Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve

It's here already in Korea - 2:24 am exactly as I write this. I really wish that I didn't have to be at school today, but I do. Shabby. I'm going to cross my fingers that they let me out early, but they may dock me half a day's wages for picking a man's pocket every 24th of December - that's a little Christmas Carol humour for ya...

Well, Christmas Eve is here. I am ready for it, though I wish that I had a few more days to enjoy the anticipation. Isn't that always the way.

I've done pretty well though. I've enjoyed the city - it's pretty at this time of year. Lights everywhere and carols too - though I could do without the Korean love for Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." It plays on repeat in some places.

I've also been lucky enough to take my old student from last year to one of my favourite Korean destinations: Everland - even more cool at Christmas time. Pig and I rode the T-Express and I took in the Christmas fireworks with old and new friends. My Korean sister joined us too. I also got to meet Pig's family which was very special. My favourite student in one of my favourite places with some of my favourite people at my favourite time of year. I liked it.

And tonight, I am going to bed far too late because I decided to take the time to skype my sister and her family. She finally got the webcam working on the laptop, which meant a view of the Christmas house - with the Christmas dog and two excited Christmas tots opening their presents from Uncle Dave. The Peppero box was a huge hit - good luck on keeping them from eating all of it before Boxing Day, Sandy and Jay.

Just a good night - and all this after sharing It's Wonderful Life in Korean subtitles with someone who was watching Mr. Potter scheme and George and Mary overcome for the first time. I guess Christmas away from home can still be special if you let it. It's a tough trade though. I miss you guys. Merry Christmas. I wish I could be there for real hugs and real snow. Roger Whittaker and a good imagination will just have to do.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas Eve Radio Broadcast


Well, folks... it looks like you might be able to hear ol' Christmas Davey and his friends over the radio this Christmas Eve afterall. I'll make this long story short, because I likely told it before...

A few weeks ago while waiting in Hongdae to head to to Maria's place to pracice our Christmas carols, a Korean woman in a hurry run smack into Sung Sook. She apologized in English, which we found odd, then she moved on. A few minutes later, she came back to where we were standing and asked us if we were a band. I guess the keyboard and guitar we were carrying kind of suggested that we might be.

We explained why we were there - that we were a group of foreign teacher friends who just wanted to get-together to do some caroling over the holidays. This woman, Sehee is her name, introduced herself as a DJ from a local English radio station here in Seoul. In short, she wanted us to come into the studio on Christmas Day to chat about why we were doing this as well as to sing a few carols for their listeners. Why not?

So, after warning Sehee that we really are strictly amateurs who struggle to hold any note, she was even more convinced that we would be the right fit for Christmas Day. It's best to lower expectations.

So, that's what we'll be doing - after waking up late in the morning, having some breakfast at my place, and maybe playing some more Cranium, we will be heading down to Chungmuro Station to practice our five selected songs for the Christmas Day travellers, before moving on to the radio station to chat and sing a few carols.


For anyone back home who is interested in listening-in, don't expect the Morman Tabernacle Choir, but do expect a Christmas shout-out from Seoul - we will in effect be the Ghosts of Christmas future, being that we are 16 hours ahead. We will be on-air from 3:10pm - 3:40pm Christmas Day (Seoul time), which makes it 11:10 pm Christmas Eve (Calgary time), or 1:10am for anyone listening in Toronto - Shannon, Chris, Jenn, Maria :)

Check the TBS link by clicking here if you'd like to listen - just look for the "on air" link on the left hand side of the page. We'll be thinking about our friends and family back home, and we would love to reach you through the radio at Christmas time. Turn on the fire place, pour yourselves some egg nog, and listen to a bunch of homesick amateurs murder some Christmas classics.

A Christmas Princess

Today, I asked Mrs. Lee if her daughter was getting excited about Christmas...

"Of COURSE!" was the answer.

Now, understand that "Of COURSE!" and variations on the same theme, are common answers from Mrs. Lee. The first time I heard her use it was when I asked her if she went to church:

"Of course not! I am NOT Christian!" In a country where 85% of the population is Christian, it didn't seem like such an obvious answer. But, through this year, I would hear Mrs. Lee use it to answer such questions as:

"Did the schedule change for today?"
"Of course!"

"Do the students clean the school every day?"
"Of course!"
"So... we have no janitors?"
"Of course not!"

"So... this form that you gave me today, is due yesterday?"
"Of course!"

...and the list goes on. Everything is an obvious answer to Mrs. Lee. So, her daughter was getting excited. I inquired as to what she was hoping to get for Christmas. Mrs. Lee's straight-faced answer was: "A toy dog with a crown and a pink dress."

Of course.

She then went on to tell me, with a classic Mrs. Lee amused grin, how each year before Christmas, she takes her children to the Lotte Mart near my house. She then tells each child to choose one toy, get on bended knee before the shelf, and pray to Santa Claus to bring it to them.

"So, is Santa going to bring the crowned, dress-wearing dog to your daughter?"
"Of COURSE!"
"And what about your son?"
"He wanted a baseball glove and some baseballs."
"Are you going to get those for him?"
"Of COURSE NOT!"
"Why not?"
"He didn't pray hard enough."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Seoul Christmas Caroling Collective



We are a small collective, but we have big hearts.

Last night was the first official caroling day for our little singing group that we started-up about a month ago. It was grand.

I realize that the idea of Christmas caroling must seem like a truly odd one, unless you were born in Dickensian England. For me, the idea is a good one. It's been a few years now since the last time I sang Christmas carols at the Calgary Zoo with some of my theatre friends, but for a time, it really was a Christmas tradition for me. As squeaky clean as that sounds, at Christmas time, I don't mind the squeak.

So, some time last August, with the hint of summer coming to a close, I was on my way to the East coast if Korea to spend a beach weekend with some of my friends here when it struck me - summer is ending, fall is approaching, therefore - Christmas is coming. With me, it doesn't take much. Right there on the bus I decided to suggest that we get a group of people together to go caroling in Seoul. Apparently I found a group of friends this year for whom the idea of caroling at Christmas time is not too wholesome an idea. Score.

So, beginning in mid-November, we started meeting to practice. First, though - I needed some music. It is a challenge to find four-part sheet music online, and it's really hard to find English music in Seoul - especially if you try to get even slightly specific. So, a quick email to Carolyn Byers - a former musical director back home, I soon had 15 or so carols scanned and emailed to me here in Korea. When a Christmas emergency arises - even in November - look no further for help than Carolyn Byers.

