Tuesday, November 30, 2010

COEX Aquarium

I went-by Seoul's biggest aquarium today (not Korea's biggest - that would be Busan's) to scout-out a field trip for my winter English camp. It's always good to have a field trip on the agenda for the students whose parents make them attend school over the holidays, and being that it's going to be effing cold, we need something indoors. Sadly, almost anything that is both cool and indoors and somewhat educational is down south - at least an hour from school. That means quite the journey for us with a large group of unruly students. The law will be laid down.

Anyway, today was my first trip inside the aquarium - one of Seoul's recommended attractions - and it was pretty good for what it is, though in my opinion it is a tad over-priced and certainly not a destination for anyone who isn't a fan of animals held captive in too small environments.

But, it has some fun little fish aquarium sections, and some beautiful and huge coral reef areas. There is the requisite Tunnel of Shark Death area as well, complete with Jaws theme for those in the know.

Strangely, there was no pacific octopus in his tank. Perhaps the aquarium staff were hungry.

Anyway, for those with kids, or for those who just need them some zany fish action, there are some displays worth seeing. Fish are cool, and how else am I going to see them? Specifically, where else am I going to see a two-headed "good luck" turtle? It's the stuff of Flip & Flop's nightmares.

Still, not too sure about that 17,500 won price tag. Here's hoping we get enough students each week for the group discount...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sleepy Time

Yesterday (Monday) morning, I woke-up and looked outside to see snow covering the ground. I desperately wanted to stay in bed, but instead, I biked to school, and administered speaking tests to Monday morning 8th graders whose brains (as by collective choice or just as a result of the day and time) were the approximate equivalent of 2 brains for the whole class to rub together. It was a slow and painful process which ran across all of my break time, over the lunch hour, and leading right-up to my after school club. And that was my high-level students.

When such speaking tests are being administered, and the repetition sets-in, it really is enough to make you fall asleep mid-sentence, which I nearly did a couple of times.

Got home, and crashed at about 9:00. Best sleep I've had on weeks. Thanks you, speaking test, for lowering my brain's functionality to the level that all I needed to do was be in close proximity to beddy-bye, and then it was lights out.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Not a real post

Great day today. Went to Lotte World for the first time with the rabbit and had a blast on free tickets. I have a few things to say about the park, as I am a nerd for theme parks, and it was my first time there. But, that will have to wait until tomorrow night as I am just bagged. I just wanted to say that it is officially Monday and day one of "Operation Invincible Spirit part 2" has passed without major incident and the world still spins. That, and over the past week I've been reminded that life is short, and Christmas is coming, and it snowed, and I had a good weekend with friends and the lady I love. So, I'm okay.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Lotte World Tomorrow

Going to head to Lotte World tomorrow afternoon/evening with the rabbit as she was given some free passes from her school. In all the time I've been in Korea, I'm pretty sure I've now been to Everland 10 times, and Lotte World none. Tomorrow, with all of the Christmas decor up, we remedy that. Not a full-day affair, but a time to roam about and check out all of the festive stuff - get me into the spirit, I had it, and then it was put on hold. I'll write more about it when I get back.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Jessica & Rupert

Jessica is probably one of the cutest kids in my school. She's in grade 3 (middle school) and I will miss her dearly when she leaves next year. Just look at those glasses for eff's sake. How cute is that? During the winter, she's one of the ones who walked-around school at all times with a gigantic fluffy scarf wrapped at least 12 times around her neck - rendering her almost completely immobile. She had to turn her entire upper body to look at her classmate beside her. Adorable.

Anyway, she loves herself some Ron Weasley, so the Harry Potter desk calendar that my sister gave to me for Christmas last year has come-in handy. She likes to preview the week's up-coming pages and put dibs on the Rupert Grint photos.

This one was especially dreamy because he was in his jammies.

Oh, Min-Jin...

Min-Jin, one of my Saturday high school students recently gave me an essay entitled "Essay about Coeducational school" - not a great title, but we've been focusing on other things lately.

He is writing about the dangers of mixed-gender schools. There seems to be a growing trend among public schools toward all-girl or all-boy schools. Or, in cases where they are not ready for the big shift, some of the subject classes are divided by gender.

Anyway, I had to share this paragraph with you. It speaks for itself:

"Recently, the survey which is conducted by MRI, PET scanning shows that men and women have different biological brains. And many people know that men and women have different physical trait. So it causes problems of different sex. First, difference on trait of body causes inconvenience in school. For example, when girls change into gym clothes, it's very inconvenient with the boys around. Second, distorted feminism has a bad effect to school. For instance, standard of PE is different for girls and boys but standard of music, art, needlework, cooking is same for students. Many boy students have asked to make different standards of needle work and art... But it hasn't been accepted. Also, 72% of teachers has better impression of girl students than boy students Because of most of girls are more careful and winsome. It leads to wrong treatment for boy. Third, because both sexes have different brains, they need to have different types of education to increase efficiency of education."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Bronze Medal for 대한민국

Enough about nuclear annihilation for now.

I went to get my phone re-charged at the local KTF/Show phone shop tonight. As per usual, there was a customer in there before me who appeared to want to have every feature of every phone explained twice to him. My little 30 second phone recharging request would have to wait. Had this been Family Mart, the other guy had been a foreigner, and I had been an agitated Korean smoker looking to buy a pack of tumor tubes, I would have followed apparent protocol and just forced my way to the front of the line.

Instead, I watched the South Korean men's soccer team, down 3-1 against Iran in the Bronze medal final of the Asian Games in China (like our Pan-Am Games back home). I watched South Korea come within one, then the customer left, and the shop-keeper and I watched as the game went into extra time, Korea tied it up, and then they put the icing on the cake with a sweet, sweet, header.

The fans on TV went bananas, the shop-keeper and I high-fived wildly and appear to have developed a beautiful new friendship, and the Iranian fans in the stands wept with disbelief - probably because they are soccer fans, and because their country is ruled by a psychotic Jihad-bent dictator who stole an election, and then beat the shit out of his populace for sharing that fact with the world.

I was at South Korea's clinching World Cup qualifying game against Iran back in the late Spring of 2009. Same thing - it was a tie, but the home team came back, meaning that Iran would be denied a spot in the finals. After the game, many of the Iranian fans in attendance at Seoul World Cup Stadium held-up their green protest signs, asking "Where is my vote?" Never really got an answer. I was happy to have attended the game - my first international qualifier - and moved by the stoicism of the Iranian fans who used the moment to protest. Of course, not all Iranian fans there were in support of those protesting, so there were some heated exchanges. I took the photo below right before another Iranian ran down the stairs to confront one of the men with a green sign. Nothing much happened though as the area was surrounded by police that moved in after the final whistle.

Anyway, it was fun to watch the soccer game tonight and celebrate with a Korean who was proud of his team... then I went to Home Plus to buy supplies for the emergency kit the Canadian Embassy recommends we have on hand in case things get out of hand. As though it would do me any good at all. I can always use more peanut butter and trail mix though.

Earlier in the week, a North Korean stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a South Korean on the medal podium for women's archery. They were respectful and even spoke well of each other. Tonight - despite some flare-ups, both teams were respectful to each other as well. And yet it's all so odd - cold war on grass: Iran having almost certainly contributed nuclear technology to North Korea in recent months, the game being played on Chinese soil - the one country it seems that won't call the recent North Korean actions by their proper name, and the one country (besides Pakistan and Iran) that openly supplies with North with weapons.

I try, but I seem to slide-back with every step gained in an attempt to understand better the world I live in.

Sorry - looks like I couldn't really get past thoughts of war long enough to write a blog post. I'll try again tomorrow.

Worst Case Scenario

And here's another winning comment from the public posters at CNN...

"This folks will be the headlines Monday morning:

On Sunday, North Korea launched a nuclear tipped missile against the America's carrier group which was participating in Navy drills with South Korea about 70 miles off the coast of South Korea. The nuclear weapon detonated over the USS George Washington carrier and several of it's support ships sending over 10,000 brave American sailors to Davy Jones locker.

