Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Beijing, Xi'an, and the New Year

(The Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven)

Hi all,

Wow, a lot happened in the last week. As I mentioned previously, Jennifer and I were set to hop on a plane on the 26th and go off to see China. We arrived at the airport at the painfully early time of 630 for our 930 flight, and got through customs without a hitch.

Why it is that they have "exit" customs in Korea in addition to entry customs is beyond me. I did enjoy the slight thrill of suddenly feeling that I was persona non grata, although this lasted about as far as the gate to the plane.

We were off to Beijing, darnit! We'd both wanted to see China forever, and since we were in Korea, it appeared to have been the best possible time. We arrived in Beijing, and were promptly whisked off by our tour guide, Bai Jing (Bar-jing, not to be confused with the city name) to see Tiananmen Square. 

I should point out at this point that, yet, we were taking a guided tour. For those of you who don't know, Chinese "official" tours can be somewhat different from those in other countries. They are contractually obliged to take tourists to factories that make cloisonne, jade, silk, and so forth, where one is politely pressured into buying some things by the sales representatives. 

This did not, in any way, spoil our trip. Both of our guides in Beijing and Xi'an did not seem overly enthused to be taking us to the factories, and were quite happy to let us linger in the various tourist sites as long as we both wanted.

Before it sounds like I'm criticizing China too much, here, I will say that I do understand where this is coming from, and that I wanted to get this one mildly negative point out of the way before proceeding to talk about and put up pictures from the best part of the trip:


I can't express in simple words how very excited we both were to be here.

We got to Tiananmen, taking in the sights of the massive plaza. Built, originally, on the site of the first gate to the Forbidden City, and where the Emperor's officials addressed his people in the old Dynastic China, it was the location where Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, declared the creation of the People's Republic of China. 

Those of you as old as I may also recall it as the site of a major demonstration, and ensuing massacre, in 1989. It was also the site of a series of other major events in Chinese history after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and it was one of those places to which I felt it necessary to go to pay some homage to history.

Flanked by the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China as well as the Department of Intelligence, it is quite clear who is in charge now. Mao's mausoleum rests opposite the front gate to the Forbidden City, where his portrait also famously hangs.

We ventured into the Forbidden City, enjoying the sites of the old Ming and Qing Dynasty palace. The palace goes on for literally a kilometre in almost every direction, and is well worth the visit. We enjoyed hearing our tour guide talk about the history, explain the significance of the lions and draconic imagery on the walls (most of the latter I knew about, but the lions I was less clear on), and thoroughly enjoyed his presence. Bai Jing was incredibly *happy* to be able to show people around his country's capital. 

Before one thinks that I'm suggesting this was forced in some way by the government, let me make it clear that China is rather different than thirty years ago. There are still police on the streets, and the army is still present in places. But one can talk reasonably freely, and one can go about business normally in the country as long as one gets the right permits. While the state remains authoritarian, it is not as brutal as it was in the days of the Qing, nor as brutal as the early days of the 1900s or the era of the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.

The result is that our tour guide was genuinely proud of how far China had come since the old days, and even more proud of the legacy of over two thousand years of history and civilization. 

This is one thing that struck me, also, about China: this country is *old.* Don't get me wrong, Korea's old too, and so is the UK, which we saw last year... but China dwarfs them in its history. Things still stand here that were built over two thousand years ago, such as the Great Wall or the Terracotta Army.

In Canada, most things are considered old if they're over the hundred year mark. Here, that sort of thing is just starting to be considered teenaged in comparison to the landmarks.

We moved on from the City into the rest of Beijing, dropping in to a restaurant for dumplings (yum!) and Peking Duck for dinner. 

I have to say, Peking Duck is simply awesome. It totally made up for not having turkey for Christmas. While generally, I don't much care one way or the other for Chinese food (I prefer Korean and Japanese, of the Big Three Asian countries) due to the amount of salt and oil, I was happy with the food we were served throughout our trip. No stomach issues this vacation! 

Anyway, we wound up our first day with an acrobatics show that was quite cool, before trundling over to the hotel to catch some sleep.

We went out to the Temple of Heaven the next morning, as well as the Ming Dynasty Tombs. Again, the sense of age and the weight of that antiquity is easy to feel like a physical presence in these places. These graves are not as old as the tombs in Kyongju, Korea, but they feel just as magnificent with their size and grandeur. 

We visited a few other sites throughout the day, like the Bird's Nest stadium, and the usual factories, before going up to see the Great Wall.

Now this was worth the price of admission. While I am aware that some parts of the Wall are crumbling (particularly those areas out in areas that are less tourist friendly like the desert), the Wall is still spectacular, especially for something going on 2,200 years old. I hope I look that good after so long! 

We climbed up the wall, and, while Jen waited at one battlement, I went up to the top of the mountain on the wall to check out the scenery. Jen's always wanted to see the Stone Army, but for me, the primary appeal of China has always been the Wall and the Tiananmen Square.

They did not disappoint.

We visited one of the old Hutongs in Beijing, basically, Mongol-era (Yuan Dynasty) buildings designed for a whole family to live in together. We finished our last day in Beijing in the big shopping district near the Square, and bought some books--I've wanted a copy of Romance of the Three Kingdoms for, well, ever, and any copies I've seen in Canada have only included one of the three volumes. Happy camper, I was.

We also bought *way* too much tea, but c'mon, this is something we'll actually use! 

We went out to Xi'an, formerly the old capital city of Chang'an, the next day. Compared to Beijing, Xi'an is rather old-looking, but in a very different way. Beijing has ancient structures, and a sense of power to match its age... Xi'an has many buildings that are half-finished, crumbling, or simply weathered by time. In short, Xi'an has not survived as well as Beijing's relics have, and this may be a sign of the disparity between the rich cities of China, like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, and the rest of the interior of the country. 

That said, Xi'an did not disappoint: we took in the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of a unified China (not counting the more feudal-style Zhou Dynasty that preceeded him). The tomb is a massive mound of earth, trees, and stone, which reminded me very much of the similar structures in Kyongju back home in Korea--and, whoa, I just admitted how much Korea feels like a good home... neat! Also similar are the old dolmens in Salisbury, England, the pyramids of Egypt and the Sudan, and others scattered around the world. It's neat to see the relative commonality of that practice.

We also, of course, saw the Terracotta Stone Army. That was another area well worth the price of admission, as it were. Amazing. Statues that have, despite fires and looting, survived the ages in such form that they can be rebuilt and returned to their original positions... amazing. We toured the facility, checking out all the statues, and retired to a theatre/restaurant to take in a show done Tang-Dynasty style.

We returned to Korea the next day happy, having also walked (biked in my case) around the Chang'an city wall. That bike tour of the wall made me feel like it showed me more of China than many other parts of the tour--inside the wall, old Xi'an is generally poor, and older-style buildings clump together amidst constant demolition and construction work. Outside the wall, modern, gleaming skyscrapers claw at the sky, hazy with the pollution of 7 million people.

China is ancient, and struggling to take advantage of its newly-regained power and strength. It is modern, and yet burdened with history's mistakes. China is on the cusp of being the next great superpower, and I am not sure what direction it will chose to take with such power. 

It is such a paradox, and I am deeply moved to have been able to have seen it up close.


New Year's Day in Korea.

For those of you reading this at first publication of the post, it should be about 9 PM, Eastern Standard Time, back home in Toronto and Timmins and Waterloo (our three-point home towns in Ontario). We've just woken up about two hours ago from our naps after going out to a Noraebang and bar for New Year's Eve with a friend, Roger Lam, one of our fellow teachers at our school.

The Noraebang, as you may recall, is the Korean version of Karaoke, where one gathers with a few friends in a small room with some awesome sound systems to bellow out tunes in a semi-drunken or just loud voice while random clips play on TV to accompany the words of the song. It's always a blast, and Roger was great company.

