Saturday, December 9, 2006

Hanging by a thread - and I don't mean Spiderman

When we first arrived in Korea, so long long ago, (it's now 13 months!), our senses were at first completely assaulted by the noisy, neon advertisements covering every conceivable inch of space on any building housing any type of business whatsoever, be it one of the ubiquitous "norebang" (karaoke rooms), "ho-pes" (hofs, or bars), hakwons or the delicious and cheap 24-hour chain diners, Kimpap Changuk, or Kimpap Nara (known simply to foreigners as the "orange kimpap place", a place to head for at 4 am, for kimpap, bibimbab, cheese deokbokki - short, thick and satisfying rice noodles smothered in spice and processed cheese slices, for the uninitiated - after filling your belly with cheap and terrible draft beer or soju).... wow, that was one long-ass sentence!

Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, the signs. The signs are everywhere, flashing neon noise in all directions - for you Saskatonians, it's like the Ex on speed, except every day, and every hour.

With all these signs, there is obviously a certain amount of maintenance needed to ensure they don't work themselves loose and hurtle down to impale some poor soul seven stories below. At least you would think it should be an obvious fact. Yet, a former teacher told me how, shortly before we arrived, he was on the top floor of our school smoking a cigarette outside the window, when one of the dozens of signs plastering our building was blown free by a rogue gust of wind and did indeed plummet seven stories to the sidewalk below (a sidewalk usually teeming with children). Mercifully, no one was injured, or killed, by the rather ironic fact that a doctor's sign had just shattered upon the ground.

That said, there are certain safety guidelines and regulations that we back in North America are expected to follow without question. Seat belts, car seats, even the simple assumption when driving that red=stop, green=go, and that there is some natural unspoken law that governs the flow of traffic to ensure that cars remain in the right-hand lane, are a few that come immediately to mind. Here, it is much less precise, and Koreans are much more...well, liberated in terms of these iron-clad views of safety we in dear ol' North America cherish so deeply.

Safety practices, as we know them in North America, are almost non-existent here. For instance, young children clamber happily and free inside a speeding vehicle as it weaves frantically through 5 lanes of traffic. Incredibly, sometimes tiny kids, sometimes more than one child, are ferried around on "autobikes" (Konglish for "motorcycle") without helmets, and certainly without any type of restraint. When our air conditioner was clogged last summer, the repairman actually stuck his mouth on the hose and suctioned foul black sludge out of the implement - what would our unions say about that??

But my favorite to observe are the men who work to either clean windows or repair or maintain the massive amount of signs. Working on buildings sometimes over 30 stories, they simply attach a single rope from the roof and lower themselves down on a plank of wood used as a seat. It's absolutely terrifying to watch, but morbidly perhaps, whenever I see it, I can't seem to tear my eyes off them.

Korea, in so many ways, is best summed up as constantly being "an accident waiting to happen." It's precariously and delightfully random.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Joe and Grandma

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I "teach" monsters. They are mostly all seven years old, wild, disrespectful, unable to speak any English, and I dislike most of them. One howls like a wolf whenever I try to say "be quiet". Another regularly takes naps under his desk on the floor, and is unresponsive to any sort of remonstration, other than the 13 year olds I sometimes employ to "give 'em shit" in Korean. And yet another little bastard spits on me and tries to bite me whenever I drag him out of class for being an irritating little shit.

So it was with great joy that I managed, on Tuesday, October 24, to convince my boss to give me half a day off in order to pick up my mom from the airport. My mom had amazed me... before this, she had never ventured outside the borders of North America. But after hearing about Dad's adventures here this summer, and of course the stories and photos of an ever-growing Joe, she was convinced to make the trip here herself.

Unfortunately, we were unable to take any time off work during the 2 1/2 weeks Mom visited. But we made several trips into the city (to Namdaemun Market, Insadong, Gyongbokgung Palace, Itaewon... all the big tourist stops). But we all knew the real reason behind her visit... it was not to see Korea, nor really to see Matt or me... no, it was all about Joe.

Look Out! Here comes the Spider Joe

Can he swing from a thread?......
Well not just yet, but given the chance I'm sure he'd try.
Our son is a Spiderman-a-holic. He runs back and forth in our little apartment, shouting "boy's running like spiderman", he has spiderman poses and even a spiderman face. Joe is addicted to spiderman.

When we had trouble with him using the potty at his babysitters it was "his" spiderman we bribed him with.

Then on one glorious day in late October, his Grandma came to visit, whom he hadn't seen in nearly a year. If there was one thing that could break the ice it was spiderman. Is there anything like preening over yourself in the mirror admiring your new Spiderman pajamas?

(Hanna's aside: Back when Matt and I were "just friends", he would often talk about how he wanted a child, just in order to train him to be a superhero, specifically one that was imbued with the amazing superhero assets one could only obtain through the bite of a radioactive insect (or arachnid, for you nerdy biology types). Personally, I am more inclined to admire and empathize with the Green Goblins or Dr. Octopuses of the world - even though they suffer the inevitable downfall inherent in all supervillains, they, well, always seem admirably motivated to accomplish their lofty goals, like taking over the world. Spiderman, and other superheroes, seem, in comparison, predictably reactionary. As a child, I would always watch Inspector Gadget, not because I liked the cartoon, but because I harboured the faint hope that "today, maybe today, Dr. Claw will finally get that damn Gadget!!").

(sigh.....Matt's aside to Hanna's aside (could this get more ridiculous). Why is it that older siblings tend to have a penchant for siding with evil? some sort of quick excuse for the crimes they commit against their younger brethren....I'm not sure. I do know that I grew up with a brother who always had to be the bad guy. He was Darth Vader to my Luke Skywalker, Shredder to my Ninja Turtles, Megatron to my Optimus (seriously I can go on and on) Mummra to my Thundercats, (does anyone remember the Visionaries?) He was the bad Visionaries to my good Visionaries. I kid you not, he was, when we were children, the Germans to my Allied forces (Yes that's right Dave, I remember "The Battle of Britain: Their Finest Hour", the computer game.)

So Matt wonders why we older siblings feel this inclination to the evil side of human nature... with our "younger brethren" so uppity with their "morals" and "righteousness", all we could really do was counter it, our yang to their yin, etc.... Or just punch them twice when our parents weren't looking. Or frame them for crimes they hadn't committed. Or steal their cookies. Or lock them out on the roof of the house when you were supposed to be taking care of them for the afternoon (I slap my knee with mirth at the very memory).... ahh, delicious deception, enforced through brute strength.

And who can blame us younger siblings for desperately hanging onto to some out dated twisted perception of justice? There just had to be something coming for our older siblings, didn't there? Shouldn't they be struck down by God's fury, or at the very least suffer something utterly humiliating in front of their friends, perhaps along the lines of what they did to us infront of our friends? Doesn't it seem right? DAMN IT GOD, WOULDN'T IT BE JUST??!!!!!!! Why did they always win?......What the hell happened to Karma???????

Somehow, somewhere along the way I think we forgot we were talking about Joe. He's doing great and learning "that with great power comes great responsibility"....(At least as long as he remains the only child).

Monday, September 18, 2006

Dog Food

I am amazed at the, shall we say, creativity, with which human beings the world over approach the universal need for food.

Imagine that you're feeling a little hungry, and in need of a quick snack before work. What do you do? Well, head down to the Lotte Mart of course, where they keep live squid swimming around in a large aquarium. State your preference, and your friendly squid attendant will deftly scoop out the chosen one into a net and onto the cutting board. Before you can say "don't forget the spicy paste," the employee has brought out the gleaming cleaver and hacked the recently-deceased (is 'deceasing' a word?) squid into dozens of unhappily writhing, bite-sized pieces, and deposited it onto a paper plate with disposable chopsticks and packages of spicy paste for your dining pleasure. I'm told you have to chew fast, or the tentacles will stick to your teeth.

