Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Week In

Hi all,

Well, it's been a crazy week. Between four days of orientation, and prepping our first lesson plans, between having to learn enough of the Korean language and written system (Han-geul) to survive and be able to order food or find such basic necessities as water, a power adaptor (the Koreans use 220 Volts, not 110 like North America--you can easily fry your computer if you're not careful), and getting over jet-lag, it's been a hectic week.

Jen and I are starting to settle in to our little part of Asia. Suwon's a neat, bustling city, and the people are just as go-go-go as Seoul, or Tokyo, or New York, or Montreal, if not more so. One can still find people milling about the streets at 2 or 3 in the morning, looking for another place to hang out with friends and coworkers.

You may have seen, on Jen's website, some of the photos of our apartment. Just this Friday, we went out with Jin (our supervisor); her partner Aki; Heya, my academic counsellor and direct co-worker; Naomi, our finance expert; and Daniel and Oliver, our co-teachers, to a Korean BBQ restaurant, and enjoyed a night of chatting, cooked meat and kimchi, and soju. Koreans, I have to say, love to party, and hard. We left the restaurant to go home, whilst our co-workers went out to the spa to relax.

The next night, we did a bit more of the same, although this time, we went to a tuna restaurant: the meal was frozen, raw slices of fish with kimchi, veggies, and spices. Everything's spicy at most restaurants here, but you can get the less spicy stuff if you look hard enough.

And today, we decided to try our hand at the public transit system, and make our way to downtown Suwon. We were rewarded for our 1,000 Won/1$ bus ticket with a trip to the wall of Hwaseong Fortress, an old castle and fortification system that surrounds the downtown segment of Suwon.

After two hours of trekking along the Eastern wall, we still hadn't even gotten more than a third of the way around the massive fortifications, and were enjoying some rather spectacular views of downtown. Then, we hit the edge of the southern wall, and walked down to street level--smack-dab in the heart of Jedong and Padalmun markets. Suffice it to say, we immediatly began bargain-shopping. Daniel, one of our co-workers bought, and to his credit, ate, a cup full of silkworm larvae. Probably something I won't repeat again, but interesting. As for me, I just got a green onion and egg pancake to fuel up.

We moved on to Padalmun Gate, below, and hurried across several lanes of traffic, to reach the Hwaseong Haeggung, the Hwaseong Palace of King Jeongjo. We snapped a few pics, and turned back only slightly dejected by the fact that the gates were closing. More to see later--have I mentioned we only saw a quarter to one-third of the wall?

So, we're getting there. Still nervous about teaching, but we're definitely enjoying tooling around the countryside. Our Korean is basic, but we know enough to get what we need and get out politely. Koreans are, I'm learning, a bit more insular than most Canadians, but many of the younger crowds are very friendly, and will help out if you look entirely lost.

Then there's the party culture. There's a lot of drinking. I think every table next to us, and our own as well, went through at least two bottles of soju over dinner. And why not, when it costs less than 3$ for each bottle, which is more than enough for a shot or two for all? There's probably no better way to get to know and become friends with folks here than to go out for dinner and a drink, and then a trip to a bar for another, and then a trip to a noraebang or DVD-bang for some fun afterwards.

Anyway, more from abroad soon. I'm off to bed, since I start teaching tomorrow afternoon. Here goes!

Best regards,

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jen's blog and pictures

Hi all,

Jen, my partner, has her own blog here, and has some neat photos of our time in Korea up there under the blog article "...and the washing machine sings..."

And it does. Believe me, it does.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Landing Abroad

Started off the day in Timmins, Ontario, waking up at 4 AM to catch the red-eye flight at 6 AM to Toronto's Pearson International Airport. We didn't have any hitches, here--we'd been worried our bags would get lost in the shuffle or something would get confiscated, somehow. We'd been careful not to pack anything like razor blades or gels, but you never know. Especially since Jen decided we should paint our bags with what we belatedly realized was some sort of rust paint to ensure that our bags were identifiable. A long story, but in short, a friend of Jen's mom had actually hand painted (with fabric paints, not the other stuff) some really cute designs to help distinguish two of our bags and ensure we didn't lose them in the airport, so we wanted to make sure the other ones that didn't have the designs to be semi-recognizeable.

