Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Hi all,

Wow, this week... is a blur. We've got Christmas off, of course, and Christmas Eve is short, at both my schools. So, I'm finishing early on Christmas Eve Day. We're driving from Toronto to Washington DC for the Holidays to see my mother and family for the first time in two years. I should be happy, right?

Well, I am, mostly, except that this causes my class schedule to shrink to the kind of rushed format I don't remember since Korea. Holy Smokes! I'm introducing 0, 1st, and 2nd Conditionals in one day, when I normally take 3. For those not Grammar nuts like me, that means I'm teaching students how to say "When it rains, it pours," "If it rains, I'll bring an umbrella," and "If it rained today, I'd bring an umbrella." Three different structures, three different meanings, all in one day. Oof!

My afternoon gig is similarly pressed-- We're doing the first week of the course in, essentially, three days.

I'm either way too dedicated to this job, or I'm just got my priorities backwards. I've been offered full-time by the morning job, but had to turn it down, since it wasn't enough hours. Working 40 hours a week is what I need, but they had only offered me Monday-Friday, 9-4, and 9-12 on Fridays. From a stress standpoint, that'd be awesome. From a financial perspective, not so much. I felt sorry to have to let them down, but that's the way it's gotta be.

This leads me to an interesting observation: ESL teachers don't get paid as much as you might think. We're getting there, mind you, but we're not unionized, and we're therefore not as well paid or protected as those in the public system. It's something I'd like to work on, when I'm a bit more established in the area and in the field.

I continue to pursue TESL Ontario and my B.Ed. I love TESL, but to make the kind of money I need to support a family, I need to work in the public system. As someone with 3 teachables before I even get into ESL, I should be able to find work as a teacher in the public system easily.

Different note: It's bizarre being back in Toronto in December. What happened to the weather, here? My Korean students all had this notion that Canada was this frozen wasteland, and then here I am in Toronto, and we've barely had any snow, much less cold weather, this winter.

I love winter: it's by far my favorite season. I love snow and ice, and I love the cold. But this ain't no Canadian winter.

Watch as I jinxed it. Sorry, everybody.


Sunday, December 13, 2009


Hi all,

Well, we're building up to Christmas time again. I'm looking forward to the vacation from work, short as it is, and to seeing my family for the first time in two years.

The short vacation comes from the nature of the ESL business--we never really close, and often end up working year-round with minimal vacation time. However, that said, I understand the reasoning: people who come from all over the world to study English here in Canada expect to still be able to attend school, even in what for Canadians would be holiday season.

It just means I'll be driving to Virginia on Christmas Eve. We're turning it into an adventure: we're going to stop in as often as we can at coffee shops to get Hot Chocolate, and I suspect that, by the end of the trip, my brain will no longer be able to handle any more Christmas Carols.

I'm almost done with my first round of units at the schools I work for, meaning I should be able to start recycling old material soon. Knowing me, I'll still be creating new stuff for use in the class, if only to avoid it getting stale/becoming boring for me and the students, but it's nice to know that there's an end in sight for this.

I still miss Korea--it was, as Jen puts it, a break from reality here. I begin to understand why some call it just that. In Korea, one didn't have to worry so much about bills or constant lesson prep. On the one hand, I miss how easy that was.

On the other hand, I'm glad to be doing what I do--I think it'll serve me in good stead for Teacher's College, down the line, and I am really enjoying some of my classes.

All the best to you and yours this Holiday Season.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sloggin' Through it

Hi All,

Well, Unit 1 is done. That means I just have to finish my afternoon curriculum to the end, and it's all recycling the material from then on out.

Challenge is, of course, to make it communicative and interesting for students. One thing any ESL teacher can tell you is how fast it becomes boring to just rely on drills all day to teach the material. The current model that's taught in TESL Canada classes is to find ways to create dialogues, roleplays, conversations, etc. that encourage and facilitate integration of the language more effectively.

Of course, nobody tells you that creating lessons that do so requires a lot of experience, time, and patience.

I enjoy my classes, overall. The students have, so far, been quite good, and I enjoy the level I teach. I would rather it be a bit more beginner--I'm far better at designing more basic activities, and I suspect I remain intimidated by the lack of control one has in an advanced class, but that's normal at that level.

Still, despite the workload, it's going well, and it's what I want to do, so I'm sure I will become accustomed to it.

Have a good weekend, everybody.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Almost done with the first Unit

Hi All,

So, busy lately. I've been slogging through my first run-through of my unit with my two new schools, which means I've had to spend most of my evenings lesson planning and prepping and tweaking. Gah.

I'm two days from being done with the first unit for my morning school, which means that when we start back over again with a new class, I can keep my lesson plans, and just make small edits. A lot easier.

The second, afternoon school is about half-way done, but it's becoming less painful. Having finished one unit will make the going less rough for them, too.

Unfortunately, I had to fail a lot of students in my afternoon program. I can see the argument: better that I do it now, than when they get to University and the professor cans them for plagiarism, or for a lack of English ability. There were some really strong students whom I fought to let through, since it was just a matter of time before they reached their full potential, but for some of the others... it wasn't fun.

Failing students isn't why I got into this business. As an ESL teacher, one gets used to doing everything one can to help them--I don't just let people pass, mind you, but the most important thing to me is their ability to use and make sense of the material we teach. If they can do that, but they have a bad test score, so what? I've had bad test scores, but last time I checked, I know how to communicate in English, and in French.

What can you do?

Saw District 9, and Valkyrie, finally, this weekend. It's funny how many movies we didn't bother watching, since we were abroad.

I thought Valkyrie, ironically, was the better of the two. Yes, it was Hollywood-ish, and yes, it was a Tom Cruise vehicle, but take away his eye, and one hand, and suddenly he acts a lot better. There were dozens of brilliant British actors in the show, and it was well-put-together.

District 9 is as subtle as a brick thrown at your head. It's well-done, if low-budget, and yes, it asks some important questions, but it really is blunt. That's part of the point, I suppose, but I can understand why it generates such polarized responses.

All the best,

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Hallowe'en, Jobs

Hi all,

Happy All Hallow's Eve! For those who celebrate it, I hope you're going to have a great night, and that lot's of trick-or-treaters come to your door! It's my favorite time of the year, and I have my costume all picked out. I'll reveal it after tonight's party, as it's meant to be a surprise, so in case any of my guests are reading... I'll keep 'em wondering.

Found a stable job! I was originally working part-time in two positions. The former, an afternoon one-to-one tutoring position, was an excellent position, but unstable. Students didn't always show up, which meant I didn't get paid, and of course, it wasn't a lot of hours of work.

The latter, a morning job, is ESL Teaching, as in with a full class. It's definitely what I've trained and gotten my Certification for, and I'm quite happy with it. We just had our Hallowe'en party, and my students loved the Hanbok I wore: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanbok. I was, of course, wearing a man's version.

On Friday, I got a call from another school, for whom I had interviewed about positions starting in Mid-November. They were in a bit of a panic because a teacher had had some family difficulties, and had to leave earlier than they'd thought. While that's not the way I'd want to have been offered a position, I'm pleased that they offered it to me. It's an afternoon position, from 1-5:30 PM, teaching Pre-CTP (College Training Program), which is designed to help students get into Canadian Universities if they're not Native English speakers. I'll also be teaching some grammar. I start on Monday, so, while I'm taking today to clean the house, and have the Hallowe'en party, I'll be working away at the lesson plan for Monday tomorrow, on Sunday! Busy weekend, eh?

Still, I'm looking forward to it, if a bit nervous. I like that I get to teach the same material in a rotating schedule (basically, finish Unit X and go back to the first one, Y, repeat). It might seem a bit boring, but then, it means I don't have to keep reinventing the wheel. I design my units the first time, and then tweak them as time goes on, fixing mistakes, adding in new elements, and keeping it timely and interesting.

If I choose to change class levels, then I start again lesson-prep-wise, but still, it's a good system. It's one that I wish we'd had in Korea. Our school tended to change the books constantly, and I found that teachers who had the same books, even if bored, knew how to teach those books well and to get the most out of them for the students.

Well, I'm about to head off for the party. In keeping with my last theme, I'll give you some tips/thoughts on job-hunting in the field. Next time, I think I'll talk about some of the best places to work abroad. My experience isn't as diverse as others, but I've kept my ears open, and if I can share some resources for those who want to do the same thing, I'm happy to do so.

