Sunday, September 30, 2007

guess I don’t like to blog anymore

It’s been another long break since the last blog entry I’ve written. A few things have happened, but most wasn’t enough to get me to sit down and write about it. I’ve also been more bitter and jaded than usual and I haven’t felt like venting bitterness in my writing because I can’t imagine anyone would want to read it. It’s coming up on October and we’ve only got three weeks left here, so most of my time has been spent counting down the days. We’ve mostly kept quiet and tried to save more of our money by doing less, as the reality of no longer receiving a paycheck starts to feel more imminent. I’ll talk about a few of the things that have happened in the last couple months.

It was an excruciatingly hot and humid summer, with weeks at a time of conditions that can realistically be described as living in a sauna. We stayed inside and didn’t do much socially, because going anywhere meant hanging out drenched in sweat and smelling like it. When the weather broke, we decided we were long overdue for a visit to our Filipino friends. It had been since that random trip across the country since we had visited KP Mart, which is the local Filipino store that they congregate for socializing on weekends. When we first walked in, they asked us how our vacation had been and assumed that we had gone back to Canada (without notice) and were only now returning. We had to explain that aside from a week-long trip to Japan, we had been in Naju the whole time but had just been anti-social. Considering we generally spend little to no money hanging out with our Filipino friends, it was impossible to explain away our absence and the atmosphere quickly became tense. We spent an hour or two saying almost nothing as the few people present lounged around or kept busy preparing dinner.

I was beginning to think that we had lost our friends from apathetic negligence when somebody we hadn’t met arrived with her child and started talking to us. She taught at a high school in Naju and knew the Filipino teacher who works at our academy. We got talking and soon enough they invited us to stay for the meal they were preparing. It was the dish ‘bangus’ which is something that was recommended for me to try before visiting the Philippines, but I’d never gotten the chance. It was delicious and I ate a lot of it. This tends to be my strongest point when making friends with people from other cultures, as I enjoy eating almost anything from any culture when it is cooked well. This turned the situation around onto its head and they invited is straight away to a gathering they were going to later, which would be a “going away” party for one of the men who had finished his contract and was heading home. They had purchased a goat from an acquaintance and had slaughtered and butchered it and had spent all day preparing different recipes.

Leta and I both agreed to go and we taxied thirty minutes out of town to an industrial park on the edge of Naju where we learned that most of our friends worked. There we met up with a dozen or more of our buddies and had to start trying to explain our absence once again. Explaining our long absence was made more difficult by the fact that they are all very proud to have American/Canadian friends and it is deeply engrained in their mindset that they are somehow intrinsically inferior to westerners. I tried my best to explain that we had been overwhelmed by the weather and staying at home feeling sorry for ourselves. Once they brought out the karaoke machine and we all started singing, things loosened up a lot and people got into the spirit of the evening. They kept bringing dishes out prepared with different parts of the goat in traditional style and each of them was very good. I wasn’t a huge fan of the recipes using the skin or the intestines, but I ate a lot of all of them. Eventually I got talking with one of the guys that I hadn’t met before about our lives before coming to Korea. He had been a tour guide before coming to Korea and that I had changed jobs a lot but that none made any use of my university degree before this one.

The conversation quickly diverted to the disparity in opportunities between people from our two countries and why I thought this was outrageous. I often get into this conversation with my friends from the Philippines, most of which are thirty years old or older; many of which were teachers or had other more specialized careers before they came here to work monotonous “fast work” (as it translates) jobs. These jobs are often dangerous and many times they are treated as lesser human beings by their employers. Even the process by which they come to Korea as foreign workers is rife with exploitation. Their only chance to secure a job like this is to go through an ‘agency’ that puts you in line with other people seeking these types of positions until your time comes. They offer some basic language training and operate as their liaison between the workers and the Korean Ministry of Labor. For this service, the workers are to pay anywhere from 2-4 million won ($2200-4400 Canadian and around the same American these days) from the money they will earn here. Considering their salaries, even working 12 hours a day 6 days a week hard industrial labor, this easily amounts to a quarter to two-fifths of their total income here before taxes. Essentially, their potential wages which seem relatively low to begin with are gouged and then taxed by their own government, leaving them with a lot less than you might think from hearing their income. And these positions are coveted by most Filipinos, who put their careers on hold to be able to feed their families. These are also one-time opportunities and once they finish these contracts, they are no longer eligible to return. You can probably see how the more that I flesh out the details of these situations, the more I get angry about it. So I got into a discussion about how it is foolish to hold on to a sense of nationalism, to be “proud of your nationality”, to put faith in your nation to provide for you and others. Nationality in this sense only divides people who would otherwise recognize their common interests and also creates the illusion that our interests are tied more closely to the rich and privileged in our own society than is the case. This only becomes more acute as the world becomes more globalized and less regionalized; in other words, the less that peoples interests intrinsically depend upon the communities in which they live. Great night, but I had some gastrointestinal trauma the next day from the abundance of goat I had consumed. It was worth it and a good reminder that we have faithful friends here that make great company.

We had heard a long time ago that some other students from SSU were planning to come to Korea soon, but only recently did we find out that some of our friends had moved to Busan. The one time we had visited Busan in June had been so much fun, so we decided to go for the weekend before Chuseok. We learned from the satellite TV on the bus there that there was to be a typhoon that would hit Korea that weekend, but that Busan was going to be near the fringes of it. The weekend was fun, but it rained the entire time and most of the walking around we did was with soaked shoes. Mostly it was just great to get together with Chris Seto and Becky Garrett and actually have a few decent conversations. It helped us realize how socially deprived our lives are here. While there we ate twice at the great Turkish restaurant we tried last time we were there and the food was extremely good as always. We also went to an underground aquarium near the beach which was pretty impressive, but not in a way that makes me want to talk about it.

