Friday, March 19, 2010

My Noonchi is Broken



From Wikipedia:

"Nunchi refers to a concept in Korean culture, described as "the subtle art of listening and gauging another's mood". [1] It is of central importance to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships in Korean culture. Nunchi is literally translated as "eye-measure". It is closely related to the broader concept of paralanguage, however nunchi also relies on an understanding of one's status relative to the person with whom they're interacting. It can be seen as the embodiment of skills necessary to communicate effectively in Korea's high context culture."

I guess we have this in Canada, too – only there the need for its employ, or at least the open encouragement and acknowledgement of it is far less pervasive in day-to-day life there as it is here.

As Malcolm Gladwell could tell you in a far more entertaining way, life here in Korea, under a still-clinging Confucian societal structure, pretty much requires good nunchi in most situations. This is especially true in the workplace where the structure can be even less malleable than it is on the street. “Culture Shock” books and I think even the Lonely Planet describe Koreans as being incredibly aware of the concept of “saving face.” It is said that they want to avoid arguments at all costs.

I suppose this is true, but I’ve also seen the opposite – confrontational being the most common and most recognizable character trait in Korean women over the age of 40, and certainly over the age of 60. Anyway, in a culture where people are supposedly trying to avoid arguments at all costs, you can easily see why good noonchi (and I'm going to spell it this way so you know how it sounds) is a desirable asset. Rather than ask your boss an important question to clear-up expectations or deadlines, why not just “read his mind”? This appears to be the point of the thing, but you can see how it often ends in complete disaster.

Noonchi, however, can also serve a purpose, and I have been able to harness its undeniable powers with increasing regularity – especially in the realm of conversing with Koreans with minimal English skills (my less-than-minimal Korean skills being a given).

You know, it’s ironic that I’m writing this after such a great noonchi episode just last night – at dinner with Choi Yong (one of my school's PE teachers) and his family. There, we spent time over dinner at a restaurant and back at the apartment with his wife and two young girls and we had a great time – both parties crossing a million bridges to meet in the middle and communicate, and both parties feeling comfortable enough to intuit, and to make mistakes that we know would be forgiven with a laugh.

And yet, how quickly things can turn.

Let me back-up a bit. Last year, sometime in the Spring, it was raining on a Thursday afternoon. A fellow English teacher approached me and asked if I wanted to accompany her and some other teachers from my school for dinner and maekoli (Korean rice wine). She called this “Maekoli Thursday” – saying that it was a tradition going back decades in our middle school – whenever it rained on Thursday, it was Meakoli time. What a great tradition!

It turns out that it wasn’t a tradition at all – just a fun excuse that day for a good time with friends after a stressful day at work. We ate, drank, and then went to a norae-bang (“singing room” or Karaoke) for about an hour, where I was serenaded by K-pop songs, and I busted-out some Neil Diamond. I also took some pictures.

It’s one of the photos that I took that night that ended-up being the lynch pin in my noonchi downfall almost one year later. Before I write anything else. I’ll post the photo here – just to put it all into context:



So… what I see here are two of my favourite teachers having a great time singing-along to a K-pop song. Norae-bang is a favoured pastime among many Koreans – from upper-elementary students, to our own school principals who regularly hog the mic at company functions to blast-out favourites from the old days. Understand also that norae-bangs here in Seoul are as plentiful as bakeries – if you’ve ever spent time in modern Seoul, that means an average of 3 for every five city blocks in a populated area, and that is not an exaggeration. People need them some singing, and it’s usually after some hard drinking. It’s not a stereotype if it’s true, and there's a norae-bang just around your corner.

The problem comes in when a group of students see this photo. How do they see it? - - In my class during a powerpoint presentation. During a simple language lesson for my grade 2 middle school students, I wanted them to guess at some examples of hobbies that some people might have. It’s usually a useful and a fun thing to use photos of people the students will know. I’ve also been encouraged to videotape teachers in the past – answering what they want most for Christmas etc., as well as to involve students in my class in similar ways – through video and photos. Kids LOVE seeing themselves, and they love seeing the staff even more.

In this particular slideshow, there was a photo of myself on a bike by the Han River with the accompanying caption: “He likes riding a bike,” there was one of our PE teachers at a bowling alley – “They like bowling”, and there was the one you see above – “They like singing.” Believe me when I say that EVERYBODY here goes to Norae-bang – it’s essential to my story, like Old Marley being as dead as a doornail.
Anyway, as expected, the students break-up at each picture as it’s unveiled. They love it, and it injects some energy into the class.

