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!