Monday, May 30, 2011

Fake Plastic Trees

Finishing the weekend round-up (for about 3 days, I wasn't able to access my blog at home), I'll make a brief mention of a certain street near Apgujeong.

Garosugil street (the "tree-lined street") in Sinsa-dong is a four or five block stretch of higher end shops and cafes. As Sinsa-song is one of the richer south of the river areas of Seoul, it's the kind of place frequented by the rich and cosmetically appealing - defined as being rich enough to afford multiple plastic surgeries, slowly drive their Porsches or Jaguars through a crowded pedestrian mall, and/or display their infant children who are dressed in tiny clothes expensive enough to make you or I forgo food for the month - and cosmetically appealing enough to attract husbands who can afford Porsches or Jaguars and Ralph Lauren for the kids. There seemed to be not one lady on that street who hadn't paid a great deal of money, time, effort, and probably pain to make their outward appearance as impressive (and unwittingly artificial) as humanly and scientifically possible.

Bless the rabbit for having coupons and taking me to a place she remembered as being a bit different in her university years. But, there we were on a Sunday afternoon - the rabbit in her comfortable running shoes and I in my shorts and with backpack, and we couldn't have felt more out of place or uncomfortable.

I'll just leave it at this: Apgujeong/Sinsa area isn't for me. It's not for the rabbit either. We enjoyed our coffee, egg-rolls, and waffles at a couple of places before making our way toward Jongno and Cheonggyecheon for a nice evening stroll down the stream - ending up at a free outdoor concert. Lots of families, and lots of people being themselves.

I'm pretty sure I don't need to return to the tree-lined street of Sinsa-dong anytime soon. For my time and money, Samcheong-dong is the dong of choice when one seeks unique cafes with earned character.

Should you consider visiting Sinsa-dong next weekend, first consider visiting id Hospital. This girl did, and she couldn't be happier...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yoon-nyeong... Welcome Aboard!

Yoon-Nyeong is one of the more thoughtful students in our Saturday class. Through her seeming fascination with all things British, she has developed a fascinating mix of a Manchester/Seoul accent whenever she speaks English. It's quite wonderful. But, I am more impressed with her confidence and willingness to express her opinion. Her essays impress, and she's not afraid to speak her mind in class.

Anyway, though I may have mentioned a while back that I was leading a class about vegetarianism as a "hot topic" about a month ago, I don't believe I ever followed-up with reporting the results.

The two will come together in a second.

I began class that day by serving each student a helping of French Bread and my vegetarian chili which I had shopped for, prepared, and carted-down to Sindorim an hour away that morning. I had kind of expected students to be a bit hesitant, but I was disappointed in the fact that most of them were really turned-off with the dish.

I'm not going to waste a great deal of time defending my vegetarian chili, but I will say with confidence that them's some good eats! Not for my students, though. Many just picked at their bowls, nobody asked for a second helping, and I ended-up throwing-out a LOT of food at the end of the day, though I did of course keep what was in my pot. "Take what you need, but eat what you take..."

Turns out that most Koreans just don't dig on beans, which make up the vast majority of my chili's contents. But still, man - you ate steamed silkworm larvae as a child - you can surely stomach some beans. Oh well, to each, his/her own.

We looked at a lot of stuff that day - alternative proteins, Moby essays, statements on the subject from notable scientists, entertainers, and "moral leaders" of the world, and we did our best to get an actual discussion going as well. In the end, most people were pretty much sticking to the tried and true Korean stance of simply being a carnivore for life. Fair enough, I guess, but it was then time to bring out the big guns.

I prefaced the short documentary with the admission that I never like to traumatize my students, but that this was perhaps the best way to show why many people have made the choice to become vegetarian. As Sir Paul McCartney once said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarian."

That's large-scale wishful thinking, but since I lacked the time in this class to explore a significant slaughterhouse exposé in John Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, we made due with a tremendously harrowing and graphic 12 minute short about animal abuse on farms and slaughterhouses. The film is called "Meet your Meat" , it's been around for a while, and it's probably still one of the best tools PETA has at its disposal for convincing meat eaters to make a different choice.

This is, of course, hard stuff to watch, but as PETA would argue (and it's pretty hard to disagree) if you can watch this and still eat meat, that's certainly your choice, but if you get half-way through and turn it off because you can't deal with it, and then you head out for a dinner of baby back ribs that same night, then you're not being entirely honest with yourself.

Anyway, I thought I'd let the video speak for itself, and I gave more than fair warning. Some students stopped watching, but others braved the experience. I would encourage anyone reading this to do the same (and then to read Schlosser's book :).

Some of the students were upset, some were angry, and a couple of them felt like they had been... well, tortured. Mission accomplished - welcome to advanced critical reading and writing class, kids!

Anyway, back to Yoon-Nyeong...

This past Saturday, after the field trip, we were all (students and teachers) treated to lunch at Outback Steakhouse (not my choice). However, it was very kind of the supervising teachers to ensure that something with veggieness was ordered for me. I took my place at the end of one of the tables and then Yoon-nyeong was asked to sit across from me so that we could share the vegetarian food.


Turns out she is now a vegetarian. I asked her why and she told me that since our class, she hasn't been able to eat meat. We actually spook about it through most of the meal, and she admitted that the video affected her more than she thought it would. She really couldn't stand the idea of eating animals at all any more. Yoon-nyeong also told me that she's having a hard time with her family as they are not at all accepting of this choice (and by extension, are probably pissed off at me).

She seems bound and determined though, and I applaud her efforts - not because it's in-line with my thoughts on the subject, and not because I feel that one girl is going to make a massive difference, but because it's a bold and important choice for a person to make - especially a young person in Korea where meat-eating is so socially ingrained in the culture and where group-think is a tough thing to get-away from.

