Monday, August 17, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers & Friends, and a Lack Thereof...

I was debating blogging about this because of what WILL happen - namely my mom freaking out. But I thought I would post about this, in case anyone else has a similar experience in Korea and needs to go through the same procedure that I just did.

I think I need to burn my green shorts. This is the second time in 10 months that my wallet has been stolen from them. As my friend, Douglas, sardonically remarked yesterday, "Don't burn them yet. You know what they say: the third time's the charm...". Yeah, I'm not really sure what that even means, but it made me laugh, which is really all that I can do in a situation like this.

The good news is, other than the cash in the wallet, the photos, the phone numbers of my school staff, my book club discount cards, my bank card, and my alien registration card, nothing much was lost - oh, except for the lovely wallet itself which was a gift from a special someone. Man, do I feel like an ass. Still, after a great deal of work conducted by my Korean-speaking friends, and a day of leg-work by me, things are taken care of. Most importantly, the important cards were canceled and my bank card was canceled before the thief could spend too much money with it, though he (or she) did spend some.

It happened like this:

My friend Lexi and I went to meet a couple of friends (Brian and Joowan) at Jamsil Stadium to watch a Korean League baseball game between the Lotte Giants of Busan and the LG Twins of Seoul. The game itself was a great experience. I've been to two K-League soccer matches as well as a World Cup 2010 qualifying soccer match, but this was my first baseball game. The crowd was great - divided nearly half-way down the middle of the stadium between Giants and Twins fans, and each section was rowdy as hell - for the entire game. Back home in Calgary, as I'm sure is the case in MLB stadiums, the fans are generally pretty laid-back - enjoying their sun, suds, and brews. Not here.

Here, there are cheerleaders for each side, each with their own theme music, multiple costume changes, and zany dance moves. Also, inexplicably, there was Spongebob, Dora, and Jimmy Neutron. Perhaps it was Nickelodeon Night. The fans also treat it like a premiere league soccer game - singing and performing choreographed chants pretty much for the game's duration. It's a good thing too. While back home, if the visiting team went up 8-1 by the top of the 3rd inning, home fans might be inclined to boo, or throw something at their team, or worse. Here, they just keep cheering like mad. Incidentally, the Twins made in interesting, down 12-11 in the 8th inning before finally succumbing 14-11. Still, a great game.

So, we make our way to the subway, where it is packed as hell...

Let me back up for a minute though. Just a week previous, I was remarking to another friend while he was shopping for shorts, that "ever since I got pick-pocketed in Cambodia...", I always make sure to buy shorts that have pockets that seal properly. Of course, it helps is you actually use said method of sealing, be it buttons, snaps, or industrial strength welding, to actually close the pockets that are there to carry your valuables. More importantly, none of this matters if you find yourself in a situation where someone really wants what you have and is bold and skilled enough to get it.

That was certainly the case in Phnom Penh. There, Steph and I found ourselves in the middle of a water festival, suddenly surrounded about five blocks deep in all directions by locals. In this kind of festival atmosphere, there's not a lot you can do when people start pushing and trying to get some sort of flow going. When you're getting groped from all directions from people just trying not to get trampled, safety suddenly becomes your first concern. A perfect opportunity for someone to make off with your credit cards, bank cards, and money that you just changed and didn't leave in the hotel, because truthfully, the hotel seemed about as secure as your shorts' pocket. At least my passport was safe. What a nightmare that was, and I have Steph to thank for being the calm one and taking the lead in solving all that needed to be solved over the internet amid pure chaos.

Well, here in Seoul, you don't have as many people who could use my wallet contents to pay for their yearly living expenses as exist in Cambodia. South Korea is a pretty wealthy nation, and yet, despite the recent theft, a place that I feel very comfortable and secure in. Still, it pays to not be an ass.

Here's how I was an ass...