In addition, one nuclear tipped missile also detonated over Seoul, South Korea, killing over 500,000 people and burning most of the city to ashes.

The Americans responded within 15 minutes by sending over 60 MIRV's from a pair of Trident subs nearby, completely taking out all of North Korea nuclear facilities, most of it's Army, command headquarters, and it's entire leadership (5 nukes where detonated over deep hardened bomb shelters and successfully drilled down almost a mile and vaporized the entire NK leadership).

China, incensed by this, and seeking an opportunity to seize Taiwan, viciously attacks Taiwan and the USA, being committed to it's defense, and having no carrier group in the area after losing the USS George Washington attack group--has no choice but to launch nuclear missiles starting a massive nuclear exchange between China and the USA.

Meanwhile, off in Siberia, aging Russian missile command centers mistakenly calculate that many of the missiles intended for North Korea are headed toward Russian territory and Russia launches a pre-emptive full strategic strike against America with over 1500 nuclear missiles directed at every major city and military installation in the country.

America, seeing nuclear missiles by the thousands coming from both Russia and China, launches everything in it's arsenal (over 3000 missiles) at both Russia and China and Nostradamus misses just by a scant 2 years his Apocalypse theory coming true in December of 2010 instead of his predicted December of 2012.

A few days later-- Russia, China, Taiwan, both Koreas and America lie in ruins and radiation is off the charts everywhere killing billions more.

Germany and Japan announce intentions to once again unite in a world front to take control of the world.

The world will never be the same."

I'm thinking he reads too many Tom Clancy novels. I wonder if they make a survival guide for this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What Some Guy Said About It

A comment from "Brandon G." on CBC's website. Nothing particularly new here, but it does a good job echoing what I'm thinking right now. Does the regime get worse or at least more desperate as time goes on? Is regime removal, occupation, and too early a reunification the way to go? What's more inevitable? Come on, China with your shabby human rights record - get the hell out of the way on this one.

"Regardless of the differing opinions on this site, at some point and time this has to happen, this is not a people that have the ability to take down their leadership without assistance, they are ruled by intimidation and fear.

As pointed out in the comments here "I am no general" but this war would be very different than other nuclear capable, slightly insane states, like Iran. I have never read a report of the North's ability to take a barrage on their nuclear sites and for them to still be capable to fire back, unlike Iran which has buried its facilities so deep that strikes are difficult

I know as Canadians we try to rationalize a reason not to go to war, who shot first, this is just a cry for attention to get more aid, a newly crowned son asserting himself internally, at some point this has to end, the US and the South need to get a friendly nod from China (otherwise there's no way it will) and lets end this. I dont think the north is diluted enough to think that its infantry can win this war and if we remove the norths capability to mount a modern attack, taking out military installations and hopefully leadership, this could be a short war, with a minimal lose of life.

What is the cost of doing nothing? We allow a people to live under brutal repressive leadership, a people to starve, a leadership to continue to kidnap theirs neighbours citizens (Japan, South Korea) by the hundreds over the decades, allow families that have been split by the war to continue to long for reunion, a military to become more and more emboldened and over time more technologically advanced andwe continue to give aid to a regime that uses it to tighten their grip over their people.

Its sad and something must be done."

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/11/23/korea-artillery-fire.html#ixzz16AZdzvIG

North Korea Acting "Provacative" Again...

So... North Korea shelled a populated Korean island in the Yellow Sea today and exchanged fire with South Korean forces. One South Korean marine is dead, houses are on fire, and plenty are injured. Not sure how they can avoid escalation on this one. I know no more than you do, but I'll let you know when I do.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Goodbye, Harry Potter...

This is a long post. You probably don’t have the time to read it.

So, I finished reading the last Harry Potter book – finally. Also, a good friend recently got me thinking about the sometimes perceived to be polar-opposite values of reality and fantasy, or non-reality. I'll comment on both.

Gotta say, I was kind of a reluctant Harry Potter fan at the beginning, but my Hogwarts experience began quite some time ago, though not as long ago as it did for most.

I’m trying to actually place it based on the relationship I was in at the time. I have had no less than long-term 3 significant others who were all passionate fans of the series – each doing their best to get me excited about the books, and each successive one needing to try less as my own interest was beginning to take hold. I read The Philosopher’s Stone some time around the release of The Goblet of Fire book, and the first (Sorcerer’s Stone) film. I know this because I was told I was going to opening night, and that I needed to read the book first.

So, I did. I read it in an afternoon, and made my way to the theatre that night. I remember being lightly charmed by the book, but also a little stand-offish toward it as we often are when we come late to the party for something that is popular.

I’m a guy who camped-out for the first Star Wars prequel, but I really didn’t get carried away in the Potter Craze until later in the game. I was truly surprised to see the theatre full of little kids in wizard robes, hats, and wands. It was some burgeoning element of popular culture that I had completely missed until that day.

I suppose the more recent comparison would be the Twilight films – which I just don’t have enough interest in to bother with, though the obsession some people have with it does peak my curiosity a bit – not in the books or films, but from the perspective of someone who can’t help but be curious about rabid fan-bases for anything.

Anyway, I do and I don’t want to say a lot about the Harry Potter books now that I’m finished reading them. I don’t need to review them, though there are some elements of the books I feel like I want to critique, though I might not bother. I also want to celebrate them, as the series has been one of the most fun reading experiences I have had as an adult.

I remember years ago, when Uncle Surjit, long-time friend of the family, one of the most learned men I’ve met in life, and just a jolly old elf from India and Kenya, told me that he openly wept when he finished reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I don’t know what brought the comment up in the first place, but it has stuck with me. I may have been reading The Hobbit at the time. I have nothing but respect for this man, and he has seen a lot in life – more than a lot of people need to see.

Yet, in his later years, he has seemed to turn away from the pursuit of worldly knowledge, to a point. I remember, and I don’t think he would mind me relating this story, being a bit surprised and disappointed, when Uncle Surjit sent back a gift I had mailed out to him at his new home on Vancouver Island.

I had gone to see a talk given by Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize-winning author, poet, and historian, at the U of C. There. I had purchased his signed memoir: The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, and knew in my heart and mind that it would be a perfect gift for Uncle Surjit – he was the person brought to mind most often by Mr. Soyinka’s words, and I knew he would appreciate the gesture.

However, the gift was sent back to me, the book’s spine intact as it remained unread. He didn’t properly explain at the time, but he did later, and I learned that my friend had simply decided, at his stage in life, that he appreciated the kind and thoughtful gesture, but also that it wouldn’t help him at all to know any more about any sad things in the world.

The biggest part of me wanted to force the issue, and a silent part of me even went so far as to ask bigger questions about the man and his intentions, even integrity. Really? It wasn't about him not appreciating my gift. How could such a learned man, and one I respected so much, have given-up on learning about the world?

Of course, nothing’s so simple as that. In retrospect, returning a gift – especially one as thoughtful as that one had been – was about the most honest act I can think of.

My response to a miniature act, thought to be writ large in meaning, has moved through the years from disappointment, to disbelief, to acceptance and even admiration. Why, indeed, should an old man trouble himself with a history he cannot change? There’s truth in that. His kids are grown and gone, one too early, and he has nobody really that he needs to answer to anymore. Even if he did, he rather successfully in my mind holds his ground of that side of the argument – history is never truly as knowable as we like to think it is. Even if it were, would it always be worth doing? Notable Holocaust Survivors have argued this point. Some pasts can’t be directly spoken about with anything even approaching the appropriate measure of truth. In Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the most affecting portion of the film for many is when the camera lingers on a survivor, now a barber, who began reluctantly to tell his story of survival, and then simply can’t go on, but the camera stays seemingly forever on his tormented visage, and we somehow know more this way.

Yet, Uncle Surjit loved The Lord of the Rings, and I believe, still does. There’s truth in there, too. I once went to a very impressive staged production of Into the Woods, and in the liner notes, the director, Tarra Riley, had written some memorable words – paraphrased from Carl Jung and others and I’ll quote some of them here:

“What is it about fairy tales? They get under our skin, into our heads, and stay in our lives. Carl Jung, among others, believed it was because they are profound, intimate, uncensored soul-stories, told in metaphor because telling these stories directly would be impossible — or unbearable.

Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description.
D.H. Lawrence”

That seems about right. There’s something elementally human about good fantasy – in whatever sub genre you care to explore.

I can’t say I’m a Fantasy guy, at least in terms of the whole dragons and wizards action – the Robert Jordan novels that go on, and on, and on. But maybe I would be if I gave them a chance. My exposure to the fantasy genre came mostly through an option course in University. There, my professor introduced me to The Golden Compass, re-introduced me to and gave me a new appreciation for Dracula, and scared the shit out of me with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. This, after having one introductory year’s English course augmented by a professor who was really into gothic fiction, and threw us into a lot of Poe, Shelley, and then, most memorably: The Monk, and a short story about horrific dental surgery , pubescent puppy love, and opening one’s mouth to say “Mozart” as blood splashes on piano keys. Truly – some of the best stuff I’ve ever read.

But back to Potter. I’m going to miss it.

I had created a pleasant reading/viewing pattern for myself after having enjoyed the first book and film that way. As a Harry Potter film is set for release, I read the book version just before I get my tickets. I realize that this leads to a great deal of disappointment for some people, but I’m one who accepts that unless your 700 page novel is going to be released as a mini-series on HBO with a budget to equal that of Band of Brothers, then chances are, you are going to have huge chunks of plot and character cleaved from your story. I long ago accepted that the films would not be nearly as rewarding an experience as the books, and I’ve made peace with it.

That being said, I like the movies. To me, they’ll never be as memorable, meaningful, or grand as the filmed versions of The Lord of the Rings, but to me few films can be. I do find it interesting that the series, though the plot was apparently completely conceived before Rowling began writing the first book, has to some extent been informed by the film versions. It’s tough to think of any other story in popular culture that has developed in two mediums – one so closely behind the other. I didn’t have the famous trio of actors in my head when I began reading the books, but it was impossible for me to read the opening chapter of The Deathly Hallows without picturing Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in my head. It’s a pretty good fit.

Anyway, I have enjoyed the books over the past few years, and now having finished the last one, I’m feeling a bit melancholy about it.

I liked waiting to read the books. When Hallows was released the summer before I left for Korea, my room mates stayed-up on the porch through the night and well into the next afternoon, finishing the book right then and there. I think I was on Order of the Phoenix, and I remember the look on their faces when it was over for them. Good bye to characters and places they had come to know and love, but I still had 2 and a half more books to go – ha ha! The promise of more of the story still to savour.

I liked most of the predictability of the series – realizing the story over 7 years enrollment at school, breaking midway through each book for a Christmas vacation of sorts. Likable characters, fascinating new characters in every larger successive tome, and a story that, like its main characters, grew in terms of complexity, both plot-wise and morality wise. By book 7, shit is hitting the fan in all directions, and it’s getting blown-back daggers. No loss seems trite or for show, and being that you’re this far into the series, you have invested enough to feel the holes that are left. Though I have some quibbles, the writing, which grew from charming adventure parable in books one and two, to hinting at something much darker and substantial in book three, to a great page-turning game in book 4, has arrived at the tail-end of book 6 and then throughout book seven to be – well, just damn good.

Rowling has made me laugh out loud: when Ron and Harry are "de-gnoming the garden in The Chamber of Secrets, "The air was soon thick with flying gnomes", and has of course made me cry, I can't deny it. She also made me close a chapter or two with a sad smile on my face - shock at her choice to kill certain beloved characters in this widening war, and do so in unapologetic fashion. There is a great deal of gravity and dramatic reward in being an invested reader of this series, and knowing what a teary Hagrid is carrying back to a battered Hogwart’s castle for all to see. That’s some heart-breaking shit, even if things are going another way soon.

Yeah, I’ve got some minor issues – I did tire of Malfoy being a stock bad guy foil – even until the end. One could predict their confrontations like clockwork and by book 3, Malfoy and Potter finding each other and calling each other’s name in challenge became about as threatening as Jerry running into Newman in the hallway. I did also somewhat resent the fact that this albeit challenging overall plot had to be explained to me through exposition every damn time – usually in the form of Harry demanding to know more while Dumbledore kindly looked back at the boy over his half moon glasses and talked about souls, and bonds and destiny and friendship and courage and blah, blah, blah. And I must confess, even after all of the heavy exposition, I couldn’t be completely confident in explaining how or why all of what happened needed to happen by design for all to be well with the world in the end. I might have to re-read them, but will probably wait for a few years.

Anyway, I really just wanted to say that I will miss the books. There’s something, well… lovely, I suppose about such a well-crafted story with characters that you can easily get behind. A series so long that takes our characters through their formative years is hard to let go of. It’s why I’ve always lamented the end of a good TV series more than I have the end of a good film. Films are easily revisited, while series just aren’t. You’ve invited these characters into your life for 5-7 years and then they’re all growns-up and it’s time to say goodbye. Harry Potter isn’t so different, and in Rowling’s world, there’s more at stake. Imagine little Rudy Huxtable under threat from He-who-must-not-be-named. Now imagine 4th year Vanessa, 6th year Theo and visiting grads Denise and Sondra appearing from under the invisibility cloak with wands drawn to save the day, but Cliff and little fat white kid, Peter, have already bought the farm – all scored by Quincy Jones. It’s good to be challenged by a good read, and it’s good to be comforted, and it’s good when you can have both - especially when you’re in the hands of a skilled, creative, and caring author.

I will truly miss opening up a new Harry Potter book in the fall, and seeing what’s happening on Privet Drive before heading back to a magical place and seeing who the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is. Of course, those earlier books might seem a bit childish upon a second read, and that is, I suppose, how it should be. It was fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Turtle Time

Okay, so I have too much to say about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to write about right now. So, I will instead tell a turtle tale.

About a year and a half ago now, my friend, Dee gave me two slider turtles that she had inherited from a previous English teacher here in Seoul. They were really tiny when Dee got them, and still relatively smallish when they were given to me in the summer of 2009.

Now - not so small. I did somewhat improve upon their living conditions when Flip & Flop first arrived in my humble abode - giving them a proper 10 gallon aquarium with heater and filter.

They have long since outgrown their tank, however, and I need to change it on a weekly basis unless I want to see them swimming in their own terrible turtle soup.

Anyway, today on a Christmas card shopping trip, I stopped by the area in Lotte Mart that sells supplies for Kim-jang (the seasonal kimchi-preparation time) and I bought a big-ass bowl to give the not-so-little guys a new place to swim-about when I am taking care of their home on a Sunday night. They took to it like turtles to water and swam-about happily (super-fast, by the way) before doing their business. Glad to have them give their refreshed homestead a poop-reprieve for day one.

It's fun to watch them swim around where they have more space. They are truly fast little guys and I wonder how fast they'd be able to go with even more space.

Anyway, reality is, they need a new home. Immediately, that means that they need a bigger aquarium, which isn't hard or expensive to get here, though I would need to go down to Dongdaemun to get one.

Secondly, I'm heading to Canada within the year to complete a one-year teaching degree, and I'm pretty sure the rabbit will be coming with me for at least part of the trip. Since turtles can't be imported to Canada, at least I'm pretty sure that they can't, I'm going to need to find these little fellas a home. Taking little turtles is a great deal different from taking on ones that are now twice that size - Flip, the smaller of the two, has a shell that is 12cm x 9cm. It's a lot to ask of someone - to change their housing once a week and to find help when vacation time rolls-around. Lots to consider.

In the meantime, I have grown accustomed to having two turtle buddies in my house, and observing their cute little dinosaur ways - inside their house, or outside where they have free reign from time to time.

Suggestions are welcome.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Back in a jiff

All right, all right... no blog post yesterday, but I am full of excuses, and I'm only a handful of pages away from the end of the last Harry Potter book. Golly - it's been fun.

Out for a meeting, and when I get back, I might finish the book, and I might write something about it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

With Apologies to Mr. Colbert...