I'm really proud of this girl. She wants to learn more about a vegetarian lifestyle, so I'll be giving her my copy of PETA's vegetarian starter kit that I brought with me from Canada. The information is delivered in bite-sized pieces, and it has some really great recipes to try.

We spoke a bit more about it before the food arrived, and then switched the topic to include the others, who couldn't hold back as soon as the plate of ribs arrived. Yoon-nyeong and I shared a knowing glance as we dug into our salad, veggie pasta, and gorgonzola flat bread - which we shared in bits with the others at our table.

I know that Yoon-nyeong will struggle at times with this choice - with friends and family and going forward, but all the power to her for making it despite all of that.


Lately, I've been letting some classic Mickey cartoons play in the classroom as students enter before the bell rings. "Clock Cleaners" & "Mickey's Trailer" were first-up, and today we are showing "Boat Builders".

These be OLD Mickey shorts - the ones when Mickey had just the black eyes sans pupils. I suppose that should be more anatomically correct.

Anyway, today while we were waiting for more of a grade 3 class to arrive, the opening titles began for the latest cartoon when Sam, one of my more talkative grade 3 students piped-up and in an excited voice said "Oh! Teacher - Hitler music?"


I corrected him, but soon realized that he was pretty on-point. "Boat Builders" came out in 1938 and that was roughly the time when Adolf was doing his best to cozy up to Georg von Trapp and his brood. Orchestral fanfare from both sides of the pond had enough in common, I suppose.

Anyway, why is my student getting all excited for recignizing "Hitler music"? Such things disturb me for a time.

A good Saturday to work

The days are fewer and further between than I would like them to be, but there are some days when I love my job.

This past Saturday, I woke-up at 7, had a quick breakfast, was on the bike by 7:45 and I rode the cheon behind my apartment down and across the Han River, and East to Olympic Park - just under a two hour journey - where I met my Saturday students and teachers for a sculpture art critiquing field trip.

I've blogged extensively about this before, and the day went pretty much as expected. I honestly can't get enough of Olympic Park - still one of my favourite places in Seoul.

With all of the frustrations that come with my regualr job at times, giving-up my Saturdays more often than not makes up for the collective majority of shabbiness from my Mon-Fri class experiences. It may seem odd to solve the problems of too much teaching with more teaching, but it's working for me for now, so I stick with it.

Honestly, when these are the things I get to see on a morning commute and a day with students who are motivated, creative, and who want to be there, I'm a pretty happy camper. I also had a chance to put just over 96 kilometers on my bike through the day.

So, thanks to the kids and the teachers for making it a worthwhile trip, and thanks to a special lady for meeting me for an evening picnic afterward. Thumbs-up to you all.

"Teacher - slipper... GOOD!"

With the warmer weather, I've been doing my best to keep things a bit more casual at school. I'm pretty much done with wearing pants. Honestly, as the humidity climbs along with the temperature - eff that. I'm sweating for nobody in this place unless I absolutely have to. So, shorts it is. I'll iron my shirts to compensate.

I've also finally gotten around to buying a pair of those rubberized slip-on sandals - the ones without the toe hold thingy - so that I can be just like all of the kids in my school who slip into them immediately upon entering the premesis since outdoor shoes are for the outdoors only.

The teachers wear these things too, and since I couldn't be bothered to invest in a pair of Birkenstocks (and who knows the probability that I will once again come upon a river of poo in the bathroom one of these days?), I wanted to get something sturdy, yet easily cleanable.

Adidas to the rescue. These babies are rubber, plastic, water-proof, and come with little massaging nibs on the soul. My feet are happy campers, and I am no longer trapping untold amount of Seoul heat and humidity within the sealed canvas of my other shoes. You and I know that such actions were a recipe for one thing: a bouquet of terror. With this new situation, however, I am airy and free, and my students are happy that I have joined their ranks.

So, thanks to the rabbit for her patience while we searched the many shoe shops of Myeong-dong for a pair in my size, only to be denied at each one. And thanks to my neighbourhood Home Plus for actually having a pair in my size in-stock. They had probably been holding it for months - just hoping I would one day make the purchase.

Fine Tea & Fine Art

Golly, Bob Howdy! The rabbit and I marked a special day last week by heading to Insadong for a coupon dinner and tea at one of our favourite cafes, The Kyung-in Museum of Fine Arts.

The cafe portion of the museum is quite secluded as compared to most of the other people-watching venues on Insadong's main street, and it's probably your best bet for a calm and quiet tea on a busy weekend or week night. The courtyard is quite spacious and you have your choice of sitting at a patio table, or inside a number of traditional Hanok-style seating areas that have been restored to a create a very appealing atmosphere.

At a craft shop nearby, I was also able to find a zany print for the rabbit's music room. Giraffes and pianos, they mean something to us.

If you've never been, believe me when I say that it's a great get-away from the usually crowded cafes along the main street in Insadong. And bring Rummikub - the tiles sound wonderful on the antique wooden tables.

The Dragon's Revenge

Mr. Choi, one of our most beloved teachers at our school, left this past winter vacation for a new school closer to his home. He is dearly missed and I hope to be getting together with him and his family soon.

I did have a chance however to meet-up with him briefly as he new school's soccer team played against ours at a nearby sports center.

As was the case at our school, Mr. Choi is a soccer coach extraordinaire. His team was able to squeak-by one more goal than ours as they won the game 3-2, but not without a valiant effort from one of my favourite students, who was promptly rewarded with a lolipop in class the next day for coming out of the corner against three defenders and bending a beautiful cross into the high far corner of the net.

It was great to catch-up with Mr. Choi, and a little bit emotional as he brought his old team together for one more cheer after the game.

I also met Doraemon on the way to the game. He was whoring himself out for a local SK Telecom Cell Phone store. I took the photo, he wanted me to come into the store. I showed him that I already had a phone. He seemed dismayed at the fact that my phone was a lowly 2nd generation Samsung from 5 years ago. He wanted me to buy a new smart phone. I declined. He was sad.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Salvage Arm!

