Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Halloween

I hope that this isn’t a sign of things to come…

My first Halloween in Korea was very much a low-key one. This past Saturday – you know, the one that falls before Halloween – the ones where everyone parties, does the “Monster Mash” and drinks to excess? Well, for me – a guy getting over a shabby cold – those things just were not options for me. While some of the other teachers headed into Seoul for a cool costume party, I stayed at the apartment under layers of clothes and a blanket – reading, playing Zelda on my DS, and reminiscing about Halloween’s past.

No party for me. Though I did find myself wishing that I had found room in my suitcase for my Jack Skellington costume. It needs to be resurrected and this would have been the prefect place for it. Like most Asian countries, Korea is bonkers for The Nightmare Before Christmas. I missed out on a great opportunity to get sick amounts of candy ☹

So, yeah… my Halloween kind of passed without notice in a lot of ways. I can’t accurately speak to how Koreans handle Halloween in a traditional sense. I get the feeling that they don’t. What I have seen here and have read about here are many westernized versions of Halloween – trick-or-treating and the like. I even saw a large elementary school nearby with a large professionally-printed banner that was promoting a trick-or-treating night. So, who knows? Maybe people do get into it a little bit more than I thought.

There are also, of course, the obligatory bar parties in Itaewon where the majority of foreigners can “get their Halloween on”. Right or wrong, I might have actually gone to Itaewon for the night, just for Halloween – only if I could have been Jack for a time. Sigh… it wasn’t to be.

My Halloweens past have been filled with family and friends and weird as it is, I loved how the street my parents live on was transformed by the simple addition of glowing pumpkins, child-made paper cobwebs, and the odd house that went all-out by creating a graveyard and putting spooky things in the front yard trees. Everything just looked, felt and seemed different that night. I have great memories of Halloween parties – in houses or at bars/pub crawls – dressing-up as Eric Draven and Jack, and loving it when Sandy would do a dead-on version of Dana Scully from the X-Files.

I also loved the few years that my friend Ben, and I got to help our friend Michelle decorate her parents’ place to the nines – a full graveyard, a 9’ tall Grimm Reaper with glowing eyes. It was a good time. If Halloween is only really about fun, and perhaps the fun in being scared, then there’s really nothing wrong with a few decorations, trick-or-treats, scary movies, partying with friends, and gathering around to watch an old-school classic like “Dracula” with your friends while you munch on pumpkin seeds and eat far too much candy - just because it’s there.

This Halloween was a little bit different for me. October 31st was to be the first day of online lesson filming for me. I was to deliver the online lessons in front of a camera for a “Senior 5” level course theme that focuses on “Voices of the Revolution” – a unit devoted to children’s stories about the American Revolution – no, not the one that is currently orchestrated by voting machine fraud, but the one that happened in 1776.

Truth is, the night prior to Halloween, I had one of those nights where I lie awake for hours, grinding my teeth and thinking non-stop about the day ahead – what I need to do, what I need to remember. It didn’t help to know that I would be teaching a story about Paul Revere and I couldn’t sleep for the horse-hoof noises my brain was creating, or for the strains of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” that wouldn’t leave my subconscious.

So, after three hours of sleep, I head off to Bundang – the nearby city where you can find the head office of our school, as well as the online lesson studio where we film. This involves getting on the bus by 8 am at the latest, 30-40 minute bus ride, transfer to the subway for four stops, then about a 20 minute walk to the office. So, about a 90 minute one-way trip. Not entirely a pain in the ass actually – it gives you a chance to relax on the bus, listen to some music or podcasts, and just see a little bit more of Korea as it rushes by your window at 80km/hour.

But on a morning when I was suffering from lack of sleep, and a distinct fear of that I can really only classify as stage fright or performance anxiety, the bus ride was more like torture than anything else. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have been at all disappointed had the bus had a flat tire, causing me to cancel filming for the day. It was a bit of a throw-back really, I hadn’t been that nervous about anything since my first days of University, when I was so shy and terrified of public speaking that I would withdraw from a class that mentioned anything about oral presentations on the syllabus. I was kind of enjoying the remembrance of my young adult fear, when I found myself at the studio and just tried to live in the moment – do my best, and all that jazz.

The lesson was actually okay… I think. I ended-up doing a couple of them on the first day, with more to be filmed in the coming weeks. Basically, online lessons consist of teachers using a “teachers guide” to the story being covered and using the medium to enhance the story lesson by focusing on key study methods, examining finer points of the story, as well as reminding students how to critically look at the text so as to get the most out of the reading. It actually sounds pretty simple and you are given a lot of simplified resources to use, but, as in most things surrounding school, I tend to over-prepare to the point of losing my focus on the big picture. I think the end is result is okay, though I am sure I could do without the excess time I spend studying for the lessons, or the lack of sleep that happens as a result of my misguided, school-centered OCD.

Oh, well… it was nice to have the first day of filming over with. I know now that the future lessons will go smoothly and I will not be as over-prepared as I had been for the first one.

I had been looking forward to the bus ride home, ever since I had gotten on it in the morning. It was a sense of something accomplished, but now I had the rest off the day to look forward to. The rest of my day was to consist of three classes that I hadn’t properly prepared for as a result of my online class preparation. One of these classes was to be an “open class” – a time for the parents of my students to sit-in and see what was going on in the classroom. They would silently observe the class and then there would bee a portion when the kids would bee busied with some other stuff so that I could talk to the parents in the other room and answer any questions they had about their child’s progress or lack thereof.