We had a five-day weekend without work for Chuseok, which is the Korean version of Thanksgiving or the harvest moon or something. We were both really worn out from the week and I started the first two days of the weekend off with a migraine so the whole vacation was more or less sedentary. It was strange for Christmas and other holidays to have passed with barely any recognition from the world around us here, but it was even more depressing in a way to go through the biggest holiday of the year here without any way to celebrate it. We spent most of our time poking holes of doubt in our plans for traveling in Southeast Asia after our contract, worrying about how our money is going to end up getting spent and going stir-crazy from spending too much time indoors. The other teachers had gone away for Chuseok and so had our Filipino friends, so mostly we ended up wandering around Naju for something to do. We went into Gwangju to watch the Bourne Ultimatum, which was okay but nothing special, then checked at the foreigner bar we normally go to and didn’t recognize any of the few people who were there. The only redeeming thing about Chuseok was it helped me realize that there isn’t going to be much I miss about Korea besides the kimchi.

We enjoyed Busan so much that we decided to go again this weekend for Thanksgiving. It was good fun as usual, with a lot of hanging around preparing food interspersing conversations with watching TV. Just like last time, Becky was kind enough to let us stay at her apartment without even having to ask her. When the event dispersed and the leftovers were packed up, Leta and I decided we wanted to take a walk. We noticed there was this ‘river walkway’ type area (kind of a glorified ditch for grey water) that followed underneath the subway tracks in the direction we wanted to head towards. It seemed at first like the type of shady shadowy place that you don’t normally ever want to walk, but as we went on we noticed that quite a lot of families and average looking people were using the area to take walks or bike around. There were also tennis court, basketball and exercise areas interspersed along the walkway, as well as some really impressive graffiti in the tunnels that passed underneath roads or parking lots. So that night was a lot of fun and very memorable.

The next morning started off worse than any morning I can think of. We woke up to a call from our boss frantically talking about some “big water problem” in our apartment asking where we were. We told her we were in Busan and she asked why and then asked where our key was. She was distraught when we reminded her that Busan was five hours away and that we had no idea that we were the only ones with a key to this place. I asked her if we should come home right away and she just gasped and hung up saying “I’m not know what to do.” Naturally we had no idea what to do either. Leta went to grab coffee and I waited for another phone call that we would hopefully be getting. I got thinking that regardless of how this situation was to work itself out, we would need to go home early, so I called my friends and let them know. Our boss called us back and told us that we had “left our water filter on” and that it had flooded our apartment and had seeped down into our neighbors apartment and ruined all their wall(and ceiling)paper. As far as we understood, our water filter does not ‘turn off’ and you don’t turn it off any more than you turn off your refrigerator. She complained that all of this as well as the water costs were “very expensive” and hung up leaving us with NO idea what had happened. We packed up, took the subway to the bus terminal and headed back home. This was more than six hours of wondering whether our cat was okay, whether the people who had gotten into our apartment somehow had let her out, whether they were going to be distraught at the state of the apartment or what we were going to be coming home to. The bus ride was wonderful, with plenty of time to think about all the possible situations, not having a clue about what had happened or knowing whether to be angry or sorry. We got home to an apartment with the windows wide and screens all wide open and our furniture all moved out of the way from the location of the water filter, with all our bath towels on the ground having soaked up the extra water. Nobody was here, but our cat came out of hiding right as we were walking in the door and we have yet to receive a call from our boss about anything. I’m not looking forward to dealing with the whole situation and whatever costs were incurred, but thankful at this point that the cat was alright. The whole ordeal put a frantic tone on the weekend and I don’t look forward to going to work tomorrow, but I guess I never look forward to work so maybe it won’t be much different than usual.

23 more days.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

it's been awhile

It's been awhile since my last entry. I've mostly retreated into a world of computer games, music and daily monotony while counting down the weeks left on my contract (10 more now). It's amazing just how much has changed while I've been living in this hibernation state. A teacher has come and left on a short term contract, my boss' two children have returned home and another of the teachers has finished up her contract and left. The boss' son, who is in charge of recruitment for the school, held a meeting where we were invited to talk about our problems with the school. This was a stressful ordeal, but after some drama and a second meeting a lot of our concerns were addressed and we were able to successfully communicate about some of the issues that have been making things difficult for too long now. We've also gone through the rainy season (June-July) and the hottest month (July-August) now, which has been the muggiest weather I've ever experienced. It wouldn't be half as bad except that we have no air conditioner in our apartment and our building is between two other buildings that cut off most of the air flow that we might get by leaving our windows and door open. In fact, it's been so hot and humid here that my hair has actually gone curly. It's weird and everybody assumes that I went and got a perm (which guys actually do here) and I hope that as the weather dries out it goes back to normal.