I have never considered myself intolerant towards other cultures and their penchant for certain foods that simply strike me and my North American sensibilities as revolting. I simply choose not to eat certain foods, but I don't think it's at all my place to say what is or is not right when it comes to taste.(After all, we Canadians can't seem to cook vegetables to save our lives, and any condiment other than ketchup or mustard is considered a little too exotic for our mild and unabrasive temperament. And don't even get me started on our nonsensical aversion to tofu, or curry, or spices other than dried basil and oregano (GOD FORBID we even think of using fresh-ground spices or, think of it, FRESH HERBS once and a while!!!), or the fact that we need a heart-clogging pound of flesh thrice daily in order to feel nourished). Ok, ok, so maybe I feel a little more justified in passing judgement on my own culture than one which is so very foreign and that I will never truly understand.

That said, there is one aspect of Korean cuisine which does bother me. It's not the squid, nor the popular street snack ppeondaggi (stewed silkworm pupae that smells 100 times more potent than freshly roasted grasshoppers stuck to a car's radiator on a steamy Saskatchewan summer day), but something that hits a little closer to home.

We all have a soft spot in our hearts for abandoned and abused critters, and while we don't all support the SPCA with donations, the majority of people I know at least think the organization is a good idea. Koreans, while they adore their little rat-sized fashion accessory dogs to the point of lunacy (these once-upon a time canines commonly sport doggie jewellry and dyed fur - yes, Joe talks about the "purple puppies" he sees), have a spot not in their hearts but in their stomachs for another, less fortunate breed of dog (that just happens to taste good in a soup called "boshintang")!

Now, remember what I said earlier about not passing judgement? Hindus think hamburgers are atrocious, and us Jews avoid (among other things) the "insects of the sea", those crawling, scavenging creatures that feed on carcasses and other garbage adorning the ocean floor. Well, who am I to think that eating dog meat is wrong? Is it any different? Not really - it's just a matter of taste, so to speak. The thing that, well, really gets my goat is the manner in which the dog is killed. The dog is tied down and beaten to death, in the belief that it tenderizes the meat, making it tastier and a more effective libido-booster for men....(shudder)....

So, how do you take the leftovers home? Why, in a doggie bag, of course!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Korean Summer

My computer is disallowing me to upload photos at the moment, so check back soon because there will be some here shortly.

I am startled with how little we have been writing recently, and so my apologies to those kimchilovincanuck lovers who check our posts regularly - here we go, so stop with the irate emails! Actually, the irate emails aren't bad... it's so nice to know someone cares!!!

Joe has been having a tremendous summer, namely because his Grandpa came to spend a month with him (and, to a lesser degree, his parents). Dad arrived on July 9th, and left on the 5th of August. It was a little cramped, as we put our space juggling skills to the test again in order to accommodate three adults and a rambunctious toddler in our studio apartment for a month. Funny how it changes your perceptions, though. After Dad left, we couldn't believe how much space we had! (Just an aside - it's funny realizing how much less important you become after you have a child, both to yourself and other people. Before leaving for Korea, my parents both informed me that they were perfectly willing to care for Joe while we spent the year in Korea. They also showed no hesitation in telling me that they weren't going to miss me at all - "of course, if you didn't have Joe, things would be completely different, and we wouldn't really care if you went or not" - and the only one who was on their minds was, of course, our little man. It's as it should be, really).

July with Dad was a lot of fun. He quickly became friends with Kim, Kim, Kim and Oh, the regulars down at the Wa Bar, as well as the servers. In fact, not two weeks after his arrival in Korea, they had a framed photo of Joe on his Grandpa's shoulders hanging over the bar. I really enjoyed showing Dad around this crazy and fascinating country that we currently call home. I think what he found the most impressive of all though, and truly it is amazing to contemplate, was the well-organized and incredibly efficient public transportation system. After his first trip on the subway, Dad did some quick research on Wikipedia and found that the subway has 8 million visits ... a day. A few clicks of the mouse later, he informed us that Seoul and the surrounding cities (essentially just a never-ending conglomeration of urban banality connected by well-organized public transit) comprises 23 MILLION people!! It's mind-boggling.

The seasons in Korea are well-defined. Winter is, well, cold, as my beginner students eloquently tell me. Spring is beautiful, warm and filthy when the dust blows in from China. Fall is apparently the best time of year in Korea - it's warm and all the leaves turn amazing shades of red and gold that colour the mountainous landscape. And summer is divided into two stages - rainy and humid, and DAMN FREAKIN' HOT and humid! Korea gets pounded in July with monsoon rains and typhoons from the Pacific, and everyone's favorite fashion accessory becomes the umbrella. And it's not the refreshingly cool rains that we get back home. It rains, the 12-inch trenches they call gutters fill to capacity, becoming small yet raging rivers capable of carrying away those irritatingly tiny, yappy dogs, and the humidity doesn't even think of dissipating. For three or four consecutive days last month, there was a constant downpour. The day after the heavy rains let up, I remarked to my students how nice I thought it was, because for the first time in months, the sky was noticeably more clear than usual. They looked at me very strangely before telling me that this was the heaviest rain they could remember, and that in South Korea alone, 25 people had died, 50 were missing, and thousands more were homeless (and apparently, the situation is much, much worse in North Korea). I felt like an ass and realized what an incredible bubble of ignorance I live in, considering I don't speak the language, and the news I read is almost always of Canadian origin. Imagine something of that magnitude happening in Canada, a couple hours drive away from where you live, and not even knowing about it!

In any case, the monsoon season has passed, and the dead heat and humidity of August is now sitting on Seoul, sapping me of my strength and will to live. The only thing that keeps me going is the constant blast of the air-conditioner in our apartment, and the thought of falafel and baba ghanoush from Pharaoh's, a little Egyptian restaurant in Itaewon that we first visited last month. The owner/chef is a fantastic man who makes fresh pita bread, loves Joe and always encourages our guy to race around the restaurant to his heart's content. And I'm just thrilled to eat something that is not rice.

We had a week of vacation at the very beginning of August, because the owner of our academy decided to renovate. We took the opportunity to attempt another visit to Gyeongju, this time with Dad. Admittedly, I was a little nervous to board another 4-hour bus trip with Joe, not frightened by the prospect of potential misbehaviour, but more by the thought of having to sit in dampness for hours on a bus reeking of vomit after having been successfully rained out of our vacation, which is exactly what happened in May. Well, Joe was fantastic on the bus, but the first week of August also happens to be the one week where everyone in Korea goes on vacation. We chose the precise moment to travel chosen by every single Seoulite, and found ourselves in gridlock on the highways for the first 4 hours of the (ordinarily) 4 hour trip. 4 hours into the trip, we began to leave the outskirts of Seoul. I have never been so happy to reach a highway speed of 50km/hour.

Gyeongju was magical - it's a region where a thousand years of history seep out of all the nooks and crannies, where houses are still built low to the ground, with curled tiled roofs and tiny courtyards, and where massive burial mounds of famous historical figures dot the landscape of the city. We visited Bulguksa, an incredible palace complex from the Shilla Dynasty, before ascending a narrow, winding mountain road at breakneck speed on a teetering bus to see Seokguram, a great stone figure of Buddha carved into the side of the mountain in approximately 750 A.D. Seokguram is a UNESCO World Heritage site (as is Bulguksa), and is thought to be the most important piece of Buddhist artwork in East Asia. Unfortunately, it's encased in glass and photographs are not permitted, so we stocked up on postcards at the gift shop.

