Sunday, July 13, 2008

"stupid" and other clarifications

I started to write a reply to Alex's comment on my last post, but it got long and convoluted and I thought I should clarify what I said about Aiden feeling "stupid" more publicly. I'm in the midst of packing and I haven't slept much and don't have time to edit this properly so my apologies in advance. (Alex: Welcome to my blog! )

Aiden's teacher never told him that he's stupid. He said that of himself because he has noticed that his Korean isn't as good as the other kids' Korean. I don't think the teacher would ever say that about him. I'm not all that happy with her as a teacher because I think she's more of a "bad cop" type teacher and that doesn't fit my parenting philosophy, but she's not really mean, just strict and not all that empathetic. My main beef with her is that she hits the kids on the hand with a ruler when they misbehave and that she doesn't give them much break time. If we were going to be around longer I might think about what recourse I have but the hitting, at least, is not that uncommon. For 2nd grade it is pretty rare, but not THAT rare, and so I don't know how effective protest would be. Some of the parents in another class have been unhappy with their teacher and they do complain to the school or to the teacher and sometimes the teacher will be fired or transfered to a different school or grade, so it is not like parents are completely powerless here.

Aiden saying that he feels stupid is complicated in ways I didn't really go into in the last post. First, he's a self conscious kid. He stands out in school because he is mixed and looks mixed. The attention he gets because of this is not negative attention -- mostly the other kids are fascinated with him and envious of his ability to speak English and opt out of hakwon. But he doesn't like to stick out so he gets flustered by that. He is also (and this is not to be underestimated) stressed out by the fact that we're moving to another country and he knows he must learn yet another language, when he feels that he is still mastering the 2 he knows now. Earlier in the year we were preparing him for school tests (to test into schools in Shanghai) and we started out preparing him for the Chinese test, which made all of us crazy so we gave it up and decided to put him in the English track. But just preparing for the English tests at the same time he was beginning a new grade, with a new teacher and a more rigorous set of expectations, was very stressful for him. It was a learning experience for all of us. In retrospect we made a lot of mistakes as parents during that time. We realized that Aiden needed to have a more consistent schedule and that we needed to spend more time with him on his Korean homework, instead of pushing English and Chinese so much so early. He's doing very well in Korean (he reads much faster than I do and his vocabulary is probably better because he is a good reader) and his English is also very good -- not as good as his peers in the U.S., but still very good. He can read Captain Underpants and some of the Magic Treehouse, but he prefers to read in Korean. His first grade teacher was the type that noted and praised him for going form 20% to 80% on his dictation test; the second grade teacher is the type that calls him to the front of the classroom during the first week of school and tells him his dictation score was not high enough so he needs to do extra homework every night (writing 10 difficult words) indefinitely. But to be fair to his 2nd grade teacher, after his dictation scores improved (which they did, dramatically, because of that extra homework), she praised him in front of the whole class. But he's the type (or perhaps it is the circumstance which renders him more thin-skinned) that is more scared and scarred by the failure than bolstered by the praise. Also, preparing him for the tests in Shanghai made him more conscious of his linguistic weaknesses (I was too much of a hard-ass in preparing him).
If I had to stay here long term, I'm not sure what kind of education I would choose for my kids. I don't like international school for many reasons: too expensive, not enough Korean, the kids tend to be priveledged and live in a bubble, etc. We moved to Korea so that the kids would be a part of this culture, not separate. But the stress of hakwon and the very competitive educational environment is really hard for the kids and it is difficult to opt out. I have been working on a follow-up to my description of first grade for several months now, but keep putting it aside because it is so hard for me to try and capture the ways in which the system is easy to criticize but also difficult to get out of. The values of the system begin to seep into your consciousness and affect the way you see the world and more than that, the way your children see themselves. Because I'm both a parent and a teacher I see it from both sides and that can be schizophrenic sometimes, but also highlights how complicated the issues are and how difficult it is to extrapolate from any individual experience. We had a great teacher in 1st grade, and perhaps because of that we were unprepared for this one, who isn't terrible, but whose particular brand of non-greatness manages to push on all the anxieties created by circumstance and personality and parenting failures and make them into something larger and scarier.