Let's get something out of the way: the flight is 13 hours long. That's right, 13 hours from Toronto to Seoul-Incheon International Airport. That's not including the wait between flights, since we arrived at Pearson at 8 AM, and our flight left Pearson at 10AM. There's also customs, but believe it or not, Korean customs is rather pleasantly painless and quick compared to some places we've been to (Gatwick is by far the worst organized airport customs I've ever seen, by comparison). So we were in transit for almost 18 hours, give or take a bit.

We were rewarded with some gorgeous views of Alaska and the Bering Strait, since the flight took us over that route. Nothing but mountains and cool green land below, and then the dizzying blue-on-blue of the Pacific when we started angling south towards Mongolia, Japan, and Korea.

We approached Korea from the eastern coast, from what we call the Sea of Japan but what is referred to here as the East Sea. From above, Korea is... different. It's mostly green, with one or two areas that look like sand or mining from above, but is probably homes and small-ish cities in reality. It looks almost uninhabited in places--something we've learned is not exactly accurate once we landed!--and it's hard to understand why until you get to ground level and realize that Korea is almost entirely mountainous. What little land is flat and closer to sea level is heavily urbanized and developed to within an inch of its life. Such as, for example, Seoul and Incheon. Seoul looks like a combination of what thinks of in a regular city from above, combined with an urban sprawl that goes on for several dozen if not a hundred kilometres, and massive, box-like buildings that are visible from the air above it like cigarette cartons sticking up from the ground.

Seoul is composed of 10 million souls plus, and it looks it. Incheon, Suwon, and several other cities, once undoubtedly more isolated, are now connected to the capital of South Korea by a very well-designed series of highways, bus routes, subways, and railroads. The roads cut through the mountains, literally, via a series of tunnels that connect districts of Seoul and Incheon to other burroughs and to the other cities surrounding the megapolis. Incheon is out near the coast, a gorgeous series of beaches, atolls, and small islands stretching into the South China Sea. After collecting our bags and breezing through customs (I kid you not, it took all of 20 minutes), we were greeted by a young Korean man who directed us to a cab, told it where to go (evidently it was pre-arranged by the company since we didn't have to pay for it) and sent us off with a wave before turning back to the terminal to await the next flight of ESL teachers inbound, from New York City, I gather from the folks we met at orientation today.

Driving in Korea is much like driving in any other country, except that there are many more people here then there are in anyplace in Canada, proportionally. Even Toronto is not so densely populated--you could, apparently, fit all of Greater Seoul into the GTA area a couple of times over, but have almost four or five times more people. The mountains (baby mountains, our colleague Jin calls them) jut up around the highway. It's unlike anything else I've ever seen, save for, maybe, the Appalachians. These mountains are much smaller than the Appalachians or the Rockies, but the density of the hills is astonishing. Especially given that the Koreans appear to have built around and below the hills in the valleys of the country, rather than trying to build up onto them like San Francisco or Rome. It's a neat change, and gives one the impression of a society trying to live in some form of harmony with its surroundings as much as imposing the human presence on the environment it inhabits.

We arrived in Suwon after about 2 hours of travel by taxi (have I mentioned I'm glad we didn't have to pay for the trip yet?) due to the traffic. Suwon is, by comparison to Seoul, not overly huge. It's connected to the megapolis by highway and is on the tail end of the 1 Subway line, so it feels like they're almost one city. Suwon is, still, smaller, and less dense as a result. We were dropped off outside our school's building, and dragged our bags up inside and into an elevator to the 6th Floor. We met Jin, our supervisor, along with BJ, the manager of the Youngdong campus where we work, and a few other coworkers: Naomi; Jin's boyfriend Aki; and two women named Sarah, one Korean, and one a Westerner.

BJ, Jin, Sarah (Sarah "2," as she calls herself, the Westerner), and Aki helped us load up BJ's SUV, and Jin drove us, along with Aki and Sarah to our apartment, about a five-minute walk from the school building itself.