Sung Sook found the rest and after some late night photo-copying and binding, we had our first meeting at our school. Three more meetings followed: Shirley's house, my house, Maria's house, and I must say - we got to the point where we were sounding pretty good. It didn't hurt to have Sung Sook and her friend, Hyun Jung there - both music graduates from Yonsei University. They tolerated our tin ears and got us sounding pretty respectable. I realize we are in it for fun, but we also wanted to sound somewhat on key when the night came.


I have to say, we sounded pretty damn good in the apartments. None of us are really singers, though I was able to remember most of the bass-lines form the traditional carols, which gave our group a little bit more depth. Hyun Jung sang alto and the rest did melody while Douglas joined me on bass form time to time. We sounded all right. It was really also just an excuse to get-together and get ourselves into the Christmas spirit. By our second practice, we were fully into the spirit of the season, and it wasn't even December yet.

So, last night, we met at the Starbucks outside of Anguk Station near Insadong and made our way towards the newly constructed Gwanghwamun plaza. We tried singing there for a few songs, but we were competing with cars, lots of people, and music from neighbouring events along the plaza. None of us were confident enough to really raise our voices as needed, and we ended-up sounding horrible - couldn't hear each other and we were all over the map in terms of timing and tone. Shabbiness ensued. And everyone was too shy to really be heard at all.


But, we wouldn't be denied. We bailed from the plaza and headed toward the head of Cheonggye-cheon, the stream in downtown Seoul. There, we met-up with Roger and Miranda who made it up from Suwon and after a coffee warm-up, we decided to gather under the hug Christmas tree and try our luck there. Much better. Take two was worth it and we sang out with enough Christmas cheer to put a blue-eyed Grinch to shame.


It was freezing cold though, so after a trip down to stream level, one more coffee shop visit, and one more tree-singing stint, it was time to head home. Really, just a festive night in every way. It wasn't perfect - some of our regulars couldn't be there due to other commitments and one of our key ladies had laryngitis, but hell - we all had Santa hats and smiles. There were cute tots wanting to get their pictures taken with us, and it seemed to us that most passing Koreans and foreigners alike were pretty pleased with our choice to stand there on a cold night and sing Christmas songs.

Sadly, today's caroling event was canceled - too many people unable to make it - hospitals and sickness and other realities get in the way sometimes. But, we are going to re-group for Christmas Day when we will be heading to TBS English Radio station in Chungmuro for an interview and to sing a few of our best carols. We might extend it a bit and take our little caroling troupe back to Cheonggye-cheon afterward as well - capitalize on our sense of Christmas Day merriment.

We are not the best sounding group in Seoul, but I think we might be the only group of foreigners who thought to get-together, but on Santa hats and sing a few songs of the season. At the very least, it was an evening to remember. It warmed the cockles.

Christmas Presents


Just about to head out for our first night of caroling. Lexi has laryngitis, it's fairly effing cold, and we might not have the turnout that I expected, but we're going to keep our fingers crossed.

Had a great afternoon - skyped the folks while Benny was over for dinner back home - exchanged our gifts and opened others. The logistics of getting everyone together again for a mass gift opening is a little unrealistic. So, on went the Nat King Cole and the Peppermint Tea, and we dug in.

Just wanted to send a quick, yet sincere, thank you to my family for the gifts. Sung Sook loved her new shirt and her treble clef pin - she's wearing it tonight for caroling. She also loved her scarf and the skate ornaments for us. The scarf had her pretty preoccupied for some time.

Thanks Auntie and Ernie for Cranium - we hope to play it tonight after caroling and on Christmas Eve - awesome gift that my friends will be thankful for too. The calendar will go on my wall at school and the socks... well... what would Christmas be without Christmas socks?

Sandy and Jay, Christian, Brandon and Indiana - thank you for the Harry Potter Calendar - I might bring it to school where I can give a page to students as a prize. The photos are great - I'm going to add some of the ones that mom and dad brought with them in October. The game, as you already know has been a huge hit in the after-school classes, and I love my skates too :)

Mom and Dad - the shirt is perfect - thank you :) The t-shirt and Mukmuk pin will be permanent fixtures for the upcoming Olympics. This way, I can rotate 3 shirts instead of 2.

There are still a couple of gifts remaining under the tree from Santa - I will save those for the 25th. I look forward to knowing what you all think of the gifts we sent to you.

Off to carol now - wish us luck...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas in my Apartment


As I mentioned before, I have take the liberty of decorating my small corner of the world here in Seoul. I live in an office-tel - basically an apartment for one. My mom commented when she arrived in October that walking down the hallway of my apartment kind of looked like walking down a cell-block in a state penitentiary. I can't blame her - the hallways are rather cold and foreboding, but once inside let me tell you - it's a pretty cool little place.

It's even better at Christmas time. I got the lights up on the picture window, the old Korean Christmas tree running it's third tour of duty with pig-in-diapers-with-a-crown-on-its-head ornament hung with care. That's about it, though there are some Christmas cards from home, a few candles and a Totoro curtain hanging from the entrance way. I've got pictures from home, Roger Whittaker and a few others on call on itunes and the speakers given to me by Ray, and I've got Time Horton's coffee in the cupboard and short-bread in the freezer.

In my walk-up loft, I have a few mattresses ready for guests on Christmas Eve. That's going to be good. In less than a week, my place will be permeated with the smell of my vegetarian chili - a smell that has for me become as synonymous with Christmas as pine trees and Christmas morning blend coffee. I will write about Christmas Eve after the fact, but for now I can look forward to it. I will have 8 or 10 friends coming to hang-out, eat a pot-luck, play games (Catan and others), watch a Christmas movie or two, and chat with wine glass in hand - long into the night.

In less than an hour, I've got a skype-call lined-up with mom and dad and my good friend from home - Ben. Ben was around near the original days of my annual "It's a Wonderful Life" Christmas parties. They were good, and they grew. I believe that I got all the way up to the "15th annual" before heading off to Korea. These years, Benny makes sure to contact my parents each holiday season for a get-together. My parents miss my friends as much as they miss me, so it works out well.

So, today, before heading out for our first Christmas Caroling gig (more on that later), Sung Sook and I will be opening gifts via skype with mom and dad back home. Their package arrived here in Seoul about a month ago now - they were on a mission once they got home. The gifts are wrapped and under the tree - Douglas even tried to see what was inside, but to no avail.