The trouble comes a few days later when one of the teachers in the photo suddenly replaces her usual friendly smile greeting with the stink eye. When I asked her what was wrong, she simply said through what seemed to be a joking frown: “The photo of me singing…” I laughed, she frowned. I thought it was a joke.

The week went on, more students attended the lesson, and that was that. Until tonight, when we happened to go to the same restaurant for the first time since our fateful, norae-bang-filled Maekoli Thursday.

It was here that I learned just how big a mistake it had been to use this photo in the slideshow. The teacher in question was now relaying the story to the other teachers present, and she was doing so with a great deal of vinegar, and not a little amount of piss to go along with it.

I know enough Korean and I’m fluent enough in body language to understand when I’m being crapped-on, but it was confirmed when an English teacher told me: “She’s really mad at you.” Ummm… yeah, apparently.

It would be easy to continue this play-by-play, but it would also suffice to say that the evening went successively poorly. For what probably took no more than two minutes though it felt like a lifetime, I was the subject of scorn in another language while seated at a table with co-workers who were all nodding. Apparently, this norae-bang exposure ain’t no laughing matter. The teacher in question was upset because her homeroom students who had seen the photo, had been ribbing her about it. She felt ashamed and that she was starting to lose respect from her students.

I’m sorry, but I’m just going to have to step-in her for a second and call bull-shit. When students get you by the short-and-curlies with something they can leverage against you for a laugh – you have to treat it like Alex Rodriguez on a tip-off concerning steroid use – get in front of it, admit it, and move-on. Seriously, it could have taken a 10 second retort to diffuse the power and then move on to being a hard-ass teacher. Kids this age, contrary to popular belief, aren’t stupid. They are aware that their teachers have a life outside of school, and they are aware that their teachers are likely to do the things their own parents likely do at least once a month – sing their asses off in a norae-bang.

Anyway, the wounded teacher, who had been embarrassed by the photo, and then by her children, was laying it all out on the table before dinner – boom, with the weight of a phonebook. Stupefied, I ended-up apologizing again, this time in front of everyone, all the while knowing that A) none of the other teachers who had photos in the slideshow, and who knew about it, were anything approaching embarrassed (well, they might have just been trying to save face), and B) I was in a difficult spot. As maybe half of the teachers present at dinner had decent English abilities, the other half was only able to hear one wildly emotional and gesticulating side of the story, while I was simply left shocked, red-faced, and apologizing. They must have thought I managed to get a nude shot up on my classroom screen.

The thing that sucks the most is that this public tribunal really took my noonchi away from me. I guess you could argue that it was gone already by the time I first noticed the teacher’s displeasure with my act, or even before that – when the actual posting and showing took place. But what mattered to me tonight is that I sat there, surrounded by a foreign language that was no completely unavailable to me. I was sans noonchi, and for someone who relies on it in my daily life, I was screwed.

Honestly, if the conversation is controlled, and I’m given a 10-15% explanation of what’s going on, I can follow most Korean conversations in context – even if I can’t participate in the conversation in the way I’d like to. Tonight – nothing.

Having his noonchi unceremoniously stripped-away from him so suddenly and publicly can really leave a guy down in the dumps – and that’s where I sat for about an hour and a half while conversations and laughter rolled around me and I was left sitting there feeling exponentially sorry for myself. Being aware of, and internalizing the obvious surface alienation I feel at the best of times here, was really the wrong thing to do. It’s very easy to exile yourself from participation in a foreign culture if you’ve lost your enthusiasm to cross that divide. Lesson learned – or I’d like to say lesson learned, but I don’t know if that’s true. Perhaps it just means asking for permission before I show a photo of a teacher to our school’s students – even if it’s one of a teacher doing something fun, harmless, and of the norm. When noonchi is broken, it’s really tough to make much sense of this situation at all.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How dry I am

A long-ish day at work today - it's tough when you are repeating your "Introduction to Teacher Dave" lesson for the 13th time in a week, and while the new grade 1 students are hearing my jokes and witty references for the first time, my co-teachers are hearing it for the 5th and 6th time in some cases. When they tune-out, I want to remind them that feigning enthusiasm for my obvious ESL wit is key by the time Thursday rolls around. Without my co-teachers on-board, it can be a struggle.