As we get on the train at Jamsil, along with a lot of other people, we got smushed on the car as happens when many people are lining-up. With Brian in front of me, and Lexi behind, I was pressed on all sides and I could actually feel something touch my back pocket (where I keep my wallet). But I could feel all sorts of my parts getting involuntarily touched because of the crowd. I even remarked to Lexi as I was getting pressed: "Gee, it's awfully friendly in here." Of course, that was probably the precise moment that my wallet was getting lifted. It's quite possible that having just gone through the pay gate, I neglected to actually do up the button on my pocket. Awesome.

I didn't notice it until the end of the trip when Brian and Lexi were leaving and I sat down for the first time that my wallet was gone. I immediate stood up in a still-crowded subway and starting searching frantically for it. People looked at me like I was a madman, which at the moment, I essentially was. I called a Korean friend right away to see if she would be able to cancel my bank card for me. I spent the last 10 minutes on the train wondering how I was going to get home - my last stop being about an hours walk from my place.

It was then that a nice lady who, along with her husband, had been viewing my frantic pacing and phone-calling with concern extended a hand towards me with a 10,000 won bill ($10.00). Truthfully, coupled with the frustration, I almost cried. After getting my wallet yanked, it was just the right act of kindness that I needed to not lose it and punch-out a train window or, more likely, break my hand again. I was touched by the offer, but I tried to tell them that it was too much. I did need the money to get on the bus though, so eventually I communicated that if they had a bill for cheon won ($1), I would be more than grateful. They understood and kindly gave me the money I need to get home.

There's nothing like theft to make you feel violated and frustrated that you didn't make a simple and different decision. It was tough to get to sleep that night, pissed-off as I was, but I was comforted by two things: Sung Sook had so kindly stayed-up to make some phone calls to cancel my card, and to get the ball rolling on replacing them, and Brian had texted me offering any support that he could give at all. The next day, I had four different friends, Korean and otherwise, offer to take me out for lunch. Didn't make me feel like less of an ass, but it made me feel better to know that people were trying to get me out of my funk.

What makes me fee even better was the conversation I had with Brian two nights after the game. Brian, a Korean/American any-thing-but-orthodox pastor from Kentucky, had been at the game when my wallet was stolen, and had been telling his father back home about the theft. His father apparently asked if he had spoken to his (Brian's father's) friend. Brian's father's friend you see, well... to make a long story short, this guy is involved in both the Korean Mafia and the Japanese Yakuza. Not only that, but he also reminded Brian that he "has people" in the Seoul police department.

That's kind of scary, I realize, but from my perspective, what moves this into cool territory is the exchange the followed between Brian and Brian's father's friend (BFF). Something like this...

Brian: "...yeah, so Dave had his wallet stolen..."
BFF: "Is this Dave a friend of yours?"
Brian: "Yeah, man."
BFF: "Well, you know if the guy who took it was one of ours, he'll regret it, and remember, I've got people on the force, so we're going to find the guy who stole it and we're going to put a real hurt on him."
Brian: "Ummm... I don't think that's..."
BFF: "Oh, it's necessary..."

Dave: Nice.

While I don't expect my wallet to turn up, it's good to know that the cards were canceled (mostly) in time, and it's REALLY good to know that I count Brian among my friends here in Korea.

So, should you ever have your wallet stolen in Seoul, as a foreigner, here's a checklist of what you'll need to do...

1) Call a Korean friend as soon as humanly possible so that he or she can cancel your Korean bank cards, which can function as debit and credit cards, and are as secure when making a purchase - ie: not secure at all. Your Korean friend will need to know your Alien Registration number so that they can put a hold on the card. Of course, if your ARC is also in your stolen wallet, you may have to wait until you get home. By that time, the jackass who stole your wallet may have already bought something fun with your money. Thankfully, my thief had cheap taste and spent only 23500 won ($23.50) at a convenience store before the card was canceled. Maybe he really needed three weeks of ramen, and fast!

2) You'll need to make a visit to the local police station, hopefully with a Korean friend, where you'll need to make a police report of the incident and ask for a copy. A Korean friend is necessary so that you can solve problems such as having the four police officers behaving like the keystone cops, smacking each other in the head and scorning one another for their English skills for the spelling of my middle name, "James" with an "n" where the "m" should be. Entertaining stuff.