A few months ago there was a little stink in the blog world when Brian in Jeollado made some criticisms of the Marmot (criticisms I mostly agreed with) and I had intended to write something about my take on the Korea blogging world. Actually I've been working on that post for several months already. I'm not very fast, am I? But part of what I wanted to say is this: that for some reason or another the popular Korea bloggers are all men. Why that is I don't know. Sometimes I get really disgusted with the Marmot and many other blogs (not to name names) because they go from talking about the sorry state of gender relations in this country to verbally salivating over the bodies of this or that singer or model. A few other female Korea bloggers and I have lamented over this over coffee and discussed creating a group blog written only by women, but none of us really have the time it takes to make a good daily blog.

The other point I wanted to make is that the most popular blogs tend to be the daily blogs, the news blogs, the blogs which have the most definitive takes on events that are occuring. I understand the impulse to want immediate commentary and gratification, but in the main parts and in the comments there's a tendency towards quick conclusions and often quick hostility unmediated by a sense that maybe we don't know the whole story or that the solutions are not always that simple. I believe in criticism, and I read blogs to take the temperature of various social groups, but I truly admire the blogs that at least attempt to account for complexity and uncertaintly.

I will finish these posts (they will probably go up on printculture) sometime, but moving to another country is taking up all my psychological and physical energy right now.

For Alex (and anyone else in a cross-cultural marriage thinking about moving to Korea): it's not simple or easy. You have to have your goals in mind and be prepared to be flexible. But these last 5 years have been the most interesting and rewarding of my life. I do not regret any minute, and I think that this was the best risk I ever took. If you ever want to talk more specifically, send me an email: yunmay (at) gmail.com.

5 comments:

thegrandnarrative said...

"...for some reason or another the popular Korea bloggers are all men. Why that is I don't know."

I find it easily explained by the higher ratio of male to female expats myself, especially amongst those younger, unmarried and/or childless expats with the time for blogging. I'm none of the above, and so after looking after my daughter and doing housework during the day and working in the afternoons and evenings then I have little time to do anything but blogging myself. Most people in the same position as me naturally have other priorities!

"Sometimes I get really disgusted with the Marmot and many other blogs (not to name names) because they go from talking about the sorry state of gender relations in this country to verbally salivating over the bodies of this or that singer or model. A few other female Korea bloggers and I have lamented over this over coffee and discussed creating a group blog written only by women, but none of us really have the time it takes to make a good daily blog."

As someone who's written much much more about gender relations in Korea than any other blogger (and at the rate I'm going, in English too), but who used to have posts about women like you describe, then naturally I'm curious as to whether you include my own blog amongst those. Personally I see no contradiction myself - ironically I'll soon be writing about how it became socially acceptable to objectify Korean men in advertisements after the 2002 World Cup - but accept that the latter can be and usually is overdone, and that most women don't want to read and may be offended by it. So I made a deliberate decision to stop the latter about 4 months ago.

Naturally then, I'm concerned then if people still have this perception of my blog, both because I think it's unfair (now), and because people interested in gender relations like yourself, who tend to be women, are of course my target audience.

Any constructive criticism much appreciated!

James Turnbull.

Jennifer said...

Just a quick note to say I'm will respond to this comment but I have to finish preparing stuff for the movers (who are coming on Sunday) so I've restricted my computer time until I can finish that. Thanks for the comment, James -- and sorry it's taking me a while to write back.

thegrandnarrative said...

No problem. And I hope the move goes okay!

thegrandnarrative said...

No problem. And I hope that the move goes okay!

Jennifer said...

“I find it easily explained by the higher ratio of male to female expats myself, especially amongst those younger, unmarried and/or childless expats with the time for blogging.”

