Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It all began when someone left the window open...

Nice title.

For a few years now, I've been using Chris Van Allsburg's great collections of story ideas, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, as a creative writing prompt. I'll be using it again with my Saturday High School class in the coming months - if I can find a way to work it into my curriculum.

Harris Burdick is basically a collection of story fragments - unfinished stories with an accompanying illustration from Van Allsburg - he of Polar Express / Jumanji / Zathura fame. The best of the bunch really work to inspire creative thinking in people, which is why the one below has been used in English composition exams in school systems in Canada, and likely throughout the world. Each page of Van Allsburg's book consists of a picture, a suggested title, and a sentence or two from the story if it ever existed.

For example, to accompany the picture below:

Title: The Third Floor Window
Sentence: It all began when someone left the window open.

(Look closely at the bird removing itself from the wall, and the empty space near it where another bird presumably once was. It's a haunting image - as are most of Van Allsburg's - and it's a great story start, or end, or something in the middle.

Anyway, my middle school essay class has thankfully whittled its way down to 7 members from its initial 29. (Sidenote: when the idea of an essay class was proposed, I suggested having 12 students - a good number for ESL writing, group work, and speaking. Instead all homeroom teachers were told to encourage their best and brightest to join. This meant 29 students, most of whom lacked the ability and didn't want to be there. For Youngdo alumni, it would be like asking a group of Johnson Burger readers to jump into Sylvia Plath) Thankfully, the numbers straightened themselves out) I like this group. There are 6 girls and one boy. Their English levels are quite high, and the small number gives us a chance to sit-together at a smaller table and chat.

This past Tuesday was our first class back together after Chuseok break, so I wanted to keep things light. Truly, introducing the idea of narrative essays to these bleary-eyed teens was not the thing to do. So, after a game of team Scrabble, I decided to introduce Harris Burdick. When I brought out the pictures and read them aloud, the students instantly took to them.

I lay them on the table and drew numbers to allow students to select one of the 20 or so illustrations for them to take home and use to create a story of their own. As mentioned before, the sentence given by Van Allsburg had to be included somewhere in the story, and the rest was up to them. I suggested one page.

I was happy to see that I got my first one back today from Chloe#1 (there was another "Chloe" in my class previously). Fitting that it comes just as there's a political shift happening (or is it?) north of the 38th Parallel, and the idea of resuming reunions between members of Korean families that have been split North and South since the Korean War is once again being used as a bargaining chip for other economic and military gains. The remaining people who would benefit from such reunions are dying fast, and what they're holding-out for looks like a "maybe" on an all-too-brief reunion in a sham mountain resort hotel where people take videos of you crying, because that's what amounts of your wasted life as a father, brother, mother, or sister - 60+ years in darkness and uncertainty, conspicuous hugs and tears surrounded by cameras, and then a longer goodbye. I have tried, but truly cannot imagine the sadness.

Anyway, here (unedited) is Chloe's story...

(*Please pay attention not to the grammar, but the intent)

A Hundred of Doves

It all began when someone left the window open. A dove that stayed on the window was flying away into the northern sky. The next day, people herd the fact that South-North Korean summit meeting would be held soon. The news was surprising to all people because it was the first meeting since a civil war.

People were interested in the subject that would made in that meeting. After a few days, another bird was seen in the blue sky. What was the most important, two doves of a hundred in the wallpaper disappeared.

It turned out the good relation between South and North Korea, differently with that people's worries that the war might break out again in serious situation. The following day that the third dove disappeared on the wall, every person was expected to come the happy day which they could come and go South and North Korea with free and see their family who lived far away each others.

On the day when about ten birds was gone, there was a summit conference. Although there were no things which was known about the summit, people could guess something good by allowing travel between North and South Korea.

On the wallpaper, the fiftieth dove flew into the sky through small window. People in the world had smile in their face because of an unfounded report about unification of the country. At that time the eightieth dove was gone, it was no groundless rumor anymore. North and South Korea were becoming political, economical, and cultural unification gradually.

Finally, there wasn't any birds in the room. The unification of Korea had finally been materialized completely and all people shed tears of joy. In the blue sky, one hundred white doves were flying more freely than anything else.

It all began when someone left the window open.

Short and Small

I've been finishing-up speaking tests with all of my students the past couple of weeks. It's made for some long days, as speaking tests usually do, but it's also been a bit better this time around as the testing time was cut in half by the Chuseok holiday.

Anyway, one of the short dialogues that is part of the grade 2 test looks something like this:

(Teacher draws a card from a deck of 3 - each showing two things to compare: Dogs or Cats, Spring or fall, Rain (K-pop star) or G-Dragon (member of K-pop group, Big Bang)

Teacher: I like ____ more than _____.(reason)
Student: I agree / I disagree.
(reason 1-extolling the virtues of the favourite among the two)
(reason 2 - stating why the other is not a favourite).

It could look something like this:

Teacher: I like dogs more than cats. Dogs make better pets.
Student: I agree. Dog's are very loyal and cats can scratch.

Very simple.

I was a bit sad though when I tried this test with a couple of classes who didn't bother to come-up with their own answers, but instead pooled their answers together to completely drown-out any originality their might have otherwise found.

