Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't Look Back in Anger

Oasis concert tomorrow - front row. Just sayin'. Review on its way soon.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Seoul Land Review

As mentioned before, I was offered two tickets to Seoul Land by my recruiting company - the group that works as a go-between to bring foreign teachers to Korea. Not everyone goes through a recruiter, but it's not an entirely bad idea to do so. Find a reputable one and go from there.

Not only were the people at my recruiting company very helpful in the new and frustrating process that is applying for a Korean work visa, but they have also made a point of following through with things - notifying recruits about excursions around Korea as well as promotional stuff for weeknights and weekends.

At the airport, I was greeted by them, they gave me a hat to keep warm as well as a refreshing bottle of water - ahhhh... comfort.

Since then, I have also been offered free tickets to a Korean movie preview (which I tried to make it to, but didn't get there on time), and the two free passes to Seoul Land. I dig on amusement parks - what can I say? Not only that, but Seoul Land was host to a very important scene in one of my favourite Korean movies: My Sassy Girl. Dee and I had to check this out.

Not to sound ungrateful, but allow me to cut to the chase: Seoul Land is weak. What Lonely Planet inexplicably and mistakenly refers to as "Seoul's biggest and best theme park," is actually all seven shades of shabby. To put it bluntly, Seoul Land is a poor man's Everland, though consider that this poor man has been out of work for a WHILE.

I don't want to be too harsh. Truthfully, as people who know me well know, amusement parks have a certain... Je ne sais quoi. I am a big fan of the Disney parks I've visited. I'm enough of a kid to just enjoy them in a familiar and frolicky way, but I'm also nerd enough to actually regard them as texts - believe me, it's something I was moved to do in a "Gender in Popular Culture" course during my undergrad. Did you know, for instance, that the basic planned layout for the parks themselves was based on an inadvertent sexual subtext shared by Walt Disney himself at a conceptual design meeting? I kind of wish that I didn't know that. But I digress...

What I meant to say was that I don't just love the big and beautiful parks, I also am strangely charmed a great deal by those parks that have long outlived their glory days. There's a strange little heart beating in the most neglected places. The most oddly charming are the ones that exist only through false advertising (probably much like The Lonely Planet is guilty of above). The best familiar example of this is the extra shabby "Enchanted Forest" by the Three Valley Gap on the Trans-Canada highway. For anyone who's ever been driven by there as a kid and wanted to know exactly what was behind those trees, I can tell you that I've seen it all through the eyes of an adult, and what I saw will violate your childhood memories.

That's perhaps a little extreme. But yes, for some dilapidated amusement parks in this world, the only thing they have working for them is nostalgia and kitsch. Perhaps on a trip through the interior of BC, all that you have time for at The Enchanted Forest is a pee break and a stroll through the gift shop. That's okay, because you can still purchase a VHS copy of a handy-cam tour through the neglected and weathered woodland critter dioramas that litter the hillsides. It's that kind of place.

I know that I'm being maybe a little too unfair towards the old Enchanted Forest. It is what it is, but my sister and I used to make snow forts, tunnels and slides on our front run and advertise our "theme park" via hand-drawn flyers on our neighbors' mailboxes. There is a reason nobody came. I guess the thing that fascinates me about these places is not just that they are still going strong, but that they existed in the first place. This is coming from someone who plans to buy an annual pass to Everland (Korea's finest amusement park) this year, but I am endlessly intrigued by the thought that goes into the design of such places of leisure, as well as the things that keep people coming back to see dated attractions and get their photos taken with people dressed in fuzzy colourful suits - be it Mickey Mouse, or Lastar and Laila (Everland's Korean answer to the mouse).

Regardless of all of my flippant judgments and expressions of curiosity, I am a big fan of any amusement park. Well, I'm maybe not a big fan of Seoul Land, but let's just say that I appreciate its successes and challenges.

South Korea has three "major" theme parks: Seoul Land, Everland, and Lotte World. Seoul Land, if I had to venture a guess, is probably about a quarter the size of Everland, for those who keep score. Seoul Land is part of Seoul Grand Park, which also consists of a notable museum and a fairly big zoo. It was opened to coincide with Seoul's hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. That makes Seoul Land exactly 12 years younger than Everland - a suprising fact to anyone who has visited both.

The place is divided into five themed lands, much like many other theme parks. Here, there is:

World Plaza: a kind of "World Showcase" style promenade that works much like a Main Street would in a Disney Park - it channels you towards the centre. What's at the centre, you ask? Why a geodesic dome of course. Think of it as a small tribute to Epcot Centre.

Adventure Land: Western United States themed rides, shows, and food. There's a flume ride here as well as a swinging boat deal.

Fantasyland: (I'll let the brochure speak for itself) "Children enjoy unforgettable times here as they romp through dreamy wonderland facilities." Yep.

Tomorrowland: Future-themed stuff. The two biggest roller coasters at the park are located here. There is also a swinging bungie "superman" style ride, though it costs and additional 15,000 won to get on it.

Samchulli Land: Traditional Korean-themed shops, shows and rides. There is a snow hill here for tobogganing in the winter.

Okay, so there's really not a whole lot else to say about Seoul Land. I will say this though: I kinda feel bad about writing less-than-kind things about it. It's kind of like kicking an injured puppy. I just wanted to say a few words about it in case anyone is checking google for a review and is having a hard time finding one (like I did). It has some fun stuff for little tykes, but for most others - there's a better park out there.

Truth is, we walked-around the place for about 3 and a half hours, rode one ride (The Black Hole 2000, the biggest coaster there, and more tame that the one at Calaway Park) and spent the rest of the time just having a look or having a coffee. All in all not a bad day, but with free tickets we were dodging a bullet. My tickets may have been free, but for anyone who was thinking of taking a break from Everland and dropping the 29,000 won entrance fee for Seoul Land, well, save your money.

