Friday, December 19, 2008

You Can't Take it With You...

...and it won't necessarily be there when you come back either.

Such is life. Perhaps a better way to sum-up some of my thoughts over the past three months would be to borrow the phrase that's been filtered down and passed on to me through a friend's recommended reading: "This too shall pass." I'm grateful to have learned that the phrase doesn't always need to lend itself to you in hard times, but rather it can sometimes best serve by reminding me of the impermanence of everything. Impermanence - a word that's been on my mind of late, especially as I return home for Christmas.

I just got back from seeing my oldest nephew perform some Christmas rhymes at his preschool pageant. He's grown in the last year and a half since I saw him last - not a lot, but he sure is talking more. The youngest is discovering a love for kicking immoveable objects, but he hasn't lost his laugh. Within the first two weeks of being home, I have been grateful to have been able to spend a fair amount of time with the little guys as Christmas approaches. Of all of the things I feel some sense of longing or obligation to do or take part in, there is no sense of obligation with my nephews. It's tiring as hell to hang with them at times, but I am doing my best to get a proper dose of family cute before I head back to Korea.

So, I guess there's lots to write about. I have yet to relate my thoughts on our third port of call in Japan last August: Hiroshima. I also haven't begun to upload or post photos from our one post-contract month in Thailand and Cambodia, and I haven't gotten around to properly commenting on what it meant to me to leave my school at the end of October.

To be fair, the last few months - since the beginning of October, really - have been a bit of a... well, I don't really know what word to use to describe it. Let's go with "challenge" then. Living abroad, you hear from those who came and left before you and those who are about to return home or simply move on to another place for employment, that endings are hard. I experienced this through watching others go through the various stresses that come along with upending your world at the end of a year or more. Some people withdrew socially, others became angry at things they couldn't control, and others just wanted to squeeze-in as much socializing/favourite haunt visiting as their tight schedules would allow. My first 14 months in Korea likely ended in a combination of all three. It's tough to avoid these common pitfalls, I suppose, without having gone through it once before.

So, yeah - I think I have a bit to say. Not sure who's listening anymore, but since I am planning on returning to Korea to work in February of 2009, I may as well get back into the habit of writing. Something tells me there will be a fair amount of Davey time in 2009.

To begin I look at where I am now - leaving all of the other things that have past for future posts. Heck, it's Christmas, and while, for various reasons, I'm not feeling as sentimental as I have in past years, I may as well say something while I have a spare minute in this busy and ridiculously cold holiday season.

Let me just say it - it's weird being home. After a month in Cambodia and Thailand (as well as the difficulties getting out in time to make it home for Christmas), I feel so privileged to be here in Canada. Despite the sometimes -37 celcius temperature plus windchill, there is an overwhelming feeling of fortune here. You might not know it with all of the road rage that accompanies such driving conditions, but I am glad to have seen other lives across the globe, if only fleetingly enough to better appreciate what I have here.

That being said, I'm also more than a little bit dismayed at what we have here. Calgary in a deep freeze is the perfect example of the results of urban sprawl. After a year of living in a place where millions more (with half the GDP of Canada) make sacrifices of space, privacy and comfort in order to be productive members of society while attempting to do the impossible of limiting environmental intrusion. The best way to say it is that in Calgary we are seeing the effects of young families carrying out their grandparent's supposed birthright: a large house with a large yard - as far away from the city centre as possible because that's all that's affordable. My sister, on a bad road day, of which there are many at this time of year, spends no less than five hours in the car. Looking at the footprint of Calgary from the air and taking into consideration the short-sighted damage done from such city planning, it's enough to make me consider, for the first time in my life, that I really don't want to put down roots in a culture that hasn't yet figured out that such a culture of entitlement is simply unsustainable.

Korea is far from perfect - their waste and recycling management systems leave a lot to be desired - but such a populous peninsula brings a sense of immediacy and awareness to its citizens. Not everyone in overpopulated Asia is David Suzuki, but I guarantee that any Korean apartment-dwelling family of four, five, or six would be appalled at the expanding borders of our city limits, the wasted space, and the irresponsible planning of a car culture with a highly ineffective, understaffed, and underdeveloped mass transit system.

Well, damn. I hadn't intended to talk that much about urban sprawl. Then again, it's in my face every day here. Of course the constant cold and ice has made it worse, but that's what sometimes happens when you wish for a white Christmas. Here's hoping that the Christmas spirit soon finds its way into the hearts of many who have been road-raging and writing into the newspaper about how "It might make a difference if someone cared - like a bus driver!" Yes, ignorant Sandra St. Cyr of Calgary. I'm sure that your lateness for work has more to do with the irresponsibility and detachment of the transit employees than it does the plummeting mercury and black ice in the streets. I wouldn't be lying when I say that I long for the friendliness of Seoul and Suwon at this time of year. Then again, if Calgary were designed for people to avoid road rage by staying off of the roads, it might make a difference.

Anyway, though the weather and the resulting road problems are affecting people, I'm pretty sure that there would be ample weirdness in being home without all of that. Spending time with my family - my mom and dad making winter soups, my sister and her family tobogganing and having hot chocolate - as well as with my friends who I have started finding time to see, has really served to lift my spirits. I'm a very nostalgic and sentimental guy at the best of times, which makes Christmas the perfect time to come home since I'm going to be surrounding myself with such sentiment anyway. But after being away from "home" for over a year for the first time in my life, I am better able to approximate an understanding of what it means to say "you can never really 'go home' again." True 'dat!

I'll say more about it later, but it's enough for me to to now say that what I am missing being here right now is a sense of involvement. I'm a visitor in the only hometown I've ever known. Since I'm not staying for long, I am not looking to involve myself further. In essence I'm perpetuating the thing that's really driving me most nuts. No job, no theatre obligations, and plenty of "visiting" to fill my social calendar. It's been a bit of a miracle to be home, though I am restless in a way that's hard to describe. Since I'm seemingly at a loss for understanding this whole "reverse culture shock" thing at present, maybe it's best to save the comments for later. I'm sure there will be a sappy Christmas post closer to the day as well. It's good to be home. My perspective has shifted in places, but my heart, apparently, is right where I left it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Thoughts on Leaving...

I was talking to my friend, Dee, recently and we were remarking how it is sometimes difficult to organize one's thoughts in Korea. Perhaps it's the weird working hours, the remaining traces of culture shock, or perhaps it's the after affects of consuming so much fermented cabbage. Whatever the source, it's been a tough couple of months in terms of trying to be a coherent human being.

I'll have more reflections to make and more complete thoughts to relate upon my return to Canada. Heck, I might even be able to find the time to properly blog about Hiroshima, our trip to the DMZ and all of the other madness that has occurred since extending our contract past our original finish date of August 30th, to October 29th.

So, where am I at? Right now, I'm sitting at Holly's Coffee in Gangnam. Steph and I are staying with a gracious friend in her wee apartment and she's being good enough to babysit our things while we venture of to South East Asia. Tomorrow morning, we'll be meeting some friends for brunch before heading to the airport for a 1 am arrival in Bangkok and a subsequent flight to Ko Samui four hours after we touch down. We'll be lacking sleep, but when we wake up, we'll be on a beach with friends, beer, sun, and CNN showing some hopeful results in a certain election on November 4th.