Happy Hallowe'en/Samhain,



Some further comments on getting a job in our field:

One thing I can comment on for sure when hunting for a job in ESL: Highlight a few key points on your resume. For example, I put my teaching experience on the front page, as well as my Certifications and Educational Experience. However, don't *just* say where you studied--demonstrate a few things that you did while studying. For example, for my MA, I have listed for some time the accomplishment I'm most proud of from my tenure at U Waterloo: my thesis. I designed, researched, and completed it in 9 months, which is far faster than most. Most interviewers don't have time to read through two pages to find the information you wrote for them. You have to make the first page highlight key items, because the person reading it is likely swamped, stressed out about finding a good candidate, fast, and no doubt has 25 more to read before he/she can go home for the day!

Make sure you emphasize what you've done while teaching, of course. Designed your own curriculum daily? That's a major skill! Designed a presentation and debate course? Again, a useful ability to present to an ESL college in Canada. Practiced Communicative Language method? Good! It ought to be right there with your qualifications and skills listed on the first page!

Most of this should, of course, be basic stuff to anybody on the job trail, but I'm guilty of forgetting it, and I'm lucky in that my partner is a professional career counsellor! She often keeps me from making too many mistakes.

During the interview, try to relax. Most people get hung up on the idea that you're there to be evaluated, that you need to be spectacular and amazing and on the ball and experienced and confident and calm and... stressed yet?

You're there to evaluate the *job,* too. I find that the jobs for which I've been hired were the ones where I went in, asked a lot of questions about the company, and about why the interviewer thinks they're the best. After all, if you're going to work for them, they'd better be a decent company, no? If I don't like the place, I thank the interviewer for their time, and politely decline later on. I don't like throwing away an offer, of course, but if the job didn't jive, I'm only going to hate it later on and be back out on the streets again hunting for work!

Furthermore, the jobs I got offers for all came out of interviews where the interviewer and I ended up chatting about our field, why we got into it, how we like to teach, etc. Your resume and cover letter are the first step--they establish your credentials. If you've been called in for an interview, they already know about those credentials. Sure, you should provide examples of your strengths, of what you do well, and so forth, but at the same time, the interviewer is trying to go past the facts and figures on your resume, and to get to know you.

Ask yourself this question: If you're going to hire somebody, who would you want to hire? Somebody who you like, and has the skills you want, or someone who is only there to go through the interview motions, despite their skills?

There's a lot of competition in the field. As long as you make a good personal connection with the other person you interview with, you should be fine. Teachers, the best ones, are often the most personable people in the world--after all, they really care about their students.

All the best, folks!


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Job, Thanksgiving

Hi all,

Just got back from Timmins for Thanksgiving, which was amazing. We got to see all of my wife's family (well, almost all, some of them were in Toronto this weekend), and it was nice to keep reconnecting. This has become somewhat of a theme for me this month, as it's what we've been doing, getting back in touch with old friends, and colleagues.

I've been trying, for example, to set up a coffee date with two old friends from Waterloo, but we're all so damned busy it's like herding cats. I'm confident we'll bump into 'em sooner than later. It's just funny how socially active people have such trouble making time for anything.

Jen's been busy, with two jobs, and so am I--I just got another part-time gig working in the morning at another ESL college. This is great--it supplements my income, doesn't interfere with my afternoon tutoring, and has room to expand. And it's actual teaching experience in front of a class in Canada.

It's something that I've noticed some former expats like me go through--we hit our stride in Korea or Japan or wherever, and then come back... only to find out we're not fitting in. So we either go back abroad, or we try to find similar work here, which can be a challenge.

Finding a job based on ESL in Canada requires certifications which a lot of us don't have when we leave for our Korean or overseas adventures--I got mine while abroad, thank heaven. Furthermore, as much experience as we might or might not have after our time abroad, finding work in the field back home runs into one of two roadblocks: we have *foreign* experience, but no experience teaching ESL in a *Canadian* classroom. Fortunately, this is not a common problem, but it still comes up. More importantly, if you taught kids, you're going to have to get some adult/late teenage teaching experience first, since that's what most ESL colleges here in Canada do, and want. If you can find a way to teach Business or similar English classes, that'll help, too--there's lots of similar work here! In the end, most colleges in Canada teach adults, and want similar experience. If you are doing adult ESL abroad, you've got a great head-start.

It's a bit of a Catch-22. We go abroad to get experience, only to find out that we cannot use that experience back home. It's not impossible, of course--some schools don't mind if you teach children more than adults in Korea, as long as you have some experience in the ESL field in general, and/or TESL Canada Certification, since that requires a Practicum and provides actual adult teaching experience. That can be a big 'as long as,' however. It can be expensive to get the training, and the certification itself costs.

Perhaps TESL Canada should offer a discount to students with experience, or perhaps it could be provisional--come work for us, so long as you take some extra classes at home/on the side, and get your Certification by a set end-point. However, these are both options that we, as teachers, cannot control. What you can do is this:

If you want to do this as a career when you return from overseas, make sure you take some classes while abroad, get your TESL Canada Certification mostly done, and that way you can just do the Practicum (sample classes, to prove you can do it) immediately. If you want to do things like LINC (Language Instruction for New Canadians), which pays well, you need TESL Ontario Certification (in Ontario), and I'm sure similar programs elsewhere in Canada and the States requires similar training. All of which takes more time.

So: Use your time abroad to get started on it--many of the courses can be done online, or by distance, and there may even be some that will offer in class training in your country--you never know. If you save up lots of money abroad, you could even schedule your classes for when you get home, so that you get the training, get your Certification, and can move right into job hunt mode in the field.

It's not impossible, but it is a challenge. If you love this work, and I do, and I'm sure others do as well, it's worth it. The outcome, seeing students become amazing English speakers, and get successful jobs because of their fluency in another language, is amazing. Seeing kids become bi-, tri-, or multi-lingual is equally awesome, and it's one of the reasons I loved my job in Korea.

Make sure you know what you're getting into, and plan ahead. Get your training, and get the qualifications you need to do this work back home. It even helps abroad--some countries require a TESL Certificate before you even apply to ESL jobs in those countries to begin with!

All the best,


Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Hi all,

My apologies for the drought of posts lately. I've been job hunting, and managed to get some work this week with an ESL tutoring job. It's decent pay, and I like both of my students. I teach them both for one hour, and help them with either A) stuff they're working on in their classes; or B) stuff they feel they want to improve.

So for my first student, that's a combination of the grammar and vocab from class, and some idioms, which is what he likes to work on.

For the later one, it's pure pronunciation practice, since she's highly advanced, and wants to break through that 'wall' that students seem to reach when they understand the mechanics of English, but still freeze up when they're looking for words, or when they hear native English spoken at a fast clip.

This is something I've noticed with ESL students--the committed ones learn the language fast, and well, but 'street speak' throws them right off. I don't mean slang, of course, or idioms, although that's part of it. What I'm talking about is something that's called assimilation in phonetics: when we squish sounds together as we speak. For example, her least favorite one is "Didn't you do..." which becomes "didnchadu," and worse. And unfortunately, I'm not sure how much I can do to help her--it's largely a matter of speaking with native speakers and getting used to the way we speak at a full clip. This is something with which I help her, but the best way remains to talk to people outside the class, who are native English speakers. A daunting prospect, for sure, but the best way forward, nonetheless.

It's rewarding, although it's not yet full time. I've been getting used to Toronto, seeing old friends, and missing those from Korea. That said, it's been good, and I am coming to like this strange, sprawled out and English speaking city. Seriously, however, the sprawl is terrible. I suspect they'd have to put another dozen apartment buildings up above each subway before I feel comfortable, after Korea, where everybody's packed tightly close together. It's one thing I do miss--Torontonians have an over-developed sense of personal space, due to the size of the city and the relatively low population density. A word that I have come to loathe after returning from Korea is "sorry," which, of course, I am now saying constantly. I'm not sorry, I'm just trying to move around you.

It's the little things that trip you up, I suspect.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Job Hunting

Hi All,

I forgot how much I disliked Job Hunting (TM). It's never fun, especially when you have a limited budget and amount of time. I'm presently looking for anything in the Toronto region in my field, and since I'm looking for TESL and similar positions, it means I'm basically having to make massive mailing lists of schools, and send letters out. Never fun.

Oh well. It's better than nothing, and I am hopeful that I will get a job, shortly--after all, without one, it's not like we can keep living in Toronto, right?

This weekend was fun. We had two friends' birthday parties to attend, and it was good to see folks again after so long.

Unfortunately, we didn't get out to TIFF due to budget concerns. Hopefully, next year, right?

Other than that, busy day of job hunting for me today, and more to come. Wish me luck!