I'm just one of those curious theme park fellows. I've got to know what's out there. Yes, Everland is my baby, but I was curious to see what the other places hold. Lotte World will be on my list soon, but it'll surely be a frustrating trip - I scanned the website and I'm too tall for most of the E-ticket rides.

Anyway, if you're a theme park junkie living in Korea, and I know some of you are. Do yourself a favour and skip Seoul Land. Judging by the long line-ups, this injured puppy doesn't need your 29,000 won anyway. If you get a free ticket, you might appreciate the kitsch and the zany old-schoolness of it all. But when you check your head, do buy an annual pass to Everland, go four times and it will more than pay for itself. Not only that, but you'll get to ride two of the best roller coasters in the world. Everland, I'm sorry that we forsook you this past weekend. Dee and I are on our way again soon.

Blatant copyright infringement: "Maybe if we change hair-colour and give Captain Hook an eye-patch, we'll be in the clear.."


Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Marathon

This is my 101st post. Crazy. I guess I let #100 pass without incident. This weekend flew-by. Had a good times with some new teachers on Friday night, and spent the day with Dee in a past-it's-prime amusement park (I have a review of Seoul Land coming tomorrow), but before I head off to bed - here's to good jazz in Hyehwa, and a Mariokart marathon to tie at 300 points a-piece. Donkey Kong came on strong in the last 4 heats to make it a stalemate. It was a beautiful thing.

Only in Korea, it seems, is it perfectly normal and acceptable for two guys to head into a relatively upscale jazz club, order a pizza and beer, watch some highly skilled musicians and singers, catch-up and play Mariokart for hours on end. Not that we didn't stop to just soak-in the atmosphere too.

It's good to be reminded that though I am far from gathering spots in the south end of the city, I'm only 20 minutes from Hyehwa - if you're looking for great music, theatre, restaurants, dessert bars and cafes in Seoul - there's no place better. I had been there before, but it seems that last year it was always during the day. I'll be going back often.

It's also good to be reminded that working overseas can sometimes bring-about the most unlikely but lasting friendships. Thanks, Johnny, for the good times.

Friday, March 27, 2009


I have the biggest smile on my face this morning. I just got my phone activated yesterday and the second incoming call I get is from none other than Pig. Most of you who read this will know exactly who that is. My friend Jenn told me last week when I joined them at the Suwon Bluewings game that Pig really wanted to call me when he heard that I was back in Korea. "Of course it would be fine," I said. The phone rang this morning.

Pig was perhaps my favourite student at my hagwon last year - my favourite among many favourites. He had an energy like no other, he clearly chose a wacky nickname for himself, and he just had a genuine interest in things. His English was nearly flawless on the phone today which is a credit to those who had Pig in their class after me.

Last year, at the end of our class together, I bought a small gift for all of my students in Pig's class. For pig, I bought him a classic Korean mug. It has an image of two friendly pigs and it reads:

"Someday, the pig talked to me. 'I want to be close to you'. We become a Best Friend."

Naturally, I bought one for Pig and one for Me. As I went to pour myself some coffee this morning, I went with my Pig mug. The phone rang, and it was Pig drinking juice from his.

"What are you doing this morning, Pig?"

"I'm reading storybooks for Youngdo, Teacher Dave!"


I plan on surprising him by popping-by his class one night over the next couple of weeks. Jenn, his current teacher, invited me and I can't wait - it'll be a long trip, but well worth it, I'm sure.

I'm off to Seoul Land with Dee today. It's an amusement park that opened to coincide with the 1988 Olympic Games. I'm pretty sure that the shabbiness factor will be high. In other words, I'm not expecting Everland. But, the tickets were free from my recruiter and they need to be used by the end of the month. I may as well check it out - it'll only make Everland seem that much better :) Expect a full report when I get back.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Back to Before

I'm going to take a break from writing about school today to talk about something else.

I live alone right now - for the first time in my life, actually. I moved away from home later than I had expected to and I had the great fortune of being able to live with two different sets of amazing room mates. I miss them all dearly, and do my best to keep in touch with them though many have also scattered across the globe.

My first two weeks in the new apartment have been grand. Living alone is a change, but in some ways it's a welcome one. As many before me can attest, being on your own just feels right in a way that few things do. On a weeknight, if I want to consult a map of Seoul, make some spaghetti, iron a shirt, do some laundry, go for a walk, have a beer, watch an episode of The West Wing, check-out the hickey scores, read a few chapters, prep a little for class, write a few emails, write a blog... well then, by gum - that's just what I'll do. In fact, it's what I did tonight.

Still - there's something about living with another - be it a room mate or someone closer that also feels right in a way that few things do. It feels good to know that when I open a door, there will be the familiar smells of someone's cooking, a hockey game (live or X-Box) on the TV, or some music playing just loud enough for me to know that someone's there.

Though nobody's living with me, I've been quite fortunate to have met some really good people through the SMOE training at the beginning of the month. The nice thing about our placements is that I now know the better part of the 160 some-odd new teachers who joined for this semester. It's also good that they are all scattered throughout Seoul - it gives us a reason to travel and a ready-made excuse to explore unfamiliar territory - or, in my case, familiar territory that I just haven't seen in a while.

Some people may be pleased to know that I've resisted a certain temptation. Last year, when new teachers came it was tops on my list to be very outgoing - show them around a bit - if only to get them oriented to the subway and roughly how to get-around etc. I felt that if I were a person new to Korea (which I was in the not-so-distant past), I too would want a helping-hand.

The flip-side of this of course is that fact that, as wise Uncle Ray once said, it's sometimes better to just discover these things for yourself. One girl who is part of a group I've spent some time with lately was keen to take some of us to Myeong-dong. She said she discovered it on the weekend and would love to show us around. Hell, why not? It is a place I've been to perhaps 20 times, but it's an old favourite and it's always interesting to see it through the eyes of those who are new to it. Like I said, I resisted the temptation to play tour guide. It would be more fun the other way.

