Friday, May 28, 2010

Oh, boy...

Well… CNN and BBC reports have been interesting of late. I’ve been busy, too. A couple of reasons for not having updated sooner. Work hours have somehow found a way to increase, and though I am pleased with my new essay class, the roughly 6-8 hours of editing that the class comes with, is somehow not factored-in to my teaching time. It’s the little things like this that remind me that hagwon life wasn’t all terrible – at least we got paid for that, or did until others had their way.

I suppose it would be a moot point to mention that work has again gotten me down of late. The business of my life: After-school classes 3 days a week, Korean classes an hour away every Tuesday and Thursday night, and trips out of town almost every weekend have made the situation worse than it needs to be to be sure – I bring my tiredness to the table, and when the table consists of my regular classes with the lethargy of the students, and the apathy of my co-teachers, it’s a breeding ground for resentment and mediocrity.

After a particularly frustrating class of low level students who simply did not pay attention, even to the simplest demonstrated instruction, I asked my two (count them: two) co-teachers who had during the class been as hands-off as you could possible be, how they felt during their regular classes with these students. Did they feel that the students were making progress? Did they feel like they were getting through? Their answer was to laugh (for a good 10 seconds) at my apparent naïveté – “Oh, no… our main job is to keep them quite and discipline them.” Two things which I must say, they can’t seem to find the time to do in my classroom.


Honestly, some kids just aren’t going to learn a second language – if they are now in the Canadian equivalent of grade 8, and they can’t read the word “boy”, chance are that 4 more years of being forced into the same situation where they begin, exist and end their school English career as failures, isn’t going to do much for their self-esteem, or for their ability and confidence in other areas of academics.

Anyway, remarkable, I suppose that I still find this struggle important considering all that’s been going on here on the good ol’ Korean peninsula over the past month or so. Chances are, if you’ve read the news lately, you’ll know that a South Korean military vessel was hit with an explosive and destroyed – killing 46 young South Korean sailors. Just over a week ago, an international investigation team recovered the ship and the parts of the torpedo that allegedly took the ship down. It was announced that the torpedo came form North Korea.

Without getting into the specifics, which can be read elsewhere, this is merely the latest flare-up between the two Koreas. The simplified version is this: North Korea is falling apart and has been for years. Every time they require more international aid to feed their populace, or more likely their military, they do something zany – like develop a nuclear weapon, test long-range missiles, or torpedo a ship. It’s a strange way to get attention.

Anyway, I was here for the underground nuclear tests in 2007. While emails came from back home wondering if we were nervous, I was surprised to note that most of the locals were not – so why should I be?

Well, this time it feels a bit different for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on. The talk of war has been prevalent in the local and international news, and South Koreans are pissed that 46 of their young men have been killed by North Koreans who seem to treat incidents like this as opportunities to galvanize their brainwashed populace into believing the world is out to get them, and that it’s high time to get back to the goose-stepping military parades that show the world who the top dog is. It is the country that the end of the Cold War forgot.

I’m no politician, but it looks as though the South has had enough. Their government is getting even more hard-line with the North, and the US has re-stated its commitment to its defense of the South. Now, the world waits to see if China will remove its head from its ass and condemn the actions by the North. Historically, they have not.

In the meantime, I ponder the immediacy of it all. A Korean friend, when commenting on the threat, noted that the North has thousands of warheads pointed at Seoul, and has for decades – in increasing number – the better to impose their will when it comes to negotiating for aid. My friend told me that after a launch, we would have less than one hour before Seoul is no more – or as Li’l Kim, himself, puts it – Seoul will be a “sea of fire.”

So – despite the fact that the Canadian government has not put a travel advisory on South Korea yet, they have been reminding people through embassy websites of what to do in case of a needed evacuation. This includes registering with the Canadian Embassy, which I will do today. This way, in case Harper’s government decides it’s important enough to get me out, I will be notified and accounted for. Also, I am to pack an “emergency bag” – including all important documents (passport etc.), 3 days worth of non-perishable food, extra clothes, a road map of my area, a flash-light, short-wave radio and list of American Forces Network frequencies, extra batteries, medication, etc.

So, I see it like this. If the North goes all nuclear hell-fire, none of this matters as it will be sudden and un-announced, and unless I have a lead-lined ‘50s era refrigerator in my emergency kit, I won’t be making any Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull escapes.

If other lesser warheads fly my way and my Northern Seoul apartment doesn’t come-down, I can presumably, with my emergency pack, make my way through the rubble of war towards some safe beacon like in a Cormac McCarthy novel, and eat peanut butter, beans, and tuna fish along the way.