The temperature in Gyeongju was an incredible 35 degrees Celcius, not accounting for the dreadful humidity, so a particular highlight for me was the air-conditioned hotel room and the cold beer from the corner store down the street.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Stomach Linings are for Sissies

It seems that everyone and their grandmother here is suffering from stomach cancer. Korea has the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world (if statistics, particularly the ones we've read, are to be considered true), and it's no real surprise when the men drink gallons of soju. (Soju is an alcoholic beverage much like vodka but uses rice instead of potatoes - at least in its original form. But the common, cheap stuff you buy in tetra packs, bottles or multi-litre sized jugs from the convenience stores (what everybody drinks) is in fact made from watered-down ethyl alcohol - silly North Americans... we were always told that stuff'll make you blind...wait, maybe it does, as that would explain their driving habits). Aside from the soju, which the women don't drink nearly as much of as the men (they use it as a cleaning product), you have the gochuchang, or the ubiquitous red pepper paste (or, as Matt calls it, the very fuel that all of Korea runs on). It is piled into pretty much everything they eat - it's a key ingredient in kimchi (the national food), soups, stews, barbecue dishes and is a product other than soju which can be purchased in pails of 20 litres or more.

Our personal favorite dish that uses gochuchang can only be purchased from the restaurant in the main floor of our apartment block. We don't actually know the name of the place, because... well, we've never really bothered to learn it (the sign is in "fancy-lookin'" Hangeul (Korean), so it is simply known to us as the "Spicy Tofu place"(where's the echo button? asks Matt).

The story of the spicy tofu began on New Year's Eve. We prepared an elaborate dinner, including pickled, spicy sesame leaves, ramyen (mmm...instant noodles), kimpap (Korean "sushi" - don't EVER call it that, though!), kimchi (of course), rice, and the legendary "Tofu.....fu....fu...fu".

When we ordered the food, the cook and the waitress both tried to discourage us, saying it was much to spicy for foreigners, but we managed to convince them we could handle it. We had no idea what we were getting into....

Matt accused me of trying to kill him with the spiciest food he'd ever eaten, and I think we both had several heart attacks after the first three bites (the crazy thing about spicy tofu, though, is that you can't stop eating it once you've started). So, with eyeballs sweating, and barely able to breathe, we made it through the first encounter. Matt prayed it would be our last.

But once that tasty MSG/BBQ spicyness bites, you can never go back!!! The craving for Spicy Tofu can get so intense, that some nights, when they would run out of tofu, I would run down to the tiny, family-run restaurant with a brilliant smile and a block of tofu from home in hand, and the owner/cook would spy the tofu, clap her hands and laugh. But she'd cook our tofu for us, in her inimitable spicy way, AND give us a discount! (The language of "Spicy Tofu" relies not on words).

Now, we have become trusted customers. If they have no tofu when we order our beloved dish, the cook will unhesitatingly send out her daughter (also the waitress) into the monsoon rains to buy a block of tofu from a shop down the street.

It's been nearly seven months since that near-death experience on New Year's Eve, and Spicy Tofu has quickly nestled its way into our hearts and through our stomach linings.

We love you Spicy Tofu!!

Culture Shock

Websters dictionary describes Culture shock as a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation. A colleague of my brother put it, I believe much more eloquently, "If you're in a foriegn country and you think everyone else is crazy than you have culture shock".
I generally agree with this.


Friday, July 7, 2006

We've been getting lazier and lazier with this blog recently. I am finding it easy to be distracted by Joe and his continual adventures - today he discovered how delicious sand is, a consolation to the unhappy fact that his friends at Lotte Mart (an aquarium full of squids) had all been eaten (raw, still writhing, but with spicy paste) and were no longer there to greet him when he walked through the door. Well, Superstore has the All-Beef hotdog stand (a real stomach-turner if you happen to be Hindu), and Lotte Mart has the raw squid stand, so there's not that much of a difference. One of my students responded eloquently when I told him that many people in Canada would never eat the squid: "Why? It's delicious! Have confidence!!" How true, but not enough for me to taste it.

We've also been distracted by preparing our place for my dad's visit, an event Joe has been looking forward to for the past month or more.

Joe has been counting down the days until his Grandpa arrives (he gets here on Sunday evening). We have been madly organizing, dusting, cleaning, arranging, and all the while I become increasingly amazed at the vast amount of SH*T we've accumulated in the almost 8 months since we've been here.

As homework assignments, I've been giving my intermediate students instructions to make a list of places we should take Dad, and why. We've come up with a few good ideas - Suwon's Fortress Wall, a folk village near our city (known by foreigners as "the Fork Village" due to a humourous misprint on its sign), the many temples, palaces and parks scattered liberally throughout Seoul, a few mountain hikes, Namdaemun and possibly Dongdaemun Market.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Here's a few more photos of Japan - just click on them for a larger image.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

What the Fuk..ukoka?!

I have the most amazing husband, and every day I think about how lucky I am to be blessed with a man like Matt, and an incredible son Joe.

For Mother's Day, my guys gave me an amazing gift. Matt and Joe sent me on a four day vacation to Fukuoka, Japan. Other than the occasional airport transfer, it was my first time in "the land of the rising sun" (strangely enough, Korea is known as "the land of the morning calm", but in my estimation, there is nothing particularly calm about the morning, nor any other time of day here, when the freeways are packed with automobiles full of cranky, stressed-out and terribly hung-over commuters filling the morning skies with the daily recommended dose of smog). Anyway, I managed to wrangle two days off work, left waaay too early on the morning of May 25, and arrived in Fukuoka after a quick 1 hour flight.

One thing I really love about solo travel is the opportunity to meet people that you would probably never encounter otherwise. In the airport, I met up with a couple whities doing their visa runs, and accompanied them to the Korean embassy, which happened to be a few short blocks away from my hostel. There, we found another couple of English teachers picking up their visas, and decided to go hang out in nearby Ohori Park, a massive oasis of green in the middle of the ("small") city comprising 1.3 million people. It was a beautiful day, and we strolled leisurely through the park before, much to our delight, we stumbled upon a traditional Japanese garden tucked away quietly at the end of the park.

On the plane, I had been doing some reading about Japan in an outdated travel guidebook I had inherited from a previous English teacher at our school. Apparently, the Yakuza are THE organized crime ring in Japan, and frighteningly efficient - like the Mafia, but bigger and much more powerful. Members are easily identified by huge, intricate tattoos that adorn their backs and wind over their shoulders and down their arms. They are also known to have unsuccessful careers as pianists: the Yakuza punishes its members for their transgressions by lopping off their fingers at the joints. Anyway, after we had strolled through the garden, we stopped at a shaded rest area for a quick beer. A group of benign-looking elderly men were sitting around playing some kind of checkers game and downing sake. One man, chattering rapidly to his friends, staggered to his feet as we arrived, and through his slurred, incomprehensible English, we managed somehow to discern that he was asking us where we were from (apparently, it's a game that Koreans play amongst themselves, too - "Guess where that white person is from!"). He was a friendly sort, and proudly showed off his tattoos to the girls, all the while saying "I love you, I love you!", before sneakily showing the two guys his half-missing pinky finger (look closely at his left hand). Sure, benign old men just sitting in the park, right?