Tip of the Hat:

...goes out to the ajushi (an older Korean gentleman) who appeared to have taken the Seoul Global Etiquette Campaign to heart today on the subway. As I stood on a subway platform in line to the right of where an approaching door was coming into view, two bolder ajumas made their way right into the center of where the door was going to open-up. The ajushi, whose face was visible through the porthole window, and who was planning on exiting the train car through the center of the door as recommended, saw the gathering ajuma storm and angrily waved them away. They didn't move. The door opened, the ajumas tried to push their way on before anyone came out, and the older gentleman tossed his cane out the door, grabbed one particularly rugged-looking ajuma by the collar with both hands and backed her right up out of the train while barking at her to wait. He got off the train, picked up his cane, and went on his way. Thank you, sir. You just made my year.

Wag of the Finger:

...goes out to the mocking and bullying or latent prejudice that caused one of my favourite students to hide his birthmark by adopting the hairstyle of this guy.

Frank is a good student - he is forthright and kind, and just over a year ago when I first met him, he introduced himself as "Frank - Indian Prince." It's a fine birthmark, and his hair now looks a tad ridiculous. It also likely has the subtlety of a bald man donning a wig for the first time in his life.

It made me sad.

Here's a photo of Frank and I from when I first met him.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Every creation myth needs a devil."

Saw The Social Network tonight (some films are released later here) with my rabbit - she's a sweetheart, so she arranged the tickets for us for opening night, and made sure to get the back row aisle seats - just in case I happened to be on my bike.

I actually decided to go sans bike today. Getting over a cold, or still getting into it, it's hard to tell. I was glad to have the day off today. It's the Korean equivalent of S.A.T. day, which means that all schools get the day off. The country is kind of in lock-down mode while university hopefuls write the exams that could to a good point determine the level of success they will have in the rest of their lives. The suicide rate in the next week, if it's actually published, will tell you how much of a good or bad thing that is.

Anyway, with my day off, I decided against biking across the city again. Sleeping in, relaxing, reading, and getting some things done for my Saturday class made a lot more sense when I was fighting a cold anyway. Glad I stayed home.

But, went to the movie tonight. I remember showing the rabbit the trailer a couple of months ago, and then wondering if it would be coming to Korea. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is famous for fast over-lapping dialogue that he began in the stage version of A Few Good Men, and then later perfected on big screen (The American President) and the small screen (The West Wing). I wondered if it would be possible to truly follow his nuances through rapidly-displayed subtitles with characters that speak in fast forward and interrupt each other at every possible moment. The rabbit report: it's a challenge.

I do believe I'll try to write a proper review for That Movie Site if time presents itself, but for now, I'm pleased to report that hearing Sorkin's words again on the big screen was a thrill. So many good moments, though I was left wanting more of the "Sam Seaborn recommending to buy better boats" brand of satisfaction. Different stories, I know, but when Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg climbs the steps of a high rise office building in San Francisco in slippers, pajamas, and a house coat, with the expressed purpose of delivering a literal "%$#@ you!" from Napster's Sean Parker to a past wrong-doer, you kind of want to see it occur on-screen.

Anyway, excellent film. In the end, a portrait of a lonely guy clicking "refresh", in the hopes that someone back there will accept a long overdue apology. This has a lot more in common with In the Company of Men than any other film I can think of.

On a personal note, I did react to the film with a little baggage of my own. I've had friendships fade through the years as we all have, but I have had 4 friendships end - just stop, cold. All 4 were a result of creative business partnerships gone awry. Right in my eyes, and wrong in the eyes of the 4 now gone, I could palpably identify with Eduardo Saverin's rage upon the discovery that he'd been circumvented by Zuckerberg and Parker. Creative partnerships have the power to create a rare paranoia, and they can create a mess.

A well-told story. People can be assholes.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Get out...

I kicked a student out of my class today. I feel bad about it, and I don't. I do because I had previously kicked Bruce out of my class for excessive swearing. He's not a bad kid, but he goes the extra mile to be a stand-out in class in the wrong way far too often. I don't feel bad for obvious reasons.

Today, while talking about the G20 summit as a lead-in to a language point, I was showing a slide of Barack Obama (not the one shown here) side-by-side with South Korea's president, Lee Myeong-bak. Bruce had to pipe-up and share this witty offering:

Bruce: He is ugly!
Me: No, no... he is very handsome.
Bruce: No - ugly. He is shit color!

I know Bruce is not unlike many students here. Look at any cross-section of young Korean people - many of whom believe mommy and daddy's lies and think that they are "pure-blood". When I see them, if the concept must enter my mind for consideration, I see a whole spectrum of the history of the Korean peninsula's tendency to be run over roughshod by its neighbours, and the resulting mixing that took place. My students vary a great deal in eye-shape, skin color, and other features that I continue to care less and less about as I age.

Yet, here - many students take no trouble to call a classmate "Taliban" if his or her skin is a shade darker than most. The other day, they referred to an absent Korean teacher as "Negroe", likely because her skin is a shade darker, and it's quite possible, I would agree, that somewhere along her line is some ancestry from the SE portion of the continent. Put your money down on whether or not these students were using "Negroe" as a term of flattery.

Anyway, without a second thought, I calmly asked Bruce to leave. He looked disappointed, but his slowness in getting out of his chair (with a class clown's smile beginning to show) brought a redness to my face and I ended-up throwing his text book out of the room, in the hopes that he would hurry up and follow. Signs of racism aren't pleasing to me, pride in it is worse.

I'm not proud of that last bit - for a few reasons, not the least of which being that I try to pride myself on being an advocate for caring for books, even if by mid-way through semester 2, it, with it's covers missing and pages torn out, resembles anything but a text book.

I felt like garbage after the class, though I don't regret what I did.

I made sure to find Bruce after school - he was playing badminton with some friends in the school yard - and asked to speak with him. He does respect me a great deal, which is what makes his misguided actions in my classroom so disappointing to me, and also gives him cause to try and impress me, unfortunately in said misguided ways. I took him away from his friends and apologized for throwing his book, but then went on to explain that he cannot say those things in my class. I also said that he needs to change his thinking. I reminded him that I look different to him, as he does to me, and that if he were to visit a part of the world where he were a minority, he might have to face the reality of people ridiculing his differences for a laugh.

Bruce, as fate would have it, has very small eyes, in relation to other students in the school. According to popular Korean opinions on vanity, this is an undesirable trait. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Bruce has often been ridiculed for this fact. I'm sure he has.

At any rate, he seemed contrite after our discussion. He apologized and shook my hand. I know that unfamiliarity breeds ignorance, but it still shocks the shit out of me when I see evidence that students think it's okay to say what Bruce said in my classroom today. I truly hope that a dark-skinned (and hopefully thick-skinned) teacher replaces me at my school next year.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Toe Story 3

It's off! All of that freezing, puncturing, stitching , and pain came to nothing. The big guy fell off last night - leaving this funky little deal of an "undertoe" in its wake. Not really sure what's to happen with the oddly shaped semi-sensitive nail/flesh, but there may yet be cause for a sequel. Here's hoping that it doesn't start growing into the softer, exposed areas. Good times.

In the meantime, I have packaged the fallen and once-proud nail as a Christmas gift for one special student - the one who caused the nail trauma in the first place. I'll save it for the last class before Christmas and it'll bring a tear to his eye, I'm sure.

"Would you mind not being a bunch of ass-clowns?"

Not a lot of energy coming from my students today, which was a bit of a let-down after my relatively high energy open class on Monday morning. We had a fun lesson - I actually used the G20 Global Etiquette Campaign to create the lesson: basically turning a rule ("Don't spit") into a polite suggestion ("Would you mind not spitting?").

I made a hell of an impressive powerpoint to accompany the lesson - full of zany examples of bad etiquette to get some laughs from the kids. For high energy students, this lesson is golden - it builds to having students looking at wordless graphics representing examples of situations where people (namely Koreans - hey... they are the target of this campaign) could be a bit more polite in public, then creating a dialogue using the focus language:

A) "Would you mind waiting for people to get off of the subway before you get on?"
B) "Of course not."
C) "Thank you very much."