Another things that's a struggle for me the last few days has been my eyes. They are dry as hell. I wonder if my tear ducts have simply closed-up shop. I can just feel dry flesh on the insides of my eyelids, rubbing against my already dried-out eyeballs. It's a pain in the ass - or the eyes, as it were. Good thing I made it out to Choi Yong's family's house for dinner tonight. Photos to follow. It feels like dining with family when I'm there, and they didn't seem to mind my excessive blinking.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I Want to Buy a Bike



I live in a cool apartment. I really do. While there are a few things less-than-perfect about living here and doing what I'm doing, there's a great deal to be said about the positives. Every American I speak to, while they aren't presumably being hassled by angry male Korean hikers at subway stops, are telling me that they've been back home and there just isn't a better situation that they'll find here in Seoul.

Of course, that's not true for everyone, but one particular guy I spoke with today was convinced that he'll be here for a while. He's got a government job. He lives in my building (so you know he's got a cool apartment), and he likes teaching his Elementary School kids. "It's easy," he says. This particular gentleman did previously spend 2 years with the Peace Corps in fairly challenging conditions in the Ukraine, so I can see why the ease and the quality of life that it can bring about here in Korea would seem appealing in the long term.

True enough. And while the "ease" of certain aspects of life can drive me batty, there are things that I know I'd be crazy to give-up. With an impending move to Canada to finish my teaching degree - a thing that some people I know say is an achievement 34 years in the making, and which I know is a necessary thing for my future happiness and sense of fulfillment - I begin to ponder what I will miss about "life" here.

To be completely honest, aside from the people I love, my apartment is likely number one on the list. I dig on the city and all that, I really do, but my apartment makes living in this city that much better. As a friend here who recently upgraded his living conditions knows, wanting to come home at the end of the day (as opposed to staying at school until 9PM nightly so as to avoid your cell-sized bachelor pad) can really change your outlook.

I live way up North. There's no Starbucks nearby (which is a relative rarity here in Seoul), but there is everything I need within immediate walking distance. Also within walking distance is the Jungnangcheon - not quite a river, but certainly larger than a stream, which leads straight down to the Han River. It's under 5 minutes away from my front door. The bike pathways are clean, clear, and they make sense.

What I'm trying to say is - I'd be crazy not to buy a bike. A friend of mine recently made a bike journey with a friend - all the way to Busan, which is on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. This he did on a Lespo Grasshopper, which you can see just below. It looks like a solid ride, and it was perfect for the journey, which looked rather cold, by the way.

It's an option, but another one I'm considering is the little guy you saw at the top of the post. I've seen a few of these around and though they look like they wouldn't be able to get you over a small pebble, for flat terrain (which the river pathways obviously are) they are a very good option for those of us with small if ultra-cool apartments. The wheel to main sprocket size ratio is what makes the wheel size otherwise irrelevant in terms of speed - no, it won't get me to the cruising speed of a regular-sized bike, but pretty close. I'm really thinking about this, and I'm going to likely be making the purchase sometime in the next month. It's an investment. It gets me out, and it would fit in a little cubby-hole right here at home. Best of all, when I need to go back to Canada for school, this little guy would be coming with me without question, so I don't look at this as a short-term investment.

Anyway, I'll report back when I've got more of a solid plan. We'll see what fits the budget, and which one will fit my long-ass legs. I'm looking forward to a good ride - I might even take it to school and save on commuting costs. Nice. If you'd like to check-out more, go to www.strida.com - if the cost doesn't seem justified, there are cheaper options. We shall see.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Remembering the Little People


They really are. It's a combination of late Winter / early Spring lack of general humidity here in Seoul, as well as wacky heater behavior in the classroom. It makes updating this blog a bit of a chore tonight, but I figured that since I got my mom all worked-up about being attacked in Seoul by angry American-hating mountain climbing men in their '50s, I should be fair to her and also post some photos of what I had done and where I had gone earlier that day.

Got on a long bus to Anseong, a city south of Suwon to visit some of Seong-Sook's middle-school friends - a practice that impresses me about most Koreans. It seems that the rolo-dex of life is full-to-overflowing here - you never meet someone that you don't stay in touch with - even if it's only once a year. They would make my facebook list pale in comparison.

In this case, Seong-Sook keeps in touch with this particular group of ladies at least once every two months - even if it means getting on a bus from a busy Seoul terminal, just so that coffee and conversation can be had between old friends.

It was nice to be included, and it was good for me to experience more of what Seong-Sook experiences when she joins me on evening's out with my friends. It's easy to feel foolish when at times you can't understand the simplest of questions in another language, and its easy to be overwhelmed by that feeling, but it's rewarding when both sides make an attempt.

When language failed me on Saturday, there were plenty of kids for me to connect with, too. With them, language was kind of beside the point. Little people, after the briefest of introductions, who are comfortable enough to jump up, throw their arms around me and squish their faces against mine are my kind of little people.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Happenings on a Subway


You'd think it would be impossible for so much found story to occur on one broken subway ride, but it can.