It’s out of my hands. Also, I’m not leaving. I have someone here I wouldn’t want to leave behind in any evacuation. It’s a wild and crazy world, and there’s one especially wild and crazy guy up North who sees his regime imminently crumbling. What has he got to lose? Let the chips fall where they may.

Not sure I’d want to live in a world where Pyeong-Yang could level Seoul and China would condemn a US-led retaliation against the North.

These be exciting times. Regardless, I’m heading out of town this weekend to a place called Chuncheon. It’s a mountain/lake area in the North-East quadrant of South Korea. I’m game for some hiking. Mountains are nice.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dokdo Fail

Well, gosh – here I am more than a week after my last post. Truth is, I’ve been pretty sleepy.
I would love to give an update on all we did during our fateful trip down south last week, but as it’s past, I find going over events day-by-day to be tedious at best. If it’s tedious for me to write them, it would be exponentially so for you to read them.

One thing that came out of the trip is a new desire to be an iphone user. Johnny brought his along for the ride and it was key – not only in looking for places to stay and eat, but also simple navigation. Korea’s streets are rarely clearly marked, so dropping into a strange city, staying in some love motel down some back alleys, and wanting to wander was made much easier by opening up the iphone’s GPS, dropping a pin on the map, and having the ability to explore freely – always knowing where you are and where you’re going or going to return to. It was also nice to be able to check the NHL playoff scores while on the road. Even when we were on the rockiest ferry ride, we could see a blinking blue dot showing our location and progression through the swelling waves. Not that it did us much good at that point.

Anyway, back to the trip – to sum-up, our intent was to head out to the East Coast of the peninsula to eventually make our way toward Ulleung-do, a fair-sized island about 120KM off the coast. From there, we were to catch another ferry to Dokdo – two small rocky islets a further 87 kilometers East of Ulleung-do.

To anyone who sees a photo of Dokdo, they might wonder why it would be worth the trip, but to anyone who has lived here in Korea, they might understand the draw. Not getting into it too much (for those who want to know more, you can check here), I will say that I consider the Dokdo trip to be a bit of a pilgrimage of sorts for Koreans. What are internationally know as the Liancourt Rocks (or Dokdo to Koreans, or Takeshima to the Japanese) is a piece of land that has been disputed by the two nations for hundreds of years.

As with many things, Koreans are very passionate about these islets, and while it may be easy to mock the passion as misguided (they are, after-all, rocks), the meaning behind each country’s claim is tied to centuries of colonization and trade disputes. Anyway, I try to not be too quick to judge something I know very little about, and have no claim to, myself (though I fail in this regard when considering the French goevernement's decision to ban the wearing of burqas in public, but that's another story). Instead, I simply wanted to go see it for myself. If Korea has a metaphorical Mecca, Dokdo is likely it.

Sadly, the trip didn’t work out as expected. I had heard from a few people that getting to Dokdo is a challenge to say the least. A Korean friend here, when he heard we were going, said that “Dokdo only opens herself up a few days out of the year.” An interesting way to put it, but he was referring to the rough weather in the East Sea. As Dokdo is so bloody small, only smaller ferries make their way out to the islets. The result is often vomit-strewn, as we found out.

We really should have taken the clue from the first coastal town we visited (Dong Hae), which told us that all ferries to Ulleung-do had been cancelled until further notice. What do we do? We head further south to Po-Hang, where we spend the night and board the ferry in the AM. Long story short, we got ¾ of the way there when the ship decided the weather was too rough to go on, or to dock at Ulleung-do. For the 30 minutes leading-up to this point, we, along with most of the non-seasoned passengers, were starting to feel ill. There were a few points, after a handful of particularly violent lurches, that Korean passengers around me removed life vests from under their seats and started examining them with purpose.

The three of us were in the lowest level of the ferry without any windows. For the life of me, I can’t remember if it helps or hinders one’s attempts to not vomit if one can or can’t see the horizon. I guess it didn’t matter. Roxy first started feeling ill, and when I stood-up to get some garbage bags for her, I was falling all over the lower deck like a 1960s Captain Kirk under Klingon attack. By the time I got back to my seat, about 10 seconds later actually, I was up again and into the bathroom where I was met with a chorus of retching and an almost guilty sideways glance from a young boy with his face well-into a small black bag.

I found a stall, and that was my home for the next hour and a half.