What I got was this:

Teacher: I like Rain more than G-Dragon. I think Rain is cool.
Student: I disagree. G-Dragon is sexy and Rain has small eyes.

I'm getting pretty tired of hearing how important big eyes are in this country where an alarming percentage of middle school and high school girls are getting their eyes cut to look like their favourite K-pop stars.

Maybe that's why I like Rain - because, famously, he hasn't gone under the knife to alter his appearance. Sad that this is becoming more of a rarity here. It just pisses me off. I know it's something I don't fully understand, because I'm not Korean, but damn - a sad cultural turn.

Have a gander at someone else's much better blog posting from a few years back if you're interested.

Oh, and for those who felt the other way:

Teacher: I like Rain more than G-Dragon. I think Rain is cool.
Student: I agree. Rain is handsome and G-Dragon is too short.

To again quote my favourite John Sayles film, "It's always heart-warming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice."

Pity those short Korean who happen to have small eyes - there are a few of them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nice Work, Ladies

If it's not raining, when sitting at one's desk at any Korean public school, one can always hear the ambient (and sometimes piercing) sounds of PE classes being run in the school yard. The buildings that ring that yard keep the sound bouncing right back through the classroom windows as well. There are days when the sound drives me crazy, but most times, if given long enough to think about it, I get over my annoyance and recognize this as much-needed time for the students to put the books away, get out, have fun, and release some energy.

Sadly, on occasions when soccer is the game of choice for PE class, the girls simply sit-out. There have been no exceptions to the rule as I've seen. Perhaps things are different at Elementary Schools, or at sports-focused high schools, but here at my middle school, the girls are "excused" from playing soccer.

I would sometimes glance out my window so see the boys of the class engaged in a rowdy game, or doing drills to increase the skills, and the young ladies of the bunch would be seated on a bench under a shade-giving tree, texting-away on their cell-phones or chatting. When I've wandered outside and enquired, students and teachers both have responded by telling me that "girl's don't play soccer." What?

Our school has a competitive boy's soccer team that competes against other schools in the district, and (with what feels like some sort of consolation) the girl's who are interested can have their own kick-ball team that competes in the district as well.

Anyway, it kind of blew my mind that girl's would be excused from soccer - not only for any kind of organized team, but also in class.

Ironic, then, that this past weekend, the South Korean Girls won the FIFA U-17 World Championships in penalty kicks against their rivals from Japan (a good article can be read here). It was front page news in all papers, and the media here has been covering it with a kind of fervour which is, if not on par with that for the FIFA Men's World Cup, then certainly close to the excitement felt for last year's World Baseball Championships. Interestingly, this is the first World Championship for South Korean soccer for any age or gender. If there's one thing Koreans love, it's being internationally renowned for their achievements.

I'm assuming that these girls were allowed to participate in their school's PE soccer unit. I'm also hoping that it has some positive effect going forward - at least in middle school, for eff's sake.

A Brooks for my Brompton

Well, I took my bike down to Daechi today to see my pals at the old bike shop where my sweet ride was purchased back in June. I took the damaged seat off its post, and after a team of 5 men finally were able to pull my support bar back into place, the resulting wonkiness of the bent bar caused the seat to angle up and to the right - surely to make for a less-than-comfortable ride in the long term.

Luckily, my warranty on the seat was still valid, so it was applied toward the purchase of one of these beauties from Brooks Saddles (also a UK company). The B17 is in the classic series of saddles from the company and since I'm now in the business of buying things that will last, I am very pleased with this purchase and grateful for the discount I received today from my good-natured bike shop repair pals.

I've got to break this thing in, though I am already loving the difference. It's fun when you buy something of quality out of necessity only to discover that the item you've just purchased is part of a time-honored bike saddle company from Merry Old England. Apparently the design hasn't changed at all on this model since 1890 or so. I guess people like it enough.

Anyway, glad to have a new seat that makes my bike feel like a new ride. I'm digging it like an old soul record.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chuseok has come and gone...

It's a pretty decent Sunday afternoon - last day of my much-needed Chuseok vacation and the weather is definitely signaling the end of summer, if not quite fall.

It was a busy vacation - maybe a slight bit busier than I wanted it to be, but when you want to see people, you can't always wait around for things to happen randomly - try as I might to leave my calendar open, it filled-up pretty fast. The good news is that it was all with people I wanted to see and things I wanted to do.

Aside from the flooding experience (which dissipated fairly quickly, by the way), I did a few things. I know lists are generally considered to be boring, but I feel like writing one anyway, and this is my ding-dang blog.

Some of the Cool Stuff I Did:

1) Rode my bike to the Han River Park near Yeuido a couple of times: As mentioned in a previous post, riding across the river and getting a great view of downtown all lit-up by the late-afternoon sun is something I could do on a daily basis just for pure joy. It's even better when you've got friends to meet on the other side of the river - with picnic mats, noodles, and beer waiting for you at the nearby mini-stop. The Han River Park at Yeuido has been cleaned-up over the past year or so and the resulting water-front is quite beautiful. Nice work, Seoul.