So, I run into class after getting back into Suwon. Steph graciously takes care of lunch for us both. I run around like mad trying to prepare both my room and my material for the open class, as well as the two classes the open class is book-ended by. And when the “open class” arrives… one parent shows-up. I ask my students why their parents didn’t come and they tell me it’s because they didn’t know about it. I ask my counselor why there was only one parent and she tells me it’s because the parents were sent a text message about it that afternoon. Hmmm…

Instead of feeling completely pissed-off and disappointed, not to mention regretful of having spent so much crazy energy preparing for the open class, when I really didn’t have any energy to spend. I decided to shrug it off. There – look, I’m learning. My last class went well, and like the two before it, we finished-off with some tootsie roll lollipops and a viewing of Disney’s animated chase sequence from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. The kids had never seen it before and they were laughing and shivering in all the right spots.

So, despite the lack of sleep, the lack of organization, and the lack of costumes t was a good Halloween, all in all. Earlier in the day, I had forgotten to mention, I came across a parade of cute by the community centre / daycare close to the apartment. It was on my way back from Bundang, and they were having a costume parade with their teachers. Suddenly, I remembered what day it was.

Still, I missed my friends and family and I really missed seeing my nephews as dinosaurs and lions.

I am going to go to extreme measures to make sure that Christmas doesn't come and go in my Korean life without enough fanfare.

Palaces, Lattes and A Public Nuisance

I'm playing catch-up here, but I'm okay with it. Last weekend Steph and I headed in our separate ways so that we could catch-up with some friends from home. While Steph drove out for a Saturday night in Itaewon and surrounding area - eventually making her way to a pig roast, I opted for the more traditional Saturday afternoon outing.

My day began with a trip to Insadong - one of our favourite little Seoul districts so far. There are good segments of it that are quite touristy, but it's worth it - small, cobblestone streets and lots of tea houses, coffee shops, art galleries and museums. I met with brother Ian for a nice long coffee at where-else? Starbucks. It is sometimes nice to get a taste of home while you're here. It was great to catch-up. It seems like it's been a long time since we were room mates back in Calgary, but meeting for coffee made it seems as though we were back there just waiting for Rob and Nav to come over so that we could play a little Halo online. Ah... the memories... we then went for a short walk to a music market that is the equivalent to Youngsan, only instead of electronics, this place is all about musical instruments. It makes me tempted to buy a guitar so that I can finally learn to play something other than "hot cross buns". Perhaps I'd better master the tin flute first.

After a coffee, we went for a stroll around the largest palace in Seoul: Gyeongbokgung (one of many English spellings that I have seen since I've been here). Insadong is also nice because of its close proximity to this and other worthwhile heritage sights. Like the palace that steph and I saw in our second week here, Gyeongbokgung is beautiful, huge, and majestic. Well, of course it is - it's a palace. But what makes the thing even mor impressive is the fact that it is one of the many that has been destroyed by occupying forces throughout the centuries since it was built in the late 1300s. It's a pretty sweet place to walk around. The grounds are huge, and though I would say that Changdeokgung Palace is in some ways a bit more picturesque, Gyeongbokgung is still a beautiful place to spend a couple of hours. We didn't have too much time to walk about, though I would like to return some day. There is a lot more to see there than time would allow.

After saying goodbye to Ian, I headed back towards Myeong-dong to visit with Joe - a friend I had know through the theatre community in Calgary who had been in Japan the past couple of years, teaching English. After a quick return to Calgary, Joe is back in Asia (Korea) teaching again and pursuing his masters in TESOL. It was great to catch-up with him and to wander around some of the madness for a while. Even better was having a plate of nachos and a giant jug of beer to ourselves. Better still was spending an evening chatting to a guy who missed theatre as much as I did, but was doing something equally important to him. That was very reassuring to hear.

My way back home on the subway provided me with my first truly strange experience with a Korean. How strange? It was really a beyond-the-realms-of-all- that-I-knew-“strange”-to-be, kind of strange. I was standing on the subway reading my new Richard Dawkins paperback when I was witness to a near religious experience! Well no – not really. What actually happened was I saw an older man – perhaps in his 70s though here it seems to be very difficult to tell someone’s age.

He was not a frail man though. And he was trying to chat-up a nice lady who happened to be the unfortunate one that chose to sit beside this man. He was pawing her a bit – not in an inappropriate way necessarily, but just in a “listen to me” or a “look at me” kind of way. For anyone who has ridden public transit before, this guy would be familiar to you. He was either inebriated or just plain wacky! Either way, I would, every now and then, glance over at the poor lady who would catch my eye and give me a pleading look as if to say: “please, freckly pale man… please get me the hell out of here!”

I could only comfortably reply with a knowing glance and a quiet shared laugh. But then the lady got off the train and it was my turn. The man decided that it was me who needed to be prodded next. So, he rose from his seat and approached me. He threw his arms around me and kissed both of my cheeks. This seemed to please the majority of the other people in the car who were either delighted at my discomfort or embarrassed as all hell for my predicament. I am hoping it was the latter.

Dude guided me to sit down with him where, through the assistance of a nearby surly and reluctant university student, I was able to understand most of what this man was saying, while the student was able to translate for me too. All was fine – even positively memorable at first. But then he wanted me to start singing with him. He tried to conduct me along with his Korean song, but I couldn’t understand the words or the song at all. At this point, I was also feeling the pain of realizing that I was in a subway car and I was the modern day discomfort equivalent of William Wallace on the cutting table. I simply needed my freedom. He suddenly developed an angry look on his face when I wouldn’t sing. I asked the young man nearby why this man would be mad, and he said “he thinks you should learn Korean.” Fair enough.