Last night, my Springtime allergies caught-up with me and I couldn't sleep. This happens with me about once a year - in Canada and in Korea. If I lie down, my chest fills with all sorts of bubbly goodness and I can't bloody-well breathe. So, I end-up sitting-up in bed with pillows propped-up against the wall and do my best not to tip-over and smash my face on the window sill or bookshelf.

Anyway, last night, my allergies woke me up at about 3:30 after having gotten to bed at 1:30 and I was up until breakfast time. Sleep just wasn't going to happen, so I picked-up my Nintendo DS and decided to make some progress on a game I bought in Korea 3 and a half years ago.

I never really made it that far the The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass in the first go-round, and then I kind of gave-up. Quest games are like that, if you go away from them for any length of time, you pretty much have to start all-over again so that all of the maps and (in this case) sea charts make some measure of sense.

The portable Zelda is great for the subway life as it's episodic in nature and a lot of the journey can be solved in chapter stages - something easily achievable on the average subway ride. All that, and I've always had a soft spot for Zelda games. The DS versions are especially creative and fun. Who doesn't want to amass collections of various forms of who-ha and take the sword to baddies as one traverses the lands and seas of Hyrule? Great game mechanics and charming animation. Good times for nerds like me.

Well, at about 4:30 AM, I was all jazzed from getting through the third level of the Temple of the Ocean King, when I was told to head back to an island and talk to some clown named "Eddo" who could upgrade my vessel with a "salvage arm" which I could then use to scour the ocean floor for valuable treasures and tools. Problem was, Eddo got all Rod Tidwell and wanted me to tell him with audible gusto just how much I wanted that salvage arm affixed to my watery steed.

The DS makes use of the microphone a lot in this game - requiring some verbal commands, and other times asking the player to blow lightly into the microphone to blow-out a candle, or huff, puff, and then blow in order to get windmills turning, etc. But here I was, with two sleepy and travel-weary lads sleeping in the loft. I had to put it away until the morning. But let me tell you, that salvage arm haunted some Davey dreams.

I spent the next few minutes searching online for suggestions of how to bring the price of the salvage arm down a bit, as one site suggested that the volume would determine the price - the average amount seeming to come to 300 rupees or thereabouts. I guess Nintendo really wanted its customers to act like tools on the subway - screaming for the salvage arm in the middle of a quiet morning commute. One of my house guests, Jacob, who admittedly has a very loud voice even when a conversation's tone calls for the opposite, was just the thing I needed.

So, when we all awoke for a brief breakfast send-off this morning, I handed the DS to Jacob and told him what to do...

"GIVE ME THE f#@%ING SALVAGE ARM!!!" was Jacob's sudden and alarming request - directly into the mic, given at a decible count just below that which would achieve accute hearing damage.

Eddo was less than impressed, and asked for 1000 rupees.

Taken-aback, Jacob tried a more subdued approach - casually low-balling his excitement and almost whispering into the mic.

"200 rupees" was Eddo's offer.

Moral of the story: no matter what Eddo asks of you, speak softly, and walk off with a great deal on a salvage arm. I'm off to buy some antihistamines.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

One thing that sucks...

...about what seems to be most Korean marriages is that once a woman is married, it's pretty much the end of the road for her male friendships.

Even with colleagues at work, gone are the days of after-school coffee, bowling, and drinks (even in groups), and weekend excursions with co-ed friends become a high level of taboo.

Such is the case with my school nurse, and it bums me out. She was one of the more friendly people when I first came to the school in the spring of 2009, and we have had some fun together - two student trips filled with hiking, mekju-baji ("beer pants"), and melon bar shananigans with teacher friends, and then a really nice weekend excursion last Spring where she joined myself and a male PE teacher on a trip to Chuncheon for the mime festival. This was pretty rare - a Korean woman venturing out of town and overnight (the scandal!) to share a room with two male colleagues - of course, she got the King-sized bed and the two lads were relegated to the floor.

Clearly, we had been establishing a more and more clearly platonic friendship as the second year came and went, and we had a lot of fun together.

About a week after our trip, I set her up on a blind date with a friend - there wasn't a second date. Two months after that, I heard a rumour at school that she was engaged. A month after that, an invitation appeared in our office inviting all school staff to attend the wedding. I couldn't go, however, as I had a Saturday class that day. I gave her an Outback Steakhouse gift certificate at school after the honeymoon.

Since getting engaged, and even more so since getting married, this young lady has made herself as scarce as humanly possible at work. She used to join the PE teacher and I (along with her female friend at lunch) and now she sits either on her own or surrounded by as many women as she can manage.

When I asked if she would be joining the PE teacher and I on the grade 1 field trip next week, which would have been our third consecutive student trip together, she said that she wouldn't be going. When I countered with the suggestion that she might join us and some friends for a weekend get-away this Spring or summer. She issued the blanket statement of "I can't". Passing conversations in the hallway which last year would have included some laughs and catching-up are also dismissed or excused as quickly.

Honestly, we weren't that close, but it was nice to have her as a friend at work. Notice how I'm using the past tense. That makes me kind of sad.

From the Land of Chocolate!

I had meant to post about this right after I received it, but something fishy was going on with blogger the past two days and I wasn't able to sign-in. Yeesh!

Anyway, a delicious surprise arrived on my desk on Tuesday afternoon - a sweet little package of German goodness from my displaced officetel pal, Douglas. I could smell the treatishness eminating from the box - with good reason: the lid of the chocolate spread was a wee bit smashed, but thankfully only a tiny bit of cocolatey goodness escaped in the transit - thank you, wax paper seal!

There was all sorts of goodness in there, including two boxes of tea (one being an energy tea which I can surely get some use out of over the next few months), the aforementioned chocolate spread, a very liquidy peanut butter that I'm curious to try out, some vitamin C soothers that appear to contain "forest honey" and sage, and a bag of delicious strawberry gummy candy that makes all other non-German gummy candies melt into a pool of their own inferiority.