2) Attempted to fix my bike seat after taking a fairly nasty fall - the result of heavy rain sink-holes in brick-laid sidewalks - and the result of emergency braking using a British-designed bike. Don't ask me why, but reverse from back home, the front (not the back) brakes are operated by the right handlebar on UK bikes. The result is my bike's ass (and mine) rolling over and to the right. Gotta bring the old saddle in for repairs. Bromptom makes their stuff extremely strong - strong enough for only accidents to send out of alignment, so I'm assuming I need to recreate the accident and fall to the left again to get the effing support bar back in place. I should be at the shop tomorrow.

3) Went to Gyeongbeok-gung (The main palace) on Chuseok Wednesday - pretty much Christmas Day in terms of "specialness" rating - with the rabbit, her older sister, and two nieces. I've meet them a couple of times and they are lovely and take to me quite quickly, thought this time I suspect the over-eating and lack of holiday sleep was getting to them by the time I got there. It took a while for them to warm-up, but once they did we had a grand time downtown on a cloudy, but dry, holiday afternoon that I was very grateful for.

4) Went with Johnny to celebrate the Chuseok Wednesday night (night of the full moon) to a (new to me) lounge in Hyehwa - great find. It's probably not new to many, but I was happy to meet some really good new people (most of them university faculty) at a very cool place - a converted Korean home with a patio and dart bar upstairs. It's called "CZ" for "Comfort Zone". I couldn't agree more. I'll have to go back. The idea of heading out to a "foreigner party" is one that's less than appealing to me in general, but glad Johnny dragged my reluctant self out there. Here's to a friend's persistence.

5) Went to Everland with a friend and her sister who was visiting from Canada. I realized after I got home that this latest had been my 10th visit to Everland. Effing 10th! I must miss Disney Parks more than I can admit to myself. Sadly, as mentioned in a post last year, the beloved Eagle's Fortress suspended coaster is still out of commission, though the entire structure appears to still be intact, if boarded-up. Word from Guest Relations is, well... still no word. Word from this zany website, is that there is an Everland "revitalization plan" in place, and Eagle's Fortress is to be replaced by another coaster in 2012. That was sad news, but better than just letting a real park draw go all-together.

The giant Ferris wheel is done now as well. There's a little "Adieu, Wonder Wheel" cut-out in front of the ride where you can get a photo taken of your tear-stained face. I won't be missing that one at all - creaky-ass wheel. Gave me a heart-attack.

We capped the night off by saving seats in the very front of the stage for the fireworks show, and got there early enough to create a veritable vortex of nerdish glee: an outdoor game of Settlers of Catan, in front of the Everland Main Stage, lit only by the atmospheric glow of our Nintendo DSs (is that how one pluralizes DS?) I gotta get back to grammar school. Anyway, I'm done with Everland for a while. It's cheap and it's fun, but it's far, and I've been there 10 effing times. Perhaps the most glorious part of the entire day though was the ride home - still an after-effect of the longer Chuseok holiday is that Seoul is comparatively empty. On the off-branch from the green line, north to line #1, I was completely alone and took photos to prove it.

6) Also, joined my good friend, Ian, his mom, and her Aunt for a tour of downtown Seoul with the rabbit on Friday after Chuseok. Gyeong-buk Palace, Cheonggy-cheon stream, Insadong, Traditional Tea (well, English breakfast for Auntie Nuala), and dinner at the Urban Garden was a decent way to spend an afternoon. I hope there will be another chance to see them before they head home. It was great to see a good friend here in Seoul - for me the first time - and show some people around some of my favourite downtown spots. The energy displayed by Marian and Nuala reminded me of my parents when they were here, almost a year ago now.

7) Got measured for my very first pair of tailored shirts. It's about time. I have long-ass monkey arms, I'm tall, but not very wide, and when I would previously buy a shirt to reach to my wrists, I would otherwise be swimming in it. The collar never closed tightly enough around my pencil neck to hold a tie properly and I looked a lot like this guy, which isn't good. I guess Itaewon isn't completely useless.

Anyway, all-in-all a good Chuseok. Jiggae Sunday with the rabbit tonight, and then back to the school scene tomorrow. I think I'm ready for it, though I will miss being able to just get-out and enjoy the beautiful weather whenever I want to.

I love the fall.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Holy crap! There was a fair amount of rain today.

I had kind of an ill-fated trip across town to a few places in an attempt to share some Big Rock goodness over Chuseok. I had to head first to Itaewon, as the clerk at a photo shop there had forgotten to give my card back the previous evening, and I hadn't noticed it missing until I got back to my house.

When I came up out of the subway, it was ridiculous rain - rivers coming down the streets. I waited under an awning for a bus to Gangnam, and when it came, though i ran through the rain, it took-off before allowing me to get on. I was less-then-pleased.

So, back to the subway. When I got to Gangnam, it was a bit a shit-show: cars half-submerged but still trying to move-on, assuming they could make it through the worst of it, and many of them did. The whole main street near Gangnam station was covered in water right up to store-fronts and probably inside as well.