Speaking of packages, allow me to relate a quick tale of good fortune and good karma. A while back, my brother back home, Janos, put me in touch with two friends of his that he knew through the ever-expanding Calgary Theatre Scene, Neil and Emiko. I had met Neil once at a neighbour's house party about three years ago. I had seen Neil and Emiko on stage in various productions in Calgary, but never really got to know them at all beyond a "hello".

Anyway, Janos put us in touch for the reason that they were planning a trip to Korea to teach. We facebooked from time to time, they asked a few questions, I answered them, and they made their way here in late November. Unfortunately, their hagwon didn't work out. It's a big one, but not the right one. Neil had taught previously in China, so this wasn't a case of culture shock so much as it was a case of two people facing the reality of the next year of their lives and making the call to back away rather than deal with being miserable until this time next year.

Thinking they might need a place to stay while they figured their stuff out, I offered my loft. I'm going to be honest here - I nearly wanted to suck-back the words as soon as I typed them on facebook chat. The thing is - I didn't really know these people. My apartment is small, and by the sounds of things, they stay would be indefinite - not a comfortable situation for me, or for the newly married couple who had suddenly found themselves stranded in Asia.

However, if the situation were reversed, I know that I would have been grateful for the offer - coming as it was from someone from "home". Neil and Emiko ended-up staying less than a week. They found another position before heading home to Calgary for Christmas, and they will be back here in January to start their new jobs.

Now that they are gone, I have to say that I immediately missed them. Truly good people, and I'm not just saying that for their benefit as I know that they are unaware that this blog exists. My initial hesitance at offering them a place came mostly from the fact that I had been stupid busy of late - rather bitter at school, and not the best guy in the best mood to be a host of any kind. Good people do bring the good out in me though. I was sorry in a way to see them go, but glad they'll be back in January for a visit before heading south to Geoje Island to teach.

What I am also truly grateful for is "Neil and Emiko's One-Day Trans-Pacific Delivery Service." While I am keeping some of their heavier baggage until January, Neil and Emiko offered to take my two substantial Christmas packages back home with them on the airplane. Mom, dad, and the rest of my family had their gifts from me, from Seoul, almost within the same day of them leaving (considering the time change). It comes around. Thanks, guys.

Christmas at School



It really feels like it this year. It has a little, I'm sure, to do with the fact that I pressed some button on my heater and now my apartment is an icicle. A problem shortly remedied when Sung Sook has a look.

I've just been doing a lot of Christmas stuff these days. I kind of made up my mind this year - I'm going to go for it... Christmas, that is. I need to, I think. I'm spending the holiday in Seoul for the first time since moving here in the summer of 2007. Though I've spent significant time in the city during the lead-up to Christmas, I have so far managed to avoid spending the actual day here. As it is for many, Christmas, for me, is a time to be with family. So, while Christmas Eve '07 found me swimming in Loh Dalum Bay on Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, and Christmas Eve '08 found me at home after a successful early December surprise for my family, Christmas Eve '09 will find me here - in the "Soul of Asia."

I'm not going to kid myself and say that there isn't somewhere I would rather be. Christmas is a time for friends and family - family first. I have friends here - some of them very dear - but truth is, this might be the last year that my oldest nephew believes, without impending doubt, in Santa Claus. Knowing that I am missing this Christmas at home, for that reason alone, makes me want to cut out of work early and pay through the nose just to be home at Christmas, suffer through five days of jet-lag, and get back on a plane in time for winter camp at my Seoul public school.

Yet, here I am. There is no need to get all sentimental here, though I'm sure I might sometime before Christmas. Instead, let me tell you about some of the things I have been doing to make this Christmas an enjoyable one for me. Fact is, it's not that hard if you know where to look. Seoul's 80-some-odd % Christian population has taken the Korean franchise of that religion to a healthy and robust place. That means a lot of churches, but also a lot of the commercial aspects of the season. Some people poo-poo it, but it's what I know, and since Christmas for me is more about tradition with friends, family and surrounding experience than it is solely about the assumed birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, I kind of like the twinkly lights. In Seoul there are lots of them. If you dig on the stuff that is immortalized in song through "Silver Bells" and "It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas", then Seoul is not a bad place to spend the holidays.

Anyway, I could go on. Let me start at school, since that's where I left off in my last blog - a lump of coal of a blog if there ever was one. Not to say I didn't mean every word of it, but there is another side. The last two weeks or so have brought that other side into light.

1) School

Aside from my open class which was a dubious experience for me, the lesson that it was built upon went over quite well. I decided to use it for my grade 2 lessons that week as well, and it was a blast. The basic premise was to teach the target language: "What do you want most for Christmas?" along with an appropriate answer. I had students considering whether or not Lee Hyori, Korean pop superstar, would appreciate more plastic surgery for Christmas as opposed to soju, or a teddy bear. I had students writing their Christmas wishes on scrap paper, balling them up, and them throwing them at each other (snowball fight!). The found papers were then read aloud using the target language, and the reader had to guess from which table team the wish came. The kids had fun, so did I. Best of all, they spoke English, they learned a little bit about my own Christmas traditions in Canada, and I got to show them my favourite Donald Duck cartoon - Donald's Snowfight, a tradition passed on to me by my friend, Shane. Everything has a link to something in my Christmas past it seems. Starting to get sentimental. Moving on...

For Christmas gifts this year, I decided to make Christmas music CDs for the teachers I've gotten to know well this year. 22 of my favourites - from James Brown, to Jane Siberry. I'm sure that some of the songs will go over well, while others will seem more than strange. It matters not - to me it's more about cultural exchange than pleasing the ear. Mission accomplished, it seems - I've had more than a few people at school say something to the effect of "this is the first year that I've had a Christmas season. Many of the teachers feel that way." It has also been amazing being the delivery guy for the gifts that my parents sent from Canada to some of the teachers that took special care of them during their stay here in October. Mr. Choi was nearly in tears when he saw the gift box for his family, and each teacher who received a gift from my mom and dad was completely lost for words. It was, in many ways, inconceivable that someone would think to send a wrapped Christmas gift to them in Korea. Nice work, mom and dad :)

I guess my room decorating, gift and card-giving, and Christmas themed lesson teaching, has done well. It's cost me little, I like doing it, and even if the odd teacher looks at me curiously as I'm walking down the hall whistling "Jingle Bells", I get the impression that most of the school staff and students are digging on the good spirits and fellowship that Christmas should bring. I don't really take credit for it, but I do think that maybe my December-long enjoyment and promotion of it has in some ways extended the season past the usual one day event that it is in Korea - at least for the students and staff who are open to it. I mentioned above that Seoul decorates the hell out of itself for the holidays, but as far as it goes for most families, Christmas is a time to go to church and then go home. Some have trees, but not many. Some do presents, but not all.