There really isn’t a lot to be done with sea-sickness once it takes hold. Roxy and Johnny managed to hold-on – barely – but I think my excessive beer from the night before sent me over the edge. What made it worse was the violence with which my body was reacting to the sickness. I was vomiting so hard I started bleeding from the nose, sweating profusely, and pretty was pretty much readying myself for death. I have had this feeling twice before: once on 30-foot sail boats in the gulf off of Vancouver island in middle school, and once after getting off of the Body Wars simulation ride at EPCOT Centre in Disneyworld. I don’t recommend that ride.

On the Ulleung-do ferry though, it was 90 minutes of no reprieve. Stupidly, or perhaps because I didn’t have time, I didn’t get any water before heading into the bathroom. This meant 10 minutes of actual vomiting, and another 50 of dry-heaving. Let’s just call it an extreme cleanse. I saw stuff coming out of my stomach that didn’t look natural. I’m sure that I am now 99% toxin-free and my chances of stomach cancer were significantly decreased. Looking back on it though - I was, to quote a Princess Bride era Carey Elwes, "a miserable vomitous mass."

I finished-up with another 10 minutes of moaning. You do strange things to take your mind off the feeling during times of nausea, and with others spewing in stalls surrounding me, what did I have to lose? – I was likely a shade of pale green, soaked-through with sweat, vomit, and blood, and I really didn’t care what I sounded like.
It took a while to feel better.

Anyway, with the islands out of the question for this trip, we decided to head to Gyeong-ju, which was only 30 minutes away from where we were. Gyeong-ju is the cultural capital of the Silla Kingdom of ancient Korea, and though they are not really comparable, Gyeong-ju is kind of the Kyoto of Korea. Tons of tombs, temples, fields of flowers and other such sites for those looking for a little less concrete on the weekend.

It was kind of nice to be there as a bit of a surprise. We had no intention of going at the time, but rocky seas suggested it.

I’ll have a lot more to say about Gyeong-ju in a couple of weeks as I’m actually heading there again on the 20th for Buddha’s birthday with a few friends, but it was certainly a place I’d like to return to more than once.

The skies were clear and blue for our first day, and we decided to rent bikes. We headed about an hour or so out of town to a temple up in the hills, and on the way back, Roxy got hit by a car while on her bike. She’s quite lucky that she got turned-into instead of collided with head-on, but she was still hit hard enough to do some serious damage to her left arm, her ankles as they made contact with the pedals, and her DSLR camera which she had been carrying.

Yes, it could have been much worse, but it still put a serious damper on things for Roxy as this was the first leg of a long Asian vacation with her family who joined her a few days later here in Seoul.

The accident reminded me of a few things: buy travel insurance (Roxy had none), and that extreme circumstances can often bring out the worst in people. The driver who hit Roxy was clearly trying to fabricate a story to put Roxy at fault, when actual physical evidence clearly shows that the fault was solely with the driver. Just kind of makes you lose a little faith in people. Oh, and travel with someone who can speak the native language.Without Johnny, we would have been screwed.

In the end, after an ambulance ride, a scare that the arm might be broken, and a scare that Roxy would just have to swallow having a broken camera lens (a $600 cost to replace), things worked-out pretty well. Unfortunately, Roxy’s following days in Seoul were dominated by following-up with police and insurance people. Expenses (medical and material) were covered and Roxy’s intact, but due to the hassle, she wasn’t able to accompany her family on the Korean tour they had planned together. Also, just to prove that bad things happen in threes, Roxy left her wallet on the Seoul subway on our way back to my apartment from the trip - a wallet with approximately $300 and credit cards. Such is life.

I realize that in this post I focused mainly on the negative aspects of the trip. Isn’t that always the way? Negative stuff is simply more story-worthy. The other side of it is that I got to hang out with two friends who I would not have met had I not come to Korea. This sounds like an obvious point, but it goes beyond the geographical. This trip reminded me of how much we limit ourselves in familiar surroundings. I’m quite sure, for instance, that Johnny is one of my most different friends (different from myself, I mean) while I’m certainly one of his – yet there’s more than enough to feel like he’s become one of my better friends despite our differing tastes in headgear. To a lesser degree with Roxy as well, it’s likely that the three of us, had we grown-up in the same city, would have never had reason to give each other any kind of social chance. Yet, in Korea, when the chance is forced upon us through circumstance, you can make some very unique and worthwhile friendships that take very little to be re-kindled after a hiatus. Good people find each other, if I can include myself in that statement.

