Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Milk & Bread

This Saturday, I will be doing a lesson with my high school students on food - specifically, vegetarianism.

I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) Food seemed to be chosen at random as a general topic for a syllabus last semester, and it had an obvious route for me, 2) Korea is pretty much the land of meat - mention that you are (or mostly try to be) a complete vegetarian (if not completely vegan) and people pretty much don't know what to do with themselves for the rest of the day, and 3) It's an engrossing topic... at least I think it is.

But back to number 2 for a second - I really can't eat in my school cafeteria anymore. I mean, I can, but it's getting to the point where I can't be bothered to subject myself to all of the commenting about what it is I do or don't eat.

Being that about 75% of the staff population at my school is too terrified at the prospect of speaking English (even the most basic of niceties), I usually sit with 7 others that come from a pot of about 12 teachers who aren't terrified of me. Each of these teachers knows full-well that I am a vegetarian, but they seem to feel the need to comment on it EVERY DAY! On particularly meaty days, my tray can tend to look quite sparse, but I'm good - really. I'm about as chipper as they come at lunch time, and I pride myself on my ability to be one friendly S.O.B. when food is in front of me - so what if on some days my plate is simply minus the batter-fried flesh of a chicken, or my spaghetti is free of the pig-piece & tomato sauce that everyone else seems to enjoy so much.

"Why didn't you eat some soup?" a kind voice will inquire.

"Because it there are floaty bits of animal carcass in it", says my inner voice.

"Because I'm a vegetarian", I say in Korean... which is unnecessary as they have all heard me repeat it in English with body language and obvious visual clues on my partially empty tray, ad-nauseam, since I arrived in March of 2009.

For the purposes of not reading into this that I'm a culturally insensitive ass-hole, just believe me when I say that I do love Korean food. I eat more kimchi than anyone else in the staff room and, save for the the business of life flayed off the bones of other living beings for the sole purposes of our taste fulfillment, I'm all about eating Korean stuff, and I do.

I also save my harshest comments for this blog. In the lunch room, I sit at a table full of Korean teachers and happily do my best to engage in conversation in the best way I can - though it almost always requires at least some translation - both ways - so that everyone is on-board. Most important to this post though is the fact that I do NOT make a show out of being a vegetarian. I'm just there to eat like everyone else. Some people don't dig on the salad, and I don't give them the stink-eye.

I know it's easy to argue that I am making a show simply by opting not to eat what everyone else is sucking the marrow from (in some soups, this is a literal truth), but I beg to differ. Like I said, I am not in that room to impose my judgment on others' eating habits, though somehow I constantly become the subject of meal-time scrutiny. I know... "when in Rome" and all that, but when in Rome, one does not have to change one's belief systems or logical practices. There are countries where marrying 14 year-old girls, abusing them, accusing them of adultery and then publicly executing them seem to be the culturally-acceptable thing to do, but I don't see myself joining in the fun should my travels ever take me to such parts. I'm not equating the two, I'm just trying to say that "When in Rome..." should be done away with as a suggestion of cultural integration.

I could go on about the grief I get for my vegetarianism, but I'm as tired writing about it as I am experiencing it.

Point is, I am teaching a lesson on vegetarianism on Wednesday, and I'm looking forward to it. This is critical reading and writing, and so it often helps to have a look at material near the standard of what I'm asking my students to achieve (minus ESL grammar issues, of course). Case in point this Saturday is an essay by Natalie Portman of Black Swan and Naboo fame. I chose it because it was succinct, because it brings up some strong points, and because (let's face it) she's famous and teens dig on her. We will be using the details to develop some talking points, but also looking at her writing style - how biased is it, and how well backed-up, or not.

This semester, I decided to go the extra mile and actually bring some vegetarian food to class. I thought it would be unfair of me to suggest that my students at least consider what a vegetarian meal would be like without first providing them with an actual sample of a delicious and protein-filled veggie dish.

Buying the supplies was a bit of a challenge. Each week, one of the supervisors brings a giant bag to the Saturday class at the second break time - full of individually-wrapped breads and pastries from a nearby bakery, as well as chocolate, strawberry, or banana flavoured milk. As snacks go, it could be worse, but I wouldn't say it's the healthiest thing the students could be eating - certainly not every Saturday.

I suggested making a dish to coincide with my food lesson, so I called my co-teacher who in-turn called the district office on Monday to see if it would be possible to spend this week's snack money on my veggie offering. They were kind enough to agree. Great, I thought. I'll just buy the supplies at my neighbourhood Homeplus, make the food on Thursday night, freeze it, bring it to the school on Saturday, and heat it up over a gas range at the school before class. I could keep the receipt and be reimbursed on Saturday.

I thought too soon. As it is at my school when I'm trying to stock-up on supplies for English camps, you simply cannot be reimbursed for cash purchases anymore. Instead, in order for me to have access to the weekly snack funds, I needed to get my ass on a subway, arrive over an hour later at the south district office, go and get the credit card, shop for my stuff, return the credit card, head home, cook the food, and bring the food back south of the river on Saturday for class.

To put things in perspective for my Calgary friends, it would be like living in Calgary, right next to a Sobey's supermarket and teaching a class in Canmore on Saturdays, having to drive out to Canmore mid-week to shop at Sobey's in Canmore as opposed to the one beside your house, bring all your shit back to your house, cook it, and drive back out to Canmore on Saturday.

Can you guess why I have to do this? For the answer, have a look at page 84 of a very handy little book in graphic novel format, called Korea Unmasked: In Search of the Country, the Society, and the People. It's written by a renowned Korean cartoonist, Lee Won-Bok (who studied in Munster, Germany - for all of my readers named Douglas) who seems to have a lot of challenging things to say about Koreans. Let me simplify page 84 for you...

You are asked to complete the following sentence: "The Koreans are the most __________ people in the world." You can complete the sentence using a list of the following words: extreme, clever, diligent, unique, aggressive, intense, and fiery. It's no big surprise when Lee suggests that they are all correct, but perhaps the most applicable word on the list is "extreme". I know this is nothing original or surprising to anyone who has lived here for more than 6 months, but it's refreshing to hear it come from a Korean as opposed to a foreigner for a change - understanding too that each of the above descriptors can have positive and negative attributes - depending on the situation.

The decision for Seoul Education to "completely eliminate petty cash reimbursements to all or any employees" became a system-wide initiative sometime in 2008, when cash officers were apparently absconding with the education funds using less then honest methods of submitting costs. Still, I would call this an "extreme" response. The good side of the extremeness of said policy is that they (hopefully) have less issues with insiders pilfering from company pockets. The bad side is that there are financial hurdles in the way of anyone who volunteers to "do a little more" for their classes.