After I looked around at the other faces that were now too terrified to laugh or even offer a sympathetic glance, I realized my stop was next, took out my camera, snapped a quick photo of my new friend for this here blog and got the hell out of there. There is nothing like being ostracized in public in another language to really make you feel like an outsider. But – lesson learned: try to learn more Korean so to avoid similar occurrences in the future. Either that, or just realize that Korean Rail crazies are just the same as C-Train crazies back home and move to the next subway car.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In today's news back in Canada...

Just to show that this was apparently a hot button issue all over the world this week, here's a little piece from the CBC. Just copy and paste the following into your address window and hit "enter". Enjoy...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Back to class...

Just a quick update and explanation for my lack of blogging recently. Work (school) is kind of kicking my ass lately. There are certain times of the month where us teachers here seem to share a certain survival instinct. There's a lot to do, in a very short amount of time and it involves a lot of hard work, compromise and plain old bending to suit the needs of others, even if those needs aren't always understood by everyone involved. It should be something I would have gotten used to through my past work experiences. I am learning to play, it just takes me a bit longer.

I care about my kids - even the ones who create a situation where I am tempted to throw small (or not so small) children out the window of a windowless classroom. It's a challenge to know that maybe only 25% of my kids are reachable and the rest simply have varying degrees of not caring. It's a tough position to be in - to see how one student could be positively affected through change, and then recognizing that I am powerless to affect that change through the consequence of actually being honest about their work in my class. Sometimes it just isn't the school's idea of the "best policy".
Oh well, it's time to turn the corner and see what I can do within these rules. I love these kids - even the ones who are determined to be a pain in the ass or who try to convince me that they couldn't possibly care any less. Little magic moments for me are found in places like giving more comments that necessary on a book report, to find a few weeks later that the child's writing has actually improved a great deal, they've read what I've said, and they seem to get it now. There's nothing like seeing the reaction of a student receiving his or her first truly earned "A". That's worth it to me. But, yeah - sometimes it's about survival, and survival through compromise is often the only viable option.

A Little Store and a Huge Nerd

I know that most people will stop reading this after the second sentence, but I’m okay with that. I bought my first video game here in Korea a couple of weeks ago and I thought I would blog about it.

…still there? Good. So yeah, it’s been a long time since my last post – mainly because I had hit that part of the month when essay marking and report card writing takes precedence over everything else in my life, including eating and sleeping properly. So blogging had to take a back seat to the bare necessities. Plus, my last topic seemed to have generated some heat so I thought I’d take the opportunity on a Sunday night to showcase my nerdish self, and to promote a local business as promised.

I haven’t owned a game system since the good ol’ Nintendo 64 and to tell you the truth, I had missed geeking it up on that, or previous systems with my friends back in the day. So, with my Korea trip on the horizon a few months back, I decided to pick-up a Nintendo DS – a cool little hand-held system that has a very fun, unique and interactive game library to choose from. I picked-up a couple of games for it before I left and in Calgary it was a fun little pick-me-up before bed or just nerding-out on a Sunday afternoon. The coolest feature is the wireless capability of the thing which allows you to play against people from all over the world – via the internet. There’s nothing quite like racing in Mario Kart against some kid in another country, who is likely 6 years-old and kicking my ass soundly.

Here in Korea, I have whipped-out the DS on the subway a few times without shame – since it is a normal occurrence to find couples not only wearing the same clothes, but also sitting close together in subways or a coffee shop, playing their matching pink DSs. It’s all good.

Imagine my chagrin however when the most anticipated game of the year, save for maybe Halo 3, was coming out on the DS this October and I would have no way to get the game in English. A true tragedy in the making.

But fear not, fair readers – Steph found a fine little establishment down a side-street here in Youngtong where we live called “Hyperbook”. It appears to be owned and operated by one of the nicest men I’ve met so far here in Korea. The store deals in portable video games and DVDs mostly, as well as random stuff from various anime films and tv shows. A true mini nerd Mecca. I asked if the guy would be able to order me a copy of the game I was wanting in English, and sure enough, he texted me the next day to let me know he could.

The game was here three days later and I’ve been a satiated nerd since. The game is “The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass” and it’s a pretty damn cool little game, for those that are interested in that sort of thing. For Steph – not so much. But that’s okay, I can disappear into my own little world of Hyrule for a few minutes here an there and I can bask in the glory of a pretty great little game. Steph can visit Hyperbook whenever she's in the mood for a new Peek-a-Pooh. Just ask Steph what those are...

For anyone who is reading this blog and is interested in getting English Language games for their DS or PSP while in Korea, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll pass on the phone number of Hyperbook to you. I’m sure he’d appreciate your business and he might even throw in a free “Eagles Live” DVD as he did for me.

I plan on picking-up the DS version of the Korean / English touch-screen dictionary next month. It works like a charm and it’ll be about and eighth the cost of the other electronic dictionaries I’ve seen here.

So, head to Hyperbook and satisfy your inner (or outer) nerd. I’ll be reminiscing of hanging-out with Shaners, finding the master sword and kicking some Ganon heinie!
It’s true – I still have a girlfriend.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Women are from Venus, but They'd Rather be from Mars.

I have learned this little tidbit of information fairly recently and I learned it from the young. For anyone concerned about body image issues solely in North America, they should perhaps take a gander at the culture of thin that exists in Korea.
While teaching my middle-school kids about the nine planets in our solar system this past week, I discovered that the girls were particularly excited about Mars and Mercury.

Why? I assure you it has little to do with the Gods after which the two planets are named. It does, however, have everything to do with the fact that their gravitational force is less than half that of Earth. Ergo, a 100 lb person would weigh only 38 lbs on the surface of either Mars or Mercury. When I told my class this, there were murmurs and whispers and looks of longing. I asked what was up and they offered to tell me that they'd like to live on Mars instead of Earth. They said that they would prefer to live there so that they could weigh less. These girls are maybe 15 years old.