I’m taking the number 1 subway line north to my place tonight – a line that factors-in as my friend, Douglas’ least favourite for reasons which I shall not get into here, except to reveal that he much prefers the green #2 line because of its prescribed route through not one, but two of the city’s most prestigious women’s universities and the resulting eye-candy that accompanies such a trip.

A reason that I like the number 1 line is that my apartment building is built about 50 feet from an entrance to Banghak Station on the line in question. A reason I don’t like it is that the line seems to have the most randomly problematic tendency to stop while part-way through its journey: Apparently on a whim, towards the end of the night, the train will just stop, everyone will sigh, and everyone will get off and wait for the next train. This is accompanied by a preceding announcement (sometimes in English, Japanese, and Mandarin, and always in Korean) that “this is the last stop”. We all wait for the next train, hoping that it will be one that goes at least far enough for us to get off at our preferred destination.

This happened 3 times for me tonight. The train, which had been announced as going to a station well past my Banghak Station, stopped at a station about 8 stops before. Everyone got off. The next train along also promised a return home. We all got on. It went nowhere. There was an announcement stating, among other things, that the driver was sorry for the confusion. This would happen one more time before I actually boarded a train heading far enough North for me.

It was while I was reading a book, waiting for this second wayward train that I was approached. There were many people on the platform waiting for a train to actually go somewhere, so I was relatively surrounded when this man – maybe in his 50’s – fairly tall and decked-out in the finest “Black Yak” hiking gear - started pulling at my jacket sleeve – quite purposefully. From what I could make-out, he was angry with me. The few Korean words I did make-out told me that he thought I was a 미국사람 (an American), and that he apparently thought I was scum. I’m not interpreting wrongly, unless I’m wrongly interpreting his mistaken naming of my country of birth, his spitting at the ground near my feet, and the rather forceful and repeated downward gesture of his thumb in my face. Within seconds, it seemed to me that everyone around us was staring in my direction.

If you know me, you’ll know that I blush more easily than most. It happens almost on cue – in any situation where I allow my brain enough time to calculate the reality or even the promise of impending humiliation. I can go from zero to tomato in under three seconds, and that’s being generous. It’s gotten to the point that I don’t even need to think about humiliation, so much as an imagined instance of “all eyes on me”. There it is, and there I go. I was once called-out as an example by a theatre director after a dress rehearsal for being “the only one in the cast with stage make-up that looked like it had been professionally applied.” Of course, I had no make-up on at all – I was just stressed about the expectedly shabby practice run and my resulting rosey cheeks made me look like a properly painted board-trotter. Good for me.

So, while I was undoubtedly red-faced from this subway platform tirade, I somehow found the wherewithal to respond, properly, in Korean. I was able to say, “Ajushi – waegrae? Canada saram imnida” which roughly means “Mister – what’s wrong with you? I am a Canadian.”

Though the stress I felt at the moment, blurs the moment in memory all-together, I do remember two things that instantly buoyed my mood – the laughter of those around me, which I can only assume was in-line with the surprise of a jack-ass racist having egg on his face after receiving a coherent retort in his own language, and the nice man beside me who could only repeat the word “sorry” – in apology for his countryman who had chosen that moment to misplace his anger at the US – or at foreigners in general.

Whatever – despite the probable red face, I went back to my book. Again, I was tapped on the arm, but this time by a young lady who identified herself as being from the Philippines. She had seen the incident and I’m sure was doing her best, as a fellow foreigner, to make me feel better. Turns-out she was a missionary, and she had a couple of fellow missionaries with her. We had a nice conversation until her train came along. She remarked that I was actually lucky because people like herself, and other Southeast Asians do have a harder time here in Korea in general.

She’s absolutely right. I do recognize that, aside from the odd Yankee-baiting Korean, I as a white foreigner am generally afforded a certain level of automatic respect in this country that people like herself are generally not. Regardless, after this unfortunate confrontation with the hiker who likely was fueled by too much Maekoli (Korean rice wine), I was having a pleasant and friendly moment with three Phillippino women, surrounded by the collective energy of apology from all (or I can least assume most of) the Koreans who surrounded me on the platform, and these missionaries didn’t seem to either notice or care that I, until the interruption, had been engrossed Mr. Christopher Hitchens’ “god is not GREAT: How Religion Poisons Everything” and I didn’t seem to care, though I did notice, that they were missionaries – we were just four people finding a common experience of being foreigners in a country that isn’t always as welcoming as you’d hope, but is far more often than reported.