Click here to see photos from a Korean blog to see just how severe some of the flooding really was in certain spots. I'm sure there will be lots of coverage in tomorrow's paper about it, but it appears that the storm drain were simply overwhelmed in such a short time. Cheonggye-cheon stream, the down-town water walkway that runs Eastward form Gwanghwamun, looked like a raging river. I only hope it didn't happen too quickly as I'm sure people would have gotten washed-out had they been down there. I hope there was ample warning.

Anyway, I hope that everyone's safe and that not too many family gatherings have been washed-out. Not everyone in Seoul lives in a high-rise apartment, so it might have been a very damaging day for some.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On the Bookshelves

I've been doing a fair amount of reading lately, though not a great deal of it has been for something other than school.

When I do have time, I've been thoroughly enjoying Christopher Hitchens' best-selling memoir: "Hitch-22". As intelligent and informed as Noam Chomsky and as gifted in the sharp-edged nature of the English language as Gore Vidal, Hitchens is a thrill to read. It's been enthralling to hear directly about the things that shaped him early-on.

For those who don't know, Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Slate Magazine and others, and he has written a few best-sellers of the non-fiction variety, including a defense of George Orwell, and condemnations of Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa.

If that's not enough to turn your crank, consider that he is also, at least prior to that recent Steven Hawking interview, the world's most renowned atheist, or, as he would prefer: "Anti-theist". His two recent volumes on the subject The Portable Athiest: Essential Readings for the Non-believer, and God is NOT Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, having huge impacts after following in the wake of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion a few years back.

I realize that for some people, the mere fact that Hitchens would offer-up an attack on Mother Theresa's motivations is enough to write him off. I guess that's your choice. I haven't yet read that volume, but it's on the list.

Anyway, consider this an endorsement, such as it is, of a brilliant mind and essayist. It's recommended reading for the faithful and secularists alike, though I do understand that the likelihood of a good percentage of the faithful picking-up Christopher Hitchens at Chapters is about as likely as me scanning the aisles for the latest from Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter.

This isn't to say that I am an easy convert - I too attended and was confirmed in the United Church of Canada in my youth - but I STILL don't, as you might say "believe blindly in everything I read", contrary to the particularly glib opinion of a semi-recent house guest who attempted to "out" me as I engaged in a very cordial conversation with a friend and follower of the Bahai faith. Upon seeing Hitchens lining my bookshelves, it was hard for him to understand how I could, after reading such pointed criticism of faith, be fair-minded enough to engage in conversation with a believer? It would surprise you. Perhaps the intent was to dissolve our conversation, or at least dilute it into a pathetic end. I was pleased to learn that, once said house guest had left for the evening, my rather enlightening exchange with a friend continued in good humour much through the night and well into the next morning over breakfast. Such friendships are capable of appreciating - if not conceding to - each other's points of view.

Anyway, without motive or assumption that it will lead to monumental shifts in your view of the world (though it might), I can safely say that reading Hitchens in-depth will at the very least challenge you. That seems to be what he's here for - if you believe in that sort of thing. If you couldn't be bothered picking-up one of his books, I would recommend at least checking out this link for one of his recent interviews before you move on to any debate. I have seen many, and I have yet to see him concede a point. As his colleague once remarked through experience: "If you are invited to debate Christopher Hitchens, decline."

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer of the esophagus as I write this. Though he recently quit smoking and heavy drinking, years of excess caught-up with him, and here he is, canceling some legs of book tours and having to decline debates - likely for the first time in his life.

What's really disturbing about this, but not a surprise, is the fact that there are more than a few Christian groups throughout the Western World who are praying that Mr. Hitchens suffers a horrible worldly death for his lack of faith. To be fair, there are also those who are praying for either Hitchen's recovery, his deathbed conversion to accepting Jesus as his personal saviour, or both. These latter two, Hitchens himself looks-upon kindly. Still, the well-wishers seem to be greatly outnumbered these days (or at least over-shouted) by the masses who see Hitchen's cancer as God's good work - apparently ignoring the mistakes made when God also allowed cousin so-and-so and great aunt whatsername to also contract the big C. Mysterious ways.

Anyway, despite the barbed titles of his books, you will not find a writer on the subject who is more well-informed or compassionate about the human race he suffers along-side. Though I'm guessing that 90% of the people who read this won't ever bother picking-up one of his books, I still maintain that you might be glad you did. Regardless, he likely won't be around much longer and his is a voice of reason whose influence will be missed in these increasingly troubled times.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Arcade Fire and Miyazaki

I don’t know anywhere where fall is better than it is in Korea. Granted – I haven’t spent fall anywhere but Canada, and here, and I suppose I’ve spent portions of it in Thailand and Cambodia, but that doesn’t really count.

As has been said copious amounts of times before this, Koreans pride themselves on having four distinct seasons. Aside from the odd blip that was this past summer, where the heavy rains moved from the usual July to August, Koreans can predict their peninsula’s weather like clock-work. Suddenly, while walking one night a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that I wasn’t sweating like a pig from the humidity. Fall was in the air.