I have precious little time in my week, and while I was willing to take a night off to cook food for my class (it will be a surprise for them), I was, let's say, a little bit annoyed that I had to kill a night with a trek across town and back (in ricockulous line 2 rush hour people traffic) with two giant bags full of groceries. The policy extends to say that only supervisors can sign for the card. When I arrived at the head office to gather one of the supervisors to go with me to the supermarket, neither one wanted to be in what they apparently perceived to be a high-stress ESL situation (shopping for groceries with Teacher Dave), so they let me have the card to do the shopping on my own. As I see it, policy is rigid enough for me to travel way out of my way to complete a voluntary task, but not rigid enough to ensure that the middle managers fulfill their end of the bargain in the great battle of tightening organizational purse-strings.

In the end, I was glad to have their trust with the card. They actually seemed a bit surprised when I showed-up, shopping bags in-hand on a Wednesday night, to buy a whole bunch o' veggies for a treat for the students. Who could refuse that guy?

I really am grateful that they were able to contribute roughly $50 toward the chili which is intended to feed about 20 students. Without their money, I would have been in the hole $80, but in my mind I had already committed to making the food for Saturday, and I wasn't about to back out just because of a subway ride.

It still seems unnecessarily extreme to me, but then again, I'm not in a position where I need to answer financially to a supervisor from the old boy's club who by virtue of years lived in this society is now entitled to all of the extreme authority he wants.

I'm done bitching about it now - whatever. The supervisors do not make the policy, they can only act on it. They were kind enough to let me use the weekly cash, and now I'm all excited that I get to share my favourite Christmas dish with my students in a couple of days.

Most satisfying is that my kind rabbit sneaked into my house today after work to surprise me by beginning preparation on the chili. An hour away for her after a hard day, and she was doing it voluntarily - chopping-away at carrots and squash just because she loves me, and in effect making all of the previous bitching in this post seem pretty irrelevant. It was pretty extreme of her, but in a good way.

Sometimes I have to shake my head at the lack of gray area that seems to exist in this country. But, they key word is "seems". I've learned, fairly recently, that I am capable of making serious in-roads when I really am determined to, and every now and then, the powers that be give just enough leeway for an idea that makes more sense to pass through.

Anyway, tonight my house smells like it does at Christmas time, and serious bike-riding weather is just around the corner, so I've got the best of both worlds, really.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pray for Japan Project

Got an email this morning that the Pray for Japan project was edited and up and running on youtube. There are a few entries - all with similar themes and tone. By far the biggest is the entry entitled "from Korean Elementary school students" - about 9 minutes long.

You can watch it here. I'll be showing it to my students today, though they might be wondering where their sweet faces are for a while. My students' overall message is a bit lost with the pictures being a bit out of order, but they are able to open-up the show with the first slide, and you can slide ahead to 2:27 and 2:58 if you want to see our class's contributions.

The rest of the video is extra heart-warming. By the title though, I'm wondering if we were the only middle school that participated - we're such interlopers. Oh, well - glad to have been a part of a positive message. Thanks to those who put it together.

You can see the video here.

Fast Food Nation

Blew two spokes in my rear wheel today on the way to work. Had to make an appointment for the Brompton at the bike spa, and it'll be there until Saturday - a little Spring cleaning and tune-up action.

I've been reading a new pick-up - Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, just in time for my unit on food and vegetarianism for this Saturday's class. I won't have time to finish the book by then, as this is turning out to be a hell of a week in terms of planning (more on that later), but the book is a great read. I'm hooked.

So, it was with and ironic sense of appreciation that the rabbit and I stopped by Johnny Rockets tonight for an after-dinner shake and fries near Express Bus Terminal. It's a pretty cool little place - complete with the little 100 won mini jukeboxes at each table and at the bar. We choose some Everly Brothers to help wash-down the fries and shake. A lovely little '50s diner snack right here in Korea - so perfectly illustrating the realities lamented in Schlosser's book. Hopefully more on that later, too.

Monday, March 28, 2011


There is a fairly loud student in my first grade 3 class on Mondays. I like this kid - he's one of those students who doesn't at all mind making a relative ass of himself for the greater good.

His English skills are quite low, but he is among a select few who consistently volunteer to read dialogues or to answer questions in class. His delivery is something to behold - extremely loud, monotone, and staccato as all heck, but he really gives it with gusto:


I love it. It gets people laughing along with him and it helps to put the lower level kids at ease when it's their turn to contribute.

Anyway, today when his class came in, he was noticeably absent, and his classmates were looking a bit shell-shocked. A girl student approached me and told me that our favourite loud reader had gone to the nurse for some ice because in the previous period, a Math teacher had hit him quite hard across the face with a broom handle.

According to the new standards of corporal punishment in Korean schools (which you can read about in-depth at my friend's blog), whoever this Math teacher is, is likely to get some serious discipline from on high. I hope so. Though I know that this kid might have the potential to drive anyone around the bend, I can't imagine ever being in the head space required to raise a broom handle and crack someone across the face.

He's one of the most popular boys in the class, and the students seemed very concerned. He did make it into the class before the bell rang and I was glad for it. He had a visible welt on his cheek, but he quickly got into the class and I had him up with some of his friends demonstrating dialogues as quickly as possible. He's a spark-plug for the other students in his class - a show-off to be sure, but he brings home victories for his classmates in more ways than one.

Anyway, glad to see that his spirit wasn't broken today, though it was clear he had been crying before he got to my classroom. I wasn't there, but I'm confident in saying that there was another way to handle the situation - other than beating with a broom handle. Then again, I didn't grow-up here, so of course it's easy for me to say that.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bureaucratic Fools (II)

As I arrived at school today, I noticed some students marching around the school with hastily-made signs in Hangeul and the leading student holding an empty jar. I noticed the Korean word for "Japan", so I stopped to ask what was going on.

"We are collecting money for Japan!" said one student.

This was about 5 minutes before the homeroom bell.

When I inquired further as to why students had suddenly been given the go-ahead to collect money for Japan, this is what I found out:

1) Homeroom teachers were collecting money from their students to donate to Japan (hopefully the Red Cross, but who knows?)
2) The powers that be in Central Seoul Office f Education) had apparently decided as late as this past Friday that it was officially okay to solicit funds for this purpose.
3) Teachers were notified to collect money today.
4) The deadline for raising money at our school is also today.

Guess how much this angers me. For a little background, you'll need to read my post from March 15th.

In short, the whole purpose of having a fund-raiser at a school is to involve as many people as possible for a good cause - mobilize the many and see what happens. My suggestion to collect money over a period of 2 or 3 weeks, while charting our progress on a chart available for all to see, I think would have raised more money than the "Surprise! Give us your money today!" campaign that went on while sleepy students were stumbling into school on a Monday morning.