And all topped-off with a classically irreverent postcard featuring Jesus and floating winged baby heads.

Thanks for the treats, my friend. They will be enjoyed in small, but savoured doses.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Those Princely Treasures!

Sorry about not writing the last couple of days... life was catching-up with me and stuff.

Mostly, it's been good, as one of my favourite people has once again returned to Korea for an extended visit. Lex, who had previously lived and worked in Korea for about 6 years, went-off to Australia to pursue her Master's in teaching English as a second language in the late winter. With the semester over, she's back here in Seoul until roughly the middle of August which is a good thing.

As the rabbit described it in a message the other day, Lex is kind of like a "happy virus". Most of the compliments I could give about the lady would result in mass hyperbole, so let me just add that she's a good girl to have around.

The National Museum of Korea is also one of Lex's favourite places in Seoul - it may top her list, actually. So, Ed, the rabbit, and myself met Lex there for an afternoon of roaming about - from the Neolithic action, through the Joseon shenanigans, to the big ol' Buddha's on the 3rd floor.

This is the most impressive museum I've ever been in, though I admit that my world travel has been limited so far. Still, this is the 6th largest museum in the world and it is a must-see for any visitor to Seoul.

The traveling exhibit this time around was entitled “Princely Treasures: European Masterpieces 1600-1800 from the Victoria and Albert Museum”. And it was just about exactly as it sounds.

For a dude who's never been to Europe, I was pretty impressed - at least as impressed as I'm liable to get over a gem-encrusted snuff box used by Friedrich II. There be a great deal of pomp on display in this place - huge marble busts, lots of lace, and tapestries galore. But perhaps the most telling artifact among them is a huge silver "perfume burner" used to cover-up the smell that comes from lace, silk, and jewel encrusted Europeans in heavy wigs who hadn't yet met any Asians from whom to gain some hints about personal hygiene.

If you go, English language MP3 players are available to help bring some of these artifacts to life. Also, if you go - go with Lex, as she will infuse you, too, with happiness and her seemingly unending knowledge about all things museum. She might even entertain you as she takes photos of the wood inlay floor. Unfortunately, not even flash-less photography is allowed inside the special exhibit, which is why these photos are from the museum's main exhibition hall. "Princely Treasures" is on display until the 28th of August, and I'm guessing that with Seoul's summer humidity, they're going to get plenty of use out of that perfume burner.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Inside Alice

The rabbit finds coupons to the best places. Tonight, we met-up in Hyehwa after a particularly long work week and checked out a couple of new spots: an Indian restaurant which I've promptly forgotten the name of (oops), and a place called "Alice", which I'm going to refer to as a "room cafe" because I may have forgotten the actual term for this kind of place.

Seoul has a lot of intriguing venues for people looking for private small group entertainment. The place is famous for "bangs" (rooms) that provide for all manner of interests - singing and PC gaming being the most popular.

Alice is a different thing. Not just PC games, but console systems such as X-Box and PS3 are wildly popular here in Korea as well. As a result, gaming halls where you can pay by the hour to have access to a home gaming system and games without having to shell-out hundreds of dollars for ownership of the thing.

I've never been to a gaming hall, but I'm imagining that it would be full-to-overflowing with a potent combination of smokers and/or delinquent middle/high school students. Both, things I try my best to avoid on weekends.

Enter, Alice - an aforementioned "room cafe", where you can pay 7,000 won per person for a two hour stint in a cozy room with access to a flat screen TV, a computer with internet, a DVD player, and a Nintendo Wii.

There is also a kitchen area with free popcorn, coffee, and juice. This is clearly for the squares among us, but who am I to complain? I'm traveling with the rabbit for the love of Pete! What's more wholesome than grabbing two cups of juice, a plate of cookies and sitting down to play some wii tennis before trying to work-off the cookies effects through use of the wii Fit?

I'm utterly charmed by this place. In fact, I found myself thinking that mom and dad would have gotten a kick out of it as well had we happened upon Alice during their visit to Seoul. How cool it is that in Hyehwa, one of the more young-adult oriented areas of Seoul, you can find enough cardigan sweater wearing couples and groups of friends who skip the neon and cheap soju and instead opt for the cozy confines of Alice? And who doesn't want a private room in which to simulate jogging, boxing, or tennis on a Friday night?

If you are intrigued, Alice is located not far from exit 4 of Hywhwa Station. Just head toward the CGV and look on the third floor above the Artbox. It's a blue sign. And don't worry about your safety because should things get out of control with all of the juice and cookie consumption, there is this handy and accurately drawn escape route map for each individually curtained-off room. Alice doesn't want any unnecessary tragedy on her watch.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Morricone: Take 2

Post Karsh exhibit, the rabbit and I made it to the 2nd night of Ennion Morricone's 3 night run at Seoul's Sejeong Centre for the Performing Arts. This is the same venue where I sat front row for Harry Connick Jr., and while I was happy to pay the 120,000 won for those seats, I wasn't about to do 200,000 for the same seats for a full orchestra.

The rabbit wanted to sit as far away as possible anyway and let the music wash up and over her. As I've mentioned countless times before, Koreans love them some Morricone. That is perhaps why he has been able to sell-out the Olympic Gymnasium in 2007, again in 2009, and now the Sejeong Centre for three sold-out nights. This was essentially the same concert as when I first saw him in October of 2007 - highlights of his cinematic scoring career. It's all amazing music, and it's very cool to be able to hear it live. Highlights for me (and likely most others) are his selections from The Mission and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

It is perhaps a strange thought that people would pay hundreds of dollars to see live orchestral and choral movie music, but for most everyone who was there, it's a chance to see a beloved genius cleberating his career. Our seats were only 40,000 won, but even at a great distance, it's clear that he loves his work, he's appreciative of his musicians, and he's grateful to the point of tears for his audience. For evidence of this, check out his reception of his honorary Oscar from a few years back.