The summer actually flew-by in a rush of air-conditioning, summer camp days, and a whirlwind trip to Canada. As a result, fall seems to have sprung-up on me somewhat. It is very welcome – It’s warm and clear during the day, and I can sleep on top of my covers with both windows open at night. Riding my bike to school, class, or just around Seoul is no longer guaranteed to produce a drippy Dave when I come back home. I love this weather, and it does make me think back to last fall when I was welcoming my parents to Korea for the first time. Fall is a time to be reflective, I find – more than other times of year, it’s a closing rather than an opening and such an atmosphere seems to have the opposite affect on my mind. I have the time, at least over the Chuseok holidays to just be.

So, in my being, I miss my parents. Last year’s vacation was one not to be forgotten though I do hope to have many more chances to play host to them in the future. I also miss fall in Canada – crazy as it can be, weather-wise. To me it was always an excuse to stay home and be with family – hockey season starting, holidays a turn of the calendar away, and (let’s be honest) for people such as myself, Christmas season notifying its return at the first change of weather.

I’m not quite there yet in Seoul, but I am enjoying these days when I can take them. This past Saturday, I rode my bike for two hours from up North to the Han River south of Sinchon Rotary, across the Seogang Bridge, and on to Yeuido Island where I am teaching my new High School Critical Reading and Writing class (much more on that later). I wish I had a helmet-mounted camera to show folks back home what I saw – the city of Seoul on a clear and sunny day, from the North mountains, across the river to the financial center. Busy streets, but emptier than usual because of Chuseok. Times like this I know that I am very lucky to live here as I do – doing a job that I rediscovering my love for, and having the freedom to explore the city as I do. I’m not always a dire and complaining grumpy-pants. I still don’t consider myself to be a “big city” person, at least in terms of having to choose between that label or the one of a “small town” person, but I am grateful for how comfortable I have become here, and how I have been able to find new ways to enjoy the city.

A friend who recently left after 6 years in Korea remarked upon her return to Seattle how she missed the regularity of the seasonal changes in Seoul – particularly the fall, with the prices of certain fruits in the Home Plus, the horrid smell of the ginko nuts crushed on the sidewalks, and how empty the city is through the week of Chuseok – less hustle on the subways, and everyone just slowing-down a bit more. Makes it feel lore like home.

That’s where I’m at. I’ll be trying to write more through the week, and I will get to my new high school class, which has kind of been a much needed game-changer for me over the past month. But these are some other things I’ve been meaning to write about:

Music: Nothing unique or bold in saying this, but I love the Arcade Fire’s latest album, Suburbs. It’s constantly in short rotation on my ipod, and it may be their best album yet. Even songs I was luke-warm on at first, have since become favourites (“Modern Man” being a strong example). Win Butler’s voice seems to have matured or gained more control and it’s welcome for these songs. There’s even some borrowing from Devotchka on a track or two, and I don’t mind it one bit. The song, as all of their past ones have done, make me think of home as well as the city I live in now. There is no better current soundtrack for cycling through Seoul. I’m not one for experimenting with too much new music, and I don’t really take the time to seek it out, but it’s nice when one you had huge expectations for exceeds them with an exclamation point.

Also, I’ll be taking the rabbit to Rufus Wainwright’s first concert appearance in Seoul. It will be happening on October 10th at the AX Hall, which should make for a nice, intimate venue. I’ll add Rufus to the growing line-up of great concerts I will have enjoyed since moving here and I don’t mind pouring all of my monthly entertainment budget into one show if I know I’m paying to see a true artist play for an appreciative crowd.

Movies: I decided to reacquaint myself with the works of Hayao Miyazaki (as you can see by the pictures posted above) in recent weeks as well. It’s been years since I’ve seen My Neighbor, Totoro, and I hadn’t made it to the theatre to see Spirited Away when it was released back in Canada. Watching the Japanese animated classics dubbed into Korean with English subtitles was a treat for the rabbit and I. Love Disney and Pixar as I do, you would be hard-pressed to find more thoughtful or creative animated story-telling than the moment when Totoro appears with a leaf on his head to wait for the Cat Bus, or when the Stink Spirit shows-up at the bath house in Spirited Away. If you haven’t seen these things, your mind will open when you do. I wish I could sit and watch Totoro with my oldest nephew, who I predict would have the patience and imagination to really appreciate what's going on with the story.

I also got the chance to check-out The Kids are all Right – a film I’ve been wanting to see for a while and was surprised to find playing here in Korea, being that it centers around a female gay couple with two children. There was a lot to love about the movie, though I was a bit surprised by how much of it I found off-putting – not the gay element, but the playing of an affair at least in part for laughs. This is a directorial choice, and one I couldn’t get behind (pardon the pun). Otherwise, a fantastic movie about normal people. Oscar will come calling in February.

Thoughts on the Burden of Chuseok

It’s holiday time, here in Korea – well, South Korea, anyway. This coming Wednesday and the days it is sandwiched in-between comprise Chuseok, or what might be better-understood as “Korean Thanksgiving”. It’s the most important holiday in Korea, and this year, people are quite fortunate as the day upon which Chuseok falls allows citizens to enjoy more extra time off than they would in most years. Korea does have a lot of “Red Days” or official government-recognized holidays, but should they happen to fall on the weekend, there is no extra day off given “in lieu” of the Saturday or Sunday holiday. This year however, kinder companies are giving employees the Monday and Friday off as well – leading to a 9 day holiday – something that is much-needed for those who have fallen into the faster pace here.