I've just been a right jolly old elf at school for the most part, despite my cold, and it seems to be making me happier too. Next week, leading up to Christmas Eve, I'll be teaching my grade 2 classes about the classic Telus Tune: "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas", while the 3 classes will be introduced to the Christmas Eve truce of 1914 through an activity based around the 2005 French film: Joyeux Noel. I don't care if it's the last week and kids have already mentally checked-out. Teacher Dave is at the helm which means it's time to learn them some Christmas. Monday will be the after-school English club Christmas party - secret Santa gifts all submitted and wrapped and ready for distribution. I am working until Christmas Eve, but it can't be all bad.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wanting to write

...but tonight, I'm too tired. I've been doing this a lot lately - wanting to write back home and finding myself too busy with Seoul stuff to allow myself to sit down in Seoul and clear my head enough to write to the folks back home. It's not that I haven't skyped, though it feels like there are many things I want to write about as well. I thought it might have been the right time tonight, but sleep calls me - I'd better take it when it comes. Christmas is coming - enjoying the season, but the big still jumps out at you when you least expect it. One week away.

I'll be sure to write this weekend. Sleepy bye-bye.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Open class

I had my open class today. I actually had one a couple of weeks ago and it was a smashing success by all accounts. Sadly, I had to do another one today.

The school gets measured in many ways by the district supervisors and these open classes in which other teachers come to observe and critique the lessons are a tad tedious in that they are traditionally not a true representation of what a real class is. From the ones that I've been to, the students seem rehearsed, and the teachers run around cramming 3 lessons worth of material and activities into the 45 minute slot allowed for a regular period. In other words, these open classes become a completely unrealistic depiction of what we do as Native Speaking English Teachers. They are designed to impress and to illicit praise in hyperbole. It's expected and it's rather ridiculous.

I see this as a lost opportunity to get some actual feedback and for the district to see what really goes on from day to day. In all honesty, I would much better appreciate having a surprise visit from supervisors who could then see what a S******** Middle School day really consists of. Had the observers shown-up a few weeks ago, they might have seen the reality of where I work - students 10 minutes late for class, students not prepared, not listening, throwing shit at each other, and disrespecting the Korean co-teacher. Instead, supervisors come to an open class and see kids well-behaved, on time, and ready to be angels.

I didn't want that to happen here, but I had to balance my wants with the school's needs. Sadly, in Korea, appearance is, if not everything, then close to it at times. Teachers depend on getting good reviews from their peers if they want to do well in the district. I played the game as best I could and gave them the show they were looking for - and I got the usual comments that come from these types of open classes: "That was wonderful!", "You have such a great way of managing the students and getting them to participate!" etc. etc.

What I wouldn't have given for them to watch on hidden camera last week so that they could have seen the true face of my day-to-day - the lowest possible standards of classroom management (that belonging to most of my Korean co-teachers), colliding with my apparently much higher standards - watching frustration build, consequences for bad behaviour disappear or not be enforced, and lessons come to a complete halt because I don't think I should have to look the other way while students throw their school supplies at each other, completely ignore the lesson, yammar-away at each other in Korean, and carve holes in the new desks we just bought for the English Only Classroom.

All of this occurs on a daily basis while my co-teacher generally sits idly by and wonders why I'm getting frustrated. That would be a great show for the district.
I realize that I sound all old-school and tight-ass when I talk about "kids these days" - but seriously... kids these days. I seem to work with people who have thrown-in the towel. It's as though my Korean co-teachers have seen the imminent end-times just around the corner, so why should they bother making sure that their students are listening? A cliched paper plane could zoom through the air, thrown by a student, hit my co-teachers square in the ear, and they would let it fall to the floor without changing their expression of utter defeat. At times, with some teachers, it IS that bad. Actual conversation with a co-teacher last week:

Dave (approaching the subject with far too much respect): Sorry about getting frustrated today, but I was wondering what you'd like me to do if the students are clearly not listening, and distracting the students who are trying to learn. Would you be comfortable maybe helping me by telling those students to focus while I am giving the lesson?

Teacher (with complete sincerity): I think that you should just let them talk.

Dave: Excuse me?

Teacher: These students won't learn anyway, so if you ignore them, you'll be less frustrated.

Dave: But the other students can't learn because the other students are poking them in the back of the head.

Teacher: I know. It's really frustrating sometimes.

Dave: Yeah... frustrating... yeah...

Whatever. Today, I gave them the show that they wanted. Everyone loved it. My Vice Principal even gave me a hug and glowed with pride in the praise rained-down on our English department. I am proud that the lesson went well, I just wish that the students and my fellow teachers would see the value in learning from what seems like the generally acceptable failure of what we do day-to-day: try to teach some of the worst-behaved kids in Seoul a second language under the shabbiest classroom standards imaginable. I know that I should feel relieved and proud of the success of the day, but overall, I think I've further-strengthened my resolve to make this a better situation next year. I owe it to myself and to the (sadly) small percentage of students who come into my classroom wanting to learn, and respecting their teachers. My target audience may be small, but I am bound and determined to make it grow and to remove the weeds that get in the way. Next time a student disrespects a classmate or my co-teacher, I'm just going to have to get all Noah Whyle in Donnie Darko: "Get out." If that doesn't work, I might try getting all Ray Kwan.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

New roomates



Hey, folks...