One addition to the repertoire on this night, however, was a solo by Korean pop-turned stage musical superstar Ok Ju-hyeon - a singer who famously transformed herself through excercise and plastic surgery during her stint as a member of the K-Pop group FIN.K.L. ("Fine Korean Ladies?") alongside Lee Hyori. She was by far the most vocally competent of the group but apparently the least attractive. Think Effie White of Dreamgirls. And Ju-hyeon is telling Hyori now! Ok Ju-hyeon has gone-on to have a successful solo career and has been cast as high profile leads in a number of recent broadway musicals here in Korea. One minute you're being mocked as the "fat one" and the next you're standing alongside an Oscar Winning Italian composer. All it takes is a little "hot yoga" and a willingness to go under the knife. Young and impressionable Korean school girls, take note.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Karsh in Seoul

I first saw Yousef Karsh's work at the Calgary Stampede of all places - in a special exhibit in the round-up centre. I was about 17 or so. Impressive stuff - even at that age, and I remember being somewhat proud that a Canadian photographer was not able to take such memorable photographs of so many famous people, but that he had been sought-out by them in an attempt to be further immortalized.

The rabbit and I stopped-by the Sejoeng Centre for the Performing Arts on our way to the Ennio Morricone Concert on Tuesday to check out the current Karsh photo exhibit.

If you've never seen his photos in person, it's highly advisable that you do. The exhibition only runs until the 22nd of this month and tickets are only 8,000 won. Even if you've never heard of Karsh, you have surely seen at least a handful of his photos - images of Hemmingly, Churchhill, and Audrey Hepburn being among the most famous and iconic. In fact, I can't remember an image of Hemmingly that isn't at least somewhat coloured by Karsh's famous portrait.

The Churchill portrait is fanstastic, but my favourites on display would be those of Peter Lorre and Princess Grace Kelly. I can just imagine her about to slip into something more comfortable as James Stewart dims the lights and reaches for those binoculars one more time.

A forest, which was once a land

So, I made it out to "North Seoul Dream Forest" yesterday to scout it out for a potential field trip location.

What can I say about "Dream Forest"? Well, interestingly, it used to be "Dreamland" - a poor man's Seoul Land seemingly built to satisfy those Northern-dwelling Seoul folk who can't be bothered to take the kiddies south of the Han River on weekends.

The former theme park looked like a bit of a nightmare - as you can see from this flickr set from what seems like not that long ago (August, 2007 to be precise). I'm sure in its hay-day it was a veritable Calaway Park of family fun.

It its last years though, it was an all-but abandoned shell of a place - occupied only by lonely monkeys, caged ducks that presumably were left to rot in their own fetid waste, and the odd child splashing in a wading pool, supervised by parents who don't think that waterborne pathogens are anything to worry about.

Gladly, these fading nightmares are now behind us and the land has now become the forest - which is basically a minor, manicured and landscaped valley running through two of North Seoul's smaller mountains - both of which are not a challenge to hike in about 10 minutes.

In short, it's a pleasant spot - highlights include:

a) An art gallery, where weird and wonderful metallic creations are taking-up residence this month.

b) Frequent "Parades of Cute" - otherwise known as pre-schoolers in matching jogging suits and backpacks - being led around as they hold onto strings in pairs.

c) A good number of cafes and restaurants scattered throughout the park.

d) A Performing Arts Centre

e) Perhaps Seoul's oddest "observatory", where forest visitors can ride up a slanted elevator to see views of Northeastern Seoul, and learn all about the episode of the Korean drama, Iris, which was shot there in 2009 (The place is rotten with pictures of Lee Byeong-hun).

North Seoul Dream Forest is also full of little spots that make weekend picnicking complete - water fountains for the kids, and plenty of shady spots for mom and dad. There's also a very cool library / cafe for parents and kids. All admissions are free except that to the "Blown Glass Museum" which I didn't pony-up the 5,000 won for.

Dream Forest is no Olympic Park, but any time Seoul wants to reclaim a valuable green space and make it usable and inviting, I'm all for it. The best part is that it's a 20 minute bike ride from my house. They have a deer garden similar to that in "Seoul Forest", so it's nice to know that the opportunity to massage deer through a wire fence now is an option much closer to home.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A quick note about "louts" on a train...

I will really try to make this quick, though really - I could go on. Let me preface this by saying that I am usually the first person to be embarrassed by the behaviour of fellow foreigners here in Seoul. I am one of the ones who likes to try to blend in, as much as a freckled and skinny white guy might in this here metropolis.

This blog post was brought to my attention the other day and I was asked what I thought about it. (You'll need to read the linked blog post first) Here goes...

1) From what I can tell, this group of foreigners wasn't hurting anyone. They were taking up too much space and being unnecessarily conspicuous (as most foreigners are at the best of times anyway), but they were playing a card game, and drinking. I'm guessing they were having fun. You can buy beer on subway platforms.

2) I understand that some might see the behaviour as rude or unacceptable for patrons of public transit. I honestly mostly see it as "different behaviour." Sometimes, different here is bad, and honestly, many old-school Koreans look for any excuse to label foreigners as "louts". You can buy beer on subway platforms.

3) The foreigners who decided to sit on the floor of the subway are brave souls indeed, as chances are that same floor, within the previous 24 hours, had likely been pissed-on, vomited-on, or been the unwitting recipient of a fair number of farmer's blows coming straight from the nostrils of any drunken Korean male over the age of 55. You can buy beer on subway platforms.

4) On the way to a movie theatre last year for my birthday, I boarded the train with a group of my (mostly foreign) friends and we continued a game of Taboo for the 40 minute journey including transfer. We must have appeared a bit odd to the Koreans on the train - holding cards, and saying strange words while someone stood next to us with the buzzer. It was a busy train, people talking to each other or talking on the phone, and others not. I remember many people looking at us with curiosity and some of them smiling as it did seem that we were indeed playing a game. We weren't that loud.

