Saturday, July 24, 2010

The good stuff...

Last night, I finally had the Dragon family over to my place for dinner. Mr. Choi, one of our school’s Phys. Ed. teachers and in many ways, the patriarchal figure to our many students, has with great kindness and generosity had me join his family for dinner at his home and at restaurants four times since I came to the school in March of last year. One of those times included having my visiting parents out for dinner and taking them back to his family home for dessert, to watch a video of his participation in a zany physical Korean game show, and to try some of his “stamina increasing” home alcohol brew. He told my dad that it was “liquid Viagra!”

On the drive home that night, Mr. Choi and my mom sang an impromptu version of the Carpenters’ “The End of the World”, which both knew by heart for different reasons. A classic moment, really.

So, last night, though I was beginning to regret my timing due to summer camp stresses, I had Mr. Choi and his wife and their two girls: Molly and Choi Lee, my Math teacher friend Monica, and the rabbit over for dinner.

The rabbit helped me immensely amid my running-around, making alternate arrangements for dog-sitting, and generally losing my mind over my chaotic schedule where everything seemed to be bottle-necking into a 24 period over Friday and Saturday.

Though we had had great times together on previous visits, I knew that the family might be a bit nervous knowing that this would be there first time going to a foreigner’s house for dinner. Having the rabbit and Monica there was a huge help for everyone.

Choi Lee (the youngest girl, and natural gymnast, as a side note) was particularly shy when she came into my place – hiding behind her mom, and actually leaving the apartment for some time - her father having to go and retrieve her. She did warm-up.

I thought last night of the times that my sister and I would accompany our parents to their friends’ houses for dinner, how we would occupy ourselves, and how we would work hard in our own ways to survive spending a night with relatively strange adults.

Molly, whose English is quite good, always seemed to enjoy being around me and using her language skills, while Choi Lee preferred to hang on tight to her parents until she thawed as a result of the increasing general comfort throughout the evening.

Last night, Flip & Flop played a role, too. As I suspected, the girls really loved the stairs at my loft – climbing up with my two turtles and letting them race about upstairs – finding little adventures with the turtles and the various landscapes they would create for them with my mattresses and boxes. And both girls thought of a turtle tribute of their own to present.

The dinner of Deun-jeong Jiggae, vegetarian chili, and salad went over well, as did the ice-cream and fruit dessert. After that, we had a few games of “Yut” – a traditional Korean game, and a few more drinks, and then a quick skype conversation with my parents back in Canada before everyone headed home.

I was stressed leading-up to the night, not sure how comfortable everyone would feel about being in a foreigners house (what customs to expect etc.), but afterward I couldn’t have been more pleased. Having so much Korean fill the room put everyone at ease and made everyone I’m sure feel more confident with trying some English from time to time.

It felt like family – especially when we had a chance to connect to my real family back home. Not sure if my mom though she would ever have an opportunity to sing a duet with Mr. Choi again, but she did.

Before I get to the good-stuff…

Today, in English Camp at my school, a student came into class late with a badly skinned-knee. It’s one of those ones where pinkish stuff oozes out of the wound instead of blood. He showed me and then just rolled his pants down over his knee again. I asked him to roll them back up so that I could get him a bandage.

I went to my office where two of my school’s English teachers were working, and to summarize a 5-minute conversation, our school apparently only had a first aid kit in the nurse’s room – which was currently being renovated and was therefore inaccessible.

I thought it was odd that a camp for 30 students could be allowed to happen without at least a basic first-aid kit immediately available, but I simply requested that it would be a good idea to buy one with one of our many budgets to keep in the English room. The two teachers offered to head to the nearby pharmacy (a 2 minute walk from our school’s front door), and get a bandage for his knee. But what size?

I tried to show them by linking my fore-finger to my thumb – making an “A-Okay” sign – the hole being the size of his wound, and once that was established, there was some work to be done to explain that, while the offer of multiple band-aids was a kind one, the length-wise width of the padded portion of the band was not enough to cover the wound, and my student would have ended-up with the sticky bits covering his oozing sore.