In the meantime, it wouldn't feel right leaving Korea without dropping a line here - another promise to write more, and a bit of a goodbye.

But, as for Korea, it's only a goodbye for now. I will be back in the new year. I am currently choosing between 3 really good offers, all of them unique and intriguing. Lots to consider. In the meantime, I can look back on 14 months here and know that there are more words required to adequately comment on my time, but for now I can say what I said to my mom and dad this morning over skype: I have learned more about teaching, more about a foreign culture, more about people, and more about myself. My time here hasn't been perfect and it hasn't always been a holiday. It's a been a year and a bit in the life - different in places and shockingly similar in others. I miss my family now, and I will miss some people that I've met here, while at the same time being very happy to let other things go.

Such is life. I've learned, and hopefully, being a teacher, I have also effectively given something back to some of the children that I can't imagine my daily routine being without. My world has become a little bit smaller and a whole lot larger at the same time. I'll be in touch soon.

Thoughts on Japan - Part 3 (Kyoto)

Our decisions to make our trip to Japan a linear one in terms of direction of travel was mainly a consideration of time. Ideally, I think we would have liked to have had the luxury of being able to bookend our trip in Tokyo, looping through Kyoto ad Hiroshima and then back to the big city. But, our shortish vacation didn't allow for it, so we decided to fly out from Hiroshima back to Seoul instead.

Ultimately, that saved us a lot of travel time and allowed us to get more actual time in the places we were staying. In retrospect, I would have valued more time in Tokyo, as I feel like neither of us were in the right head space for it at the time. Regardless, we were ready to leave and looking forward to Kyoto. I'd been diving into my guide book to see what we could possibly include on our itinerary without going insane from trying to cram too much in.

I loved the trains. I can't remember which one we rode form Tokyo Station to Kyoto, but it was freaking fast. The JRail pass proved to be the right investment though. For just under $300, a 7-day pass took us exactly where we needed to go and saved us a lot of money in the long run. Without that pass, our rail use would have been nearly double that cost. Again, I really enjoyed boarding the train for somewhere else, hearing yet another foreign language, and watching the countryside move past the window at a pace that was really too fast to notice too many details in the foreground. I was able to see the base of Fuji, but as expected in the late summer time, the summit was completed shrouded in mist. That was almost more cool - I could imagine the size like a giant in the sky.

Kyoto was obviously full of stark differences when compared to Tokyo. I suppose that in a lot of ways it was more tourist friendly. It was easy to get around as the buses were clearly labelled and convenient, and there were a lot of helpful people willing to lend a hand to people like me - a tall, confused tourist who had periodic difficulty stepping out of my map.

If Tokyo was a place where I thought of the future, Kyoto was clearly a place where the past was on my mind. As most guide books will tell you, there are over 2000 temples, shrines, and palaces in Kyoto prefecture alone. That's a lot to put on anyone's itinerary. I'm sure I've related somewhere on this blog the story of my recurring nightmare - the one about me being in Disneyland with a newbie and having only 3 hours to see everything. I know, it's a little pathetic for a nightmare, but let me tell you, it's a stressful situation. Anyway, to a degree, that was Kyoto. Or, at least that was Kyoto as I projected it would be. Actually arriving there was a different story. Getting to our guesthouse (once we were able to find it) woke me up to the fact that we were really no longer in Tokyo. This would not be two days of frantic site-seeing, but rather a comparatively relaxed stroll through a near-ancient city with a lot of calming things to see. We knew we wouldn't be besotted with flashing neon pointing us where to go, but rather with our own maps and ideas of how we could best spend two and a half days in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth.

Realizing this was a blessing. One could easily spend a whole week in Kyoto and not see half of what many people would consider to be "essential" Japanese cultural sites. It was good to know this and we treated our itinerary accordingly. It pained me to cut a few things out of our plan. We weren't able to see the bamboo forest or the lanes of torii gates, but we saw some other very beautiful places that I would try to leave on our itinerary should we ever go back.

Our first day was a bit of a wash-out as we had barely enough time to get to our guest house and eat dinner. Not to mention the fact that most sites close at 5 PM. Still, our guest house happened to be a in a very beautiful and relaxing part of town which we were happy to take advantage of. We went for a stroll recommended to us by the guest house owner and Steph used her uncanny restuarant selecting ability to guide us through a curtain and into a quaint little sushi place. As the only patrons at that time, we were served at the bar by a gracious chef and host and his hostess who served us traditional tea and shyly practiced her English while we flipped through our phrase book trying our best to find the right words. The meal was perfect, if a tad on the expensive side, but then again everything seems expensive when considered alongside Korean cuisine.

Our next day was spend wandering through the northwest area where we saw the Golden Pavillion and other shrines and temples that were equally impressive (again - check out my pictures at the top for more details) and day 3 was spend wandering through the very dense Southern Higashiyama area where there is a temple, garden, or shrine almost every 100 meters.

There's a whole lot of natural beauty there that is hard to describe. But also like Banff, what's most remarkable about Kyoto are the places where people have build upon the land to best take advantage of the beauty of their surroundings. Kyoto is a city with roughly the population of Calgary (around 1 million), but it felt like Banff for the most part. I know that that can mean good and bad things to most people, but to me I saw mostly the positive things. Kyoto was clean, it was easy to get around, and it felt like a place that I needed to see and would have loved to have spent more time in. In nearly every instance of experiencing something new in Kyoto, I also knew that this was a place I would love to take my family someday. Every garden I saw reminded me of my mom and my aunt and I can only imagine my dad's face seeing some of the palaces and temples that were on display in this city.

Perhaps the best way to say it would be to say that perhaps more so than any other place I've been in my life, Kyoto felt like a complete other world. Yes, it is a modern city, but in certain places, it has retained its old world beauty like few places on Earth. To be fair, I'm not a well-traveled guy, but to me, Kyoto was as impressive a place as I can imagine myself going. There's a certain majesty in a 800 year-old wooden temple built up in misty hills that you just can't find in a neon-infused downtown core. To each, his or her own, I suppose. I loved experiencing both, but I felt more together, and in many ways more alive in Kyoto.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Well, damn...

In an effort to try to be two weeks ahead of the curve, assigning early essays, and then dealing with the reality of marking them, I won't be getting to Kyoto until later in the week. That makes me a bit sad, but it'll be good to be finished with my essay marking responsibilities once and for all. For those keeping score, I collectively marked 160 essays last month. Ask me how many I'm getting paid for...

I'll see you again in a couple of days...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thoughts on Japan - part 2 (Tokyo)

One of the things that I was most looking forward to about seeing Tokyo, was just seeing the difference between that big Asian city, and the big Asian city I've been living quite close to for over a year. Depending on how you define city limits, both "cities" have a population of roughly 10 million people, both cities are built upon the ruins of former occupation and war, and both cities are built "up" in a way that is still a bit surprising to little ol' Western Canadian me. For a guy who's never been to New York, Tokyo still seemed like the biggest city I could visit and after having been there, I'm still a bit undecided about whether or not I would like to go back.