Lots to write about - I would love to be able to stay and chat more, but as it is, I'm pretty effing tired and I've got a lot of sleep/work to catch-up on.
Just wanted to say that I've got a couple of room mates staying with me for the next little while. It's not the first time - a couple of teacher friends have had some lay-over time after leaving their contracts and before leaving Korea. This time, some friends I met through other theatre folk had a rude awakening from their hagwon they signed with before coming to Korea, and as a result, have decided to look for employment elsewhere in Korea. It seems they have found a good fit south of the mainland. For the next few days however, they will be staying in my comfy loft.
I can't say I know them well, but as facebook tells me, we have nearly 50 common friends - such is the world of Calgary theatre. It's been good chatting with them tonight though, and it'll be nice having some December guests to warm the home. They are in a tight spot, so I'm happy to be able to have a place that can offer some relief in a relatively comfortable way.
It's December here - lots of lights and lots going on. Christmas caroling is in full swing, new friends are being made and older friends are re-signing for another year. Makes the next contract seem like the right choice. It is December though, and I miss my families - Bailey and Gagnier. I guess that's how it will always be for me. I'm glad I have a tree though - and good friends to sit by it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Clickety-click!


I finally bought a new camera. My old Canon Powershot A80 from about 6 years back finally gave-up the ghost. It's front lens ring fell off, the battery and memory card housing were both cracked and taped-up, and the top panel was ready to pull completely off. It wasn't that I mistreated it - it had just been around enough. Not the years, honey - the mileage. The things had been with me through nearly 7000 shots from home to Korea, Japan, Thailand and Cambodia. It owes me nothing.

I was pretty pleased when mom and dad decided to leave me a fairly sizable chunk of change as a Christmas/birthday gift before they went back to Canada. It was specifically to buy a new camera and so that's where it went.

After deliberating a bit over whether or not I would "jump ship" and go the DSLR route or not, I decided to remain on-board and go for the G11. Like a million people who have "always wanted to get into photography", I too have been hankering to invest in a real DSLR camera. I love taking pictures. I love looking for a good story in a single shot and I have always been a bit frustrated when I want to capture something and I don't even bother trying because I know my camera just isn't up to the task. I think that I would actually invest the time and energy necessary to learn a DSLR capabilities properly, and I'm sure that for me photography would become a great and rewarding hobby - large start-up cost, but portable and enjoyable from that point on.

As it turns out though, I realized that I am all grown-up and stuff and decided to go another way. The DSLR model I would have wanted: the EOS 7D would have run me around $2,600 Canadian. Extra lenses bringing that total to much more. Really - cool as it is, I am not in that tax bracket. Talk about an impulse buy - however cool.

So, I did a lot of research and spoke to a few photographers I know and the G11 it is. I stopped by Youngsan electronics market last night and made the pick-up, after having gone there twice previous to scout the best deal from all of the booths. In the end, I paid 680,000 won including a case and an 8 gig memory card. That's a pretty good deal for a camera that came out in October of this year.

I love this little thing. It's bigger and bulkier than most "point and shoot" cameras and it's build quality feels like that of a DSLR. It's a little thing of beauty and I'm very pleased with my choice. Good thing I can download the manual in English though as my kit came with Hangeul only. I am looking forward to getting out and shooting some stuff soon. It's good to have a sweet camera at hand. It feels like I'm holding a baby DSLR - it's solid and full of cool tricks. It feels like quality, and I appreciate the flip-screen.

In other news, I've spent the last two weekend away with old friends and family farms - making kimchi, reconnecting, and loving the people I've met here. There's really nothing more Korean than eating together, sleeping on the floor, and gathering with an extended clan to take a mountain of 325 heads of cabbage, and cleaning and processing them into something the neighboring families will eat through the winter months. I even took some to school to share with my students.

I've also been meeting on weekend to do something I have wanted to get involved with since my first Christmas season in Asia. A few friends have been gathering to practice Christmas caroling, with the plan of singing in Santa hats at Cheonggye-cheon stream in December. Dark days are nothing that friends, Christmas songs, and hot chocolate can't cure. I had been a little bit apprehensive about my first full Christmas in Seoul, but now I'm sure it will be a grand one.

All of these are things I would like to write about more. I will find time.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An 아저씨 War


Something interesting happened on the subway the other day. While on my way to meet-up with a couple of friends for lunch in Myeong-Dong, I hopped on the subway at Ssangmun Station as I do a couple of times a week and I noticed that nearly everyone, on this moderately crowded subway car, was silent.

That's a fairly normal state of being on the Seoul Metro. People here tend to behave not unlike how they do in Calgary - stare straight ahead, ignore the face of the person in front of you, and just exist in your own little 2' x 2' space and hope that there will be no need to interact with another human being. Some might argue that Calgary transit riders at least respect others' personal space a bit more than they do here, but there seems to be more offering of seats to elders here in Korea - even on a crowded subway, more people seem to be generally aware of older folk who board looking for a place to rest while they ride. Watching or taking part in this ritual makes that elbow in your side a tad more bearable.

Last Thursday, I saw something completely new on the subway - well, new to me anyway. As I took my seat, I heard two voices raised in anger: one coming from the far end of the car, and the other coming from the closer end of my car - about 20 feet to my left. From the very little that I could glean from my very limited understanding of the Korean language, well... actually, about all I could understand was that the two older men from whom these angry voices were coming were severely pissed off at each other.

It went on for about 10 minutes, which, on a silent subway ride, is a fairly long time. For those in the know, it lasted without pause from Ssangmun until somewhere around Hyehwa. I glanced down to both ends of the car from time to time to see what, if anything, was progressing as the voices seemed to be getting louder and more fierce. Others around me were exchanging awkward glances - some rolling their eyes and some chuckling quietly to themselves. Both men seemed to be attempting to drum-up support from others sitting around them - some nodding in understanding, others seemingly trying to calm the men down.

The whole thing was just bizarre - why these two men were sitting at opposite ends of the car and engaging in a long-distance shouting match was quite literally ,considering the language barrier, beyond me. I wish a Korean friend had been there to translate. All went quiet somewhere around Dongdaemun Stadium, when suddenly, the older man to my left got to his feet. He was no taller than my grandmother on my mom's side - like a little jedi master - well-dressed in a three piece wool suit complete with matching cap.

I know that it's politically incorrect to refer to older folk as being "cute", but dammit, he was... at least until he reached down and grabbed an orange peel that was uncharacteristically left on the subway floor, balled it into an angry fist and began a speedy charge to the other end of the car where another angry old man was presumably about to get a face full of citrus zest.

