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.