Webinar Series: The Impact of Korean Popular Culture on North America

Please see here for more information and links for registering.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Watching the Sunset of my 20th Year in Korea

Twenty years ago today when I arrived in Korea, the first ajeossi I encountered was one of the most awesome men I’d ever met. But the next ajeossi was my boss, who stole my female coworker’s underwear.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Thursday, May 11 2000, was Buddha’s Birthday—a national holiday. Which was a blessing, in hindsight. If I’d arrived any other weekday afternoon, it’s likely my new boss would have demanded I teach the evening shift. As it was, he had to be content with driving me straight to his hagwon from the airport, then lecturing me on minutiae about the textbooks—despite knowing full well I’d just spent the last 18 hours traveling, and that I had a terrible flu to boot. After putting up with about half an hour of this, even falling asleep at one point, it finally dawned on me that this was no simple cultural misunderstanding. He really was being that thoughtless, and had no intention of letting me shower and sleep in the apartment I’d be sharing with my coworkers first. So, I had to insist. That was when I found out I’d be teaching at 6:30AM the next day, rather than 8:30AM as I’d been told by my recruiter, and would only be getting six hours sleep a night for the next year.

My boss thought he was being reasonable. Maybe he was. Due to my recruiter’s incompetence, I’d arrived two weeks late. And it was my recruiter who’d lied to me about the horrendous split schedule, he insisted, not him.

So, when my boss broke into my apartment a few months later, and stole all my female coworker’s lingerie, he had a perfectly reasonable explanation for that too.

You see, a few days earlier a male coworker had wisely fled back to Utah upon receiving his first paycheck. (He still owes me 50,000 won, so let’s call him Alan.) My boss’s reaction was to use his key to the apartment to sneak in while my female coworker, her fiance, and I were sleeping in our bedrooms, go into Alan’s old bedroom, take all his belongings, then ransom them when Alan inevitably called from Salt Lake City to demand my boss send them over.

That Alan would have taken everything of value, and would not be all that heartbroken over a few tourist maps of Jinju, some odd socks left under the bed, and dirty ashtrays, never seemed to have occurred to him. Nor, that all the bras and panties hanging up to dry probably didn’t belong to Alan either, but rather to my female coworker taking advantage of the newly-vacated bedroom.

With great reluctance, the next morning my coworker’s fiance and I had to physically restrain her from punching our boss, and her underwear was rapidly returned to her. Genuinely confused as to why she couldn’t understand it had all been just a big misunderstanding though, let alone why she’d scream at him in front of the entire staff and students of the hagwon that she’d beat the shit out of him if he ever pulled anything like that again, the only remorse he could offer was in the form of a gift of a whole can of Pocari Sweat a few days later. Then, by asking her to teach Alan’s classes for free.

I’m surprised I lasted the whole year there, considering.*

Fortunately though, my boss wasn’t the first Korean person I’d met on my travels. That would be the very friendly ajeossi sitting next me on the plane. Who, correctly perceiving that I was completely freaking out over my first solo trip and move overseas, warmly welcomed me to Korea, told me how delighted he was I’d chosen to teach in his country, and then gave me several warm, affectionate, lingering pats on my inner thigh to make sure I knew it. The first time I’d been touched there by a man, I quickly realized, since my father had dressed me as a child.

Did I mention the plane hadn’t even taken off yet?

Again fortunately though, I’d already read that Korean men were much more physically affectionate than New Zealand men. I’d also just happened to have spent the last 18 months living with stereotypically, flamboyantly gay sex workers, who’d all been convinced I was also gay really, and who constantly vied with each other to prove it (let’s just say my boss’s break-in wasn’t the first time I’d woken up to find underwear had gone missing). So, truthfully, I didn’t need to think twice about giving him the benefit of the doubt. And, sure enough, he gave no other indication that it was meant as anything other than genuine friendliness. Later, at Gimpo airport (no Incheon back then), instead of going home to his family he spent well over an hour of his time ensuring my zombie-like self got on my connecting flight to Jinju first.

I really regret now not holding on to his business card.