The little old dude let out a battle cry as he charged down the aisle, until he was interrupted by an ajuma who was clearly up to the task. Nobody wanting to see a pair of old men bloody each other in a public place, this woman grabbed both of his arms at the wrist and announced "Ajushi! Hajima!" (Sir! Stop!). He struggled with her until a couple of university-aged students joined in the fray and turned the charging beast back from whence he came. The man from the other end of the car got off at the next stop, and the man from my end of the car, still armed with orange peel, came and calmly stood at the door beside my seat, looking out the window from behind his giant glasses and slowing his breath. He was a pretty frail old dude in a brown tweed suit. I sat their puzzling over what could have possibly angered this man so much to behave in the way that he did.

I wish I had known what was being said. It's fascinating to me. Riding the C-train in Calgary, I have seen, and at times been involved in, more than my fair share of weird encounters with other riders. Most of the time however, these C-train loonies are high on something. This old man didn't seem to be. I wish I had known what was going on. I wish I could have taken a photo of both combatants just to show on this blog how incongruous the whole thing seemed. But I didn't want to get involved, and, as intrusive as their behavior was, I didn't want to become intrusive in return. Besides, ajumas can handle such things in a far more effective way, and I wasn't about to begin my day with a Christmas orange facial.

Weird.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Change for the Better



I've had a certain disagreement more than a few times with more than a few people since coming to Korea in August of 2007. Korean or foreigner, I usually just can't seem to see eye-to-eye with many on this issue.

When I arrived then, the process for obtaining a working E-2 visa to be an ESL instructor at a hagwon (private after-school academy) was actually relatively simple. I don't remember the specifics of that process, but I do remember that the following year, the process changed dramatically. I won't bore with all of the details - they involved multiple visits to the Canadian embassy here in Seoul, very specific background checks from my hometown police department, signing and double signing, waiting for documents from Canada to arrive in Seoul, signing them, sending them back to Canada and waiting for them to return to Seoul again.

The things is, pain-in-the-ass that it certainly was, I didn't really have a big problem with most of it. Background checks are pretty much a given for anyone working in a "care-giving" position. The Criminal record search for applicants looking for an E-2 visa to work in Korea is now to include a "Vulnerable Sector Search" - basically a check to see if anything that might have been excused from an actual criminal record, but involved indiscretions with children, elderly, or anyone else in a "vulnerable position". I really have no problem with those with a criminal record for an criminal act involving children NOT being allowed to work with children in the future.

What I've always had a problem with however is the medical tests that were instituted as part of the visa application process last year. Upon your arrival in Korea, you are submitted to two tests (through blood and urine samples) - one for any presence of cannabinoids (basically - "Are you a pot-smoking hippie? Or, "have you been one within the last two months?"), and a test for the HIV Virus.

I get the initial intent behind both tests, I suppose. But that doesn't mean that it's right. I'm going to leave the drug question out of this blog - mainly because it's the other one that I want to deal with, and it's the other one I have the biggest problem with.

I guess I should start by saying that I find it offensive that a country could dictate whether or not a person can enter its premises based on their carrying a disease of the nature of the HIV virus. Basically, this is my problem - those concerned with the immigration of HIV positive people into their country, it seems to me anyway, are doing a great deal of assuming. They are assuming that these "carriers" not only have let the disease compromise their ability to do their jobs properly, but they also seem to be suggesting that by carrying the HIV virus, this pretty much guarantees that the carrier is going to engage in massive amounts of deviant behavior - spreading the disease like wildfire while on the Korean peninsula - "Close our borders! He'll rape your children with his mouth!"

Let's just call this what it is, shall we? It's discrimination - pure and simple. Why is that so? Once you submit a foreigner to a medical test that you wouldn't submit a national to, you are discriminating. No teacher who is a Korean National requires such a marijuana or HIV test - care-giving position or no - yet any foreigner who arrives to do that same job, goes through a series of tests. Should you test positive in either category, expect to be denied entry quicker than Andrew Dice Clay applying for a position in prenatal care.

And it's not just teachers. Today, not one, not two, but three different teachers posted this link to a New York Times article about how South Korea is "struggling" with race. Read it - it may surprise you. In addition to the Death-Eater-like teaching of "pure-blood" desirability among many Koreans, you will also read that the now plentiful Southeast Asian workers who are taking the labor jobs that few Korean-born people want, are also subject to HIV tests that their Korean co-workers do not have to deal with. As Andre 3000 said: "I know you like to think yo shit don't stank...". But, seriously... lean a little bit closer, people.

The mere suggestion or assumption that "outsiders" are not only carriers, but deviant and anarchy-bent parasites is a very dangerous one to hold. I wonder what the government is able to do with all of the HIV-positive Koreans who don't know they carry the disease, or do know and don't want to do anything about it. Presumably, as the immigration regulations will reveal, the government could care less, as long as you are a Korean National.

The good thing is, good and powerful people are recognizing this as a fault. Just today, I was reading that Barack Obama has lifted the travel ban on HIV infected persons entering the United States. Apparently this has been in affect since 1987. Forget getting a job - without special permission, HIV patients wouldn't even be able to set foot on U.S. soil. I had been told this was a common thing, but I didn't think it could be possible. South Korea is apparently not alone in its prejudice.

But there is a movement afoot to turn things around. I couldn't be more pleased. To assume that some HIV-infected guy or gal entering your country is going to be a threat to your citizens, is just plain ignorant, offensive, and backward. To deny them entry is to play Minority Report - you are telling that person that they cannot come to your country, because you believe that they will one day commit a crime. Said crime has a name: The Criminal Transmission of HIV. While people capable of such crimes surely exist, it's simply a mistake to suggest that all carriers will, or even tend-towards such acts. People abhor the use of racial profiling in airports, but many seem to not see the same folly here.

Well, I guess some of the people who legislate change do see it. South Korea's own Ban Ki Moon, the UN's current Secretary General, applauds the move. The following is from an Associated Press Article found today at The Huffington Post:

"Such restrictions, strongly opposed by UNAIDS, are discriminatory and do not protect public health," the program said.

Ban has made the lifting of stigma and discrimination connected with AIDS a personal mission, first calling on countries to lift their travel restrictions in 2008 at a UN meeting on the disease.

The travel restrictions "should fill us all with shame," Ban told a global AIDS conference in August 2008.

According to UNAIDS, Ban's home country of South Korea is "in the last stages of removing travel restrictions," while China and Ukraine are among countries considering following suit.

"Placing travel restrictions on people living with HIV has no public health justification. It is also a violation of human rights," said UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe.

On Friday, as he signed a bill reauthorizing funding for a federal program providing HIV-related health care, Obama announced the repeal of the travel ban, describing the 22-year-old policy as a "decision rooted in fear rather than fact."