Once on the train, about two stops further on, as if on cue, four Miguk Saram (Americans) did get onto the train. They were hammered, and they were loud. One decided to put his headphones on the ears of an older man who was standing nearby.

“I am from Texas” he said in a slow and deliberate voice. “I am an American – AMERICAN.” “This is Jimmy Hendrix.”
“Ahhhhhh… I think I lost my fucking phone!” said another.

They weren’t being unkind, the old man seemed to enjoy their forwardness, and they weren’t causing a problem, but they carried themselves with an obvious swagger. I’ll even call it an outward sense of entitlement.

I wondered what our confrontational hiking friend would have said had he been here in this moment, if it would have served to reinforce a stereotype, or if he would have said anything at all.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Favourite Films of 2009


Living here in Korea, I don't get to see all the movies I would otherwise have access to back home. While street vendors throughout the city have thousands of illegally pirated DVDs for sale the the passers-by, and this (aside from bit-torrents) is often the only way to see these films, I have a hard time justifying their purchase, which isn't to say that I haven't given-in from time to time. Sometimes a guy needs some P.T. Anderson magic.

Back home, in an average year, I would get out to the movie theatres on an average of once every two weeks - more if I could make it happen. Here, not as much. Though the movie-going experience here in Korea is one I wish we could duplicate back home, in the theatres it's often tough to find anything beyond the blockbusters from overseas. That is improving, but unless something gets Academy Awards recognition, it's unlikely it will make it into cinemas over here on the peninsula.

Anyway, despite the challenges, there are still enough reasons to go the the cinema at least once a month here in Korea. Here, you can not only buy your tickets in advance, but you can choose your seats at the point of purchase as well - a week in advance if need be. It was such a pain in the ass to have to run into the line-up for Avatar hours in advance back home in Calgary just to get a decent seat, when back in Seoul, you can wander into your glorious middle-center seats minutes before the trailers begin on a sold-out show.

Being here, I also get the chance to see some really good Korean cinema. More theatres are offering to play Korean first-run films with English subtitles and the experiment seems to be working. I for one am grateful for the effort. There's a lot to be learned about a country and its film-going public from its cinema. While not Korean film has impressed me much (Take-off!, and The Sword with no Name to name a couple), there have been others that impress with their earnestness and inventiveness (Private Eye and My Love Beside Me for example. Two Korean films have made it onto my top ten list. Should you get a chance, I would highly recommend seeing them both.

I didn't get around to writing full reviews for all of these, so here, with a short note, are my top 10 films of 2009.

1) Up in the Air
- My favourite movie of the year. It spoke to me at the right time in the right way. I like a movie that can be as charming as hell, and then take my feet out from under me.

2) Inglourious Basterds - This felt endlessly inventive to me. Incredible performances. The ending went off the rails a bit, but the ride is worth it. Best writing of the year.

3) Mother - a gem of a murder Mystery from South Korea - also featuring the most harrowing female performance I have seen since Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. Pointed and painful stuff.

4) Up - What a weird idea this was. And it all worked. Pixar rarely misfires, but their best always breaks my heart. This one sure did, and Kevin the bird is a hoot.

5) District 9 - This movie kicks all kinds of ass. It's as inventive as people first said it was and as everyone is now saying it's not. Brutal sci-fi with something to say.

6) Avatar - Don't let the back-lash get to you. Yes the dialogue can be dodgy, but this was clearly the most thrilling movie experience of the year. I fell for a giant blue girl.

7) Thirst
- Park Chan-Wook's strangest movie yet, and a marked departure from his popular revenge trilogy. Vampires and sex from the mind that brought Oldboy to the screen.

8) The Road
- Not as brave or as stark as the book on which it's based, but how could it be? Viggo Mortensen deserved at least a nomination for his work here. An important movie.

9) Star Trek - They did it! Star Trek is cool again. All it took was J.J. Abrams and The Beastie Boys. Too bad about that shameful new Spock / Old Spock scene though.

10) Moon - I thought this would be one of my favourites of the year, and it's at number 10. Sam Rockwell is always someone to watch, and now there's Duncan Jones. I didn't have this one figured out until the last 15 minutes. I'm still not so sure.

