Saturday, February 26, 2011

Education News Roundup

I have been out of the loop, but the new school year is just a few days away, so here's the latest goings-on in the Korean education world:

1)  Corporal punishment was banned in Gyeonggi-do schools last October, and the ban has since grown to include Seoul and many other school districts.  Frankly, the Korean system has relied almost entirely on the threat of physical pain to keep students in line for so long that no one seems to have thought about any alternative disciplinary modi. 

Fortunately, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has come to the rescue, releasing new discipline guidelines, according to the JoongAng Daily:
Under the guidelines, teachers are permitted to discipline students by ordering them to do push-ups, stand in the back of the classroom, or run or walk a few laps around the school playground. Teachers will be permitted to suspend students from school for up to ten days, with a maximum suspension of 30 days a year. Suspended students will receive counseling from education experts. If a student keeps misbehaving after 30 days of suspension, the ministry will allow teachers to summon parents to school for counseling. [...]

The ordinance that banned corporal punishment said teachers could summon parents of a misbehaving student, but teachers complained it wasn’t legally binding and chances were high that parents wouldn’t obey.
The ministry plans to revise a law to mandate parents to appear at schools when teachers summon them to discuss their children’s misbehavior.
The problem is that even suspension is an ineffective tool, since students are never ever held back to repeat a school year.  In Korea's Confucian confusion, group harmony is so important that disruptive students who ruin the educational exerience for their cohort must be allowed to continue doing so.  Until this changes, nothing else will.

Mind you, I am quite blessed in this area, since my classes really experience very little in the way of disruption--the biggest problem I have is quite the opposite: sleeping students, who are only disruptive if they snore loudly.  And, furthermore, my co-teachers, even if they can do little else, can at least go round making sure everyone stays awake.  Getting them enthused about the class activities--that's my job.

2)  Under the headline "They may be old, but ‘school sheriffs’ good to go," JoongAng reports on a Seoul city government response to an increase in crime near city schools:
Three months ago, the city announced plans to improve children’s safety by hiring a team of these “sheriffs.” A total of 1,094 people were selected and survived four levels of fastidious evaluations. They will be deployed to 547 schools in early March.

These “sheriffs” learned similar tactics to what police learn.
 Now, of course, they're "good to go" or "ready to roll", according to the article. Their average age is 59. 
Choi Young-hee, 67, one of the few female attendees, is a former police officer with 30 years of experience. She recalls an incident in 1980, when seven male students raped two middle school girls behind the school.

“All the assailants were arrested but the shock still remains today,” said Choi.
3)  Unfortunately, that kind of thing hasn't stopped since 1980, as a Korea Times story illustrates: four teenagers lured a middle school girl to a nearby school playground (in Busan's Nambu district) and forced her to drink alcohol. "After molesting the girl, they abandoned her in the 6.8 centimeter deep snow that had fallen in Busan that day, and fled."  Police arrested two students for rape and booked two others without physical detention, the story notes.  It doesn't say why, but presumably there's a better reason than that they weren't foreign English teachers.

4)  Read the whole story here to get all the ins and outs, but the daughter of a Korean English teacher in a Seoul high school is accused of stealing the English exams and using them in tutoring students prepping for the exams.  Complicating the story is that the school was identified in 2009 (and given lots of government money) for being a school "without private education".  But the most interesting feature of the story to me is this quote:
Urging an investigation, one teacher said, “Since we made many questions meant to develop creativity as encouraged by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, it is practically impossible to provide such tutoring without stealing questions.”

Hmmm.  See, I think it's practically impossible to provide such tutoring without developing the student's creativity.

5)  The DongA Ilbo gives us a statistics-laden report on the drop in the number of Korean students studying overseas.  The decline was quite significant, with 33.7% fewer overseas students year-on-year. 
The number of primary and secondary school students going abroad started to surge from 2000 and peaked at 29,511 in 2006. The figure, however, decreased to 27,668 in 2007 and has since declined for three consecutive years.