There again, you base your opinion on your limited experience, and as we only had 2 and a half days to wander the streets of Tokyo, I left that city (as I did the others) with a very unfair and unbalanced impression. Still, there was a lot to see, a lot we did see, and some things I might even go back again for or to see for the first time.

We arrived at Narita airport a lot later than expected as our flight had been delayed 2 hours. As a result, we found ourselves on the Tokyo subway late at night, doing our best to navigate our way towards our capsule hotel that we had booked in advance. The capsule hotel held a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my first time sleeping in a space no bigger than a sit-up coffin (the "pod" is essentially your hotel room), and it was my first time showering and bathing with Japanese commuters followed by naked strolls on the 9th floor balcony over-looking the Asakusa neighborhood. Hell - you only live once.

Tokyo for us was a bit of a schmozel. Again, if you want the details, there's lots to see and read in my photos and it would be trying to go into the details here. But, for the purpose of offering overall opinions, I can say that I'm not entirely convinced that I would get back to the city any time soon. I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like to live in Japan, then visit Seoul for 2.5 days in the rain. My estimation is that it would have been a similar experience: crazy crowded shopping districts, lots of neon, some extremely upscale areas, and a whole lotta people.

There was, to be sure, plenty of cool stuff. Being a popular culture aficionado at least to some degree, I was pretty excited to check-out some of the more famous districts just to see what was there. There were a few times, in Shinjuku and Akihabara most clearly, when I felt like a plastic figure on a huge model railway set. There's obviously a great deal of modernity in Tokyo, but there are other places where you feel the age of the city. Yes, most of it is post WWII as a result of the fire-bombing, but some areas cling to that '50s feel and that was interesting to step into.

We did see some historical sites (temples and monuments) while in Tokyo, but most of our time was devoted to the city stuff. Seeing the shrines and temples we did see however, it was interesting to note how most structures had been rebuilt as a result of allied bombing. After having toured countless palaces and temples in Korea that had been rebuilt after Japanese occupation, centuries-old invasions, or the Korean War, it brought a little bit of perspective to where I was. Let it be said that the design of the Japanese temples may be less colorful than their Korean counterparts, but they are no less majestic or beautiful.

So, I promised general statements about Tokyo and I have been getting a little too detailed, haven't I? Okay, well let's throw some highlights out there - in no particular order of course:

1) The capsule hotel - After getting over any claustrophobia I didn't know I had, I really dug being in there. You've got privacy, you've got a tv and radio if you need it, you've got a light and you've got The Lonely Planet: Japan. Best of all, you've got a throw-back pressing nostalgia for sleep-overs and summer camp. Lots of friendly people too - not mention three Swedes who each had their own huge coffee table sized copy of "Arnold's Guide to Body Building." It's good to have a hobby when you're travelling.

2) Shibuya Crossing - That place we all saw in Lost in Translation, the huge video screens, the massive five-way cross-walk. Lonely planet is described it the best: "A green light given to pedestrians releases a timed surge of humanity." I still think I would prefer Main Street in Bedford Falls, but this was very cool. I could have crossed that street all day.

3) Shinjuku - The West and East side. The West offers some of the most modern high-rise office buildings in Asia and we were happy to get a view from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Municipal Government Tower. From there, we could see the Park Hyatt Hotel where Charlotte and Bob stayed in Sofia Coppola's flick. We would have gone in for a beer if only I had packed my suit in my backpack.

From here you can see a lot of the luxury of Tokyo. On a clear day, we could have seen Mount Fuji. It was here that we were reminded that this is a city that asks its visitors for perhaps more money than we have. The East side was ridiculous - insane neon, back-alley sex and porn shops and some truly seedy-looking action. It was fun to walk around, and to see the many doors labeled "Japanese Only", but it mostly looked like a pre Guilianni Times Square - interesting, but inaccessible.

4) Harajuku - this one almost fell into a separate "Disappointments" category as a result of the weather. Hoping to see the goth / Lolita / cosplay girls in their finest finery, we had to unfortunately settle for catching the odd one as she ran away from the rain under her umbrella. Still, it was a cool place to visit and I would go back on a good day. Walked around, looked at crazy architecture and things we mostly couldn't afford, but that was half of the fun - seeing how the other half lives.

5) Asakusa - I'm perhaps a little biased, but it was nice to have one of the premiere sites in Tokyo literally five minutes from our capsule hotel. Senso-Ji is the most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo and it was nice to be able to wander there at night and during the day to see throngs of people lighting incense, then waving the smoke over themselves to purify before approaching the main hall.

And that about wraps-up Tokyo. I saw more than this. Akihabara and Ginza don't really make the list of places I'd go back to though - certainly not on another 2-day itinerary. But Tokyo was interesting. We were wet with rain, tired from a month of intensives, and more than a little too cranky for a city that busy and of that size. But still, I survived two days in Tokyo, we saw a lot and if we ever win the lottery or become over-the-hill famous enough to shoot commercials for Suntory beverages, we'll be sure to stay at the Park Hyatt and see Tokyo as perhaps it's meant to be seen. Either way, like all places, we needed more time and more money, but were mostly satisfied with what we were able to squeeze-in.

Thoughts on Japan - part 1

All right - so I didn't blog every day since the last one. Here I am now and since the rest of my photos from Japan have finally been loaded onto flickr (you can see them by clicking on the "my pictures" link near the top left of this page), the time has come to actually say something about our trip. I won't go into grand detail here as I spent a lot of time going into grand detail in each photo description in flickr. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to comment on a few things I noticed before, during and after my trip.

I guess the first thing to say would be that we almost considered not going. After planning bills, debts to be paid back home, our upcoming trip to Southeast Asia, and the cold reality of a few months without pay when I get back to Korea in the new year, the news about a little work-related decision made months earlier really started to hit home. Without going into specifics, a decision was made by the majority of the teachers in our branch to go another way with one of our work responsibilities. The result: apparent increased free time for those who wanted it, and a loss of over $1200 for me over a period of 4 months.

So, Japan for us was dangerously close on being set-aside. Of course, that would have simply pissed me off too much, so we made the choice to bite the bullet and just go.

Like many westerners, before coming to Korea, I didn't know a whole helluva lot about Korea other than from what I learned watching Oldboy, The Host, and M*A*S*H, not to mention the reports from people who had travelled here previously. Popular culture is something I participate in as much as the next person, in some ways even more so, but even through popular means, Korea does get over-looked as the "lesser East Asian country" for the most part. I suppose that's a result of general western ignorace as well as our lack of proper schooling on the "hermit kingdom". Whatever the cause, I thought I knew a lot more about Japan and China before coming here, even if what I knew about them was really very little.

