when I joined Smoo in April of 2005.

First and foremost, the schedule has always been bearable: I've never worked weekends here, and have always had two solid months of vacation (plus a month's worth of breaks scattered throughout the year), which is what has kept me sane. Secondly, and just as important, the bosses have been kind to me. I've never sensed any malice from them-- only good intentions. Finally, I've had a wonderful time with my students, who have forgiven my many faults and have allowed me to grow and improve as a teacher.

Teaching English wasn't what I originally intended to do with my life, but it has become something I enjoy. It provides my life a great deal of meaning, and while teaching can be frustrating (especially when I'm faced with unmotivated students), it's also very rewarding.

I'll miss the people I've met, the many hundreds of students I've taught. I regret not having explored Korea more during my time here, but when I come back from my trans-America walk, I hope to learn more about Korea, acquire some traditional Korean skills (especially calligraphy), and gain a deeper appreciation of my mother's culture.

But right now, the walk looms ahead. It's time to focus on the present, and in the next few hours, that means traveling to the airport, getting on the plane, and eventually reuniting with family and friends in the States.

Until next time, Korea!


why I love YouTube

Here's a wacky one:

The Mouth of Sauron sings "Manamanah."


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덧글을 남기려면, 한번만 쓰면 돼요. 이 블로그는 comment moderation기능 설치 되었으니 덧글을 쓰자마자 나오는 것이 아니예요. 내가 먼저 덧글의 내용을 체크 하고 내용이 기분이 나쁜것이 아닌다면 허락을 주고 게시한다.

Sorry for the weird Korean. In case you don't understand my version of your language, what I'm trying to say is: I moderate all comments, so if your comments don't appear immediately, please just wait. All comments are reviewed and given permission to appear. This prevents stupid, unkind comments from appearing on the blog.

Pour mes lecteurs francophones:

Tous les commentaires sont modérés, donc vous n'avez qu'à écrire votre commentaire une seule fois, et je le publierai après l'avoir contrôlé.



so stupid it's funny? (uh... maybe not)

Below is a link to a cringe-inducingly lame video by yours truly that takes you on a tour of the packing-up that was happening last week. The place is empty now, as subsequent pics will attest.



Friday, April 25, 2008

packin' it up, packin' it in

I'll be boxing up most of my computer tonight and packing up the rest of it in the morning, leaving me computerless from here on in, except for whenever I hit the office Saturday afternoon or evening. No family emergencies permitted during the communication outage!


a moving experience

Pics from just the other day:

Joe, you're free to defend yourself in the comments section.


nostalgia: part 3

Here's another series of pics from the winter 2006 intensive term.

The following five pics are from a play my class did that was based on the Korean story called "The Tiger and the Dried Persimmon." The story involves a series of humorous misunderstandings in which a tiger, who has no idea what a dried persimmon is, somehow convinces himself that it must be the most fearsome creature around.

The next group of pictures, below, are from a second skit we performed. The skit was titled "What to Do with a Dead Kevin"; yours truly wrote the script and directed the action. I play myself, as you see, and am accidentally killed at the beginning of the skit. The rest of the story involves the students' attempts as passing me off as alive when a coworker saunters in. I'm puppeteered into gesturing, eating cake, and even talking. Both skits-- Tiger/Persimmon and Dead Kevin-- were a blast to perform.

This last set of pics from that wonderful semester shows me with my Intensive Level 2 class-- faithful attendees to the end.

A really fantastic group. Some of my best memories are from that semester.



The National Pension Office and my old hagweon have talked with each other, and the conclusion seems to be that the trouble lies entirely on the side of my old hagweon, which despite having claimed to pay (and despite having given me pay stubs that do indeed show deductions for pension), gave not a cent to the National Pension Office.

So the NPO told me there's nothing more they can do. I offered to let them have the forms I filled out plus all the other paperwork, but according to them, it's up to my previous employer to provide me the money they failed to pay into the pension plan.