6)  Finally, for a bit of comic relief, we turn to the Herald, which steals a story from the Straits Times (Singapore) about a Korean secondary school whose website was allegedly hacked and replaced by a pornographic website.  Turns out, though, that Junyuan Secondary School had teminated its old URL at while building a new net presence. 

As a school webmaster, I've actually seen both ends of this, first when the McEachern HS website actually was hacked and its homepage replaced by a pr0n image; secondly, my school failed to pay its yearly bill to our provider, and someone moved in under us and bought the address.  Fortunately, this guy only put up clothes merchandising, and I was able to hunt him down (somewhere in South Africa) and buy it back.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Books for the Beach

One stated reason I went on vacation to a secluded Thai beach was to lay on the sands and catch up on my reading. Forthwith, my reading list:
  • A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church - Interesting read from a pseudonymous "Western intelligence officer" featuring Pyongyang police Inspector O, grandson of a General called a Hero of the Struggle and the Beating Heart of the Revolution in his eulogy. The lead character is an interesting study in contrasts, not the type to defect, certainly, but neither the type to wear his Party pin (showing the face of Dear Leader), as is de rigueur in cadre cirlces. A simple, if off-the-books, surveillance goes awry, and O is led into an intrigue involving a foreigner's corpse at the swanky Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, a dodgy intelligence officer, a Finnish prostitute and a pair of car-smuggling schemes--all while something sinister is brewing under the surface. Quick, decent read.
  • The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars - Worthwhile juvenilia narrated by 14-year-old Sara, spending the summer feeling mopey and sorry for herself. Until she takes her mentally handicapped younger brother down to the lake to watch the swans. Teen angst is palpable but not overdone in the novel's voice, and the author is also convincing in her portrayal of 10-year-old Charlie, whose brain was damaged in a pair of serious illnesses at age three. A good read.
  • The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson - Originally published in 1991, this reissue should have been revised, since the first couple of chapters on the origins of language are outdated by new strides in archaeology and linguistics. That said, it is a serious though entertaining overview of the development of English--and opinionated as well. I learned stuff here, and relearned stuff I once knew but forgot, and disagreed with stuff he got ,,, well, wrong. In one instance, he illustrated how garbled and nonsensical early modern English is by quoting a long passage from some tome, wondering if it was as inscrutible to contemporary readers as it was to us. I had no difficulty at all in reading and understanding the passage, and lost an iota of respect for Mr Bryson along the way. Still, he provides ample examples of the interaction between Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Westphalian et al to illustrate why English is the way it is. While this book should not be a requirement for ESL teachers, it is an instructive and worthwhile read, and may help you answer questions from your co-teachers.
  • While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut - A collection of unpublished stories from the greatest modern American writer, the stories here were crafted during the fifties and sixties, when Vonnegut was struggling to get published in mainstream outlets like Collier's, LHJ, Esquire and so on. His seminal collection (at least to me) Welcome to the Monkey House is comprised of stories that actually got published. And I see in many of these shorts, an early, less successful version of those published tales. For instance: "Girl Pool" recapitulates "Deer in the Works", in which an interloper wreaks havoc inside an enormous factory works; "The Man Without No Kiddleys" is reminiscent of "Tom Edison's Shaggy Dog", in which a recent retiree on a park bench is serially annoyed by a braggart; "Jenny" seems a precursor to "EPICAC", an investigation of the nature of love by making one of the lovers a machine; "$10,000 a Year, Easy" strikes me as getting to the same idea of "The Foster Portfolio" only in reverse: sacrificing art for money, vs money for art. Most of the sixteen stories in this collection are better than average, but really belong to the serious Vonnegut fan--his best work in the "mousetrap" genre, as foreword author Dave Eggers calls it, is really found in "Monkey House".
  • Year Zero by Jeff Long - An apocalyptic plague thriller in which a virus from the time of Christ is unleashed on the modern world by a collector of holy relics. Meanwhile, our hero Nathan Lee Swift is framed as a murderer and cannibal in Nepal by his archaeology professor--he escapes and makes his way back to America just ahead of the pandemic in search of his young daughter. Golgotha, Los Alamos National Laboratory, human cloning and a misshapen, malicious megalomaniac all converge to make this a real page-turner (actually, a "screen-swiper" as I read it on a borrowed Sony E-reader).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thailand vs. Korea

Living in Korea has been a revelation to me, an experience I would not take back for anything.  I grew up as a nomad, but settled quite happily in semi-rural Georgia for decades before venturing forth again.  Not to minimize the Korean experience itself, obviously, but one of the great things about working here is the proximity to some of the great travel destinations--I've been to China twice, New Zealand and now Thailand. 