In a year of teaching and living in Korea, having ventured outside of Seoul for weekends with friends - both foreigners and Koreans, I feel that I've gotten to know at least a piece of the country that I've called home for the last 13 months, but clearly I am still a child when it comes to the actual amount that I really do know about Korea. Work keeps me busy most of the time and that's the reality of working in a country that values dedication to and time spent at work. You work here, you're not really travelling here.

Which brings me to the first real point I wanted to make about my trip to Japan. Living in Korea, it's a common knowledge among most foreign teachers (apparently) that Japan is just "better". Better food, you ask? Better jobs? Better popular music? Well, know - it's just a "better" country according to some.

Being a guy who likes to count myself among the less judgemental of foreigners (I can only judge by what I see around me), I think that the best word to describe my reaction to this general sentiment is "surprise". And yet, I'm not sure why I should be surprised. Though there have been a lot of great foreigners here that I've met, befriended and come to respect, there have been other people, foreign and Korean, who have given more intense and concrete meaning to the term "Judgemental". Social circles sometimes ebb and flow around summer camp / junior high school mentailities of labeling and excluding, "higher minded" individuals cast aspersions on people they don't understand, and others reveal personal beliefs that, if expressed loud enough, might have gotten them a VP nomination for the GOP. In my time here in Korea, I never thought I would have to hear a person express the following: "I know people who used to be homosexuals", only after expressing that he also knows "saved" people who "used to be muslims". But I digress.

Point is, there's a lotta judgement being thrown around. I would like to think that my experience here isn't the norm in this regard, but I'm sure that's not the case. The Korean English language newspapers here are often full of op-ed columns from foreigners mocking Koreans for the ways in which they protest political issues or react to political shifts. For some, Koreans being protective and to some extent reactionary over the cattle trade with the US, or the recent and continuing furor over disputed islets in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) can easily be laughed-off by some as the actions of a hysterical people.

As a Canadian who cannot really read Korean and hasn't been able to participate in the society here at a level that has given me any kind of true understanding, I'm not quite so comfortable in laying out the condemnation for something I don't understand.

Which brings me back to Japan. I know people who have worked in both Japan and Korea as teachers. Some prefer their experiences here in Korea, while others had a better time teaching in Japan. That's all good. What I see as being less good however is the assertion from some that "Japan is better."

Maybe it's the Canadian in me. I know what it's like being the neighbor of a bolder nation. I know the parallels perhaps end there, but there's something to be said for giving a chance to understanding nations that often get overlooked for nations that are maybe more demanding of the world's attention.

What we can't really understand after working here for one or two years is the fact that Korea is new - modern Korea, redundancy be damned, just is newer than most places in the world. It's discovering itself at a faster rate than most developed countries and that comes with a price - one of which being the fact Koreans battle with tradition and modernization more than other countries might. When your grandmother remembers the effects of the Korean War on her undeveloped country, and now has to sit through Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) ancestral rites while her grandchildren twitch in boredom - longing to head to the PC room to play Starcraft, you know that there is perhaps too much happening - too soon.

But that's what's going on. There's too much to say for me to even begin. So I'll leave my comments for a time when I know what the hell I'm talking about. For now, I'll be contented in relating my feelings on this small and perhaps inconsequential reality: it really bugs me when people say that they think Japan is better than Korea. The main reason is this: most people who say that have only ever been there for a 10 day vacation. You know what? working in a country is a hell of a lot different from cruising around on bullet trains, eating new food, and taking pictures of cool shit. Secondly, even if you have worked there, do you really feel that your limited experience of the country: hanging in ramen shops, clubbing in Rapponggi, and being in a bubble of mostly foreigners, actually qualifies that statement?

To be fair, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I'm sure that some people just dig on one country more than another. For me though, I'm content in knowing that my vacation to Japan was wonderful. After living a year in Korea, a country that had been colonized and treated unfairly and often unforgivably cruelly by the Japanese, I am happy to report that as nice a time as I did have in the land of the rising sun, I will not be telling my fellow (just as ignorant) foreigner friends that one country is better than the other. Really, I'm just not qualified enough on the subject.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"...they are a changing."

It's been a year since we arrived in Korea, over four months since my last blog and only two days since returning from Japan for our brief but rewarding vacation.

When I started this thing (this blog), I wasn't sure if I would be able to keep up the pace of writing every week, let alone every day. Well, I was clearly correct. Life happens here, and I suppose a few things have contributed to my lack of correspondence through this blog:

1) School - School's been as busy as ever and since June, it's been more so. I found myself (at my own request mind you) in charge of some of the higher level classes that Youngdo offers. I did this mainly so that I could garner some experience with some of the age group that I eventually plan on working with when I return home to teach in Canada. I always thought I'd be a Junior High guy should I eventually go into teaching and this was a chance for me to give it a shot.

My experience was, of course, met with mixed success. While my first two or three weeks with the class were very rewarding and interactive, many of the middle school students began to take time away in order to study for their regular school exams - leaving my class decimated in numbers and at the mercy of a girl who cares more about her finely straightened bangs and painted nails then she does about most everything else in life.

It was a lesson for me. I know that I do have the abilities and energy needed to engage a group of grade 7-9 ESL students with some of the more obscure works of Mark Twain and Sylvia Plath, but I'm not always going to win. It's amazing what can happen when the idea of "group think" is part of the equation. Teenagers seems perfectly okay "playing dumb" if they feel that's the best way to get by. I can best equate it to the awkward feeling of being part of a live theatre audience. When the play's first joke isn't met with laughter born of free will, you can bet your bippy that none of the subsequent jokes will be either.

Not that I have been trying to run a new comedy routine in front of my kids. What I mean is that something happens to these kids (at least in this tiny test group) when called-upon to be involved in class - at least beyond the basic expectation of doing one's homework and completing essays. Sadly, if the cool girl with nice hair and nails and the best cell phone doesn't want to talk - well then, by gum - neither will the rest of them!

Like I say, it's been a learning experience. I like to believe that I'm a pretty approachable guy. I prepare extra material for my class (videos, photos, songs, additional works) just to make those Mark Twain blue jays or Sylvia Plath mushrooms a little bit more easy to relate to for these kids. Somewhere however, the signals crossed and I was more often than not met with a room full of blank stares - or, worse yet, awkward and false giggles from girls who are incredibly smart and able who would rather pretend to be completely absent of the power of reasoning or response.

The boys of course weren't much better. The two I had would traditionally sit by themselves and stare at their desks - seemingly hoping, praying, that I wouldn't call on them.

Understand though that this wasn't a typical ESL class. They understood everything we read, everything I said, and there were times when, if clarification was necessary, recognition and even sometimes the joy of simply "getting it" could be read clearly on their faces. Some of the essays I read were well beyond the abilities of some of my fellow first year university students. In other words, these are students perfectly capable of engaging in class discussion - even considering the sometimes challenging material that we read. Unfortunately, things just slid downhill.

Thankfully, I have switched classes for my last two months at this school. I'm of two minds about it. I'm certainly glad to rid myself of the frustration of trying to engage a class that stubbornly refused to benefit from an interactive class. But, I'm also sad that things didn't work out. I really got a kick out of preparing for the material, doing a little extra research, preparing extra assignments and activities for those few students who did make the effort to involve themselves each day. I will miss those few students and I will miss the material - it made me feel like a real teacher - defined in the way that I would like to be one.