We went from there to Pavox, a local bar, where the bartenders put on a show (think like the movie Coyote Ugly, here). It's a fun place, and it was nice to ring in the new year with friends. 

2008 has been a wild year... I never suspected for a moment, last year, that I'd be in Korea at this time. I think that's true of most people, but I was expecting to go on to PhD (a program I am growing uncertain of as time wears on), or to be working somewhere in the NGO field back home in Canada. 

How things change, neh? We've seen a new President come, and we've seen things here in Korea almost change entirely, with Kim Jong-Il's illness. We've seen the Iraq War get better, and get worse. We've seen a New Great Depression loom, and the first knells of what may be the change from a unipolar world, where the US dominates, to one of many poles of power, like China/Japan, Europe, the US, and Russia. 

Who knows what this year will bring? I hope we will continue moving onward and upward, and resist the urge to fall back into petty squabbling when we need unity on so many issues. 

I continue to have hope, which is, I suppose, the whole point of the New Year.

Best regards, Chris

PS: I've linked to Jen's facebook profile, where she's got all of our pictures stored from the trip--with commentary from both of us, of course!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas from Korea

Well, that's that!

We're done for December, and taking a well-deserved break until January 2nd. We had to fight a bit to have as much time off as we got, but we're pleased with the results. 

(Meandering about for dinner)

The office also threw a nice little Christmas/Secret Santa party. We started out with Pizza and Chicken (how Christmassy!) and, even, to my delight, some pie. It ain't Christmas without Apple Pie or Cobbler in my family, so even the addition of the walnut pie we had last night was awesome. It made us feel at home.

(Happily munching away!)

There were some really neat surprises with the Secret Santa--one of our coworkers basically made a DVD with a whole bunch of photos and music on it, some of the photos being, of course, embarrassing. 

Since they were playing some really nifty Ella Fitzgerald and other swing-style tunes, Jen and I got up to Jitterbug a little:

(Charleston-style, and Swinging Out)

It was nice to celebrate Christmas with the kids, too. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures with them, but they all *freaked* right out when I walked in with Rupolph antler's and a red clown nose on. It made them laugh, and helped them remember that half the point of being in my class is fun. 

Of course, the other half is working, so we did have to do some things. But I managed to get a few of my classes singing Christmas Carols, in English: both the real and the goofy version of Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty, were all prominent. 

Most of my kids were rather zany, due to it being two days to Christmas. I still find it aggravating when they essentially *demand* a pizza party from me, which results in them not getting said pizza party. They still get presents from me, and we play enough games as is. 

That said, I've had a blast teaching these kids, and I know most of them are going to changing teachers next month. I'm going to miss a lot of them, and I hope I've left them better for having been in my class.

Well, we're off to get some bread and supplies for Christmas Eve dinner!

Have a Happy Holidays from me and Jen!


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Report Cards... Fun...

Hi all,

Well, it's that time of the month. 

Report cards are due tomorrow night, for my Tuesday and Thursday night classes, and tonight for my Monday-Wednesday-Friday kids. I've done all but two of the latter, while I'm waiting on them, and the 7PM class to finish some essays. Unfortunately, I don't know that I should expect them to actually do this, but I'd like to give my kids the benefit of the doubt.

This week has been largely uneventful--we stayed in this weekend due to some sickness and a case of the blahs. It's almost Christmas, and, of course, we're not anywhere near home. Now, don't get me wrong, Jen and I really love Korea. We enjoy working with our kids, and our team of counsellors at our hagwon. We enjoy the country itself, the food, the climate, the people, etc. Unfortunately, it's not the same as being at home, having turkey and mashed potatoes with one's family after going caroling.

That said, I was pleased to see some carolers doing exactly that on Yeongtong street, near our house. What was really sweet about it was the elderly gentleman who offered me a balloon and wished us both a Happy Christmas in perfect English. The spirit of the season, I suppose.

I admit, as I have done before, that I'm not overly religious. I practice my faith quietly, and personally. I am still pleased to feel a sense of kindness in the midst of winter from strangers. To those of you celebrating Christmas or Chanukah away from your own families, may you have peace and fellowship.

After all, we're all here together.

Now, back to these darn report cards. 

Happy Holidays, everyone,


--PS: Back on Tuesday with a follow-up to the office Christmas Party, and then Jen and I are off to Beijing on the 26th to do some touring. Should be a blast!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Everland Redux

Hi all,

We ventured back to Everland on Tuesday, as the teaching staff had the day off due to some scheduling issues (we're ahead in one or two classes, schedule wise, so they had to move things around). 

We got there at 9:30 AM, and found the park, essentially, dead. There were some poor staff workers who got stuck with the skeleton crew shift, and one or two other clusters of people walking through the fog. I seriously expected zombies or something to burst out from nowhere and start attacking us for lacking enough Christmas Charm. It was something out of a creepy horror film.

The Holiday music blasting at full tilt only reinforced this. We've gotten used to a lack of political correctness, here. It was interesting to hear nothing but Christian Christmas music blaring on the radio after every other song (of the "Jingle Bells" variety). Back home, Disneyland would get sued if they played that, either for not being inclusive enough (i.e., have Channukah and similar music) or for including any religion's music (i.e., get rid of it all). I kind of liked it, actually--I haven't heard Christmas tunes at a theme park since I was quite small.

We got to the T-Xpress in about fifteen minutes. One might recall, from before, that this ride cost us four hours of waiting and several rain delays last time we went to the park.  Well, not today (sorry, Dave!). We rode the T-Xpress twice in five minutes in the morning, wandered around the area, got on a lion safari ride, and then walked up to get some lunch and go on all the other rides. 

We were done with all the big rides by four o'clock, so we wandered down to an artificial ice rink to skate for a while. I haven't skated for a long time, but I had a lot of fun--the girls (Jen, Sarah, and Amber) sat out and had hot chocolate while I enticed Korean kids to try and chase me around the rink. Lots of fun.

We went on the T-Xpress one more time (waiting for a whopping ten minutes, oh, horror!), and then went back home to nap.

I'll endeavour to edit this with pictures as soon as I can--my camera's currently on the fritz/needs batteries. 



Sunday, December 7, 2008


Hi all,

While I'm not exactly taking a pause, here, or anything (as this post demonstrates), my comment this week shall be brief. December 7th is my birthday, so Jen and I went into Seoul to dance, to the Boogie Woogie Swing Club. 

We weren't impressed. We met with a friend from the Big Apple club in Gangnam, ate Tacos and Burritos for dinner, and went to the club, to find it emptying of all the Beginners within about fifteen minutes. Dim the music, turn up the lights, everybody out, the whole nine yards. While this does happen in some clubs, its usually not a good sign.

Newbies, like us, are usually also grabbed quickly for a dance. We weren't. Another bad sign. 

The music stayed tepidly slow, a final bad sign. We left after an hour--my ribs and lats are hurting from Tae Kwon Do, but combined with the rather poor scene, we didn't want to stay any longer.

Tonight was nicer--Jen and I went out for tuna, served raw and frozen, along with miso, sashimi, and juk (porridge). All and all, it was quite nice, if a bit cold for the season. I'd been craving proper sushi for months, so this was a bit of a treat for my birthday.

Other than that, we're hanging around at home tonight with some friends for games of Settlers of Catan, some soju, and general R&R. 

More from this week, as we return to Everland on Tuesday--expect some pictures from that on Tuesday or Wednesday.