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Back in Toronto

Hi all,

I'm back in the Big Smog for the first time since I was 10 yeas old. It's interesting to be back, especially after Korea. I think I would have been panicking like mad had I not already lived in a large city in Suwon. As it is, there's a lot of people, but nowhere near as much pushing and shoving as in Seoul's crowded streets.

We got back from Korea last week. We were overbooked, which was a blessing in disguise, as we were upgraded to First Class for the Tokyo to Toronto leg of the trip, since that was all that was available. Not too shabby! We had a long flight home, and by the end, had been travelling for about 26 hours when we collapsed in our beds in Timmins.

We packed up our stuff one more time over the next two days, and then ported everything down to Toronto over two days and two trips. It was a bit hectic, but we're settling in, and I'm working away on my TESL Canada Certification so I can teach ESL here in Toronto. I fell in love with the work abroad, which surprised me, and I want to keep doing it, here.

At the same time, I miss Korea. I miss kimchi, to the point that I broke down and bought some this weekend, and am happily crunching away on my pickled cabbage as I type. I miss reading hangeul, and stopped at a bibimbap shop on Yonge Street to read the signage in Korean when I passed a bap and barbeque shop. I also miss the people--and you know who you are. It's weird not hearing Korean spoken around me on the street, and it's weird offering money with two hands to westerners who offer one hand back, and it's weird having to overhear random conversations in English again, and it's weird not being packed tight in the subway (we could have fit twenty more in my car this morning in Seoul, trust me!), and it's weird not hanging out with my friends from Suwon.

I'll get over the culture shock soon enough, but it's going to take a few days. And, to be honest, I'm glad I'm suffering through it. It reminds me of how much I have grown over the past year, and of all that I will miss of Korea.

Off to the Eaton Centre over the weekend to do some TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) viewing, and to see the sights in Toronto. I've become accustomed to being more of a tourist within my own city, something I didn't do very well back home in Montreal and Kitchener before my adventures abroad. If I remember to take some pictures, I'll try to post 'em next week.

Good evening, all,


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Last Day in Korea

Well, here I am.

It's one night left, and it feels bizarre. I have had my share of ups and downs in Korea, but on the whole, as I have said previously, I have been happy with my time here in Korea. I know I have grown in many ways, and learned a lot about the world, and myself, through my experiences here this past year.

I am going through waves of happiness and sadness to leave. To those readers still in Korea, and you know who you are, take care, and we'll see you again, soon.

To everyone back home: I'll be there soon, and will have a post up as fast as possible to let everyone know that I landed safe and sound.

All the best, to all,



Monday, August 24, 2009

The last week

Hi everybody,

It feels weird to type that title for this post. Last week. 3 school days left, before our contracts end. That is utterly, utterly, bizarre. I've gotten used to Korea, started picking up bits and pieces of the language, I can read Hangeul fluently, now (still don't know whether I'm seeing signs for a newspaper or a karaoke room, though), have become addicted to kimchi, fell in love with the madness of Seoul, and now I have to say goodbye? It's mildly depressing.

Here's a link to our latest exploits.

We saw Sky, an old friend of Jen's from her days as an ESL teacher in Canada, in Seoul on Saturday. We insisted on buying the dinner, since he snuck off with the bill last time. Korean etiquette on payment is funny, in a good way. In Canada, everybody argues over it, and usually we chip in together, right? Well, in Korea, the oldest person pays. Of course, people might offer to pay, but the oldest person (or the most senior in the company, the only married couple, etc.), pays. Period. Of course, if the older person is there, you have to stay out with him or her until they go home. This can, as you can imagine, lead to some rather epic moments if the older person wants to drink with you.

I'm not sure that Sky is older than Jen, but it was an interesting commentary on our time here to see him protesting when we basically took the bill and told him we'd pay this time.

From his perspective, he was paying the first time because that's what's done, in Korea. From our perspective, we insisted on paying him back for the last time. Getting back into Canadian thinking, I guess, and, besides, he did pay last time. It was our turn.

We then met the new teachers, Thomas and Claire, and showed them around Yeongtong, before going out to our last Suwon Bluewings game in town. Suwon lost, and the crowd was dead. One suspects this is due to the recent passing of former President Kim Dae-Jung. Alternatively, it may have been because Suwon is out of the running for the Championship this season. Either way, it was odd, but still a fun experience. We got stared at for being the only people starting the cheers, but then a dozen or so of the Koreans sitting nearest to us got into it, which was awesome.

We're down to a mere 3 days. I mentioned that earlier, but it still feels weird. I mentioned, in my last post, that I have fallen in love with this country. It has bizarre mood swings, but its an amazing country. I remember sheer culture shock threatening to overwhelm me in my first week, to the point that I was almost crying, and wanted to just say to hell with it and fly back home.

And yet, here I am, a year later, saying goodbyes to friends and students whom I've become accustomed to seeing every day, every week, or at least every month.

I will miss this place, but more importantly, I will miss the people. One of my students was sad last night, after class. He said "Teacher, I was in your class for a year. A year, teacher!" And then he smiled, sadly, and said goodbye.

This is one of my favorite students, so it hurt to hear those words coming from him. I know it is not 'goodbye' for some of my fellow teachers, since I'll see them again in Canada, or in the States, I'm sure. I know that for some of my students, this is not goodbye, either, since I'm already getting emails from some of them--one with pictures of Lee Min Ho, a soap-opera actor who is obviously my students' newest crush--but it still feels weird, and sad.

At the same time, I am looking forward to seeing Canada, again, and family and friends. It has been amazing, frustrating, and fun, to be in this part of the world. For what few bad parts that have come my way, I've found a dozen more things that were worth every moment of my travelling here.

I came here thinking I would take a year off from University, to work on PhD applications, make some money, and pay off student debts. Lo and behold, I emerge on the other side discovering that I love teaching, period, and that I don't really want to go back to school again. I've earned my TESL Canada Certification, and I intend to make a go of teaching in Canada. I also discovered that I like kids, and that so does Jen.

In short, while some folks talk about coming to Korea to 'find themselves,' and sometimes don't, I came to Korea to work, and end up finding out a lot about myself.

Funny the way things go, eh?

3 more days. I'll have, I hope, time for one more blog post, to make sure that folks back home know that Jen and I are okay, and then we'll be off on our 22-hour flight back home. Quirk of travelling that we'll be leaving and arriving on the same day, and only five hours later, objectively. Subjectively, though, Sunday's going to hurt.

Talk to you all soon!


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Insadong, 9 days left.

Hi all,

It's coming down to that time. We went into Insadong, a touristy part of town, for the last time. Regular readers may remember our first trip into that place along with Dave Gagnier, Daniel Leslie, and Oliver White.

They're still here, but the latter two, like me and my wife, are not going to be in Korea much longer. There. I said it. It's an odd mix of emotions that I have at present, with 9 business days left. I feel tired, and ready to go home... but also nervous about finding work, and about all the various insanities that go into travelling back home across the world.

I feel sad about leaving, but also fulfilled. I have seen much of the world that I might not otherwise have had a chance to see. I will miss Korea--it is strange, and fast-paced, and utterly illogical at times. It is noisy and occasionally bizarre. It is also humble, quiet, and peaceful, with a history and a unique culture, and a sense of pride that you won't find in many other places in the world. To say it's a mixed-bag is redundant, of course, but it is. I've enjoyed it all, the good and the bad, and I'm going to miss it, one way or another.

The reverse-culture-shock is going to be a pain, let's just say.

So, Insadong. We bought a bunch of gifts for folks back home. No hints, here, folks. Suffice 't to say that they are lovely, and you shall enjoy them.

We like that district. It's overpriced, but some of the shops have some genuinely nifty things hidden in the back alleys and sidewalk shops.

A week before that, Dave, myself, Roger Lam, and one of Dave's friends climbed Dobungsan. That hurt, but the view was worth it. Never went hiking in 35 degrees + humidity before, and I can say that I think I lost a pound and a half in sweat before we even got to the first marker. It was great to see Roger again, though, and to take in what is a quintessential Korean pastime: climbing one of the many mountains in this rocky country.

This weekend was Insadong, and a game of Cities and Knights, an expansion on Settlers of Catan with Dave. Man, that game is addictive. I know what I want for Christmas.

Next week: my last Bluewings game. My kids are jealous, and I intend to scream myself near hoarse during the game. After all, my adopted home team ain't doing so well this year, and every little bit helps, right?