Teacher: "What's that, Junsu? You didn't bring any money to school today?"
Junsu: "Well, nobody told me that I needed to."
Teacher: "But, we are raising money for Japan today. Don't you want to help the people of Japan?"
Junsu: "Yes, but can't I donate tomorrow?"
Teacher: "Oh, I'm sorry Junsu... today is the last day."

Good work, guys.

River of Poo

This weekend was a busy one, but I won't let myself go to bed without first telling you about the river of poo.

The boys' restrooms at my school are pits of filth and anguish on par with that scene in Slumdog Millionaire. If the squat toilets happen to be working, the plumbing can only do so much to mask the smells of all that goes on within those walls.

So, it's not uncommon to take a suffocating whiff of something decidedly fresh and fecal as soon as one crosses the threshold. On Friday, I crossed said threshold to meet the familiar funk head-on, but I was there with a purpose. It wasn't a surprise to step in a bit of water as the bathrooms are routinely hosed-down each day. It wasn't a surprise either to see a cleaning ajuma in rubber boots and rubber gloves standing in one of the boys' open-door cubicles, wielding a toilet plunger as that is part of their job, but it was a bit of a surprise to have her point a dripping plunger at me and hear her yell "DONG!"

I froze in my tracks and she yelled it again: "DONG! DONG! Dong- isuh-yo!" - which roughly translates as "SHIT! SHIT! There is shit!" And there, shit was - floating right into my shoe and spinning away in an eddy toward the central drain - little pieces of it, like toy boats in a creek.

I think I said "Oh!" before backing out and making by way up to the restroom on the third floor.

And so, if you ever find yourself wondering why Koreans never fail to cringe when you leave your shoes on when you come into the house, just remember the likelihood that they have all experienced such things, and perhaps as recently as today.

Friday, March 25, 2011

White Rabbits

I haven't been writing a great deal about my Saturday class, but I really want to as I have a lot to say about it. In some ways, it's proving to be a bit more challenging this year than I had anticipated, but I am enjoying it a lot. The students are as interesting as last year and I think we're going to have fun together. They give me a good energy.

Last week, we looked at socialized health care using Tommy Douglas' "Mouseland" allegory as a talking point - how the issue becomes political. It was an engaging class, I thought - and it's not every day that students in Korea get to find out through survey that they are liberal statists - at least some of them did. It was a good discussion.

One of the fun things that came from it was assigning the students to send me an email with an allegorical paragraph describing a real world situation - much like Douglas' story which mixed elements of Aesop and the Globe and Mail of pre-NDP Canada. You never know what you're going to get when you give students a carrot and they go for it.

Fitting then that one of the more effective paragraphs submitted leads nicely into our discussion in tomorrow's Saturday class about body image:

There was a town where rabbits lived. There were hundreds of rabbits and there were all sorts of rabbits, too. The rabbits had white, black, gray, brown, spotted fur, and then some. Every rabbit loved the rabbits with white fur. They looked pure and beautiful. Every rabbit except white rabbits yearned for white hair. So, they made a constant effort to look like more and more white.

They had a bleach bath, got a shave, dyed their fur, and did everything to look more white. Even young rabbits who didn't like washing took a shower everyday because of their parent's bothering. In doing so, the town became "WHITE RABBIT'S TOWN".
Every rabbit made a frantic effort. Some who couldn't become white went so far as to commit suicide.

Some died with noxiousness of bleach and the other died with severe stress. One day, a traveler with black hair passed by the town. White rabbits thought he looked new and different from them. Even though they were like him in the past. So, the white rabbits wanted to go back their past, but too much time had passed and their fur was permanently changed. They regretted their choice.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Message to Japan

Due to the massive amount of red tape that tied-up any initiative we had a as a school to raise money for Tsunami and earthquake recovery in Japan, I was looking for some other way to get students involved. Thanks to an email suggestion from a friend, this is what I came up with. Consider it a thought in lieu of something more practically useful.

A Korean web designer is collecting photo messages in Japanese or English to compile into a tasteful montage - messages of hope - to be posted on youtube. Below is the contribution of my Wednesday after-school English writing club. After eliminating less appropriate messages such as "That's too bad!" or "OTL", we decided on this. It's simple and, I think, heart-felt.

I hope it shows-up better on youtube.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cyrano Agency

I forgot to mention that the movie rabbit and I saw on Sunday was called Cyrano Agency (시라노; 연애조작단). I rather liked it.

It seems to me that there are three general types of movies released in Korea: 1) The Rom-Com (usually full of slapstick and cheese), 2) The Melodrama (usually full-to-overflowing with maximum tear-inducing music and heart-wrenching situations), and 3) The graphic and exploitively violent revenge films such as Oldboy and most others from Park Chan Wook.

Truth is, I can be a sucker for all of these types of films. And I know that there are plenty of sub-genres that have gained popularity: the police procedural and the underdog sports story (usually with a seasonally positioned box office release to capitalize on the national fervor surrounding whatever sport the nation might soon be competing in on the international stage) to name a couple.

Okay, maybe I'm done with the Korean sports movies, but truly I have found something worthwhile in almost all of the Korean films I've had the chance to see in my time here. It's a funny thing - the rabbit, being of the female pursuasion, has a curiosity for the "chick-flick". As a result, I have in good-humour accompanied her to such painful cinematic experiences as Eat, Pray, Love, Letters to Juliet, and... well, apparently I have thankfully forgotten the others. You know what though? It's kind of fun in a way to see a kind of movie that I would otherwise never seek out on my own. I am not dragging the rabbit to Transformers 2 in retaliation either - that holds no interest for me, and to be honest, there's more laughable entertainment value in watching Julia Roberts attempt to elicit pathos as she travels around the world feeling sorry for her lot in life.

Yes, these movies are rather terrible, but there is something kind of charming about seeing them with a Korean audience. Let me try to explain. I in no way am suggesting that the Korean film-goer's bar is lower, I am instead suggesting that maybe there is more forgiveness for cheese when viewed through the lens of a non-native speaker. Watching Amanda Seyfried prance about the hills of Northerm Italy would seem appealing to most Seoullites. I get it... even if I thought the movie blew chucks of mediocrity that I had a hard time wiping from my glasses. The same could be said for Julia Roberts' shab fest, and that one had pedigree.

With the shoe on the other foot, I can kind of use the same logic for how I feel about watching Korean movies in general. I can be a sucker for a well-made Korean romance. They charm the socks right off of me in most cases. At their best (My Sassy Girl, 2001) they are fun and quirky and the portions of giggly zaniness and actual emotion seems just about perfect. At their worst (The Classic, 2003, sadly by the same writer/director as My Sassy Girl), the melodrama just takes the movie into an irreversible nose-dive. It actually angers me.