I know this because I had two old friends play tour guide in a more practical sense this past Sunday. It was a bit of a long weekend - starting with a rushed trip to COEX after work to check-out Watchmen (there will be a review soon I hope), a dinner meet-up with some friends in my area on Saturday, and then a trip down memory lane on the 5100 hundred bus to Suwon - the city south of Seoul where I lived last year.

I think I would have been more nostalgic if I hadn't have been fighting a cold. As it was though, it was still pretty thick. It's a trip I took countless times last year. This time though, I was taking it from quite far away. All-told, to get to Suwon from my area in North Seoul, the trip was just over 2 hours, but only 1 3/4 hours on the way back - go figure.

I was met in Suwon by a very patient couple of friends that I taught with last year. Chris and Jenn are both from Ontario (Kitchener, I believe) and they were two of the nicest additions to our teaching team last year. Jenn has recently taken-over the job of head-teacher at my old hagwon and Chris has been working extra hours on weekends as the school tries to combat sagging registration by running kindergarten classes on Saturday mornings and afternoon. Somehow, they both found time to welcome me back to Korea, Suwon style - taking me to a K-League game between the Suwon Bluewings and Jeju United.

The Blue Wings are actually quite a big deal here. They are perennial favourites, though they've had a rough start so far this year. For Chris and Jenn, this was their third match, but a first for me. Come to think of it, it was my first professional soccer game.

It was a blast. Chris and Jenn are no strangers to beer so we enjoyed ourselves despite the loss. The game was close (Jeju won 1-0), but there were some close calls right in front of us. The stadium wasn't full, though it has been for higher-profile games. The Suwon World Cup Stadium is the site where South Korea knocked Italy out of the World Cup in 2002 - it's truly hallowed ground here.

The atmosphere was fantastic. We sat in the second half attacking end with the hard-core Suwon supporters and had a great time. There were flags everywhere - some with Che Guevera on them (?), and there was a constant buzz of song and chanting. It's something I would gladly pay another 10,000 won ($8.50) for.

After dinner, we met-up with Naomi - perhaps the most precious person in all of Korea - for dinner. It was so good to see her, and to spend some time with old friends who are still here.

I like my time alone, though I know I need to balance it. I've been fortunate so far. There are many good people that are still here, just got here, or have been here for a long time. I guess I'm not nearly as "alone" as it can seem sometimes. It's good to have options.

Tomorrow will likely be another challenging day at school - the toughest is trying to teach when I'm feeling this shabby, but I've got things to look forward to outside of the school realm as well:

1) Picking-up my ARC card tomorrow afternoon which will allow me to get my cell phone hooked-up - always a good thing to have and especially here.

2) Heading to Seoul Land with free tickets from my recruiter. Dee will be joining me for a free stroll, maybe a couple of coasters, and some fireworks. It won't be Everland, but hey - what is?

3) Perhaps heading into Seoul to audition for an ex-pat theatre group. There's nothing really in the script for me, but what the hell - it'll be nice to meet some theatre folk while I'm here.

4) Oasis. My friend, Johnny, facebooked me with an offer to join him and some friends in the FRONT ROW at Oasis next Wednesday here in Seoul. I will have to add it to the list of amazing concerts I've seen in this city. Can't wait - too bad it's not on a weekend though.

5) Heading out to Sanbon to hang with Ian, Bonnie, and my favorite fellow Mukmuk fanatic. I am living alone right now, but having them here makes some things come full-circle.

Lots to look-forward to after work, and enough to look forward to while I'm at school. Right now it's just about getting over that hump of learning - lots of it. More on that later. Right now, I'm just grateful for friends.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This blog might a be a bit scattered - mostly because it comes at the tail end of a very long day. I have a nasty cold which my co-teacher was kind enough to get me medication for last night. Still, this morning sucked. Getting out of bed has rarely been so shabby an experience for me as it was this morning. It didn't help that I also had a long day today, combined with teaching new lessons for the first time etc. Then, to top it off, I had my first of two student after-school conversation classes. I'm sure that in a short time these classes will come to be my favorite ones at the school. Today though, it was a challenge.

But let me get back to numbers:

Currently, I teach 20 regular classes in a week - four each day.

Each class in only 45 minutes in length, though in school terms, it counts for an hour of teaching, which means that I am paid for 20 hours of regular classes when I really only teach 15.

That might seem like a strange occurrence - a Korean employer actually erring on your side when it comes to measuring payable work time, but don't forget that I am also at school for 8:30 and leave at 4:30.

The classes I teach break-down as follows:

Of the 20 regular classes I teach, 5 of them are grade 9 (Middle School Grade 3) classes. I see 5 of these grade 9 classes, and then another five of these classes in alternating weeks. All in all for grade 3, I teach 10 different classes and they take up 25% of my class work-week. There are roughly 35 students per class for a rough total of 350 grade 9 students.

My grade 7s are a different story. I teach 15 grade 7 classes each week and I get to see them every week as opposed to every second week like I do the grade 9s. The 15 classes break down as follows:

5 Beginning Level (Ha) classes (32 students per class = 160 students)
5 Intermediate (Chung) classes (24 students per class = 120 students)
5 Advanced (Sang) classes (14 students per class) = 70 students)

As you can see - they make up the other 75% of my teaching hours every week. I teach a total of 15 hours (11 and a quarter actually) to roughly 350 grade 7 students.

The quick math is: I teach over 700 different students. Yep.

This is a far cry from my experience last year, so perhaps this entry should really be entitled "Hagwons VS Public School Part II", but really, a blog about numbers is boring enough :) I know right now that one thing I will certainly miss is the opportunity to get to know my students. If I think about it, last year, during a very busy class schedule, I would at most have 5 different classes per week with a maximum of 14 students per class. That's a maximum of 70 students a teaching period for me. That number would usually average out to much less.