Talk to you soon,


Saturday, August 1, 2009


Hi all,

Just got back from Tokyo! What a blast! We took dozens of pictures, but here's what we did:

We got up bright and early, four in the morning, to get to our 8 o'clock flight. We were staying in Shinjuku, a district of Tokyo's West end, and in the sub-district called Kabukicho... Essentially, the red-light district. We're no strangers to this, but seeing guys walking around dressed like pimps was a bit goofy. That said, we got in on time, checked in... and snoozed for an hour. Promptly thereafter, we got some dinner (SUSHI!) and played Mario Kart, then stocked up on supplies for the next day.

Which started hot. We went to the Imperial Palace, not perhaps as impressive as the one in Kyoto, but still interesting. It was, however, blazing hot, enough to make me gag and Jen want to collapse. We took in the Emperor's residence, which was originally built by warlords, and used by Tokugawa Ieyasu to hold Tokyo for himself, and as his base of power. The Shogunate he founded ruled Japan from the beginning of the 1600s, all the way to the 1860s, when the Meiji Emperor reclaimed Imperial power from the Shogun.

The castle is not the same as that in Kyoto because it was targeted by the Allies during the Second World War, so this is understandable. Sad, but understandable.

We then went to Ueno, where we took in a Japanese cultural museum (The Tokyo National Museum), much to Jen's relief from the heat. We saw some old swords, samurai armor, and dozens of relics from Japan's past.

The next day, we dropped into Asakusa, the shopping district, and Roppongi, where the night clubs were. It was neat to see temples next to 300 year old shops, and to see Tokyo lit up like a bulb during the night. As Jennifer has commented, it was very Blade Runner-esque.

All in all, a fun time. We're tired, but happy, and looking forward to our last few weeks in Korea, having just enjoyed our last trip abroad in Asia for the immediate future.

Best to all,


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Intensives. Ready? GO!

Hi all,

A very brief post, and my apologies for not commenting last weekend. I've been, as I've mentioned before, job-hunting, therefore I'm not always free to blog of late. Hence, as well, today's short commentary.

I'm off this morning, up and at 'em nice and early, to go to the school, and teach our morning August Intensives class. Korean kids get two month-long holidays from school, one in January, and one in August. Unfortunately for the kids, that means extra study time!

They usually sign up for extra classes with a local hagwon, and in my case, I've got about 5 or 6 kids from Middle School and High School to teach. We're doing a debate class, and I'm a bit anxious, but hopeful that it will be decent.

Wish us luck!

Next weekend: Tokyo!


Monday, July 13, 2009

Holy Cow, Rain!

Hi all,

Title says it all. We went to Seoul to see Dave, our old coworker (now working in a public school in Banghak), and talk about downpour! It was brutal on Sunday morning trying to get back, and we were feeling a little tired.

We had met up to play some Settlers of Catan with Dave. For those that don't know about it, Settlers is an odd cross between Risk, Monopoly, and Empire Builder (an old train building game). It's neat, and highly interactive, and changes every time you play it.

Dave has highlighted in previous blogs of his the difference between public and private schools. It was neat talking to him and his friend Douglas about the fact that you can literally tell who goes to a hagwon and who doesn't: the level of English is like night and day.

It's a weird situation: Korea has a strong private system based on hagwons, although the reason they have the hagwons is the public school system is not very effective, emphasizing rote rehearsal of conversations in English. We therefore teach a lot to tests in the private system, helping students cram for the material that the schools don't make them ready for.

And of course, you still get students who can't speak English, despite having studied it for years, because they're expected to memorize words and grammar out of context. I have students in my advanced classes who are still blatantly struggling to find words, because they haven't learned how to speak fluently in class.

It's worse when you can't afford to go to a private after-school academy. Fortunately, the Korean government seems to be considering how to fix it, but whether it'll really change is anybody's guess.

For our part, Jen and I have our plane tickets back in hand. We have 30 working days spread across 6 weeks left, and we're feeling homesick for the first time in almost 8 months after the initial burst of it when we first got here. We're both pining for the return, but I know when we get there we'll miss Korea, too.

Weird feeling, all around.

Best to all,


Sunday, July 5, 2009



Hi all!

I've included the link above me words here to let you click on our pictures from Everland. We celebrated our 5th Anniversary there, and went shopping in Gangnam today to get some movies and other assorted stuff. It was low-key, but then, we *are* low-key on a general basis. 

It's been a neat five years. Jen and I got married in Kingston, at St. James Anglican Church, after dating for four years (off and on) in University. We met in residence where, gasp!, Jen was my Floor Senior.

Hilarity ensued.

In all seriousness, five years is a long time to be together, and I regret none of it. We've argued, yes, and we've fought, and Heaven knows there've been times when we've gotten annoyed, but there's a lot of good memories there. We've also loved, and gone out for dinner, and had long talks over bottles of wine.

So, while this is not exactly Korean news, let's just say that it is what's on my mind. We just finished watching movies--of all things, Punisher, but then, Jen and I both share similar tastes in movies. Still, I think we'll watch Coraline next. Something more... er... happy. 

Have a good night, ya'll. Less than 8 weeks left before we're Canada bound, and more to come, yet, I'm sure.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Preparing for Home

Hi all,

My apologies for not posting last week. I've been a bit busy. As some may know, I'm working on a TESL Course, and wrapping up the last few assignments (including some essays) in the final lesson for my Methodology Course. While it is not necessarily easy, I've learned some techniques that I'm already incorporating into my classes with my school.

I'm also swamped with 5 essay classes, still. It's about 50 kids with an essay every 5 days, so it's a bit nutty. And, of course, I'm job-searching for work back home.

That said, Jen and I are still doing some fun things: we'll be celebrating our 5th Anniversary next week, and getting out to see some sights before we leave. Stay tuned for more on that front.

As you can tell, this is going to be a short one, because I've got to get back to job hunting. I thought that I should let everyone know that I'm alright.

By the way: much as it looks otherwise, we're not hearing huge warning signs about North Korea. As I may have previously commented, I'll start panicking the moment my Korean coworkers do, not before. They're more worried about the fact that Michael Jackson died. Strange, that, since his music has been around my whole life. I'm not a huge fan, but I know the impact he had on music and TV, and how much it still resonates, especially here in Asia, where he's still quite popular.

Sad day, that one.

Take care all: we're doing well, and approaching the home stretch!

Best regards,


Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Hi everybody,

Jen and I just went to and got back from Busan, at the very southern end of Korea. We spent the weekend touring around, and seeing various parts of a very different city in Korea. For your convenience, I've attached the pictures on Facebook here.

It was fun. We checked out Beomosa Temple, a World Heritage Site, in the North end of the city. The whole town stretches around the curve of the bay in which it sits like a second coast, and we basically used the subway to go back and forth from one end to the other. It was pretty cheap, and got us where we wanted to go. The Temple is gorgeous, built up into the hills naturally.

We went from there to a cable car to get to the top of one of the nearby mountains, and saw a small hermitage up there. The view was spectacular: we could see literally every part of the city from up top.

We were staying in Yeonsan-Dong, near the heart of the city, and from there we checked out the Jagalchi fish market, all 7 stories and 3 blocks of it. The smell of fish was strong, but it was neat to see the place--you could buy food for a year there, all fresh.

We also went to Haeundae, a beach on the eastern side of the city, where the Aquarium is. Jen had never been to a big one before, and it was worth it. They have a lot of different fish, animals, and other critters inside, and a fish car out front. Yes, a fish car--as in, full of fish. Hilarity ensued.

We took the KTX there and back, and we're a bit tired. I'm starting to realize that I'm stressed, and am raising my voice more than I want to in class. I will endeavour to relax more, and institute a more calm feeling in class--it's hard when the kids act like monkeys, but it'll work out.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Hi All,

Nothing going on this weekend. Well, not really. Did some reading, and worked on a TESL program.

I've discovered that I like teaching ESL, and that I'd like to do it when I get back. Therefore, I've decided to work on getting certification to teach it in Canada.

That was my weekend--blah. That, and preparing for our trip to Busan next weekend, and our trip to Tokyo in July.

I also did some writing, and some reading of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. Good book, if a bit bleak--it's about how neo-liberalism and the modern capitalist regime in the world got into power. Most of it, I already knew about, but some things, like how the ANC in South Africa was tricked into giving up a lot of power, or how Solidarity in Poland were abused by the neo-liberals, was a bit of a surprise. If you're curious about capitalism, and how and why the US and othe major players involve themselves in the rest of the world, it's a good read.



