Monday, August 14, 2017

Koreopsis: Arrivals—and expansions

At a market stand in Sokcho, Korea.
A little over a month has passed since I left for Korea, and I've spent much of that time in the hamlet of N——— in the middle of the country—or rather, in the university adjacent to the town, mostly studying and working. We're here for six weeks of intensive Korean classes and workshops on teaching and culture; most days run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., before homework. So I hope that I can be forgiven for taking several weeks before sending along news. It has been hard to find time to put anything into words. The thing about language study is that there is always one more thing you could be doing; there never really is such a thing as "good enough."

My Korean certainly has improved over the past month, even if it has fallen short of the mark: our syllabus attempted to double-time ten weeks of content in just four and a half weeks of time, with about four to five hours of classroom time every weekday. We worked on a new chapter roughly every other day, which introduced about 150 new words at a time—so even as my Korean did improve, it was hard not to feel like I was trying to catch a raincloud in a bucket. Listening remains the weakest point of communicating in Korean for me; I often sat in class comprehending somewhere less than 50% of what was said. (In shops and restaurants, I frequently end up able to ask the questions I need, but not always able to understand the answers.) But even that has gotten somewhat better over the past month. Our teachers have been friendly and charismatic, and the other students in the class—who are, like me, about to go off to a year of teaching English—have all become wonderful friends as well. 

A Rose of Sharon hibiscus flower in the early morning.
Our official job title, at least in our contracts, is "native-speaker teaching assistant": in Korean, this becomes weoneomin bojo gyosa (원어민 보조 교사). We start our new jobs in a little over a week. I'll be teaching at a public, co-educational middle school in a small city called Hwacheon in the province of Gangwon, about two hours to the northeast of Seoul. It's surrounded by mountains and woods, and a river cuts through the center of town; every year, it freezes over, and the town's major point of pride is its annual trout ice-fishing festival. (Most Korean towns have a special local festival of some kind; it reminds me of the yearly Wine and Harvest Festival in my hometown of Paw Paw, Michigan.) The population is about 26,000—roughly the size of Holland in Michigan, or Wellesley in Massachusetts. The provincial capital, Chuncheon, lies about half an hour's drive to the south. And in the winter, the Olympics will be taking place a few hours away in Pyeongchang on the other side of the province. 

Architectural detail at Naksan Temple near Sokcho.
In Korea, middle school usually encompasses what in the United States would be seventh through ninth grades; each grade has about five English classes, and I'll teach each class once a week. The students also have "regular" English classes (as do nearly all Korean school students; the subject is practically universally compulsory); my job centers on providing a live source of spoken English. The outgoing teaching assistant couldn't say enough nice things about the school, and I'm looking forward to starting very much. 

* * *

We've had the good fortune to go on several outings to other parts of Korea, planned and sponsored by the team coordinating our orientation: a trip to the beach town of Sokcho on the northeast coast, a weekend visit to a Buddhist temple, a whirlwind spin through Seoul last weekend. On the way back from Sokcho, we stopped to visit what the British would call a "stately home": the home of the sixteenth-century political theorist Yi Yi (이이, sometimes called "Yulgok" 율곡), one of the most important intellectuals in Korean history, and his mother, Shin Saimdang, who was a talented writer and artist. (They are both on Korea's paper money, the only mother-son pairing I can think of to be so honored in any country.) By way of analogy to the European tradition, you might compare him to the likes of Thomas Hobbes in stature.

I picked up a comic book about Yi's life, ostensibly aimed at kids, on the theory that it would be good practice for me at this early stage, when I don't have nearly good enough Korean to read his actual writings. (Like most Korean intellectuals before the mid-nineteenth century, Yi wrote in classical Chinese, not in Korean, so a Korean text itself would necessarily be a translation.) It's slow work—I have to look up most words—but it's fun.

So I already have that on my bookshelf, along with others, acquired almost inadvertently. It's amazing how one picks up books, has them thrust on one: of the books on my desk at the moment, two were gifts from places we visited, two were birthday presents, one is my Korean textbook, and the rest I brought with me. I brought very little: a Korean reference text and grammar and my journal, and then only three paper books for fun. Nerd books, mainly for keeping up my language skills: Horace's poems, the New Testament, Sodom and Gomorrah. I freighted down my iPad with other books, but somehow, being practically immaterial, they don't seem like they define one's environment the way that print books do. Heaven only knows whether I'll get to any of them—I certainly haven't so far—but somehow they offer a comfort, a sense of continuity with the things I've done and learned before.

Part of the reason why I wanted to spend time here in Korea before starting grad school was a growing sense that the forces that have shaped my life are not limited to European or American ones—that the reckoning with the deep past of "Western" culture that propelled my life in Oxford had, by its end, pointed me in the direction of wanting better to understand the deep past of East Asia, intellectual and material, the past that set the material preconditions for the life that I've had, even if I grew up with a mind trained in a different culture entirely.

A replica of a painting of Shin Saimdang.
I'm grateful; it's also daunting. One of the things I have come to love about Korean intellectual history (and east Asian intellectual history at large) is the prominence given to scholarship in history, literature, and philosophy before the advent of the modern period. Much of my life to date has been framed under the name of "scholarship," in both senses of the word: the activity of learning as well as the funding to do such things. That's lucky: Latin studium and Greek schola both have a root meaning of "leisure." But it's also work. An historian I recently interviewed said at one point that the big historical question is explaining why things are the way they are, and not some other way. For years, I thought that was what I was doing; but the territory keeps getting larger and less tractable the further I go. (I started with Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner—and somehow I am now trying to wrap my head around the contours of the history of Buddhism.) For all these years of studying, I still feel as though I am dabbling at the shore of an ocean, moving from pool to pool and trying to understand how far the depths go.

* * *

Mountains in Mt. Seorak National Park.

I have never lived around mountains before. Here, there are so many. Most of the country is mountains. They recede into the distance in tiers, each with its own shade: viridian, slate, seafoam—sometimes wrapped in clouds or mist, the all-pervasive summer humidity that shrouds the entire peninsula. For years, I thought the brush-and-ink paintings of mountains made by Chinese and Korean painters were stylized abstractions. But now I realize they're faithful—that's simply how the mountains look. I don't understand how people don't simply stare at them all day. They loom, stolid; they have been there since the time there were first people here. They make you want to paint them, if you paint; they make you wish you did, if you don't. It will be a mountain year of my life, the first ever. There is always something new to be known. 

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