We're happy that we've managed to survive through the worst of the weather and we just returned from a week of vacation in Japan. Our trip started on Saturday night, as we dropped Sophie off with Leta's tutoring student Jungja's family in Gwangju. We bussed up to Seoul that night and stayed overnight. We took a plane from the regional airport Gimpo to Tokyo's regional airport Haneda and went into the outskirts of Tokyo for dinner. Then we flew to Aomori airport and Leta's father picked us up and brought us back to Ajigasawa. We spent a night there and in the morning took a train up to Hakodate to see Leta's sister Anna, who had just given birth. We spent two days there and then went back to Ajigasawa for a night before we headed off again to the annual English camp that Leta's parents organize just outside Aomori City. We thought that we were going to have to fly out on Friday, but thankfully things worked out that we were able to stay until Saturday. We flew back on Saturday and were able to get back to Naju before midnight. It ate up at least a month's worth of savings, but the trip was worth it as we got to see both of our nieces. Leta's sister had her baby (Erin) and got out of the hospital just as we were arriving and her brother's child (Emma Grace) is more than a year old now, but it was our first time seeing her. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see Leta's sisters Sarah or Mary because they were down at the family's beach cottage in Takayama. Leta hadn't been back to her family home in Ajigasawa in almost as long as me, though, so it was a good chance to talk with her parents and see things. We got a chance to swim in the ocean while there, which was great since it's been about a year since I got a chance to swim even tho I got sunburnt badly with blistered nose and scaly back and the works. I also got a chance to meet the two short-term workers that are staying with the Elliots right now, which is always fun. One of them who I got to know the best was from Northern Ireland and had a lot of the same interests in music and games, so we ended up talking til really last most nights I was there. We argued about the morality of downloading music without paying for it and he explained to me the social dynamics of Catholic and Protestant cultural interaction in N. Ireland. The friendship was pretty much instantaneous and the lack of social interaction in my life kept the conversation going pretty steady the whole time we were there. Leta's brother Luke also brought the board game Axis and Allies, which provided a good chance for heated competition. We played it in most every spare minute while there. One of the nights that we were at the camp we went into the city for the famous annual festival called Nabuta. It turned out to be more a parade than a festival, with nonstop flute and drum music that repeated the same beat and tune on a six second loop for over two hours. It was exciting at first, but got really repetative about an hour into the thing and disturbing by the end. The floats in the parade were pretty amazing and all the people seemed to be having a good enough time, but after awhile it was all the same and standing in one spot got tiresome. It would have been fine except for these dirty sickly looking clowns dressed in drag that walked alongside the parade harassing children. Some of them wore skanky bras and fake bare butts on the outside of their costumes. Clowns are disturbing enough when they're clean and smiley, but these abominations walking along forceably kissing up to kids' faces were enough to infect the dreams of even the most fearless. So yeah, the parade wasn't that great, but it was definitely worth seeing once. I understood why Leta's dad waited in the car and napped rather than go see it.

Anyways, more has happened since my last entry, like finding out that our insurance had been canceled after traveling for hours to see the doctor and other such hilarity, but nothing much worth going into detail over. I'm excited about the day as I'm going to get to meet two new teachers that have just arrived and start work today. It's going to mean a change around here, which I can only hope will be for the better. I will end with talking about two of the students that I tutor right now and a couple of the stories that they told me before I went on break. One is a second grade middle school student (8th grade) named John who as far as I could tell spent all his time studying. Lately, though, he's opened up to me more and revealed some of his hidden rebelliousness. He told me about how he was deathly shy growing up and that throughout most of elementary school he would shed tears whenever the teacher would call on him in class, but that in middle school he has learned to fight and use bad words. He also revealed to me very cautiously that he has been to the PCbang (internet cafe) a total of ten times in his life, which he truly believes that his mother would disown him and kick him out of the house if she knew. His parents believe that computer games infect your mind and coerce your will into abandoning all interest in studying. He told me that the hardest part about concealing trips to the PCbang is that the smoke-saturated atmosphere makes your shirt smell. He recalled that the first time his mother had smelled the smoke on his shirt, she had asked him where he'd been and confronted him about going to the PCbang, but that he'd managed to explain it away as some strangers smoking in the elevator. It was funny how closely his stories resembled somebody on the other side of the ocean trying to cover up going to the bar. My other tutoring student is a man named Mr. Jin who teaches gym at an elementary school in Naju. He told me about how he had spent several years teaching on the islands near Mokpo, traveling for hours every day by car and boat to get to work. He said that the big school had had 75 students, but the smaller one had only 6. He said that this job made him sad because more than half of the students that he taught were very poor and lived with their grandparents without parents. He went on to explain that these were not orphans exactly, but that they were the children of divorced parents that had moved away to the cities and started new families. Apparently, it is very common here when two people with children divorce that neither parent takes the children because those children would have no established role within the new family. They would be the oldest, but they would not share the blood of both parents and so they would be of a lower status than the true children and apparently such a contradiction is important enough that parents actually abandon their kids over it. It's hard to believe that this type of attitude can exist without breeding crime and sociopathy.

It's time to go meet the new teachers now, though. I look forward to this last stretch of the contract more than I thought I was going to, as more SSUers are coming to teach in Korea and these new teachers come to our school. Here's hoping that everything changes for the better.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

accidental filipino road trip

I had an interesting day yesterday. I was prepared to go play basketball for the morning and I ended up traveling across Korea in a 13-hour trek that left me sunburnt and exhausted. I'll start from the beginning. I was sitting at home on Saturday resting, playing video games and still recovering from bronchitis when Leta she was sick of sitting around and decided to go for a walk. We agreed I should order some Chinese food because neither of us wanted to cook. It came before she got back and while I was eating my share I got a phone call from Leta that would change my weekend. She had stopped at the Filipino store to pick up some miscellaneous groceries and it was late enough on Saturday that some of our friends were there intending to hang out all night. In case I didn't make it clear in earlier posts, on Saturday nights this place turns into a magnet for (mostly) Filipinos living in Korea. Most of the men work for factories in the area and most of the women have gotten married to Korean men one way or another. Lately we found out that most of them had their marriages arranged through the Unification Church (the Moonies). Anyways, the place is always interesting and so the phone call got me off my butt despite feeling sick and soon enough I was at the store.