Japan is extraordinarily expensive - I couldn't believe I was shelling out over 7$ US for a stupid bowl of udon, but incredibly beautiful, and worlds away from Korea. In some ways, Japan is a lot more similar to Canada than Korea is to Japan. I've heard that many comparisons can be made between Japan and England (for instance, they are very polite, but never say what they are thinking), and Korea and Italy (they're very intense and passionate). Stereotypes aside, though, the Japanese do seem to have a bubble of "personal space" that surrounds them, and they do not intrude on the space of others. Ha! Yesterday while shopping for our weekly groceries, I was forcibly elbowed out of the way by an old grandmother who didn't even otherwise acknowledge my presence. Not to mention the constant shopping cart crashes in the aisles. Personal space be damned! After a couple days in Japan, though, I started to feel exceedingly awkward at what I found to be their excessive politeness, and terribly clumsy as well, due to the fact that not only am I twice the size of most of the women, but I am also so accustomed to the common discourtesy of Korea. One morning in Japan, as I waited for the bus, I noticed a neat and orderly lineup of about 8 people that had formed as if from nowhere. Using my developing Korean mentality, I thought "like hell I'm waiting in that line" and smoothly elbowed my way first through the doors as the bus pulled to a stop. "Those Canadians! So rude!!"

There are some images, though, that I will always remember. One afternoon as I drank from the hallowed trough of American corporate culture (ah, Starbucks, you give my life meaning), four geisha came in to order their lattes. I will remember the man in the park, the temples and shrines, the businesspeople on bicycles and the general cleanliness and efficiency with which everything seems to proceed in Japan.

When I arrived home on Sunday night, I realized that the last airporter bus had departed 10 minutes earlier, and my only other option was a taxi for the hour-long trip back to Uiwang. Within minutes, I was involved in a "Konglish" screaming match with three drivers, as we all flailed our arms and yelled in each others' faces, while I tried to haggle the best fare - not because we were angry, but because in Korea, it's just how you talk to each other.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Gyeongju in 60 Seconds

This is the main street outside the bus terminal in Gyeongju, the cultural and historical capital of Korea, home to relics, shrines temples and palaces dating from the Shilla Dynasty and before... an ancient city, very different from Seoul and its environs (where buildings are constructed with an average lifespan of about 5 years)... this was our destination last weekend (also a long weekend), and our first real excursion out of the landscape of concrete highrises since our arrival here in November.

We arrived at the Seoul Express bus terminal armed with our baggage and what we soon discovered was a hopelessly outdated Lonely Planet guidebook (2001 edition). The guidebook wisely proclaimed that buses left every half hour, but we soon discovered we'd be anticipating an unprecedented wait for nearly two hours (like everything else in this crazy country, you never get what you expect - that's half the fun, if you can find the humour to see it that way). That's all fine and well and all if you're mature enough to be toilet-trained, but for those of us who aren't, it can seem like a mighty long time... not to mention the 4.5 hour bus ride that lay ahead.

The bus ride itself was an adventure. As we rolled through the rice paddies and mist-covered mountains, Joe made friends with the other passengers, and, to his delight, discovered he could gain even more attention and admiration (and candy) from them by proclaiming "ajuma" or "ajoshi" (which I later found out, upon asking my students, means something like "hey you, woman/man" - not really disrespectful, but not entirely polite, either).

Finally, we arrived around 8pm in the ancient capital. As we drove into the city, we marveled at the size and construction of the houses - that's right, houses -not massive apartment blocks. They were so wonderfully small, with curved tile roofs, pressed up tight together, creating narrow winding alleyways lit with brightly-coloured paper lanterns (it was Buddha's birthday, after all).

We found a motel with a traditional-style Korean bed (an ondol - essentially a mattress on a heated floor), and, oh wonder of wonders, a BATHTUB! (It's been a long 6 months). Happily exhausted, we fell asleep looking forward to the adventures of the morrow: hiking through Namsan Park (littered with temples, monasteries, pagodas and wood carvings) and checking out Seokguram (a massive and mysterious stone Buddha hidden on a mountain), before heading to Bulguksa, a famous temple, where each roof tile has been painstakingly carved individually, and every inch of available space is covered in ornate and intricate paintings.

Instead, we awoke the next day to the unrelenting sound of pouring rain. Disaster! All the things to see were outside, and all involved a certain amount of walking. After some deliberation, we made the decision to pack up and return home again, vowing that we would come back some other time to Gyeongju.

One difference I have noticed between Koreans and Candians seems to be our temperature preference. Canadians like the cold (I mean, Jesus, we've been running our air-con here since mid-March!) while Koreans prefer the stifling heat. The department stores seem to me always overzealously heated, as did the bus on the way home. The rain made everything seem even more humid, and the many people breathing inside added to the stuffy atmosphere.

Joe had a little trouble adjusting to the climate of the bus, but quickly achieved a fine balance a short 30 minutes into the (remember?) 4.5 hour trip, when he leaned over me and deposited a voluminous amount of vomit directly in my lap. Thank Almighty G-d for moist towelettes!!! (At least the bus driver turned on the air-con after that!)

Ah, Seoul... how happy I was to greet your concrete and steel, your chaotic, traffic-jammed streets and teeming sidewalks, your towering officetels and smog-filled skies, your neon, flashing signs, screaming indecipherably at me in a language I am blissfully unable to comprehend. Home at last....

I took a shower, put Joe to bed, ordered in pizza and curled up on the couch with Matt. Ahhh, life is good.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Buddha Bing, Buddha Bang!

Wow, what a day! Buddha's believers sure know how to throw one hell of a birthday celebration.

We took the subway into Seoul on Sunday in order to help celebrate the festivities. It was amazing, like nothing any of us had ever seen before. We strolled through Insadong, all the while marveling at the number of foreigners we saw and, unfortunately, heard (it's so bizarre how accustomed you get to not understanding a word you hear around you - you start to enjoy not knowing what is being said - then you see the foreigners, and you hear the irritating, inane snippets of conversations that you are not involved in. Yet because you can understand it, you find yourself listening and becoming bothered by the lack of thought people put into their spoken word. "So, like, I couldn't decide whether I wanted a double grande iced mocha frappuccino or the tall cinnamon streusel latte... soooo... I like, got both!" It's enough to make you wish you were deaf).

Anyway, it was the celebratory Sunday preceding Buddha's birthday (his official birthday is Friday), and the streets of Seoul were papered with hanging lanterns and revelers of all persuasions (with the exception of my super-Christian boss and her children, one of whom has told us that he didn't like Buddha because "he was the enemy of Jesus"). At any rate, the day was a fantastic adventure. We strolled through Insadong (a pedestrianized street on Sundays, teeming with art shops, tea houses, souvenir stores, and buskers playing Korean folk music on the accordion, of all things!!), eventually winding our way to Jogyesa temple (the focal point of the celebrations, and where the majority of the lanterns were hung). The Lotus Lantern Parade was by far the highlight, though. The floats were spectacular - elephants, peacocks, dragons breathing fire (and threatening to destroy the paper floats in front of it), the folk dancers and drummers. And the people... Buddhist monks and nuns with shaved heads and cell phones, the half dozen old women sitting side by side on the street curb, clapping along to the modern Korean pop being performed by the brazen diva on the makeshift stage, the unfamiliar rhythms and pentatonic melodies carried out on the drums and flutes, and all the while the glowing lanterns bobbed through the dusk and into the night. It was beautiful.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Could you repeat that, please?

