Transfer of Knowledge

On the second last day of each session, we give the students a test.    Then on the last day, as a kind of reward, we have an Activity Day.    I was really stuck for something to do with my kids, and eventually just happened to remember a game we used to play with some folded paper back when I was a boy.    (When the fields were green and we made our own fun).    Small problem is that I don't know what it's called - basically though you end up with a two-hand operated toy, the outside of which has four colours.    You know the game?    You pick a colour, then inside, pick a number, and continue on until it eventually tells your fortune.    So!    Let's try it out.

My classes run from youngest to oldest, and the youngest class loved it.    Plus, it was vaugely educatinol since they have to write the fortunes in English, and spell the colours, and count up the numbers etc.. So I was reasonably happy too.

Then the next, and older class.    To my surprise they fell for it too - hook, line and sinker.    I couldn't believe they spent 40 minutes having the time of their lives with this.    Come on you fools, keep coming!

Then the older classes come along...    I get 2 seconds into explaining how to fold the paper, and suddenly they shout in disgusted unison, Teacher, no!    "DongSaNamBuk"!    Meaning 'East, West, South, North'. It seems my game is alive and well in Korea, just living under a different name.    Apparently you put the compass points on the outside rather than using four colours.    Oh dear, I've gotta think on my feet to come up with an activity - and with this class I'm just guessing the "Who can stay silent the longest?" Game probably won't work.

Hmm.... So just on the spur of the moment I tell them that that game is different back home and we try to talk about how the knowledge is transfered between Korea and "The West".    Who came up with it first for example?    So we start a little discussion about games and knowledge and folk tales and superstitions.    They're amazed that you shouldn't walk under a ladder.    Equally bizarre is the idea of there being something unusually wrong with breaking a mirror.    That's just a weird idea to them.    Not to be outdone, they had their own little superstitions:

  • The number 13 is fine, but the number 4 sounds like the Chinese word for Death.    So for example, hospitals generally don't have a 4th floor. "Oh, Mr. Li, yes, we'll just check you into Death Wing.    I'm sure you won't be with us too long."
  • You should never write your name using red ink.    To do so means that your mother and father will die very soon.    I've subsequently decided to use this as a punishment - if a kid is disruptive, I'm gonna write their name on the board in red, one letter at a time. :-)
  • Meals provide a whole host of "do's and don'ts".
    • Never eat the last piece of any dish - if you do so, you will get fat!
    • Never eat the last piece of rice. (like I could do that with chopsticks anyway!)    The last piece is for a Korean ghost who is very thin and needs the food to stay alive.   
    • Don't shake your arms or legs whilst eating.    D'uh!    It's clearly unlucky!    Everyone knows that.   
    Also according to Lonely Planet, there's a taboo about how you should place your chopsticks in an empty bowl - but the kids have never heard of it.
  • One of the more imaginative ones I really like - If you cut your fingernails at night, you must first wrap the cuttings in tissue paper, before throwing them in the bin.    If you just chuck them in unwrapped, then a Korean ghost can come and take them, and use them to look just like you!    Be afraid you western fools - be very afraid!
  • Well, there were several more, but I'll finish up with my favourite.    Maybe it's that I'm away from home, or maybe it's that I'm a bit softhearted anyway, but this one really made me go Ahhhh!   If your shoelaces open whilst you are walking - it means that someone somewhere is thinking about you.    (Everyone say "Ahhhh!").

On another note:    There's no on-tap drinking water here.    Of course, muggins here didn't know that for the first couple of days and was drinking tap water freely to ward off dehydration in high heat and heavy humidity.    Then one night my roommate saw me drinking from the tap water and nearly freaked.    Apparently you can't do that.    The way it's now been explained to me is as follows.

There are three levels of water:

  1. Tap Water:    Don't do anything with this except wash yourself and your dishes.
  2. Resivoir Water:    Outside our apartment blocks there are public taps.    Apparently the water there comes from a resivoir and is better quality than the tap water.    You can use this water for cooking food.    Just don't try to drink it.   
  3. Bottled Water:    You buy in the shop, and it's the standard mineral water that's available back home just the same.    Finally, here's some water you can drink!
Now of course the problem with this arrangement is that the bottled mineral water is a little bit expensive and in the first couple of weeks it was still Summer over here and I wasn't at all able to cope with the heat, so I drank a lot.    So, the solution seemed simple.    I'd boil the resivoir water for a few minutes and drink that.    Homemade purified water.

But my roomate objected.    He said that that wasn't a good idea.    Why not?    Well, apparently someone told him that it wasn't a good idea.    Could he be more specific?    For example, what exactly was wrong with the resivoir water?    If there are bacteria in there, then experience tells me that boiling it should kill them off.    On the other hand, maybe it contains a lot of lead or some other harmful trace elements?    He didn't know one way or the other, and I couldn't figure out a way to test for that.    Other than dividing my classes into two groups ('subject' and 'control') and getting children from each group to drink the different kinds of water in large amounts, then observing the results. ;-)

Not to be put off by the lack of hard information from my roommate, I decided I'd ask around with the other ex-pats, foreign teachers etc.    None of them knew.    Not one.    Not a single one.

They all told me that the water was bad, and don't trust it, but no one knew why it was bad, how bad it was or what exactly you could and couldn't do with it.    Everyone had been told different things.    My roommate had been told by the person he took over the flat from.    But who'd told that person?    The previous foreign tenant?    And the previous foreign tenant before that?

It's like a little oral history for the expat teachers here.    Knowledge is acquired by the elders, and passed down by word-of-mouth through the generations of one-year-contract teachers, but nothing is ever written down.    Who knows?    Maybe five years ago, somebody somewhere knew the answer to the riddle of the waters.    Now though the rules have been blurred.

It's an interesting way to transmit knowledge.    When society goes like that then soon enough you're not walking under ladders, not throwing your unrwrapped fingernail cuttings in the bin, and certainly not drinking the Level II resivoir water. :-)


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