What that meant for me was a lot less kids, and a lot more time with each. I really got to know them all very well. That was a huge bonus for me. Obviously a smaller class size simply means a more individualized approach to education.

So many things can slip through the cracks in large groups as my grade 9s can attest to. The disparity between those who can speak competently and those who can't is quite staggering - considering they have likely been involved in English lessons from primary school.

There's a lot that comes with such a schedule. Though I have breaks from time to time, what was a 2 hour prep time for me last year has simply been scattered into little breaks (free periods) here and there depending on the day.

In time, the workload will be less, but this week, as mentioned way above, has been about introducing new after-school classes for interested students. Next week will be about me introducing two teacher speaking courses: one for my English co-teachers and another for lower-level speakers on staff who wish to improve their English. I have been told that interest is actually quite high, so that bodes well. With everything up and running, I will be teaching:

20 regular classes
2 student conversation classes *(extra pay on top of my salary)
2 adult conversation classes

Game on.

Anyway, I've thrown enough numbers at you for today. If you got to the bottom of this entry, then you have a better understanding of the numbers that make up my week - congratulations. I know that maybe wasn't entirely exciting to know about, but if you've ever worked in Korea, or were thinking about it, then I'm sure that this schedule would be a consideration. It's not a cake-walk, not at all - but it certainly contains the possibility of me not having to take work home with me nearly as much as I did last year. That is so very good.

That's just the way things go here - I need to keep reminding myself of that fact. The streets, subways and sidewalks are all crowded - of course the schools would be too. We all have jobs to do and conditions will never be perfect. I am just so grateful that conditions at my job are honest. I may not get to know 700 kids the way i would like to, but I get to meet them. That's a good place to start.

Lastly, though I am somewhat disheartened at the thought of trying to learn 700+ names over the next three months. Here is one name I won't forget. This young man chose his own English name and revealed it to me with great pride: "I am Indian Prince!" he exclaimed - pointing to the mole in the middle of his forehead - his friends cheering him on. It was honest and fun and cool - not a note of mockery to be had from anyone. "Indian Prince" it is. One down, 699 to go...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Teacher - pleeeease...

I just can't shake this cold. Spring is not a good time of year to begin one's journey in Korea. There's some nasty stuff floating around - especially in a school of well over 1000 students.

But let me take a moment to tell you about one of them. I don't have the little dude's name yet, but I will this week. I've seen him in class once and in the hallway many times since. He's a little dude with little-to-no neck, a very expressive face, and what I expect beneath the language barrier to be a very good sense of humour.

He almost always walks with his hands in a praying position. Why? Well, he might be a faithful little fellow, though I've most often seen his clasped hands rising up at me begging for asylum from a certain much taller girl in his class. She will beat him soundly if I don't intervene. It seems to be partially in-fun, though I'm pretty sure that my friend's pleas are becoming quite in earnest. Damn though - the absurdity of it really makes me laugh.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I reviewed it - just for poops and ha-has. Actually, it's always been number two on my list of favourite Disney films and it came out on Blue Ray and DVD (again) just this week. It's grand - truly.

Click here for the review.

A bit about school (Hagwon VS Public School Part I)

... I really like it so far. True, this first full week of teaching has not been without its challenges. On Tuesday, I nearly had a frustration meltdown, but don't worry, I kept it to myself.

I feel good about being here. There are too many things that are different between being a public school teacher and a hagwon teacher to even know where to begin, but I suspect that some of you are curious. Instead of trying to spell it all out in one onerous blog, I'll touch on things from time to time - understanding that my experience (one year at one of a million hagwons and two weeks at a public school) is very limited.

Let me begin with privilege.

Like most private schools in most well-to-do cities in the world, Seoul public schools have children from backgrounds of mixed privilege. The students wear uniforms at my middle school and I can't tell a privileged child from one who is not. I have been told however that it is a very mixed bag.

That means that the great majority (I would say 90-95%) of my students cannot afford to go to a hagwon (an after-school academy) to improve on their English, math, science, or music skills. What that means from my perspective is that these students are speaking, reading and writing English at an extremely low level - at least compared to what I was exposed to in my hagwon last year.

I think it's actually fair to say that the students at my public school understand English about as much as you or I understood French when we did it in grades 7-9. That is to say - not a whole hell of a lot. So, imagine that a native French teacher (who doesn't speak English) came to your school to blather at you for 45 minutes. It might be a bit of a trying time.

That's what it has been for some of my lower level kids here. It's not their fault. Well for some of them, their lack of discipline is getting in the way of how well they could be doing. I'm sure that also is the same everywhere.

Though I dearly loved some of my students last year, and there are things I will miss dearly about teaching them in the environment that I did, I have to say that already I feel more "needed" here. That's not my hubris - saying that these kids "need" to learn English. That's society's hubris. Like it or not, these children are in a situation where learning the English language would be of huge benefit to their future education and employment. It sounds like there is a lot of pressure on the English teachers at my school to affect positive change here. There is.

While privileged families can afford to send their children to after school language classes, most cannot. As a result, the Korean government has allocated funds to place native English speaking teachers (or NESTs - like me) in as many of the over 2000 public schools in the Seoul area. Money has been going into providing "English only" classrooms, complete with state-of-the-art touch screens that will run hands-on English programs. In a technology-obsessed culture like Korea, this seems like money well-spent. My school's English only room (as you can see in the picture below) is still in the construction phase, but it's starting to move fast.