After my last class with these students, I felt like I had invested so much energy in something that absorbed my efforts like sponges that were only wrung-out onto the sidewalk before stepping on the buses to go back home at the end of the night. I had spoken to the two previous teachers who taught this class and they had informed me of the same problem. How did they deal with it? Well, for the most part, they said, the class was mostly willing to sit and listen like in a University lecture. Hmmm...

But it's a lesson learned and proof that, as a teacher, not everything can or will go the way I want it to or try to direct it towards going. I will miss those students who involved themselves and hope that my next batch isn't intimidated by a tall skinny guy with glasses.

Well... it looks like I only had time for number 1 this morning. There's been a new batch of teachers here at the school to replace the five that have returned to their former lives abroad this past month. They will all be missed - it's strange to walk into a neighboring room and not see your old buddy. But, there's a new energy here and some good people that will go a long way towards helping the next two months go smoothly.

Updates will follow fast this week. In fact, I promise to attempt a blog a day. There's catching-up to be done, a new country to write about, people to say hello and goodbye to. This has been our first large-scale taste of the effects of transient change - friends leaving and our little world changing. But, friends are now fathers and husbands, friends have crossed the sea to be where we are, and I'm still missing the folks back home.

I look forward to writing more this week.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Classroom Girl Power

If you want to get a taste of what some of my 12 year-old boys thought about marriage - feel free to check-out my blog from November 9th of last year, but here's a chance for the ladies to have their own say: "Get Married? Are you out of your f#@%ing mind?!!!"

When you are an adult, would you prefer to get married, or stay single? Give me three reasons for your choice...

Sans corrections, from Julia - 14 years old...

"Single's life is cool.Single's life is freedom.I want single,because I don't need to make a meal,wash my honey's dress shirt,and many affair. Maybe I have a husband,it will be every day fighting.And,I don't want child.

First reason is if I Marry, I will be busy, because many affairs. Everyday make 3meal, wash my lovely honey's dress shirt, and many things .I love my husband, but I don't like a annoying affairs. When I looking my mom, my mother is poor, because she is everyday busy. Well, I often help her.

Secondly, I have husband, we will everyday fighting. When I have boyfriend, I like meet him sometime. However, everyday meet him, I don' like that because boring. And he will be too. I looks every morning, when I ride elevator, young lady has a fragrant black coffee and wear preety high hill, but auntie has a nasty garbage and wearing ugly slippers. Maybe I married, I will unseemly.

Third reason is I don't want child. The newborn baby is really lovely, but big juveniles, that is creepy like me. Well, I have a my child, I will need many money. I'm worst idle, extreme. And sometime, I hate children.

When I think, single 's life is very beautiful. Maybe it is silly thinks. The young lady wear a bikini, that is a very beautiful, big bosom, constrited waist, they dont' have childbed's scar on the abdomen. However, the auntie has a childbed's scar on the abdomen, all thick legs, thick fat. I don't want that body. Singel will have a individuality. I want singel life."

Gentlemen - sign-up here!

Friday, March 14, 2008

"He is, They Are"

I once had a friend who was a huge Harrison Ford fan. Not only was he a big fan of Han Solo and “The Man with the Hat”, but he just dug on Harrison Ford. He said that it had something to do with seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark as a child, and the resulting imaginative bouts of leaping from the couch to his bed, and catching the bed just so – just so that it would best approximate the sensation Indy must have felt when he tried to chase the idol over an open chasm – just catching the edge and grabbing that unfortunate vine.

My friend also told me that his kinship with Mr. Ford had something to do with absent father figures – my friend’s own father not being there in ways that were needed and instead choosing to be there in many ways that were not. The result was not unlike the story of “My Favourite Year”, in which a young man fantasizes that he is actually the bastard son of a great matinee idol - a much better alternative than facing the reality of a father going out for cigarettes, and then deciding one day “that he was going out for good.”

I too had my favourites. When you’re a junior high school kid, you sometimes choose favourites just because everyone else is doing it. I decided to go with Steve Largent, wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks – number 80, the guy who held most receiving records until Jerry Rice took them all. In hockey, it was Stevie Y.

Yzerman was the king as far as I was concerned. The Red Wings were nowhere near the powerhouse that they have been the last decade or so, but I liked Yzerman anyway.

It was a good choice. Yzerman was just that perfect mix of gentleman and skilled player that you couldn’t help but respect. I wore his jersey from the seventh grade and still put it on from time to time. I can’t ice skate to save my life, but I would get some use out of the jersey in floor hockey at school where I would be Yzerman, taking a pass from my friends in their Lemieux and Makela jerseys and roofing a backhander into the net. “Vintage Yzerman” it was.

When the Red Wings won the cup in ’97 (Yzerman’s first), I caught hell from my girlfriend for not making it to a house party on time. But I really could not have cared less. I was the only guy in Calgary driving around in his parents' pseudo wood-paneled minivan with a Red Wings plate, wearing his Yzerman Jersey, waving a flag and honking his horn. But I was beside myself. The song playing in the Joe Louis arena that night was “December 1963” by Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons and I think of Steve Yzerman skating with the cup in front of his hometown fans whenever it plays.

Before that glorious day, a few years before actually, I met Steve Yzerman after a game against the Flames in the Saddledome. It was back in the day, before the new building configuration, when young fans could disappear through the Zamboni entrance after a game and wait by the visiting team’s locker room for autographs. I had never met Yzerman, but this was my first Red Wings game in Calgary (the tickets were a birthday present form my dad), so I knew what I had to do. I have to say though, I was more than a little bit perturbed to see the numerous others, also wearing Yzerman jerseys, also waiting for an autograph. What the hell? Yzerman was MY favourite!

Yzerman came out after a few of the other Detroit players and ran into someone he knew from the city. They started chatting and every other Yzerman fan kind of backed-off, not wanting to interrupt. I couldn’t wait as long. As soon as there was a break in conversation, I approached and said “Mr. Yzerman, do you mind if I take a picture with you?” He smiled and politely excused himself from his friend, and I got Steve Yzerman to sign his rookie card, a Red Wings puck and then I waited for a photo. My Dad started to fidget with my simple camera I had brought with us to the game – it was one of those “hold the button down and wait for the flash” kind of cameras.

Well, when you are standing with your hockey hero and you’re waiting for the flash to load, the wait is an eternity – especially when you stare out at the sea of faces of other Yzerman fans who are wondering what the hell is taking so long. But my Dad finally got that flash charged and took the shot. I thanked Yzerman for the photo and his autograph and let him get back to his other fans and I waited for two weeks for the film to be finished-off and developed.

On the day I went to pick-up my photos, I remembered thinking back for the first time to how it felt to finally meet one of my heroes. Try as I might, though I remember that Steve Yzerman had said something to me as I waited for the flash to go off, I couldn’t remember what it was, but I remember it seemed genuine and kind. I was a nervous twit. That’s what you do with heroes sometimes – put them at over a hundred arms lengths away so that they can be free of flaws. Yzerman’s got plenty of hockey scars – especially at the end of a career like he’s had, but as public sports figures go, he’s certainly one of the most presentable.