I met a few new people when I got there and the night was going smoothly. Two men from Pakistan who had never been there before dropped by and talking to them was very interesting. They were in similar situations to the workers from the Philippines. These guys seem to be professional migrant workers and like to discuss salaries and which countries other people can get Visas to and the things that make it hard to do so. They're world travelers, but in the least recreational sense imaginable. Very interesting people. At some point in the night, while discussing the basketball game next weekend, Leta and I were invited to join them tomorrow. We both simultaneously misunderstood this invitation as an opportunity to play basketball with them as they normally have invited us to do on weekends before. So as the night faded away and we went home, we had the contact information of one guy who was going to help me get there the next day.

I woke up at 8am after not much sleep, being still sick and Leta's cough having kept her up most of the night. Needless to say, she didn't feel like going to watch me play basketball and so she pulled the sick card and sent me on my way with our new cellphone and an address to tell a cab driver. It took awhile to find a cab (in Korea you don't call them, you find them driving around) and once I did, we were unclear if there was an understanding about which address I wanted to go to. Now I know '4th street' is 'sa-ban', as i might have guessed, but it took a phone call to my friend to explain exactly where I wanted to go. He called while I was on my way and asked if I was almost there, as they were waiting to go... and of course I had no idea, since I was in a cab having no idea where I was or where I was going. I got there a minute before the two busses full of people waiting would leave. The cab driver ripped me off for $25, which was almost half the money I had brought to "play basketball." So I hop on this bus and inside all the walls, curtains and frills are decorated in red and yellow patterns like something from Mexico or the 70s. I sat near my friend and he told me it was going to be a long bus ride. I worried at this point that they were bringing me to play in some tournament.

The bus was playing CSI episodes on the satellite TV at the front. My seat was cramped and it wasn't long before I started feeling pretty sick. Hours went by and this feeling only got worse as the fans bombarded me with cold smelly wind and we got to the mountain range on the eastern side of the country. It was typical mountain driving, zigzagging up and down cliff faces, but as usual the bus driver was driving to optimize time. I had to hold my breath and dig my face into the seat in front of me for most of the last hour to stop from losing the banana I'd eaten that morning. Finally, three and a half hours later, we arrived at a beautiful beach town and parked with a dozen other busses all packed with Filipinos. I was glad for Leta that she had decided not to come on whatever this trip was going to become, as she definitely would not have managed to hold stomach when I only barely did. I was still recovering from the ride when everyone started lining up for lunch. I sat with my friends who were feeling similar from the ride and waited for the line to wind down. They were serving the food from big vats in rubber-gloved fistfulls onto little plastic plates. I didn't feel that I could choke anything down, but thankfully whoever had cooked it knew what they were doing and so it tasted good enough to eat about a quarter of before I was done.

It was around this time that I managed to piece together through questions and common sense exactly what this day was all about. It was a yearly trip for Filipinos working throughout Korea organized by the Catholic church, which usually entailed going to a beach for the day and playing games. Thankfully, this event kept in mind that most of the people there had jobs with very demanding schedules and the whole show was going to get me back to Gwangju by 9pm before the last bus, so I would be able to get home. I called Leta and let her know what this day was really all about and we arranged to meet in Gwangju. I was sad once I realized that I had come to a beach with warm water without bringing anything to swim. I had worn a t-shirt and shorts and brought nothing but my wallet and cellphone, so after awhile the relentless wind from the ocean made it too cold to stay in the shade. We walked out on a manmade peninsula of boulders and some of the Filipinos stripped down to their boxers and swam. I knew that I would regret if I got any of the clothes I was wearing wet, probably in the form of getting much more sick than I already was, so I didn't swim. I just lie on the rocks in the sun trying to keep warm.

After an hour or so, people began to gather up on the beach for games and so we went up. The first game was tug-of-war. I've actually never played this game before as an adult, but the guys who I'd come with insisted I come with them. This is the point at which my nickname 'import' began to stick. They had joked that if I went to play basketball with them, the other teams would accuse them of getting an import (because i'm tall, none of them have actually seen me play). So we played and won, but it's funny how a couple minutes of pulling on a huge rope can drain you of all energy. I got hit double when I realized I was starting to feel the impact of the sun, but the shade was still too cold from the wind to stay in for long. When they called our team up for a second round, I didn't want to do it. They kept at me, though, and so feeling kind of spun out I went for a second round of things I gave it my best and we won again. I then went directly to the bathroom and puked my guts out. Thankfully I found a water cooler that they had brought and that helped me regain my head. Some Canadians from up the beach decided they wanted to challenge the Filipinos to a match and people called for me to join again, but I just shook my head and thankfully nobody pressed it. The Canadians lost the first time and then got really serious about it and won the second. They wanted a tiebreaker but it was time for sack races. I wasn't up for participating in any more games, but they were all really fun to watch. After that, they played a game where people had to take off clothes and stretch the furthest out toward the water on the beach. One of the teams was all guys and one had half girls and the guys lost everything down to the pants, but the girls team managed to win easily without losing any modesty. I was impressed that not even one of the guys lost their pants in an attempt to win.

The last game was going to be a beer drinking contest. There were many points during this day that I wished I had brought my camera, but watching the nun carry up 24-packs and pass out beers along the long line of competitors was one of those things you regret not catching on film for the rest of your life. Anyways, people had to lean over, open and drink their beer the fastest to win. Apparently they all knew what to do because most when finished their beer dumped the foam in their hair as if that was what one had to do. Seemed pretty disgusting to me, knowing what stale beer smells like and knowing we had hours of a bus ride to get home, but it did make the whole event that much more impressive. After the beer-drinking contest, they held mass. I was happy to hear this, since it'd been a long time since I'd been to a service and much longer since I'd been to a Catholic one. The priest performing the mass was an Indonesian missionary and the speakers were cutting out for most of the service, but I was happy to realize that I knew most of the words since they're roughly the same as in the Anglican service. I was surprised when Communion came along that more people didn't go up for it, indicating to me at least that most of the people there weren't Catholic. Those I'd come with also knew that I wasn't, so I abstained to avoid offending them or whatever. After the mass, they handed out prizes for the games earlier. I won a dollar store hot pad holder for my role in the tug-of-war.