3) You will then need to take this police report to your local Korean immigration office, where you will need to first print your address in Hangeul (Korean script) in the form of a "proof of residence" certificate, before grabbing a number and waiting in line for 3 hours to talk to an immigration officer who will accept your 10,000 won, police report, and application form and tell you to wait ten days before you get your new ARC card.

4) You then take your receipt for this and head to your bank, where you can find out how much money was spent before the card was canceled, apply for a new card, and get one.

5) Become friends with Brian.

Just make sure you do these things in the right order, or you might find yourself doubling back more than once as I did.

Anyway, that's the story. I realize this means that my mom will be wearing a bullet-proof vest and traveling by armored car while in Seoul, but the truth is, Seoul still remains much safer, generally speaking, than a city (Calgary) with a tenth of Seoul's population. Yes, bad stuff happens here, too - but the things about a relatively rich city this populated is that there are almost always massive amounts of people on the street. This generally results in a low crime rate, but hang on a second... what does the US Department of State have to say about this?

"Although the crime rate in the Republic of Korea is low, there is a higher incidence of pick-pocketing, purse snatching, assault, hotel room and residential burglary, and residential crime in major metropolitan areas, such as Seoul and Busan, than elsewhere in Korea. U.S. citizens are more likely to be targeted in known tourist areas, such as Itaewon (near the U.S. Army Garrison in the Yongsan area) and large market areas downtown. Incidents of rape have been reported in popular nightlife districts in Seoul, as well as in the victims’ residences. Bar and street fights as well as occasional harassment of Westerners have also been reported in nightlife districts in Seoul. Travelers should exercise caution when traveling alone at night and should use only legitimate taxis or public transportation. Travelers may reduce the likelihood of becoming a crime victim by exercising the same type of security precautions they would take when visiting any large city in the United States."

Or, from the Korean Herald (November 2005):

"...The overall crime rate was 1,674 incidents per 100,000 people in Korea, while those numbers were more than one third higher in Japan at 2,240 per 100,000. The United States and the United Kingdom followed with 4,119 and 11,240 per 100,000 people respectively. Murder rates in 2002 for Korea, the United States and United Kingdom per 100,000 were 2.1, 5.6 and 3.5 respectively. Rape and sexual assault in those same three nations were 19.8, 33 and 86.6 per 100,000 respectively.

“I feel safer walking down the street late at night in Seoul than I did in Boston,” offers one expat. He added that the drug culture of the big cities of America were what led to higher crime rates. “Korea seems pretty drug-free.”

An outsider may be surprised to see many busloads of Korean police around the city, but this in no way reflects a high crime rate. They are most often used as crowd control around important buildings or to prevent the frequent protests from getting out of hand around the capital."

Anyway, this latest incident leads to one change, because despite Douglas' assertion, when it comes to wallet-from-pants theft, I don't share the idea that the "third time's the charm." I will now be carrying my T-Money (Transit) card separately from my wallet. My wallet I will keep in a secret compartment of my pants, guarded by trap doors and ancient booby-traps that would shame a Peruvian temple. The things is, I don't want anyone to get hurt by Brian's dad's friend. Also, when the subway train gets that full, I will start barking like a lunatic - you know, the ones you see on the C-Train back home. That ought to keep people at bay.

Thanks to Brian and his zany mafia family friend, and to Sung Sook for all of her help, and to Chris and Jen for the pizza and Oliver for the Quiznos. It's good to have friends in high and low places. All is good, and it won't happen again. To quote the 43rd President of the United States:

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

When People Go

As I heard from others before coming to Korea, one of the hardest things about being an ex-pat here is that the vast majority of the people you connect with socially are likely going to be a lot more transient than they are back home - wherever home might be for you.

So far, as I approach the two year mark of my first arrival in Korea, the thought weighs a bit more heavily than it has for sometime, so I thought I'd take a minute or two to write about it.