I remember very clearly a couple of years ago, driving on an overpass that links to Deerfoot Trail, a huge inner-city freeways that runs through Calgary from North to South. I was merging lanes, listening to Sports Radio The Fan 960 when I heard the announcer say, “Well, it’s been a heck of a career…”. I knew what that meant. After 22 seasons as Captain of the same team (A North American professional sports record), Yzerman was retiring from the game. I knew it was coming, but it was hard to hear.

You see, I was the Junior High kid who walked around with a huge sign each May 9th that said (“Honk, it’s Steve Yzerman’s (insert year here) birthday!” I actually did this on a street corner near my house for three or four years and took the sign to school with me during the day. I was the one who watched on the little black and white TV I had inherited from my grandmother as Nikolai Borschevsky scored in overtime for the Leafs in game seven – eliminating the Wings in their ’93 playoff run. I remember sitting there, depressed and staring at the screen for what must have been an hour – well passed the post-game interviews and into a Cheers re-run. I just couldn’t move – I was in shock. The next day, I fitted a black armband around my Red Wings jersey and wore it in remembrance of their once hopeful playoff chances. I was that kind of fan.

And I was that kind of fan when I finally got those pictures developed – hoping that the lighting was okay. Choosing Yzerman as a favourite seemed like such an arbitrary thing at the time for a grade 6 kid. All the other kids had already gone with Lemieux, Kurri and Lafontaine. But in that choice I became a huge fan with good reason. Even in his last years, he was my pool pick.

When I looked at the picture – finally, after thumbing-through others of birthday dinners and stupid pictures I took at school, I started to come across the photos from the game. My dad had led me down to the glass where the players were warming-up and I had taken some shots of Yzerman and Gallant circling the puck in practice. They hadn’t turned out too well, my little camera’s flash didn’t work in the cavernous expanse of the dome. I was getting nervous. I was also starting to realize that my Dad was the one who took the photo – unable to be in the picture himself. How thoughtless I had been. My dad had taken me to the game as a gift and I hadn’t thought of getting him to join me in the picture. When I saw the photo of me and Steve Yzerman though, I realized that my Dad had found a way. I looked and saw a photo of me and my favourite hockey player. If there had been a cartoon thought bubble above my head, it would have read: “Dad… take the picture already!”. Yzerman himself looked a little bit confused. In a rush to get that flash charged and ready, my Dad’s thumb had inadvertently slipped over the lens so that it covered nearly a fifth of the frame. My perfect picture of me and Steve Yzerman wasn’t to be. Still, I had met my hero.

It’s always a good question: How will I behave when I have a chance to meet a hero in real life? It’s different as an adult – as a kid, any pretense of cool is just false. As an adult, you don’t want to be reduced to a quivering, blubbering idiot. I had a dream once that answered the question by proxy.

I had been house and dog-sitting for my friend while he was on vacation with his wife. In my dream, I’m watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on DVD when there’s a knock at my the door. I open it. Harrison Ford is standing there and says “Is Brad home?”

“No, he’s not”, I say. He’s actually away on vacation.

“Oh, that’s too bad. His wife wrote my manager and said that he was a big fan. I’m in town scouting locations and thought I’d drop-by to say hello…”

So, the rest of the dream involves Harrison Ford and I hanging-out on the couch with Brad’s pit-Bull watching Raiders of the Lost Ark as we get drunk on Big Rock Traditional brew and eat chicken wings with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce – Harrison from time to time giving me a laugh-filled and alcohol-induced commentary since “Steven’s too F%#*ing important to do one himself.” In my dream, I was completely cool, and Harrison was about as cool as it gets.

In reality, I’m sure it’s a little different.

Harry Connick Jr. to me (and I’m sure, to many…) is a hero. Well, maybe that’s a little bit much. He’s just a man I admire a hell of a lot. Musically, I’m not a scholar by any stretch, but I know what I like, and I like Harry’s music – his catalog in some form always hovers near the top of my rotation and I’m even a fan of his early and mid-‘90s funk period.

I’m sure that a lot of people unfortunately view Harry Connick Jr. as a poor man’s Sinatra. Yes, Harry can be a crooner, but there’s much more to it than that. I’ll leave it up to the experts to tell you why Harry is one of the most important living influences on modern New Orleans jazz music, let me just say that had you been at the Sejong Arts Centre on March 13th, you would have become an instant fan.

I’ve been wanting to see Harry live since I was 13 years old. I started out as most fans did, digging the throwback sound of the classics on the “When Harry Met Sally” soundtrack, and then following him further through the funk experiments of “She” and Star Turtle” and on to his latest piano solo collections “Other Hours” and “Occasion”. Harry does some cool stuff. And he surrounds himself with some of the best musicians and collaborators in the business.

I always said that Harry is the concert to see – once I do, I can die happy. I had seen some great concerts in the past – Arcade Fire, Dave Matthews Band in a small venue from the second row, Public Enemy, and Radio Head just after OK Computer was released. I even had the chance to see film composer Ennio Morricone here in Seoul. But those were different things.

A couple of months ago while strolling through Myeong-Dong – a huge shopping district in downtown Seoul. I saw a poster for Harry Connick Jr.’s “My New Orleans Tour”. After a story of strife that I shant relate here, I was able to secure two front row tickets to the show.

This past Thursday, I had the rare treat of receiving a day off – I have to say that it was a day-off well earned. I used the day to head into Seoul by myself, have a nice lunch, stroll around Gyungbukgung Palace and sit and read from Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my Father”. It was a rainy day, but a good one. It was my first chance to head into the city on a weekday and it was glorious.

I met Ian for dinner and then we headed to the concert. Harry’s piano stood alone on stage in front of a closed red curtain. The piano was less than 35 feet away from where we were sitting. And then the show started.

Harry played with his big band – approximately 12 renowned New Orleans musicians – as they rolled through some of his most recent repertoire from his two latest New Orleans themed albums: “Oh, My Nola” and “Chanson du Vieux Carre”. It was freaking surreal and sublime.

Ian agreed Рwe had both never seen musical talent like that before. Each artist was the real deal, and they played an instrument like it was an extension of themselves. I know it sounds like clich̩, but I have never before seen artists connect with the music as these people did. Lucien Barbarin sang solo and played his trombone with such fervor I half expected him to collapse on stage. The Tenor Saxaphonist, Jerry Weldon came out of his seat for his solo and stalked towards the stage like a Tex Avery wolf Рkeeping up the strut through the whole show.

It was just incredible. Every moment.

Harry brought his two young daughters who had spent the afternoon with him in Namdaemun market. They greeted the crowd and then skated backstage in their Heely shoes. They did an encore later in the evening, skating across the stage behind the piano and in front of the big band. Harry was very chatty with the crowd and he was genuine. So many hi-lites. In fact, every moment was one. If I could have filmed the whole thing, I would have – but taking any pictures or videos, even flashless ones seemed to be a bit of a challenge as the front row was being watched quite closely by security. I just needed to get some of it to send home. Harry Connick Jr. and his big band were singing and playing less than ten feet away. It was freaking transportive – we may as well have been on stage.