When I realized that I wasn’t making myself clear, I suggested that the teachers look at the wound for themselves, and they joined me in the classroom and checked it out.
After we returned to the office to once again continue the consultation regarding the type of bandage we should be seeking, when I finally suggested that they just go to the pharmacy, describe the wound, and the pharmacist would take care of the rest. That was when one of the teachers said the following:

“You really want us to go?”

“Ummm… yes, please. I’m teaching my class right now, but if you need me to go, could you supervise my students while I am out of the school?”

(hesitant and serious) “I mean, is it real?”

“Is what real?”

“His hurt knee?”

“Yes, it’s really hurt – you saw it, right?”

(long and awkward pause)

“I thought maybe you just draw on his knee with a marker…”

(much longer, and much more awkward silence)

“No… it’s a real cut…”

I remember my friend, Lex, who has recently gone back to the Pacific NW of the U.S., but who had lived in Seoul for more than 6 years, telling me that in her experience as a foreigner in the Korean workplace, 2 + 2 doesn’t always = 4.

Honestly, that was about the most awkward conversation I’ve had since coming here, and it brought to mind two things:

1) I regretfully don’t have as close or as understanding a relationship with my school’s co-teachers as some of my friends do with theirs.

2) The oddest of things can get lost in translation very easily if the atmosphere that exists in the workplace is one of even slight caution and apprehension.

It’s not that we don’t try, but perhaps that we try too hard. Even with those of my co-teachers who speak a very high level of English, we sometimes have to work harder to see eye-to-eye, or to know where the other is coming from. It's more than just a language issue - it's an inability to communicate through other channels as well.

I don’t know – I realize that this is simply a weird little incident, but it made me think: do I really seem to my co-workers, whom I have known and worked with for well-over a year, to be the kind of person who would drag-on a hoax about a skinned knee – just for poops and ha-has, and while we are all three of us very busy with class and preparations for class?

Apparently, today the answer was yes.

I don’t know, I suppose there’s a lot I could say about it, but for now I’ll just say that today I was disappointed that we don’t know each other better. Yes – the incident was irritating to me, likely embarrassing to them, and it left at least me with a strange taste in my mouth – again, probably disappointment.

Back to the drawing-board. Though this reads like an isolated incident, it was one of many that are similar and born out of discomfort with each other, and that’s something I’m really hoping we are able to eliminate soon.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summer Cramp: Day 1

Today was the first day of my English summer camp. I'm too tired to write about it. The end.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Cell-phone is my life..."

This is nothing new, but for those that don't know - cell-phones are a key part of life here in Korea. Cell-phone technology has continued to be one of Korea's biggest exports and things move here quickly. A new cell-phone here will appear back home in Calgary in about 3 years, or longer.

Just a couple of months ago, South Korea finally allowed Apples iphone to be sold here and used on the huge wireless networks that exist on the peninsula. I don't have numbers for you, but after an initial fear that local companies such as Samsung and LG would take too much of a hit, things seem to have evened-out. I'm sure that even Korean companies appreciate a little healthy competition.

Anyway, part of the result of having a cell-phone aware populace is that everyone has a phone. Again, I have no numbers, but when you move about, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn't packing. The oldest of the elderly and the youngest students imaginable - all have them, and they are used all the time.

At school, this is a huge issue. Some schools have taken to banning them outright, while others take the phones from the students at morning homeroom, offer them access at lunch, take them away again, and then give them back at the last bell. Guaranteed, if my school is a good sample group, Korean students will take whatever free time is afforded them and apply their energies and attentions to cell-phone games, texting each other, or developing cell-phone envy when some kid whips-out the latest in Android phone technology. My wee little phone is often mocked for its age and weak capabilities, while I see it as a source of pride - bucking the trend of replacing my cell-phone every year to keep-up with the Kims, Parks, and Lees.

