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This video takes you along with me as I travel to Andong, South Korea for the 2014 International Mask Festival! To read more about my experience, check the related post here!
This weekend, Very Queer at Indie Plus is screening four queer films: two in Korean, one that looks bilingual, and a fourth in French.
On Saturday, the Rabbit Hole is hosting its first Cherry Bomb Festival at the Rabbit Hole. With drag and queer artists hitting the stage, it will assuredly be pretty gay. For more details, check out their Facebook Page.
If you are looking for something new, a host bar opened up in Jongno. Called New Boy Club G2 I would imagine it would be a good place to blow a lot of money on a bottle of vodka. As it is a host bar, I won't be visiting any time soon, but if anyone checks it out, leave a comment below!
A little tamer option would be checking out Gravity, which had its opening a couple of weeks ago. To celebrate, they have three events during the month of October.
This is a re-up of an essay I just wrote for the Diplomat (posted here). And that image to the left comes from this famous (notorious, really) tweet. If that doesn’t capture the values clash between Putin and modernity – real men have tigers as pets, while Obama is a well-dressed wus – I don’t know what would. If you ever wondered where feminism in the study of international relations came from, there you go.
Russia is a bit outside my normal purview, but I’ve always had a running interest. I studied Russian in grad school and spent a few summers there learning the language. I enjoyed it a lot and like to think I am sympathetic. Like a lot of post-Soviet analysts, I find it tragic how badly misgoverned Russia has been for so long – literally back to Ivan the Terrible. Russia has so much human capital; if only it was governed properly, it could be a serious emerging market player like China. But instead its one megalomaniac czar after another – whether they be imperial, Soviet, or Putin – wrecking the economy for their own vanity and nationalist unwillingness to accommodate the West.
Putin would rather posture and bluster like a bully on the school parking lot than whip Russia into shape. Everyone knows what’s needed – real elections, press freedom, an anti-corruption campaign, and so on. But I guess if Western analysts say these things, the ‘Russian’ way for Putin must be to do the opposite. So we’re back to 19th century ‘Dostoyevskyan’ images of Russia as an Orthodox, anti-western nationalist power with a unique mission (read it for yourself, then compare it to Alexander Nevsky). That may sate the ideological cravings for global status of Russia’s nationalists, but it won’t help Russia rival the West in the medium-term, will scare non-Russians along Russia’s borders, especially Muslims, and will not impress Beijing, which long ago learned how to profit from globalization and capitalism (while corruption is destroying Russia).
Here’s that essay after the jump:
“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and the shadow war in Ukraine is the most important geopolitical event in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Putin is widely seen in the West now as gangster-like figure, obsessed with Cold War-era grudges, and unwilling to allow the ex-Soviet Union’s ‘near abroad’ to find their own post-Cold War path. Putin would seem to prefer the countries around him be failed states, whose weakness opens them to Russian manipulation, rather than modernizers, moving, however haltingly to democracy, non-corrupt capitalism, and association with Western governments and values. Were Russia’s immediate neighbors to move toward the European norm, as much of eastern Europe has since 1990, it would be harder for Russia to bully them, and that bullying would attract global attention.
This is not to suggest that Russia is a great enemy or threat to the West. Supporters of Mitt Romney have recently claimed justification for Romney’s 2012 statement that Russia is America’s ‘greatest geopolitical foe.’ This is not true. (If one must apply that needlessly belligerent moniker, it is probably either Islamic jihadism or North Korea, both of which are openly and aggressively anti-American.) Russia’s assets of national power are dramatically diminished since the Cold War. Its GDP today is just $2 trillion, where the combined GDP of the US and EU exceeds $35 trillion. Russia’s military suffers from corruption, morale issues due to harsh conscription treatment, and a general lack of funds to compete with high-tech US, European, and Chinese militaries. For this reason, Russia has emphasized nuclear weapons and deterrence in its doctrine. Like North Korea, Russian WMD (weapons of mass destruction) are a pillar of its claim to relevance. Russia under Putin may seek to be a spoiler along its western and southern tier (and in resolving North Korean issues), but the likelihood of a genuine western-Russian clash is low. That is not a conflict Russia can win in the medium-term, and in the long-term, a complete breach with the West would destabilize the Russian economy so much that it would endanger Putin’s position.