This infusion of money into public education is an attempt it seems to slow, or combat at least the idea of private after-school education at all. It's all relative though. For example, I will soon be teaching two after-school classes: one for low level beginning English students, and one for advanced. The students who attend will likely be doing so because they aren't able to afford to go to a hagwon. Of course, joining Teacher Dave's after-school class will not replace that opportunity. A hagwon at its best has a team of devoted staff that plan curriculum, write tests, and push the bar as far as it can be pushed - mostly in the name of satisfying demanding parents who pay good money and want their kids to get ready to be shipped off to private schools in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. At a hagwon, as I suppose it will be in my class, it is full English immersion. But, most kids who join there have been going to a hagwon since they were in grade 1. You can tell the difference.

What this all means for me is many things, as I said before. I can't comment on all of them here and now. What I will say for now though is that I feel a sense of responsibility that I didn't feel last year. Don't get me wrong - anyone who worked with me would tell you that I maintained a very high level of responsibility in my job at the hagwon last year, and that I set a very high standard for myself. Yes, it was about the students, bot for every high-achiever last year, there was another student who pissed-away his parents' money by coming to class, but not really trying. That was hard to deal with.

Somehow, in a public school, it's more palatable to me. I see these kids immediately as inspiration to do my job better. My first line of defense is not to assume that they are spoiled brats with no motivation, but rather kids who have been given unrealistic expectations heaped on them from a system that greatly favours the rich. Learning English in Korea seems to be so much about how much money your parents make. In a public school, you really feel that. For me, for now, knowing that it's very early on, it feels good being there to help at more of a grass roots level. I know, Obama would love this stuff. It's all very socialist, yet it's coming from an otherwise very conservative Korean government.

Don't get me wrong - I operate under no delusions here. Many of these kids have much more important things to worry about here than learning English. But, when I see faces in a classroom of 30 kids, and those faces are looking away from their books, not because they are bored but because they just don't understand, I feel like I need to change that reality. These kids' lives move at too fast a pace. I don't expect to work any miracles when I only have each class for 45 minutes a week (that's another blog), but I do feel motivated to at least try to work small ones.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Letter

Dear man on the subway,

Please stop coughing and hacking-up both lungs without covering your mouth while riding in a crowded-ass metro car with no room to move. If you want to share whatever you have with the rest of Seoul, you probably don't have to try that hard.

Me and everyone else

Now I'm going to pound-back the Cold -FX

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I forgot to wear anything that colour today. Does it count that I listed it as my favourite color when I was doing introductions with my classes today?

Just taking a moment to drop a note to say that I'm okay - just exhausted. It is my first full week of teaching though, and while I'd like to believe that I am as "young face" as the students tell me every time I let them know that I'm 33 years-old, I'm still 33 years old. I can't pull all-nighters and the like as I did when I was but a youth.

Actually, I believe what I'm suffering form currently is a combination of things:

Workwise - Being too much of a perfectionist. Now that the horse is most decidedly before the cart, I find myself wishing it were th other way around. You just can't please me. Classes are going fine, but I want to know more - I want this week to go as well as humanly possible.

Personally - I miss people. I'm easily frustrated and I feel as though I'm lacking sleep. I'm not exactly homesick, though my thoughts often wander back to Canada or, from time to time, to last year - noticing the differences between then and now.

I am heading to Gangnam tomorrow - though I've just now decided that I won't be undertaking GGR #4. Number 3 was a real bitch. I got laughed at more than once when the umbrellas and poster rollers sticking up the side of my backpack got me trapped int the subway - as if I'm not tall enough and prone to head-banging as it is.

Nope - tomorrow night I will head into Gangnam to meet some friends and buy a proper agenda. Then, if I am still feeling chipper, I might swing my Dee's apartment to grab one ungainly, but light piece: The yo (mattress), and possibly Sweet Carrot - Mukmuk is getting hungry.

I knew this week would be a challenge. If it weren't enough on its own, I knew I could find a way to make it so. Mission accomplished. At least my kids made me laugh today - there's nothing wrong with that.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Falling-Apart Tired

That is me tonight. First full day of teaching, which for me means staying up far too late planning the night before, getting up way too early to make sure I'm at the school early enough to do all there is I need to do to prepare for the classes, mustering up enough high-energy to keep a class of 35-40 students somewhat entertained, and staying awake through a staff meeting in a language I don't understand when I am desperately in need of coffee. I think I've earned my sleep tonight.

To tide you over, here is the first picture I took of my school. The photo shows about a third of it. It's pretty big. As I said to Dee the other day, it looks like a CNN news story during an earthquake, but really all schools here seem to be like this one. It's sturdy like a tank. It also has a charm to it. The kids care for it and clean it (mops and all) every day, and us teachers roll-up our sleeves too. It's an old girl, but we love her. More tomorrow, after I've slept.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The real week 1

... of teaching begins tomorrow. No time for a real blog today. Sleep is so much more important. But to tide you over, here's an ad for... well, I don't know. But it's 50 yards away from the school I teach at. I wonder if anyone has a better word than I do to describe this photo. My word is "fantastic!"

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I’m not so much a fan of it for the most part. I do realize that I am writing this sentiment in a blog which, in itself, is a bit of hypocrisy. Anyway, today at school I had my first real WTF moment and it was because of technology. I know that I keep promising a nice long blog full of positive things to say about my school, and it will come, but right now technology is pissing me off, so I felt like writing about it.

Let me first say that as a teacher, I tend to over-think things – especially at the beginning. If anyone last spent any time around me during prep (or on Sunday afternoons in my first few months), they would concur that I tend to spend far too much time planning for the unknown. It’s good to be prepared so as to limit undue stress in the moment of presentation when it comes, but too much preparation for something you’re not yet familiar with can be just as counter-productive. On the Thursday of my first week at my new school, that’s kind of where I find myself.