After we share these created dialogues in groups, teams are asked to then create a polite suggestion for yours truly - Teacher Dave. I had some creative ones: "Would you mind coloring your hair black?", "Would you mind giving us your love?", "Would you mind not using sound effects?" (I often make zany sounds when I hand-out worksheets - I thought all kids enjoyed it, but not young Min-ho, it seems).

Anyway, today's kids were so bloody low-energy that nothing was working. Didn't let it get me down today though. I just gave the appropriate polite suggestions to offending students: "Would you mind not yawning?", "Would you mind not sleeping?". It is often too easy to let the classroom standards and expectations of decent behaviour get to me. Today it didn't, and I think it served me well in the end.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cargo Class

As mentioned, this past Saturday was, in addition to my field trip, the night of the Han River Cycling Endurance Challenge (or something like that – it had a long name anyway.)

It ended-up being a lot of fun, though I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t stick it out for the entire 12 hours as I had hoped. Hey – life gets in the way. I didn’t offer excuses to anyone there, except to say that I was just too damn tired in the end, which I was. But, I’ll give you the excuses here.

My day started off with a bike-trip down the cheon (stream) by my house to the Han River, and then across to the other side and East until I reached Olympic Park where I was to meet my co-teachers at 10:00am for the field trip. Not gonna lie – was still setting-up material late into Friday night and by the time I got to the park on Saturday morning, I was completely bagged. Then, a few more leisurely hours of riding about the park supervising, then back West along the river, across the bridge and to the starting point to meet the other riders.

Before I say any more, let me reiterate that I had long-held opinions about a lot of these ex-pat meet-ups in Seoul. It really didn’t seem like my cup of tea. However, Tim (from a previous post) was such a nice guy to invite me a couple of weeks previous on first meeting, so how could I say no? If I wanted to stay mostly to myself throughout the night, that was an option, too. I had a few audiobooks and podcasts loaded onto my ipod for the ride just in case.

By the end of my race though, I hadn’t listened to anything at all. Great group of people – all in it for the fun (if riding in cold weather in the wee hours of the morning can be called fun), and I’m glad I went out for it.

The course started close to the 7-11 just West of Banpo Bridge (site of many a slosh-ball game) and ran East to the bridge crossing to Seoul Forest. It was a fast loop and an easy one to ride over and over again, and it gave all category of rider a worthy challenge.

I guess looking back it seems like a strange way to pass a Saturday night. Some people knew each other and rode in teams, and others (like me) just kind of showed-up on their own after hearing of the event through facebook. It was not freezing during the first half, but the night grew increasingly cold and I’m sure that those who stayed the full 12 hours would tell you that it dropped well-below zero close to the end.
Anyway, as I rode-up to the starting area on my wee Brompton, I immediately realized that there were a few hardcore cyclists involved. Dudes in matching gear and extreme road bikes – big thin tires, as well as all other manner of bike. Bikes were divided into classes based mostly on their wheel and tire size and width, though I had a little fun with the classification being that mine was the only folding bike amid the other beasts.

One of the categories was “Cargo Class:” – for bikes meant for long hauls. Ha ha… I entered that one. The only thing that qualified me for that class was my willingness to carry a couple of 2 litre bottles on my back rack, just as all of the other “cargo bikes” did.

Why not? I had already decided that I wasn’t going to REALLY push myself that night – I may as well have every excuse in the book to ride at non "I’ve-got-something-to-prove" speed and to just take in the river, the night, and the enjoyment of knowing that I was doing something kind of zany. I left my front bag on the luggage for the first five laps as well – just so that my little bike could truly be welcome in the Cargo Class.

I had a great ride. Spent a few laps riding with Peter from Wisconsin – fellow Cargo Classman, good guy with a great sense of a humour and huge hockey fan – what’s not to like? We pushed each other and kept conversation going for a few laps – we even switched bikes for a lap just to see the differences. Also had the chance to catch-up with Joowon, a Korean American public school teacher who trained with us back in 2009 – total sweetheart and kick-ass woman of action. She went all 12 hours for sure.

Anyway, like I said – great group of people and I only wish I could have stayed longer. One guy – Brian – is organizing a solo trip from Alaska to Argentina – basically following the mountain ranges all the way down. One hard-core individual though a very welcoming and gracious guy. Once, when a team of three (including Brian) zipped-off into the night after getting their cards punched, I decided to give chase. They were all cruising full-tilt on their big wheeled road bikes, but I just threw Money-Well-Spent into 6th gear and it wasn’t much trouble at all staying right with them. They were surprised as hell when they rounded the half-way point and the front rider saw me right along-side them. The Davey might not have had much juice left, but my baby blue did.

Anyway, as the night wore on, it became clear to me that in no way was I going to last another six hours. Peter and I stopped off at the check-in area, grabbed some free cookies and bananas, and cheered our participation with a Korean beer. I still, after all, had a long bike ride home up the cheon to my place. What made matters even worse, was that to complete my last lap, I had to go back toward Banpo Bridge from Seoul Forest. When your deliriously tired, and the weather is getting really cold, the last thing you want to do is add any distance to your end commuting journey. Oh well.

All in all, I was somewhere in the middle in terms of how many riders didn’t stay all 12 hours (6pm – 6am). Some left very early-on, others just before me, and a few more after me. When I left – shortly after midnight, I headed back up to the cheon and home, and let me tell you, despite even the promise of a brand new Bill Maher podcast to keep me awake, I was beyond tired, and it has carried over into this week, and into a rather hellish Monday of too many lessons and my demo class (which I ended-up being quite proud of in the end).

But – I’m glad I did it. I don’t honestly know if I could have gone all 12 racing hours. I’d like to think I might have, but I made the (likely wise) choice to go home – and I got home at around 2am. I had two more things I needed to be awake for after-all: my demo lesson planning (the district likes big flashy Powerpoints, which take time), and a Beethoven concert Sunday night with the rabbit. You don’t want to be sleepy going into that.

A total for the race of 94 kilometers for me over 8.5 laps (I’ll count the last half on my way home) contributing to a total of 187 kilometers on the day with my commuting across the city twice and everything in-between. Not shabby at all, and I do admit to being kind of proud of getting home in one piece and still being able to take the stairs up to the 7th floor with bike in-tow as one last little challenge for myself.

So, thanks to the organizers and to the friendly faces, and to the one military guy in his matching gear and giant-wheeled road bike who remarked when I left at midnight that he had to go all 12 hours or he might look back on the night and call himself a pansy: kiss my 187 kilometers completed on a wheel radius half the size of yours, and kiss my ass.

Mine and Peter's "Cargo Class" bikes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Field Trip

Well, yesterday was a busy day.

Not sure how much I'll be able to write about it now that midnight is two minutes away, and tomorrow I'll be up early to get into work early to prepare for my open class (assuming the computer and printer are working).

Yes - tomorrow, I'll have two visiting teachers attending one of my classes to make sure that me signing another contract is in the best interests of the school - to make sure I'm not a hack, and likely to make sure that I'm not under the influence of illegal narcotics or passed-out from excessive drinking the night before (as most male principals likely will be). Perhaps this year they'll give me an additional HIV test right there in the classroom.

But, again I digress...

Yesterday turned-out started-out with a pretty cool little excursion to Olympic Park in the South East part of the city. As I've likely mentioned ad nauseam, Olympic Park is one of my favourite little get-aways in Seoul. Great green space and the perfect place for a picnic, a walk, a talk, a bike ride, or a concert (I've seen Ennio Morricone, Oasis, and Bob Dylan there).

Yesterday was the day for my Saturday High School class' field trip. At the beginning of the semester, I was notified that we would have one of our Saturdays dedicated to an all-day field trip. Great - why not? Sure I'd be giving-up more of my weekend, but getting paid more handsomely in return. It would also be a good chance to get to know my students a bit more.