But it would be an exaggeration to say that my experience of meeting him would inevitably lead to this blog 8 years later. I already knew there were healthier alternatives to New Zealand’s (then?) homophobic, toxic masculinity—that was precisely why I was leaving. Still, it’s a nice story I like to pretend that did, which always gets laughs from students as I use it to break the ice at the beginning of the semester.

The one about my hagwon boss though, which is just too surreal to be made up? I wisely reserve that one until the end of the semester, when we all know each other a bit better.

Maybe one day, one of those same students will then feel comfortable enough with me to suggest that my current university photo above, taken for my recruiter in April 2000, is a little out of date? ;)

*Update: Perhaps I should add that it’s only so easy to laugh now, because the break-in was only the latest and most egregious in a series of equally bizarre displays of behavior by my boss. Also, because his shortness and waif-like physique meant that, despite everything, it was still very difficult for any of us find him physically threatening (my female coworker was much taller than me).

But of course, people coming into your home while you’re sleeping is no joke, no matter who they are. And unfortunately, even if the same thing happened to a young teacher today, the particulars of Korea’s teaching visa, which ties you to your employer, mean there’d be still very little they could realistically do about it. Specifically, if we’d quit our jobs, even with the required month’s notice, then our visas would have been instantly revoked and we would have been forced to leave the country, not being able to work in Korea again until the period of our original contract had expired. And perhaps not even then, considering how often such “uncooperative” teachers got flagged by immigration.

So, we all stayed. But actually things improved a great deal from then on, because we’d well and truly burned our bridges with our boss through everything said and done that morning. But that’s a story for the comments section!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Finding the Queer Female Gaze, and What it Says About Anda’s Touch (COMING MAY 4)

It’s a dirty job, publicly shaming yourself into finally writing about a subject that you’re passionate about and have been working on for years. But someone has to do it!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Source: YouTube.

The MV for Touch by Anda, released in 2015, is as queer and objectifying as they come. Naturally, I fell in love at first sight, and just had to review it.

I’m not a woman though—neither a lesbian, a heterosexual, nor any other on the glorious spectrum. So, before I got started, I needed to hit the books. But no sweat, I reasoned. The concept of the male gaze has been around since 1975. It’s well-known enough that no-one who’s already woke has to explain it to another. Surely over forty years later, I thought, there would be just as extensive a literature on what women want? With helpful lists of clear criteria to guide even the most hapless of cishet male reviewers?

You can already guess the answers. But, absorbing what was out there proved addictive. And, as some of you may recall, I did eventually feel that I had enough of a handle on it to write a review.

Only to delete it in consternation as I realized the queer female gaze was a much broader, much more contentious subject than I’d first imagined. In fact, one requiring an epic series to do it justice. Humbled, I resolved to keep researching and gathering all the information that would be necessary, not putting pen to paper again until I was absolutely certain I’d covered all my bases. I duly created a second “Anda + Queer Female Gaze” folder on my Firefox toolbar, and set to work.

That was over two years ago.

That folder now has three hundred bookmarks in it, with thirty more bookmarks added today in the wake of the recent release of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

All of a sudden, adding to that morass finally made me realize what a fool I’ve been. All this time, the effortless collecting and reading of articles has been an albatross around my neck, providing an easy out from the harder work of actually writing.

And, if I wasn’t going to start just as soon as I had that epiphany, then when? And if making such a public commitment wasn’t motivation enough to actually see it through too, then what would be?

Source: YouTube.

I admit, a strange post. But if it gets the job done. I also felt it would be more helpful to explain than just ghosting you until the 27th, chosen for when I’ll hopefully no longer be teaching from home.

Thank you very much for indulging me then, and I’ll be back here soon. And please stay safe!

(p.s. If you can’t wait, you can still catch me on Twitter or Facebook!)

Update 1, Monday, April 27: All completed, but it needs some ruthless editing after a good night’s sleep, so I’ve postponed publication until Wednesday. Sorry for the slight delay!

Update 2, Wednesday, April 29: Arrrgh! Sorry *again*, but real life has intervened in the form of sudden urgent editing projects from my boss, and my post still needs a *lot* more work than I thought it did on Monday.