Our school's policy is to take a student's cell-phone away for a week if the student is caught using it in class. I've done this three times now - and never without ample warning. One particularly smarmy miss thang in grade 9 had hers taken away by me and she literally squirmed and writhed in her seat once she realized I wasn't kidding. It was the bold "I'm going to do it anyway" attitude she displayed for a couple of weeks leading-up to that moment. I thoroughly enjoyed her daily pleas to get the phone back early. Just for my own amusement, I allowed her to come to our office and check her messages once every day for exactly one minute. She looked like a Trainspotting outcast, eyes all blue and sunken - looking for a hit. It was remarkable what her fast-moving fingers were able to accomplish on her keypad in such a short time.

However, sometimes I'm even a bigger softy. I took one girl's cell-phone away this week, and she too squirmed, but when she lingered after class with sad eyes, I motioned her to my desk and let her know that this time, I would give back her cell-phone the next day, instead of the whole week later, since it was her first time (and since she was a grade 7 student who wasn't smarmy).

Or so I thought. The next day, she showed-up at my door in the first period with 3 of her friends, asking for the phone. When I told her that she needed to wait until the end of the school day, she begged me, and when I wouldn't budge - she did the classic stick-out-your-tongue-out-at-the-teacher routine. So, I let her know she wouldn't be getting her cell-phone back for a whole week. She looked like her heart had been ripped-out.

At lunch time, one of her friend delivered the following note on behalf of the victim:

Dear teacher Dave
Teach Dave hello.
Can I ask you a favor?
Please give me a cell phone.
Cell phone is my life.
I have bitter experiences from my mother.
Very Very sorry.
I do self examination. Teacher...
Very Very Very sorry.
Handsome teacher Dave.

I gave her cell-phone back after school that day. I appreciated the English effort. I'll never be in the position to rip-up a speeding ticket intended for a hot female motorist, but this I can take care of without guilt.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The second "R"

On my way home today to pick-up some material I had forgotten for an afternoon class, I was walking to my apartment when I passed a fairly unclean homeless man... WEARING MY SHOES!!!

Naturally, my first instinct was to feel violated, they were easily recognizable as being mine (my horrible, possessed blue shoes from a couple of entries ago) as they were very bright and, relative to the man's feet, gigantic.

After I got over my initial recation at seeing a stranger wear my clothes, I realized that he must have gone through the garbage bags near the loading dock of my apartment building, and helped himself to some hip-looking shoes.

As with all places in Korea - garbage is separated: paper, plastic, plastic bags, food garbage, tin, bottles, recyclable goods (clothing) and just plan garbage. I didn't even consider recycling these beasts due to the smell - they went straight into a triple-bagged and tightly-knotted sack that BP would be jealous of.

And here was this man wearing them. To be fair, warning him about the smell would have surely been a moot point in his situation. But still, I feld badly that I couldn't have thrown away a pair of shoes that were at least inoffensive to anyone within a one-block radius.

Regardless - I hope they don't get wet today, and it's raining hard.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Another Biking Blog

I love my bike – just had to get that out of the way up front. And it’s been keeping me busy. These past few weeks, in an effort to see how much money I can realistically save on a pay-cheque (I’ve got a trip to Canada coming up next month, some debts to pay-off, and University among other things to save up for) I am scrounging and scrounging hard.

Let me give you an example: rather than continuing to buy 1 or 2 litre bottles of clear drinking water from downstairs, I’ve taken to bringing my empty bottles to school, filling them up at the filtered water dispensers, and taking them home in my bike bag. I had been buying an average of 4 bottles a week – that’s almost 25,000 won back in my pocket each month.

Also – snacks and coffee before Korean class twice a week, depending on where one buys coffee, can add-up, too. No more, I say! I’ve taken to bringing my thermos and filling it up at the learning centre with a snazzy Japanese coffee tea-bag thingy that I can’t really explain without showing you. Even it out and I’m saving another 40,000 won.
It’s a fun exercise – though I do miss my treats – and here’s where the bike comes in: I ride it everywhere – really. It’s about 2.25 hours to Hongdae where my lessons are twice a week, and the same going back. Each time I make the trek, I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m saving a collective 2,400 won each trip – more I suppose that I’m also riding to work each day. In a month, while taking the subway and buses only if I’m tight for time, it’s pissing rain, or I need to show-up somewhere not sweating like a pig, I’m saving nearly 50,000 won on transit costs.