Apparently, Korea spends more than any other country on ESL education. But when you take into consideration the fact that up until a couple years ago, anybody with a high school diploma could find a well-paying job as a foreign English instructor here, you can begin to understand the level of English education provided by these so-called native "teachers." (We've heard stories of teachers showing up after a night of binge drinking, still horribly drunk even, to teach the kids). Finally, things were getting so out of hand with the foreigners, the government decided that it needed some basic requirements, and insisted upon teachers first possessing a bachelor's degree. This has curbed the problem somewhat, but how many liberal arts degree holders have any real knowledge or experience when it comes to foreign kids and ESL instruction? Fortunately, it's the kind of job that just takes practice, and a certain ability to bullshit. You are an actor playing the role of a teacher in a system set up to fail. In short, you get through the prescribed textbooks the school provides you with in the alloted time of 3 months, (divided into two 40-minute lessons a week), essentially making sure the kids have fun, and that they are given "homework, homework, homework!!!"

I have taken to playing "Simon Says", pictionary, and charades in many of my classes. My advanced writing classes are the most fun, though, because I've decided to use the text as minimally as possible. Instead, I have turned the class into a creative writing experiment, giving the students writing assigments that, God forbid, make use of their imagination (something that is not a high priority here, where most education is learned by rote). They write about what they would do if they were invisible, and they invent their own potions, spells (Harry Potter is HUGE here) and superheroes (my personal favorite is "Red Pepper Man", whose secret weapon is his "spicy smell" - it's so spicy, it even killed Superman and Spiderman at the same time, both having somehow become villainous).

As a self-proclaimed linguaphile, one of my major pet peeves is misplaced apostrophes. (Dammit, you fool, don't you know it's not "the dog shook it's tail."???!!!! That's a contraction! A contraction, I tells ya!!). Now, in Canada, where English is for most people their first (and only) language, such grave errors are absolutely unforgivable and should be punished by indentured labour, or something to that effect. In reality, it only shows that many people (university grads included) are hopelessly uneducated. I've granted Korea a bit more leeway in this department, and its (see, no apostrophe) use of English grammar is open to some pretty crazy and fantastical leaps of imagination. I've included a couple of my favorites for your amusement. Firstly, from Joe's track suit: "Collection is the is the foundation of a brand theat is cat is committed to". Ok. (If anybody knows what this means, let me know. I've just finished reading "The DaVinci Code", and am hoping that maybe it's an encoded message). Here's the best one (and this is off the cover of a child's sketchbook), entitled "Fall in Love": "Love is a song that reminds you/Love is being given the hores you're always wanted". (Hell, at least they didn't misplace the apostrophes!)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Joe's Birthday

And then he was two........bah bah ba bahm. Crazy the responsibilities that come with being two years old. Such as having to dance for an hour straight to the same song, not for fun but as though your very sanity depends on it (probably more ours than his, as the war of attrition that is raising a two year old rages on in full swing). It's not as though Great Big Sea's "Donkey Riding" is all that bad of a song, but everyday all day it's "donkey riding", "just donkey riding" or if he's been told no more, it becomes "donkey ride, no no no". But it was Joe's birthday and if he wanted to listen to nothing else for a solid hour then I guess he picked a good day to ask for it.

All in all, Joe had a pretty fantastic day. His birthday included a trip to the Wal-Mart playroom, fancy yellow Kart-Racer shoes (with flashing lights to boot...sorry, I couldn't help myself), along with several new books from his Grandpa via, some plastic jungle animals, part of a model train, and a couple stuffed toys and marbles from Tae-Young (our boss's son, who has developed a great fondness for Joe), combined with a whole lot of balloons and access to the "big fan button" ( after two years it's not even remotely strange that the remote control to the air conditioner was probably his favorite part of the day). Sadly, though, right as he was presented with la piece de resistance, a delicious, succulent birthday cake fresh from the ovens of the bakery downstairs, he was hit with a fever, and spent the next day and a half clutched to his mom (and sometimes dad, if he was feeling better), digesting only children's "Tyrenol" and juice. (Dammit, Mom and Dad, I was sick and you ate most of my birthday cake!)

Today was Joe's first day with Hyun Ju, his new babysitter. We think it will be a much better experience for him. No more bite marks, scratches, or slaps upside the head with packages of pickled radish from Yoo Bin. After only one day, he has already started calling her "halmoni", which is Korean for "grandmother".

Yellow Dust

"Are you sure you want to go to Korea? Don't you know how bad the air is?"

Well, no, there is no possible way you can really know how bad the air can be until you live through "Hwang-Sa" (literally translated, it means yellow dust, which can, strangely enough, also be translated to mean "yellow death"). Fortunately, the air is usually not all that bad, as you can clearly see in the second picture. But every spring, the winds blow through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, transporting a cloud of dust through China, (where, we have been told, it picks up a barrage of heavy metals and other pollutants, cadmium being among the most popular), finally settling on the Korean peninsula where it sticks to the backs of our throats, all the while giving us this wonderful skyline.

There were men on the street yesterday handing out free face masks to those passing by. The yellow dust is returning again tonight....

But soon, the air will clear up again. I'm told that Saturday was the worst day for yellow dust in four years. There was apparently 1mg of airborne particles for every cubic centimeter. What the hell does that mean, you ask? (Apparently, it's pretty bad).

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Something fishy...

Strolling through a new neighborhood today, we stumbled upon a small market. Fresh fish for dinner? Pigs head, anyone? How about some eels? You can buy them live and skin them at home! Delicious.

Off Roading, Korean-style

When exiting our apartment building, we must first carefully look left and right before stepping out, to ensure we are not overrun by a rogue motorbike hastily zipping along the sidewalk delivering "TastyNoodles" or KyonChon fried chicken or any number of other things.

Apparently, their deliveries are so important, the drivers will stop at nothing to reach their final destination, constantly risking life and limb to deliver their goods on time. There are also motorbikes used for private transportation. Not a one is subject to the normal "rules" of the Korean road. They fly along at high speeds, up and down sidewalks as they weave skillfully through the pedestrians, up the wrong side of the road, through red lights, and even over pedestrian walkways built overtop of busy roads. Occasionally, we see a motorbike with a group of three teenagers (all without helmets, of course) zigzagging through red lights at busy intersections. It's a miracle I haven't seen any chalk outlines on the roads yet.

On Friday and Saturday nights (and most other nights as well), it is usual to hear commotion from the street below as the drunken men topple out of the bars and into their cars. One evening, Matt saw a group of men, severely inebriated, accost a driver of a motorbike. One of the men pushed him to the ground, boarded the bike, and proceeded to swerve off into the night. Several seconds later, there was a mild crash as his ride came to an abrupt halt. He hadn't had the time to build up much speed, fortunately, and it sounded as though he had simply wiped out, hitting the ground instead of another car/lamp post/person... pedestrians always have to be on the lookout here!

Friday, March 31, 2006

I Hits Ya Cause I Loves Ya, Baby

Well, it seems that the tumultuous and raging relationship of Yoo-Bin and Joe will be drawing to a close. Boon-Oh (Yoo-Bin's mother and Joe's sitter) has told us that she cannot care for Joe any longer, because she finds caring for two little toddlers very difficult, especially considering the fact that Yoo-Bin has become extremely protective of her mother, and deeply resents Joe for taking away her attention. So... we have (with Boon-Oh's help) found another sitter for Joe, an older woman with two children in high school. This woman also helps out part-time at a daycare, so she will be able to take Joe with her to play with other kids.

Poor Joe. He was coming home every day with new scratches and bite marks, all the while proclaiming his love for Yoo-Bin wishing her a sweet good night as we tucked him into bed.

He is learning Korean, though. The other day, he was unwillingly eating his lunch. Finally, his exasperated parents said, "OK, Joe, only two more bites," to which he responded, "Anee, anee" (roughly translated: "nnnnoooooo").