The more important question is ‘grand strategic’: will Russia choose ‘neo-imperial’ meddling along its frontier, an age-old Russian practice that, in turn, fosters czarist authoritarianism and corruption at home, and bad blood and resentment among its neighbors? Or will it embrace some form of modernity, as it partially tried in the 1990s, with reasonable governance at home, and some kind of modus vivendi, including respect for foreigner’s sovereignty, abroad? If it choose the former, as Putin has done, what is the end-game? Where does Putinism lead in ten or twenty years? Semi-permanent isolation from the West? Boundless corruption? Dependence on China?
To be sure, Russia today is not an empire in its classic sense. Instead, the post-Cold War Russian practice of keeping ‘near abroad’ conflicts indefinitely frozen destabilizes former Soviet satellites, prevents them from moving toward the West, and allows Russia to variously bribe or bully corrupt local elites. Putin is clearing channeling deep impulses from Russian history in his constant references to the ‘state’ (gosudarstvo) over society, his famous claim that the collapse of Soviet Union was the ‘greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century,’ and most recently his Crimea annexation speech, a full-on Russian nationalist-messianic mix of ethno-nationalism, Orthodoxy, and geopolitical resentment.
This language is deeply appealing to sentiments of resentment and prestige, especially Putin-style nostalgia for Russian ‘influence.’ For several centuries Russia has been a great power, and with that has the come an ‘arrogance of power,’ in which ‘spheres of influence’ are expected as matter of right or respect, where small states should ‘keep quiet.’ And certainly, the US, Japan, and EU states have all acted this way in the past as well.
But as President Obama has noted repeatedly, these are twentieth century notions that much of the world now rejects. Even the Chinese, for all their rough behavior in the East and South China Seas, have never dared to annex a thickly populated land-space like the Crimea grab. Scrapping over rocks in the ocean is a far cry from an anchluss of a portion of a state Russia itself recognized (however resentfully) as sovereign. This traditionalist-statist-autocratic matrix of Russian governance – foreign adventurism and domination, tied to anti-western, messianic ideologies at home to prop-up cronyist dictatorship – is woefully out of place today. Its ideological satisfactions will soon collide with painful reality as this reactionary, ‘Dostoyevskian’ Russia is cut out of globalization and its wealth-creation.
The alternative to Putin’s ‘back to the future’ approach is some willingness to re-make Russia into a modern, post-power politics state where the hard work of domestic good governance reform replaces quasi-imperial impulses to contest American hegemony by steam-rolling neighbors. Such a state characterizes much of the world now. Well over half the world’s states today are democracies. Even China has peaceful transitions of power to contain corruption, encourage new blood, and provide (minimal) accountability. Previously backward places like Indonesia, Brazil, and India are increasingly better governed, roughly democratic, and integrated into the global economy. Even China, while still an oligarchy, is obviously better managed than Russia, and broadly willing to follow international rules in order to enjoy the returns of globalization, most obviously the foreign direct investment (FDI) that has powered its economic growth since the 1980s.
And herein lies the great challenge for Russia: to join the global economy fully, to benefit from the FDI and trade that has helped so many states become ‘emerging markets,’ will require a Russian willingness to sign-up for global rules broadly set by the West, specifically the Americans. Here China and Russia are a fascinating comparison. Deng Xiaoping realized decades ago that for China to modernize it would need to swallow its pride, at least for awhile, and function as a reasonably reliable partner in a liberal world order over which it had little control. Deng famously counseled China to “keep a low profile and bid our time.” While this was not full-blown subservience to the Americans, it did require a somewhat humiliating willingness to accept that the West did a lot things better than China, and that China had more to learn than vice-versa. Hence the huge wave of Chinese students in American universities. This is a wisdom of modesty that Putin, with his relentless machoism, shirtless photo-ops, and constant bluster, never learned. He would rather Russia be proud and impoverished, than follow the lead of the West – for at least a little while – in order to ignite growth.
What is Putin’s Endgame?
As far back as Thucydides, international relations theory has noted that states often act from foolish pride, out of an exaggerated sense of honor, even if it damages the national interest. Russia today fits this description. Badly governed, hugely corrupt, run by an egomaniac who would rather stunt his own economy and impoverish his neighbors than join American-led globalization, Putin is slowly demolishing Russia’s ability to be the very great power he so desperately wants us all to think it is.