TBH, I think it’s going to be controversial—I really want to challenge people’s assumptions about the male & female gazes—so I really want to make sure I get it right. Let me just call it for *next* Mon then, with my promise to do my best to make it worth the wait. Thanks!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Urgent—Your Quick Help is Needed to Unblock my Blog Please! (FIXED)

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


Thank you SO MUCH for your help everyone, I don’t think I could have done it without you.

And honestly, being blocked has kind of had a silver lining too. I’ve been really touched and surprised by how quickly everyone has responded, and for all your kind messages about how much my blog means to you. All this time, I’ve really had no idea at all!

The least I can do in return is to endeavor to keep writing and posting, and more consistently 😉

Thanks again then, and for being such awesome readers over the last 13 years.

Stay safe everyone!
James 😍

(Original post below.)

Sorry to ask, but I really need 3 minutes of your help please.

I need you to go to Facebook, copy and post this link to my blog—https://thegrandnarrative.com/—and when a message pops up saying “Your post couldn’t be shared, because this link goes against our Community Standards,” to click on the “If you think this doesn’t go against our Community Standards let us know,” and then leave a brief message explaining there’s clearly been a mistake, and for Facebook to please review the problem. Please make sure to post the link to my blog again in the message too.

Thanks. I know it doesn’t seem much, but you’ve no idea how helpful this is to me!

The reason is, trolls have gotten my blog blocked on Facebook.

Yesterday, I was unable to publish my last blog post on Facebook, as it went “against community standards.” That was annoying, but no biggie—I figured probably the algorithm mistakenly flagged the opening image as nudity or something. This sort of thing often happens to feminism and sexuality blogs (sigh), and normally all that is required to remove the block on the post is choosing a different image, and/or then reposting under a different url.

That didn’t work this time. In fact, my whole blog is blocked. All 800 posts and 13 years’ worth of work. Even all the links already on Facebook are blocked.

As you can imagine, people not being able to share your work on Facebook is a nightmare for a writer.

Frustratingly, Facebook gave no warning, and never gives any specific information about any alleged offense. The only clue I was able to receive at all was when I tried using the Facebook sharing button at the bottom of my posts:

There you have it. Given the timing, possibly those responsible are the same trolls on Twitter who recently targeted me for the heinous crime of simply linking to the awesome Unseen Japan site (I had to block more people on Twitter in the next 24 hours than in the previous 12 years!).

But whoever turns out to be responsible, they’re taking advantage of an all-too-common tactic used against feminists. All they have to do is report a site they don’t like, whereas the only thing you, I, or anyone can do in response is filling out the same “let us know” form above. (I’m very open to other ideas though!)

To add insult to injury, even at the best of times Facebook is notoriously unreliable in responding to those messages, let alone by a human. But right now, Facebook has cut its human support staff due to the Corona virus.

In other words, the worst possible thing has happened to my blog, at the worst possible time. There’s every possibility my blog may be banned from Facebook for months or even forever, all because of a few trolls.

That’s where you come in. With all your messages about my blog going through too though, there’s a much, much better chance that an actual human will receive one of them, give my blog a glance, and instantly realize the block was a mistake.

Thank you very much again then, for taking the time to send a quick message, and for being such awesome readers over all these years. With your help, hopefully this will all be resolved soon! :)

(Update: if you’re having difficulties, please just try typing in www thegrandnarrative dot com instead, and/or posting it in a comment on Facebook rather than in a new post. Those alternatives have been working for some people.)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Finding the Mother Lode

Hi everyone. How’s your December been? Mine’s been full of testing, grading, breaking my toe, acquiring two homeless kittens, and finally doing some last-minute Christmas shopping…for myself. Which means that shortly after this goes up, I’ll have to hobble out of the door and actually start looking for presents for my poor daughters.

No, really. Ahem.

But back to me. I did discover quite the mother lode in Busan Book Alley yesterday, yes? Yet even I balked at the various readers on Lacan and Gender and Critical Theory available though, and reluctantly put down such tomes as examinations of the works of various Australian woman authors, which I’d be unlikely to ever read myself. So you’re more than welcome to pick those up yourself!

Meanwhile, I’m also happy to say I do finally have various long posts actually written for you. But, curiously, Christmas and New Year’s don’t seem to be the best times to post anything you’d like to actually get read. So, I’ll just keep writing more instead—I shouldn’t be walking much on this toe after all—and will delay posting them until late next week.