As the day approached, I was first surprised, then not at all, to learn that there actually wasn't any plan for the field trip and that we would need to come-up with one. In the end, making a long story quite short, I ended-up being the one to come-up with an idea - mostly because no others were put-forth. Ah... whatever. I was happy in some ways to give this idea another shot.

So, as I did with my summer camp kids (with much more success this time around), we headed to Olympic Park which is, in addition to the things I mentioned above, the city's greatest collection of outdoor international sculptures. The place was built for the '88 summer games and has remained as part of Seoul's Olympic legacy and as a very valuable park space in one of the more populated parts of the city.

I previously visited the place to take photos of various sculptures in different areas of the park. Students were to work in teams, finding the sculptures in the areas marked on the map, and then responding to the artist's intentions - either critiquing the piece in terms of its success in fulfilling the artist's vision, or simply interpreting the piece themselves.

I was pleased to see that about 75% of the students were actually very into the activity. This is a thoughtful group, and I was glad to see that so many of them were able to rise above the Saturday Sleepies to dive into critiquing art on a November morning.

One we got going, we spent about 4 hours scouring the park in teams, with me on my bike zipping-around and helping teams locate their sculptures, while the other teachers rented one of those bike-car dealios and made their way around the park to aid in the supervision.

On of my more reflective students, Yeong-ji, gave me a bit of a pleasant shock upon discovering her groups second sculpture. I had told the students the previous week that there was one particularly creepy sculpture back in the wooded area near the bicycle facility. Yeong-ji's team ended-up being the one assigned to find that sculpture. It's a rather dismal work - a cut-out piece of wall and door, with an empty chair on one side, and what looks to be a closed crib caging a child's toy horse, and to top-off the horror - a disembodied white head floating through the wall. The title: "Childhood Memories." Classic.

Anyway, I came upon Yeong-ji's group seated about the sculpture and writing-away furiously. I asked them what they thought of the sculpture and Yeong-ji said "Thank you. It's so deep. I'm glad you gave it to us."


Yes - some of the students were less-than-enthused to be made to walk-about through a fairly huge park critiquing art on a Saturday. But, we were lucky to have a beautiful, sunny day, and we took everyone to Pizza Hut afterward. No real complaints, and I dare say that some of them actually learned something. Anyway, it was different from their everyday education, and I don't mind saying that I'm proud to look back on the day.

Well, there ya go - no time for part 2 (the bike challenge). I'll get to that tomorrow.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Two Opposing Sides Don't Necessarily Have Two Compelling Arguments."

Bill Maher's final New Rule from November 5th 2010. Because it is, to me, a perfect summation of a facebook discussion I had not so long ago...

"And finally, New Rule, if you're going to have a rally where hundreds of thousands of people show up, you might as well go ahead and make it about something. With all due respect to my friends Jon and Stephen, it seems to me that if you truly wanted to come down on the side of restoring sanity and reason, you'd side with the sane and the reasonable, and not try to pretend that the insanity is equally distributed in both parties.

Keith Olbermann is right, when he says he's not the equivalent of Glenn Beck. One reports facts, the other one is very close to playing with his poop.

And the big mistake of modern media has been this notion of balance for balance's sake, that the left is just as violent and cruel as the right, that unions are just as powerful as corporations, that reverse racism is just as damaging as racism. There's a difference between a mad man, and a madman.

Now, getting over 200,000 people to come to a liberal rally is a great achievement, and gave me hope. And what I really loved about it was that it was twice the size of the Glenn Beck crowd on the Mall in August! Although it weighed the same.
But the message of the rally, as I heard it, was that if the media would just stop giving voice to the crazies on both sides, then maybe we could restore sanity. It was all non-partisan, and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side, forgetting that Obama tried that, and found out there are no moderates on the other side.

When Jon announced his rally, he said that the national conversation is dominated by people on the right who believe Obama's a socialist, and people on the left who believe 9/11 was an inside job. But I can't name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11 was an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama's a socialist? All of them! McCain, Boehner, Cantor, Palin, all of them! It's now official Republican dogma, like tax cuts pay for themselves, and gay men just haven't met the right woman.

As another example of both sides using overheated rhetoric, Jon cited the right equating Obama with Hitler, and the left calling Bush a war criminal. Except thinking Obama is like Hitler is utterly unfounded, but thinking Bush is a war criminal? That's the opinion of General Anthony Taguba, who headed the Army's investigation into Abu Ghraib.

You see, Republicans keep staking out a position that is further and further right, and then demand Democrats meet them in the middle, which is now not the middle anymore. That's the reason health care reform is so watered down; it's Bob Dole's old plan from 1994. Same thing with cap-and-trade; it was the first President Bush's plan to deal with carbon emissions. Now the Republican plan for climate change is to claim it's a hoax.

But it's not. I know that because I've lived in L.A. since '83, and there's been a change in the city: I can see it now. All of us who live out here have had that experience. Oh look, there's a mountain there! Government, led by liberal Democrats, passed laws which changed the air I breathe for the better. OK, I'm for them! And not for the party that is, as we speak, plotting to abolish the EPA. And I don't need to pretend that both sides have a point here. And I don't care what left or right commentators say about it; I only care what climate scientists say about it.

Two opposing sides don't necessarily have two compelling arguments. Martin Luther King spoke on that Mall in the capitol, and he didn't say, "Remember folks, those Southern sheriffs with the fire hoses and the German shepherds, they have a point too!" No, he said, "I have a dream, they have a nightmare!" This isn't Team Edward and Team Jacob. Liberals, like the ones on that field, must stand up and be counted, and not pretend that we're as mean or greedy or short-sighted or just plain batshit as they are. And if that's too polarizing for you, and you still want to reach across the aisle and hold hands and sing with someone on the right, try church!"

Friday, November 12, 2010

Weekend of Survival and Etiquette

I would really like to continue my promise to myself to blog every day this month, and I suppose that's what I'm doing, but tonight is limited by necessity to an explanation rather than an actual entry.

I had to cancel plans tonight so that I could spend my Friday evening creating a lesson for an open class that I am supposed to have next week - this being the class where district supervisors drop-in to class for a time to see if I am indeed worthy of signing-on for another contract.

As fate would have it, my knack for coming-across excellent inspirations for lessons in every life continued in the form of a strange call-to-politeness to Seoul citizens - just in time for the G20 Summit. There are better blogs about it here, but I'll be using the graphic to get students talking about what their text books wants them to talk about this week: making polite requests.

For example:

A) Would you mind not spitting in public?
B) Of course not.
A) Thank you very much.


A) Would you mind waiting until everyone gets off the subway before getting on?
B) Not at all.
A) Thank you very much.

Perhaps my favourite though is the one suggesting that people yield to emergency vehicles. Isn't this a requirement when taking a driver's test? Or is it considered "etiquette"? No, it can't be... can it?

I know there are cultural difference aplenty here, and it's interesting to explain to people back home (for example) that it's incredibly rude pass something to someone or to receive it with only one hand. This example increases in rudeness exponentially the older the other party gets. Anyway, it's a good reminder that not every public act we regard as deplorable or rude is considered in the same way all over the world.

Anyway, it's equally interesting to see that the Seoul City Government has gone so far as to implement this massive "Global Etiquette" campaign that must be fraught with political incorrectness. Is Korea simply saying that, as one friend put it: "Obama's coming - time to clean-up your act, Korea"?

Anyway, for anyone who has lived her previously, I'm sure you could appreciate some of the initiative that went into this. I do wonder though if it has actually caught-on, or if it's going to be completely ignored. Regardless, it's interesting to see that at least the "globally-minded" municipal leaders are at least a bit embarrassed by those who feel the need to loudly empty their sinuses on the subway platform, etc.

So yeah - that's what I'm doing tonight. Then tomorrow I'm off to an all-day field trip at Olympic Park with my high school class, then I'm off to ride in the 6PM Saturday 'til 6AM Sunday Han River Endurance Challenge, then I'm home to sleep, wake-up, finish my lesson, and head out to a charity concert of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra with my rabbit. A busy weekend, but a good one.