You might expect that they were saying what they said with an acknowledged sense of irony, yet there was a certain resignation in their voices and faces. Then the discussion began. I found myself somehow remembering what Professor Rebbecca Sullivan said in my only option of Women's Studies during my brief dip into post-secondary introductory feminism, and I started letting them know that weight should always be about health, and never about they way we look.
But then they let me know that that is not how things are - at least where they are living.

On a recent trip into Gangnam - a fairly busy and fashionable district of Seoul, we came across this aptly-named store. Can you think of anything more true than this name? At least it's honest. Though I wonder of the ladies and gentlemen who frequent it recognize the truth in the idea that false beauty is only borrowed, and eventually, someone's gonna come collecting. We went into the store and found crazy amounts of cosmetics and skin creams - among them: "whitening creams" for men and women so that they can closer approach the western ideal of what it means to be beautiful.
It made me a little bit sad, and it made me a great deal more than thankful to count myself among the apparent minority who could give less than a rat's ass about taking beauty out on credit.

Age gracefully, eat healthy food, and tell the haters to piss-off. Their only getting deeper in debt anyway and when that bill comes, they're going to be some pissed. I'm going with the freedom 55 plan, and I'm sure I'll look like James Cromwell with love handles by then, but at least I'll be happy and prepared for it. I will probably also have traveled around the world twice with the amount I will have saved from lack of plastic surgery. There's beauty in living that shows.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Paycheque, a Swan, a Sweater, and a Man-Purse

Saturday, October 6th marked our last weekend sans paycheque. Thank the maker! Though we always had enough to get-by, it’s been a bit of a struggle to go through the weekends (and weeks for that matter) seeing things you’d like to do or like to get (such as food other than kimbap from time to time) and having to walk-away because of A: lack o’ funds, B: the W120,000 you spent on concert tickets, and C: the start-up costs that one needs to pay upon arrival – things like cell phones, groceries, bedside tables… you know, the whole nine.

Still, we headed into Seoul for a little trip to Yeuido Island with our friend, Amy. I had been longing since we arrived to head to the Han River. It’s a combination of wanting to see more space around me, and wanting to be a huge nerd and see one of the filming sights for a cool Korean flick I saw in Calgary before we left.
It turned-out to be a very relaxing day indeed. We headed into town on the bus in the early PM and went straight to Yeuido which is one of many downtownish-type areas in Seoul. Yeuido is actually an island in the middle of the river. For those Calgarians reading this, think Prince's Island, only the size of the Downtown core. The Han is also a kilometer wide in parts so it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the size of things here. Yeuido is also very upscale, though it wasn’t very busy at all on this particular Saturday afternoon. We ended-up getting off at the wrong stop, though we found our way to the river’s edge after only a short while.

There are about a thousand parks along the Han river within the city limits and they seemingly stretch on for ever. It almost ends-up being more like one huge riverside park with a few breaks in-between. The parks on Yeuido are relatively full of families and people who just want to hang-out by the river, fly a kite with their kids, eat some BBQd squid with their sweetheart, or maybe board a giant swan paddle-boat for some cheesy watery fun!

So that’s what we did. It was nice to be a giant tourist and do something just for the hell of it. We nearly got rocked by some vicious school girls out to play bumper-swans, but we survived and had a good time just the same.
Yeuido also holds one of the bigger tourist attractions in Seoul. The 63 Building is a pretty gold sky-scraper with slanting lines. It houses an aquarium and some other goodies too, though I couldn’t convince the girls to walk that far after leading them around Yeuido for half an hour already.

The walk along the waterfront was great though and it was cool to see some of the sites from the filming of “The Host” – the Korean monster movie I mentioned before. After walking around though, I am pretty convinced that a number of locations were used to stand-in for one. Being a film geek, I am sure that I’ll be checking-out more riverside parks in search of giant mutated amphibious beasties hanging from bridges. I just want to see it all.

But yeah – back to the paycheque. Let me tell you, a fridge sure looks different when it’s full! It’s just better knowing that you can stick to a budget while still being able to buy food that isn’t all the same, every damn day ☺. I’m sure though that I will return to the land of Kimbap from time to time… check that – I already have. But yeah, it’s cool to cook more here at home and I look forward to using Janos’ Korean cook book as soon as possible.

Getting paid also afforded us a couple of cool things this past weekend when we headed into DongDaeMun and NamDaeMun in search of stuff that we’d wanted to pick-up, but could only stare at. Steph got all clothes-happy shopping with Amy and Melissa. I tried talking down the flea market guy on an Arcteryx jacket. Had the jacket been real (it wasn’t), it would have run for somewhere between $600.00 and $700.00 Canadian. He quoted me W130,000 and I got him down to W70,000. Noticing the cheap zipper and poor stitching as well as the hastily sewn-on label, I tried talking him down to $50,000. He got pretty pissed, and I walked-away satisfied that I didn’t get suckered into buying something that would have likely fallen apart in a month.
Then I did something that all Korea-living men eventually break-down and do. I bought a man-purse. Oh yes!!! You see, I always thought it unfair that women should be able to carry all their shite around al the time, while us men only have access to our wallets. As Jason “Recognize” Villanueva would say, “That’s whack!” Especially while I’m in Seoul, I want to be carrying my camera, maybe an umbrella, a book, a guide-book, my ipod, and maybe even my DS. In other words – Davey needs a man purse. So that day, this past Saturday-after-paycheque day, I began my quest.