Thursday, December 4, 2008


What exactly is Prorogue? It's when the Parliament is suspended by the Head of State (usually a King or Queen, but in Canada's case, the Governor General) in a Parliamentary Democracy or Constitutional Monarchy. This is exactly what happened today in Canada

Prime Minister Stephen Harper convinced the Governor General, Michaelle Jean, to close the doors of Parliament until the next big Confidence Motion occurs. For those unfamiliar with Canada's political system, major pieces of law, such as the budget, the speech from the throne, and so forth, are subject votes of Confidence in the House of Parliament. Usually, in a majority, these easily pass unless the Prime Minister has managed to alienate his entire party. 

In a minority Parliament, like that which we have right now, the danger occurs that every single one of these votes is a potential time bomb for the ruling party. Any major vote could single that the ruling party lacks the Confidence of the House, and thus, either another party must try to form a government (usually with a Coalition, as has happened here), or a new election must occur.

Proroguing Parliament right before a Confidence Motion as has happened here is unprecedented. Stephane Dion, with whom I very much disagree, happened to say it right, here: our Prime Minister is running away from the Parliament.

Considering that the major issue that Harper's been trying to impress upon Canadian voters, with an advertising blitz worthy of World War Two-era propaganda, is that we should fix the economy and help avert an economic crisis, this choice is sheer hypocrisy and an utter failure on the part of Harper's government to negotiate with the other parties. Doing so is not only expected but necessary in a minority government. If one cannot do this, than one shouldn't be governing. 

If Harper is as deeply concerned about the economy as he suggests, why has he: A) not included a deeper series of economic aids in the budget, rather than putting up a law that his own Budget Office said would contract the economy further; and B) decided to effectively cancel government for a month in the midst of the biggest recession to hit the global economy since 1929?

I'm exceptionally angry about this decision, since it sets a bad precedent: whenever there's a problem with the ruling party, they do not have to face the wrath of the Parliament or the vote of the people. Our Parliamentary democracy rests on the principle that a government that cannot command the confidence of the majority of the House must fall, and either be replaced or else be subject to new elections to try and resolve the issue. 

This decision suggests that the ruling party of Canada can essentially preserve its own power at the expense of the voting population once it fails a Confidence Motion. This is exceptionally dangerous, as it would allow later governments to do the same to preserve power even in the face of opposition. It says that they can just dodge a confidence motion and extend their run in power.

One might expect this from, say, Robert Mugabe, or from some rogue state, but not a developed, modern, western democracy.

Simply put, this was the worst possible option the PM and the governor general could take.

Best regards,


Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Well, this is a bit odd. Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is facing a revolt in Parliament.

Harper and the Conservatives tabled an economic update, which the Opposition Liberals, New Democratic Party, and Bloc Quebecois all absolutely hated. The reason, they say, is that it does nothing to stimulate the economy. There appears to be some proof to this, according to the Budget Office in Canada.

So, what to do? The Opposition has signed a document which would, in effect, create a Coalition government led by the Liberal Party. This hasn't happened since the 1920s, with the King-Byng affair.  In that case, the result was a majority for Mackenzie King, the ousted PM at the time. So it is entirely plausible that Harper might let this happen. He could, after all, wind up with a majority if the other parties foul up completely. 

Then again, it could also go the other way. The Liberals, once they get their new leader in place, could come across very well. Ditto the NDP, which has been making a lot of inroads and gaining support in the past few elections. There are accusations from the Conservatives that the big two in the Coalition are betraying Canada by allying themselves with the Bloc, which Harper calls Separatist. Nevermind that the Bloc these days tend to demand sovereignty and greater control internally in Quebec over separatism, but the Tories did the same thing to the Martin Liberal minority government a few years ago!

I for one am curious to see how this will go forwards. I don't want another election, or a Constitutional crisis, in the midst of a global depression. The best thing, I would think, would be for Harper to consult with the other parties and cut a deal on the update--to try and find some wiggle room to make a better law and maybe help stimulate the economy, instead of running us into record deficits, as has been commented here earlier.

Of course, Harper has shown less and less likelihood of doing this. He may be playing this sort of game in the hope he can spin it and win a majority. Of course, then, his real agenda may emerge--so far, he's been toning down some of the neo-Conservative rhetoric, although his accusations of "socialism" directed at the Social Democratic NDP is telling. 

What happens next is anyone's guess. I like the idea of a Coalition trying to get things done--its what would happen in a Proportional Representation system, which is my personal preference (and is what has happened in countries around the world!).

Let the Coalition try, if Harper is too stubborn to play ball. Let's see if these other folks can run the government better. If they can, great--more proof that Harper's style of leadership is incompatible with current Canadian politics and with Canadians. If not, then it'll lead to an election anyway, which is exactly what Harper's facing if he is unwilling to work with others.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

It Don't Mean a Thing...

Hi all,

So Jennifer and I went to Seoul this weekend--I know, we've been going there a lot lately, but it is the heart and soul (groan) of the country. We had heard that Seoul had a great Swing dance scene, but we were more than a little surprised to see how big that scene was once we got into town. Jen went ahead early to secure our Chinese visas so that we could visit there in December, and I came into town a bit later with our shoes.

We got to the Big Apple, on the outskirts of Seoul at Bangbae station. The station was a bit creepy actually, since there was a town of exposed vents and walls--apparently, they were cleaning out Asbestos (yikes!). Anyway, we trumped up the hill to the dance hall. There, we discovered that Korean swing involves especially big dance rooms and great floors. No, seriously, it was equal to the size of the new Cat's Corner back home in Montreal, and they've got a pretty huge floor, too!

The Korean dancers were quite something, and it was a bit intimidating at first for us--we didn't know if it was kosher to just walk up and grab a partner for a dance like back home. It was after Jen and I, as well as Rebecca, another dancer from North America who had just recently arrived in Korea, started dancing together that *we* got grabbed for dances by some rather friendly Koreans. More than half of them spoke very good English, too, so it was easy to communicate, and our Korean, while terrible, is good enough to enable us to ask the other person's name and if they wouldn't mind us cutting in.

All told, it was a lot of fun, and we're likely to do it again this weekend.

We also got together for a big US Thanksgiving get-together with our co-workers in Suwon. We bought chicken, since there wasn't any turkey on hand, and others brought lasagna, pasta, chili, and a ton of dessert. Jen also made Candy Apples, which went over well--I'm still cleaning the sugar from my teeth, though.

It was, overall, a bit of an up-and-down week. It started out with an odd Monday night, when Sumi, Ashley, and myself went out to Tae Kwon Do after class, and witnessed our Korean Dojang instructors arguing over who had to teach the foreigners. The regular instructor, Master Cha, wasn't there, and I'm aware that it's embarrassing trying to teach someone if they don't speak your language and vice versa, but still--I've had to teach Spanish, Korean, and other non-English speakers back home in Canada. I may moan about it on occasion, but never *in front of* the students in question.

Oh well. We had some student issues this week, too: several of my kids left due to the financial crisis and its effects on their families, while others migrated to other schools or are just taking December off. It's unfortunate, because if they choose to return in January, they're going to have missed a month's worth of work, especially in classes where we're teaching out of a grammar book. That's a lot of data to lose, and if you can't use verbs properly to begin with...

I understand the Korean desire to learn and use English, but I'm beginning to wonder if it's helpful for some of my kids. Well, that's not true, I've wondered about this for a long time, but you get the point: if a child does not want to learn English, but is being forced to, why is the child's parents forcing them to do it and spend money that could be put elsewhere into an education that child does not want or sometimes need? Don't get me wrong, I want as many kids in  my class as I can, that's how I stay employed! But still, I know I've got one student or two who want to go to an art hagwon instead. Let 'em. I'll even subtly encourage her--I don't demand she put away her art book in class, since I know that's what she wants to do with the rest of her life. 

I digress.

If you're reading all this and want to find a Swing spot for yourself, check out the link I put up above for the Big Apple. There's about 12-14 other spots in Seoul, and apparently, more in Busan in Suwon, if you can find them. Key word, there: it's a bit like an in-crowd, so if you don't know where to go in those cities, you have to find the right people to ask, which is a bit of a challenge.