I have the sinking feeling that this means that the hagweon will simply reimburse me the pension I paid into the plan. Meanwhile, the National Pension Office will not match the pay; as far as they're concerned, there's nothing more they can do for me (jeo-hui-neun amu-geot-do hal su eopseoyo-- "we can do nothing"). This is because there's some sort of three-year statute of limitations on solving pension difficulties, and we're beyond that now.

This assumes I see my money at all, of course. The guy at the hagweon's accounting office, who spoke shaky English, said the process might finish "in six month," which could mean either "in six months" or "in June" (the word for "June" in Korean is yu-weol, literally, "Month 6"). Neither sounds promising. They're supposed to email me next week with some sort of news.

So not only am I getting a thousand dollars less than expected in pensions from my current job, I'm also likely to receive nothing from my previous job-- a loss of $2200 in total. Not good.

Wanna do me a favor? Buy some Walk-related products. (More designs are on the way!)


Thursday, April 24, 2008

just like Jack Bauer

I'll be going dark within the next 24-36 hours as I pay my final phone bill and cancel my service. After Saturday afternoon, your only contact with me will be through email. A reminder to readers: my Walk-related email address is

kevinswalk [at] gmail [dot] com.


better seats (will not be mine)

I'm flying Delta from Tokyo/Narita to Atlanta, but I won't be enjoying these new, hi-tech seats, which won't be available on Delta flights until about 2010.


national pension woes

My previous job, the one I had before coming to Smoo, was at a hagweon* (an extracurricular institute; in this case, a language institute) in Kangnam, the rich part of Seoul that is, as the Korean name implies, south of the river (gang = river; nam = south). I had thought that obtaining the roughly $1200 I am owed in national pension would be a cinch, but as I found out yesterday (Thursday), because I had a different foreign resident's ID back then, matters weren't so simple.

I walked into the National Pension Office with all my documents at the ready-- plane ticket, old bankbooks, passport, alien registration card, and the 10- or 15-page form I was required to fill out (well, not every page: only 6 or 7 pages). I quickly learned, though, that my current foreign resident's ID provided no access to my payment records from 2004 to 2005. That was the first obstacle.

So I had to call the office of my former employer, but since I didn't have the number, I had to ask the National Pension Office employee to track the number down via Internet and give it to me (she wasn't willing to do this at first). I called my branch and was told to call the guy who hired me, Bob, at a different branch. Bob turned out to be quite helpful (I'd been dealing with buck-passing all Thursday, so this was a relief); he was able to track down my old foreign resident's ID and give it to me. I thanked Bob, hung up, and relayed the number to the lady across the desk from me.

Second obstacle: the lady punched in my old number and found my records, only to discover that I had no pension funds, which looked suspiciously as though my old hagweon had decided not to fulfill its end of the contract. By law, a teacher is supposed to pay about $100 per month into the pension fund; while a university might have its own (stingy) pension plan, a hagweon is supposed to match the employee's payment, meaning that I should have had about $200 per month stored up in pension funds for this job. Having worked at the job for a little over six months, I should have had about $1200 or so stored up. This was the money I was hoping to have sent to my US account.

So I called Bob again and told him the situation. He said he'd have to dig around a bit and discover what was going on, and that I should call him the following morning.

So that's where we're at with national pension. It's entirely possible that my previous place of employment has somehow skunked me on this. Even though my own personal payment records show that my ex-employers did deduct pension from my pay, the National Pension Office has no records of such funds. This whole mess is one huge mystery. We'll know more in a few hours. Yeesh.

*"Hagweon" is often annoyingly mispronounced by English-speaking foreigners as a drawled "haah-gwaaahn." More properly, it's "hah-gweon," with the "eo" in "gweon" being somewhere between an American English "aw" (as in "saw") and an American English "uh" (as in "fun"). The entire word should be pronounced with a certain tightness in the speech organs, and should be spoken briskly, not drawled with lazily protracted vowels.


one thing I won't miss about Korea

There's a lot I'll miss about Korea, but one thing I won't miss is the goddamn fat jokes. I get this every day, and I got it again tonight when I bumped into two female staffers while waiting outside for my buddy Tom. When Tom showed up a moment later (we were all standing out by the school's front gates), we talked a bit about where Tom was working, what I was doing, and so on. Both of the ladies were a bit confused about Tom's and my plans, and Tom joked, "Yeah... a lot of people confuse Kevin and me because we look so much alike."