Yesterday afternoon, I met-up with a friend who joined our hagwon (private school) two months prior to me leaving for Thailand. He is now less than two weeks away from the end of his first year contract. Having been through the measure of a year in Korea already, it's been interesting to watch as others experience the same scope of what it means to live and work here for that length of time. Some of the public school native English teachers that I trained with are remarking about the strangeness of approaching the six month mark and all that it might mean to each of us - some considering staying for another year, others wondering if they might cut-loose a little early. Me, of course, hoping that they all make the choice to stay.

After meeting Oliver in Gangnam yesterday, I headed to Suwon, the place I lived for 14 months from August 2007, to hang-out with two of the best people I've met since coming to Korea - Chris and Jenn, two other teachers who will be heading back to Canada in two weeks today. They share the same apartment that I shared last year, and though this isn't the first time I've returned to that place this year, it was the first time that, out of habit, my head instinctively turned to my left as I entered the lobby door of the apartment building to check if there was any mail for room 302. Crazy.

It was a gloriously nerdish night of Cities & Knights of Catan with two friends I will miss dearly when they go. Then, a trip to a gimgilbang (Korean public bath and sauna) for a steam, shower, swim, soak, water massage, and sleep on a cold tile floor, and here I am now in good old Holly's Coffee, writing to you, dear family.

For me, being here and feeling more frequent pangs of homesickness for the first time since Christmas of 2007, I think that what I have been able to do is "manage" the nostalgia. It's nice to let that stuff flow, but sometimes it's better to keep things in check, lest I get overwhelmed by it and start waxing poetic about obvious metaphors, like climbing a mountain and all that it means. Though those mountains outside my apartment this year are certainly worth writing home about.

Still, it's almost impossible to avoid feeling some sense of loss when people who form your world here return to their own "worlds" from whence they came. It happened last year when some of my best friends (albeit ones formed under "extreme" circumstances) left my life. It's funny - I remember how stand-offish some of them had seemed when we first arrived at our hagwon. Now I get it - they had just said goodbye to a bunch of people they had been close to before Steph and I took-over their contracts. Though you may not be completely aware of it at the time, you get attached. It's tough to imagine this place without the people who made it what it was upon your first experience.

So, that's how it is for me. As I sit in Suwon this morning, I'm thinking about the people I worked with and knew well in the building just behind me. In two weeks, not one teacher and likely only a handful of students will remain from what I knew last last year. That's quite a turn-over, and that's the thing - it's what's done here - what's "normal". That can be a bit of a bummer.

What's more of a bummer is speaking to a good friend who worked and traveled with us last year, who had been working since January in Japan. She's decided to head back home after 10 months as opposed to 12 - not sure of whether or not she will return to Asia, though I really hope that she does. It's mostly selfish, of course, but there was always something comforting about knowing that another person from home was "still doing this thing" that had been described to me last year by more than one person as being "not real", or "losing yourself". Living in Korea, I mean. I think the intended "lesson" is that "real life" is back "home."

Pardon the excessive quotation marks, but I think they accurately reflect my feelings on those terms lately. Home to me, at least until I have a family of my own, should I go down that road, will always be where my family is. "Family" being my mom, dad, sister and her family, my aunt and cousin. I've got a small family - easy to keep track of, though should something zany happen, and my small family scatters further afield, where does that leave my notion of "home"? I'm really not sure, but as I work here and find myself getting further involved in Korea, through language, people, and not limiting myself solely to the English-speaking pockets of Gangnam, Hongdae, and Myeong-dong, I'm really comprehending for the first time the fact, and it is a fact, that life here is as real as you want it to be. There's a big fat cliche for you, but I think it's one worth remembering. I remember being in the Vancouver airport, exchanging money into Korean won, when the lady behind the counter took it upon herself to remind me that I am "Canadian" and that I should be careful not to "get stuck" in Korea. For all those who told me that life here in Korea isn't as "real" as life is back home, I think about the lives these people may have had back "home" and wonder what kind of stick they use to measure the reality" they construct for themselves. Is it really that different from the ones used here in Korea? I'm thinking not. I'm feeling pretty real these days as I continue to live in Korea - notice the lack of quotation marks?