Generally, for Chuseok, the idea is that Korean families head en masse to their “hometown” – usually a rural setting where grandparents may still reside – for a few days of celebrating the harvest and having an excuse to get-together and recognize the bond shared among family members dead and those still-living.

I'll focus on the positive next time, but for now, here's a little something that gets under my skin...

There are some things I don’t enjoy about Chuseok – most of which can be lumped into a wide-sweeping and knee-jerk distaste I have for the sexism that the holiday is laden with: traditionally speaking, Chuseok in modern day Korea is a chance for men to sit, watch TV, and drink to excess, while the women are solely responsible for preparing mountains of food and cleaning-up after the boys.

School lunchroom conversations are telling: “Are you looking forward to Chuseok?” I will ask. The men will respond by expressing their relief at having a few days off to relax, while the female teachers will generally sigh, as you or I might do, at the prospect of having to prepare 3 Christmas dinners in as many successive days, for a host of relatives who have very specific and time-honored expectations of your role as the wife (the worst-case scenario being the wife of an oldest son) – namely working your fool ass off to prove your worth. One teacher expressed sadness at the prospect of not being able to sit with her legs out at the low dinner table – as her live-in mother-in-law suggests that proper wives sit with their knees tucked under them – rubbing her knees absently at the memory of last year’s Chuseok feast.

These are the unpleasant things, though they do vary from household to household to be sure. I do reflect though on how I used to be back home – attached to a significant other at holiday time, pondering how we might make that all important decision about whose home we visit and when – traditions do matter to all of us at least to some extent. Here in Korea, it’s generally simpler. As a woman, if you marry a man, you become part of that man’s family in quite a de facto sense (even though, interestingly enough, you don’t take his name – we aren’t perfect either). Come holiday time, Chuseok is spent at HIS family’s home, and this is rarely even up for debate. Sure, there might be side visits to the wife’s place of birth – but it is generally considered only after plans have been centered around the husband’s family.

And, as was mentioned briefly above, woe be the woman who chooses to marry the oldest son. Still quite strictly adhered to is the concept of the eldest son being the most important child – and therefore the one saddled with the greatest of expectations. Most of this was gleaned from scattered lunchtime curiosity conversations with co-teachers, so take it as you will, but man – I could tell you stories. I’ll give one example:

When asking one female teacher at my school what her plans were for Chuseok, she shared a lot:

1) Her husband was the oldest son in his family, and was therefore failing at finding a wife willing to make the match until his late 30s – quite the rarity for men who aren’t the first-born. I would agree that this would be a foreboding piece of information for any young lady to hear from a suitor – “You’re the first born son? Thanks for dinner, but I’ll have to be going…”

2) Her husband’s university was paid-for by the parents, while his siblings were left to fund their post-secondary education on their own (but there’s more).

3) Though her husband’s siblings all make more money than her husband does, he, as the oldest son, is still responsible for shouldering greater family expenses and debts – this despite the fact that one of his siblings is a lawyer and another, a doctor.

4) Her husband’s parents now live with my co-teacher, her husband, and their two children – though the lawyer sibling has no children of his own, and could certainly afford the space and money required to assist.

5) Her husband’s younger sister decided to pursue a university degree later into her adult years, and my co-teacher had to cover the cost with her own salary – such, as an example, is the duty of the Wife of the Oldest Son (in capitals for ease of understanding).

6) For Chuseok, since mother-in-law lives at home, my co-teacher will not be seeing her own family on her parents’ side as it falls within her list of related duties to prepare food over the entire 3 days of Chuseok as husband’s family migrates to Seoul. Hopefully, she will find the time required to make the journey south after the big day to see her parents and siblings.

It’s easy for this stuff to make me kind of, well… mad.

The truth is, there’s some stuff about traditions here that I am happy to see changing with new generations. I’m sure we would each be hard-pressed to find anyone among our friends and neighbours who would see the enforcement of these gender roles as a positive thing, unless of course you happen to be friends with older conservative Korean men. The above list of stresses, duties, and fading lights at the end of the tunnel at times for people like my co-teacher does not accurately represent everyone’s experience here either. Still – worth mentioning that it does for some.

This Thanksgiving, raise a glass to the ladies of Korea, and be thankful if you can count yourself among the lucky ones who have a husband who at least offers to carve the bird or lead the assault on the dishes.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Jackasses that give foreigners a bad name

Exhibit A:

Last night in Hongdae, after joining friends for dinner, I stopped by the 3 Kings pink truck - a nice little road-side Tex-Mex food truck set-up near some popular clubs near Hongik University - one of the more popular night spots for university types.

The truck is operated by three friends, one of whom (Johnny) is Korean American, and last night was proudly wearing a Vernon Maxwell jersey from his hometown team, the Houston Rockets. While they were setting-up the truck, a group of 6 or 7 American G.I.s walked by wearing their finest "civies" as my dad would call them.