Here’s the issue as I see it: it is both a blessing and a curse to have been given all of this time to plan lessons and to observe classes. On the one hand, I feel very lucky to have had a chance to see the students in action as well as to get a sense of what might be expected from me. My co-teachers all seem very kind and patient, though I’m sure their patience will wear thin should things not go as planned. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

A big contributor to my stress this week comes from inactivity. Yes, I am observing classes, and yes, I am planning for my first days of teaching next week. But I’m starting to feel a little bit of cart before the horse syndrome. I am learning a lot, but I need to start applying before any of what I’m learning can start to make any kind of sense. With all of the good things in my school, there have also been some instances of real miscommunication. I am hopeful though that things will clear-up within the first month.

At the SOME training when I first got here, we spoke a bit about “high context” vs. “low context”. It was mentioned in application to being an English teacher in Korea, but you could apply it to really any fish out of water scenario in any kind of job. Basically, what it refers to is the idea that some people are “in the know”, while others are mistakenly assumes to be “in the know”. I clearly fall into the latter category in this case. It is often assumed that I know a whole helluva lot more than I actually do.

Let me give you a for instance: Though I have been working and living in Korea for a year, I don’t know Korean. I just don’t. Living in an English bubble for 14 months can effectively prevent the even slightly language-lazy from getting anywhere with picking-up a foreign tongue. I came here with the best intentions of learning the language, but I spent far more time planning for my English classes than I had thought I might. I also found myself enjoying said planning far more than I thought I might. Anyway, as much as that may sound like one of many lame excuses for not learning Korean last year, it also happens to be a fact.

So, here I sit – the only native English speaking teacher at my school, and I believe that I’m expected to not only read, but understand the Korean instant messenger system that blinks on my monitor an average of 50 times each day. It’s like getting an email in Korean. It may be urgent as all hell. It might say that the building’s on fire. I wouldn’t know. Learning the language is something I am bloody determined to do – at least to a basic reading, listening and speaking degree. I can foresee that my working situation, in time, will allow for this. However, my situation isn’t there right now.

My situation consists of the following at the moment. Kay, it may actually be better for me to break this into point form:
1) I am supposed to be getting a new classroom all to myself. This is always a good idea. I can fill it with English, student work, etc. The new room will be coming with something called a “Smartboard” – something like the thing that Tom Cruise fiddled-around with in Minority Report, or Tony Stark played with in Iron Man – basically, it’s a touch-screen, intuitive monitor. I can have fun with it and the kids will love it too.
2) Even without the smart board, one of the things that was pushed on us at training was using technology in the classroom. It makes a lot of sense. Visuals and audio clues and cues can be an important tool in the classroom when teaching another language. There’s great stuff out there if you know how to use it.
3) Which brings me back to technology – and how I don’t get it. Yes, I use it often in my life, but I have never – never in my life – used a powerpoint presentation. I know what they look like when they are finished, but I don’t have the first clue about how to put one together. Now’s the time to learn.
4) So, on one of my trips to Gangnam earlier this week, I decide to head into COEX mall to look into getting this program for my Mac. The school did offer me their Microsoft Office program (2003), but it’s not compatible with my laptop. Effing PC crap. I decide it’s worth it to buy the program anyway – It’ll be something new to learn, it’ll help me in the classroom, learning powerpoint will help me score with the ladies…
5) I get to COEX and I see a much cooler program designed for the Mac – iwork, which includes programs similar to that of Microsoft Office. Instead of Word, iwork has “Pages”. Instead of “Powerpoint”, iwork has “Keynote”. But no – I am getting this for work, so I bite the bullet and go with the Microsoft Office program for Mac.
6) Here’s the problem: My version is newer and therefore incompatible with the programs at work.
7) Even if it were compatible, as tests revealed today, there seems to be about a 50% chance that on any given day, my classroom computer may not work. We’re talking not only powerpoint being unable to load, but also the internet. This is Korea, people. What’s up with the lack of reliable technology?
It’s like this. Tomorrow (Friday), I teach my first class. It is a lesson that has been re-written three times based on varying suggestions and, most importantly, my own misguided na├»ve perfectionism. In the end, after splurging on a new software program I didn’t fully know how to use, spending far too much time on my first lesson plans and the wonderful technology that would supplement them, I had to let my co-teachers know that until the in-school technology is more reliable, my lessons would be stick and stone, bare-ass, technology-free. Yep – what worked for me last year 90% of the time will just have to cut it this year until things get more streamlined. There’s nothing I dread more than painstakingly preparing for something only to discover that the train won’t make it into the station.

So, it’s back to basics. It probably should have been all along. The simpler, the better, for now. Until I know what the hell I’m doing, and until the school’s technology is sound, I don’t think spending my energy on a 50% chance at failure is a good plan. Wish me luck tomorrow. After all that, it looks like I’ll effectively be winging it with only the memory of Pig to guide me through my first lesson. Brighter technological days I’m sure are ahead. I just need to learn me some computer skills.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

GGR, Part II

And at part II is shall stay - at least for another few days. I cannot believe how much crap I was able to collect over a year in Korea. Damn.

Went for Operation Gangnam Gack Retrieval part II today. It went fairly well. I had a heavier load this time, but was able to tape it all up so as to avoid any taxi-caused mishaps like I had yesterday. I don't know how much I was collectively carrying on my back in Steph's backpack or dragging behind me on the cart, but it felt like another person all-together.

No incidents until I hit line #2 and it was FULL - we're talking the most full I've ever seen the Seoul subway at any time. People were jamming onto the subway and audibly moaning when other people would push them further into the train. Me, in my giant backpack with my day pack strapped to it, plus my four feet of boxes I front of me looked like the biggest asshole in the history of rush hour commuting. As other commuters forced themselves into the train, I had not choice but to be bent over the stack of boxes with my backpacks on top of me. Yes, gentle reader, to the casual observer it may have looked like I was being violated by a Kolon sport backpack. That lasted about five stops. I almost didn't make it out at my stop. I had to duke it our with little old ladies who seemed determined not only to keep me on the train, but to give me bruises enough to remember the day. They get viscious - they really do.