In fact, one guy did get on stage. During one of the encores, a Korean audience member got so enthused with the music that he leaped from his seat and started dancing. The man, in a business suit, danced down the aisle and jumped up on stage where he danced with Harry and got blasted by Lucien Barnarin’s trombone at close range – it was like watching Joe Pesci make the kid waiter dance in Goodfellas. Just awesome.

I’m still on a high fromm the concert. It closed with a second encore of “It Had to be You” – just Harry and Neal Cain on stand-up base. I tried to get a short video for my mom, but it wasn’t to be – there was no space left on my memory card. At a certain point, even though you want to capture the whole thing, you just need to put the camera away so that you can enjoy being there without worrying about having aides to help you remember what it was like to be there in the first place.

My expectation couldn’t have been higher and every one was surpassed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or one of those guys who thinks of Harry Connick Jr. as a white dude absconding with black music. You would have recognized the truth – that he’s one of the best musicians and musical collaborators living today. He’s the package – an entertainer and a true talent. More importantly, he seems like a humble guy and a genuine person. He’s the Steve Yzerman of Jazz music, though certainly more of a showman. To think that proceeds from the tour and the sale of his album go towards Hurricane Katrina relief and the creation of the Musician’s Village low cost housing in the upper 9th ward of New Orleans only makes the reality better. He’s also raising money for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The more I hear, the more I like – but let’s not get political.

Harry’s just one of those heroes. I don’t mean to throw the word around carelessly, but hell – he’s just a good guy who loves and plays good music and is doing something worthwhile with his talent. There’s a lot to be said about the word humble when it is applied to celebrity. How sad is the rarity that people like Harry Connick Jr. and Steve Yzerman can exist in such humbleness. I’m sure that he too would have enjoyed some beer, some wings and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I think back to the concert and I think about the concept of hero-worship – what that means, where it begins and ends and all that stuff in-between. My Dad and I were lucky enough to spend a portion of Boxing Day in 2004 with Martin Gelinas and his family. My Dad’s a huge fan of the guy and we were fortunate enough to have his two kids involved in a theatre production with us that Christmas. Taking my Dad over to Gelinas’ place to share a couple of glasses of wine was maybe more of a treat for me than my Dad.

My Dad was not a nervous twit on the outside when we sat on the couch and chatted about life in Switzerland during the lockout, but I know, because I know my dad’s eyes, that he was a giddy schoolboy hanging with his hockey hero – just like Scrooge on a reborn Christmas morning. I knew then what Dad must have felt like when he took me to that Red Wings – Flames game almost 15 years before. I was proud to be the one to introduce my dad to his favourite hockey player. But I wasn’t the one to take the photo of him standing beside the guy - Marty’s wife was. My Dad actually let me get in the picture with him. And there we were – Martin Gelinas, my father and I. Me wearing my George Bailey coat and scarf from the week before and my dad wearing his brand new autographed jersey from the Swiss League that Marty played for that season. It’s maybe my favourite picture of us – my dad and I, standing next to guy who was a game seven overtime hero, but more of a cool guy simply because he’s a good dad.

So there I was at Harry Connick Jr. on Thursday night – watching the coolest man I still haven’t met do his thing, wishing that my girlfriend could be there because she would have loved it, that my mom could be there because she always said that she would have paid anything to see Harry live, but most of all wanting my dad to be there because I think of anyone in my family, my dad would have been the one to appreciate the music most. And, if I know my dad, he would have been the one to beat that Korean guy to the stage so that he could do his famous jogging dance to the big band’s New Orleans groove. He would have loved it. It was one of the best nights of my life and I would have loved to have shared it with my dad – the best man I know, and miss a lot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A rare day...

Today is Thursday, March 13th - a rare day off for me, the specifics for how I was able to get a day off in a society where such a thing is as rare as the hope diamond shall remain a secret. Let's just say it involved a lot of extra work in preparation for the day, and a bag full of cookies.
Working in Korea kind of gets under your skin - at least it does mine. I don't mean that in an entirely bad way - I simply mean that it can have a way of changing your outlook on what the working week can entail. For me lately, the "working week" has entailed a lot of work. The thing is though - most of it is by choice.
There is a certain sense of obligation that comes with most jobs here - even office people seem to opt to stay in the office with their co-workers late into the night in order to simply feel better about their productivity. Truth be told, that choice does not always increase productivity as much as it should or could, but it gives the impression of productivity, which at times seems to be of equal importance.
For me, I seem to have taken to the idea of "working to get-ahead". I'm not entirely sure what that means... but for now it seems to involve me choosing to work extra long hours, ensuring that I'm busing it into Bundang at least two days a week to shoot some online lessons for some extra cash and then booking it back to Suwon for some teaching action until 10 PM - somewhere in there is where I also find time to prep for both things, mark essays and do those boring little details like eat, sleep and clean the shower drain. Makes for a bit of a miserable existence if I stop and think about it. But when I stop and think about it, I also allow room for thoughts of coming home at the end of this first contract with less debt and a car that's paid for. It's kind of a nice idea.
But I've got better things to do today... beginning with having a shower, heading into Seoul, running into Harry Connick Jr. at Gyungbukgung Palace and getting a nice facebook profile pic of him and I playing Nintendo DS (sorry, Andrew). Then it's off to dinner with my good friend from home and off to sit in the front row for Harry's "O My Nola" tour. A review is coming this weekend - I promise.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Shim Tae Song

"The cancer has been removed". At least that's what the man said. The man being one David Lee - a mac-loving and trust-worthy gentleman who works at one of the only true mac retailers in Seoul. Mac hasn't really caught on here yet. David informs me that Steve Jobs - CEO and black turtleneck-wearing pitch man of MacIntosh - doesn't really support South Korea because the percentage of users here is much lower than in other countries. Strange; South Korea, the most wired country in the world and the proud nation whose economy seems based almost solely on new cell phone technology is not planning getting the iphone for another few years.

Anyway, let me get this nerd stuff out of the way. The point is... when macs go down, they are hard to fix here. It’s like a Ferrari in a land of Hyundais. My mac went down a couple of weeks ago and after a few early morning visits to Myeong-Dong, I was finally able to connect with David and he told me the problem. The additional memory that had been added to my ibook G4 way back when had gone bad and had to be removed. David, whose grandfather had passed-away the previous day, remarked that the memory card was “dead... like (his) grandfather”. Uncomfortable chuckles ensued.

But yes, the cancer was removed and I was able to take my old computer with me, minus a few gigs of storage. My parents will be happy for the hand-me-down when I get back to Canada, I’m sure.

Anyway, it’s good to have a computer again. Steph has been very gracious in lending me her own, but it’s amazing to recognize just how reliant we have become on these things and you really only feel it when it’s not there. So, yeah - apologies to those who were thinking that I’d actually keep-up with the blog on at least a semi-regular basis. Now, my new black macbook has returned. I feel like Sam Seaborn or Toby Ziegler- congratulations to all who get the reference.