Sunday, May 31, 2009

Everland Redux Redux

Hi All,

Just a quick update this weekend: We trundled off to Everland this weekend, again, to enjoy the spring air, and the rides. Unfortunately, two of the better ones, Eagles' Fortress (for those of you in the GTA, this is like the Vortex at Canada's Wonderland, a steel, suspended coaster) and Rolling X-Train (Akin to the Bat, or Flashback, basically, standard two loops and flips each steel coaster) were closed. I didn't mind the latter, since it jars my head around a lot, but the former was a bummer.

Nonetheless, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves: I love the fact that Everland is basically a cheaper, greener Disneyland. It's nestled in amidst these massive hills and mountains, like most of Korea, but where, say, Epcot Center in Disney is carved out of the ground and made of pure concrete, Everland is surrounded by hills and trees. It's something that Korea does very well: combining nature with architecture, and Everland is a pleasant, if goofy, example.

I'm starting my new curriculum this month: basically, we're upgrading folks to a higher difficulty level, on the whole. I'm keeping all of my kids, for which I'm grateful. Some of them have been in my class for 9 months, now, and I'd like to see them out to the end of my 1-year contract. 

I'm looking forward to it, since we'll be doing some projects. It feels weird, with 3 months left, but, then, it's kinda fun, too!

I'll link you to Jen's webspace here, since she's got the videos up for Everland.



Monday, May 25, 2009

Folk Village

Hi all,

We visited the Korean folk village, of which Jennifer has some great pictures and videos on her blog, here. For the sake of convenience, I've linked to the pictures on Facebook.

It was neat to see an older side of Korea. While we don't know for sure if this is how things would have looked back then, it was still cool. Korea has, for certain, changed a great deal in the last few hundred years. Heck, even in the last 10 years it's changed a lot.

We spent Saturday with Derek, a fellow teacher in Korea, and fellow gamer. We relaxed, rolled some multi-sided dice, and had a thoroughly good time.

We then toodled off to the Folk Village on Sunday (my kids made me giggle today, by mispronouncing folk... five guesses on what they called it by accident). There's traditional dances (as best as we can tell, that's how they looked), see-saw acrobatics, horsemanship, and a tightrope walker, who was rather amusing, if not bilingual.

It was great, and the only downside was a rather oddball recreation of a marriage, that had two elderly folks re-enacting their wedding for their 60th anniversary. It was sweet, sure, but we felt awful for these two older individuals having to go through a rather grueling performance at their age.

Nice museums, lots of animals, and cool shows. In short, it's quite worth checking out.

Speaking of change: Former President Noh (mispelled rather badly as Roh in English) committed suicide on Saturday. There's been a media furore over this here, since he was one of the folks who helped end the dictatorship in South Korea, and was the subject of a major corruption investigation. He became president after promising to root that out. Unfortunately, the investigation seriously tarnished, or threatened to tarnish, his reputation, and while I don't know that the police have come to a final conclusion, one suspects that he committed suicide to avoid further shame.

It is deeply tragic, however, whenever anyone takes their own life, and I hope he finds peace in whatever awaits us after death.

He, and others like him, helped change South Korea into what it is today.

Best regards,


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Busy Busy Busy

Hi all,

A quiet but busy weekend this time around. Jen and I went over to a friends' house to play a game or two and relax on Saturday, then aborted our trip to the Suwon Cultural Festival when we both woke up with caffeine headaches and the realization that we needed to get some work done.

I'm taking a class with Ontesol (www.ontesol.ca) to get my certificate for when I go back home. As I've probably mentioned before, here, I want to be able to teach ESL when I return to Canada--I've found I enjoy it a great deal, and that I'd like to continue to pursue this as a career in my home country. 

So I slogged away at that for a few hours, and got my assignments done. Then sat around and watched some TV on the Internet, and brushed up on the news. It was, in short a happy afternoon. We got some pizza, and went out to enjoy a blustery but sunny afternoon dinner.

It's nice, this time of year, in Korea. We've got sun, but we've yet to have the pleasure of wading through the monsoons, and while it can get hot, it's not yet so bad that we are forced to stay indoors and turn on the Air Con. I'm going to start planning some ventures to Hwaseong and the Suwon palace, as well as to Seoul to see the sights, and since Jen and I are keeping an eye on our budget (we came here to save money, after all), we're looking at Korean destinations for the remainder of our time here.

We have one vacation planned to Tokyo for a few days, simply to see the biggest megacity this side of the Pacific, but beyond that, we plan on getting out to Korean Folk Village, to Everland, Busan, Jeju-Do, and for me, Hae-in-sa, site of some of the oldest Buddhist scriptures in Korea. 

We also started a weekday Kindergarten class this week on Thursdays and Fridays at school. Guess who got the first two?

It's good to have the same kids in these classes, and to teach them at a more convenient time. The other teachers seem to have been a little surprised at how much I run around with them, but then, if I don't, they'll go to sleep!

It's been a good week, and I'm feeling rather zen about everything--we've got three months left, and I'm becoming more and more actively aware of what I'm doing, trying to preserve the memories for the rest of my life so that, when I return to Canada, I can tell the story of my time here in Korea. 

I hope it's been fun for ya'll, as it has been for me.

Best regards,


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pictures from Thailand

Hi all,

Here are three links to our photos from Thailand.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three



Thursday, May 7, 2009


Hi all,

Well, I'll be adding pictures on a separate post, once they upload to my computer (since we took hundreds, it's taking a few hours). We just got back from Thailand, or Tae-Guk as my kids call it. We departed bright and early on Wednesday morning to Incheon airport, and spent the next 6 hours flying over the South China Sea towards Bangkok. We landed in the afternoon, got our tickets for our next flight, and had our first meal of the day in Thailand.

I had my first of many coconut-based drinks while in the airport, literally straight out of the coconut, along with Pad Thai. This will become somewhat of a theme for us on this trip, as you might imagine.

We linked up with Daniel, who was taking a separate flight via Hong Kong, and then the whole lot of us flew out to Koh Samui, on the south-eastern coast near Phuket. I should add at this point that our group included myself, Jen, Daniel, Sumi, Paulina, and Ashley, all members of the teaching team at our Academy. Daniel invited us down to stay at his Aunt's guest in Mae Nam/Bang Phor (pronounced pour).

We got there late at night, and, after meeting Daniel's lovely relative, Linda, and her roommate, Louise, we settled in for the night, and made plans.

The next morning, we went out to Chaweng Beach (Ban Chaweng), on the east coast of the island. It was Jen's first time swimming in the ocean, and my first time in the Pacific on this side of the world. I considered it a life-long goal fulfilled, to have swum in both sides of the two biggest oceans, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. A goofy goal, perhaps, but I was glad to do it.

We ate lunch at a place called Aladdin in Chaweng. Anyone going to Koh Samui is recommended to visit, as well as the Sea View restaurant in Mae Nam, where we ate that evening with Linda and Louise. While I shall spare you any further references to how awesome the food was (since that was not the main point of the trip), suffice it to say that we all thoroughly enjoyed being able to eat such great food on the cheap. A Pad Thai with eggs, ordered from a street vendor (like an American hot dog stand) cost 35 bhat, which equals 1,500 Won, or about 1.75$CAD. We were, in short, in paradise, food wise.

The beaches, meanwhile, were simply amazing. The view was gorgeous at Chaweng, with a view of the Pacific stretching out to the horizon, deep aquamarine seas that went on forever, and palm trees everywhere. We spent most of the first day on the beach, getting a little crisped by the heat. The temperature was about 40-50 degrees each day, so we all felt a little tired at the end of the day, but it was entirely worth it.

The next day, Daniel and I went off to explore the island while Sumi, Paulina, Ashley, and Jen got facials at a nearby spa. Daniel and I checked out Ban Taling, Hat Lamai, a few temples, got lost somewhere in the south-western end of the island for an hour, before driving through Ban Nathon (na-tawn), where the docks are, and back to Mae Nam. We checked out all sorts of stuff, and it was a good chance to chat with my coworker and get to know him better. We've been working together for 8 months, but Daniel is sometimes a private person, so it was nice to talk with him.

Over the next few days, we would check out Lamai beach and Big Buddha Beach (Bo Phut, in the north), a Muay Thai fight or two at Lamai market, and Jennifer and I went clubbing at the Green Mango club in downtown Chaweng. It was a great scene, and we both enjoyed it. Our coworkers gave us a polite push in the general direction of the club, insisting that we spend some time alone with each other. It was a cute gesture on their part, and we appreciated it, since we both love dancing.