On the Road

Drivers of Korea, you know little of the terror you so greatly inspire in the mild hearts of Canadian expats....

Our very first night in Korea, less than an hour after our arrival in fact, we found ourselves careening down a crowded multi-lane freeway at 130km/hr, in a minivan whose dashboard was alight with multiple electronic gadgets, including a GPS, and a device to hold a cell phone while the driver could talk, and numerous other blinking, beeping contraptions designed to make life easier, but instead succeeding in increasing distraction.

I've mentioned before the competitive, passionate nature of the Koreans. Nowhere is this more dangerously obvious than on their busy roads. BEWARE, if you have the audacity to cut someone off, you will most likely get an earful of profanity at the next red light (that is if you choose to stop, considering that traffic laws are open to a great deal of interpretation). Either that, or they will do their best to get the better of you by doing everything in their power to get back in front of you again, even if it means putting their lives and the lives of countless others in jeopardy, simply to get the "upper hand".

Last week, I took a bus to Costco. Buses are very near the top of the food chain on Korean roads (the top place is held by the blaring tow trucks that converge on the scenes of motor accidents within seconds in order to clear the roads of wrecked automobiles, so quickly that I imagine they cause enough car wrecks on the way to their destined accident that it creates a steady and successful business; they even hold a higher place in the hierarchy of the roads than do ambulances, fire trucks or police cars. A short time ago, I saw one of these trucks, sirens blaring, heading full speed in completely the wrong direction up an exit ramp onto a busy freeway). In any case, the bus drivers are paid by the number of circuits they run in a day, so stopping for passengers seems to be a damn nuisance - you're barely in the doors before they slam shut. More often than not, you'll find yourself thrown halfway down the aisle as the driver hits the gas, propelling you firmly into the lap of a poor unsuspecting grandmother or businessman, who are usually sound asleep... another peculiar trait of many Koreans seems to be their ability to knock out almost anywhere, even while standing on subway line #2, the busiest in all of Asia.

So here I was, on the way home from Costco (with my precious Raisin Bran and cheddar cheese...oh, how thrilled I was to make those fine purchases...such commodities...) when the bus, like buses so often do here, inevitably cut across several lanes of traffic to a fanfare of blaring horns and rising blood pressures. One of these cutoffs (cutoffees?...mmm...toffees...), unsatisfied with simply making his displeasure known through curses and honking, decided instead that he would cut off the bus (a brave manoeuvre for a mere mortal in a mid-sized sedan). The competition was fierce. Car pulled up next to Bus, where Car's driver gesticulated and screamed madly for a few moments before making his daring move. Pulling in front of Bus, which was not easy because Bus was not about to be cut off by something as lowly as Car, Car immediately slowed to a crawl on this busy freeway. After a few tense moments, Bus leaned on his horn with no sign of letting up. After maybe five or ten seconds of steady horn blaring, Car finally relented and began to move again. A few short moments later, Bus had to stop for one of those irritating passengers. Car, noticing this, came to an immediate halt in front of Bus. After the passenger had boarded, Bus prepared for blastoff, but, much to his chagrin, that damn sedan was still blocking the road. Again, he leaned on the horn. Car waited, waited, waited....finally, using some logic I am not familiar with, Car apparently decided Bus had been punished long enough, and took off with a screech of tires, boldly and unflinchingly cutting off another 5 lanes of traffic in the process.

All that, and I haven't even begun to tackle the taxis or manage the motorbikes. We'll save those stories for another day.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

White Day

Korean children, like children all over the world, love candy and chocolate and other treats they cram into their faces with little regard for the state of their teeth. Yet, they love it so much that a national day to celebrate the wonder of chocolate (Valentine's Day, where "traditionally," the woman gives chocolate to the man) is not enough. Oh, no... a short month down the road, and we found ourselves yesterday on March 14, "White Day," another national day to celebrate the giving and endless consumption of candy (where, "traditionally", the man gives candy to the woman).

I knew before class even started that it would be a looonnnnng day. Sitting quietly at my desk, prepping for class and minding my own business, I heard the elevator doors open and the unmistakeable sound of chaos - a barrage of kindergarten-grade 3 elephants pouring into the school, high on sugar. They streamed into the staff room before anyone knew what was happening, and essentially, I found myself in a hold-up for candy. Recalling a word that a former foreign teacher had taught, I employed it here, and perhaps saved my life. "Opsayo!" I cried desperately, amidst the shouted demands, "opsayo, opsayo!!" (meaning "I don't have any" or something to that effect). The word had the desired result. The kids left me alone, although I think my popularity dropped a bit. Taking a deep breath, I steeled myself for the first class.

I used the craziness yesterday as an opportunity to teach the kids the expression "off the wall." It was a suitable moment.

Well, the worst is over, and I have another 8 months before the next national day to commemorate Peppero (seriously, I couldn't make this up if I tried). I'm thinking of starting a movement to have these days made into national holidays. At least then we'd get the day off.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Signs of the Apocalypse

So here it is March 2006, and as far as I can tell the world is still here, but for how long? Pretty much every one out there who has ever stood in line at a grocery store checkout has heard of Nostradamus and his occasionally close predictions either about a "bat child" or the "end of time" ( in my perfect world you would here an echo every time you said "the end of time"). But it's occured to me that in this time of great uncertainty and unrest that only Hanna gets the most fortuitous of opportunities to hear my thoughts regarding the signs of the apocalypse (and perhaps more importantly, my predictions on when the next "bat child" will appear)! So in an effort to remedy this most unjust of situations I have decided to publish my thoughts on the future.

Now anyone out there can take the easy road and focus on the obvious signs of the end of time such as, oh, say the increase in weather catastrophies such as floods, mudslides, typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes and whatever else nature throws at us (who knows the geologists may be right and it may just be the end of the most recent ice age). Then there are those wonderful ironies that I don't know nearly enough about, like the name of the new president in Iraq -"Talibani". I'm sure I'm not the first to think that this cannot be true, and has to be some really obvious punchline to a joke we've all heard too often.

Rather I've chosen to focus on one of those signs that is right in front of us. Like the friend with that lazy eye that we stop acknowledging, I've decided to look at the most obvious to me. Some time ago I said to Hanna that I figured that in the near future we would hear of a court case involving a complaint over the inadequate size of toilet seats for those of the (how do I say this politically correctly? (maybe more importantly, why do I care about being politically correct when speaking of an ever growing faction of Western society that is "morbidly obese"?)) "larger persuasion". My remark was to the effect that if I ever heard of any such legal case, than how could I not see this as some sort of sign that we had slipped so far in our priorities as a people as to signify that the end of time, or at the very least a thoroughly ridiculous time to live in, had to be near.

I fully acknowledged that for any such legal action to occur, the plaintiffs would have to be able to provide some sort of alternative to the common toilet seat.
Well lo and behold it has come to our attention that such toilet seats are available and marketed as "size friendly". Seriously, check it out for yourselves at and ask yourselves how long before someone with a strong enough union, or a hungry enough lawyer to back them, demands that their toilets in the workplace be "upgraded". My guess is it comes from the public sector.....
Offended?......good, we all should be.

Oh yeah.... the next bat child will be found in a small village in Venezuela in .....let's say... June.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Teaching English in Korea 101

Well my first week of teaching has come to a close and as excited as I am to be finished a small voice in my head tells me there are still 51 to go...Oy Veh.