Until, I hope you enjoy the holidays. And, given that you’re still reading this probably means that you too get excited about 30+ year-old books, I’d be happy to chat with you about any of my picks above. Probably, I’ll start with Gender Voices by David Graddol and Joan Swann (1989), in which the authors “explore in a clear and comprehensive manner the idea that language shapes individual lives—that through our speech we all help recreate gender divisions in society,” as that’s a subject there’s been many Korean articles about in the last few months. First though, I’m going to finish the classic States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China by Theda Skocpol (1979), which I wish I’d actually read when I studied it in a course on revolutions as an undergraduate. After that, I’ll try to finish Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers (2017), a rare new book which I bought because I listened to an excellent podcast interview of the author. I had to put it down a third of the way in however, as I just wasn’t enjoying the overly evocative writing style, through which every other humdrum dance-hall meeting and church service described somehow becomes rendered into a hotbed of hidden desires, frustrated lust, secret liaisons, and opportunities for forbidden miscegenation. This “pregnant with possibility” style as I like to call it, prominent in Clive Barker’s fantasy novels which I learnt the term and from especially in The Price of Salt (a.k.a. Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (1952), I usually enjoy immensely. But not in this first encounter in non-fiction. Perhaps after 293 pages of Scokpol’s “structural functionalism sociological paradigm comparative historical analysis” though, I’ll enjoy the contrast, especially more once I begin the post-1950 chapters about music I know?

Happy reading everyone!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

MUST SEE: “Reclaiming our Dark Chapters and Building a Community” Sebasi Talk by Winnie M. Li, Author of Dark Chapter

Estimated reading (and viewing) time: 3 (+17) minutes. Image source: YouTube.

Long time no see everyone, and sorry for the wait.

We’re all busy these days, so I won’t waste your time with explaining why. Suffice to say I no longer have long blocks of time free to really delve into a subject like I used to. Don’t worry: that doesn’t mean I won’t be writing marathon, heavily-researched posts anymore, or never finishing the—ahem—half-dozen series I have ongoing. Just that I can’t spend Herculean, lunch to dinner sessions on posts like I used to. Instead, I have to take advantage of a free half an hour here, an hour there, and…TBH, I’ve been struggling to make the transition. But I’ll get there.

In the meantime, there’s one more change I’m going to have to make, which has been a long time coming. The issue is I’m always reading, listening, and watching Korean feminism, sexuality, and pop-culture-related things, but I don’t share them because, time aside, I usually just don’t have much to add to them. That compulsion is such a 2007 blogging mindset though. (Yeah, that’s how long I’ve been doing this.) Also, that I’ve been spending an hour per day posting to Twitter and Facebook for many years has blinded me to the fact that many readers of mine aren’t actually on either (sorry). So, from now I’ll making lots of short posts, drawing your attention to the interesting and useful, with only minimal commentary from me if necessary. Meanwhile, I’ll still be working on the marathon posts in the background.

That said, most of those things I’m reading, listening, and watching these days are—yay me?—all in Korean, which, sans translating everything, are not necessarily the easiest things to pass on to non-Korean speakers. But again, I’ll see what I can do.

Which brings me to the video of the title, an April 2018 talk in Seoul for Sebasi (like a Korean TED) by sexual assault victim and now education and rights activist Winnie Li, author of Dark Chapter.

Frankly, I’d never heard of her before this Saturday, when I had to attend a TEFL conference at my university. But at that conference, attendees were told there was a mandatory viewing session of a video about preventing sexual harassment.

You can imagine most people’s reactions: in Korea, such videos are typically cringeworthy, patronizing, and terribly-translated cartoons. Instead, we got the presentation below…which by no means is about sexual harassment prevention.

What exactly it is about though, I’ll have to frustrate you by not saying, because I want you to be as shocked and amazed as I was. But I do promise that no matter how busy you are, it will easily the best use of 17 minutes you’ll make this week.

After you’ve watched, please let me know what you think in the comments. And make sure to check out Winnie Lee’s own blog too!

(Note that the talk is all in English, with Korean subtitles.)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)