Thankfully, the latest Korean rom-com experience was a winning one for the rabbit and I. Cyrano Agency is a story about a group of out-of-work theatre actors who run a cupid service for love-lorn Seoullites. Guy #1 comes to them because he's crushing on a coffee shop clerk, and the crew use all manner of manufactured romantic circumstance to bring them together. It's a pretty fun and rather ingenius opening 20 minutes as we see the group work their magic.

Things take a turn when another man turns-up saying that he's fallen for a free-spirited girl at his church. The dude is expectedly awkward, perhaps too much so (if the film has a fault, it lies with this performance), and he needs all the help he can get. The twist is that the girl in question happens to be the ex-girlfriend of the agency's leader. Naturally, he tries to not accept the client, but the group needs money, and he needs to get over this girl. Of course, helping a however sweet-natured doofus mack on the girl you've never gotten over can't be a lot of fun.

The movie is predictable in places, but its situations are ones easily identified with for anyone who's ever had to watch someone else move in on the person who still has your heart. In the end, it's a satisfying movie, and yet I can't help but think that if this were an American picture in English with well-known English stars, it would slip a few rungs on the ladder of appeal - at least for me. It is what it is.

Anyway, if you're looking for a fun and involving romantic comedy, you could do a lot worse than Cyrano Agency. The word on the street was that nobody had really high expectations for this movie when it was released in theatres in the late summer of last year. They were pleasantly surprised and word of mouth spread - leading it to be the number one film in South Korea for 3 weeks running.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Class 3-1

This class feels like it's going to be the end of me. You're going to need a bit of a breakdown, so bear with me...

This year, my middle school has, in terms of homerooms:

8 grade 1 classes
10 grade 2 classes
11 grade 3 classes

Some attribute this to the aging population here in Korea, but this is far from a Children of Men scenario, people - so let's not bandaid this with a plethora of new babies born into culturally motivated endentured servitude to the older generation's twighlight years care.

For my situation as a teacher here, this means a few things...

Grade 1 (8 classes) - I teach all 8 homeroom classes undivided. That's about 30 students in each class. I see them once every two weeks.

Grade 2 (15 classes) - I teach all of the students, but these 10 classes are divided into 15 separate groups according to level (A, B, and C) with homeroom students mixing with students from other homerooms. I see them once every two weeks.

Grade 3 (11 classes) - I teach all 11 homerooms. That's an avarage of 32 students per class and they, like the grade 1s, are not divided according to level. So, there is a big mix of ability on every class. I see these guys once a week - the first time such frwquency has occured for me at this school.

This means that I teach 22 classes in one week, and 23 the next. 22 is the limit as stated in our contracts, but I'm doing my best to be a nice guy,

The big difference between teaching the grade 1s and teaching the grade 3s is that the grade 1s are new and think I'm the coolest thing since last month's G-Dragon single. For them, my S#@% don't stink, and likely won't before I leave.

Quite the opposite for grade 3. I sheen has long ago come-off the Davey as far as the majority of them are concerned. In short, I think that those grade 3s who haven't grown significantly through their English learning experience here (I'm guessing about 80%) are now looking down the long barrel of their approaching high school years and thinking: "why bother?" Fair enough, friends. But this attitude disappoints me a great deal. Why? Because I have a genuine affection for a lot of these students. Even the shabby ones - the ones who notoriously make other teachers cry on a regular basis - have a special place in my heart. I've been their foreign English teacher since they began at my school, and I'm glad that I get to be seeing them (at least partially) through their last year here. I will truly miss some of them terribly and will wonder about them when I leave.

Anyway, as I mentioned, it is a bit disheartening to see how many of them have allowed themselves to slide in these years. The English language learning system here is not set-up well to assist the typical kind of kid that attends this school. I fear that lumping all levels together for my classes is having a disastrous affect thus far - at least for the grade 3s.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with my 3-1 class. This is a group of grade 3s, many of whom I know by face if not by name, who appear shell-shocked when they enter my room. I'm not sure what happened. Of the 350 some-odd students in the grade 3 level, it seems that the absolute bottom of the barrel has been scraped to make up the population of this class. I am speaking in terms of two attributes here, lest I be accused of labeling these kids as losers, which I'm not. I'm speaking in terms of 1) English ability, and 2)Leadership skills. This group is remarkably short on both.

The result is painful. In this group of 32 students, I can see two whom I know well from summer and winter camps as well as from after-school classes. They know what they are doing, and they are well above the typical "A-level" student in their grade. But, surrounded by what can only be described as the dregs of their peers (again, I speak only in terms of English ability and leadership skills), these two potential leaders just fade into shadows of their former selves. Never before have I felt more like Ben Stein in front of a group of students - and I don't mean that I'm frustrated attempting to indoctrinate them with theories of intelligent design.

I'm just kind of at a loss here. What worked exceedlingly well as a lesson for the class before, simply goes down in flames with this group. We began today with a translated and (I thought) encouraging reminder that, unlike last year, this year we have mixed level classes, and we need to help each other as much as possible. be patient, and look to help those students who need it, etc. The class quickly degenerated into first sleepiness, then outright defiance. I can't remember ever being as friendly or encouarging as I was today, but even the softest lobs from me were left to fall in the dirt. Some of my favourite students simply stared me down with mostly forced stupidity ("think you can make ME learn, do ya?"), and those students who could have answered the questions or read the dialogues in their sleep, seemed content to "dumb-it-down" in front of the others.

I wonder what (if any) kind of wisdom goes into the sorting of homeroom classes. Other grade 3 homerooms are chock full of natural leaders and those who seem to excel academically at every opportunity. They'll be fine, and they will likely bring-up those around them. What then of those (like those few in my 3-1 class) stronger students who are surrounded with underachievers and don't feel motivated enough to break away from the pack and challenge themselves? I'm guessing their overall grade goes way South this year, and I'm pretty sure that my Tuesday morning period 2 class is going to be, well... a shabby experience all around. I'm at a loss, I'm afraid.

Advice is welcome.

My Classroom Heater

I'm going to complain a bit - and I'm going to use the Calgary Flames' recent loss as an excuse. I'm in a bad mood because of it, so hear me out, or ignore this post and read something more productive.

Today, I will complain about the heater in my classroom. The same unit is used as the air conditioner in the summer months (if used sparingly), but I no longer have control over it.

The powers that be in my school (and by "powers that be", I refer specifically to the head of administration - the one who likes to stand, surveying the school yard through his office window, with his back to you as he methodically moistens the office plants with his spray bottle, only addressing you as "Waygook" (foreigner) but never making eye-contact), they want to control each classroom's heater/air conditioner from the main office. The switch was made some time ago - leaving the control panel in my classroom useless.