Both of these ladies speak English fairly well, but as is true of this culture as a whole, they failed to note Tom's good-natured sarcasm. In reply to this, one muttered to the other in Korean, "Keun-dae, Tom kireum-i eop-neun-dae..." --i.e., "But Tom doesn't have any fat on him." Then she giggled, saw that I had understood her, and waved her hand in that "wipe the table/deny the truth" gesture while saying, "It's just a joke." Yeah, I've heard that before, too.

The problem, alas, is that the woman who uttered this joke isn't particularly thin. I held my tongue, though, and simply explained, laughingly and in Korean, that you just-- don't-- say that sort of thing to a Westerner. I felt as though I were schooling a rude child in basic politeness.

Of course, Westerners who've experienced Korean culture know that Koreans are generally blunt to the point of rudeness about more than just your appearance. Some Koreans even highlight this as a sort of national virtue: one of my Korean colleagues, for example, compared Korean frankness to Japanese reticence and proudly noted that the Korean way is more honest. (Not knowing many Japanese people and never having lived in Japan, I have no real basis for comparison on this point, so please understand I'm merely relaying information, here. Do the Japanese openly crack fat jokes? Do they do it in front of fat people? Or are they more reserved, joking only in private?)

Actually, I agree that honesty is generally a better policy than, say, an unreadable reserve that hides all thoughts and feelings under a cloak of faux civility. But I think honesty also has its limits. If, for example, I had commented on how fat this lady's ass was and had followed that up with an, "Oh, that was just a joke," how would she have felt? Even in Korean culture, fat jokes don't make people happy, and no girlfriend (of any culture) who asks her boyfriend whether her ass looks fat is prepared to hear the naked truth. Sometimes, diplomacy-- just a modicum of sophistication-- is called for.

I've developed a thick enough skin after years of this abuse that I don't fly into a rage every time I hear such stupidity; I usually offer a humorously self-deprecating response, brood a short while, then forget the incident... until the next time I experience similar stupidity. And I'm aware of the blunt Korean answer to my problem: "Just lose weight!" Here again, I agree-- I'm not into so-called "fat acceptance."* But even if I lose weight, that won't address the deeper problem of culturally sanctioned rudeness toward the fleshy (which, to be fair, is far from unique to Korea).

Of course, I've made my share of fat jokes, so this rant is probably as much for me as for any of the other insensitive people out there. I suppose a fat person might justify telling fat jokes much the way Rodney Dangerfield pointed out the importance of relativity: if you want to look thinner, hang around people fatter than you. Fat people may feel they have license to joke about fatter people.

So while I'll take many pleasant memories away from my time in Korea, one thing I won't miss is this country's disconcertingly frequent rudeness, and the general insensitivity that makes it possible. It's true that my own people, Americans, purvey their own special brands of rudeness, but that's not the focus of this post. We'll save the rich topic of Yankee jerkiness for another time.

*This has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with health. I've seen curvaceous, Rubenesque ladies whom I'd consider quite sexy. In fact, women who lack curves, as seems increasingly to be the case among Hollywood stars, strike me as a bit sad in their attempts at attaining the "Dickensian waif" state.


humble thanks (5)

I spoke too soon. As of tonight, I'm just about at the $1000 mark with donations. Wow. My hope had been that I might make my goal of $6000 sometime during the one- or two-year-long walk, because I knew I'd have enough money of my own to sustain me for most or, very likely, all of the journey. But to be, already, one-sixth of the way toward that goal is nothing short of amazing.

Thank you, folks.


gettin' it done

So far today...

1. We got the "transfer pension to US account" problem more or less solved. (Korea veterans know I say "more or less" because, well, this isn't a linear culture and I'm dealing with two bureaucracies: that of my school and that of my bank.)