So, I made it home. That's nice. Now I have an iron - but wait, I didn't get the voltage converter yet... I guess I don't have an iron yet. I do have a T-Express mug though, and I was able to shine my shoes. What else... oh, yes - a year's worth of reading material . That is good. Another thing I have is Microsoft Office 2008 for the mac - I used my settlement allowance to pik it up as I will be expected from time to time to use powerpoint in the classroom - again, more on school later. Ther's lots to say about it, but it'll have to wait until the weekend. I'm thinking that Sunday night will be a nice relaxing one. Here's hoping I have something resembling internet soon. I went for the healthcheck today and should have an appointement at immigration on Friday. Then it's a waiting game with most of the paperwork complete. Fingers crossed.

Lastly - as I've been lonely, I bought a mouse. That's such a lame joke. When I bought Office for the mac today, a free wireless mouse was included. I'm really not a techo wizard or geek (I have never in my life used Powerpoint), but this mouse is sweet. Ray would be a fan. Now that I'm talking about a new mouse, I think I need more sleep. Until tomorrow.

Monday, March 9, 2009


School today was good - it was my first day, not of teaching, but of meeting the majority of staff. There's lots to say about it - all of it good, but it will have to wait for another day as it's getting late and I have other things I need to be taking care of. I'm currently borrowing interent from a neighbor... it doesn't work well :)

Anyway, just thought I'd take a moment to relate that carting shite through busy Seoul streets isn't necessarily the best idea I've ever had. After finishing our contracts in October of last year, steph and I were fortunate enough to have a friend who was willing to store some of my stuff so that I could come back to Korea and be all happy with all the comforts of home.

Problem is, I live 26 subway stops away from the lovely Dee's apartment. That's 26 stops plus two transfers. It's about 75 minutes all-told. So, brilliant me thought he'd save some money by carting the goods to his apartment way up in the North. We met for a quick coffee, I opened a surprise birthday present (which was lovely), and then I proceeded to pack my Thailand backpack with stuff as well as load a hand cart with boxes of lamps, speakers, pots and random gack that I wanted to get to my apartment ASAP. Sadly, once loaded, wrapped and taped, the cart would not go down the stairs like delivery men are capable of doing with theirs as a metal bar by the wheels obstructed such a feat. So, re-pack knowing that I would need to carry the cart up and down stairs.

Done. But on my way to Seolleung station, a freaking car clippled the side of my box and my boxes scattered - speakers spilling out across the street. Three very nice people came along to assist me with my spilled goods and they were all somehow apologizing on behalf of the driver. Their kindness more than made-up for the misfortune, but I am already regretting my decision not to just pay for a cab. Oh, well. I'm already one fourth of the way there so I may as well keep going. Craziness. At least I have lamps, music, and coffee. It could be worse. Ready for round 2 of Operation Gangnam Gack Retrieval tomorrow.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Where I'm At

It's Sunday afternoon here and I decided to take the subway down to Hyehwa to grab some essentials. I must be turning Korean because I had to seek-out some skin-care products from the Body Shop ASAP. It's effing dry here right now - especially in my apartment. I will have no problem using a piece of my settlement allowance to purchase a humidifier right quick.

That, thank goodness, is the only complaint I have about my situation at the moment. I have to say that I feel pretty lucky with things as they've been presented so far.

I wrote a while back that I would be living in the Bukbu district of Seoul. Literally translated, that simply means that I'm living in "North Seoul". It is pretty north, though. If you are ever to look at a map of Seoul, 90% of the time, my area won't be included in the map. Logistically speaking, my school is located across the street from Sssangmun station on line #4. It's very north - 5 stops from the end in fact. What's at the end, you ask? Why Danggogae, of course! Oh, yes - Danggogae. The song of my heart. Only a handful of people will know what that really means.

My apartment is located VERY close to Banghak station on line #1 - about 7 stops from the last one in the north. So, how do I best describe Bukbu? Well, it's like many areas of Seoul, actually. It's not as trendy as say, Gangnam, Jungno, or Hyehwa (and by "trendy", I mean a destination for the younger crowd), but it's nice and doesn't really fee too much like it's out of the city.

Regarding my apartment, I couldn't be happier. I'm living in what's called an "office-tel" - basically a prefabricated apartment for one. It's almost an exact replica of the apartment that Steph was living in last January in Yatap when she went to work at Youngdo's head office. I'll post some photos below. I had no real issues with my apartment last year. Certainly, it was older, but I grew to like it. Being in the place I'm in this year just, well - I guess it makes me feel more immediately comfortable. It's secure, I will get a lot of light, and it will be easy to maintain. It's got a sweet little loft for anyone who wants to make the pilgrimage to Bukbu one night - Dee and Glen - are you listening? Muk muk sure seems to like it, anyway.

I also had a chance to visit the school today. Yesterday (Saturday), us Bukbu teachers were all dropped-off at a central school in our district where we were picked-up by our co-teachers. I am so damn lucky. Mrs. Lee greeted me excitedly and took me right away to the apartment, showed me around the area, made sure I met the security guard etc, and then went to buy me some new towels because there were no hand towels in the apartment. Right away, I have a strong feeling that we will get along very well. She has a great sense of humour and seems excited to be in the role of what I would best describe as "head co-teacher". She reassures me again and again that I can ask her anything and that she will be there to help me out.

This morning, she met me at my apartment to show me how to get to school on the bus. It's about 10 minutes away by bus - not far at all. The school is huge (pictures coming later this week) and it looks like I will certainly have my work cut out for me. This week though, they will be giving me time to meet the other teachers, to observe some classes, and apparently to introduce myself to the teaching staff in person, but also to the entire student populace via the television broadcasting system in the school. That's right! Teacher Dave will be on every homeroom screen. I don't know if they are ready. I'm pretty sure I am though. The first few weeks might be somewhat terrifying, but I feel like I'm ready for it - for the challenge anyway. Perhaps measured success will come in more time.