We got a Thai massage (or two) on our last couple of days in Thailand, and checked out Chaweng one more time before we left. It's probably the best beach of the bunch, given that it's so central, and has such great water.

We also went on a bit of a tour around the island, checking out a waterfall, a restaurant on the top of one of the mountains on the island--the view was spectacular, and, as I said, I'll have pictures up ASAP--and riding on an elephant.

In short, we really, really, really needed this vacation. We were all of us stressed as the last four months went on, and I for one have had almost zero break time during that period, between working the kindergarten class on Saturdays, the new curriculum, 4 out of 5 classes having essays, and a mess of other changes at work. I like my job, but, don't get me wrong, I was bushed.

Linda and Louise are great people, and I'm grateful to them for their patience and generosity in putting us up in their guest house this week. We were literally in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by dogs, water buffalo, a few snakes and scorpions, flowers, chickens, the endless sun, and the trees. It was, in short, perfect.

While I have to get back to work this week, I'm feeling a lot less stress, and Jen looks like she literally shed a year or two from her face. My kids all think I look more relaxed, which is good--they still have tests, though, despite the flattery!

All in all, well worth it.



I love this week-end: Wolverine, Star Trek, and Angels and Demons are all coming out at the same time. I've seen Star Trek already, last night, and am going to see the other two over the next two days. Movie marathon! I'll post a review on the weekend.



Saturday, April 18, 2009

Alienation and the Law

Hi all,

Weird title, neh? I got to thinking this week about something odd, and decided I should bring it up here. So, most everybody who lives in Korea knows about HomePlus, but for those keeping tabs on me back home, it's basically a giant chain of, well, giant retail stores. Think WalMart on steroids, and you'll have a sense for how the place looks. Four or more floors of shopping, all at sometimes annoying prices (peanut butter at 5$ a small jar? Please!).

Anyway, gouging aside, they started a new advertising campaign featuring a rather famous Korean ex-ssireum wrestler. The fellow's on everything from Two-Two-Chicken (KFC, but better, because they have beer), to cell phones, to Home Plus, now.

I was looking at one of the ads, and I suddenly got this weird vibe, as if I was looking at it from outside my own head. Now, before you ask, no, I was not under the influence of anything--I was, in fact, depressingly off of caffeine due to a dentist informing me I couldn't have coffee for a week, until a filling set. The experience was, instead, one where I suddenly wondered what it would be like to be a Korean reading these signs, and seeing them as normal.

What would it be like, to be other than me? To see me as a Korean: I'm a skinny red-head with glasses who likes to jabber away in a Canadian dialect of English at speeds that make jumbo jets look slow. I mean, seriously, have any of us ever considered what it feels like for the other people around us in this country? We probably have, but it's that kind of alienation that made me stop and think.

I am, in this country, the quintessential Other. I have not learned Korean. I am decidedly Caucasian, and pale to boot, at that. I do not fit in--I speak my mind, often, make crude jokes when I'm in a bad mood, and while I respect the importance of being part of a social hierarchy, I tend to get annoyed when it is too rigid to recognize its own failings.

In short, I am a sore thumb, sticking out. I wondered, for a brief moment, what it would be like to be a Korean, living in Korean, and hearing me jabber away in English. I can understand how it feels, sort of--when other people speak Korean near me, I can't understand it, but it sounds like Korean to my ears, now. How might it feel to hear English for someone who is not able to speak or comprehend the language?

Weird thoughts, I know, but something to consider. How much of our language informs our thinking, or shapes what we believe? In English, for example, we place a lot of emphasis, not on class or status as in the Korean language (there are three versions that I know of for asking one's name: Ireumi-myoiyeyo, Ireumi-myoiyo, and Ireumi-Myoiya, in decreasing order of politeness and rank), but on time, and placing things in order as they occurred. Look at some of our stupid grammar tenses: past perfect progressive, or "I had been studying, when I got hit by a car." I mean, honestly, my kids are right to ask "Teacher, WHY?"

It's just a weird thought I had, but something I will undoubtedly ponder for a while. I know I am going to have culture shock when I come back to Canada--I will miss my Kimchi, and my cheap kimbap rolls, and public displays of affection between people of the same gender, and yes, there's a small part of me that will miss Korean illogic, and the hilarity that often ensues. I will miss my students, and I will miss my coworkers, but I wonder above all how much I will miss being the Other, of being able to speak in English and be fairly certain my conversation is private, and of being alone in a sea of people who are different yet similar to myself.

More than I thought I would, I think.


Legality and labor issues have come up a few times lately, both here and on other blogs, as well as facebook.

While I am not directly involved in the issues mentioned on those webpages linked above, nor shall I endeavor to intrude with my own thoughts, it's ironic to note some of my fellow staff and I have been curious about similar legal issues with our own school. We're lucky, in that our Korean staff are courteous, hard-working, and generally up-standing folks. We're lucky, in that our branch manager is not a bad person, and works hard at being good to the foreign staff in spite of the Korean management style.

So, we have not yet run into the issues these two women have, for which we are grateful. No, our concern has been that our Korean coworkers, particularly, the counter staff, have been working themselves nigh unto death on a repeated basis. Naomi, of whom I have spoken before, quit because she was stressed from 70-hour work-weeks. Now, we find out that the majority of the Korean staff do the same, and are not necessarily given time back (vacation hours in exchange for overtime) or paid for those excess hours.

I find it sad to say that I wasn't surprised or shocked by it. I am glad, however, to find that I can still tap a little of my old protestor rage when I hear such things. I am not, though, as unwise as I once was, and I know that I neither know the legal system, here, nor do I speak the language. Therefore, any attempt to protest the issue by myself will likely result in, at best, the attitudes of my employers and possibly my fellow employees, turning sour towards me (read, making my life hell, which is what managers do back home when you stir the pot about bad labor practices), or worse, getting fired.

Similarly, if there is to be change to the Korean labor system, it has to come from within. I am not Korean, and while I could try to challenge some of the unfair practices I see here, it is quite likely I will be dismissed for being A) foreign, and B) not sensitive to Korean culture. We have heard the latter before, and I can understand the concern: I wouldn't want someone from Korea coming to Canada and trying to tell me how my labor system is unfair. It goes back to my earlier point about alienation, but I am acutely aware of how little power I have here.

I did make sure to look up the Korean Labor Standards Act, which goes into some detail on what Korean laborers and managers should and should not do. I get the sense, however, that these rules are consistently broken. Hagwons are, in a way, a bit of a weird case--we're offering a public service, yet we're also a business. The chief employees are foreigners who do not understand Korean, or the Korean legal system. It is therefore sadly common to hear stories of how foreigners get into bad situations. I am wholly sympathetic to those who are good, hard-working teachers, and offer them my support and help, meagre though it may be.

But in terms of changing the system, there isn't much we can do. Canada had almost a hundred years of struggle by labor unions and others, to establish the legal rights we take for granted in the workplace. Korea, I suspect, is only starting this process, and while Korea is likely to be faster at getting the same result given that it is developing so fast, it is nevertheless still early goings yet.

This leads me to make a few modest suggestions, none of which should be construed as legal advice. I know next to nothing about Korean law, and my understanding of Canadian law is not as good as others, because I am not a lawyer. If you do have questions about the law, here, or are thinking of coming but are unsure about this, look up some of the stuff in the Labor Standards Act--it's been updated since the version I posted above. There's also the Korean Labor Board, which admittedly, apparently has little power. Similarly, check out options here and look up the issues on Dave's ESL Cafe. There is information out there, and you should be careful, but understand that the majority of schools are usually run by decent people. There are bad apples out there, but they are thankfully not the rule.

If there is a serious issue, find a Korean lawyer who speaks English, and that you can trust.

As to blogging--you'll notice I've never mentioned my school by name, right? That's another wise thing to do. Future employers do know how to read blogs, and the internet. If I was working in HR, I'd look up a potential applicant on google. I'm on there, as are most people, now. My one serious suggestion is to be careful what you talk about online. If you are going to be critical, or to comment, as I have, here, avoid naming too many names. I have included them where appropriate, but keep it polite, because you never know who might be reading.

I believe the only real advice that I or others can give is just that: to be polite, to be careful, and to use your common sense. Korea and Asia both are beautiful places to live and visit, and have a ton of things to offer expats looking for work. Remember that our conduct reflects not just upon ourselves, but upon our countries and others who come to work here, and that we must therefore exercise our best judgment when problems arise. Hopefully, Korea can be a fun and enlightening work experience for those that come here. If it turns into a challenge, know that you can handle it with common sense, courtesy, and effort. Just be careful, is all.