Somehow though, I can't see myself going past midnight on my bike. I'm sleepy just thinking about it. Too much, too soon...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Night Palace

There's a lot I could write about today, including some G20 action and Remembrance/Pepero Day, but I'll save those for another time.

What I want to write about is my visit with the rabbit to Seoul's grandest palace, Gyeongbuk-gung.

You know, I've thought about it recently, and I believe that I have now strolled at least part of the way through Gyeong-buk Palace's grounds about 10 times. What made it different today however, was that we got to go at night. Apparently, Gyeongbuk Palace is open to the general public AFTER sunset for the first time in 615 years. This is apparently a result of Seoul hosting the G20 meeting and wanting to give opportunities to as many foreigners as possible to visit the sites - tomorrow (Friday) is the last day of the late opening. I had a look for Obama tonight, but no such luck. Harper was there, but nobody gave a rat's ass. Kidding.

I really have no idea if palaces in other Asian cities are open after dark, but this was a very cool experience. It truly felt like I was visiting the palace for the first time. The stone walkway to the main throne hall was lit by lanterns and it felt like it had a completely different atmosphere than it had during previous visits.

I ended-up taking a few good shots, and fiddled with the Canon G11's shooting modes. I settled on one that gave the lit buildings a warmer glow. I love this camera.

It was a challenging day at school - more on that tomorrow - and we had considered maybe calling this night off as wind, rain, and lightning started-up as soon as we got to Anguk. However, it soon cleared, and the rabbit and I were able to enjoy a relatively quiet night at the palace - it had apparently been wall-to-wall people the previous evening.

After that, a stroll through Samcheong-dong, lined with golden leaves and an ommlette dinner at a great new all-day brunch cafe. I had long thought the only affordable meal in that neighborhood was ddeok-bokki, and that the only brunch worth having was way down south at Butterfingers. Not anymore. The Cafe for all Seasons opened this year and is operated by a chef who trained out of San Francisco. Great brunch menu - and affordable - even without the rabbit's coupon collection. The perfect end to a surprising and unique evening at the palace.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A cappella

Went with the rabbit tonight to an a cappella concert near Sindorim - a very cool little theatre that was fitted-up like a mini Jubilee Auditorium and had excellent acoustics. Generally speaking, outside of getting a kick out the Heebee Jeebies from time to time, I'm not really an a cappella kind of guy, at least in terms of something I seek-out on my own.

But enough qualifiers - going to cultural events such as the one I went to tonight are one of the bonuses of being with a music teacher.

I have to say, I was a bit worried about going to such a concert being so as sleepy as I was today, but once it started - I was in. Yes - I know the barber-shop and its like has become a bit of a punch-line, but even as I watch Andy from The Office sing all four parts of "Rockin' Robin" on his cell-phone answering machine, there is something undeniably endearing about his earnestness.

Tonight was no different. 3 groups: a Japanese female quartet to handle the classic stuff, a Hungarian male group that sounded like the world's most powerful organ on mic, and an amateur Korean group with a girl who could out beat-box any guy I've ever seen or heard.

All in all, a good night out to see something I wouldn't otherwise have known about. So - thanks, rabbit. As cheese-eating as it obviously sometimes is, I love bearing witness to people enjoying performing - in whatever form that might take.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

G-20 and it's getting chilly

Every year, as a foreign teacher in Korea, one needs to get a couple of things done to renew a contract. I won't get into the nitty-gritty, but I will say that it can be a minor or major pain-in-the-ass, depending of course on a multitude of factors - such as where you live, your work hours, etc.

Less than a month ago, panic hit the ex-pat portions of the peninsula when we were notified that Korean immigration had upped the requirements for foreign workers. We were told that in addition to the regular who-ha one goes through for a working visa, we also needed to have two fancy news things:

1) Our university degrees apostilled (spelling check tells me this is wrong, but I don't care enough to look it up). Basically, it means a long process of sending my degree home so that people back at U of C can look at it and make sure it's real, then make a copy, and do something funky to that copy, then send it back here, and blah, blah, blah. I guess this comes as a result of too many people here creating fake degrees of the same quality as the fake handbags everyone carries around. For us, this new measure means a couple of trips to the embassy and immigration, and a fair amount of cost to organize the process at home and send things where they need to go.

2) Have a FEDERAL security check done from our home country (FBI for Americans, RCMP for Canadians, and Judi Dench for Brits). This is of course standard practice for anyone going into a position working with anyone in the "vulnerable sector": mainly children, the elderly, and the in-firmed. I don't disagree with any of this, though it again will be a pain, it will be costly, and it will be both of these things because it's unavoidable when you're trying to get it done from across the ocean.

Then, after panic was deeply setting in (upon further inspection, the RCMP check would take "up to 4 months" and the check was required by immigration before renewing one's visa, which for me would have been March 1st of next year - cutting it very close), it was announced that the new measures wouldn't actually come into affect until 2012.

A relief. All that would be required for this coming year is to have a Korean security check (local police dept search to make sure that you haven't beaten-up any elderly Korean men in Itaewon), and a "routine health check" - something I will have done for the 4th time now since being in Korea.

As a foreign teacher, we are required to get an annual health check which will allow us to get a working visa. The health check includes the usual suspects: height, weight, sight, blood pressure, and hearing - as well as a chest X-ray, and blood and urine tests.

To be honest - I'm kind of getting tired of it. I have to say, the people at the Seoul Medical Center (not far from COEX) are great and they make the process very fast and smooth. But, I'm starting to really question the logic in a lot of it. I've had enough chest X-rays in the past 3 years, that the next x-ray is likely to turn-up a dark spot on my lung from being x-rayed as often as I have been.

The medical tests we teachers have are looking for two things: marijuana use, and HIV. I've already written a huge bitchy post about my issues with this test, so I don't want to re-tread too much familiar ground, but as I have to race around town to get zapped by gamma rays, have some nurse stick a needle in my arm and then pay around $60 for it, it's hard not to be a little resentful.

I understand - they don't want pot-heads teaching their kids - and there are plenty enough foreign teacher clowns here that I can see where the want for such a test might come from. I get it - though those kids would be missing out on some good stories. What I don't get is how public institutions in this country still get to discriminate against HIV-positive people. Though Korean Immigration recently passed a bill saying that foreigners could not be denied entry into the country for being HIV positive, my public school board employer can apparently ask their foreign teachers to be tested, while NOT requiring the same tests for their own Korean teachers.

I would really like to know the thought behind such a completely xenophobic (there's that word again, haters) practice. Do people really think they need to safe-guard their country against "the foreign scourge"? Consider this recent case, where a 35 year-old female Korean teacher had sex with one of her 15 year-old male students. She is losing her job, though not getting arrested, because the age of consent here is... wait for it... THIRTEEN! It's a veritable Polanski paradise!

Just imagine for a second if the teacher in question were a foreigner. I can't give you stats, but I'm guessing that a foreign teacher having sex with a 15 year-old student would have probably ended-up in a new health-check involving being surrounded by a team of frightened Koreans in E.T. scientist suits, while they hose a foreigner down and scrub him clean with steel wool, Rambo-style.

Anyway - argue with me, please. You'd be wrong. This is clearly an alarmist and prejudice human-rights violation. This isn't Reagan-era gay-phobia US, for eff's sake. Or maybe here, that's exactly what it is. Tomorrow, I'm going to ask all of my Korean co-teachers if they have AIDS. That would be about as appropriate and fair. Actually, I'm not going to do that, but I will bring the testing up for discussion and see what people have to say - if anything.

So, anyway, I went to prove that I'm not a disease-spreading whore in the eyes of the Koreans today. On the way to meet-up with friends, I rode-past the COEX convention center - the site of the G-20 meeting which starts this Thursday (also Pepero Day, AND Remembrance Day). The place is awash with police in bright-yellow jackets - some zipping about on Segways, and some in full-black with berets carrying assault rifles. I watched as three turban-clad men stopped to have their photos taken with two clearly uncomfortable-looking policemen. Fingers-crossed for safety over the next week as the last things this country needs is another excuse to clamp-down on foreigners.