"If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it," Obama said. "We lead the world when it comes to helping stem the Aids pandemic - yet we are one of only a dozen countries that still bar people with HIV from entering our own country.

"On Monday, my administration will publish a final rule that eliminates the travel ban effective just after the New Year."

Mr Obama added: "It will also take an effort to end the stigma that has stopped people from getting tested, that has stopped people from facing their own illness and that has sped the spread of this disease for far too long."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Back in Korea

Sorry it's taken me so long to update. It seemed easier to write about Japan while I was there - perhaps because I could just duck-out of my dorm room and find an available computer while my parents were sleeping.

We are back. After an afternoon and evening of organizing and laundry, we settled down to a cozy dinner at my place with Sung Sook and checked-out our photos - LOTS of them. We will definitely have to whittle things down.

Yesterday, a trip to Namdaemun market, then dinner at Casa Maya with friends, and the great "Parent-Off" of 2009 as Lexi's parents joined us too. We finished our evening in Hongdae with a quick trip to Oi - a familiar favourite and just a cool place to show our folks. It was good - 10 of us, two generations, and my dad trying out the tree sink in the restroom: "This is cool!"

Today, we are off for breakfast at Butterfingers with Johnny, a picnic at Olympic Park, and a private concert with Sung Sook and her musical friends at Yonsei University, only that is a secret for my parents.

I can't believe I have to teach tomorrow...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hiroshima - Day 2


Leaving Japan in the morning. The trip here lived up to my expectations, and they were high. As I did with my parents in Seoul, I did a lot of returning to familiar places. It was fun. Innocent World is still there, as is The Wonder Cafe, but of course they are populated with new people and new experiences. Lots of good things to remember. Wacky stuff, beautiful stuff, harrowing stuff, and peaceful stuff.

We spent our last night here with a walk through the covered arcade, bought some weird Japanese shite for myself and some people back home, but not nearly as much as I wanted to. There is something about obscure Japanese characters that makes me want to shop for stuff I do not need. The bear and the chicken are cute, but I was strong. Miyajima this morning. The weather has been perfect - blue skies, and cool enough for sweaters, but warm in the sun. The gate was floating this time - high tide. Good to see.

Walked by the river tonight and had an Asahi by the A-bomb dome with my dad. A school group was passing-by and they stopped to sing-along with a random musician below the bridge. Miyajima, deer, good food and music, my parents telling stories about their youth, and thinking of the people I met here last year, wondering where exactly Shannon and Andrews apartment was - it all made for a better condition. Hiroshima is a good place.

I want to come back to Japan. This trip confirmed that which was once just a second thought. It is a very cool place, but there is so much more to explore. I need to get back to Tokyo - perhaps by myself, and back to Kyoto with a lady who has never been. For now though, I am just glad that I got the chance to do this with my parents. It means a lot to me and I feel pretty lucky to have had the time and opportunity to see this through. My parents world got a little bit smaller and a whole lot bigger on this trip. I guess I could say the same about my own, even though it is my second time around. Some things are worth another shot.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hiroshima - Day 1


Today was a travel day, and a day of melancholy. I suppose melancholy is not the most accurate word to describe what one feels while walking around Hiroshima after having visited the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. It is not in my nature to attempt something vague, poetic, or both, since this place sucks the value out of clever sound bites. So, I will just say that it felt the same as it did last year. The power of that place never really goes away - even on repeated visits. Greater minds convey the meaning in a greater way than I could possibly offer.

Certainly there is lots to say about the place and the things memorialized there, but here I will just say that I am not sure if I feel the same way others feel upon visiting this city. It was just over 64 years ago that the bomb was dropped, and I suppose the fact that Hiroshima is now a thriving city gives people hope.

I think I would have to stay here longer than two or three days - maybe even live here - before I could share the same feelings about the place. It is just too much for me to walk by the river the night after visiting the museum, seeing the A-bomb dome lit-up as it is. It is just too easy to imagine what was happening by the river all those years ago. I cannot decide if I am proud or somewhat ashamed that I dont immediately sense the hope that others seem to feel when they come here. So, I suppose it is a bit of both. Wishing to take ownership of one feeling or another, I sit firmly on the fence.

Still, this was a place I wanted to take my parents. I feel that anyone who can, should come here and see the things the museum wants to show us. Regardless of how it might make you immediately feel, or feel after a day or two, I humbly suggest that the city is worth your time.

One person who agrees is Tadatoshi Akiba, Hiroshima's mayor. Akiba dedicated his 2009 memorial speech to a new term coined after Barack Obama's proposal in Prague this year to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Yes, they are just words - they even feel like a sound bit,I suppose - but it should be noted that no previous US president has spoken so clearly or pointedly about such a contentious topic as this - the turn away from a nuclear deterrent policy. Hiroshima's mayor is taking and looking to make these words a reality by taking them at face value. Good move.

People are pissy about Obama receiving a Nobel Peace Prize so early in the game. Surely though, such a stance is an important one. No sitting US president has ever visited Hiroshima in an official capacity. Perhaps that is about to change. This is what the mayor of Hiroshima since 1999 has to say on August 6th of this year - the 64th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb:

That weapon of human extinction, the atomic bomb, was dropped on the people of Hiroshima sixty-four years ago. Yet the hibakusha's suffering, a hell no words can convey, continues. Radiation absorbed 64 years earlier continues to eat at their bodies, and memories of 64 years ago flash back as if they had happened yesterday.

Fortunately, the grave implications of the hibakusha experience are granted legal support. A good example of this support is the courageous court decision humbly accepting the fact that the effects of radiation on the human body have yet to be fully elucidated. The Japanese national government should make its assistance measures fully appropriate to the situations of the aging hibakusha, including those exposed in "black rain areas" and those living overseas. Then, tearing down the walls between its ministries and agencies, it should lead the world as standard-bearer for the movement to abolish nuclear weapons by 2020 to actualize the fervent desire of hibakusha that "No one else should ever suffer as we did."

In April this year, US President Obama speaking in Prague said, "...as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." And "...take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons." Nuclear weapons abolition is the will not only of the hibakusha but also of the vast majority of people and nations on this planet. The fact that President Obama is listening to those voices has solidified our conviction that "the only role for nuclear weapons is to be abolished.