2. We've sent a package of Thomas Covenant books out to Jeff in Busan (might take a few days, Jeff... I sent the package via regular mail).

3. We've paid for the three extra days' stay in the dorm.

Now we've got to...

1. Visit the National Pension Office (haven't had time the last few days).

2. Get a set of coughillegalcough DVD copies from the local copy center.

3. Have dinner around 7PM with my buddies Tom and JW. Probably at the local Outback in Namyeong.

4. Pack the rest of my crap up. It won't take long, which is why I've allowed it to slide, but it needs doing if I plan to ship everything over to Sperwer on Saturday.

5. Get a new set of contact lenses. Far cheaper and quicker to do here than in the States, where it's ridiculously slow and expensive.

6. Say some goodbyes to people in the neighborhood. My coworkers joked that the Chinese food delivery people will be sad that I'm gone: I gave them a lot of business.

7. Upload all those promised photos and videos.

8. Give the studio a final, thorough scouring.

9. Create more CafePress products so I don't have to rely on donations. As much as I appreciate them and am humbled by them (hard to believe I've already received close to $700! thank you again!), I'd still rather earn my money.

That last item might have to wait until I'm home, actually. I'll have time for image design when I'm back; I understand that my dad has a brand-new scanner, and I know he has a better version of Photoshop Elements than I have (mine is an ancient version 2.0), so we're set once I'm back in northern Virginia.

OK... more later.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

on human freedom

The following comes from an email to a friend written on December 3, 2007. It's been edited for content and style, as well as to preserve my friend's (and my) privacy. I'm slapping this up here after having been inspired by some excellent writing over at my friend Malcolm's blog regarding the nature (and the very existence of) human freedom. If I understand Malcolm correctly, he thinks human freedom is an illusion; that we believe we possess it arises from a strong but ultimately false intuition rooted in such things as our concept of "I" and what it means to act freely.

What follows isn't meant to be academically rigorous; think of it more as a meditation on an interesting issue. While I'm not sure Malcolm and I see eye-to-eye on this, we seem to be in fundamental agreement that it doesn't matter what the objective reality is. I think, in fact, that when most people ponder the question of whether we actually possess free will, they conclude that the best thing to do is to act AS IF they are free, as opposed to taking the slacker's way out and adopting a kind of moral nihilism of the "we're not free, therefore we're not responsible for our actions... so let's go throw bricks through shop windows" variety.

The subject of human freedom is deep and wide and not really amenable to neat summarizations, though my own gut feeling, which I may or may not have expressed before, is that the free will/determinism dichotomy has a whiff of the artificial about it-- that the truth is, in fact, that these two things are not-two in the Zen or philosophical Taoist sense. Our minds, being analytical, tend to create separation and distinction, but the truth lies somewhere "underneath" or "beyond" our mental processes. Freedom is what exists in and through determinism and vice versa.

You talked about the heart-hardening passage in Exodus and about how it bothered you. I know where you're coming from. The problem with notions of radical voluntarism (all is God's will-- Jeff Hodges was discussing this on his blog w/relation to Islamic conceptions of God) is that, for Westerners at least, there arises the question of responsibility. If everything is God's will, including our thoughts and actions, then how can God find us accountable for anything? One version of this problem is the debates that have long surrounded the Calvinistic doctrine of double predestinaton. If we're predestined to go where we'll go, how are we responsible for getting there? The track was already laid out before we were born! Another, related version of the debate comes in the question of divine foreknowledge-- a subject I've probably beaten to death while simultaneously having only scratched the surface.

It's not just a Christian question, either. When I gave a lecture on Zen at Howard Divinity School in DC, one astute listener asked me a question about karma and freedom: if your current situation is determined by your accumulated karma, and if this is true from moment to moment, then how can a Buddhist say that you can choose to break free of the vicious cycle (Buddhism does, after all, accept that there is a such thing as human freedom: you make karma even as you're subject to it)? That day, I was stumped and I gave some sort of lame answer that the listener accepted, but not cheerfully. Nowadays, I'd probably zip right to the not-two answer, but I'd do so in the knowledge that I'm merely hinting at a nondiscursive truth, not something that can be laid out in a neat Aristotelian schema.