It is an inevitable tendency to compare one place to another, so here we go again.
  • Temperature: When I left Seoul, the temperature was +1, when I returned it was -1 C; Koh Samui ranged between 25 and 30 C.  Of course, that's why I went.  Thailand is tropical, of course, while Korea has a temperate climate, consisting of, in case you hadn't heard, four distinct seasons. 
  • Timeliness: KTX and Seoul subways/buses/etc are invariably exactly on time; nothing at all in Thailand seems to run on time.  Thai Rail trains all left late and usually arrived even later--we got to Chumphon 1 hour later; the train north to Bangkok picked us up at Surat Thani THREE HOURS late and arrived in Bangkok 1 hr 45 min late.  The Lomprayah "high speed" catamaran may have been fast but it got me to Koh Samui one hour after the advertised time.
  • Prices: While I did pay about USD 5 for a Diet Coke at Suvarnabhumi Airport, this one definitely goes to Thailand, since the usual price is about 20 Bt or 65 cents; a full meal of two or three courses may run 200 Bt and even my ritzy hotel in the primo district of Bangkok charged less than half what the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon does.
  • Transportation: as mentioned above, you cannot count on timeliness in Thailand, but it's quite cheap: approximately 20 km to the airport was 350 Bt ncluding the highway tolls, or $11.50--one-third the Seoul-Incheon fare.  Public transport in Thailand, however, is primitive: Bangkok has only one subway line compared to Seoul's fifteen, and most buses are twenty-year-old shells; still, there are efforts underway to upgrade the fleet, and I noticed a number of buses (also taxis) running on CNG just like in Seoul.  This was cool, though:

  • Food/Restaurants: I love spicy food, so both cuisines suit me fine, though they are quite different, with a variety of curries making up the Thai flavor continuum, and gochujang-doenjang-samjang as the primary heat ingredients in Korea.  However, Korean restaurants seem to provide superior service, mainly because of the service bell and/or the "server call" of yogiyo
  • Street vendors: ubiquitous in both cultures, the difference that I noticed is that pojangmacha are rather stable and sedentary (while technically mobile) and Thai vendors are almost always hooked up to a motorbike and scoot along to a new location if business gets slow.  (Alas, I did not get a good shot of this booth/bike configuration!)
  • Cultural Assests: There is no direct way to compare, but given the huge number of Buddhas in Wat Pho, much less the other three dozen wat in Bangkok, the exceeding elaborateness of the palaces, etc, I think this one goes to Thailand.  Mind you, Seoul has lately taken a more proactive course in its treatment of cultural objects, but the Thais fought wars with Burma for centuries over the Emerald Buddha, and are getting quite obstreperous with Cambodia at the moment concerning access to Angkor Wat.
  • Tourism: While Seoul keeps trying to sell itself as a tourist destination, Thailand is already well-proved.  Thais don't stare at foreigners.  Plus, except for the monsoon, Thailand is balmy and pleasant year-round, and has oodles of tropical islands.  Korea has Jeju-do.
  • Rationality: Some folks may be surprised to learn that Koreans are all over this one.  Drivers here, though nutso by Western standards, do pay attention and attempt safe driving practices.  In Thailand, they all have little shrines on the dashboard and leave the piddling details of driving to the spirits.  Everywhere you go, you find shrines at least as important as solid business practices:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bangkok: One Day

Bangkok in one day?  Can't be done.

I did try, choosing a hotel equidistant from the Grand Palace on one side and the shopping road of Khaosan Rd on the other.  Sadly, by the time I cooled down in my 1450 Bt room's air conditioning and washed up in its hot water shower, there wasn't a lot of daylight left for either one.