So what is teaching English to Korean children ranging from 8 to 13 like?
What I've realized first off is that to stay sane one has to first and foremost throw out the whole idea of implies learning. I'm not saying I don't try to teach, rather the whole system that we're working in is designed to be ineffective - much like Korea.
Seriously, I'm growing to believe that the only way this country "runs" is to be constantly creating new work by never doing the job right the first time. Perhaps the best example is in the construction methods used to build the apartment buildings that cover the landscape. The buildings are designed to be built fast with a life of about 5 years. Korea is not like Japan, that has to build with the awareness that an earthquake will likely destroy their work every few years. Korea has no such problem: perhaps they just have Japan envy.

Probably the second most important thing that I've learned is to never under any circumstances tell a Korean that they have "Japan envy". (Editor's note - at this point, Hanna kicks Matt off the computer). Well, you know there was that whole colonialism thing between 1910 and 1945, when Japan ruled Korea with an iron fist. That, and the numerous invasions from previous centuries when countless temples and relics were destroyed by Japanese invaders. As a result, the Koreans are none too fond of their neighbours to the east. On most world maps, the body of water separating the two countries is called the "Sea of Japan", but here you would never, ever say such a thing. It is simply the East Sea. Now, lying somewhere in this "East Sea" is the small uninhabited island of Dokdo, just a few rocks really. However, these rocks are hotly contested between the two countries, with both claiming sovereignty. Dokdo inspires such incredible, passionate patriotism in the children here, it's quite remarkable. At the very mention of the word, some of my more boisterous students jump up on their chairs and burst into a proud Korean anthem which claims Dokdo as theirs. In a couple classes, we got on the topic of reunification with North Korea, which led to a discussion of the atomic bomb, and inevitably to why Japan ceased its occupation of the Korean peninsula in 1945. "Nuke them again! Nuke them again!" was their shouted response. In another class, I asked them to describe their dream weekend. One 10 year old student's response: Friday - travel to Japan. Saturday - kill the Japanese emperor and dispose of his body. Sunday - return to Korea and think of an alibi.
And the kimpap - "Korean sushi" - which is, according to some Koreans I've spoken with, "just like sushi, but much better." (Thanks to my beautiful rice steamer, I've learned to make kimpap that is almost as good as the diner down the street, minus the spam and MSG).

Always she goes on about the rice steamer, but ask her to clean it and find out the truth (like a little kid with a dog, whose parents feed and and walk it). So you get the point right? Koreans are not fond of the Japanese.

Back to first week of teaching ( if I'm allowed).
As I mentioned earlier the hardest thing for me was to move beyond the idea of actually teaching the students and grasp the far more important issue. Make the parents happy. We teach at an English hogwan which put simply is a tutoring academy (there are also science, math, art, music, Korean, phys. ed, and at least a couple other kinds of hogwans). More complexly it is yet another example of the "keeping up with the Kims", a diabolical scheme which drains approximately seven billion dollars annually from the pockets of well intentioned parents (which is more than the Korean government spends on the education system in a year), while at the same time working to undermine that same underfunded public education system. Sound complicated? Think of it this way: if your neighbors send their children to three hogwans then how could send your children to any less... maybe you should send them to four...and the trend continues. The whole while the kids are learning in advance in the hogwans what they learn in the public schools, thus making public education irrelevant.
So here we are, the native English speakers brought to Korea not to teach the children English, but for the hogwan to keep up with other hogwans that also have native English speakers.
Basically I tell them to do their homework - after all, if they don't have homework, the parents aren't getting their money's worth.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

For My Grandma.

Yesterday, I received an email from my sister Tammy in Saskatoon. She wanted to let us know that she has been printing off our blog to take for my Grandma to read. Recently my Grandma and Grandpa moved back to Saskatoon so that my mother could help take care of my Grandma, who has become very sick. Since I can't be back home to go and spend time with the two of them, I figured the least I could do was dedicate some time to write an entry for my Grandma.

I have been so fortunate in my life to have the Grandma that I have. It would be easy to go on about how great her cooking is, because,well, it is. From her homemade pumpkin pies to the nuts n' bolts that she makes sure to always have on hand for me, she has never disappointed. I'm sure most everyone has those stereotypical stories of their Grandma's cookies, and yes I'm sure they all made good cookies, just not as good as my Grandma's (hers even have Skor bar chunks in them.....yum).

I remember as a child of five or six being introduced by my Grandparents to the most amazing toy in the whole world, the Frisbee. I have such fond memories of the two of them running around in a park with me teaching me to throw that amazing spinning saucer. I can't wait to teach Joseph to play Frisbee, and to tell him stories of how I learned. I imagine that as I get exhausted from running down his wild throws I'll gain an even greater appreciation for them and the effort they've always put into spending time with me.
Maybe it sounds silly, after all it's just frisbee, but it's all the little things like playing frisbee with me, taking me to the lake to pick choke cherries for syrup, or maybe always believing in me and helping me to go to university that have made my Grandma the best Grandma in the world.
Go ahead and disagree - I hope everyone has fond memories with their Grandmas, and everyone should think their Grandma is the best. Just make sure to let your Grandmas know that you disagreed with me.

Thank you so much Grandma, for being everything I've ever imagined a Grandma could be.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sign Wars II: The Christian Empire Strikes Back

One of the very first things I noticed about Korea, (as we careened down the freeway at 130km/hour, in a van without seat belts or safety seats) after having been picked up from the airport, was the vast abundance of church steeples, all with red neon crosses. Churches occupying space in commercial buildings will erect their steeples on ordinary slab roofs, and if more than one church occupies the same building, then (because if your neighbor does it, you most definitely must do it too, in order not to "fall behind" - a phenomenon known as "keeping up with the Kims" - similar in a way to "keeping up with the Jones", but much, much more extreme and competitive)... anyway, if more than one church occupies the same commercial building, chances are there will be more than one steeple on the roof. It's quite common to see buildings with two or more steeples all competing for souls. And, of course, the church with the biggest and tallest steeple is undoubtedly the best....
Korea is the only country in Asia (other than the Philippines) with such a high population of Christians. In the past 35 years alone, nearly 35% of the country's population have become Christian (after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945 and after the Korean War). In fact, the five largest Christian churches in the world are all in Seoul. But Korean Christianity is much different than the Christianity found elsewhere in the world. Because Koreans are so fiery and extreme, they will take things to the limit of common sense and soar beyond it without a second glance. Korean Christianity is, as a result, the most extreme and evangelical version of the religion found on the planet. On our third day here, my boss, claiming that she "loved to evangelize," told Matt that she knew the reason we had come to Korea, and that it was "to find Jesus." I have personally (and unwittingly) bore witness to an impromptu sermon in a subway train by a preacher who changed cars at each stop, and would wander up and down the station spouting the word of God with his megaphone. I really like this aspect of Koreans, though. They're very passionate about what they believe in.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Beard Watch 2006

Well, it's Febuary 9th as I write this, four days away from starting my new job and the beard is still here. Recently I took a short trip to Japan to get my work visa from the Korean consulate. I'm not sure why I figured Japan would be a more beard friendly environment, but I did... I mean didn't that last samurai guy have one? Well after getting pulled aside at the airport for a full body pat down, I began to question whether Hollywood had let me down, yet again. One short but busy subway ride with everyone taking a look and nobody willing to sit next to me and it was confirmed: either I had really bad B.O or the people of Fukuoka were prejudiced against beards. After a quick check to make sure it wasn't an odor issue, I was sure it was the beard. (Funny how when everyone is already staring at you, taking a whiff in public of one's armpits doesn't seem a big deal)

Seeing as this whole "we're scared of beards" thing is becoming a regular part of my day I decided not to let it ruin my trip. I have however decided to hold a lesser view of any man incapable of growing a beard. (I use the term "man" loosely, after all what man can't grow a beard).