Back to the Bible, then: I'd agree that the Bible provides a rather conflicted picture of, say, the fate/freedom question. I think this is appropriate and represents a good opportunity for thoughtful people to wrestle with the scriptures, because ultimately we each have to arrive at The Answer (or maybe it's just My Answer) by this process. The Bible is one huge kong-an in that sense: the only worthwhile answers that come from it are expressed in how we live them, not how we say them.

For me, the Pharoah passages are compelling, but what truly takes the cake is the case of Judas Iscariot, an eternally fascinating character for me. If you look at Judas through, say, a Hindu lens, you see that he is merely following his dharma (here understood in the more Hindu manner: law, role, function, duty-- "what you must do, go and do quickly"), a dharma already set out for him. Judas' part in the cosmic drama of the Easter story often fills me with pity (which I suppose sets me apart from Dante Alighieri, who consigned Judas to the lowest circle of hell), but from a godlike perspective he was doing no more than what water does when it follows various paths down the rough trunk of a tree.

However, from a modern Western Christian perspective, there's this question about fate and freedom: Jesus seems fully aware of Judas' impending betrayal, and he (Jesus) even makes himself complicit in his own demise by sending Judas off to do what must be done. Judas here is seen as part of an immense divine plan: for redemption, someone's got to do the dirty work. For us moderns, it seems unfair that Judas might simply have been a puppet, one who gets punished merely for fulfilling his assigned function. The fact that Judas is remorseful enough to kill himself resonates with us modern folks, too: was part of his mind standing helplessly by, watching him perform the betrayal yet unable to do anything about it?

I think I mentioned that I may, in fact, be a closet compatibilist. I'm not a flaming compatibilist like Daniel Dennett, who sees no contradiction between determinism and freedom, but I have my own vaguely held and largely intuitive reasons for thinking he may be on to something. Many Christians are, of course, compatibilists once they realize their beliefs may lead to logical contradiction (e.g., predestination and freedom); they simply accept on faith that they stand in the face of a divine mystery. If they do this honestly and earnestly, I can't say that I resent them, but I think my inner Zen monk wishes they had gone through the effort of really wrestling with the problem. Real spirituality is work, in my opinion, and a person can only benefit from grappling with tough issues, even if a given bout ends in stalemate or defeat.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

coming soon

I have a whole mess of photos-- plus two videos-- to blog, so stay tuned.


humble thanks (4)

Contributions from another few people have boosted my funds up W250,000, or roughly $250. I won't know the dollar equivalent until I've made the exchange at the airport on Sunday, but again I'm wowed by people's generosity, and will do my best to be worthy of it.

Thank you.


Monday, April 21, 2008

almost gone

My work station at the office is just about empty. Two more things need doing: I need to clean up the desk's surface, which is looking pretty rough, especially behind the monitor and CPU, where the last great war between two implacable dust bunny factions is occurring; and I need to grab a bunch of data files from the computer's hard drive. No, not porn, fool! I'm talking about the mess of documents I created for all my classes over the past three years-- not because I have any intention of turning them into a huge book, but because I don't want to have to reinvent the wheel, wherever I may end up when I'm back in Korea.

And that's about it, as far as the office is concerned. I've got an early dinner with coworkers tomorrow at 5PM, a meeting with two of my three replacement teachers (yes, that's right: I'm so large it takes three normal-sized people to replace me), a trip to the National Pension office (where my expectations for pay are now significantly lowered, given the shafting I've gotten from Smoo), logos and tee shirt images to design, contact lenses to buy, videos to edit and slap on the blog, dinner with friends on Thursday evening, funds transfers to take care of, packages to mail off to several of the peninsula-bound, and one last shipment of mortal possessions to haul over to my friend Sperwer's place. Much to do, much to do.

