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.