Still, I do miss home, in more ways than I care to write about, but I am happy in my life here in the moment. I hope that enough people I care about hang-around long enough for me to enjoy more than the next six months with them, but we shall see, and that choice isn't up to me. I get nostalgic about last year, but as I said, I'm learning how to manage that feeling into being something more positive than simply mourn what or who is no longer here.

What I am glad about, at least in the people I've been able to spend my time with this year, is that I hear much less blanket condemnations of the country in which I currently live. There are problems here for sure, and said problems seems to grow stronger in an insular place such as Korea - it can be like a petri dish of frustration if you let it. But, I'm also meeting some of the best and most genuine people I have come across, who seem a lot more curious, and hell of a lot less judgmental about Western lifestyles that the majority of us are of them. That's got to count for something. Again, life can be real and full here if you want it to be. I have been fortunate enough this year to have been able to explore more of Korea in the past 6 months than I did in my first 14. That makes a difference.

Well, one full week of vacation left - time for friends, time for planning for semester 2, time for planning a visit from mom and dad in under two months, and time to head to Jeju Island - the Jewel of the East China Sea.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Things to do with your parents while in East Asia, part I

Today I wandered down to Itaewon to book some tickets to Japan. My parents will be making their first journey across the Pacific this fall and we will be making a one week journey to the land of the rising sun, book ended by two weeks in the land of morning calm.

I had to work hard to arrange for the one week off in October - a busy month in Korean public school, as well as perhaps the best time to travel through East Asia. Spring does bring the cherry blossoms, but it also unfortunately brings the yellow dust. Thanks, China - you and your lack of clean coal technology...

Anyway, the trip has been talked about for a long time and the tickets from Canada to and from Seoul have been booked for some time too. After dropping by old Xanadu Travel (an agency that was frequented more than a few times last year), I'm starting to put things a bit more in perspective: how much time will be available to us, here and there, and what will my schedule allow for?

Well, 3 weeks will allow for a lot, though a significant portion of that will be me at work. I'm sure that my parents and my students will regard each other will equal fascination, but I'm going to do my darndest to plan all of my lessons prior to October so that there's no need for any extra time at work. In other words, September will be a busy month.

But honestly, I couldn't be more excited. My mom traveled to the U.K. once upon my youth, and my dad, who joined the Canadian Navy at the tender age of 16 has seen a great deal more of the world, though it's been a while. He and my sister did make the trek to Australia for a month prior to my sister's wedding, which is nearly a decade ago now. In other words, it's been some time since my parents have been off of the continent, and after having lived in Korea for what amounts to very close to two years now, I'm pretty excited to get them out here. I've got lots to show them, and very little to shield them from.

I'm excited - even today, as it is every time this happens, I see myself in the foreigners who walk about Seoul with parents in-tow. That'll be me in a couple of months - fanny-packs, sandals and socks, heads moving this way and that, trying to take it all in. I've got friends, both Korean and foreign who can't wait to meet them and who can't wait to show them around. Color me giddy. My mom and pop are going to join me in the land of the kimchi! I wonder what they'll think of Johnny...


Hey, folks...

About two months ago now I went to check-out Park Chan Wook's new film, Thirst. Park is one of Korea's most well-known and respected directors. His films are mostly violent and a challenge to sit-through without squirming at least 10 times, but the squirms, and perhaps the bad dreams, excessive sweat, vomiting and loss of faith in your fellow man are well worth it.
Certainly his most acclaimed and popular films are those that form what has become known as his "Revenge Trilogy: Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. If you haven't seen them and want something riveting and very different from the Western film norm, then you won't be disappointed by these three.
Thirst is a bit of a departure - Park's first vampire film, but just as unnerving and just as strange. The film is being released back home in Canada this week, so here's my review if anyone's interested in checking it out. For anyone at home reading this, I highly recommend that you do check it out... except maybe mom.

For my review of Thirst (박쥐, or "Vampire"), click here.

I'm hoping to review many more Korean films for and I'll be posting links here as I do.