Well, the heat is never on for the first period, and it blasts all the way from about midway through the 2nd period until well after I leave school and classes have been over for an hour and a half. If this is an attempt to save money by wrestling heater control from the hands of the irresponsible waygook, then I'm pretty sure it's a colossal failure thus far. I hear nothing by bitching and moaning from my students (who refuse to remove their North Face jackets despite the manufactured heat bearing down on them), and all I can do is shrug.

I suppose in the end, I'm just fine as I am well past the point of caring what the first floor botanist thinks of my ability to regulate the temperature in my classroom, and I am smart enough to dress in layers on cold days, but really, man - I'm fully capable of pushing the "on/off" button and I can even do it without standing on a chair.

Sundays and Mondays

Sundays, in my life at present, are pretty great. These days, they begin with a morning bike ride (now that the weather has warmed significantly) not too far from my neighbourhood. That's followed-up with an omelet and fruit breakfast with Starbucks coffee on the home machine, cleaning-up my house and the turtle's house (laundry and the like) while I'm listening to some combination of Bill Maher's Real Time podcast and Hockey Night in Canada live on the radio (via the internet). Then it's a few lesson planning tweaks before the rabbit drops by to try a new baking recipe, join me in making dinner, and watching a movie.

It's a simple day, but a much-needed rest from my 6 day work week. I'm pretty sure that if I didn't have my Sundays as they are, my Mondays would really be in trouble - even more so than they are now. That, and I suppose this is definitive proof that I'm simply getting old. I don't go out crazy late on Saturdays anymore - for a myriad of reasons, really - and my free mornings are just too valuable for me. I wonder how long it is until I start putting doilies under all of my picture frames. But really, I wouldn't have traded this past Sunday for the world.

Anyway, I'm not too old for Monday mornings to continue to start the week off wrong. It never fails. Nothing really works in my office when I want it to, and when I want it to is usually Monday morning. The answer would surely be to have things planned before leaving on Friday night, but I'm too busy late in the week trying to tweak my lessons for Saturday classes - a new necessity this semester as I am now working with a new co-teacher who - rightfully so - has her own wants, needs, and expectations from co-teaching this class. My dreams of having a relaxing Spring as I busted my ass in the fall to build curriculum I could re-use this semester have come back down to reality. Such is co-teaching, and admittedly, "true co-teaching" is something I have rarely done in my position. It takes some getting used to.

But yeah, Monday mornings are a chore. I'm pretty sure that all printers, copiers and computers within my Monday morning reach are all synchronized to fail en masse as soon as I walk in the door.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The King's Speechie

The rabbit and I saw The King's Speech - the movie finally being released here in Korea with tonight being opening night. There was a pretty decent crowd for an early 5:30 show and they appeared to really dig it - especially one lady sitting directly behind us who seemed to mistake moments meant to elicit pathos as moments designed to elicit snickering and giggling. When the Duke of York has a big Wembley Stadium stammering fail, she apparently thought that was pretty damn funny.

I really liked this movie - made me tear-up in places. As someone who has struggled with another aspect of public speaking, I could relate a lot to what Firth's character was going through. It's a real fear and a crippling one. Good thing I never had to respond to the declaration of a World War.

I was also glad to see that we got the unedited version here in Seoul. I think it's too bad, and a sad display of greed, to re-release the film minus the potty-mouth scenes just to get a PG-13 rating and a few more bums in seats. To me, those scenes were integral. I would have felt robbed without them.

Good movie. I'm not sad it won the Oscar.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Homefront: Mostly Ludicrous

...but an interesting read nevertheless.

While surfing on various websites between classes today, I came-across a photo of the cover of a new X-Box 360 game entitled Homefront. It seems to be a fairly run of the mill first person shooter, but with a unique premise.

Set in 2027, with the projected downfall of the US economy, a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran which drives oil prices through through the roof, and the resulting world wide fallout, the game is set in a fictionalized future where the Korean peninsula feeds on renewed nationalistic fervor to reunite under Kim Jong-il's successor before beginning to annex most of the Pacific much in the manner that Japan did in WWII.

The game takes place after the "Great Korean Republic" has disabled the US's communication capabilities with a James Bond style satellite, and so begins the invasion which creates the defense scenario for the game.

Oh, boy...

Well, with the hopes that this doesn't give loonies cause to further develop their own prejudices toward Asians, this seems like it'll be a hot seller in the Red States. Those children of the '80s need a new Red Dawn apparently.

You can read more about the theory behind the game's story here, and you can watch the game's trailer here.

Clearly, the game developers have no issues with capitalizing on recent tragedies on the peninsula, or ripping-off the opening credit sequence design for The Kingdom.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bureaucratic Fools

The Red Cross may be a great organization, but red tape sucks. Yesterday, I got a call from my friend who happens to be another public school English teacher here in Seoul. He was distraught by the disaster in Japan and wondering what could be done besides donating money. To him, he wanted to do something more personal and tangible - he suggested giving some of his extra shoes, and he hinted at possibly going over there to help in the recovery effort. I think a part of all of us wants to do the same.

These are noble thoughts and wants. However, it seems that best best way for anyone not currently in Japan is to donate to the Red Cross, which seems to be about the only organization to help in large scale crises that doesn't later get investigated for fraud charges. Their volunteers and workers know what they are doing and it's much more effective to have people channel their money into such organizations as opposed to being another mouth to house and feed while we are there. In this case it seems to come down to just math.

So, what to do here in Korea? Well, there are Red Cross donation places being set-up in places across Seoul, but there's always more that can be done. Collectively, some native teachers and I came-up with the idea of asking our students and staff for donations. Specifically, I thought it would be a good idea to have students donate money in the form of coins - nothing over 1000 won ($1). As Stuart MacLean says, "we would rather have this be the comings-together of the many, as opposed to the comings-together of the few." A thermometer-style chart would have been set-up outside of the class and we could have had the money deposited into a KB Star bank counting machine across the street on a weekly basis - the money being stored in a jar in the principal's office if need-be. The thought was that kids can't donate substantial amounts through the regular channels, but they could feel a part of the relief effort if they were provided with an opportunity to do so in a small way that becomes large when measured in the collective.

Well, the answer from on high today was "no". This was from way up on high, so I'm not really blaming anyone except for the system. I'm also not criticizing the system and suggesting that this one here on Korea has any less red tape than attempting something similar in a Canadian school would have. But it also doesn't suck any less.