But first, I had to get into the vibe of what it means to be in Korea and be comfortable with one’s sexuality. I have to say, I’m still not digging the pink (sorry, Rob), but even I have me weaknesses, and my weakness this night manifested itself in the form of a crazy cool dark grey cardigan sweater at a shop by the name of “Teeny Weenie” – yes, that’s correct. TW is a Korean brand that’s pretty upscale and popular judging by the storefronts and interiors that we’ve seen so far. It’s kind of like Ralph Lauren with Teddy Bears instead of polo players and the design is kind of American Collegiate style. Not that I care about any of that, but I do care about the fact that the Fred Rogers in me just needed to try one of these bad boys on and when I did, it was love at first feel. I really don’t care that this makes me look like a grandfather. I’m also comfortable about my age. Dig?

After my sweater purchase, I bid the ladies adieu in search for the man purse, and I would stop at nothing short of perfection. I don’t want something that screams “too hard” or “too soft”. I’ve never been a leather man, and I’ve got book-bags for my laptop etc. at home. No – what I needed was a man-purse that didn’t make me look awkward or desperate. After wandering about the near-deserted streets of Namdae-mun, breathing in the over-powering odor of steaming silkworm pupae, I found it – a subtle little number just perfect for those trips into Seoul. I talked the guy down from 30,000 to 20,000 and I was a happy camper. I’m going to give the little baby a test-drive this weekend, in fact.
Look-out, Seoul, because this weekend there’s going to be a Teeny-Weenie-clad giant nerd wandering your streets, brandishing the meanest Pandora’s-box-of-sass man-purse you’ve ever seen!

In other news... how about those Flames?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Dogs are Barkin'!

For those that don't know and are half-way curious, I have foot issues. No, not the kind that involves medicinal powders and a burning sensation, but rather the kind that comes from a combination of maybe wearing the wrong shoes, breaking my feet playing soccer, and then having my legs compensate in the wrong way, ending-up in fallen arches and serious pain whenever I roll out of bed and take my first steps in the AM.
So, I have taken to stealthily massaging my own feet in class. How is this accomplished? Well, at times I need to be behind my desk while we are doing a group reading or taking-up answers to a quiz. If I'm behind there long enough, I have just enough time to kick-off a loosely-tied shoe and roll it on the wooden dowel foot roller I brought with me from home. The effect of putting my foot back into my shoe almost equals the relief one feels when you put on your own boots after ice-skating. It's truly a relief. And since our job requires us to teach "Korean Style", that means standing on a hard stone floor for long periods of time with nary a break, though they do come from time to time. I know that makes me sound like a big baby, but sneaking a foot massage from time to time has become a necessity for me, I'm afraid.
I'm sure this is all very interesting for you.

What may be more interesting though is my tale of traveling to Sanbon with Ian and Bonnie a couple of weekend ago. It's amazing how the time flies and how long it sometimes takes me to update events through this blog, but there it is.
I met with Ian and Bonnie in Sanbon on a Sunday while Steph strolled into Seoul to meet with one of her friends. It was great - we had some coffee, went for an incredible dinner called Shabu Shabu which is actually a dish of Japanese origin I was told. It was fantastic - maybe the best dish I've had in Korea so far.
It is a shared soup type situation with the usual (and unusual) Korean side-dishes one can start expecting at these restaurants. The bowl of soup is heated in the centre of the table from a gas stove and the server helps to add ingredients to it through the meal, changing the food as you go. I would guess that there were about four stages the soup goes through - ending in a delicious rice-pudding type concoction that I loved. It's cool to be able to watch food be prepared and cooked right in front of you as you eat. Very cool stuff.

Prior to dinner though, I had an experience that made me very pleased. First, I saw this couples underwear store with a crazy sign. That wasn't what pleased me, really. What pleased me was seeing the cool recreation parks that they have built in Sanbon. They are always well-used and they have things there for everybody.

There are the usual public exercise equipment places, soccer fields, basketball, tennis and badminton courts (we even saw people in the evening hitting a badminton bird that lit-up with a battery-powered light so you could play in the dark), but the coolest thing that I have seen in Sanbon so far (aside from Ian's crazy small red car) was the pathway entirely devoted to feet. Oh, yes!!!!

The pathway winds through a little treed area and you can take a number of different turns. There is a stone map of the foot and which areas of the foot affect different areas of the body. The path is concrete and wood and it has many different types of terrain - ranging from rounded wooden half-logs to embedded stones of various shapes and sizes. You of course are meant to walk through the path with bare feet and there is a foot shower area at the end of the path.

Truth is - it was painful as hell. Bonnie and Ian opted out of the experience, but being that my feet are dying a slow death, I thought I'd mix metaphors and give my little footsies a kick in the pants. Some areas were very painful, but all in all, the experience was awesome. If I lived in Sanbon, I'm pretty sure that I would be walking that path on a daily basis. Ah - sweet relief! But now, two weeks later, I am again feeling the pain. I'm pretty sure that this calls for a complete foot massage somewhere. The time has come.

Monday, October 8, 2007

"We've got, high apple-pie, in the sky hopes!"

About a 5 minute walk form our apartment is the Suwon Campus of Kyung Hee University. Though the head campus is in Seoul, I can't imagine it being much more beautiful than this. I should really check it out some day.
It was kind of surprising to say the least when I walked around a corner one day and ran into this imposing yet somehow inviting stone gate. It's a truly beautiful campus form what I can see and they have some beautiful facilities there. I didn't have time to look-around too much, but I did have a chance to play soccer with some friends from school last week.
It was a lot of fun, we started a four on four quarter-field pick-up game with a few locals and we proceeded to soundly get our asses whipped. But man, it was fun - though I do have a moon-shaped bruise on the outside of my shin where a shin pad might have otherwise been. In case you were wondering, cold, wet soccer balls kicked by Koreans with mad skills hurt like the Dickens. They also have some tennis courts and basketball nets that I could actually dunk on if I had any skill in that sport. Oh, well...