In response, we support President Obama and have a moral responsibility to act to abolish nuclear weapons. To emphasize this point, we refer to ourselves, the great global majority, as the "Obamajority," and we call on the rest of the world to join forces with us to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2020. The essence of this idea is embodied in the Japanese Constitution, which is ever more highly esteemed around the world.

Now, with more than 3,000 member cities worldwide, Mayors for Peace has given concrete substance to our "2020 Vision" through the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol, and we are doing everything in our power to promote its adoption at the NPT Review Conference next year. Once the Protocol is adopted, our scenario calls for an immediate halt to all efforts to acquire or deploy nuclear weapons by all countries, including the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which has so recently conducted defiant nuclear tests; visits by leaders of nuclear-weapon states and suspect states to the A-bombed cities; early convening of a UN Special Session devoted to Disarmament; an immediate start to negotiations with the goal of concluding a nuclear weapons convention by 2015; and finally, to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2020. We will adopt a more detailed plan at the Mayors for Peace General Conference that begins tomorrow in Nagasaki.

The year 2020 is important because we wish to enter a world without nuclear weapons with as many hibakusha as possible. Furthermore, if our generation fails to eliminate nuclear weapons, we will have failed to fulfill our minimum responsibility to those that follow.

Global Zero, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament and others of influence throughout the world have initiated positive programs that seek the abolition of nuclear weapons. We sincerely hope that they will all join the circle of those pressing for 2020.

As seen in the anti-personnel landmine ban, liberation from poverty through the Grameen Bank, the prevention of global warming and other such movements, global democracy that respects the majority will of the world and solves problems through the power of the people has truly begun to grow. To nurture this growth and go on to solve other major problems, we must create a mechanism by which the voices of the people can be delivered directly into the UN. One idea would be to create a "Lower House" of the United Nations made up of 100 cities that have suffered major tragedies due to war and other disasters, plus another 100 cities with large populations, totaling 200 cities. The current UN General Assembly would then become the "Upper House."

On the occasion of the Peace Memorial Ceremony commemorating the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing, we offer our solemn, heartfelt condolence to the souls of the A-bomb victims, and, together with the city of Nagasaki and the majority of Earth's people and nations, we pledge to strive with all our strength for a world free from nuclear weapons.

We have the power. We have the responsibility. And we are the Obamajority. Together, we can abolish nuclear weapons. Yes, we can.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kyoto - Day 3


This post will need to be a short one - new guesthouse and only two computers for a lot of people.

We are lucky to be staying at Nagomi Ryokan - a small but pretty converted guesthouse just north of Kyoto Station. The alleys are as narrow and well-kept with plants, flowers, and clean little stones as the alleys in Gion district. The only thing lacking are the Geisha girls.

Went to the Inari shrine south of the city this morning after moving into our place. This is the place where over 5000 red tori gates line the mountain side and you can walk through the tori tunnels towards the top of the mountain. Didn't make it all the way but didn't need to. It was good to see another new thing.

But I need some familiar too. Back to Merry Island for dinner tonight. Its strange the things I'm able to remember - just a little further down that road... and yes, there it is. Candle-lit table in the back and good Thai food in a Japanese restaurant.

Today I was able to exorcise the Astro Boy ghosts from last year as well. August 2008 saw me pleading at a closed glass door in Kyoto station, begging with the morning clerk to open the door and let me buy my over-priced Astro Boy shirt from the studio store. No avail, and I had to catch a train.

This year, I found the Neo Mart store downtown in the shopping arcade - perhaps the coolest store in the world - they have Barbapapa merchandise for the love of Pete! Well, the open everyday sign was lying as October 20th is apparently inventory day and they wouldn't open their doors. Sadness. So, it was back top flight to Kyoto station to the studio store. I can wear the Mighty Atom with pride this year.

Bullet train tomorrow. My dad loves trains. I love maps. I believe there is a map on the train which I intend to look at as we race by the towns between Kyoto and Hiroshima. Only a handful of days left on this journey with my parents and we are making the best out of each one.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Kyoto - day 2



...our second full day in Kyoto has been as grand as the first. Began our morning early - waking up with the sun and getting to Kiyamizu-dera temple before almost anyone else. It was empty - perhaps the most popular site in Kyoto. Walked the love stone walk, just caught the edge of it to the delight of a horde of Japanese school children who cheered my victory. Saw a rabbit - rabbits everywhere, or perhaps I am just better able to see them this time around. Rabbits on the brain. Drank from the healing waters below the temple and filled our bottles for the day.

A walk through old cobblestone streets lined with old wooden houses, and saw 5 geisha girls - the real deal, not the weekenders: full face paint and garb, hair done perfectly. They were on their way somewhere important, but after the batteries in the camera ran out, mom and dad staked-out a corner and I ran like a man on my own mission, keeping a giant pagoda in my sites for a point of reference and trying to find a store that sold batteries amid all of the stores that sold the finest finery. Where is a Family Mart when you need it? Got the batteries just in time. Looking forward to posting photos here.

Last year, saw a giant Buddha on a hill, but that was one stop too many, so we didn't make it. The three of us decided to go all the way this time and were rewarded with a moving experience. The shrine is dedicated to all soldiers who died in Japanese related conflict in World War II. The Memorial Hall contains sand, soil, and drawers full of names of the dead from all of the countries that were affected by Japanese colonial oppression leading up to and including the war. The flags are faded and the bottles of soil have lost their shine and clarity through the years, but it is a moving site. Close to the hall is a series of shelters housing thousands of small Buddhas representing the Japanese who lost their lives in the conflict. Like Hiroshima, there is a very respectful level of atonement at these places. It is humbling to see.

From there, lunch at a noodle house and then to Chionin Temple, maybe my favourite in Kyoto - huge, nightingale floors to warn of intruders, massive inner temple where monks were chanting and praying, incense everywhere. Relaxing and peaceful. Another good day.

I could make a long, long list of the things that mom and dad cannot get over, but today I will add this: they cant get over the size of the main gate of Chionin. Truly, an impressive sight. Philosophers walk tonight, and then to our new guesthouse tomorrow. Things are going as planned. It is nice to know that a trip you have though about for so long, can be filled with so many perfect little moments. We are fortunate folk, but we wish others close to us could be here to see the things we are seeing. Today, in particular, I really miss my sister. Wish you were here, Sandy - erase the cliche of that postcard phrase and you have the truth. I really wish you were here, Spankylosaurus.