The short-term, anti-western ideological satisfactions of Putinism spell-out no middle- or long-term future for Russia after Putin is gone (so maybe he does not care?). If Russia is going to ‘matter’ in international relations, bullying neighbors while the economy slides into oil rentierism and hemorrhages its best and brightest is a dead-end. Short-term, angry reflexes may keep Putin in power, and prop-up his ‘system,’ but will this spark Russian growth? Will it encourage the foreign direct investment that has propelled China to rival the US? Will it reduce Russia’s isolation, and the fear and discomfort it inspires in so many? And, perhaps most pressingly, what will happen when Putin finally retires? This is not a ‘system’ built to last.”
Filed under: Conservatism, Russia, West
By Taryn Assaf
As a non-adopted person, I’ve never given adoption much critical thought. Having never intimately known anyone adopted, I have always imagined it like this: the adoptee, I thought, must have been born into the unfortunate reality of poverty or an otherwise dismal future. Parentless and alone, they would have grown up in the dreadful care of the institution, aggrieved and bewildered by their lack of opportunity compared to their country brethren who had the fortune of being raised in a family. They were, I believed, better off in the charity and good will of the adopter family or individual craving madly to raise them. There would be, probably, some confusion and wonder throughout their lives, especially if raised by a family of a different race. But, I concluded, this would and could be resolved by a simple search for their birth family, whose records (since the world is a right and just place and bureaucracy is only sometimes inefficient) would be sparkling in the heavenly glow of accessibility. A meeting would be held, questions answered and a relationship established: the adoptee realizing that despite the pain of not knowing their birth family, they were better off having been raised in a place that offered them so many more opportunities than in their country of birth – a conclusion the birth mother must have similarly come to when she relinquished her child in the first place.
Does this narrative sound familiar? Probably. It is the dominant narrative available in both rich and poor societies that glorify inter-country adoption (ICA). I have always positioned adoption within this unilateral framework, rather than in a multilateral framework that locates adoption as a phenomenon affected by and affecting many different groups in society. Of course, there are many overseas adoptees, some with multiple associations and identities, who subscribe to this narrative or some version of it and are grateful to have been adopted. I am not asserting that they are wrong in thinking that. However, I am in solidarity with the suggestion that we must question these dominant narratives precisely because they silence and displace so many other adoptees and their birth families. To broaden the scope of this narrative requires situating adoption within the broader framework of social justice. Doing so allows space for conversation about the implications of adoption for families and adoptees alike. What is adoption within a social justice framework?
A women’s rights issue: Adoption is allowed to continue as long as there exist patriarchal societies that position men as the normal and natural head of the household, without whom a family can not be counted as complete. Many children are born into non-traditional (that is, non father present, non-nuclear) families, and adopted children are almost always born to unwed or single mothers: 90% of the over 200,000 children adopted out of South Korea were born to this demographic. Severe social stigma and discrimination toward unwed mothers also contribute to adoption. In South Korea, for instance, assumptions about, and need to control, women’s bodies and behaviors bolsters discrimination against women. “Adoption from Korea continues today because single mothers are promiscuous.” This statement, made in 2011 to an audience of single mothers, adoptees and social welfare workers by the chairman of the Korea’s second largest adoption agency, reflects the assumption that the bodies and behaviors of single mothers need monitoring if we ever hope to see an end to adoption. The implied suggestion of this statement does not nor will it ever solve adoption and only perpetuates the already present bigotry toward single unwed mothers. This level of social discrimination varies across nations and within cultures. However, one thing remains consistent: poverty is feminized and the increase in single mother households paired with lack of access to resources and a likelihood of social stigma causes mothers to turn to adoption instead of raising their children. In Korea, most single mothers live at or near the poverty line, without any social, financial or emotional support. Adoption is not the best choice; it’s the only choice.