Nice… of course, this is the trade-off. The bike did cost a pretty penny, and I’m going to make-up the cost over time somehow.

I would be lying by omission if I didn’t mention a certain source of inspiration on this won-hoarding adventure. That would be, of course, my former Kramer-neighbour, Douglas from the 13th floor, who was cheap and very proud of it. The best example of his frugality was exhibit at a friend’s birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant. He had made the choice to either chip-in on a gift (which he did), or buy himself dinner (which he didn’t).

What he did do to not starve that night though was get creative at the dinner table. Free min-loaves of bread were re-ordered throughout the meal, he took care of friends’ uneaten entrees, and, in the most inspired bit from that evening, Douglas approached a table of complete strangers and inquired as to whether they were going to eat the lid from their bread bowls of clam chowder.

I’m not quite there yet, but I am looking to save some money. It’s really not a bad habit to get into.

And back to the bike. – I’m feeling muscles working in my legs that have been dormant since the days when I played soccer on a regular basis (aka: some time ago). It’s a good feeling, and even when my lessons end in Hongdae at 8:30 or 9:00 on a Thursday night during a long and humid week, I push myself home over a couple of hours and I have to say, it’s a good thing. The sun’s started going down, the humidity is beaten-back from the breeze of my movement down the streets, and I’m back in my little adventure – riding home through some truly zany side-streets and sidewalks, and it’s never a boring commute.

So let me tell you why.

Other than the paths along the cheon (stream) like the one near my apartment, and all along the Han River, there aren’t a lot of bike-specific paths in Seoul. I suppose that’s the same in any big city of over 10 million people, but like in any big city of over 10 million, it can make cross-city commutes really interesting if you need to venture away from the river pathways, which I need to do on most occasions – especially on my way to Hongdae.

This journey takes me from my school at Ssangmun Station in the far North, south to Hyehwa (about 45 min), then I cut across the south end of the two major palaces and down Gwanghwamun Plaza toward City Hall (another 30 minutes or so). After that, I head West and South past the statue of the hammering man and towards Sinchon Rotary before cutting south once more and into Hongdae.

I guess it sounds kinda boring when I look at it, but the trip is anything but. I’ll video it someday, but just trust that there is more colour and character in a 2 hour ride through Seoul than even anyone who’s lived here might think. I see a lot of the city in that time, and the range of real estate that I ride through would likely be akin to a ride through the heart of Manhattan and then back into some shabbier parts of Queens – but that’s a huge guess as I’ve never been to New York.

The best part about the shabbier parts of Seoul’s ”Queens” is that no matter what the time is, it’s always busy. People everywhere – and this can be a part of the problem. I didn’t stop at night to take photos of the crowds I was doing my best to weave through, but there are crowds.

On the way back from lessons on a Tuesday or Thursday night, probably somewhere around 20 or 30% of the paths are at least partly crowded with late-night shoppers and wanderers. I prefer “wanderers”, because despite the clear delineation between the pedestrian path and the bicycle path on a divided sidewalk which is, in some places, at least 15 feet across, its awfully hard for pedestrians to adhere to the suggested rule when they are walking 7 abreast and are likely playing Nintendo DS, texting on their cell-phones, and listening to an MP3 player. There is precious little attention left for actual walking and maneuvering through crowds in an affective way.

Let me say right off that I realize I’m making the choice to ride on a sidewalk, which is by definition pedestrian territory. However, the streets for the most part are not an option in certain places – especially for the majority of the Northward leg of my journey from Hyehwa to my apartment, where the steel fences and guard-rails that line the sidewalks to protect walkers, could easily be a cause of death and dismemberment for me should I ever decide to jump the fence and go play with the cars, driven by Seoul drivers. No, thanks.

So, on the one hand, I do appreciate municipal efforts to add and improve beautiful pathways such as the ones we see along the rivers, and I do applaud the thought that went into dividing the substantial sidewalks to encourage bike use (the model exists for a willing populace in Tokyo and Kyoto), I only wish that the non-bikers felt the same way.

