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.