An economic injustice: The capital and literal flow of children usually always runs from the Global South to the Global North. Children born in Haiti, Guatemala, India, Ethiopia, China, Vietnam, Russia, and Korea (among many others) are exported to countries in Western Europe and North America, with the United States being the single largest recipient of international children. As such, mothers in the global south believe that their children will have better lives if adopted by “rich” adopters. Economic prosperity is positioned in opposition to the woman’s right to raise her child and is understood as the best choice for the child. Social welfare programs to aid single mothers, should they choose to raise their children, are also lacking. The South Korean government, for instance, saves billions of dollars a year by not providing social welfare programs that would help single, unwed mothers and lower class families raise their children. This is in part made possible by adoption agencies, which make millions per year placing Korean children with overseas families. The adoption industry is profit driven, so much so that sometimes agents encourage single mothers to give up their babies; agents have been known to convince women to sign over their children before they are born. Adoption has essentially replaced social welfare, and as such, it is the only alternative, however unsustainable it may be. Women and their families deserve options that encourage and support them to keep their families together. Until South Korean society ceases to prioritize adoption over family preservation, poor, unwed, single women will continue to have limited welfare options and will continue to lose their children to adoption.
Everybody has the right to a family, even those seeking to adopt. However, the very first beneficiary of that right must be the parent and the child. According to the Hague Convention, inter country adoption should be the last resort, yet it is often the first. Adoption is so much more complicated than the typical narratives we are familiar with. It is political – women and children deserve protection of their rights as a family and the support of their government in keeping their family together; it is economic – the adoption industry discriminates against the poor in order to continue profiting; it is a women’s rights issue – adoption is a viable option in societies that ostracize unwed, single women and in which the nuclear family model is the only socially acceptable family structure. That is why the work of organizations like ASK – Adoptee Solidarity Korea – is so important. They are an organization made up of Korean adoptees who work to challenge and critique adoption politics and seek to end ICA. They have made real strides in changing the way people approach the topic of adoption and have even influenced the revision of the Korean Adoption Act, a law designed to protect the rights of single mothers and prioritize family preservation. Without the continued work of ASK and other groups, an alternative discourse on adoption would not be possible.
It is important for us all to enter into this discourse if we hope to see full rights for women, children, and families everywhere. It is also important for adopters and adoptees to challenge the system that brought them together. In the words of Laura Klunder, “adoptees can be critical of the adoption industry while being loving and proud members of their adoptive families. Similarly, adopters can also critique the systemic issues with adoption, which privileges them while targeting their adopted son or daughter, and be proud adoptive parents.” To be critical of adoption means being critical of the policies and practices that deny certain groups their rights; it means knowing exactly what you are buying into when you purchase a child. As for Korea, it’s about time that the world’s 13th largest economy stops buying into the same old adoption narrative and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens over economic prosperity. It’s about time Korea enters into the new language of adoption politics written and spoken by its very own adoptees.
 Single mothers in Korea are defined as women who have been divorced or widowed, as opposed to unwed single mothers who have never been married.
 See The Adoption Scapegoats: single moms, (2011), by Jenny Na
 However, the United States, Canada and Mexico are both sender and receiver nations of adoptees
 Although South Korea is no longer considered a third-world nation, its child export policies began in the 1950’s as a consequence of the poverty caused by the Korean War. This has resulted in over 200,000 inter-country adoptions from South Korea since the 1950s, making it the fourth largest exporter of children after China, Russia and Guatemala.
 As of 2011, three Korean children per day were being sent overseas for adoption at a cost of approximately 20,000 USD per child
 ASK, in cooperation with their many allies, including other adoptee groups and organizations representing single mothers, succeeded in revising the law.
 Laura Klunder, “White Parent Ally”, gazillionvoices.com
Is teaching English abroad, specifically in a country like Korea, cool? Yes, it’s cool.
Is it challenging and frustrating at times? Yes, it is. Does it make you want to go back home at times? Yes, that too.
By and large, though, being able to work and live abroad is an experience that not everyone has the option or fortitude to do. Even if it’s for only one year, it’s something that anyone should do if they have the chance.
Having the chance to do it these days is becoming just that – a chance. The global economy has decided to take a long vacation and many people are out of a job. Also, the countries that are in the ESL game are now requiring more of their teachers as the competition to succeed in English increases. Not only that, because of the increase in jobless individuals in English speaking countries, the sheer gene pool of applicants has shot through the roof, and along with the increased volume is the increase in credentials.