So, as a former pedestrian, with the shoe now firmly on the other foot, I have to say that Seoul pedestrians drive me insane. Not only pedestrians mind you, but the motorized delivery scooters as well as cars – yes, CARS – that decide there’s room enough on the sidewalk for them as well. The following photos give you an idea of the layout of the sidewalks I take to work each morning.

This a comparatively narrow section actually, but as you can see, this area suggests that the red portion of the path is to be shared by both bikes, and adults accompanying tiny children to and from school. Not the safest suggestion, but a workable one.

Further on, as the sidewalk splits where the main road moves North and South, brickwork suggests again that the red section should be for bikes.
Sometimes, the brickwork is less successful…

Sometimes, drivers mistake the shoddy brickwork for signage suggesting that the sidewalk is the perfect place for them to park their cars.

Often, the bike section is blocked by the ass-end of a rusty truck, while the option of going around said truck is also obscured by this guy…

It’s a give and take thing, and I try not to be in a rush. There are empty sections where I can open it up, but my bike in its highest gear, and make-up time, but man – there I times where I just want to shake my head.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little “ding” from my bell to alert a savvy pedestrian to my presence. They hear the bell, and step to the right. Turns out this is a rare breed however. The vast majority of side-walkers, assuming their ears are free enough to hear my bell, respond to the noise as though I am moving fast enough to cause a cataclysmic sidewalk holocaust of flying bodies and bicycle parts – they jump INTO my path before looking behind to see where I’m coming from and usually warn everyone around them in a loud and panicked voice. It’s as though I’ve risen out of the Pacific as a result of nuclear testing, turned my back on Tokyo, and made my way toward the hermit kingdom just for shits and giggles. “Oma! Jajeonga!” (“Mother – BICYCLE!!!)Honestly, their fear is palpable.

In reality, I’m not moving that fast. It’s about on par with the security guard getting run-over by Austin Powers driving the steam-roller. Most people are walking faster than I'm riding in these sections. And no - getting off and pushing would only mean that I'd take up more space.

Anyway, minor trials and tribulations. Still, the ride seems like an adventure each time. And still, I love being able to just fold it up and head into wherever I need to be.

I have to say, I have become a complete Brompton convert. It’s probably the Mac of bikes and it’s as addictive and as pretty. No, it won’t take you up mountains, though the 6 gear option will take you anywhere you need to go quite comfortable in hilly Seoul. I also just received word that my telescopic seat has arrived and I’ll be picking it up next month. That’ll give me more pedal power as my legs will finally be able to extend the proper amount at the bottom of a pedal stroke. Nice.

Anyway, I promise that my next blog entry will not mention my bike. Until then… kick, push, and coast…

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bye Bye Blues

That's it - my favourite pair of shoes have been tossed. I bought a pair of mostly blue DC shoes back in February of last year, and wore them for the first time on the flight to Korea. New shoes on a plane seems to be something of a tradition for me in recent years.

And I don't really usually care about shoes at all - but these blue babies were pretty. Sadly, over a year of heavy use, humid summers, and then finally, a marathon bike-ride in Gyeong-ju over Buddha's Birthday in heavy rains, the odor, as someone I once knew would elegantly phrase it, became "a bouquet of terror!" It's more accurate than you can know. I decided to actually wash them in the laundry machine, then set them in the sun to disinfect.

Then, over a month later - nearly two actually - I sprayed them with a foot deodorizer before slipping them on my feet and heading to school. Whatever had been trapped in the sole of that pair of shoes, was awakened unceremoniously by the Gyeong-ju rains of last month. I didn't just need baking soda or Lysol, I needed some sort of shoe exorcist. They smelled like rotting flesh - as though some small mammal had crawled up in them and died.

Finding none of the above, I decided it was time. That sassy blue will never again keep my ankles supported, my back straight, or my spirits up. Into the garbage bin they went. They were the ones I'm wearing in this photo. Please tell me that they weren't this bad on our road trip.

Just wanted to say goodbye to a good pair.