5) My friends and I also sang Christmas carols on a busy subway car on Christmas Day afternoon while wearing Santa hats.

6) I'm admit it's possible that #s 4 & 5 may have pissed-off one or more Koreans. I maintain that we weren't harming anyone.

7) I wasn't there, so I can't say what these card-playing foreigners were really acting like or not, but I'm going to throw out a guess: that they were simply playing a card game, having a few drinks, and having fun - though I admit they shouldn't have taken-up the space or the extra seats. I'm guessing that they thought they might raise a few eyebrows, or even get a few amused laughs from some.

8) 5 undesireable behaviours I've seen foreigners exhibiting on the subway: a) swearing, b) wearing culturally unacceptable attire in summer, c) speaking far too loudly about personal things assuming nobody can understand them, d) complaining about Korea e) not giving-up a seat to an elderly person. Likely responses to this behaviour? - an article in the next day's newspaper. I also once saw 3 black American teenagers sitting on a subway floor late at night - probably because they were tired and had no qualms about it. Imagine the Korean witness tongue-wagging that went on that night. I know that foreigners have done worse, I'm just commenting on the things I've seen with my own eyes.

9) 5 undesireable behaviours I've seen Koreans exhibiting on the subway (in addition to all of the above): a) being drunk and sleeping across 5 bench seats, b) being drunk and vomiting on a fellow passenger's shoes, or releasing a Turner & Hooch style farmer's blow onto the floor in front of the bench they are sitting on, c) being drunk and loud as f#$@ as they hold a high decible conversation with the person sitting right next to them, d) cursing-up a storm (mostly middle school students), e) roaming the subway with a bible and casting scorn upon anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus - an act which one Korean grandmother didn't take kindly to, so she promptly started beating the man with his own bible. Likely responses to this behaviour? - Nothing, aside from athiest granny gone wild. I guarantee that "Han" would not have considered calling transit security about any of these behaviours from his fellow Koreans. He'd probably just go back to his iphone game.
I know that Koreans have done worse, I'm just comenting on the things I've seen with my own eyes. You can buy beer on subway platforms.

10) I've been told that it is unacceptable to eat on the subway, though, when one considers #9, it's easy to see why nobody would even want to. It is a dream of mine, however, to one day bring a wicker picnic basket onto the subway. I will then take from it a red & white checkered table cloth and fold it over my lap. Then, a white china plate, upon which I will put a hot serving of whole wheat spaghetti, topped with a steaming helping of four mushroom tomato sauce from a different thermos. Ideally, a friend would come along to offer me a glass of Pinot Noir poured from their white-gloved hands, and another friend will come along and accompany the scene on accordian. I would like to do this because it's unexpected, it should offend no one, and it might make people laugh. You can't buy Pinot Noir on subway platforms.

11) I also like to be the last one into an elevator so that I can stand with my back to the closed door, facing everyone. That's fun, too.

12) Beer, soju, and Maekeoli is readily available in Korea - everywhere... at all times of the night (and on subway platforms). It is beyond socially acceptable to be as drunk as Falstaff and beligerent as hell in public. All the better if you are wearing a 3-piece suit at the time and kudos to those able to hold onto their briefcase and stumble home.

Anyway, what's the big deal? We all know foreigners are capable of worse, as are Koreans, and for those that commented on the original blog that drunken Koreans wouldn't be allowed to play Go-stop on the floor of a subway in New York - yeah, you're probably right, but then the only pattern I see here is that it's apparently okay to poo-poo the breaking of public transportation taboos if they are broken by "foreigners" - wherever you might find yourself being considered one. For all of the shit I've seen Koreans pull on the buses and trains, I've seen nobody tell them off - except for that grandmother who went all revenge fantasy. Had a foreigner done that, it would be in every newspaper and all of us foreign teachers would be asked the next day by our co-teachers what we thought about foreigners who beat elderly mean with bibles. My answer at this point would likely be, "quite highly".

Monday, May 16, 2011

The best Tuesday I'm likely to have for a long time

Tomorrow morning, the entire school populations is heading out to various parks around the city to participate in a yearly "writing exercise". I can't really tell you what's involved from the student's perspective, other than to say that by the end of the day, they have probably spent 45 minutes on writing and about 5 hours on having fun in the park - as it should be, I say. Such opportunities are rare.

For my part, I was able to convince The Authority that it would be a good idea to take advantage of the "free" day by heading to nearby "Seoul Dream Forest" and scouting the area as a potential summer camp field trip destination. This means I get to jump on my bike in the AM, report to school at 8:30, and then I'm free to explore the park (only 3 subway stops away), take photos, and get one of my 5 day camp plans mostly taken care of. Best of all, I'll get to spend a work day on my bike.

This will be valuable as previous field trip destinations (Olympic Park, COEX Mall) have been simply too damn far away.

Tomorrow night, the rabbit and I are heading to the Sejeong Arts Center to see Ennio Morricone conduct the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. This will be my second time seeing the Italian master at work, and rabbit's first. I feel like I've been wanting to take her to this concert for years. Anytime you get to hear Morricone's music live AND conducted my Morricone, himself, take it.

I'm also looking forward to having tomorrow night's concert erase the memory of seeing "The Mission Musical" in the same venue a couple of months before. The rabbit shares this sentiment.

One Night, Two Days = 3 weeks

Just a warning, this is a teaching post describing an activity I made for class. It may bore you... or, I might be so bold to suggest that it may inspire another teacher in lesson planning.

Now that I'm into my second week of delivering the most expansive activity I've ever created for my grade 3 class, I think I have enough perspective to write about it.