After a long day, we were finally heading home. I felt bad as I realized that my surprise, sickness and unpreparedness for the day might have at times made me seem like I wasn't enjoying myself, but I assured everyone that asked that I was. I didn't know it at the time, but my face and arms had lit up like a lobster, so I'm sure they knew by looking at me that I was just tired. For awhile on the bus ride home, I thought I'd have to endure some idiotic movie called 'the Void' on low volume, but just when I was starting to get sick from the mountain bends again somebody got up and turned on the karaoke machine. I shouldn't have been surprised that my day was not yet finished, but I could not have expected that I would spend these next 3 hours in a mobile norebang. Some guy got up and started dancing around to the music and pulled out a bottle of soju and a dixie cup. He danced up to the front of the bus and started pouring people shots as he went along. I didn't know the Aerosmith song 'Angel' before this bus ride, but I knew all the words by the end of it as it was the most frequently played song on the trip.. maybe 8 plays in total. Some songs called 'Evergreen' and 'Beautiful Sunday' were among the other top ones played. I sang Take it Easy, The Boxer and One More Cup of Coffee as some of the only songs on the list that I could manage with the energy I had. The soju faerie did quite a few rounds of the bus and I seemed to have a neverending supply in his bag, but I kept passing because the sun at this point had completely done me in.

We got to Gwangju later than I'd arranged to meet Leta and so my friends helped me find a taxi to take downtown. I thanked them for the fun adventure and left with only a few goodbyes. After this cab ride, I'd spent about 35 bucks on cabs for the day and maybe 3 dollars more on water and had paid nothing for my trip across the country to a beach I'm not sure I ever knew the name of. I met up with Leta and she'd bought plenty of dollar store stuff to organize the house as I'd expected. As I ate supper, my first real meal of the day, I began to crash. Taking the subway and then bus home seemed like it might not happen. Listening to Jon Stewart's Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction sustained me until I fell into bed.

So that was yesterday. This is next morning and writing this is all I've got. I'm going back to bed.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

seoul for a second time

A couple weekends ago we went to Seoul for our second time, but I never had much time to blog about it. It was an interesting weekend and we spent lots of money on clothes, but there was nothing about it that was inspiring enough to prompt a blog entry til now. Most of what we did besides buy clothes was to go see cultural stuff and since we remembered our camera, I'll put lots of pictures.

I have to start out with a picture of our cat in one of its typical ploys for attention. Leta has taken hundreds of such pictures and I couldn't make a photo entry without including one.

This is outside a reggae bar where we ate dinner in Itaewon. Itaewon is a district of Seoul known for attracting lots of foreigners, because of its proximity to a US military base and its stores that cater to western sizes and styles, etc. We spent too much money here. This is the only picture that we took on our first day in Seoul.
This is the first of many pictures on our second day in Seoul, as we visited one of the royal palaces in the north of the city. We got up relatively early to see it before we had to checkout of our hotel, so we managed to see the changing of the guard ceremony.

There were dozens of gates and buildings for different purposes, all unconnected littered throughout many courtyards. This is the typical style in which their walls were decorated.

This was a ceiling in one of the rooms for sitting and having tea.

There were a lot of places where the roove of different buildings seemed to be purposely set at different heights and angles for artistic effect.

I was surprised that you could see beautiful mountain ranges from so many different places in Seoul.

Most of these buildings were apparently destroyed by the Japanese during their reign of tyranny, but some of the structures that did survive were brick chimneys made to vent the smoke from fires that were used to heat the floors. Koreans still heat their houses through heated floors.

This is some some of the original ceiling work that hadn't been restored.

These were some of the traditional Korean idols, stone mounds and totem poles, which were placed outside villages and prayed to as people left and returned home.

This was the culture museum near the palace.

I took a lot of pictures of the cooler exhibits as an experiment of which camera settings worked best inside with dim lighting.

These pictures are from one of the bigger rooms devoted entirely to the traditional steps taken in the preparation of kimchi.

This box, a little less than a meter tall, was used to transport the bride to her wedding ceremony.

We left the palace and museum, checked out of our motel and went to see the South Gate of Seoul before we left. There we met this guy who volunteered his time as a tourist guide and he told us about the importance of the city gates and how the terrible Japanese had all but destroyed the other ones and kept this one to run a streetcar through. Most of the time he spent talking to us he was getting us to memorize the Confucian principles that gave significance to gates like this:
East: benevolence, blue, wood, spring, dragon
South: courtesy, red, fire, summer, phoenix
West: righteousness, white, steel, fall, tiger
North: wisdom, black, water, winter, turtle
Center: trust, earth, yellow

This was the ceiling of the gate.

Near the South Gate was the most well-known open market in Seoul. Some of my most vivid and valued memories of traveling in Asia are of marketplaces like this one. There is something about the way that these places are overcrowded and assault your senses that can't be replicated by any other type of experience.

The subway stop where we left this part of town was across the street from City Hall. The building is dwarfed by surrounding commercial offices and its fountain is puny. We didn't even cross the street to get a closer look before heading home.