Key films I didn't see that I expect I would have liked:
Precious, The Hurt Locker, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, A Single Man, Invictus, Food Inc., The Princess & the Frog, The Messenger, A Single Man, The Hangover

Films I expected to love but I was more luke-warm about:
Where the Wild Things Are, Crazy Heart, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, An Education

Films that I respected, but I couldn't make-up my mind about:
The White Ribbon, A Serious Man

Oh, and by the way - the trailer for Iron Man 2 looks grand. There's a franchise that can't go wrong.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Passing it on


A little birdie gave me a very good time-saving piece of advice a while back. I've employed it in recent weeks - slowly and gradually implemented it actually - and it's a good one.

As one of many who have come to rely on facebook as much as I rely on email or a cell-phone, it's become not just habit, but part of maintaining necessary contact throughout the day. Even here in Korea - fellow teachers I know and love might send me something useful through a facebook message, or require assistance or advice through the same medium. In short, it's become something that people expect you to check on a regular basis. If you don't, you miss out, and perhaps sadly this is habit-forming.

One of the things that really kills time om facebook though is the news-feed. With facebook, I've always considered that my friend list is more accurately a list of people I've encountered in my life, as opposed to actual "friends" in all cases. Therefore, I don't delete as a general rule - even if I've completely lost touch with that person. Problem is that my former theatre life, and now traveling and working abroad life brings me to meeting and often adding many new people each year.

If your "friend list" on facebook exceeds 500, as is my case among many, clicking on "home" to check-out the news feed can be a true black-hole of time-suckage. Clicking on "most recent" to discover 300+ postings from people on this list is a mistake I've too often made. Then there goes the day.

I know that the whole point of the thing to to keep in touch, but honestly, unless you're Superman returning, or Morgan Freeman in the Almighty films, there's little need to know about everybody's updates. I certainly don't expect the dude I last saw in grade 6 to care about my new photo album from my visit home, or expect him to know that I was even in Korea in the first place.

If you're like me - curious, but more interested in saving time - don't be tempted by people's postings. Go through your news feed for a couple of weeks and "hide" people. Move your mousey to the right, uncover the "hide" button, and click it. There are people you want to hear from daily - even if their postings aren't directly meant for you, and there are others who have found too many little black sheep wandering into their farmvilles. I'm done with that. It doesn't mean you've deleted them, you just don't have them screaming in your face about helping them with their Mafia War each time you log-in.

There ya go. Time-saver for you. Of course, I'm probably way late to this discovery, and have likely been hidden by most of my friends anyway. It's good to be in the know.

Those posters


I bought a couple of English posters for my "English Only" classroom while I was in Calgary last month. I headed into Scholar's Choice and was looking for anything really to add a little something to my classroom walls.

I'm not ordinarily a fan of the classic motivational posters that were once the rage in the modern office setting, though I am a fan of stuff like the poster above.

Being an ESL teacher, I am also a fan of posters that use simple language to state a sometimes complex theme. In addition to a poster that tells my students to turn their cell-phones off, and another that suggests 10 ways to keep trying in a manner not unlike the rules to Fight Club, I picked-up a couple that, while admittedly cheesy to you or I, somehow fit perfectly in my classroom.

One shows a young lad in sepia tones in a ballpark with a sideways cap carrying a baseball glove and bat slung over his shoulder - hobo-style. It reads: "The expert in anything was once a beginner." Very true, and fitting for those faced with learning a new language.

The second reads: "You can always be a better person today than the one you were yesterday."

Turns out that I was a better person today than I was yesterday. Although I prefer the less egocentric way and would say that I had a better day today than I did yesterday. All it really took was for my co-workers to recover from the madness of the first couple of days back at school to answer a couple of key questions I had about my schedule and the classes I am to teach this year.

My job is simple enough if I find a simple way to lay out the big picture. Last year, far more time than I care to recall was wasted on stress-causing wheel reinvention and most of it was my doing. I also have a tendency to fight myself and (to a lesser extent) others in an attempt to turn my roll here into something it was never meant to be, and never will be. It's time to take a step back, look at the semester as a whole, and make smarter choices.

Today was a marked difference from my first two days back, in that I feel like I've got a legitimate plan, my co-workers answered the call to be in on the plan, and this is really a hell of a lot easier than I made it out to be. I'm sure I'll have frustrations in the near future with this job, but for now, I foresee a semester of not taking my work home with me. It's all about placing your efforts where the desired result is actually attainable. Having a year under my belt helps me figure-out the difference.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Golden Goal


Well, here I am up early again. Got to bed at 9 because I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, but up again at 5:30. It’s not such a bad thing, actually. I don’t mind starting my day gradually. It increases the chances of me boarding the bus for the morning commute with a smile on my face.

It also gave me a chance to download and watch highlights of Canada’s gold medal game from itunes. Watching those moments again was a great way to get my heart started in the early AM.