But not at my office. For all intents and purposes, we're done there.


saeng-gak bo-da... (pension woes)

I found out two things about my pension payment today: unlike what I had been told, the pension payment from Smoo will not be wired directly to my American account. Instead, it will be wired to my Shinhan bank account around May 10, which is precisely the sort of snafu I wanted to avoid. This means I need to make extra arrangements and pay extra fees to get my money.

Worse, I've learned that the pension amount will be a full thousand dollars less than anticipated. This may be my fault for not having checked the pension scheme down to the nittiest, grittiest detail, but the general expat assumption is that the government (or, in our case, the university) exactly matches whatever funds you pay into your pension plan. Was this a bad or false assumption? Is my university an exception to the rule?

What a fool I was for thinking I'd have my payments matched; I now know that such is not the case at Smoo. I paid a little over 4.4 million won into my pension plan, which meant, in principle, that I would get another 4.4 million won from the university upon leaving the country. Instead I was told by a supervisor that my total payout would be about 6.2 million won, not the 8.8 million (4.4 mil from me, 4.4 from Smoo) I would have liked to have gotten (before I knew these figures, I had been assuming a payout of 7.2 mil, roughly W200,000 per month, based on my putting about W100,000 per month into the plan, plus W100,000 from Smoo, for three years).

I've enjoyed working at Smoo-- I truly have. But the entire campus is amazingly stingy about pay. We work longer hours than at other universities, and do so for less pay. It's obviously silly to complain about this after three years of working here (and I'm again reminded of the parable of the vineyard workers, the most industrious of whom complained about being paid the same as the Johnny-come-latelies... the reply? "You knew what you were to be paid before you started the job!").

My buddy Tom keeps quietly urging me to try his university when I come back to Korea. I might think about it. While I'm eternally grateful to my bosses, my coworkers, and my students for their various kindnesses, I can't say I have much love for whatever offices or committees set the campus budgets and dole out the pay. I heartily agree that some things are far more important than money-- one's sanity, for instance-- but if one can safeguard one's sanity while also earning a bit more to live on (you'll recall that I'm not getting rich anytime soon), isn't that better than abusing one's own wallet?

It's a shame that an otherwise decent university should leave me thinking such thoughts, and while I'm normally good at viewing such problems positively, at a time like this it's hard to see the up-side. I don't blame my immediate supervisors for the situation; they're not the ones who control the salaries, the pension, etc. But someone's responsible for this. I blame them.

OK... end rant. For now.



To those readers of a slight or pronounced Jewish persuasion, my best wishes for a wonderful Passover. Pesach started yesterday (the 20th), and continues until next Saturday.

My first Jewish story:

My brother Sean has a Jewish friend who, a few years back, came over to our family's house once and had dinner with us. Blunt-spoken person that I am, I started talking a bit about religion and then asked a question about the Jewish perspective, but instead of asking "What's the Jewish perspective?" I asked something like, "What do you people think?" The room temperature dropped a few degrees.

See, this is why I could never be a politician. While not a gaffe on the scale of Michael Richards's infamous N-word meltdown, my utterance doubtless seemed pretty damn rude to our guest. Sean's friend remained polite and I did my best to recover, but I'm sure the damage was done and I was mentally tagged "Asshole" by both Sean and his friend.

So this is a heads-up to all the non-Christians I plan to meet as I trudge across the mainland: if I mistakenly say "you people" in reference to your entire tradition, please understand that I don't mean it derisively.

My second Jewish story also involves house guests, but this time it was our entire family that made an inadvertent mistake. I was teaching French at a Catholic high school in Arlington, Virginia at the time, and because our language department planned to host a group of French teens who would stay with us for two weeks, I was asked to house the chaperones. My mother busied herself preparing a meal for our guests: spaghetti with ground beef and pork, plus, of course, parmesan cheese.

At that point, we didn't realize our guests were Jewish, and that they did indeed eat kosher.

When Monsieur and Madame arrived, we all laughed about the mistake and a new dinner was quickly made.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

tendered (almost) without comment

My apologies for the bad Korean and horrifying penmanship, but...


humble thanks (3)

More anonymous contributions have driven my funds up to $443.01. This really blows me away. Thank you, all.