Khaosan Rd, above, is just off this intersection, Kok Wua, below with a well-posed tuk-tuk, a strategic rallying point for the democracy movement in the 1970s.  The October Movement monument on one corner of the intersection played host to an anti-war singalong the night I was in town.

Portraits of King Bhumibol cover practically every building in this area, which after all is the seat of government, with loads of ministry buildings here:

This one, a particularly fine example, was located at one end of a large public square seemingly dedcated to the longevity of the Thai royal dynasty.  The "Giant Swing" or Sao Ching Chaa, is at the other end, with this interesting sculpture in the middle:

I also got nice shots of a shady klong:

I managed to make it, not to the Grand Palace, alas, but to Wat Pho, one of the great temples by any measure.  Also known as the temple of the Reclining Buddha, it is the birthplace of Thai massage, which I didn't know until a bloke outside asked me if I wanted one.  It is a large and gilded complex, where you have to pay 50 Bt to see the big Buddha--the largest and oldest temple complex in Bangkok, in fact, housing more than 1000 Buddha images, including the reclining one, which at 46 meters long and 15 meters high, is immense.

A few images from around the temple compound:

Stone giant protecting his courtyard

Perhaps a bodhi tree, scion of the one under which the Buddha awaited enlightenment

One of these things is not like the others, one of these things is not the same ...

Detail of the base of a prang

Late afternoon sun glinting on gilding

Stone giant, guardian of the temple
A few Buddhas at the base of the bodhi tree (?)
 Visiting the temple was a blast from the past for me--the distant past, as I know we came here at least a couple of times somewhere around 1970.  The wall murals inside seem a bit dingier (they didn't photograph well enough to post) but the spires and eves seem much shinier and more golden.  I really wanted to see more, but then I didn't want to leave the beach.  Ah, well, you can't have everything.

As Steven Wright says, "Where would you put it?"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Koh Samui: Food and SITCA

Two great things about vacationing on an island in the Gulf of Siam: Thai food in general, and fresh seafood in particular.  Above is over one pound of red snapper, grilled to perection at a cookery called Sea One located on the beach.  The fish was sold by weight, 50 Baht per 100 g, with a baked potato thrown in.  The sauces were flavorful, but the spicy hot sauce in the pepper-shaped dish was a little hot even for me.

Looking east from my table at Sea One
Seafood is far from the only option.  Below is Tommy's "Swiss-style" fried potatoes and sliced pork, with a sour cream and white wine reduction, silky and delicious:

Sunday is "Roast Night" at The Lazy Coconut up on the highway.  I had the lamb, and it came with potatoes, dressing, mixed veg and a Yorkshire pudding.  And fantastic gravy.

Okay, so there's a sampling of the food--every restaurant also offers breakfast, usually anytime, American, English or Continental. The Twins has perhaps the best Thai food in the neighborhood, followed by Mah-Yom. 

One night, I decided to take a Thai cooking class at SITCA (Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts), all the way over at Chaweng, and had so much fun making so much great food, I had to go back.  It is pricey at about 2000 Bt (USD 65), but highly informative, and well-run, with loads of assistants so you're never left waiting around, and lots of fresh ingredients.  The first night's menu was fried rice, deep fried chicken with lemon grass, spicy coconut milk soup with seafood and chu chi curry with fish:

Some photos of the preparation:

Fresh pandan leaf

Thai ginger, and the regular kind

A variety of peppers
Combining the chicken-shrimp mixture

Sampling the results
So I went back on Monday evening (the class runs from 4 to about 8 PM) for the chance to make a curry from scratch, in this case the Massaman style, which is probably a corruption of Musselman which is a corruption of Muslim--Muslims comprise a large segment of the population of southern Thailand.   The menu was massaman curry chicken, pork spring rolls and spicy prawn salad with lemon grass:

The curry paste is made by combining a lot of chili peppers with several other spices, like coriander root, lemon grass, galangal, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, shallot, garlic, anise, clove and black peppercorn and pounding them together for about one month with a mortar and pestle.  It ends up like this (shown with some palm sugar):