The alpha-dog in their group remarked loudly and mockingly at Johnny for the shirt - wondering how a local could possibly know who Mad Max was. Assuming Johnny was about as likely to be an NBA fan as this guy is to be a fan of Jarome iginla.

Anyway, after Johnny revealed that he was indeed from Houston, the traveling show realized that this information, along with the fact that Johnny could probably take all of their Blackwater-trained asses down with a few well-placed Muay-Thai elbows and knees, decided to be all-friendly and asked if there was a club nearby where they would be admitted. Apparently, it's tough for American Soldiers to be truly incognito here - breaking curfew invites discipline from the higher-ups - so it's understandable why club managers wouldn't want any trouble on their premises for this reason, or were they not admitted for another reason?

Johnny suggested a few places, and then Alpha-dog, unsatisfied, inquired further as to where might be the best place where he could, and here I can't quote directly as I lack the proper Texan vernacular: get his dick sucked by a local.

At this point, I'm wondering what's running through Johnny's head. Robbie looks at me with a grin knowing that Johnny's going to make the right choice - just continue suggesting fun places where the group of class-acts might have a good time. What he probably should have done is just recommend to wander back to Itaewon and pay for it, but these guys clearly thought they were charming enough and entitled to wow the locals with their suave selves.

I wonder what runs through the mind of a Korean American, who loves both of his countries, and finds himself interacting with potential customers for a start-up business, is offended by what they say, and has to put on a brave face. I'm sure that a part of him wanted to tell these people to go back and get a job that would pay for their college tuition, instead of enlisting, getting stationed at Yongson military base in the hopes they would have that magical oriental experience that would add fuel to the firey addage: "once you go Asian, you never go caucasian".

Anyway, there in flesh, blood and big, shiny shoes were a group of clowns who give other foreigners (and other G.I.s to be fair) a bad name.

Anyway, "Support your Troops", "tie a yellow ribbon 'round the ole oak tree", and all that.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Gap

I am sitting at a brand-new Starbucks in Jong-no 3-ga waiting to meet two other teachers to discuss a new curriculum. Jongno-3-ga is a downtown neighbourhood in Seoul not far from where Insadong-gil spills out on the south end. It smells a little too new here, so I ordered a slice of something called “Grandmother’s Apple Pie”, which would be accurate if the grandmother's maiden name were "Crocker." See, I recently had some strawberry/rhubarb pie made by my nephew’s grandmother and that makes this stuff taste not unlike cardboard, but it’ll do.

No internet here tonight, so this'll be posted after I get home.

Gosh… lots to write about. It seems that I do a lot of wanting-to-write, and very little actual writing these days. At least every second day, there’s something very worthwhile I would love to comment on, and when I finally get home, it’s time to fight-back thoughts of forthcoming school-related anxiety before going to bed – something I seem to be getting pretty good at, as the rabbit can attest to – me shooting-out a quick knee-jerk or twist before making a B-line for R.E.M. sleep not more than a minute later. Rage, rage against the dying of the bedside lamp.

First week back, as mentioned before, has been tough. I miss my family. I wonder about the friends I barely got to see and the ones I never saw at all. A shout-out to one in particular who will be completing some sort of circle this September when he stars in a professional production of 12 Angry Men. Greg was a key part of my first step-away into something “more professional” (quotation marks firmly attached) of the same play 7 years ago. Has it really been that long?

Anyway, as I relate to it, I regret not being there to see my friend in his latest role – being that it is such a special one to the both of us.

Staying on the subject of said friend – I have been using a rather appealing photo of him and I in the classroom this week as I told my students about my trip back to Canada over summer vacation. The 12 photos were selected from among at least a couple of hundred, and were chosen to reflect the high points of my trip – minus the engagement (I do want to be chosey about some things I share with my kids before I feel I should). I wanted to show the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains (Banff & Lake Louise), the city I come from (Calgary), and a taste of my family (you know who you are) as well as my friends – in this case, Greg.

It always starts-out the same way. I ask who this guy is.

“Your father!” some student shouts.

“Your grandfather!” offers another.

I love the sounds that are returned when I inform them that the man to my left is my friend, Greg. In Korea, it’s almost inconceivable that friendships between two people with such a supposed age-gap (I actually have no idea how old Greg actually is) would exist outside of the obligation-drenched environment of the workplace. It’s hard for even my teachers to understand how or why Greg, who is NOT a member of my family, would be on the ever-shortening list of people I simply MUST see on a trip back home.

He’s got white hair! Well… so do I. And so I explain that age-gap is not really as much of an issue. It’s not built into the language as it is here in Korea.

The picture that follows is one with me giving Brandon, my youngest nephew, a ride through the narrows of the Banff Upper Hot-springs.

“Who is this?” I ask, pointing to the 4 year-old on my back.

“Your other friend!” is the smart-ass answer, but it’s welcome.