Apparently, I was a little bit late this morning as I missed a chance to video the traffic director who stands in front of the school - whistle constantly pursed in his mouth - waving buses and cars through the main gate off of a T-intersection with dual turning lanes. It's a pretty crazy site, but I mention it because it was cool to see the guy in action - he knew exactly where to go and what to do at each precise second. He recognized the cars of staff at a distance and he would give them a walking salute as he moved through traffic and as they turned into the gate. Even more cool than that (my Dad would like this one) was the fact that he would stop in a proper feet-together, white-gloved salute to each and every bus that came through the gate. He would even bow to them. How cool would that have been, Dad?

As I walked around the grounds, I saw a copy on one of the gates of the New Millenium Magna Carta for Global Society. A pretty cool United Nations-sponsored document. It's worth a read and you should be able to see it if you click on the photo.
Apparently, Kyung Hee University is the first educational institute to receive a UNESCO Prize for Peace Education Award. Studying methods to move towards peace - where the hell was that at the U of C? The schools emblem is an olive branch wrapped-around the symbol for the UN. Clearly, peace is a focus here.
I hope to get back there soon to play soccer a few more times before it gets too cold. The weather has certainly taken a turn for the cooler and it came on rather quick. Leaves are changing here and I'm looking forward to seeing a few temples covered in red, gold and brown.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Perhaps the last of the God Blog... least until something else shows-up.

Of course religious extremism is alive and well all over the world, but with the release of 19 South Korean missionaries this past month, after two others had been released and two others murdered by the Taliban who were holding them hostage in Afghanistan - the country that these Korean Christians thought they would visit in good will, carting a flag of Christianity before them - I have been wondering even more so than I had been before, why exactly people feel the need to impose any religion upon others - whether through threat of conversion or death, or through imperialistic notions that Christians can somehow peacefully introduce their belief system to a raw and open sore of a region of the world where people are not ready to let go of violence for the sake of their God. If you read the news, you would know that apparently, neither have we. In a war of continuing global dominance and control of oil, we still somehow flaunt the name of God on our side, or theirs.

I feel for those who went with good intention, and nothing can justify the cruel loss of life. It is reported though denied by both the Taliban and the South Korean Government, that a $20 million ransom was paid.

Why Christian groups would travel to a Jihadist area of the world as opposed to leaving the work to secular groups is well beyond my understanding.

I have also read that the stories of these people will be collected and shared through a Christian organization called VOM - or Voices of Martyrs. Martyrs for their faith. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

John Lennon truly said it best, though conservatives of the world would still somehow argue that religion is worth the lives lost and blood shed in its various names. But, yeah - Lennon said it best. And I'll let Bill Maher say a little more, simply because he is a tad more biting than I could ever be on the subject.

"New Rule: If you want to bring Jesus to the unbelievers, you can't be surprised if you get the same reception he did. This past weekend, the Taliban in Afghanistan finally released 19 South Korean missionaries after weeks of negotiations, a $20 million ransom and several warnings to "buy something or get out!" Now, here's a little tip for missionaries: if you want to get people to believe in your god, make sure he can do something really impressive like not let you get kidnapped! Because, Muslim extremists are generally a) Muslim, and b) extremists!

No matter how many times you ask a Jihadi, "What would Jesus do," his answer is always, "Convert."

And why are there still Christian missionaries anyway? I'm pretty sure everyone has at least heard about Jesus by now. So it comes down to arrogance. Walking into Taliban country with a smile and a cross is like crashing a party at Jay-Z's house and popping on a Kenny Chesney CD. "Oh, once they hear this, they'll change their mind about what good music is. Come on, it's the 'Ches-NUT!'"

And it's that kind of naive certainty that led a certain current U.S. president to also stumble blindly into the Middle East with good intentions and no prayer of success. Bush didn't need to check with experts or historians. He knew he was right, a point confirmed in the new book about him, appropriately titled, Dead Certain, the first attempt at burnishing the Bush legacy, or as it used to be called, "polishing a turd."

In the book, President Bush goes on and on about how his certainty about Iraq is not just for show. "Oh, I'm not pretendin' to have my head up my ass. It's really up there!" And the message you hear from Bush apologists these days is, "Oh, sure, short-term Bush may have f@#ked everything up, but he's thinking long-term, 100 years into the future."

Well, thank you, George W. Nostradamus. America's first science fiction president. I'm sure when Americans are all flying around in jet packs and eating Soylent Green, they'll be building statues in your honor. You know, it must feel good to be dead certain about everything. But it's not a virtue. Especially when you're ALWAYS WRONG!

Bertrand Russell said, "The trouble with the world is the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt." And then rewrote that quote 56 more times. Doubt, for lack of a better word, is good. It suits human nature. Doubt is what makes you careful. Doubt is what makes you open to change."


Friday, October 5, 2007

A bit of a chin-wag...

Aha! I’m writing… that must mean that it’s Friday night and I am actually here at home with time to type a bit on this here computer. It’s been a long day at school. I don’t exaggerate today. Steph and I were up at 7 to the resounding whak-whak-whak of jack-hammers outside our apartment. Good thing too, because we actually had to be up early today in order to get on a few buses and into a few cabs to get to Bundang – the location of our school’s head office – so that we could meet for the first time about recording online essays.