To make the dish, chunks of chicken, onion and boiled potato are added to the heated curry paste in a wok and stir-fried for one or two minutes.  Chicken stock, coconut cream and tamarind juice are added.  What the hell is tamarind?  Well, the pod looks kind of like an enormous smooth peanut, and the fruit inside looks like this:

Finally, add fish sauce, palm sugar and boil it up for two or three minutes:

Bon appetit!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Koh Samui: Maenam Beach

Maenam Beach is four kilometers of yellow sand and clear blue water along Koh Samui's north coast, facing Koh Phangan.  My bungalow was at Ban Maenam, or the little town of Maenam, such as it is.  The Chinese influence is seen in the Chinese style temple, and Western influence in the variety of restaurants, includingTex-Mex, British pub grub and even Tommy's Swiss Restaurant--the placemats have an idyllic Alpine scene on one side a map of Switzerland on the other. 

The village is comprised of three main streets and a section of the main ring road that circumnavigates the island, Highway 4169.  A crucial locale is Gai's Pharmacy & Grocery which is really a general store, carrying everything from eyedrops to fresh fruit, bottle openers to breakfast cereal.  It is run by Gai, who speaks great English, knows everything, and posed proudly for me with the faded photograph of her receiving her pharmacist's diploma from King Bhumibol in 1979.

On the second day of my stay, I was unknowingly in for a treat, as Ban Maenam has instituted a "walking street" on Thursdays during the season, from 4 to 11 PM, where merchants display their wares in the streets, and Thais and tourists alike hunt for bargains or a bite to eat.

Couple tee-shirts--they're not just for Koreans!

Stuff for the kids ...

... including helium balloons.  Wait, should a helicopter need helium?

A satisfied customer.

A great memento--I kick myself I didn't get one!
Steamed rice

Fried potatoes--crunchy!

Fried grasshoppers--crunchier!
Surprisingly, there are no tuk-tuks on Koh Samui, those little motorized rickshaws they call pedicabs in China.  They do have "songtaew" the truck taxis with benches in the back, but a lot of people get around on scooters or motorbikes.  This seems to be the number one cause of death and dismemberment on Koh Samui.

Petrol for sale
I met a number of interesting people, including almost no Americans.  Several schoolteachers who live on the island and teach either at the International School or at the local school, with instruction 50-50 English-Thai.  I also met some fellow travelers, including an Austrian optician who spends six weeks every year kiteboarding.  He described to me in great detail, not kiteboarding, but the cleaning procedure he makes the maids go through with his bungalow--a muriatic acid scrub, disinfectant, followed by a bleach treatment for walls, floor ceiling rafters and furniture.  W-- and S--, from somewhere a little bit south of Amsterdam, are retirees who live only five months of the year at home, and are gradually making their way to any and all reknown sights of natural beauty or manmade magnificence.  The pyramids, Victoria Falls, Grand Canyon ... they've been there.  Last year they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge in a specially rented '57 Chevrolet, but got spooked by the attitude and atmosphere in America (this after numerous visits) and fear to go back.  Sadly, despite being a proud American, I found myself unable to object too strenuously.

I met a couple of Canadians who work the manual trades in the tundra during the warm months, and spend four or five months on Koh Samui during the winter; an English teacher from California who muddles through without computers. or air conditioning, with fifty students per class; and an eleven-month-old daughter with his Thai wife; and a really tall Dane who complained about everything, from the cost of plane tickets to the fact his resort was filled with Germans.

The bungalows I stayed at had a group of Germans, too, and I admit it irked me that they took over all the lounge chairs in the courtyard with their towels, but only spent a few hours each day actually using them.  One or two British families arrived with small children, and I caught one decent photo of them playing with some Thai locals:

As you can see, my stretch of beach was thinly populated, with the vendors who traveled up and down its length seeming to equal if not outnumber the sunbathers:

Me?  I got what I came for, so I'm not complaining, a quiet spot on the beach where I could read a book and get a sunburn.