And so school’s been slowly getting better, though there are stresses to fill my mind. Point form might serve well to enter here. Forgive my laziness…

1) Outside of the odd sassy student who wants to engage, the first week back from vacation is a challenge for all. There are few smiles in the hallways, and engaging my students with the duty of preparing for an up-coming speaking test so early in the semester is not one I look forward to. I dig deep these days. The grade 1 students have almost enough piss and vinegar to get me through, and I’m getting better and better at a key part of Korean classroom management – finding that one popular student who isn’t sleeping or smacking his table-mate and getting him or her on my side. It’s nearly enough to make the repetition of my duties bearable. The co-teacher then chips-in on days when I don’t bring enough… effervescence maybe, to the classroom to drag 36 weary students and a co-teacher over the edge into engaged happiness.

2) This Saturday, I will begin teaching a new class for high-level high school students in a district south of the Han River. Despite the madness, I am looking forward to it – but first, the madness. Though I was first invited to teach a class on critical reading and essay writing, I have discovered since accepting the position (which I wasn’t interviewed for, by the way) that the course may or may not be much more than I bargained for. In the practical and quantifiable sense, this is certainly the case. There is… wait for it… no curriculum! Of course this is a brand new course rolled-out before it is likely wise to do so. Myself, and two Korean co-teachers have been charged with the duties of creating curriculum for “high level” students whom I have yet to meet.

To heighten my stress level, the course description, which was handed-out at a recent “opening ceremony” reads like a 4th year university syllabus. At the ceremony was also where I learned that the course was called the “Diamond Program”, or something of that sort. When I attended the program, I entered a high school south of the river. The school’s first floor entrance, down the hallway and up the stairs to the 2nd floor gymnasium was lined with bowing women in traditional Korean hanbok, and the guests of honour were played-in by a 10 piece student orchestra. One of the guests of honour must have been a very important guy, as he arrived fashionably late (the band likely playing some version of “Hail to the Chief” as he entered surrounded by no less than 5 “body men” who, once the man was seated, proceeded to scour the area, fix his tie, and dust off his shoulders before he spoke briefly and was whisked off the stage before we knew what had hit us). Clearly, this “Diamond Program” is a big deal.

Or is it? Is this program truly a university prep course for University-level high-school students who are looking for that leg up to get into one of the “S.K.Y. Universities” (Korea’s big-3: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – my lady’s alma mater, for those keeping score)? Or, is this what I have come to expect from Korean education – largely through the hagwon experience I had in my first year – a great deal of pomp and circumstance and show, to cover a rather generic after-school style program designed to help students become stronger readers and writers?.

I’m truly hoping for the latter here, though my adrenal gland kicks-in, even as I write this, and reminds me that I should and do have expectations for myself.
Lament as I often do about my lack of “real” teaching opportunities in this public school position, along comes just that and it scares the pants off of me. Of course, I haven’t been to the first class yet – I’ve only made it to the “opening ceremony.” But a real teacher I want to be, so here is my opportunity. I’ve got a few things I’d like to discuss. I think it’s going to be fun and enlightening to both teachers and students to see what the Korean view of gay marriage is. We will discuss the concepts of racial “purity” – a concept too many Koreans still hold tightly to, as well as inter-racial marriage, inter-racial children and adoption. I’m also looking forward to introducing some to the idea of vegetarianism. PETA’s “Meet your Meat” video will have a whole new audience.

And so there is a lot to look forward to. I miss the engagement I had with some of my hagwon students. It’s a new experience to inform me of my strengths, fears, and weaknesses with a new age a skill level of students, and (it must be said), is also some extra money.

Enough about school.

3) My bike. What would be a blog entry without at least a mention? I’ve gotten back to riding the little guy after a long Canada-induced absence. It’s been my first chance to try-out the new bike computer I purchased in Canada and I must say that I love the thing. A wireless reader reacting to a tiny magnet bound to a front wheel spoke and a few measurements and entries later, I am able to read the current speed, average speed, maximum speed, trip distance, trip time, current time, and total odometer measurement in a tiny display no bigger than a watch-face mounted on my handlebar. It’s golden. And I love how this relatively obvious and “old” technology is giving me such a thrill. I will become one of those nerds who enters numbers into some sort of “bike log” as I go through the weeks. What I’ve learned:

Since using my computer, I’ve traveled a total of 59.4 km on my bike – a drop in the bucket from how far I’ve gone since buying the thing back in June. Also, the distance from Hongdae to my apartment way up in Dobong-gu is approximately 22 km (not accurate as I started measuring a few kms down the road), my average speed on the oft-congested highways and by-ways of Seoul is a rather pathetic-sounding 14.8 km, and I have yet to go faster than 33.5 km – few safe down-hill straight-aways to take advantage of. So there you go – a little out of context information that is likely hard to care about unless you’re traveling the same circles.

But I’m back to loving my bike – even last night, when I was bound and determined, even after free up-sized ice cream with friends after class, to ride home under threatening skies. Constant drizzle about 3 km into my 18 km trip, but only drizzle until the skies opened-up with about 5 km to go. When your choice is a warm, dry and crowded subway, or a 2 hour ride home in the rain, I made the obvious choice.

Wet, but not cold, and happy to dry my bike off before heading into the midnight shower before bed.

And that’s where I am again. Caught in the rain once more on my way home – this post interrupted by a meeting and commute, then skype with an Australian friend who’s traveling across the globe and currently re-tracing my recent steps through my hometown and home.

The world is smaller tonight.