But what are online essays, you ask? Well, teachers here are chosen to record supplemental material for the company to place online. That way, a student who is studying any given lesson can also log in to the system to watch a teacher explain more aspects of the book. It’s like an extra lesson just to help students out if they didn’t really understand things like why Paul Revere rode through town so fast. Yep – most of the texts here are American textbooks. A lot of them are good for the ESL classroom and a lot of them come with very useful supplementary material for us to use in class, but it’s a bit of a gong-show when you are trying to teach from them for the first time in front of a camera.
Truth be told, I don’t know if Steph or I will be chosen to film the online sessions or not. We visited head office for a bit this morning in order to film a sample lesson in the hopes that they maybe want to use us for the real deal. I hope it works out. It’s extra work, but it’s not all the time. The money will come in handy too and it might even bee enough to finance a trip to Thailand this Christmas if indeed we get to film enough lessons. That’s motivation enough for me. I hear blue ocean water calling my name and I don’t want money to be an issue, so I say bring it on. Besides, after I removed my head from my ass and actually started speaking for the demo this morning, I was really enjoying it.
I think it will be fun, once I get a chance to properly prepare for the material that I will be teaching on camera. I’ll be sure to keep you updated – apologies for the lack of photos from this morning, but I neglected to bring the ol’ camera. Too bad – Bundang is a beautiful area – very clean and new. I’ll take pictures if I ever get back. Fingers-crossed for us both. Stephanie’s demo was brilliant by the way… don’t ever say that four years of acting school never pays off.
So, I realize that it’s been a ridiculously long time between updates and instead of doing the usual play-by-play, here’s a brief re-cap – like a Christmas letter from people that Nick loves very much – when you care enough to send the very best…

School update:

Besides the possibility off online teaching, there is very little that is new in the realm of work, unless you count the fact that I am truly starting to feel at home in the classroom. A few things have contribute to that:
1. My kids have loosened up and they are starting to understand my expectation.
2. I’ve made a couple of kids cry, but it’s for their own good – “There’s no crying in baseball!”
3. I am finally starting to keep on top of essay marking for this new reporting period, in fact, that’s where I was tonight before getting home to write to you.
4. The simple fact that, with time, comes increased confidence and less preparation.
Truth is, I am one of those people what tends to front-load my work. Ie: I need to work my sorry ass off at the beginning before I can let it go at all. Sadly, I’m just not ready to go into class with anything less than one hour of out-of school prep time each day – before I head into school for two more hours of prep time and six hours of class. It’s a little bit of a pisser to feel that I need to do this in my off-time, but I know it will change and if I have to direct my OCD somewhere, it may as well be at work where I will at least get paid – though not for overtime of course ☺

My kids are beginning to warm-up to me more and I think they are understanding what’s going on in my classroom. It’s nice to finally have a sense of repoire with my kids – something that goes beyond a question and answer type of class format. There’s a lot that’s a bit weird here in terms of how school is treated by staff, parents and kids, but I push-on and do my best, hoping that there is at least one kid/parent/staff member who will benefit from the little bit of extra work that I try to throw into a comment on an essay, or the thoughts I share in the classroom. Here’s hoping anyway.

I will relate one odd detail about this school situation though… if you are expecting to be in-the-loop as a teacher here – well, think again. In my five classes I have had four students drop-out. I was assured by my fellow teachers that this is a regular occurrence: schedules get too full, brother’s music lesson collides with the school time table etc. But still, I was somehow thinking that I would maybe know in advance. No such luck, I’m afraid. I usually find out by taking attendance only to have other students tell me that “Harry’s not here because he quit.” Sadly, some of my best and happiest students have been bailing.
What kind of drives me nuts about it all is that when I asked why they left, I was told in the same breath that a) it has nothing to do with me and that they left because of scheduling conflicts, and b) I should work harder to keep students in my class because if I don’t have a high enough retention rate, I will not only lose my retention bonus (I didn’t know I had one coming), but it “just wouldn’t look good.” I wonder if they realize that in order to have retained these students, I would have had to stop-by their houses for a family dinner so that I could have had a friendly chat about freeing up their child’s schedule for my class.

However, I was tempted to say that it might be a better idea to not fill my classes with students on the verge of a nervous breakdown so that maybe my retention rate will improve and I can get that bonus that I so richly and randomly deserve? Yeah, I guess I’ll just let that one go. As another teacher informed me, chances are that next month nobody will drop-out and I will be praised up and down for my exemplary retention skills. I’ll pencil that day in the calendar. This same teacher apparently lost 10 students in one month and then lost none the next month (likely because there were no more to lose) and was asked what she did differently to keep her students. Yep.
All in all though, school’s been good, and it’s getting better. My out off school prep time has been lessening and might even all-but-disappear in the near weeks. It takes a while to build a repertoire though and I think it’s time well-spent. I’m digging my kids and I’m starting to feel responsible for them – good or bad, that’s how it is. I am finally starting to feel comfortable enough with the curriculum and school expectations to feel like I can start to make the lessons my own. That’s important too.

Music Update

Okay, so I haven’t purchased any new music here yet. I’ve been trying to be good about visiting itunes and stay away from new stuff until I get paid. So far, I’ve been good – but it’s not like I’ve really had much of a choice ☺.
I do have to say though that one of the hi-lites of my trip so far has been the concert this past Wednesday night. For those that missed my blog of a few weeks ago, Steph and I were fortunate enough to see a living musical legend in Seoul this past week. Ennio Morricone, the Italian film composer was in town to play two sold-out concerts at Olympic Park and we were lucky enough get tickets.