As I mentioned to others before, I ended-up watching the gold medal game here in Korea – alone. It wasn’t so bad. I’m sure there may have been a bar somewhere in Seoul playing it live, but I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything. Some of my most intense hockey-watching moments have been while I was alone, or unable to watch in a traditional way. Sometimes it’s been on the winning side (Gelinas’ game 7 winner over Vancouver in 2004 while I was in the counting-room volunteering for a casino. I heard the crowd roar), and sometimes it’s been on the losing end (staring blankly at the TV as some Russian Maple Leaf ended the Red Wings’ playoff run in 1993).

Anyway, this was awesome. I sat wearing my Team Canada Yzerman jersey with my HBC Team Canada scarf around my neck. I sat there from 5:00 AM until shortly after 8 when Crosby scored – pretty much unable to move. Each goal: first Toews, then Perry, brought a shortened yell from me – I’m sure that I woke some neighbours. USA’s first deflected goal was a bad omen, but worse was when we hit the post twice and then Crosby didn’t convert on the break-away in the 3rd. When Parise scored to tie it up, I was prepared for the worst.

One of my favourite chapters in any book I have read is in Alex Garland’s “The Beach” when he talks about how people react at the moment of death. He compares it to how video game players respond when their on-screen character dies (using Street Fighter characters as a direct example). It’s pretty revealing stuff. Some people throw their controller across the room, others swear, others just take it.

Watching hockey, I guess I’m one of those “just take it” guys. Watching time run out on the Flames in 2004, or even watching the Krushelniski shot sail over Vernon’s glove in the first round in 1990, I just kind of sit there, staring. That’s how it was with Parise’s goal. There’s no use getting angry. It’s done. I’m disappointed. It feels like a death – albeit a temporary one.

Truly, I expected the US to win at that point. Neidermeyer’s give-away to Pavelski in overtime was going to be it for me. How sad that would have been to have had the captain cough it up at that moment. I keep imagining the ways in which it could have gone. Had we lost – all of the questions: Why didn’t we play Fleury (the winningest big game goalie in the last two years) in net when it was clear that Luongo was shakey? Why did Crosby fade down the stretch? Why did Yzerman go with Pronger when it was clear that someone with Green’s offensive abilities would have helped? Thankfully, it ended a different way.

The thing is, I just didn’t expect it to. I was watching along with all of Calgary, and apparently all of Canada, in game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2004, when the Flames were expected to win the cup here in Calgary. I had friends fly to the game from Toronto to see it, only to be disappointed by St. Louis’ goal in double overtime. All that expectation. All of that party just waiting to explode. Never happened. Looking back to a couple of nights ago, I can’t imagine the pall of sadness had the US won. Vancouver might have gone dark. I know I’m not exaggerating. This was the last event after an excellent week for the Canadian team, but had we lost the gold in Men’s hockey, well, not only would we have been reading about it for weeks on end, people would have been deflated. The city was noticeably deadened after the loss to the US in the preliminaries. Just imagine if they had lost in the final game.

It’s a funny thing what sport does to us. I wasn’t in Vancouver for the games, but I watched the majority of them from home with my family. We cheered for sports we don’t normally know or give a shit about, and in some ways, it does bring the country together. It also has the opportunity to bring different countries together. I loved the chanting for “U-S-A!” by Canadian fans and US fans alike after both gold medal games. I loved the show of support for the Georgian team, or what was left of it after the tragedy, and I loved watching those in or outside of the winner’s circle embrace each other in support after many events. It sounds like Vancouver had a spirit similar to Calgary in ’88, only on a much larger scale. Today’s media makes things so much more readily available.

I know it’s just sport, but the “spirit” of the games, the collective feeling of people in or focused on Vancouver made me all proud to be Canadian. I had absolutely no shame when, after the game ended, I donned my jersey over my jacket, put on my scarf and Mukmuk hat, and then met my friends in downtown Seoul. I had a few people smiling at me – likely thinking I was a huge tool, but some gave me a smile that seemed to say that they knew Canada had done well. The guy behind the counter at my Family Mart said “Canada, number 3, Korea number 5. Today, Canada number 1!” On the subway, a shy group of students wanted their photo taken with me and we had a chat about Kim Yu-na, Korea’s gold medal figure skater, and her Canadian “Orser coach.” I know that there will likely never be another time for me to wear such obvious symbols of National pride in another country, so I enjoyed it for all it was worth. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be at the game, and then to spill onto the streets in Vancouver.