Basically, I was told that it's not looked upon well by parents to have the school seemingly "pushing" for donations from the students - even if those donations add-up to less than a dollar from each. Honestly though, I just don't get it. I do get that it is sometimes annoying to open the door at dinner time and see a dude with a clipboard collecting for something, but when your teachers are asking for a small amount to help those who have lost everything, well, I wouldn't begrudge those who don't donate for whatever reason, but I would begrudge the system that says it's not worth offending someone by encouraging them to donate what amounts to a couple of pieces of candy or less than a small order of fries at Lotteria.

I have been told that I am allowed to encourage students to call the Red Cross to donate, but I couldn't actually take any money from them at all. The Red Cross would have likely had a donation between $800 and $1000 from our middle school - no one student from my school being out anything more than perhaps an afternoon's sugar rush - but instead we have awkward conversations between administration and co-workers where people simply say "It's too bad. Your idea is great, but that is the the rule" and to which I respond: "Yeah, it IS too bad because people have lost everything and are dying and this would have a been a simple way for people to help and feel that they are doing something."

If it's really too bad, then perhaps the higher-ups in the district or the central offices would just turn the other way and let us raise some effing pennies. As with most things, I look back and think that I should have simply raised the money first - do the right thing until you're told that you're not allowed to.

I wonder what the response would be from the public school administration here in Seoul had the North attacked months ago, hundreds of thousands losing their homes and loved ones. Meanwhile, in Japan, life goes on as normal while those in power quibble about wether or not to let Japanese school children donate their coins to the cause of helping with the Korean recovery effort. Would we be thinking, "It's too bad. Your idea is great, but that is the the rule"?

Like my friend who phoned on Monday said, "It's weird, people are walking around the school as though nothing's happened."

For those who are able to donate more than pennies, you've probably already clicked this link.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Santorini in Seoul

The rabbit met me after my Saturday class to take me to a surprise location. Turns out, we were to visit the "Santorini" Museum in Hongdae. You can read more about it here.

The museum is hard to find, as its signage gets easily lost among all of the sign madness around it, and the museum is located on the basement floor of a building fairly indistinguishable form those around it. If you can read Korean, however, you're good to go.

Honestly, this was one of the strangest places I've ever been. Reading the link above will tell you more, but the short version is that this "museum" currently houses display areas for artists with a serious cat fetish, as well as a large gallery for "trompe l’oeil" or art to trick the eye - classical flat paintings designed to fool the eye into through emails from time to time and you have a good idea.

I've included a couple of shots for your perusal. The effect is pretty good on many of the paintings, though I have to say that I wonder about the long-term viability of such a place. This looks to be a permanent installation and one wonders if it wouldn't be better suited as a traveling exhibit in a more high profile and established Arts area - among other noted galleries, I mean. The quality is certainly there, and considering how much Koreans love to take photos of themselves, this thing will be popular for a while, but... well, the museum also houses a golden statue of a dude taking a moist bowel movement on the floor right beside the cafe. So there's that to think about.

Glad to have gone, and have some fun photos as a result, but man... that's some weird shit that you don't see in Calgary.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Letter From Home

I love getting mail. Email's nice, and facebook "hellos" are lovely, but a paper something touched by human hands is something grand, indeed.

This week I got a lovely letter from my sister and some fantastic drawings from my two little nephews. A couple of months ago, the two little guys were introduced to My Neighbour, Totoro through a DVD I had bought for my older nephew for his birthday. They can't seem to get enough of it, and they are all about the cat bus, though I wonder if it kind of creeped them out with its first appearance as it did me.

Anyway, in the spirit of Miyazaki, and with Japan on the mind, I offer you these two Studio Ghibli drawings from the hands of babes. I hope that whoever is hurting over there as a result of the earthquake and tsunami have people around them who love them. That's what I'd want, and I would hate to be alone.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tsunami in Japan

I've never felt an earthquake, but friends in Japan have lived through plenty. Footage of that wave tonight was overwhelming. The death toll will likely grow exponentially as the days go by and the water recedes. I'm watching newscasters cry on Japanese channels here in Seoul and feeling rather small.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Bees

Salman Rushdie simply will not do as subway reading. Midnight's Children demands a reading environment with far less personal space invaders.

To the rescue is McSweeney's Mammoth treasury of Thrilling Tales - a collection of new age pulp short stories that are so far a lot of fun, and easily read over a subway stint.

I'm only three stories into the collection, but I'm pleased to report that so far, so good. It's making we want to write short fiction again - something I haven't done with any measure of discipline since University. Also, I have to say that the third story in the collection, "The Bees", by Dan Chaon, scared the crap out of me - and no personal space invading riders could pull me out of its trance.

The story involves an alcoholic father running from his past - which includes rather nightmarish visions of a son from a failed marriage he has run from. His new wife knows nothing about his old life, but there are some eerie similarities between his old son and the new. That's about all I will say about the plot, but I want to say that I read through that story faster than I've read through anything in memory. There was something about the description of that boy that won't leave me - probably because it immediately brought to mind the image of a young boy who I worked with through one of my library programs years ago. This young man was more than a little off, and there was something incredibly unnerving about his angles and thinness, and the way he'd stare at you or just kind of be there when you weren't expecting it. I swear, had someone touched me on the arm during the last 4 pages, I would have jumped and screamed in a shoulder-to shoulder subway car.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Toy Story Makes Me Cry

Watched Toy Story 3 with the rabbit tonight. I had seen it in the theatre, but the rabbit had not. It was glorious to watch it with her. I was sitting back and she started leaning closer to the TV when Woody and the gang got knocked into the dumpster. Her mouth dropped open as they approached the incinerator and... well I won't spoil it for you, but her reaction to what happened next was just as large.

This whole series makes me bawl like big baby. Cars 2 is going to suck in comparison.

The Ddeok Days of Late Winter

... I would say "early Spring", but it's still too cold to herald the early coming of a new distinct season here in Korea. I would love to ride my bike to work, but there should be warmer weather to accompany such activity. There are buds on the trees, and there's plenty of blue sky some days, but the cold... it cuts. I was riding my bike as late as mid December last year, but that's because I had taken the time to grow accustomed to the change through the fall. I'm a big baby.

Anyway, today marked the first arrival of the gifts of ddeok (Korean rice cake). It comes in all forms - some smooth and pasta-like, and others more flaky and fluffy, such as in the photo above. Ddeok is traditionally given to the new co-teachers of a former colleague here in the public school system in Korea. Being that we've received a whole load of new teachers in return for ours that left, we've been getting a steady stream of ddeok from our new colleagues old ones - the gifts serve as a "please take care of Mrs. Lee in her new surroundings" kind of gesture. These gifts are usually followed-up with a visit from old colleagues who tour their friend's new facilities and meet and greet the new folk.