This is basically a "Travel Korea" lesson, which came about in part from a mini activity suggested in our school's grade 3 textbook (map-supported "How far is it from Bulguksa to Seokguram?"), and in part by the fact that when I asked my 11 grade 3 classes what they had planned for their recent 6 day vacation, a grand total of 5 out of a possible 350+ students answered that they had plans to go anywhere outside of their home or outside of the dark and smokey confines of the neighbourhood PC Room.

This made me sad.

I've also noticed that as a foreigner with an apartment that's paid for, I have the time and enough money to take my child-less self on a bus and out of the city to see more of Korea on a fairly regular basis - especially over the past couple of years. Having a rabbit does help immensely.

Anyway, the semester's midterms provided me with the time to really go to town and create a lesson that I felt would be interactive, hands-on, fun (hopefully) and that would also educate the students a bit about their own wee country that very few of them seem to have taken the time to explore... at all. If anything, the hope would be that this lesson would inspire them to pester their parents to head out of town on the next long weekend.

The name of the activity comes from a popular team challenge variety show here in Korea, in which a team of 6 male celebrities have to venture to more obscure areas of the country and complete a bunch of humourous travel-themed challenges. The show is successful in that it encourages home-bound Seoulites to get out and see what's in their own backyard. Generally, the weekend after an episode airs, that episode's location is booked with excited travelers and fans of the show. I admire their efforts.

I started off by heading down to Gwanghwamun one day after school to pester the Korea Tourist Centre for 7 fold-out maps of the country in English - one map for each of my 6 table teams, and one for me. These were cut-up into their 12 sections as defined by the fold, laminated, and set aside.

Once I had the maps, I set-down to figuring out what the activity would consist of.

Ultimately, it came down to making a lesson that I could build my speaking test out of - travel-centered questions such as "How did you get there?", "What is it famous for?", and "What did you do there?" would fit the bill.

From there, I started looking at each of Korea's 9 provinces (plus Seoul), and seeing if I could choose 6 interesting locations from each. As anyone who really knows me could tell you: like my dad, I'm a bit of a map nerd - especially if it's a map of a place I've recently been to, or will be going to. I've been living in South Korea (a pretty tiny place as far as countries go) for coming-up on 4 years now, and I figured it was time to really start paying attention to all that's around me. There's a lot to see here and it's all accessible. I really felt inspired to share and learn more about this country alongside my students.

Once I had the lists (60 destinations) they were colour-coded, colour printed, and laminated into "destination cards".

What was conceived at first as a one-day lesson, has now become three. I've run-off at the mouth long enough already as it is, so now that I've had the chance to work-out some kinks, let me just share what each day's plan consists of...

Day 1

Each table teams gets a package consisting of:
1 Transportation card (showing bus routes, train routes, and airports)
1 Map of Korea (cut into 12 pieces)
1 Ruler (for measuring distances)

Each student receives:
1 Travel itinerary worksheet
1 Destination card

1) After a brief discussion about traveling in Korea, table teams are given their packages and instructed to put their map together like a puzzle.

2) Using my own map which is magneted to the board, and using a Powerpoint slide show of photos from various Korean locations I've visited over the years, we run a team quiz where students need to identify the place name in the photo, as well as the "Map Grid Area" - finding where the place falls on a North-South (letter) and West to East (number) line system. (ie: Seorak Mountain is found within the B7 square.

3) Table teams are then asked to choose a destination card (each student from a table team chooses a different coloured card from a face-down pile, thereby ensuring that each student in a team has a destination from a different province to give their itinerary some variety.)

4) Students work together to find their locations, getting hints from the teachers (a laminated A-4 table was made to show each provinces highlighted locations and their map grid area points so that co-teachers can assist as well). Once found, they mark their location on their laminated map puzzle with a white board marker.

5) Using 6 destination cards as a demonstration, an itinerary is put-together on the white board - marking the destinations on my map, we can decide as a class where we should begin our tour (say, N. Seoul Tower in Seoul), and where it might end (Jungmun Resort in Jeju-do), with all points in-between.

6) Students receive their worksheets and are instructed to decide on a order for visiting their destinations and then to record their order on the worksheet, as well as basic information about their own individual location (Province, Map Grid Area etc.)

7) I ran around like a bit of a mad man toward the end of class recording the order of each groups destinations. I will need this information for the third day, and on day 2 for any students who have forgotten what their team is doing.

Day 2

1) As predicted, a significant number of students either lost or left their paper at home. Day two has become a day to reinforce the concepts of the map and to have those students who are ahead of the game help their struggling table mates.

2) After the basic information is recorded, we move on to the 5 travel questions:

a) How did you get there? ("We got there by bus")
b) How far is it from _________ to _________? ("It's about _____ kilometers")
c) What is this place famous for? ("It's famous for ________")
d) What did you do there? ("We (verb + object)")
e) How was it? ("It was (adjective")

Examples of the first two questions we do together. Question "b" allows the students to dig into their map with their rulers and really plan their route by calculating distance and figuring out what method of transportation would be best.

3) Example answers for questions "c" through "e" are given and students are encouraged to search the internet to complete all 5 questions for homework, as well as a short paragraph describing their segment of the trip.

Day 3

Presentations - Teams will take turns reading their itinerary paragraphs while other teams will listen for the location and try to find the destination areas on the map for each presenting student. The listening teams receive points for volunteering to ask one of the five questions as well as points for finding the correct "Map Grid Area" for each place. The presenting team will receive points for answering them correctly. Presenting Teams will be supported by presenting in front of a PPT with slides of each destination which will help listening teams find the right spot.

Future Review Day

A Powerpoint Jeopardy-style game is created specific to each grade 3 class focusing on actual questions from each unique itinerary. This won't happen until over a month from now, but hopefully students will hold onto their papers to assist on this day.