Keep on Trucking,


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Soccer and Easter

Hi all,

First, for those who celebrate it: Happy Easter! We normally have a family gathering with either Jen or my family, so it feels a bit sad to not be able to do so today. We made up for it, however, by holding a friendly ol' Easter potluck at the house.

After recovering from a bad hangover, we got up on Sunday and puttered about the house for a bit. we went out with a Korean friend of Jennifer's, and I made the mistake of trying to go toe-to-toe with him on drinking. I won't make that mistake again.

We went out to a Bluewings match, which, for the price, is the best show in town. I can't think of any sporting event in Canada or the States which would cost 10$. With beers, it's maybe 15-20, depending on how much one chooses to imbibe. A few people had a lot, especially some of the Ultras in the front.

It was nice to see David again, and Roger, both of whom were former coworkers at our Hagwon, and nice people to boot. The atmosphere at these games is insane: the stadium's not even full, but you can hear the chanting from outside the building!

It was a lot of fun, and definitely worth doing. We also plan to get back to Everland at some point, since Dave is a fan of rollercoasters--and so am I.

Anyway, we then went home to clean the place up and get set for the potluck. Our guests included Dave and Roger, Ashley and Sumi, and Jessica, all either coworkers or former colleagues. A good time, and we were all stuffed: I may have to have Jen roll me to work today.

Happy Easter, indeed.



Monday, April 6, 2009

A Quick Update

(A fun picture of the 'old gang,' Me, Jennifer, Daniel, Oliver, David, Stephanie (taking the picture), Ashley, Sumi, and Sarah)

Hi all,

So, a quick update this week. I know that I'm starting to wear down around the edges--I can kind of feel the cognitive blurring that happens when you get really tired. It'd be an interesting thing to study, were it not happening to me.

What's happening? Not much. We relaxed this weekend, both of us being exhausted, and I still managed to drag myself out of bed at 4 in the morning to Skype home, and play some D&D with some friends by remote conference. It was neat, and, I have to say, pretty amazing to be able to see my friends again, even if only digitally.

Wonders of modern technology, eh?

Speaking of which, I'm taking a TESL Certification course online, at www.ontesol.com. It's pretty good, so far, although I've had some issues with their quiz design (4 adjectives in one sentence, and I have to guess which 2 out of the 4 that the computer will recognize as correct answers, oi).

I'm discovering that I really enjoy teaching ESL, and would love to continue doing it back home--maybe to adults, maybe still to kids. Either way, it's a decent living, and one that I feel good doing--always important.

Anyway, I'm going to grab some coffee and wake myself up--gotta do some grading.

Still hanging in there,


Sunday, March 29, 2009


Hi all,

Jen and I had a busy weekend. We plugged away on Saturday at the office, teaching an "Intro to Essay Writing" class that went over reasonably well. I'm hopeful that some of my students understand what they're doing afterwards, and that they begin to write decent essays if only to save my own sanity from some of the more interesting experiments in creative design that have resulted from their last few attempts.

I kid. The majority of my students know how to write an essay--they just need help making them more readable.

We hung out for the duration of the weekend: our plans to go to Everland were quashed by cold weather, and so we just... well, relaxed.

We grabbed a pizza on Saturday and sat out in the park, munching away happily and chatting about nothing.

However, we made a minor mistake on Sunday: we cooked. Now, both of us are actually pretty good cooks, but the problem is, we cooked Western style, and with olive oil.

We're not used to either, having lived in Korea for over half a year, and subsisting on rice and various veggies and meats that we've now become totally accustomed to. We've also become used to Korean portions: something I think I am going to miss when I come home.

So, a plateful of home-fries and chicken later, and we're both feeling a bit yucky this morning. We only got a few hours of sleep because, well, we ate too much.

It's a minor point, on the surface. Asian cuisine involves less food per person than does American or Canadian. Looking back, however, I'm frankly shocked by how much more a "Western" portion involves, and not at all surprised that the manner in which we cook (big portions, lots of starch, fried food, etc) results in health concerns and size differences between Canadians and Koreans. I'm only about 70 Kilograms (160 pounds), while Jen is a little bigger.

But Koreans on the whole tend to be slimmer and smaller than Westerners. Part of that is genetic, I'm sure, but a large part of it has to be the diets we live on.

Something to consider if you come here, and for when I come back, I think. I have no intention of returning to the consumption rate I used to live on, back home. I don't need as much food as restaurants serve in North America. I suspect, if I can live up to such a plan, I will be healthier for it.



Sunday, March 22, 2009

Seeing Old Friends

Hi All,

Well, a brief-ish post today. I spoke last time about how we were losing some of our old core staff members, like Naomi (Kyong-Hee Hong, is her Korean name). She's a sweetheart, and basically a dear friend of the majority of the English staff who had worked at our Hagwon over the last two plus years.

Well, we decided to ask her to go for dinner tonight, alongside another friend and former co-worker from our school, Dave, whose blog is featured here. Dave's a smart guy, and a lot of fun to hang out with, not least because he shares Jennifer's and my mutual love of Settlers of Catan. Settlers has become the mainstay at our on-again, off-again games night with the folks from work, and it reminds us of home, where we first started to play it.

Dave, Jen, and I went out to our second Bluewings game of the 2009 campaign, against Jeju United. Once more, Suwon lost. I think this is a case of Championship Blues, or the like: Suwon won the K-League title last year, and played recently against David Beckham's LA Galaxy team. They're also in the Asian Football Championship Tournament, so I can understand some sluggishness. Still--losing to Jeju? Gah.

It was nice to relax a bit this weekend. I'm still teaching Kindergarten, but I had a breakthrough with one of my reticent kids. His name is Rick, and while he's cute as all get out, he was a problem child at first: I suspect his English is limited, and he was actively refusing to take part in class. His mother gave him heck, I think, because he came in after two weeks of rolling around on the floor in class and actively took part. 

Well, paid attention, at least, even if he didn't understand. This week, though, I was able to get him to repeat words, and, better yet, to point to material in the books we were reading that was the same. It's moments like that, when my kids have an "Ah-ha!" moment that I feel like I'm doing something of worth.


On that subject: I had an odd weekend. I read a coworker's blog, where she discussed having trouble connecting her personal perspective with her work here. I can respect that: there's a lot of strange decisions going on in our school, and at times it's easy to fall back on the "It's just Business" motto. I know all about that: I even fell back into that mentality at times, if only to protect my mental stability from the pressure of trying to get these kids to care.

I nearly broke down this weekend. Seriously, literally, and totally broke down. I was on the verge of giving up and going home, I was literally that angry. Our new curriculum took a month for us to sort out, and I was tired of having to come in early every day to fix things. I was ready to give up.

Jin, one of our Korean team-mates, fixed things, after a lot of work, and I feel better now. But it feels as if I'm struggling to swim upstream, all the while somebody's attaching a rope to my feet from the other direction. 

I'm obssessive compulsive--I need organization, especially in my work space, in order to function. I need it that way so I can keep my brain focused, and thus not go completely nuts when things go wrong. I admit to being a perfectionist, as well, so when things get disorganized, I get mad. 

It was frustrating, to say the least, this last month.

I am glad, though, to have spend an hour or two trekking with Jen around the highlands near Kyung-Hee Dae University, near our school and apartment. The mountains in this country are utterly gorgeous, and incredibly peaceful. One can easily lose hours climbing over the hills around one's own house, and its easy to see why hiking is so popular, here. 

It was a mini-date with my wife, which we needed, I think. We talked about a host of subjects, about life, work, and faith. I maintain my spirituality as a private matter--I don't discuss it with my coworkers, as my perspective would take some serious discussion to describe, not to mention, it comes across as seriously heretical to most Christians. I am what is called a Gnostic Christian, and the closest to my interpretation of my faith is the Universalist and Quaker traditions within the mainstream church. Of course, calling the Universalists "mainstream" sounds funny, but you get the idea.

I hold to the belief that God exists, not as a personal being (i.e., an incarnate "old man in the sky"), but as the fundamental spirt of all that lives, what John Shelby Spong calls "the ground of being." As such, I tend to distrust literalism and strict dogma--perhaps this comes from some innate distrust of authority engendered on me in my youth, but who knows, right? For me, like the Gnostics, God is to be found in the shared experience, those wonderful moments when the universe seems to click, and you have an "ah-ha" moment on some deep, fundamental level about life and the meaning of life itself. I've experienced that only a few times, and it leaves me shaken to my core when it does happen.