So that was Seoul. It was worth visiting a second time and I enjoyed the cultural tourism much more than the shopping the day before (especially since it cost almost nothing in comparison). I was astonished at how much money we spent on this weekend as I did the math on the bus ride home. It's way too easy to spend money when you hardly ever do anything, make tons of money and don't have bills to pay.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

what i know of english teaching opportunities in korea

There seem to be four different general options available for teaching English here:Hagwon (after-school academy), Public school, University and Business-related.

I know the most about Hagwon, since that's the stream that we ended up in. Hagwons tend to vary most in job quality as they are privately owned businesses that set their own standards for teaching requirements and practices. Generally these academies will pay 2,000,000 won ($2450 canadian) per month for 12 month contracts, pay for arriving/returning airfare and give one month's severence at the end of contract. Our employer negotiated to pay all bills, taxes, utilities and health care in exchange for not receiving the last month's severence pay. There have been some problems with poor employer/employee communication and getting used to the teaching styles expected here, but from what I've heard from others our situation seems to be the average hagwon experience. Schedules fluctuate and I have worked from 1:40-8:45 at times with an hour break in the middle and right now I work 3:40-9:55 with only the fifteen minute breaks between classes. You write/mark tests and plan lessons on your own time. Some hagwon jobs seem to have lighter loads (4 hours is the lightest ive heard) and in others the financial instability of the business can make it a nightmare trying to get paid. Most hogwan jobs are somewhere inbetween these extremes. The worst part of hogwan jobs is the lack of significant vacation time. We've got what seems to be the average minimum vacation time in these places at a week-long vacation in both the winter and the summer.

Public schools have been suggested to us as a much better job opportunity than hagwons by those people teaching in them. Everyone that I've met in these situations have come through an employment agency known as "Canadian Connections" (dont have their contact info). These jobs are from as early as 8:00am until as late as 5:00, but generally a lot of this time isn't spent teaching classes and you tend to have more stability and are not expected to be as flexible in these positions. The pay in general seems to be equivalent with hagwon jobs, but the biggest benefits are the 2-3 months of vacation that you get throughout the year. Working in the morning as opposed to the evening, you also have your nights free to eat at restaurants and maintain some sort of social life; whereas with hagwons you tend to stay up late after you get off work and then wake up in the afternoon and spend your time preparing for work.

I don't know as much about working for a university or a business. I know that people generally try to land university jobs because of the substantial pay increase, but I don't think there are standard schedules for these types of jobs. Some people that I've talked to work normal school hours and others work longer hours 4 random days of the week with three days off sporadically. I don't know what if any extra qualifications are necessary above the bachelors (or 4 year) degree required by the government for getting a Visa as an English teacher. I know even less about those people who work for big businesses like Samsung, LG, etc, giving English lessons to businessmen. I don't know what level of salary they get or what types of schedules are normal for them, only that this is part of the market for English teachers.

In general, there are as many jobs as there are English teachers available to fill them here. This might not be true with a specific school, but in general one can expect that most hagwons will be actively pursuing the employment of new teachers for the near future. I ended up working in a small town about an hour outside the nearest large city and 3-4 hours away from Seoul. This has meant that I don't have as active of a social life, which has made things more boring in general but has made it very easy to save money. In larger cities, generally people say that it is harder to save as much money because they find more ways that they want to spend it. Also, all sorts of public transportation such as busses, trains and taxis in Korea are much cheaper (by 4-8x) than in North America and run on much more convenient schedules. I think there are benefits and costs to any situation as an English teacher in Korea, but my biggest area of dissatisfaction with my position is having no significant vacation time. If you come to teach English in Korea with the expectation of doing any traveling in the rest of Asia, you might want to consider taking a job with a public school or another institution that will provide you at 3-4 week period(s) during which you will be able to do this. You generally don't have the money to travel beforehand and if you try to travel afterward you will be dragged down by a year's worth of accumulated stuff and a desire to just get home.

I have acquired some contact information for various different opportunities, mostly around the Gwangju area but some that span throughout Korea. If you are interested in any specific information, drop a comment or e-mail me at

Saturday, April 14, 2007

you can bowl in naju!

I haven’t written much of an entry about my life lately, mostly because I haven’t been inspired about my life here. In fact, Leta and I have been discussing the idea of leaving before our contract was finished possibly as early as late May. This is mostly because for awhile the weeks seemed only to get longer and longer and the weekends more and more pointless and dissatisfying. Life became boring and I became increasingly anxious about the idea that we’re only just approaching the halfway point in the contract. So at some point last week, my boss asked me to stay after work because she had something to talk to me about. She told me that two of my coworkers had made it known to her that we were considering leaving before our contract was up. Immediately the fighter pilots scrambled in my brain as I prepared myself for a difficult conversation. Thankfully, it was by far the most professional and productive conversations I’ve ever had with my boss. She told me that they had said I was frustrated with her always yelling and being angry and the kids being hard to control. She explained that this was part of Korean style of teaching and that fear of her wrath was the way that Korean kids were kept in line in the classroom; that this was simply how the trade worked here. I told her that it was true that the yelling has made me nervous and that the job is overwhelming at times because I don’t know how to interpret her anger. She also explained that the academy was not her business, but the church members’, and that the effect of us leaving at any time before replacement teachers could be found would be disastrous for the academy. I told her that there were many personal factors behind the consideration to leave, but that we had by no means decided that we wanted to leave yet. I also assured her that we had never considered the option of walking away from the job without giving necessary notice. The terms that we had come to were that, if we decided to leave before our contract was up, we could work together with our boss in an amicable arrangement that accommodated everybody’s interests. Sweet.