The other option is to check out a meet-up group, like this one , or facebook.

We did, and it worked out fine.

Best regards,


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Seoul Soul, Insadong Style

Hello all,

Jennifer and I decided to join fellow teachers Ashley, Sarah, Amber, and Sumi to head into Seoul this weekend and hit Insadong. Regrettably, Jen and I didn't manage to get in to Xanadu Travel in Itaewon, to process our Chinese entrance visas for our December trip, so we'll have to go again next week. Oh well. 

Still, it was quite fun to go into what is essentially an entire street devoted to arts and crafts in the bustling heart of Seoul. Insadong is rather interesting: at the extreme north end of Insadong-gil, you have a series of old palaces and temples built by the Joseon kings. At the south end is the recently restored canal, of which I have spoken before.

We wandered about, collecting knickknacks and postcards. Jen picked up a pair of KimChi pots, in miniature. Our coworkers like to joke that we both have rather odd obsessions: I love architecture, and so love dragging people to see things like Hwaseong or the palaces and the like. Jen likes Kimchi. More accurately, she really likes the Kimchi pots. 

We dropped in to the only Starbucks in the world that doesn't use the Roman alphabet, and more particularly, English, on its sign. The front door literally has Hangeul-ization of Starbucks (Seu-tah-buk-seu) on it. Ironically, inside, the signage is still half-English and half-Korean. The Christmas blend remains the same.

We also ventured around into various little arts stores to look at craftwork and things. It's a bit sad that a lot of what someone might think are neat little originals are also on sale at the discount stores halfway down the street. Mass production of touristy things must be going on at breakneck pace behind the scenes.

Still, it is interesting to note how much human beings love to shop. It doesn't much matter what culture one is from, we still end up going to markets and browsing. I was struck by the similarities in this when I bumped into a few Korean couples haggling over prices over the same set of bow and arrows I picked up (suction cup tips and all) from a street vendor, by the group of elderly women all hamming it up for a photograph (flashing the peace sign and all), and by the sheer number of people doing the same thing as us: happily browsing away.

Homo oeconomicus? Hardly. But we do really love our shopping.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Our Long-Awaited Return Trek to Hwaseong

(Guard in historical uniform at left, view of the Haenggung, or Palace, at right, from above)

Hi all,

As some of you may recall from an earlier post, Ashley, Sarah, and I had tried to get out to see Hwaseong back in September but couldn't because of rain. Ashley and Sarah had never been, the former due to her being a recent arrival like myself, while Sarah hasn't had time to come out to see the fortress and walls since she's a busy as all get out. 

(The Front Gates to Hwaseong Palace)

Well, I'm pleased to say that we made it, at long last! We got up early, went out at 11AM to downtown Suwon, and to Hwaseong Haenggung (Hain-Gung). We took a tour around the palace grounds for a good hour and a bit. The Palace, built at the same time as the fortress back in the late 1700s, was a "temporary" palace, meaning that it was used by King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, as he was travelling through the Suwon region. 

One suspects, from the grandeur of the buildings and the size of the place, that it was, as the signs suggested, intended as a more permanent retirement palace for the King. We puttered about the main entrance and the gardens in the back, before catching sight of a massive golden Buddha statue, which we decided to head towards. However, we decided to wait until we could snap off some pictures with the guards, dressed in appropriate clothing for the time, as seen above and here, below.

(The Audience Chamber of the King, Left; Guards preparing for a martial arts demonstration at the main gates, Right)

We made our way around to the Buddhist statue and temple, and snapped off a few pictures. As the temple is currently active, for obvious reasons, no pictures were allowed inside. I ventured in to pause, meditate, and pray for a moment. Again, like in Bulguksa, I was struck by the peaceful nature of the temple, and how, despite differences in doctrine, the human condition has a common denominator in our pursuit of and attempts to comprehend the spiritual.

(Buddhist statue, about 5m tall)

At any rate, we then marched up the mountain to the Western end of the wall. As you might recall, we had already hit the East end previously. Well, that is, Jen, myself, Oliver, and Daniel had done so. This time however, I was determined to get to the top of the Paldal mountain, and, after one heck of a climb, we made it up.

(In the words of so many children: "Are we there yet?" Nope. Not yet)

The view from the top of the wall was well worth the climb. We were met at the top by a rather boisterous crowd of American tourists, several of whom were drinking as they walked. Aside from the obvious difficulty involved in trying to combine heavy hiking and exercise with beer, I was also struck by the fact that this was slightly obnoxious and disrespectful to the surroundings we were walking around upon. 

Still. The view, and the company of Ashley and Sarah, made the trip quite worthwhile. We decided to rest up a bit at the top of the mountain. I admit I did a fair bit of trotting around to snap some more pictures, including this, below: 

(Command Post, Western Wall, View of Suwon from above, at right)

We ventured further West and started climbing back down, before heading in to Paldalmun, the Southern Gate district, and shopping for a bit in the crowded urban market there.

Quite worthwhile, overall. As always, the architecture and surroundings here are quite something. Whereas in Europe, a castle might be built on a plain, or built into the side of a mountain, here, with all the mountains around the city, the Korean King just up and built the wall around the entire town, mountain and all. It's an impressive feat of engineering, and it was a rather good hike to take it all in.

More news as it comes!


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Congratulations, Mr President

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, it's finally over. Barack Obama has won well over the necessary 270 votes required in the electoral college to become the 44th President of the United States.

Congratulations, sir. To Senator McCain, equal congratulations are due for fighting so hard to win. I do not agree with some of the tactics of either side, and I continue to hold my breath in hope that Obama will live up to his rhetoric in practice, but the long war is over.

McCain, in his concession speech, said it very well: it's time to try and work together to fix the problems the US, and the world, face.

The election remains historic: one of my favourite moments was watching the Rev. Jesse Jackson break down into tears when he heard the news that an African American, at long last, was elected to the highest office in the land. While it is going to take more than just four years in office to turn things around, I hope, now, that this is a sign that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., are at last coming true. He did not live to see the day when all people within the United States might hold hands together and declare they were one nation, and that all men and women had the same opportunities to live the life they chose for themselves, in truth as well as in the letter of the law... but he set us on the path that Obama now walks.

Congratulations, Mr President. Do us all proud.


Keeping up with the Vote

Here's where you can keep up to date, if you're still watching the election:

the BBC has rather good coverage of the election, if a bit biased towards Obama (I recall one opinionist on the show so far calling Palin a 'ludicrous' choice);

CNN, while good, doesn't stream video to South Korea, or, at least, I can't get it to work, but their coverage is good, here;

There's also MSNBC;

And, for the other side's perspective, there's always Fox News. Interestingly, at the time of this post (about 5 to 10PM, or 11:55 AM here in Suwon), the map they show is neither Red nor Blue, unlike the rest. Instead, you have to mouse over each state to see the results.

One suspects, for Fox, this is an admission of defeat, but it is still not over.

I have essays to grade, but I'm sitting around and watching an election. Oh well, it only happens once every four years. 

Kind of like the World Cup, except there's less drinking.


Here We Go...

Well, the election has started, folks.

The first two cities to hold elections,  Dixville Notch and Hart's Location, went for Obama, but the voting only just started. I'm still in Korea, which means for us, it's 12:13 AM as I type this, Wednesday morning. It's just past 10 AM, Tuesday morning, in Toronto, or New York, or Florida. 

Which means polls have opened, or are opening, and the first votes are being cast. I read one blog mentioning how this election feels for some like an exorcism. Particularly, an exorcism of a "regime," that of Bush-Cheney. The blogger, Gavin Hewett of the BBC, mentions that word as if it suggests illegitimacy.