I like the tradition, and I've out my name out there to be included in upcoming visits of teachers who have recently left my school. It's easy to get forgotten in the general mess of the first month of school, but I'll try to tag-along on the visits when I can.

Ddeok, for its part, is something I'm happy to have taken a shining to. It's not all delicious, and the texture might freak a few people out as it did, me, at first. But, it's a nice filling little treat that actually comes in some healthy variations from time to time.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cecil and the Missing Book

Today was my first day of teaching for the new semester. That meant new grade 1 students (grade 7, back home) and last year's grade 2s in their new lofty role as kings and queens of the school - solidly perched at middle school grade 3 until their separation and slide into renewed mediocrity when they begin high school in 2012.

This year will be an interesting one for me, in that this year's grade 3s were the babies of the school when I began. I will be able to see them (mostly) through their whole middle school career - certainly some of the most formative years in a young person's life. This is what I signed-up for.

One student I'll be sad to see go is Cecil - he's actually a complete delinquent - if I can assign such a term. Cecil has very curly hair, and absent stare, and a habit of being late for class every day, while coming in sporting a black eye or swollen ear and smelling like smoke - don't be surprised, the stats would put things in perspective.

Despite the fact that he doesn't try in my class and has not improved his English in a measurable way since I started as his native speaking English teacher two years ago, I can't help but like Cecil - at least, I do my best to make him comfortable in my class. I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that, at this point, I may be the only authority figure in his life who doesn't want to kick his ass on a regular basis. What would be the point? He's going to fail every subject in school, and that's just a fact. I'm not a nihilist on this, I'm just observing the truth from the perspective of someone who doesn't see him enough to have a real shot of pulling him out of his slide. If anything changes, I'll let you know.

However, that's unlikely. Cecil was late on this - the first day of classes with me. He had no book, and told the Korean teacher that he lost it. Truth is, he doesn't want it. Cecil just doesn't want to be here. I let him know as best I can that in some inexplicable way, I have a fondness for him, and I think he reacts positively to this in the best way he knows how - by staying in my class for the duration and not doing anything criminal enough to get kicked-out.

I wonder what will happen to kids like Cecil after middle school. I wonder where he'll go. Signs suggest that he'd get eaten-alive in High School, but you never know. I see kids that are going somewhere - even those who are loud and too misdirected and sassy for their own good have something to feed on.

Cecil seems content to just drift - I don't think a fluent understanding of Korean would illuminate anything different about him. Cecil makes me laugh, but he also makes me sad.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


The rabbit gave me a nice surprise today - we headed down to the southern edge of Seoul to the Seoul Arts Center which, I am happy to report, is buzzing with all ages on a Sunday afternoon.

I know next to nothing about visual art - from a critical point of view anyway. But I know a little bit about what I like, and I feel that I'm open to learning. Friedensreich Hunderwasser seemed like a pretty cool cat. His art-turned-architecture is undeniably wonder-filled. If you're like me me and knew nothing about him, Wikipedia is never a bad place to start. Walking around the exhibit today, I was equally compelled by the many quotations of his on display as I was by the paintings and models.

Basically, the guy doesn't dig on straight lines - which likely means he would have really hated on Seoul - at least the majority of the high rises here. In fact, here's a good taste of what he had to say about straight lines:

Just carrying a ruler with you in your pocket should be forbidden, at least on a moral basis. The ruler is the symbol of the new illiteracy. The ruler is the symptom of the new disease, disintegration of our civilization.

And a wonderful thought about his slow approach to his painted creations:

I believe my painting is totally different because it is vegetative painting. One reason why other people don't want to paint vegetatively is because it starts so inconspicuously, without any éclat or drum rolls. Instead it develops quite slowly and steadily, and that doesn't suit our social order - people want immediate results, achieved through exploitation.
The help of time is incredible in art. Something grows; then it can't fail. Only quick things fail. You feel that they do not have that patina, the mark of evolution, the mark of age. Slow-growing trees are better than fast-growing, the wood is better, they look better.

The Seoul exhibit runs until the 15th of this month at the Seoul Arts Center, so, if anyone in Seoul is reading this, check it out if you get a chance. Even if you're a relative rube, like myself, I guarantee that you'll be inspired. There are some HUGE scale models of his creations - including a sprawling spa resort that looks like the love child of Theodore Geisel and Tim Burton on a good day.

But, as I mentioned, his words were equally if not more enchanting - I don't mind using the word. Two quotations struck me above the others. One was his painted-on-canvas reply to an invitation he had received to an art festival in Seoul in 1990. I wish I could repeat the whole thing here, but memory fails me. Perhaps reacting to the requirements of the festival, he stated that he could not attend, because he was a "sweet water frog" and however well-intentioned his salt water friends might be to invite him to make the long swim to Seoul, he simply could not do it, or it would kill him.

When Hundertwasser died, he was buried (at his request) without casket in a shallow grave near his adoptive New Zealand home, and had a tree planted directly above his grave. Shortly before his death, he had the following thought:

“A dead person is entitled to reincarnation in the form of, for example, a tree that grows on top of him and through him. The result would be a cased forest of living dead. A garden of the happy dead.”

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Educating Esme

Just finished reading this book. It's a diary of a teacher's first year. "Madame Esme" spent her first teaching year at the age of 24 in a 5th grade inner-city Chicago classroom. It was very much worth the read - thanks, Leo, for lending it to me.

This journal was, in equal parts, exhilarating, exhausting, and encouraging. You would be hard-pressed to find a more energetic or creative teacher than Esme Raji Codell. The book is easily read in the down moments of a busy day and, as someone who has been doing "teaching" of sorts for the past three years, its appeal is kind of a no-brainer. Esme admits now to having been more than a bit too crass, over-confident, and stuck-up in her first year approach, but hell - she clearly swung for the fences.

Reading this book made me miss my old library job, and it made me wish that I had started teaching professionally 10 years ago. Everything happens for a reason.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Water, please...

We have no running water at our school. I'm not really sure how the lunch for the entire school population is prepared, or cleaned-up, or how the toilets keep filling-up after flushing - all I know for sure is that none of the sinks in our offices our lunch room have worked since construction began on the new gymnasium.

I'm really not ADD about washing my hands, but after cleaning-up a winter's worth of classroom grime from Wednesday to Friday, it's a necessary thing.

Sadly, my hands have gone back to the usual late Winter/early Spring dryness - where I start looking like an Ent. Such ruggedness requires some care.

Anyway, the bathrooms seem to be working well enough, so a bunch of us have taken to filling-up kettles in the bathroom sinks, keeping the kettles near our office sinks, and using them to rinse our soapy hands with.

Well, yesterday, I made my way to the office sink, grabbed the kettle, and poured it over my left hand. Turns out someone boiled the water first. Why not, right? It was in a kettle after all.

