Wednesday, November 25, 2009


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.


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."