I am glad to have a new computer, though I really wasn’t planning on spending the cash right now. It does however help that I got an unusually fat paycheque this month for the intensive work most of the teachers did in January. I can technically afford it, though money I had hoped to send home is instead existing in the form of a pretty little mac. Oh well. Cars and computers aren’t investments in the traditional sense, are they?

These past few months have truly been more than a bit crazy. Hence the lack of writing or posting, replying of any kind. I watch my emails and facebook action pile-up and cross my fingers hoping that people back home will understand that I haven’t really forgotten them, but rather have been scrambling to eat, sleep and prepare enough for what amounts to 13 hour at-work days, plus whatever time some of us put-in at home in preparation for the next day. It’s been a bit of a s%$# show to say the least.

Rather then launch in to an attempted summation of everything I haven’t reported on since Christmas, let me begin with a school update. Why not talk about Thailand? I’ll save that for a lazy weekend day, I think. But being a school night, I’ll talk about the kids.

Intensives is tough. There’s a lot to like about it too, but let’s build to that. The challenges are obvious in a schedule where we get to school at 8:45, run a 3 hour class from 9:00 until 12:00, take a two hour lunch break (which may or may not be filled with essay marking, planning, workshops, meetings, teach another three hour class from 2-5, 10 minute break, then one more three hour class until shortly after 8 PM. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can mark a few more online essays before heading home to maybe do some laundry, eat something that won’t kill you and mark some book reports, do more prep, and pass-out to do it all again in a few hours. Then there’s the two report cards you need to write for each child in the one month.

But it’s all good. I know - it does sound rather hellish, doesn’t it? Sorry about that. But it’s not all bad. True, you may find yourself facing down the barrel of the gun that is an 8:00 am class full of students whose parents have forced them into this class unaware or uncaring of the fact that their child simply isn’t ready for this level of English instruction. The hardest thing about my job here sometimes is knowing that this culture demands something different from their extra-curricular education, of which my school is a part. This clearly isn’t the right forum for what I really want to say, but I’ll throw you a bone - it’s hard to watch a student struggle, lose face and let any semblance of confidence that he once had simply fall away because his parents thought it was a good idea to put him in the most challenging class possible for his age group. I always thought that succeeding at something within your grasp was the best way for an unsure student to grow. But I’ve been watching more than a few students simply fail - simply because they aren’t ready. It’s too bad - especially when there is another way. At least I finally have a room with a view.

Intensives were freaking exhausting, there’s no doubt. But, it was awfully nice to be able to get to school at a normal school time - that being 8:00 am. It was the leaving at 8 PM that didn’t really appeal to me. It was also nice to kind of get into a bit of a groove with my students. Seeing them every day did make me sick of some of them (and surely them of me), but it also let us develop a pretty fun relationship with each other.

During intensives month, I was very fortunate to have a boy in my class who chose his English name to be “Pig”. He had been very popular with the other teachers he had previously and after a day or two of getting used to his eccentricities, we developed a bit of an understanding. It worked like this - Pig would get a chance to talk in class and Teacher Dave would get a massage from Pig. It was a mutually-beneficial arrangement - a symbiosis, if you will. The kids also got a kick out of finding Teacher Dave's white hairs, telling me that I'm old, and then pulling said white hairs out of my head like a group of grooming primates. It was an interesting month.

Pig actually turned-out to be one of the nicest and smartest kids I have ever worked with. He’s always got a lot to say, so it’s a challenge to have him not manipulate or monopolize the entire class, but it’s so fun to have Pig tell his tales and comment on the readings we do in class. It also helps that Pig seems to genuinely like me teaching him. Apparently, he even has my back: Pig has returned to my class this month and when a new student from a different previous teacher asked me why I was handling some class material in a way she wasn’t used to, Pig stepped-up: “This is Teacher Dave! Don’t you know? Teacher Dave is very good teacher. You watch, you see. Teacher Dave’s way will help you.” Then an encouraging nod to go-on from Pig.

My girlfriend has also suffered the defensive wrath of Pig:

“You are Teacher Stephanie?”
“Yes, Pig - I am.”
“You love Teacher Dave?”
Yes, I do.”
“You are very lucky! Do you know?”
“Yes... very lucky...”

That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.

Anyway, I’m happy to have the Pig back in my class this month. He puts a smile on my face and he keeps my back limber with his skillful hands.

Perhaps more importantly, Pig also reminds me of the fact that I really love teaching. I don’t love everything about teaching - I’m not a complete glutton for punishment, and I am aware of the fact that my ramblings about teaching hours and work-you-take-home-with-you responsibilities from a few paragraphs ago makes “real” teachers laugh, but I have realized that perhaps aside from theatre, the only pursuit I’ve ever really gained as much from is teaching. That’s a good thing to know.

My students in one of my pre-Christmas classes were asked to write an essay giving me the best Korean name that fit my personality - the one that they thought best fit their teacher. I received all manner of suggestions, but the one that stuck with me and the one that I ultimately chose was “Tae Song”. To Sally in my S3 class, it means “great sun” and she told me that she chose the name because she feels that I teach my students things they need to know and I “shine on my students’ life road.” I’m sure I am really none of those things, and Sally was likely campaigning for an “A”, but I do take some small measure of thankfulness in knowing that one of my students found a very eloquent way of telling me what I needed to hear - that I was at least making sure they’d remember me for something.

Tanya, one of the Korean front counter staff (and my counsellor) liked the name as well and she gave me her Korean family name to finish it off - so that we could be brother and sister. Tanya (Sim Mi San) has since left our school for another job and it was hard to see her go, but I’m proud to be her brother - Shim Tae Song. I like the way it sounds.

In other news, the great Namdaemun gate, the 600 year-old south gate to the city of Seoul burned to the ground last night in what was likely the single selfish act of an arsonist. It is the number one treasure of Korea and it is now a pile of ashes on a scorched pile of brick. People here, especially the older generation, are lost and feel like they've lost something that they can't get back. It was beautiful and I hope that it will be rebuilt with love and pride soon.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

O My Nola!

The long and the short of it is that I have no working computer right now and haven't for quite some time. My ibook G4 was a thoughtful gift that served me well for over three years, but with the warranty having run-out and the best of Mac minds in Korea unable to salvage the remains, it's time that Davey bought a new computer. This Saturday will be the day and by then, I promise a blog or twelve that are certainly long overdue for the people back home who were probably wondering if I was alive over the past month.

I've got stuff to talk about: Christmas in Thailand, people coming and people living, my new Korean name, birthday hi-jynx in Bundang, 13 hour work days in January, and most importantly - the fact that I'll be sitting with a friend in the front row when Harry Connick Jr. and his Big Band roll into Seoul with their O' My Nola tour on March 13th. Lots to write about, but I'll wait until Saturday to try - seeing how it's much easier to do these things when one has a computer.
Until the weekend...