Perhaps that's true, but I cannot recall so many elections in the past that have been or, at least, seemed, so important. Yes, I know, I myself once wrote with concern about Obama. I worried then, and I worry now, that he might turn out to be a Democrat in the manner of JFK, or Clinton, who, while popular, and given a kind of glowing review by liberals, often acted in ways that were similar to Republicans. Kennedy's examples include the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Clinton can be thanked for the bombing of Kosovo and other issues. Let's not forget that it was Clinton who deregulated everything in the markets, leading to our current crisis after so much growth: Bush just wanted to do more deregulating.

So, I'm still worried. However, I cannot honestly recall a more exciting campaign, or one in which I felt genuinely hopeful of the outcome. It feels, unlike 2004, or 1996, like it did in 2000, but for the opposite reasons. Then, I think, a lot of us were just worried about a Bush Presidency. Now, eight years later, we know the cost of such poor decision-making. We have, as Hewett puts it, a chance to set things right.

Or, more accurately, the American people do. 

We'll see.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Week in a Love Motel and a Match

(Suwon fans going nuts after a goal, or just in general. At right, the circular love motel bed)

Hi all,

Jen and I moved into a love motel for this past week, c/o of our employers. This was due to a bit of a scheduling issue, where we were supposed to move into fellow teachers Dave and Steph's apartment, and new teacher Sumi was to move into our old apartment, but... well, it got complicated. It highlighted, for me, something about the Korean mindset that, while not making me angry, certainly contrasts with the Canadian mindset.

Hence the trouble we had with our move. Steph and Dave both became deeply frustrated, as did Sumi and her friend Sarah (with whom she was staying until we moved out), because it seemed like everybody was sitting on their hands until someone forces the issue. Again, this is just me, a complete outsider, looking in on the situation. For all that I know, it may simply have been a busy week. But we ended up having to figure out the move largely as it happened, with Jen and I finally suggesting that we be put up in a hotel so we could give everyone the space they needed to move about, pack, and so forth.

A similar issue happened with vacation for Christmas. We were informed a few weeks ago that we'd not have December 23rd and 24th off. The problem with this is partly the date--it takes a full day of travel to get home to Canada or the US or wherever home is for people. Unfortunately, people were angry, and it took a lot of back and forth to sort it out. 

Perhaps this is part of the culture. Indeed, I can entirely understand the request from management to respect the culture we are living in. We have nothing but the highest regard for Korean culture, both for its unique heights and the few queer foibles and flaws we come across. They're certainly tolerant of our occasional miscomprehension. A certain degree of accomodation both ways would go quite a long way, however. I agree entirely with the reasoning behind the move to limit vacation. I had hoped the whole issue would be resolved earlier. There is also the Western tendency towards negotiation between management and labour which is non-existent in Korea. However, that is a discussion for another time.

I have deep respect for my colleagues, and the Korean staff with whom I work. I enjoy getting together with them to talk and have fun, and I enjoy working with them, overall. One or two little issues are not going to ruin our time here in Korea. Still, it is odd to note the differences, especially since it sparks major conflict at times.

Indeed, our colleagues are easily able to put together parties, handle sudden changes in schedule, and can handle a lot of troubles that would leave a Westerner floundering. We don't handle sudden changes as well, and I guarantee that we couldn't put together a trip or a schedule as fast as our Korean coworkers could.
So there's benefits and drawbacks.

I also try to avoid chatting about work conflicts on this blog, but sometimes, the issues are large enough to frustrate me, and to make me want to record them for posterity and later consideration.

Anyway, we went from the motel to our new pad, which is well-appointed and spacious. On Saturday, we took in a Suwon Bluewings football match (sorry, SOCCER, for those who think of the NFL when I talk about footie). The 'Wings annihilated Chunnam 3-0. I also picked up a nice, new, Suwon scarf to wear about and to make my allegiance clear.

(The Bluewings line up for a last-minute pep talk before Kick-Off, the new scarf)

On Sunday, we said goodbye to Dave and Steph, who are off to Thailand and all points West. Lucky ducks. We're down to about 5 degress Celcius, here, while they're going to be sipping daiquiris in paradise for a few weeks.

They've earned it.

Best regards,

PS: Two days left in the American Election. Suffice it to say, I'll be hunched over a computer monitor watching the BBC's coverage of the vote in depth on Tuesday evening.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Disneyland... In Korea

(Conan the Barbarian meets Pumpkin King meets Cute Racoon Hat. Priceless)

Hi all,

Disneyland in Korea, you ask? But isn't that in California? 

Well, not exactly. This weekend, we decided to have a little fun instead of just grade papers or do too much serious touring like our DMZ trip, and went up to Everland on Saturday. Everland, a theme park/zoo/fun place is located just about 20 minutes away from us here in Yeongtong, Suwon. We took a 30$ cab ride out to the front gates and waited for the rest of our group--there were 7 or so of us-- to catch up.

(The Front Entrance to Everland)

Then, we entered the front gates.

If this doesn't look like Disney to you, I don't know what does. We strolled through the equivalent to Main Street USA, Korean style, browsing through some gift shops as we headed towards, of course, the chief attraction in any amusement park: the roller coasters.

(Jennifer, at right, on the Columbus Boat Ride. This was taken in mid-swing)

Jennifer, I should add, has not been on a coaster since she was very young, and has avoided them like the plague for a good couple of years. We provided the necessary peer pressure, and yes, that is Jen screaming in the picture above, while on the Columbus swinging-boat ride.

Suffice it to say, much fun was had by all, throughout.

The only down side was some rain that hit us mid-afternoon. We had gotten in line for the T-Express, a monster of a wooden roller coaster with a ridiculous 75-degree vertical incline on the first drop. Apparently, seatbelts are mandatory due to said wall of straight-down screaming insanity and fun. Unfortunately, after waiting for 2 hours, the line was told to vacate due to rain, and we had to rejoin the line at the beginning.

While we don't mind this so much, when it happened the *second* time, we were pissed. Two of our group, Oliver, and Daniel, being cold and frustrated, decided to head back to town. We understood where they were coming from, but decided to go and have a beer or two while waiting for the rain to slow down enough for us to go on some more rides.

(The Hallowe'en Central Plaza)

We did finally get on two more big rides, the Rolling X-Press, which is basically the Bat or the Dragon's Fyre from Canada's Wonderland, and then the mighty T-Express itself. It was, suffice it to say, well worth the wait. The first drop is quite the plunge, while the rest of the ride has some serious G-Forces behind it. It was rather fun, since I could tell exactly when Jen would scream, and because I was joining right in with her. My mother, I suspect, would be hoarse by the end of such an adventure. 

(Interior of the Global Village Ride)

While there, we also ventured into a little ride called "Global Village." If anyone has ever been to Ye Olde Disneyland, one might recall the "It's a Small World, After All" ride. This modern torture device of the Inquisition projects stereotypes of the rest of the world for all to see, while a gratuitously cheerful song (the eponymous "Small World") is warbled by puppets for an agonizing five minutes.

The Koreans get you for 10. And the song is actually catchy. The ethnic stereotypes remain intact. 

It's funny. We wouldn't mind that, or the lack of service on the T-Express, but I definitely do notice the disorganization present in Korean culture as opposed to Canadian. Don't get me wrong, we're as guilty of doing things on the fly and out of control as any, but the general rule in Canada is to plan things out a couple of weeks in advance, or at least have some plan in place for emergencies. Take the T-Express, for example. In Canada, getting rained out when you were literally about to get on the ride results, usually, in getting a pass to jump the line at some later point. 

In Korea, you get to do it all over again and pray the rain won't come back.

In Canada, moving is set up quite some time in advance. In Korea, we had to wait until the last minute until the Korean staff at our Hagwon realized that it might be good to figure out how we were supposed to move from our small, temporary apartment to the one large enough for couples.