I do feel though that with Mrs. Lee I am in good hands. She took me out for lunch with her family today, and though she jokingly threatened to serve me dog soup and live octopus, (which I said I would eat if she wished very much to take me there), she wanted to understand my "real mind" and was gracious enough to take us to one of her family's favourite vegetarian restaurants. It was delicious. Her husband was shy, but very kind and her children (So Min, 6 years old, and Song Heyon, 11 years old) were great. Song Heyon told me that his sister was "dangerous" and very "violent" which I doubted, until she proved me wrong, wielding her plastic fork at her brother with a playful vengeance. Whenever Song Heyon referred to his sister, he used both hands to gesture in her direction, like he was describing the next item up for bid on The Price is Right. True hilarity. So Min was actually quite shy, but giggly after lunch on the ride home. I promised then that when I get settled in, I will have them over to my place for dinner. I intend on seeing that promise through.

Here are some photos of my apartment - they are pretty self-explanatory. I love the use of space...

Tomorrow is introduction day. I don't have reliable internet at my apartment and won't until a bunch of paperwork is taken care of - should be done in three weeks, I'm thinking. In the meantime, I will do my best to post as often as I can. Gotta go - Mukmuk might be starting to wonder where I am...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Outward Bound

I might have to make this a little bit shortish. I've got about half an hour before I need to head down to the Asan hall for the closing cermony of the orientation. It's been a good couple of days.

Yesterday, we all headed out to Seoul to observe a public school class and then we headed for a quick bus tour of the city that ended at Namsan tower - the perfect day with enough clarity for a perfect view of all ends of the city. There are more pictures and videos to come, but they will need to wait for a day at Holly's coffee where the wifi is free and the lattes are fine.

John, our supervisor here at the training centre let loose last night and allowed us all a few beers. It was good. It'll fee strange to leave this place and I hope that we'll be able to keep in touch with each other as much as time will allow.

Lots to write about, but it will have to wait. Until then...

Happy Birthday, Mom, and here's to the person who I wish were sitting beside me...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Day four: The Yolk and a Windmill

This was our last full day of being "in the classroom". That's good. Though the lectures have been beneficial, it's largely been a pain in the ass in terms of not being able to do much besides eat, sleep, and sit. I guess that's what a week of training will do to you. We all presented our short lessons today and it was relatively entertaining, as well as pain-free. There - it's done.

At lunchtime, I checked-out NHL.com and saw the good news: yes, the Yolk is coming to Calgary. He's been a perennial pick for me in hockey pools and a favourite on the X-box. He's also a great centre in reality and I can't wait to see him in action with a Flames jersey. What a complete coup. I liked watching Lombari blow-by opposing defensemen as much as the next guy, but the Yolk is gold and knows how to finish. Also - he's Finnish. Kipper will like. This really puts Calgary in a good place for the playoff run and when Bertuzzi, Borque and Langkow return from injuries, I forsee a loooong playoff run. Should they win the cup while I'm away form my hometown, I will be sad, but very glad that I brought my Flames jersey with me this time. Playoffs - oh, yes.

Tomorrow we head out to Seoul for a tour and to observe schools similar to the ones we'll be placed in. I look forward to getting out a bit. It's both needed and wanted.

I leave you with a photo and video of tonight's big star, one of my roomates, Daniel Kim. The dude's the complete performance package: Singer, song-writer, and resident ladies man. Being his roomate is like being a camp counsellor... "Now Daniel - no covorting in the ladies dorm past 11 o'clock!" But the man had a big night. We had B-Boys from a Korean hip-hop troupe come to teach those that wanted to learn how to do basic to fairly advanced dance. We're talking windmills and all that. Daniel was the only one who did it all - he even had a little surpise for everyone at the end which I will do my best to post tomorrow. I'm sure that he was able to impress a certain lady in the crowd. Nice work, son.

For now, here's a video of Daniel doing a little 'Lake. Who's not a sucker for "Cry Me a River"? You can't deny it - the man's got skills...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Day Three

It's been a very long day, but a productive one. Today has mostly focused on the more practical side of teacher training - going more deeply into the day-to-day dealings of being a public school teacher in Korea. The day's first speaker was David Deubelbeiss. I mention his name because I think it's a shame to so many English teachers come here without attending a lecture from this guy. He's got 10 years of creative teaching experience on a website that all ESL instructors should know about. I'm sure that some already do, but I sure as hell didn't last year, and it really could have helped me out.

So, if any ESL instructors are still reading this, please check out his website: http://eflclassroom.ning.com

You'll find the most useful and creative stuff here. It helps that the guy is Mr. technology, because he's made most of the stuff very user-friendly. While some of it will require use of a computer and projector, there are other resources on there that won't require anything more than a pen and paper. Anyway, please check it out if you're looking for fresh ideas. It's gold.

Tomorrow we demo our lessons. It's not quite what I expected. Based on the numbers involved in this training, we will be pairing-up to give our lessons to the group. It'll be a whole day of games and activities still. I'm not nervous about presenting, just somewhat unsure about the way we've decided to go with our lesson. I'm sure it'll be fine, and part of what we're learning here will be how to work with a co-teacher anyway. It's one more day of training (tomorrow) and then on Friday we'll be loaded onto buses for tours of Seoul and school visits. Hard to believe that we will all be out of here in less than three days.

Today wasn't without other remarkable moments. First, came another Dave's impassioned defense of your Tim Brodie - the gardener's son who was more than deserving of Lord Moulton's inheritence - even though was no direct heir. It was a lawyer game and it was a glorious speech. Also, Kelly, one of the teachers here, had her birthday today. Ed, Andy, and I went down to the bakery at lunch to pick-up a cake and we delivered it at dinner time. It went well. There are some good people here that I really hope to keep in touch with when we all settle into our own places.