At this point and especially afterwards, things seemed to start getting better. At least, my perception of my life seemed to change for the better. My boss started being noticeably more reassuring towards me. I started tutoring her two nights a week at 9-10pm and we’ve been working on her subject/object pronouns and possessive adjectives; I, mine, my kinda stuff. She decided she likes my “style” and has started coming into classes and saying things like “you are good teacher.” More importantly, she’s (mostly) stopped swooping into the room on huge tirades that she leaves before I get any explanation of what transpired. So that’s cool. One day as I randomly decided to take out the food garbage before my shower, I ran into a foreigner who happened to be walking past at the exact same moment. I’ve only ever accidentally met another foreigner in Naju twice before this incident and never so close to home. I approached him and he introduced himself as Scott Williams from New Hampshire. He is one of seven new foreign teachers to move to Naju working for Dongshin University as part of a new program teaching English. He looked like he was in his late 30s-early 40s and said he used to work for some branch of the Canadian government and was stationed in Prague. He also said that none of these seven new teachers knew anybody else around or anything about the area and I gave him my contact information. So, Naju now has almost twice as many foreigners and I have a possible connection to the university. I started realizing that, although this job/life makes me feel trapped at times, it’s not all that different from most other circumstances that I will likely find myself in, except that it pays well enough that the money is there to escape it. So, I started hoping again that the weekends might possibly hold new and exciting opportunities.

Yesterday we went into Gwangju to celebrate one of the other teacher’s birthdays. I wasn’t necessarily expecting an exciting time, as Gwangju seems more or less tapped for ‘new things to do’ in the same old places. We were meeting with a friend from the city and going for dinner at TGIFridays. I was a little worried that things would be tense between us, as I had openly confronted the two teachers who ratted us out to the boss about not coming to me first about telling the boss about our plans. Thankfully, things were just fine. As we waited for the friend outside the restaurant, this guy in his early 40s also sitting there holding a book introduced himself. He told me my eyes were beautiful and that I looked the same as Tom Cruise. He told me he loved Jesus forever and that he also loved the author of this book he was holding. It was one of those sketchy conversations that you only keep going with because you don’t want the person to try to talk to any of your friends. After some small talk and a few more unreciprocated comments about my beauty, the friend arrived and we went inside. The friend had come with Korean friend and we were introduced. The guy, whose business card I just remembered was in my shirt pocket, is a mechanical engineer for Samsung named Hee Jong Park. He told us he was most recently working in Dubai in conjunction with a Belgian and Arab company to build the largest tower in the world, which he assured us would be one kilometer tall. He quizzed us about who had made the two existing tallest structures in the world, the twin towers in Kuala Lumpur and some tower in Taiwan, and looked dramatically distressed when we didn’t know that it was Samsung. The guy would turn out to be a really dramatic guy and it was never clear what was intended as humor and what could be written off as quirkiness. He asked us whether we knew how to get an elephant into a fridge in only three steps and when we guessed immediately, he was shocked and insisted we must have ‘heard that one before.’ So the menus came and he immediately told us that the Korean menus sported all sorts of promotional offers that the English menus did not. We all ordered and when his food came, he let out a distressing groan of disapproval. He opened the menu, which had pictures of every meal, pointed at his picture and dramatically conveyed his disappointment to the waitress. When she left, he explained that his dish didn’t look ANYTHING like the picture and he was appalled and unhappy. Now, I wondered how it was that anyone would expect their food to look like it did in the picture, but when we looked at the menu it appeared that his plate looked almost exactly like the picture in the menu. The only difference was that there were carrots and string beans as the vegetable instead of broccoli. He complained again when the waitress returned and eventually the manager came out to hear his complaints. The friend he had come with insisted that his plate looked exactly like the menu and he was being a big baby. At this point, though, they started to offer us free drinks, free extra bread and completely overlooked the fact that we were thoroughly abusing the all-you-can-eat salad bar. We got free coffee/tea after the meal and they sent us home with a big oatmeal roll each on our way out.

So during the three hours that we ended up staying at the restaurant talking, I got into a discussion with the Korean whose nickname he said was Hee-boy. We laughed and he wanted to know whether it was bad funny or good funny. We told him it sounded like he was son of He-Man and that it was a cool nickname. Anyways Heeboy wanted to know how I’d come to Korea, so I explained the whole escape from Calgary situation. He was surprised to hear that the job market in Canada as a whole wasn’t all that good. He asked about my major and what I wanted to do with my life and after some talk about how I didn’t know, I mentioned NGOs. He got really excited about this and explained that he had done some work organizing university students in conjunction with NGOs to educate people about tsunami awareness and community preparation after the disaster several years back. I got the familiar feeling of the conversation inevitably tilting towards socioeconomics. I started explaining that I didn’t know what kind of NGO work I would consider getting into, but that I thought maybe I would eventually like to get a job with the UN. He got really excited about this, too. He asked me if I knew the three stages of revolution. I told him to enlighten me and he told me that, 1) people start connecting internationally, 2) people start investing internationally, and 3) people start moving and living internationally. I think he meant globalization rather than revolution, but it was enough food for thought to stoke my mind and to explain “my philosophy” (as he later called it). I felt that people connecting internationally was an important step that had not fully happened, or perhaps happened at all, before international investment began to occur.