Oh, and they hadn't been able to figure out what to do with the couple living there already. Jen and I both felt awful for Stephanie and Dave (the latter one of our companions to Everland), and for Sumi, who was taking our place. All three must have felt like they were getting short shrift as a result of said disorganization.

Anyway, complaining over. We thoroughly enjoyed Everland, and we're very much enjoying the hotel we've been temporarily assigned to by our academy. It even has a jacuzzi tub, which, I think, after a hard night of teaching and Tae Kwon Do, I am going to go make use of.



Sunday, October 19, 2008

To the Front Lines at the DMZ

(Left: From left to right, Sumi, Oliver, Stephanie, Sarah, Ashley, Daniel, Jennifer and Chris, and David)
(Right: Sculpture symbolizing the splitting of the world, and Korea, between Democrat and Communist, and the effort to find unity again)

Hi all,

Jennifer and I, along with fellow teachers Oliver, Stephanie, Dave, Daniel, Sarah, Ashley, and Sumi, just got back from a trip out to the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ) between the two Koreas. Located about an hour-and-a-half away from Seoul, due North, the DMZ is apparently the most heavily-mined section of the Earth's surface. Established in 1953 after the end of the Korean War, the DMZ exists to provide breathing room and space between the two former combatants.

Technically, and frighteningly, they're still technically current combatants, as the war has never officially ended, and the two countries continue to snipe at each other occasionally, both verbally and physically.
(The entrance to Paju city, the last place we were allowed to take pictures aboard the bus from)
(The wall at the South Korean end of Freedom Bridge, blocked up since it leads directly into North Korea)

We boarded a bus in Seoul at the Express Terminal, and travelled up to the edge of the DMZ at Paju City. There, we took a quick stretch with our tourmates while our guide processed our passports with the military authorities, and we puttered around the Freedom Bridge, and the Paju ginseng festival. The former was the site of the last POW transfer at the end of the Korean War, while the latter contained a whole bunch of Korean food, ginseng, and festivity.
(A photo of a photo of the 3rd Tunnel, since we're not actually allowed to take pictures inside the Tunnel itself)

Contrasting this, of course, is the DMZ itself. We arrived at the Third Tunnel tourist area, the site where the third of four known infiltration tunnels built by the North Koreans was discovered. These tunnels were designed to sneak a Northern army past the DMZ and thus past the South's observation forces, and to get the Northern army as close to Seoul as possible.
Thankfully, all four were discovered long before they could threaten Seoul itself, although the South suspects that as many as twenty more may have been built but abandoned. The North, of course, protested that these were in fact built by the South, but the direction of the tunnel, the blast marks, and everything else suggest otherwise. What's really weird, though, and indeed, almost surreal, about the DMZ, is the utter lack of people.

Jen and I have both gotten used to seeing hundreds of people everywhere we go. Such is a fact of life in a country of some 50-odd million people packed into, effectively, an area the size of Southern Ontario. Suwon is, in itself, 1 million people, while Seoul is positively cramped with 10 million people.

But the DMZ, due largely to the mines, the tension with the North, and the heavy military presence, is quiet save for the sounds of insects, birds, and animals. Ironically, the war and the human cost it created resulted in a pristine natural environment, where several endangered species are able to exist outside of human intervention. Given that they've got about 4 kilometres on average, it's not surprising that one of the questions any government seeking to re-unify the peninsula will have to face will not just be how to re-integrate the landscape and clear the mines, but how to ensure the native species don't get overrun by human development.
The area is almost dead quiet, a fact that is almost unsettling. Even in small towns like Timmins, where Jen is from, or smaller burgs such as those surrounding the Kitchener-Waterloo area where we lived before Korea, one is used to signs of human habitation: roads, cars, lights in the distance, all are present, even if in a modest form.

While there are roads in the DMZ, no one uses them. While there are buildings, the only people present are military and minesweepers, and a handful of tiny villages that provide food and farming space. I remember reading about life on an isolated kibbutz in Israel, or in the settlements in the West Bank--even these, I suspect, are not this *desolate*.

We sat down to watch an absolutely stunning piece of propaganda put together by the tourism department. A white-robed young Korean child sobbing while eating a tiny handful of rice, stock war footage from the conflict, and an oddball blurb about how the DMZ has become a symbol, not of war and devastation, but humanity's ability to live together with nature, all featured in this oddity of a film. I've seen some old 1930s and 1940s WWII and Cold War propaganda pieces, but this was bizarre. The English narrator even had trouble dealing with some of the weird word choices necessitated by the translation from Korean.

Speaking of which, a brief aside: the Korean government has, apparently, been worried about tourism lately, which is a fraction of what other Asian countries like Thailand, Japan, and Vietam receive. One of the reasons for this dearth is the DMZ and the ongoing conflict itself--while muted to Cold War levels, it's still a war, and the tension one feels at the DMZ is stunning compared to the rest of the country. The other reason, however, is some really awful signage in English. One might defend such poor translations on street signs: dialect, lack of funding, and the fact that most signs don't *need* to be in English mean that one might not expect a perfect translation on every road. But on a major tourist spot? This was true even in Gyeongju, and it's hard to get over the fact that Korea, which is capable of speaking English, hiring English writers or editors, or at the very least gettng a fluent English speaker to do the same, might avoid such problems. Simply put, it is hard to relax and be a tourist when you're mentally cringing at the grammar or the lack of articles like "the," "a," or "an." Or the overabundance of "the them."
I digress.

We then ventured down into the tunnel itself, about 300 metres down--the walk back up reminded me distinctly of Bulguksa, I might add--and took a look at the last of three consecutive blockades built by the Southern army to prevent the tunnel from being used. One hopes they might have collapsed the rest of the tunnel leading up to the Southern end of the DMZ, but it was definitely spooky to stare off into the darkness of the tunnel beyond the steel barricade and barbed wire.
(The Dora Observation Post, UN and South Korean Command)

From there, we set out to Dora Observatory, on top of one of the mountains overlooking the DMZ proper. Unfortunately, the view was marred by the fog on this particular day--we joke the fog was somehow deliberately set up by the North Koreans to keep the capitalists from seeing their "utopia"--but we managed to score a neat view of the fence guarding the Southern end of the Zone, and I caught a glimpse of a soldier on the Northern equivalent post on the other side.
We weren't allowed to take many photos, unfortunately, but we bundled back into the bus for a trip to Dorasan Train Station, the "First Stop to the North" on a recently-constructed railway line between the two countries. Again, what was surreal was that, aside from we meagre tourists, there wasn't anyone else there. A train pulled up while we were wandering about the station (getting our passport stamped, too, I might add), *but there was absolutely nobody on the bloody thing.*
(Dorasan Train Station, with about as many people there as it ever gets)

For those of us now used to the vast number of people in this country, this was downright unsettling. The only other living beings around were some soldiers, hundreds of bugs, and a few flights of geese.

This brings me to the political commentary: it's really weird to see the way the DMZ and the divorce between North and South Korea have affected both countries in turn. South Korea was for a couple of decades under the grip of a right-wing dictatorship, bordering on what some might call fascist or at the very least a highly-nationalist regime.
Since the overthrow of the old regime, however, South Korea has been unabashedly capitalist, developing a culture that reminds me at times of what I've read about Western capitalism before the labour movement forced managers and owners to actually put in labour regulations to protect their employees. 40 hours a week, which we "supposedly" are doing, turns into far more on occasion, while our Korean coworkers and Korean labourers in general work far more hours than what would be considered legal or even, sometimes, sane, by a Canadian standard.