We unpacked, and Sarah and Jin showed us how to make use of the amenities--the heat in Korean apartments comes up from pipes inserted just below the floorboards, which makes for an interesting experience, apparently. One can, in winter, freeze glass next to an open window if one's not careful, while the occupant of the apartment sleeps warm and snug in bed on a mattress on the floor.

The bathroom's one area where the difference sinks in: one showers in the same "section" of the bathroom as the toilet and the sink. Water drains down through a grille in the floor, and one squeegees the remaining water into the drain after one finishes.

Overall, our room is quite nice. It's not huge, but it's hardly as tiny as one might think it would be. Apparently, the room we're in is a bachelor, but it's comfortable enough for two, and we haven't even moved into the bigger flat where we'll be staying in October once the other couple currently working here leaves.

A neat experience. The jetlag is rough, but we managed to trick our bodies enough by not sleeping until 10 PM Korean time (we landed at 12 noon, or 11 PM the previous day EST), and by not eating food on the plane until it was appropriate to do so for Korean time (i.e., no dinner EST, but breakfast at 6 AM on the plane KST).

Speaking of jetlag--it's definitely setting in, now, so I think I'm going to crawl into bed. We start at 1PM tomorrow for more training, so I'm going to try and get some rest.

Best regards,


Friday, August 8, 2008


Huh, weird. That last one didn't post for a week. Oh well...

So. Beijing. As most of you probably know, the Olympics just got under way:

While I admit, during the Olympics, even a jaded, cynical (young) miser like will occasionally come out of his shell, raise the Red & White Maple Leaf, and become an ardent nationalist... this year, I find it difficult to do so. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad China got the Games. A lot of people have raised a lot of questions about it, but I'm glad for two reasons: Reason the First--it's an acknowledgment that, regardless of it's political choices, the PRC is a global power. While some ( might argue that it might result in a more aggressive China, by the same token, the Olympics may cause China to have to confront some new tensions internally as some Chinese begin to embrace the ideas of other cultures. At the very least, it appeases the sense that China is somehow a "sick man" of Asia like the old Ottoman Empire. Giving them the games hopefully will appease the Chinese, and ease tensions somewhat. Reason the Second--even though it will not change anything, it does force the world to look at what they're supporting when they work with China, such as the oppression of Tibet (the BBC's resources on that troubled region are quite good:, the issues in Xinjiang, and, of course, their long-standing issue with the Kuomintang in Taiwan.

Suffice it to say, China has a lot of things they, from a Western perspective, need to address in order to overcome what has been a shockingly bad human rights record. I could point to the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other remnants of the old Maoist days, but even Hong Kong and the other "Special Economic Zones" represent issues. Hong Kong has to continually fight for their long-standing democratic traditions (granted, these *were* imposed on them by the British, but they appear to want to keep them--, whereas the Special Economic zones are Capitalism-Redux--these areas are capitalism without any of the controls, and often are hotbeds of human rights abuses.

If the Olympics do nothing else, they should at least focus attention around the world on these issues. If the IOC and the other major powers had any brains, they'd at least try to politely suggest that the PRC consider making at least some minor concessions on some of these issues, or begin opening dialogue on the matter. Sadly, I don't think that's going to happen--the Olympics and the rest of the world have this rather annoying tendency to ignore the human rights abuses of countries hosting the Olympics (forgive me for invoking Godwin's Law, here, but Dan Simmons says it better than I about the 1936 Nazi Olympics:, though they're not alone).

If anyone expects serious change out of this, they're probably sadly mistaken... I admit to some modest hope that maybe they can result in some modest diplomatic gestures to improve the worst of the conditions in China, but I know they're doubtful. Sadly, the Olympics continue to serve a propaganda purpose when they're given to regimes like China. I can enjoy the pageantry, butI continue to hope that the belief of people like Nelson Mandela will someday come true about the Olympics: It's not true, yet, but someday, maybe...

Best regards,


PS: Okay, here's where my nationalist streak comes out-->

I practice Tae Kwon Do, as well, and I'm really rooting for Sergerie on this one. Best chance we've had in a while to win...

And as for Soccer--Go Girls Go! :)