I felt that in the framework of this 3-step ‘revolution’, the class structure became extremely important. The rich, or those people referred to by the Communists as ‘the bourgeoisie’, had been connecting and investing internationally to some extent since long before there was any international connection to speak of between the average worker. In order for this ‘revolution’ to occur in a truly meaningful and productive way, workers and the average person needed to connect internationally and recognize common interests. I realize that this is the same sort of language that fueled International Communism, but the message itself wasn’t the evil in that situation it was the organization exploiting it. I talked about how workers from Korea, China, America and all around the world had more in common with one another than they did with the rich from their own cities and their neighbors on the other side of the train tracks. This becomes even more true as the investment market globalizes and investors’ economic interests spread further and further from home. The investing classes have already realized this commonality and that is what facilitates international investment and trade, but workers and the common people by and large do not recognize this commonality of interests. There is in general a pervasive sense of xenophobia between people of different nationalities. Educating people to recognize the interests that they share with people from other nationalities and areas of the world is the next important step in globalization. In some ways it seems unrealistic, but it is an essential development which will prevent wars and combat economic exploitation. Increasing access to open networks of communication (the internet, etc.) and the creation of public communities of information such as Wikipedia are the types of developments that set the basis for international cooperation at the public level. We ended this conversation with him commenting about wanting to become more of a ‘world citizen’ and talking about the concept of the ‘digital nomad’ (which, by digital I think he meant modern) and of living and working outside national boundaries without feeling the pull back towards some ‘true home’. We realized it had gotten dark outside and everyone sort of collectively decided it was time to leave.

We all walked towards the subway terminal and Heeboy explained to us why mechanical engineers were needed at construction sites: for VHAC. He looked dramatically distressed when we couldn’t guess that this stood for Ventilation, Heating and Air Conditioning. We got talking about salaries and after some whispers and looks of shock we determined he only made 1.5x as much as we did. He’s also a mechanical engineer who works 6 days a week, usually at least 12 hours every day from 6am until after dark. He expressed that we were truly lucky and made a lot of whispered comments about how compared to most Koreans we had it really good. He actually wouldn’t let up about this until I had assured him that I truly understood him. At this point he parted ways with us and we all told him genuinely that it had been nice to meet him. We took a subway downtown to get some coffee and go to some board game place, but as we suspected it had closed down. They went shopping for a bit and I went to see if anybody I knew was at the bar. There wasn’t, so after standing around at a few different places wondering what to do we headed back to Naju.

The birthday teacher had wanted from the beginning to find somewhere to bowl, but nobody we had met along the way knew of anywhere to do so. I had known there was a place to bowl in Naju for a long time, but nobody ever expressed any interest in going there with me so we’d never checked it out. Sure enough, even as we rolled into Naju at 11:30 at night the place was open for business. As we walked in, we all realized how idiotic we had been not to have explored this place before. The place had eighteen lanes, shoes that fit us and balls that fit our hand and finger size (tho my thumb is bruised and swollen today). It was also no-smoking and didn’t serve alcohol, so you didn’t see the normal crowd of seedy old men around as you do anywhere else around town that boasts its “Hof & Soju”. Everyone had a great time, nobody fought and we all agreed that we should make bowling something of a weekly event. Bottom line, we found something fun to do in Naju besides go to a karaoke room or go out to eat. I guess it isn’t that the situation has suddenly changed for the better, but the combination of a few minor turns for the better and the more positive attitude that this has inspired has got me feeling okay about our life here. Knowing that there would be a possibility of negotiating our way out of the contract early with the understanding of our boss helps us feel less trapped and will make life easier to deal with. Now I need to go, because the boss found out about my hurt back and insisted I meet with her brother-in-law today because he’s some sort of physiotherapist or something. This post is long enough anyways.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


My birthday will be over by the time I'm done writing this post and I couldn't have expected a better one. I wasn't even expecting a good one, since it seemed that we had run out of new and fun things to do quite awhile ago. Last week was a hard one (they just seem to keep getting harder) and I wasn't looking forward to a birthday weekend that had no foreseeable chance of being special. Saturday started out as nothing special, with a few hours of playing Starcraft and a strong cup of coffee. Another teacher came over with some mix for carrot cake and we watched a movie, which ended up sucking. By the time I was blowing out my candles, I was full-blown depressed. Then I got the idea to see if the Filipino store in town was open. Leta was convinced it wouldn't be, so it turned into one of those "Who's gonna be right?" things. We got there and not only was it open but it was crowded with people. Before we knew it, we were drawn into a conversation about the usual at first (where are we from, where do we work, how long are we here for, etc). We sat down, I accepted a drink and thus begun many new friendships. We got talking about everything from the inadequacy of Korean-style learning of English through simplified rote learning to the price of a head of cattle in America to how I needed to play basketball for their team. Hanging out turned into eating supper with all of them and proceeded late into the night. It was really refreshing to hang out with new people who spoke perfect English and I had been really missing the Philippines lately, going through my Asia pictures and seeing the kids that I grew so close to in only 2 weeks...

So anyways, there were kids running around and playing the whole while we were at the store. One of the little girls warmed up to Leta. After dinner, we went to a norebong (karaoke room) and they sang country music and Leta danced with the little girl and the whole thing was just tons and tons of fun. I had mentioned to the teacher we were hanging out with that I was indecisive about making birthday plans because I was dreading the idea of a birthday that was nothing special. This was what I needed and now, I've got some people to play basketball with on the weekends who speak English and all seem to be really laid back and cool.

My actual birthday, today, started out pretty crappy. I fell down in the tub and expertly bruised the base of my spine pretty badly. It doesnt feel like it's injured any more than just a bruise, because the pain is localized there, but it keeps me from exercising and makes leaning over extremely painful. Besides that, it was what I had pretty much expected: went into Gwangju, ate dinner at a nice restaurant, went out afterward and played Rummikub in a cafe. After the excitement of the night before, it was all the fun I needed. On the way home, I even met some exchange students from China and found out they were from Harbin, where I've been planning to visit at some point while I'm here. They went to university here in Naju learning Korean and turned out to be cool. They gave us these steamed things that are like... pancakes with syrup and walnuts cooked into them. And now my birthday is over and I'm looking ahead to another week of the same. At least the back injury will provide some variation.