Watching the Olympics – mostly with family – was honestly one of the highlights of my trip home. I’ve always been interested in watching them more than the summer games. It must be due to where I was born. Canada certainly has more investment in the games, and the addition of NHL players in 1998 certainly helped me become more interested. There’s something really comfortable to me about being able to sit in a cozy house with family, this time even with a fire going and a sweet puppy by my feet, and watch Brian Williams cover the Olympics. Like most, I was questioning the point of the games after the Georgian luger crashed, and like most, I eventually got t the point where I was glad the games went on. I know it’s a more complex issue than that, but it’s funny how quickly I can have such a strong opinion on something I know very little about, yet feel deeply as anyone. I was for cancelling the sliding events all-together. But, there’s more to it than that.
I also took issue with the “Own the Podium” sponsorship. In the end the sponsorship was successful, but the name is a mistake, as was the giving of an actual number for the medal count goal. It just isn’t my style.

Similarly, I know that I reacted strongly to the uneven competition in women’s hockey. I know I’m not completely off-base in feeling that the US and Canada out-scoring their opponents by a ridiculous margin for four Olympics in a row is not good for the sport (IOC President Jacques Rogge expressed similar concerns after the women’s gold medal game), but I also see there’s another side to it. I hope the ladies’ game grows internationally, but I question the effectiveness of such continued lop-sided drubbings in an international competition. Time will tell and all that. Still, it was good to see the Canadian women win gold over their arch-rivals, even if I have much less investment in the event than I do in the men’s game, with all of the players I know and love or hate.

Speaking of which, while I empathize with Ryan Miller (who was a humble class-act throughout the games), it’s tough for me to feel bad for some of the others on the US squad. Canada’s team wasn’t perfect either. I’m sure that Pronger and Heatley to name a few aren’t going to win any personality contests. But, after watching more than a few interviews with Kane, Kesler, and Backes during and after the tournament – talking trash about Canadians on home ice, swearing “revenge”, and giving little to no credit to the Canadian team for winning (an automatic – “they deserve credit for not giving into the pressure” was in order for somebody on the US side), I don’t really feel bad for them at all.

Today I was watching a highlight reel on NHL.com about David Backes, who apparently initiated in-game fights with the elite Canadian talent on nearly every team he faced leading up to the Olympics, including Toews, Perry, and (big mistake) Rick Nash. There was even a fan article entitled “Backes Dismanteling Canadian Team... with his Fists!” I know that competition can breed animosity, but this was just classless, as was Backes’ play against the lesser teams in the preliminaries – boarding guys head-first, leaving his feet, and obvious attempts to injure in games that were already out of reach. Glad to see that Backes’ plan ended up with him snivelling with a Silver medal around his neck. What a joke. I would have liked to have seen him try that shit with Iggy.

Let them swear all the “revenge” they want. Canada wasn’t perfect, but the better and classier team was certainly the victor in this case. Yzerman, Crosby, Iginla and others were the epitome of patience and class. I’m sure they would have been had the result been the other way as well. It’s good to have a new insanely intense rivalry in international hockey again. It was the crowning moment of the Olympics for many, and it says something about the sport bringing Canadians together on a scale seldom seen. I read a very accurate description about the Parise goal – “driving a temporary stake into the hearts of Canadians.” To a sports fan, that’s how it felt. And we’ve been on the other side too. Just an awesome feeling this year. I’m sure it’s a feeling never to be repeated on such a scale of national attention. The US can have its dream team for summer Olympic basketball. We'll take this.

Sleepy in Seoul

Updates are coming - I promise. I got back to Seoul at around 6:30am after the mistake of traveling through LAX on a red-eye flight. Just so you know, if in the future you have a choice to travel through Vancouver or LA on the way to Seoul, choose Vancouver. For one thing, you won't have to stand in an extremely long line having all of your stuff searched through (new US flight safety procedures), you won't have to deal with no access to free internet, and you won't have to deal with the agony of being in LA for too short a time to visit Disneyland. I still have this same nightmare, and this past weekend, I lived it.
Lots to chat about, I guess. I'm back from a great visit with family, the Olympics were awesome, and I started back to school today. I would like to say more, but at the moment, my lids are heavy and I'm ready for sleep. It may have something to do with me being already jet-lagged from a 15+ hour flight with no sleep, and then waking at 2:30am days later to get ready to watch the gold medal game in men's hockey.
Can't say it wasn't worth it, but I'll save the comments for later.
Steve Yzerman, I know you would have liked Green and could've done without Pronger and Bergeron, but you did enough. Class-act, buddy. Thanks for putting that last gold together.
A real update soon.