It was sublime. My sister had been a fan of his music (most specifically for his score to the film “The Mission”) for a number of years, and I wished that she could have been there with us to see and hear the orchestra and choir perform. He brought over 100 members of the Symphony orchestra from Rome and they joined with 100+ choir members from Seoul to perform for an hour and half to a sold-out crowd.
I know that film scores might be a little nerdy sounding – I can accept that. But this music is just beautiful. You can’t deny the power of a single, plaintive instrument standing-in for a single lonely character. It’s what film scores are all about and what Morricone is best at. There were moments in the concert that made my heart stop, made me wish that every one of my friends and family who loves music could have been there with us to see and hear it. I feel it was a once in a lifetime event for me, and I’m so grateful that I had the chance to go.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to know that I’ve been walking around all week with “Gabriel’s Oboe” stuck in my head if it’s not in my ipod. It’s the kind of music that makes you happy and sad to be alive.
I do hope that I get a chance to visit Olympic park again soon. It’s a cool feeling to know that I’m walking around Calgary’s Olympic Sister City. The Summer Olympics have of course always been a bigger draw that the winter ones and the city has a number of facilities throughout its limits that are still very operational and very well taken care of. Olympic park itself is huge and it’s a treat to be able to walk around in well-planned and expansive green space in the middle of a city so large. It felt freeing to me. I want to go back.

Other Things

Well, truth is… I’ve done a lot of things since I last wrote one of these big blogs, so I will do my best to keep the travelogueness of it all to a minimum.
We were very thankful to have five days off in a row a couple of weeks ago. Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) happened to fall at the right time for us teachers this year, meaning that we could have a few days off in a row to rest, explore and yes… do some school prep, essay and report card marking. Ahhhhh… holidays!
But we did get enough of the former things done too. It was great to catch-up on some much-needed sleep and to get into the city to see some sites without feeling completely rushed.

We headed into the city a couple of times over the holidays to do things like buy cell-phones and other stuff we couldn’t do without. We headed into Dong Dae Mun market as well with our friends, Roxy and Shannon on the holiday Monday – just to see something we hadn’t seen before.
At first, Dong Dae Mun wasn’t my bag. It’s an area of the city much like Nam Dae Mun and it houses one of the gates of the Old City (The East Gate, or “Gate of Flourishing Benevolence”). The place is also surrounded by markets of the street and flea variety as well as more than enough malls. The place is a little bit run-down which in parts is part of its charm to people like me. There in the middle of the street is Dong Dae Mun stadium – built in 1926 and the site of many cultural and sporting events – not the least historical of which was the gathering of a quarter of a million people to celebrate the end of Japanese rule in Korea in 1945.

What is the stadium now? It’s a flee market of course. The place has all the trappings of any building of its kind that is bordering on complete dilapidation. I had read that it was used for some of the Olympic events in ’88, but time has not been kind to the old building. The covered flea market runs around the inside circle of the stadium and it is a maze. I may or may not have seen a legitimate Arcteryx jacket that a man was offering for 130,000 wan ($130 Canadian) – a jacket that would run for about $600 on Stephen Avenue Mall, but there is really something there for everyone.

It’s just a bit more than odd to be in a place where people are packed into stalls to make a living selling goods that people simply want, but do not need. It might sound a bit too obvious to say that what excited me about the place, also bothered me most – the excess and rampant consumerism. Odd to know that these mostly made in China goods were being snapped-up for a bargain from the street vending tables of a national neighbour. It’s just not something I see in such unapologetic excess at home.

Anyway, back to the stadium. I think I might be a bit haunted by that place. I have always had a fascination with old buildings, old theatres, old theme parks – old places in general. If an old place has been well-maintained, it can be beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it’s just a pretty old place sometimes to me – I think maybe if I want to throw some personification around, I am okay with labeling places like that as happy enough – maybe as places that demand attention, but perhaps have become less unique in their demanding. In the case of Dong Dae Mun stadium, the place struck me like a cricket bat full of nostalgia for something I never had any sense of.

But there is something undeniably grand, almost perfect, beautiful and sad about a building that is a bit disgraced by fading signs of faded glories, and by the goings-on that now literally cheapen things inside the hallowed grounds. After a few minutes of walking around and seeing tour buses parked in the middle of a place that so much recent history has maybe already been forgotten, I just felt for that building, and if it had a heart, I’m pretty sure I heard it breaking just a bit. Old buildings like that are too proud to show too much though. Don’t even get me started on Maple Leaf Gardens, but if you want to get an idea of what I’m going on about, check out the following link…

Anyway, I would like to go back to the place and at least from one sentimental soul to a presumed one warming behind a cracked and fading fa├žade, wish it a Merry Christmas. I think I’ll make sure of it.

The time off also gave us a chance to visit Hwaseong Fortress – a beautiful World Heritage Cultural site right here in our hometown of Suwon. It is a huge fortress (nearly six km in length) that was built in the late 1700s and surrounded the old city of Suwon. Mauch of it has been restored to its former glory as in the case with may such sites in Korea, it had the crap kicked out of it through centuries of Chinese and Japanese occupation.

The Fortess itself is beautiful and is well worth the trip and the time you will spend there. We decided to head around the entire wall which took us through many interesting command posts, look-out towers, and peaceful, reflective areas that I hope I get a chance to visit again. There are really too many pictures to post here, but should you be interested in seeing some more, check out the August 2007 set from my flickr site and you can see them in all of their glory.

The hi-lite for me was making it to the top of Mount Paldal to relax in the shade of a look-out and then ring the bell of filial piety. Trust me, it was cool, and it is always nice to be in such a place and feel so connected to my family through a simple act and a simple thought.
Well, I must be off to bed. Tomorrow, I will let you in on the joy of finding soccer fields in Korea, the warmth of sharing of Starbucks with friends, and the pure bliss of finding a park dedicated to the health and well-being of bare-feet. It’s time for a little shut-eye and hopefully a dream that is interesting enough to blog about.