Monday, January 30, 2006

My baby

At long last, my dream has come true... No, it was nothing conventional like getting married, having a child, or working really hard to get us here to Korea. All those are but token achievements when compared with the aquisition of my beautiful new kitchen appliance - my indispensable rice steamer, the "Kitchen Flower." Oh, and she is gorgeous. Pink, white, and adorned with flowers, I saw her sitting, alone on the lonely shelf of the Wal-Mart appliance department. Passed over by other shoppers looking for the newest models (and yes, they sell digital rice steamers here), we felt an instant connection to each other. We are very happy together.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sign Wars

"Walking through the streets of Korea resembles walking through a labyrinth of endless signs. In fiercely competitive Korean society, signs play a crucial role, alerting customers to the location and nature of businesses. Korean signs fight for every inch, having been plastered chaotically on buildings, overlapping in some cases and always looking for the upper hand. A competitive spirit that knows no limit - it's the Korean mentality at work. One must never lose out to a neighbor. This compulsion disfigures the city. Signs on windows... Signs on building walls...Signs posted on rooftops... The signs have taken over."

excerpt from "Korea Unmasked", by Rhie Won-Bok

The picture above was taken next to the "quiet" street where we live, in our sleepy suburb city of Uiwang.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lotte Mart

Once a day, sometimes more often, we enter the familiar aisles of the Lotte Mart grocery/department store across the street. Our faces, I feel, have become customary fixures of the place, although we still have no idea how to ask where the garbage bags are. I customarily spend a few minutes each trip browsing the crowded aisles of the supermarket in search of the elusive bags, knowing all the while it was a futile endeavor to begin with. The garbage bags here are neatly divided according to what city you live in. If you are a resident of Anyang, you are required to place your refuse in the bags with the Anyang City symbol. We live in Uiwang, and I have yet to discover the location of the garbage bags for my particular district (Ah, well - early in the mornings, I surreptitiously deposit our garbage in the large pile across from our apartment building in -gasp - ordinary plastic bags from Lotte Mart!).

Lotte Mart is an adventure. Some evenings and weekends, the place is so full, it is absolutely useless to even attempt pushing a shopping cart through the aisles. And the shoppers are ruthless when it comes to getting where they want to go - they push through you as if you were invisible, often even pushing the cart along sideways in order to maximize their space (quite an experience for a citizen of a country who is accustomed to apologizing when someone steps on their toes). I've noticed that the steering of the shopping carts in some ways resembles their road rules (more on that in an upcoming entry).

The free samples are one of the best parts of the adventure. Dozens upon dozens of makeshift tables offer samples of everything from fresh-pressed tofu to instant coffee, from marinated beef to seaweed laver, fried spam, kimchi, Korean mushroom pancakes, and a table that I've learned to avoid - the one that houses the unidentifiable bowls of suspicious, slippery, spicy-looking substances which I discovered (one day when I was feeling particularly adventurous) contain types of raw sea urchins and raw shellfish - my stomach has yet to build up a tolerance to this food, and I don't think it's ever likely to happen. As you pass by the tables in the back, the men holler at you, hawking their wares. My favorite is the fish man, who sounds like a Korean version of Tom Waits. Lotte Mart is a very modern supermarket, but it's really neat to see how these remnants of a traditional market are still very much alive and strong.

Joe loves the Lotte Mart, and asks to go there every day ("Mah-ta, please" - "mah-ta" is the Korean pronunciation for "mart"). There is a kids' playroom where we take him a few times a week to play with other kids. Although they usually seem frightened of the foreign baby, he still manages to make a few friends each visit.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Beard Watch 2006

day 64
Lines between reality and fantasy thinning. Is the beard growing on me or am I growing on it?
Must stay in control..
"sh.. sh... everythings o.k nobody will shave you, they only stare because your so beautiful......"

Beard stays........Koreans change!

Saturday, January 7, 2006

Why A Fine Arts Degree is "Worth It"

Aside from functioning as a very expensive daycare for those fresh out of high school or not so fresh out, I've been racking my brain to think of why a liberal arts degree (or more specifically a Fine Arts degree) is worth the time and money invested.

A couple obvious answers come to mind, like oh say being able to teach English in a foreign country like Korea. Or maybe the knowledge that you have a new perception of the world that your parents and family who haven't taken all the liberal arts classes simply cannot understand.
Maybe your parents have paid for your degree and you don't like them, so there's some satisfaction in knowing how much they've spent for you to go to university for an Art degree and barely graduate.
I'm sure for everyone there is a different answer, and maybe some answers would even include words like career, work or job. Such words seem strange to me but I'm only one person.
For myself the answer may evolve with time (maybe someday career or job won't seem so foreign) but for now it would be that I can draw pictures my son enjoys, pictures that would have earned me no respect if I had drawn them while in university.


Beard Watch 2006

Well a new year has rolled around and, despite an array of outside pressures, the beard has stuck it out. But for how long? Recently at a children's play room with our son Joseph I attempted to make a young child smile using an array of facial contortions that in Canada had been tried tested and true. While I cannot know for sure what this poor child (who had probably seldom if ever seen a Caucasian before, let alone one with a beard) thought of my display, judging from the little girl's reaction of tears and utter terror, I think I may be able to make a fairly safe assumption... little children here are not ready for the beard.

Friday, January 6, 2006

How to beat so your kids will listen

A short time after I began working at Seoul Language Academy, I noticed that the students were much more well behaved for the Korean teachers than they were for the foreigners. I remarked how drastically the classroom atmospere shifted the moment a Korean in a position of authority poked a head in my classroom. Instantly, posture was straightened, eyes were averted downwards, and all chaos came screeching to an instant halt. For a few brief moments, the students' attention was riveted on their "sonsangnim", meaning both "teacher" and "master."

So why such a shift in behaviour? Well, another thing I soon remarked was that Korean teachers carried large "whacking sticks" into their classrooms. Measuring about 1.5 feet in length and about 1/2 an inch in diameter, the teachers have no qualms about smacking the upturned palms of their misbehaved. In fact, in order to aid the discipline in my classroom, I will threaten them with Rodger, another Korean teacher who also happens to be the manager of the school. The kids are terrified of him because, as they tell me, he "hits us really hard." He is also a Korean man, a "father figure."

Speaking of corporal punishment and fathers, I recently asked my advanced class to write in their journals about their "worst experience ever." Every class, I give them a topic to write about for a few minutes, and on this day, I got a response that my delicate Canadian sensibilities had not prepared me for. One student (who also happens to be the smartest in the class) wrote that the worst thing he had ever experienced was the time he had been caught lying. His father, to teach him a lesson, beat him with a golf club so badly that he was unable to go to school the next day (and it takes a lot to get these kids to miss school). Yet the student was grateful for having been taught the lesson by his father, whom he adores.

So, if I were in Canada, and heard of such a story, it would unquestionably be my responsibility to report such an occurence to the proper authorities. But here in Korea, where it's so commonplace, beating your child or spouse, or keeping your students in line with a large stick is the norm, and they see nothing wrong with it. In fact, they wonder how we in the West have let our children rule their parents and teachers through lack of discipline.

Korea ostensibly has one of the highest rates of spousal abuse in the world, but it is not a punishable offense. And standing up to authority, or questioning authority, is, in most cases, completely inconceivable. So the wife submits to the husband, the children to the father, and the students to the (Korean) teacher, and the tradition of authoritarian rule continues in much the same way as it has for centuries, with the help of sticks and clubs.