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Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Cardinal Rule

  • This is not a blog post about bagels, although it could be. And it's beside the fact that you cannot find an authentic bagel in South Korea. But, truth be told, I am a sucker for a good bagel.

    Real bagels

    Recently, an article about bagels caught my eye. The author was searching for the best bagel in San Francisco. Suddenly, he took a literary side trip and claimed that the best bagels anywhere could be found in New York City and Montreal. Having eaten remarkable bagels in both those cities, I supposed that case could be made. Then came his extraordinary proclamation, "If there is one golden rule for good bagels," he said, "It is this: A good bagel shall not require toasting. All else follows."

    That may ignite an interesting debate and perhaps it should. But as I said, this post is not about bagels. It is (as the title suggests) about rules. Not just any rules, but Cardinal rules. A Cardinal rule, according to the Urban Dictionary, "is a substantial rule that is in place in a situation or organization. And it must not be broken anytime." OK, that's pretty darn clear.

    Now one situation that every expat here in Korea has observed is Koreans wearing attire with English inscriptions. Much has been said about this phenomenon. Certainly, much has been seen. But one component has heretofore been lacking. That is, a relevant Cardinal rule to accompany this dynamic. For nearly every time that I have asked one of my students or a passerby on the street about the meaning of the English inscription on their gear, the response has almost always been the same, "I have no idea what it means. I just like the style."

    OK, time for the minting of the applicable Cardinal rule: "No person anywhere should ever wear an article of clothing without knowing the meaning of the inscription that may be contained therein." This could easily be hazardous to your halo, or at least to your ego.

    Sometimes the infractions are harmless enough.

  • Other times however, people may be pushing the boundary.

    Once, a coed in one of my classes was wearing a very attractive sweater. I walked over to observe how she was doing during an in-class assignment. Looking at what she was writing from the row behind, I noticed that the words "Fuck Me" were woven into the top part of her shoulders. Whoa, I thought. "Excuse me, do you know what's written on your shoulders?" I asked. "No professor," she answered coyly. "What's written on that sweater is not appropriate. Please do not wear it again to my class."

    Sometimes the inscriptions are a stretch. Is she talking figuratively? Or, is this about pizza?

    Can you repeat that?

    OK, sometimes I must admit, these musings might make sense.

    Well, I am sorry to hear this.

    Yes, you are!

    Ah students, and Korean friends, my heed I know you will not take. "Style" points in Korea, trump any advice I may offer. I understand full well. Nonetheless, I repeat my Cardinal rule: "No person anywhere should ever wear an article of clothing without knowing the meaning of the inscription that may be contained therein." The risk you take is yours alone.

    I am reminded of that great scene from the movie classic, "Ghostbusters." Sigourney Weaver, possessed by the devil, is coming on to ghostbuster, Bill Murray. He halfheartedly pushes her away. "I have a rule," he says, "never to get involved with possessed people." She ignores Murray and continues her aggressive pursuit. Murray reconsiders. "Well, maybe it's more of a guideline than a rule." Rules vs. guidelines, never to be confused again.

    Now for the rest of you, guidelines aside, what Cardinal rules help you meander your way through your life? What's a Cardinal rule you might offer the masses? Bill Murray is curious. So are we. Bagel anyone?

  • Friday, June 19, 2015


    Expats know this where language and culture are often confounding. The days can be wonderful, filled with rich memories in the making. But the future always looms.

    Expats here can be found plying social media with complaints and criticism born largely, I think, from the frustration of living and working in Korea. English teachers and professors, easily the largest expat contingent, sometimes chide their schools online for their hiring practices and overall treatment of foreign teachers. "It's not just Korea," a friend assured me. "Expats around the world do the same thing. It's a common phenomenon."

    I found myself growing annoyed with what seemed to me to be a kind of xenophobia in reverse; a group of expats who more than occasionally give voice to what is ailing Korea, what is broken, dysfunctional, and needs to change. Their lives, they believe, would be easier, if only they were treated more fairly, more like what constitutes propriety in their home countries.

    "Living abroad requires certain  measures of self-reliance
    and strength of character"

    In fact, satisfaction at work is key to a positive expat experience. English teachers spend many hours in the classroom or in other locations in their respective schools. If Korean schools, whether hagwons (language institutes), public schools, private schools or universities, were inclined to better understand and respond to the needs of expat teachers, many expat concerns and grievances could be ameliorated. Problems both in and out of the workplace can distract expat teachers, adversely effecting their productivity, and contributing to shorter stays in Korea.

    The reality of course, is that most of us are not citizens here. We are instead simply guests, working stiffs, doing the job, contract by contract, at the discretion of our employers and on the receiving end of government policies here. We are not Koreans and we are treated differently. And we are, almost always, treated "less than" native Koreans.

    Living abroad requires certain measures of self-reliance and strength of character. Each expat location has its own unique idiosyncracies. Here in Korea, while certainly less of an issue than 40 years ago, being stared at is still commonplace. Korea is also infamous for its crazy drivers who ignore driving laws and seem to abhor the very idea of pedestrians.

    Denmark, currently home to more than 41,500 expats, regularly undertakes research on the unique experience of expats in that country. The country is genuinely concerned with the expat experience. Denmark, it seems, wants to leverage the added value that expats bring to their economy.  In sponsoring "The Expat Study," ongoing research authorized by the Danish government, it recognizes that "companies, research institutions, and nations must search for competence and knowledge world-wide if they are to gain or maintain a competitive advantage." The research findings include what expats there generally find positive and negative. Expats, for example, often find Danes "closed-off and difficult to form friendships with." On the other hand, they find the good work-life balance in Denmark to be quite positive. Positive and negative experiences, it appears, are inevitable.

    For most expats there is that unavoidable "looming future." After living in China for many years and marrying a Chinese woman, Mark Kitto, then 46, one of the best-known foreign entrepreneurs in China at the time and fluent in Chinese, wrote about his expat experience in an essay, "You'll Never Be Chinese."  As an expat, he fell out of love with China as his fears about the increasing pollution in northern China, water shortages and issues around food safety brought his disenchantment to a head. Moreover, as his young children got older, he wanted to give them what he felt was "a decent education."

    Expats, I think, can sometimes become afflicted with a self-inflated superiority. We can lose our humility and open-mindedness. I know this well and personally.  Having lived here in Korea from 1973-1975, I experienced my share of challenges and frustrations. In that era before the internet and computers, getting a letter home to family and hearing back took, at best, 4-6 weeks. Sitting on a western style toilet was a dream. Just eating a hamburger or pizza, our go-to fast foods, was not possible, unless you had a close buddy on one of the military bases. There were nightly curfews that required you to be off the streets by 9:30PM. In an environment with few westerners, young children regularly ridiculed my beard calling me "monkey." I left Korea in 1975 worn out, frustrated and bitter, swearing I would never return.

    Today, Korea has an expat community of more than 1.5 million. We are clearly helping Korea satisfy their need for specialized workers, most usually in the area of English education, a critical competency for Korea's continuing leadership in the global marketplace. Like Denmark, there is an unmistakeable opportunity for Korea to better understand and respond to the needs of its expat community. But like it or not, we remain ambassadors from our home countries. Our behavior, positive or negative, reflects on the expat community overall. While there is certainly no shortage of things to complain about, at the end of the day, it is worth recalling, most of us are here as guests. "For, after all, put it as we may to ourselves," author Rebecca Harding Davis offered, "we are all of us from birth to death guests at a table which we did not spread."