I’m curious if you know this to be statistically true or if this is just your feeling. I don’t disbelieve it, but I personally know many more women ex-pats. It may be because I’m on the board of the American Women’s Club, because I teach English part time, and because I tend to meet other moms and Western women married to Korean men. Also, among the ex-pat couples I know, the women seem more likely to write, though I’ve observed a difference in the topics women and men write about -- women tend (in this small sample) to write about personal experience and men tend to write about news and current events. I’m not saying that women or men write about those topics exclusively, just that I’ve noticed a difference in amount of time spent on each of those subjects.

“As someone who's written much much more about gender relations in Korea than any other blogger (and at the rate I'm going, in English too), but who used to have posts about women like you describe, then naturally I'm curious as to whether you include my own blog amongst those. Personally I see no contradiction myself - ironically I'll soon be writing about how it became socially acceptable to objectify Korean men in advertisements after the 2002 World Cup - but accept that the latter can be and usually is overdone, and that most women don't want to read and may be offended by it. So I made a deliberate decision to stop the latter about 4 months ago.”

When I read blogs I tend to build up a picture of the writer in my mind, and when the writer is commenting as an outsider he or she usually takes steps to establish the authority and validity of his or her perspective. As a reader I notice this, but make my own judgments about whether to grant that authority/validity. (This is not a one time deal; certain bloggers who I once respected can go on my shit list for various things, such as becoming increasingly angry all the time, grandiosity, or being nastily dismissive about teaching work, which is a pet peeve as a teacher and a mother.) There are a lot of good blogs to read and I don’t have much time to spend, so the amount of time I spend reading a blog depends a great deal on whether I think the person has a perspective which is valuable and interesting.

I haven’t read your entire blog. I find your pieces valuable and interesting, but the salivating (in the past or present -- it’s still on the blog and people don’t necessarily read chronologically) highlights something which I’m not sure I can articulate well. Your analyses are valuable for their structural detail (I’m not talking about Structuralism here) but the kind of top down economic factors, this emerges at a time when, etc. Just as you, I think, switch between binaries of “passive” vs. “active” female consumers, I think what is missing is a sense of the complexity of the in between. There’s a lot of negotiation going on here on the ground which I want to know more about. Individuals make choices in each moment about how they will see themselves and read these ads, they “perform” their ideas about gender, they actively participate in tracing the available modes of expression of desire, sexuality, etc. or they blurry those paths or make new ones. By being critical of the pervasiveness of the conversation about gender, beauty, and sexuality (I’m not just talking about women) but not being critical of the way in which you yourself participate in it (especially, as you often remind your readers, as a husband who is accused of having a Asian fetish and a father of two daughters), takes away from your authority and makes me itchy for different perspectives.

Some of this dissatisfaction is expressed in changes in my own writing. I started off, I think, more analytical, used to writing for an academic audience. But because of my discomfort with the category of experience (see the post on “Korea Days” that I just put up) I have slowly turned into more of a story-teller, interested in how individual experience both represents and transforms cultural trends, cultural knowledge, ways of seeing the world. I’ve also written about gender -- about men and women -- but the writing (perhaps because of my dissatisfaction with the gaps in the kind of top-down analytical scheme that seem to elide individual agency) has taken a different turn. I wrote “At the Public Bath” as a kind of interrogation of the idea of gaze. The narrator (me) is looking around the room at women’s bodies, but the active gaze there doesn’t fall into the sexual/asexual trap. She looks at the woman’s body, she admires the smoothness of her skin, and she thinks about and tries to reclaim the categories of beauty, ownership, and pleasure. In “Letting Go” I tried to think through the complicated ways in which the use and meanings of ultrasounds shaped and been shaped by understandings of pregnancy, agency, control, etc. “The Boy Whisperer” was about boys and emotional expression but also about parenting and gestural language versus spoken language. I’m also interested in gender in generational conflicts, which I wrote about a bit in "Trips to the Grave", "A Short Sketch", and "Habits of Waste." (can't link in comments, see my side bar for links)

I meant to write both more and less -- more about gender and less overall, but I’m still too tired to be any more articulate than this. Suffice it to say, I think that your work has great merit and I hope you continue to do it. And I will do mine, and perhaps we can learn from each other.