After Thoughts

...and that's that. As much as I'd like to have included some goofy TV-inspired challenges for the teams, time won't allow, and I'm pretty sure I might be pushing my luck asking my co-teachers to accept a four-week lesson. I would also have liked to have included some segments asking students to move around a bit in the room. It's far from a perfect lesson.

Currently, I'm only part-way into my second week with this activity, but it's been a worthwhile one and I wanted to share it with you. Running through this lesson so far has taught me and reminded me of a few valuable things: a) never underestimate the amount of time it takes to explain complex instructions to an ESL classroom, b) hands-on activities keep a group of unruly mixed-level students as focused as they are going to be, and c) stronger students like helping weaker students, as long as the helpers are provided with enough support to gain confidence at the beginning. With mixed English levels in these classes, this seems to be a decent way to involve everyone.

In this case, simply taking my time as the activity progressed has worked absolute wonders. My grade 3s are the only students I work with that I see more than once every two weeks. They seem grateful to not feel rushed to complete an activity in one class with me, and I am more than grateful that I've been able to stretch this activity over three days and engage students with an activity that will hopefully stick with them, and have some value outside of the English being practiced.

As for me, I'm actually happy that I've already achieved a greater understanding of the geography of Korea simply through planning this exercise - name one of these 60 destinations and I can probably point to it on a map while blind-folded. I'm looking forward to having my students teach me more through their presentations.

Before I sign-off, I would be remiss to not mention my teacher friend over at The Seoul Patch who often posts some of his excellent lessons online - many of which are an inspiration to me. Check them out - there's some great stuff over there.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

You tell them, Marilyn!

Yesterday, I had my first Saturday class in about a month. It was refreshing to be with some students who wanted to be in class and it was even more refreshing to have such a wonderful response to the work I put into marking their first batch of essays. With the lack of voluntary involvement from my middle school students, I tend to overcompensate with my high school bunch on Saturdays, because I know that they (for the most part) really care about doing well in this course, and they really care about the feedback I give to them on their essays. I feel that they will respond to it, so I really take my time in correcting, marking, and commenting on their writing. Based on their response, I'm predicting a strong pay-off and improvement with their next essays. Forgive, me, this is the kind of thing that excites a nerdy English teacher who feels long-deprived of purpose.

A quick note, though I love this group of students, they often confuse the hell out of me. I assume because of their educational background and future ambitions that they are going to be a little bit more forward-thinking than the majority of their peers. In some ways this is true, and in others, well...

One of my best girl students wrote in her entrance essay that the best way to increase the declining birth rate in Korea would be to show women the benefits derived from staying home, having children, and "giving up their career." Apparently, the idea of focusing on workplace incentives, or extending maternity leaves and increasing job security for new mothers hasn't yet come into the discussion.

Last class, when we focused on body image and plastic surgery (big issues here in Korea) and I asked students to close their eyes, put heads on desks and raise their hands in secret to say if they thought readily available surgery for teens was a good idea. 16 out of 21 students said "yes". After 2 hours of class activities and readings designed to open-up the issue to possible new perspectives, we voted again, and 19 out of 21 thought readily available plastic surgery for teens was a good idea. A few too many students thought that cosmetic surgery's positive affect on the Korean economy was too valuable to start criticizing its greater social implications. Hmmm... I think I need to work on my delivery.

I took this photo on the subway on my way into class yesterday. I wonder if the advertisement trickery is even noticeable to the intended audience. To me, this ad seems to be saying "stop being a pretty young Korean girl! Come to us for reconstructive facial surgery and become a flight attendant for Malaysia Airlines!" If this were my daughter, I wouldn't recognize her anymore. That would make me sad. The cheaper alternative is maybe to ask the girl to smile more.

Anyway, in class yesterday, the topic made a slight turn into "celebrity culture" in Korea. Idols are a big deal here - in many ways, more so than they are back in North America. Suicides are rampant and many of the problems are brought on by a particularly nasty group of internet "netizens" who do their best to exploit the less-than-perfect pasts of the Korean idols. Many of them can't handle it, and it all goes bad.

Yesterday, we looked at the life of Marilyn Monroe. I could say a lot, but I'll just say that I think her story stuck with them. Footage of Marilyn performing to US troops in Korea was of particular interest. We also looked at the Bernie Taupin lyrics to Elton John's 1973 version of "Candle in the Wind" - before it's more famous 1997 "Goodbye, England's Rose" incarnation. There be powerful words in there.

Anyway, in a society where a staggering percentage of middle school graduates, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer "famous", I dare say I'm proud that a lot of Marilyn's story seemed to resonate with my students.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Four Teacher Daves

So, this Sunday, March 15th, is Teacher's Day in Korea. Usually, if it falls on a weekday, there will be some kind of grand ceremony in the schoolyard involving flowers, songs, and then the students will disappear into their homerooms to decorate them with balloons and messages of thanks and encouragement on the board.

The two previous Teacher's Days I have experienced since coming to teach at public school have been great days - the first, being a chance to see how valuable it is to set-aside time for students to acknowledge their teachers. Students won't take the time unless they've been given it, but once they are, they usually take to it with a fervour reserved for PC room visits. It's charming to see these usually grumpy folk do a 180 and be all grateful and stuff.

My Teacher's Day was different this year - mainly in that it wasn't my first, I'm still not a homeroom teacher, and since we can't celebrate on the Sunday, celebrations were relegated to a 15 minutes thing in each homeroom. That was it. So, not being a homeroom teacher basically means no Teacher's Day, which is kind of a bummer. I could have used some forced gratitude from my students this week.

As it was, I got a couple of new caricature drawings to add to the two I was given in my first year. The first couple were from my first year. I like #1's focus on my height - exactly 193 CM. The second one makes me look like a bit of a dandy (not sure about the tuxedo, lipstick, and sparkly face, but these recent two are winners in my books. Me on a bike makes me look like an elementary school student, while the last shows more of my true age. I really like these last two for different reasons. There's a lot of truth in both of them I think.