Day ended well though - decided to bike-home in the cold (2 degrees Celsius) and listening to Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas on the ride. Great for a cold-weather city ride when the streets are quiet and there are decorations going up, and Christmas oranges and roasted chestnuts on sale from street-vendors every few blocks. JUST warm enough.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I wanted to share this with people because I thought it was exceptionally kind and exceptionally cool.

After renewing my first Korean contract for two months which took me until the end of October 2008, I was able to say a sad farewell to some good friends I had met that year, and say an admittedly reluctant hello to the strange new people who were now invading their former classrooms.

I immediately understood and sympathized with the "veterans" who had extended their own contracts when I had arrived. They weren't always the most open and welcoming people, and I had, for a time, wondered why.

Well, after the summer of 2008, I had my answer. Making new friends in their first contract is (forgive the comparison) like agreeing to become a pet owner again. Of course I'm only talking in terms of the impermanence of it all - why bother being close to people who you know are going to rip themselves untimely from your life and leave a gaping hole where a set of darts, a Nintendo DS, or just a friendly face in the neighbouring classroom used to be?

As expected, once I got out of my funk, the new additions proved to be just as lovely as the dearly departed. We made fast friends, and I was very glad to be able to catch-up with some of these people upon my return to Seoul in March of the following year.

I do though distinctly remember one mid-October conversation (though not the exact dialogue) I had with one particular friend one night when we were strolling-about after class and looking to have some Yeong-tong-inspired fun before heading home.

I remarked how it was a shame that I would be leaving so soon after meeting this one guy whom I felt I had developed an immediate bond with. I can't help myself. I'm always the optimist (for now at least) in this regards and I can't help but think that despite the potential future distances between friend that meet on foreign shores, there will always be a chance to cross-paths at another point in our lives. He responded by hinting that it wasn't such a big deal - and that he was realistic about these things, and didn't expect that our paths would cross.

I don't remember exactly what he said, but I do remember that it was (or at least seemed to me) to be surprisingly flippant and dismissive. It stung a bit at the time, but seconds later I began to appreciate the truth and brevity of the comment. Yes - I had been there for a year, was going, had only been work-buds with the guy for a couple of months, and had seen many others leave. He was absolutely right.

Anyway, I don't know if he remembers the moment, but the resulting reality was quite the opposite, which I was and still am grateful for. He was the guy who warned of an odd student's hand-in-pants/hand-in-mouth tendencies, the guy who confiscated a drawing of Big Bang (K-pop group) from a student then threw it in the garbage with this classic rejoinder: "because Big Bang IS garbage...", and the guy who sat sometimes too quietly in our at times toxic work environment and thought a bit too much, but always made the more human of us wonder what was on his mind. The world needs more people like him, in my none-too-humble view.

So, here we are today - me, here in Korea, him, back in the US of A as other departed friends have flown, and who should I hear from through a series of 3 separate photos by Korean post, after he learned of my engagement?

Thanks, brother. Paths will cross in time.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mama Yu

Good weekend. Great class yesterday, then dinner with the Tedward, and a surprise visit from the rabbit. Up early-ish this morning, on the bike and down to Gangnam - first stopping at Biclo for a tune-up and then on to meet Mama Yu at Butterfingers for lunch.

Mama Yu is mom to no other than my friend, Johnny. Last October, my visiting parents took us for breakfast the the Butterfingers in Apgujeong. It was grand having Johnny bond with the Gagnier clan as he regaled them with tales of Johnny charm: "You know, on a first date, I don't bring flowers I bring chocolate. After dinner, the lady is encouraged to try one. You see, chocolate hits different nerve centers, and if she's willing to try the chocolate, and she likes it, and it satisfies her, I think there's a good chance there will be second date."

Good advice.

Today, we met-up with Johnny and his Mama Yu who is visiting the homeland from Houston, Texas. She was lovely - glad to meet all of us "handsome boys" and very generous to take us all out for dinner in what really ends-up being one of the more expensive casual restaurants in Korea. It's mainly a western breakfast place, but more than twice the price of Nellie's back home.

Robbie, George, Johnny, and I listened as Mama Yu regaled us with her own tales - life lessons, in fact: "Girls should have a good heart first, a good brain second, and be pretty third." "If a girl always is hitting you - it's not good!" "Friends should stay together forever!" - All points well-taken.

Mama Yu was great, and it was a joy to casually coax her into telling compromising stories of Johnny's youth.

Lunch was soon over and she thanked us all sincerely for "being so good to (her) Johnny!" "You are all my sons today", she said. Lots of hugs, and off our separate ways as her and Johnny walked away hand-in-hand.

Great to meet the parental units of people you meet in adult-hood. The mental distance one has to travel in order to imagine your adult friend as a wee youth isn't always as great as you might think. Big Johnny was little Johnny today, and it was endearing. So glad we got the chance to gather some mocking material to use against him next time. Made me miss my own parents more.

Thank, Mama Yu!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Statue of Liberty Fail

Today was awesome - in kind of a round-about way which I wish I had more time to properly explain. I was up until 2am last night finishing essays, woke-up at 6:30, got on the train by 8, and then realized that I had read my schedule wrong and was not due into work at my Saturday writing class until 3:30PM. Shabalab.

I went-in anyway and decided to get a few extra things taken-care of.

In addition to a Remembrance Day lesson that I had planned, we conducted an activity in preparation for our field trip next weekend. As nobody at the district had any suggestions for the field trip day - other than suggesting that we go somewhere to do something that focuses on English - I decided to take the reigns.

We will be going to Seoul's Olympic Park, which is one of my favourite places in the city. It's full of statues commissioned from artists from around the world - in celebration of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. A great place to spend an afternoon. We will be heading there and, in teams, having students locate assigned sculptures in marked areas, then recording information about the artist, and his or her intent in creating the piece.

The assignment portion is to write either a critique of the work based on the artist's intent (what did the artist want to convey, and was he or she successful?), or a viewer interpretation (what does the student think the piece is intended to convey?). I know that it might sound dry, but with the right group of students, it can be a very interesting exercise. It seems as though students here in Korea are not at all used to being asked for their opinions on things. Critiquing a work of art seems like something out of their realm of experience.

Anyway, to get them prepared for next week, today we talked about a famous sculpture that most are aware of: The Statue of Liberty. I showed a PPT comparing it to the Colossus of Rhodes and then looked at the inspirations for it as well as the construction process, which I, myself, find fascinating.

Though the only plaque that exists at Liberty's site is not one from her creator, but a dedication from another artist, we looked at Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" as if it were an example of "artist's intent".

We read it together and deciphered it into plain English, then I asked the students to decide whether or not the physical statue and all of her details is an accurate and successful realization of the description given in Lazarus' poem: "Mother of Exiles", a shelter-er, a beacon of hope, a protector and welcoming guardian and provider of justice etc. Of course, it's hard to remove the cultural baggage that the image already carries - even for Koreans. Lady Liberty just IS identified with freedom.

I was really pleased, however, when the students shed themselves of their own history with the statue and did their best to look at it with new eyes. As a piece of "art", is the statue all that Lazarus suggests it is? According to the great majority of my students, the answer was a resounding "no!"

Considering whether or not the statue could successfully carry the moniker: Mother of Exiles, students were pretty clear. The discussion that followed their initial point-form findings was really interesting and surprisingly spirited. But I'll let some of these photos speak for themselves...

I'm really excited to see what they come-up with for their critiques next week, and they - my students who were uncharacteristically pouty and whiny when they learned they wouldn't be going to Lotte World or Everland for their field trip - seemed suddenly jazzed to be heading to Olympic Park next weekend to critique art. It's honestly moments like this that remind me that being a teacher is exactly what I want to be doing for the rest of my working life.

It's been years since I have experienced a "runner's high", but this was a teaching high for sure. It must mean something when - after spending 7 more after-work work hours on a Friday night, getting 4 hours of sleep, and blowing a good chunk of my day with a scheduling mistake - I can achieve pure giddiness with the interaction and discussion I have with my students before 5:30 rolls-around.

I'm really looking-forward to next weekend.