Going by the wayside are the days where any Tom, Dick, and Hank can just go teach ESL. Nowadays, teachers need experience, or a certificate of some sort – or BOTH.
There is a multitude of certificates to choose from like CELTA, TESOL/TEFL, IELTS, teaching licenses, and others. To teach in a country like Korea, you can get away without having a certification if you are open to private school (hagwon) jobs, but even they are slowly coming up the curve as they learn they can now ask for it and get it.
For Korea’s public school program, a TESOL certificate is becoming a mandatory requirement. More cities are asking for it, and some are even taking it a step further and asking for it to be done in-class (as opposed to online).
That said, an online certificate is still fine, and it’s something that everyone should look to obtain. It will prepare you for teaching ESL better than coming in cold. Some certifications require an in-class practicum and this will help get your feet wet at a minimum. When I taught my first class, it was my FIRST class. EVER. That was a perspiring endeavor to say the least.
Nonetheless, I went on to obtain a 120 hour TESOL certificate, a 50 hour Business English certificate, and a State of Florida Teacher’s License. It’s been a tough road, but worth it now that it’s all behind me.
If you want to teach abroad, it won’t kill you to put in a few months to get a certificate. You’ll find my words here are true in the long run.
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ESL, Travel, and Judo!
Masks: Pretty cool!
Food: Pretty good!
A few weeks back, on September 27th and 28th, I traveled north to the sleepy town of Andong (population approximately 160,000) for the 2014 Mask Festival (side note: check out the vlog post here!). Spanning ten days, the festival featured masks from countries around the world and offered a fair number of international maskdance performances, as well as other kid-friendly acivities like mask-making, a giant trampoline, and one of those pools with giant plastic bubbles you get inside of in order to walk around on water! If you’re like me, it’s not that you’re too old for such shenanigans…you’re just too big. So as a consolation prize you can wander around the souvenir and discount shopping tents, eat your fill at one of the many food booths that line one stretch of the festival grounds, and check out the mask exhibits!
For me, the highlight of day one came when I got my groove on with a bunch of ajummas (a term used to address married women over the age of 70) at an impromptu dance party that took place right before all these groups of mask-clad older women and a few kid groups performed on a nearby stage. They seemed quite impressed with my moves (e.g., the twist, the moonwalk, and a few jazzercise combos) and gave me a round of applause for my ridiculousness at the end of the song. I guess sometimes making a connection with people means being willing to make a fool of yourself!
The second day of the festival I headed out of the city to Hahoe Village, a historic Korean village and World Heritage Site that Queen Elizabeth II herself has visited. From the main festival site in downtown Andong, it was about a 50-minute bus ride, and another 10 minutes by shuttle, before arriving at the village. Once there, you can wander the narrow, winding streets and peer over the stone walls (if you’re tall enough) to peak in at traditional Korean homes (called, hanok), and go for a relaxing stroll while snapping photos of the quaint, rice paddy-tiered countryside. Additional cultural mask performances were also presented on a stage set along the river in town. Food choices there were a little limited, so it might behoove you to bring your own snacks if you go. And for a bird’s eye-view of Hahoe, you can take a 3,000-won boat ride across the river and set out on a 15-20 minute hike up Buyongdae Cliff. Fyi, the 3,000-won you shelled out on the way there covers your return trip!
In the early evening I returned to the Andong Intercity Bus terminal (which is actually located a good 30-40 minutes away from downtown by bus, about halfway between the main festival site and the folk village), to make the 3-hour return journey to Ulsan.
Overall, I enjoyed the festival but was a little underwhelmed. I was originally looking forward to making a mask, but decided against it when I saw that the materials weren’t of the greatest quality. Some of the maskdance performances seemed very thought-out and authentic/professional, though most featured younger performers who a) seemed lacking in performance experience and b) didn’t seem to know quite what they were supposed to being doing while on stage. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or maybe the calibre of the invited groups was abnormally low this year. Either way, I’m glad I went…it was nice (really!)…but I wouldn’t say it’s something I’d do again.
I wish I could give a more positive, enthusiastic review. Something like, “Yes! The Andong Mask Festival is AMAZING! Your experience here won’t be complete without it!” …But I can’t. Not if I’m being completely honest. Sorry… Do go and check it out, though. If nothing else, it’s something you should do once to say you’ve done!