The DMZ itself is a tourist zone, meanwhile, for the South. Granted, a heavily-patrolled, military-operated tourist zone, but still, the world's largest minefield is regularly visited by polaroid-armed visitors from around the world. It even has cute big-headed cartoonish images on t-shirts of North and South Korean guards smiling out at the viewer, and pins to the same effect. Witness the picture of me below (pardon the goofy gesture from yours truly).
(Chris and a stylized South Korean guard. Much more friendly-looking than the real ones)

The North, meanwhile, has gone the completely opposite direction towards Stalinism and isolation. In most of the rest of the world, the form of personality cult that Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-Sung, have created around themselves no longer exists. Stalin's Russia is, thankfully, gone, while China is cautiously embracing capitalism--even if the Party cadre of the Chinese Communists continues to hold on to power politically-- and Cuba was, frankly, a different entity altogether even from the beginning compared to other "really-existing Communist" countries. Communism has often been associated with the kind of political oppression seen now primarily in China and in North Korea, but the sheer isolationism and repression of the North is arguably different from anywhere else in the world.

Why did this kind of Stalinism survive here? Was it the support of Stalin himself for the Korean communists during the War? The presence of China, the similar persuasive and political imagery of Mao Zedong? Or the isolation North Korea found itself in when the South closed the border at the DMZ? I don't know, and unfortunately, I don't know if anyone else does either.

The divergence between the two Koreas presents a serious problem, however, for reunification. Nevermind the differing ideologies, which are impediment enough, or the conservatism of both sides militarily and politically: there's a significant gap that's formed in terms of culture and a negative view from both sides of the other. Fifty-plus years of propaganda political repression in the North, and strangely similar if democratic disdain from the South, make it hard to see how the two cultures could reunite. The economic issues of how to reintegrate either side into the other's framework present similar challenges. And the ability of the South to reintegrate the North after the aforementioned fifty-someodd years of isolation and propaganda, make one worry if a situation similar to if worse than the reunification of Germany might result.

How can any culture or country, no matter how advanced or determined, overcome such a gap? And further, do either really want it anymore? Both sides claim a desire to reintegrate, but the question of which side being integrating into which, and how to overcome the challenges above, make the prospect daunting at the very least. Unfortunately, such problems will likely only get worse the longer the two sides stay divided, but in the absence of a clear plan for integration, or political will to do so, the chances of it happening any time soon seem slim at best.

A fascinating trip, and one I'd repeat, if only to see other parts of the DMZ, but certainly an unsettling one.

Best regards,

PS: For fun, below:
(And off we go!)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

No Turkey for Turkey Day

Hi all,

Well, Jen and I decided to stay in this weekend to work on some graduate school applications, and besides, we're both a little under the weather. 

So we got through a bunch of paperwork, and realized, belatedly, that it's Thanksgiving back home. Unfortunately, Korean "Thanksgiving" or Chu-seok, is about a month behind us already. 

Not to mention, we don't have an oven in which to bake a bird, anyway, so we're not exactly celebrating Thanksgiving, here. As it stands, we are at least acknowledging the holiday back home, with such expressions as "happy turkey day" and such in our office, but that's about it.

It's been interesting watching the train wreck that is the Canadian and American election from Korea. 

I predicted, in a previous post, how I thought it unlikely for Obama to be able to lose, and yet, for a while, he was essentially even with McCain for about a month. All it took for Obama to win again, was, I suppose, the collapse of the economy. Funny how that works out.

I watched bits and pieces of both the Canadian and the American election. I have found, anecdotally, amongst my colleagues at work, that those who watched the former preferred it's unique style. Part of the problem with the traditional debates, and even that farce of a town hall debate between McCain and Obama, is that it turns into little more than trying to out-shout your opponent. The round-table, at least, seemed to force discussion to happen more than bellowing.

I say the town-hall thing is a farce largely because it seemed to be trying to catch some elusive, old-school sentiment of American government under the Pilgrims. In New England, when the Pilgrim population in the original colonies was rather more limited than the modern American state, one could imagine people getting together in a town hall or over a pint to discuss issues. Well, we still do the latter, but the tone, I think, has changed. 

This brings me to my modest point: I am getting deeply concerned by the choice of words of the McCain camp. McCain does try to defend Obama, ironically, during one campaign stop, from his own party, when the members of the community he was visiting started calling Obama a traitor, an "Arab" and other names. My problem with this activity is that even as McCain is back-pedalling, Palin is still turning up the heat.

Having recently denounced Obama as "chumming around with terrorists," now Palin is essentially accusing Obama of being a baby-killer (see the link above). Part of the problem with this sort of mud-slinging--and yes, I know it's not unusual to see this in a US presidential debate, the problem is that it could result in some serious consequences post-election. I'm not the only one worried about whether some idiot with too big of a gun, and too small of a brain, will try to shoot Obama should he win. And part of his or her motivation might be, sadly, some of the nonsense being spouted right now by the McCain camp.

Again, I really hope I'm wrong. I really hope the McCain camp will tell Palin to back off, and that we might have a modestly-policy-focused debate this time around. Well, okay, I'll settle for the former if nothing else. 

The Canadian election looks set to be another minority government. Given that Stephen Harper went into this election because he wanted to break out of the "log-jam" in Parliament... but, hey, if he's "always known" that it would be a minority government, then why call the election? 

Oh. Right. Because he thinks he can win another short-term mandate and spin it into a big win. Joy.

Pardon the cynicism this week. This is what happens when I go turkey-free for Thanksgiving. 

More next week.

Best regards,


Thursday, October 9, 2008

While I have tried to avoid getting too much into politics--I suspect most people would rather read about some of the stuff Jen and I have been seeing in Korea--this I simply had to post.

Canada has an election coming up in about another five days (and you Canadians reading this, you *have* registered, right?). Stephen Harper is the present incumbent for Prime Minister, and has been running on a campaign which claims that A) he is a good leader; B) his team is fiscally responsible, unlike the old, corrupt Liberals; and C) that they will *not* run up a deficit.

Well, sorry, folks, but that's a bunch of wash. The PCs have been running up a deficit, and it's rather massive, especially when one considers that the liberals, for all their flaws, at least managed to keep our country in the black each year. We were even starting to pay off our debts.

The article I've linked above has some good weblinks to various other information about the fiscal operations of the Conservatives, and a good video link from the CBC. I would suggest you check it out. 

As ever, the facts that politicians "state" to be true, and the actual truth, is often hard to sort out. Politicians are especially skilled at equivocating, and Mr Harper is indeed one of the best at the game. I'm sure that the other parties have their own skeletons, however, one thing that drags politics down further, both in its reputation and in its sad inability to get many things done, is this kind of double-speak.

As the old X-Files show used to say, the truth is out there, if you know where to look.

Best regards, 


PS: The election's on the 14th. Make sure you register, or have your passport/photo ID ready when you go. But for heaven's sake, VOTE!

And no, I don't want to tell you whom to vote for--that's not my job, nor is that a particularly decent thing to do. The purpose of my little post here is to remind you, the educated voter, to continue to watch out for the truths about our leaders behind the facade of the words they use in public.

Monday, October 6, 2008


(The bus sign for Gyeongju, and one of the central temple chambers of Bulguksa Temple)

Hi all,

Well, we finally visited someplace outside of the Seoul--Suwon corridor this past weekend. It was Foundation Day (Gaecheonjeol) in Korea, the holiday celebrating the foundation of the Korean country Gosojeon by the mythological King Dangun.

As it was a three-day weekend, Jen and I decided we'd rather not just sit around, but go outside the city and explore a bit of the rest of the Korean countryside. In this case, we decided to go and visit Gyeongju, a city in the South-Eastern end of the country, near Busan, on the Eastern Sea (Sea of Japan) coast.

Gyeongju is a rather old city, the former capital of the Ssila (pronounced Shila) Kingdom, which conquered Baekje and Goryeo in the 660 AD and 667 AD, respectively. Ssila then dominated all of the Korean peninsula from 667 until about the 9th century, when the Kingdom collapsed into separate Kingdoms again.