It must have looked pretty funny to see a dude casually walk to the sink, and pour a batch of steaming hot water onto my hand. Hurt like a summamabitch, but the worst part was that there wasn't any cold water to run it under. Thanks to my school nurse for wrapping it up well - the blisters were not substantial.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


As a general rule, Koreans don't think it's necessary to say "excuse me" if there is incidental bumping on a crowded street, bus, or subway. Fair enough, I suppose - and I've been here long enough now that I don't get really angry when someone cuts me off. The one exception to the rule for me is people trying to get on the train when I'm trying to get off. It's then that the Davey elbows come out, and for most Koreans, my elbows are at about eye-level.

Anyway, as unnecessary as it may seem to most Koreans to to say "excuse me", there are times when it would help.

For instance, coming home on the train tonight (line #4), doors opened at a stop about 5 from where I get off. The train wasn't too busy - there were plenty of seats available, and there were two teenage girls and one older lady standing up near-ish the door. The doors had been open for about 4 seconds (which, in Korea, is a long time). A woman who had fallen asleep on the bench suddenly sprang-up and charged for the door, probably realizing that we were indeed at her stop. She plowed directly into the middle of the two girls (Ka-BAM!), sending one flying into the upright bar near the end seat, and sending the other into the elderly lady standing on the other side.

What I'm talking about is roughly this...

Only imagine the two pins a little further toward the center.

There was not one word from the charging ajuma - just a bone-crunching running panic as she awoke seconds late for her stop. Not a word from the others who had been plowed into either.

Someone recently explained the reasoning behind the phenomena this way: "We can't be angry at them because we think that someday, we will need to do the same thing, so we will expect their kindness as well."

Not sure if I think that's a reasonable excuse for what, to my eyes, still adds-up to unnecessary rudeness.

Then again, if that had happened in Calgary and the girls being plowed into were a little on the rougher side, that ajuma would probably at least have a broken nose, if not dead and lying in a growing pool of her own blood.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

First Day Back

Headed back to school today for the first time this semester. I don't start teaching until next week, and I'm sure there will be a fair amount of time to post about the specifics in the coming weeks.

For now, I wanted to say that I was sad today. There are many good teachers leaving our school (about 20 or so, it seems) and I feel sad to be saying what is a virtually a good bye to many people I considered friends here. There are some I will keep in touch with, and others that I simply won't - save for the traditional March march to their new schools to deliver treats to their new office partners and to say good luck in the new digs.

This morning was for the grade 2s and 3s to gather with their old teachers, and this afternoon was all about the new grade 1s - sheepishly appearing with their parents and finding their homerooms. Tomorrow, there will be a grand ceremony in the schoolyard where the old students and the new will face-off in some sort of battle for the ages - or just welcome each other and say hello.

Until then, I am officially switching gears into positive mode - friends are leaving, but new energy is arriving. That's good, too.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Duh Beu-Ray-Ee-Beu and the Pig

The rabbit and I met-up with one of my favourite hagwon students last Friday. Pig needs no introduction to most who read this site. He was one of my most delightful students in my first year in Korea, and I have a feeling that we will be life-long friends. He does have two big brothers as it is, but I can safely say that I feel much like a third - even when I was his teacher, though he did work hard for me and made great strides, I think we were more buddies than anything else. I'd pass him cherry tomatoes through the teachers' room / classroom window, and he'd lead the students in pulling-out my white hairs at break time. I could go on.

Anyway, it was great to see him. Being that the weather is still bordering on shabby and it's no longer really "holiday" time, theme parks didn't really seem like the way to go for this visit. We had a blast the previous Christmas with some old friends at Everland, but we were hoping for something a little more low-key this time out.

Pig suggested a movie - "all movies are exciting!" he said, so we could choose whatever we wanted. It had to be True Grit. When is a kid like Pig ever going to get a chance to see a movie like this in the theatre? He would have to be dragged there kicking and screaming by the likes of me.

True Grit is called "The Brave" (더 브레이브) here in Korea - quite possible because the proper translation for "True Grit" simply wouldn't fit properly on a poster. Fair enough.

We met for burgers at Krazy Burger (tufu burger for me) in Suwon Station (an old haunt) for lunch, and then zipped-on over to the movie theatre.

So - the big question is what did Pig think of True Grit? Well, that's a tough one. Pig has a great deal of energy, as anyone who's had the pleasure of meeting him can attest to. He is also a Korean child, which means that his free time is precious. He is asked to focus for more hours each week than most of us working adults, and as a result, when he does have free time, he does one of two things: indulges his new origami addiction, or fills his time with computer games, internet surfing, and generally succumbing to the affects of the world's shortest average attention span. When kids like Pig go to the theatre, they likely head for a blockbuster action movie. It's pretty much Avatar or nothing - and even then, the tree of life down time must have driven him right 'round the bend.

In the end though, I think Pig really liked True Grit, though I think it was a bit of a revelation for him. Early on, right around the time when Maddie Ross was first proposing to hire Rooster Cogburn and after Pig had checked his smart phone about 5 times, Pig turned to me and asked when the movie would finish. I was beginning to regret this experiment, but the feeling didn't last long. Once things got going (Maddie, horse and all, jumping into the river to show her own true grit), Pig was all over it. He laughed when he was supposed to, and the few times I was confident enough that I wouldn't distract him by doing so, I caught a glimpse of him from the corner of my eye and he was absolutely fixed on the screen.

Pig had never really seen anything like this - a "real" story from a place and time he'd never been to and had never really been asked to expose himself to. I think it was the unfamiliarity that opened him up, and the characters that got their hooks into him. He had a lot to say about it when it was over, and the rabbit enjoyed it thoroughly as well. Pig's first Western - proud to have taken him there.

It was also a lovely treat to see Pig's family, if only incompletely and for a brief time. His father was away, and his artistic middle brother was currently engaged in his first year of compulsory military service. That left Pig, his mom, and his older brother, Peter, who was happy to join us in a couple of rounds of Rummikub - a family game and a gift from the rabbit and I for Pig's entrance into Middle School. The little guy will be wearing a school uniform for the first time this week.

We were also treated to an impromptu serving of fruit and kimchi-jeon (Korean pancake) from Pig's mom, as well as some big brother end-of-visit encouragement for me to read the Twilight series and to see the films - Peter had, after all, read and seen them all several times. I inquired as to whether Peter was on "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob". He seemed to give the question serious consideration before professing that "Men need to be strong, so I suppose I like Jacob the best. But Jacob has a relationship with Edward and Bella's daughter in the end. So that's wrong."

True 'nuff. And thank you, Peter for sparing me from having to read the books, myself.

All in all - a grand day out with the Pig.