Even with all of the blood, bruising, and spurling, it was worth it and I’m hopeful the three of us will have an opportunity to travel together again. Roxy is considering another working stint in Korea soon. There’s just something about this place.
Looking forward to Gyeong-ju again in about a week, and I hope to post again before that.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Day 2

Day 1 involved the following...

- three rounds of Mariokart with Johnny on the bus
- one grumpy bus driver and one friendly one.
- having sea penis hand-fed to me by an enthusiastic ajuma.
- too much cheap Korean beer.
- boats.
- an old man masturbating on a massage table while we tried to sleep in a jim-jil-bang.
- catching up with friends.
- adventures.

Day 2 promises the following: a trip on a boat, some rain, some adventures, and some more of the above (hopefully minus the masturbating ajushi)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I'm going here...

and here...

with these people...

Monday, May 3, 2010

My Winnipeg

Not sure what it is about this Spring that makes me all sentimental. It’s only been within the last week or so, really – and I usually reserve my unbridled nostalgia for the fall, and much closer to Christmas approaching. But hey – what can you do?

Maybe it has something to do with other milestones I see around me. Looking at the black and white photo that I have on my window-sill here in Korea, I see four handsome lads from back-home – well, three handsome lads and one guy who looks a lot like the drummer from Coldplay. Two of these gentlemen live in Korea. Two of these gentlemen are married and now fathers. Two are not married, without child, and in many ways much more child-like. These two were really just lucky to get out of PP ’06.

One just finished his four year Sheridan College animation program and will surely soon be appearing in the credits of video games and movies all over the world. I’m proud of this cat. Certainly one of the most stand-up guys I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. It’s amazing to think that this goal of his began four years ago, and in that time, he also found the time to get married and become a father.

Another is about to become a father for a second time. I was here in Korea for the first one and am looking forward to being an Uncle Davey to number 2. In a world where not a lot of people are deserving of children, it’s reassuring to know that some who are get to be parents.

Two of these people are also proud (astronomically humble is more like it) to release their first EP. The Band is called Days Adrift, and I can’t help but wonder of that refers to the days lost - spent playing X-Box hockey in the basement of the Cedarbrae house, drunk on bricks of Dr. Pepper from Safeway and our own mastery of either side of the Portland Whackos. Whatever the motivation might be, the result is something to be proud of. This is an EP created by two talented and creative friends, over the internet, in tiny rooms while a baby slept. I’m excited for what comes next.

Which brings me to winter, though I know it should be summer. The humidity is rising these days and I find myself getting off the morning bus-ride with sweat all over my face. One day soon I will give up on wearing a jacket to school and just admit what’s happening.

But I’m thinking of winter. I prefer it. Not more than a week ago, it was damn cold here in Seoul – at least according to everyone else. For me – a guy who usually feels the cold, I was just fine – I was the only one in the school voluntarily in short sleeves. Many students asked me if I was cold and I could answer in honest surprise that I wasn’t. Huh.

I wonder if I’m just heating up on the inside for some reason. Perhaps it's the Canadian in me finally shining through - it'll have to get to minus 20 before I put on a coat. I’ve been thinking a lot lately – mostly because I’ve had a lot of time to do so. School has kept me busy, but not too much so. There’s been exams and review classes that afford me more free time at school than I would actually like – I find myself wanting to do something productive, but spinning my wheels in search of that exactly that is.

I got a guitar as a birthday gift from a special someone this past January and I haven’t been able to learn too much on it, though I do love picking it up and going over what I know. People tell me that the best way to learn is simply to build a repertoire of favourites through guitar tabs on the internet. For the uninitiated, such as myself, that stuff is hard to read. But with the right song, you can overcome with motivation.

So it started last night when I hit shuffle on the old itunes. Every now and then, a little gem will pop-up and smack me right in the heart. This time, it was “One Great City” by the Weakerthans – a Canadian band that might remind you of the Odds or Barenaked Ladies at their best. This one song though is unquestionably great. It’s one of those ones many people likely wish they had written. I heard it through a Vinyl Café podcast last year and it quickly made its way into my rotation at the time.

The song’s about Winnipeg – the writer being from there – and how it’s such a love/hate thing – mostly hate maybe, but love, too. Anyway, I listened to the song for the first time about a month before my parents came to visit me in Korea last year, and for this Canadian living abroad, it made me homesick for the first time in a long time. I played it for mom and dad when they got here and I think it might have struck a chord with them, too.