As such, Gyeongju (alternative Romanization: Kyongju), is an ancient city with many ruins and relics of its past. Also, the city was relatively untouched in the Korean War, although some areas have had to be reconstructed. As a result of this, the city *feels* older, and unlike Suwon and Seoul, both of which characterized by tall, concrete-box-style apartment buildings and high-rises, Gyeongju is largely a city of short, older-style Korean buildings. There are not all that many buildings taller than five or six stories, and those that are tend towards being motels or hotels. The rest are what one thinks of when one thinks of Korean architecture, such as in the picture below.

(Buddhist temple in downtown Gyeongju, typical of most of the buildings in the city)

Our trip got off to a bit of a rough start, admittedly. We had a little trouble at the bus stop, which could have been avoided if I had done a bit more asking around when our first bus pulled into the station. The bus to Gyeongju does not, much like most buses in Canada, just go to Gyeongju: indeed, Gyeongju is not even the final stop! The last port of call for the bus is actually Pohang, a major industrial city just north and east of the old capital. Of course, we didn't know this, and no-one at the ticket counter, the bus waiting area, or the bus driver themselves, decided to assist we stupid foreign tourist types by *telling* us that we needed the Pohang bus.

So we waited for four hours for the next bus to Gyeongju, getting there rather later than we would have preferred. Oh well.

We stayed at the Hanjin Hostel. The owner was polite, spoke English well, and knew how to get to all the interesting sites in the city. Of course, he did gouge us a little: we were promised 30$ a night over the phone, but ended up paying 40$. At the time we arrived, around 8PM, we were both too exhausted to bother arguing.

We went to bed early, and got up at 7AM to explore the city. First, we went to Cheongmangchae, a series of tombs built for the Ssila monarchs. One of which, the namesake Cheongmangchae, is open to the public, and is so named for the horse saddle found inside of it along with the coffin of the ancient king. The tomb is literally an earthen mound several stories tall. In the heart of the tomb lies a wooden enclosure, presumably to keep out rot and grave-robbers. Inside this was a simple stone grave and a series of grave goods for the king, including weapons, rings, jewels, several crowns, paintings, and a bronze saddle.

(The entrance to Cheongmangchae tomb, and a view of the central park in which it resides)

(Pardon my closed eyes!)

To get a sense for how big these things are, remember that the city itself has few tall buildings: these tombs tower over most of Gyeong Ju, and there are literally *dozens* of them throughout the city. We wandered around several of them, snapping off pictures right and left, and enjoyed the fantastic park in the heart of the city that contained an even dozen clustered together in one spot.

(Tombs in downtown Gyeongju)

After we explored there, we wandered down to Anapji park, walking past Cheomsongdae, one of the oldest, if not the oldest astronomy observation buildings in Asia. Anapji park is what remains of the old palace and park built by King Munmu, the conqueror of Goryeo and Baekje. Much of the old palace has been destroyed, but the Korean government has been slowly and painstakingly rebuilding it to its original dimensions and design over the past thirty years. The grounds are massive, containing a pond and park for exotic animals and for the pleasure of the King and his court. The palace itself must have been something to see: even the buildings currently restored are wonderful.

(Cheomsongdae and Anapji, respectively)

At this point, Jen and I grabbed lunch, and split up for the afternoon. Jen had been experiencing a cold and the onset of her asthma, and was not interested in taking on Bulguksa temple and Seokguram Grotto with me. Instead, she went to the Gyeongju History Museum, and wandered about the grounds there for the remainder of the afternoon until I returned from Bulgoksa.

Bulguksa is about 18 Kilometres out from Gyeongju, in the mountains surrounding what are the city's suburbs--of course, the city is only about 225,000 people, so the 'burgs aren't on the scale of Suwon, Toronto, or Seoul. After getting off the bus, I walked about five minutes up the hill to the Temple, which is a Buddhist temple built sometime around 528 AD. It has been damaged, rebuilt, burned down, and restored many times since then, due to the Japanese invasions, the Korean and Second World War, and a host of other conflicts. But the Temple remains a UNESCO World Heritage Site, houses a few gold-bronze Buddha statues, and is utterly gorgeous.

(The front gates to Bulguksa, and a view of the temple grounds from above)

It is also still a functional temple: many monks were wandering the grounds along with the tourists, and praying, chanting, and meditating along with the visitors. I cannot express in words alone how wonderfully peaceful this temple was. I snapped dozens of pictures, but spent most of my time quietly listening to the chanting of the monks, and simply standing around, looking at the marvelous statues and finding for myself a bit of internal peace. Like Stonehenge, Bulguksa is a place of contemplation and tranquility, and I felt the same sense of positive energy there as I have at the Henge, as well as in other places of worship around the world.

It doesn't hurt that the view is nice, too, from the mountain.

The Grotto, or more accurately, the hike to the Grotto, was the chief reason for Jen's decision to split up the tour: it is three kilometres uphill, nestled about another kilometre from the peak of Tohamsan Mountain. The climb was, to be blunt, painful. My right leg is still stiff from the descent!

(Part of the 3 KM hike up from Bulguksa to Seokguram Grotto)

(The helpful reminder on the right is not just that you're not there yet, but that no enlightenment comes without toil)

But the view upon arrival was worth it, as seen in some of the pictures below.

(Mount Tohamsan, from the path leading up to Seokguram Grotto)

Furthermore, the Grotto itself is amazing: it contains a statue of the Buddha, made of stone, about 15-20 feet tall. Surrounding the Buddha are dozens of guardian spirits, gods, and warriors. All of this is packed into a small grotto that feels full to the bursting point with all the statuary. Again, even with the tourist density, the place felt peaceful and calm, and I can imaging why monks dedicate their lives to studying and meditating there and at Bulguksa.

(The exterior of Seokguram--while I was not allowed to take pictures of the interior, a link to an official image of the statue is included here:

Returning the way I came, I snapped off a few more pictures of the mountain, before returning to the city for dinner and bed.

We woke up late the next day, and dropped in to the tomb of General Kim Yu-Sin, pictured below. A warrior-general who helped King Munmu unite the Korean peninsula, General Kim was rewarded with this mountainside tomb, in the style of the Kings below. Twelve zodiac figures surround and guard his tomb, and a huge cenotaph marks his final resting place.

(Me standing in front of General Kim Yu-Sin's grave mound)

A fascinating trip, overall. We returned home on Sunday, tired but happy.

It's amazing to me to see this part of Korean culture and history: while the West was still recovering from the fall of Rome, Korea was booming, experiencing a Golden Age of sorts under a united Ssila.

I won't romanticize the warfare that preceded that Golden Age, of course, anymore than I would the Roman method of creating their own era of prosperity. But still, one cannot help but admire this and any sort of architecture that has so stood the tests of time.

Like Stonehenge, or other similar places, I find that I am most drawn to that sense of peace and tranquility I found in Bulguksa. I am not an overtly religious man: I have faith, yes, and beliefs, but I try to avoid forcing them on other people. While I enjoy learning about theology and philosophy, science and faith and all other fields in between, I have been reminded by this trip how much I enjoy simply finding a place of rest and calm and positive energy in such places. Some may call this chi or the Spirit of God, or feng shui, or dao or good vibes, or any host of other interpretations from any number of different perspectives. Regardless of its name, I find it interesting to find and explore places that contain that kind of positive energy, and to see others doing the same.

In this, I think, we are more similar than we might otherwise admit.

My apologies for the slight tangent into the realms spiritual. Returning to the main subject at hand: I can thoroughly recommend Gyeongju. The city is, at times, a bit dirty around the edges, but despite this, it is an amazing piece of Korea's history, one which is just as long and as rewarding, when explored, as any place in the rest of the world.

More next week. Until then, best regards,