I came across it again last night, and let’s just say stuff snowballed. I found the guitar tabs, couldn’t read them, found a site that explained how to read them, tried the song, got frustrated, went to sleep, woke-up, remembered having a dream about the Winnipeg Jets, searched for the trailer for Guy Maddin’s autobiographical film from 2008, “My Winnipeg”, and then I was officially haunted.

Between classes at school, I found myself watching interviews with Maddin about his film, hearing that song in my head, and thinking about people I know. In addition to the people in that photo, I thought about my friend who, after a couple of years of struggle, got accepted to a master’s program in Finland this fall, as well as a friend who has had a more difficult year than most of us could imagine – losing his grandmother and father all within a 6 month period. And as these thoughts pass through my head, I open an email from a friend back home who lost a close co-worker in a car-crash just last week. She was 28 years old.

So, melancholy descends, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I look at the year some of the people in my life have had (facebook’s good for that), and I think about my year – which hasn’t been bad, though what I’m really noticing these days is the reality of time passing. Life is short. I’m thinking seriously about what I’m doing with mine.

Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” has been described as an autobiographical docu-drama. The film-maker grew-up in Winnipeg, and was commissioned by the Manitoba government to film a documentary about his hometown. The result was recognized with the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival and a place on Roger Ebert’s list of the Top Ten Films of the Decade. If you see the trailer and watch interviews about the film, you might agree and have a similar sentiment to the one I have regarding “One Great City” – that being, if I were a film-maker, “My Winnipeg” is exactly the kind of movie I would want to make. I can’t imagine a more personal nostalgia on screen. I wonder what he felt when he was making it, and then a found interview answers the question for me. Maddin describes the process of filming a surreal return to his childhood as one that showed him things he never thought he could feel. The act itself of turning his simple, humble, un-noteworthy life into something that his writer/director/narrator filter describes as art, showed him that he could feel his life, or the life of anyone really, as being worthy of such a title. That would be something.

I look around at my life, and though my family is far away, it doesn’t feel that way unless I let it. I couldn’t ask for a better girl in my life, and being with her makes the former sacrifice unquestionably worth it. I have good friends around me, and though they are few, they are quality (I’m getting more selective as I age). I also have a great deal of additional fortune in my life, which I don’t need to go into detail about here – though it would suffice to say that the fact that I can sit here and get all pouty philosophical about a song and a movie and write about it on a Mac reveals all you need to know about the level of privilege I have been given. But, as school and my role in it plays out through another month, and I struggle to find ways to really make a difference, I feel that I could, should, and need to be doing more.

I also know that writing about the same issue constantly is revealing in and of itself. In a significant enough way, despite the fact that life ain’t so bad, I’m spinning my wheels here, and as they are spinning I run into a cross-breed of sentiment and encouragement in songs like “One Great City”, and stories like the ones in “My Winnipeg”. Youtube can be a black hole that you emerge from hours later. My Winnipeg search brought me to a few entries surrounding the Jets. One particular one showed the announcement of the sale and moving of the team to Phoenix. A sports radio host takes a call from a man who says simply “Our city’s becoming a graveyard” before his voice trails off and the host’s does the same as he thanks the man sincerely for the call.

I read that when the Winnipeg Arena was finally demolished, the explosives were initially only able to bring down the 1979 building expansion, while the original building core remained intact. Earth-movers with cables were brought in later to finish the job. The on-lookers chanted “Go, Jet’s, Go!” as the dust cleared.

I want to be a real teacher. That reality is on the horizon, but there are days where it feels very far away. A friend from a couple of years ago will be arriving tomorrow night and then we’ll be joining another friend for a trip to the coast and an island not far off it. I can all but guarantee that this trip will be just the thing to give my introspective self a much needed kick in the ass.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


On my way to school on Friday, I came across this scene. This fruit truck was turned on its side approximately 30 meters from the front gate of our school, and about 5 feet from the bottom of the ramp that leads to our front gate. Our school patrol students were shuffling students around the truck as they entered the school grounds. Keep in mind that the truck turned over on a road that is 15 feet wide at best. Cars need to pull up onto the sidewalk to allow others to pass. This is more of a back alley than a road, really. The driver must have been going at quite a fair clip to flip on such a narrow road. It's a tad worrying to note that this happened right where 95% of our students walk every morning and afternoon.

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 came out here in Korea a full week before its wide release in North America. I really enjoyed the first one two years ago, but I thought this one was a bit of a step backward. Still a fun summer movie, but I wanted a little less, and a little more. To read my full review, click here.