But a fundamental part of my faith is the belief that I, being constrained by an inherently subjective perspective (I don't accept the idea that God will tell me everything, and even if God did, I would be biased by said subjectivity), have the right to tell others what they should think. As Albert Camus said, I cannot tell others what is right, but I can rebel when I see something I think is wrong. In short, I don't talk much about my faith because I worry that I might interfere in the path and development of others. So long as their path does not prevent others from pursuing their own truths in turn, I find myself unwilling to interfere. 

Perhaps that is an odd perspective, but it is my own... and it was nice to talk with Jen about it this weekend. We fell in love because we were both thinkers and loved to have good, rational arguments about things. I still love her for that, and I hope that I can, in my small way here, encourage my kids to do as I was taught: to question everything, and try to grow.

Or, perhaps, in seeing my old friends, I am feeling nostalgic.



Sunday, March 15, 2009


Hi all, 

It's odd, seeing how things change. Sarah and Amber, two long-standing members of the team at work, have headed home, their contracts here finished. We had to say goodbye to them at the end of February/early March, and it was odd to realize that Jen and I were, suddenly, among the most experienced/oldest ones in our branch of our school.

I mean, seriously? We're the old hands, now? After six months, we're supposed to be the experienced kids in school. Really?

We miss Sarah and Amber. Sarah helped me and Jen to acclimatize when we first got here. Similarly, Daniel, one of the others who joined us in September as new teachers, helped Sionna and Paulina, two new folks 2 months ago, to settle in. So, the older teacher helping the newer one(s) is a bit of a tradition in our school. It was therefore weird to say goodbye.

It was weirder, still, when Naomi, one of the Korean workers in our school, chose to leave. Naomi had been there from before Sarah and Amber's time, so at least two and a half years. She's one of the folks who helped keep us all sane, and to keep the branch running. I'm slightly nervous about how well we'll operate with her gone. The counter teachers are all hard-working, but of all of them, Naomi seemed to basically know where everything was at all times, and how to keep things working.

I wish her the best, of course, and understand why she left. She was working, essentially, 70 hours a week, while being paid for far less. That kind of stress, no-one deserves to have to handle. I've been volunteering to teach a kindergarten class with the school on Saturdays, and I'm exhausted from 50 hour weeks for the past two months. I can't imagine how Naomi felt.

It's odd to see that happening here. Maybe it's cultural, maybe not, but people seem to be putting themselves through hell, whether in the academy as a student, or at school, or work. Maybe it's a left-over from the devastation of the 2nd World War and Korean War--a desire to work hard to rebuild, or to make up for what was destroyed by the fighting... I don't know, maybe it's something else. Whatever the cause, the consequence of over-working is obvious: stress, and loss of staff members like Naomi, and Liz, another Korean staff-member leaving at the end of March.

I hope nobody else leaves--I do not want to be the most-experienced staff member, period, in the school. While that is unlikely, it does worry me. 

All else goes well. With the new essay classes I'm teaching, and problems with some of the test books, I've got a lot of work to do, but that's normal. It's nothing I can't handle. I just keep wondering about the future of the school, and looking forward, in some small ways, to coming home. I'm on the other side of half-way to being done with my contract, and it's weird to start counting down, instead of up.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Long Week

Hi all, 

A shorter post this week, as I'm rather exhausted. In short, at work, I was asked to help out by taking on a second kindergarten course, one which will run for another six weeks, in addition to the six I'd already agreed to. In other words, instead of finishing my run on the 14th, I'll not be finished teaching the little ones until mid-April.

While I love teaching the kids, the truth is, I'm exhausted. I need a break from six-day workweeks, and the sooner the better. The worst part is, the group I'm teaching for the second shift are mostly unable to speak English--so I'm jabbering at them in English to sit down, or to play, or whatever... and they don't understand.

Oh well.

We're also implementing a new curriculum, the details of which I shall spare you, gentle reader, since they involve a lot of frustration. I like the uniformity, but I don't like some of the difficulties we've had getting the system set up. I'm also working on an essay rubric--I'd like to have something we can give to the parents so that they know where their kids need to improve. We'll see how that turns out.

Jen, new teacher Jessica, myself, and the counter teachers Jin and Hong (Naomi) went to the first game of the season for the Suwon Bluewings. The atmosphere was great, even if we did not win. 

We also finally finished Chi Bi, by John Woo, and saw the Watchmen. Both were decent adaptations of their respective fictional forefathers. The former was actually based on real events, but played out like a rather-heavily adapted version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, while the latter endeavored to stay reasonably close to its comic book original. Neither were perfect, but they were enjoyable.

Best regards,


Saturday, February 28, 2009

Theatre, Tae Kwon Do

Hi all,

My apologies for the lengthy delay in between my last post and today's. I've been busy, and sick, and while having a cough and working on report card's is no excuse, I hope, as an explanation, it will suffice.

We spent yesterday in Seoul--camera-less, for which I apologize--after Kindergarten class in the morning at school. I'm up to 8 munchkins, now, and I've got them hopping around happily all class. It's a ton of fun, and they remain incredibly cute--it's tiring, but totally worth it. And if it helps give our campus a shot in the arm, which it looks to be doing, more power to 'em. I hope this project succeeds--if it does, we could start getting more kids to learn English at a younger age. For fiscal reasons, this is incredibly important--they stay longer, after all, but more importantly, it will help give them the phonemes necessary to learn English from an early age. Phonemes is a fancy linguistic term meaning the sounds used by a given language. I can hear, for example,t he phonemes in Korean, but I miss the ones in Chinese by a mile, having never been exposed to it. I'm very good at hearing Japanese, French, and Spanish sounds, having spoken or been around speakers of those languages regularly in the past. 

That said, while it's entirely possible (and, indeed, some argue, easier) to learn a foreign language as an adult, it can't hurt to get 'em hooked on English young. I agree with this website's assessment of language learning--we can learn as adults, too, if we work at it, but getting used to language when young makes it incredibly easy to develop one's skills in it as one gets older (I can still, for example, speak reasonably good French, thanks to my mom and dad exposing me to it early, and living in France for a year when I was young).

Anyway, I digress. We went into Seoul with Jessica, one of our new teachers. We're going to be losing Sarah and Amber, both of whom have been here for nearly two-and-a-half years. The loss in teaching experience, in addition to the transfer of another teacher, Oliver, who came when we did, means that our school is going to be changing a lot in the next few weeks, between that and the new books and new term we're starting (Korean schools begin their new grades on March 2nd this year). It's sad to see those two go--they helped ease us into Korea, and they're a great pair of people. 

So, we went into Seoul to show Jessica how to get into Gangnam (pronounced Kang-nahm), Kyobo books, and a few other things. We got a few cheap movies while we there, including John Woo's Red Cliffs, which, frankly, is made of pure awesomeness

We then went further North, leaving Jessica with Sarah and Ashley, our coworkers, while we went downtown to meet up with another friend for some Korean performing arts. We saw a traditional dance (very different, it was all men doing the dancing), zither performances, and some really amazing folk drumming. Just when you thought they couldn't go faster, they did. Ditto with the volume--my ears are still ringing a bit.

We then went off to Myeong-Dong with Sumi, our coworker, and her friends Janice and Andrew. Why Myeong-Dong, you ask? Well, that's where Seoul Tower is. We had planned to get back to Gangnam for 9 PM to meet up with Ashley and Jessica again, but by this time it was 8, and I was pretty sure we weren't going to make it, with the 30 minute wait for the cable car, and another 30 minute wait for the elevator to the top of the tower.

The view was awesome--dark, yes, but worthwhile to see the lights of the Sprawl below stretching out like trees across the mountains. It was like looking at a William Gibson cyberpunk novel, a city that has become so large that it integrates the surrounding, formerly independent cities, into it, and claims the title Megapolis or Megacity with ease. Tokyo, I hear, is the same, and I look forward to seeing that colossus in time--it reminded me of looking at Beijing by night--massive, and unapologetic about it. But Seoul has a unique feeling to it. Smaller in terms of population (if only slightly), but cramped into tighter space, the city grew up instead of out--apartments rise and stack on top of each other like cardboard boxes, or plants reaching towards the sun, while 10 million people happily swarm around each other, hive-like, but each an individual.

Humanity has always fascinated me--we are capable of producing some real wonders, and cities are one example of this.


Tae Kwon Do

Why a digression on my favorite Korean martial art? Well, because, after nearly fourteen years of studying it, I am coming to the conclusion that I either have to look for a new form of training, or a new art. I love Tae Kwon Do--its eminently practical at times, utilizing the power of the fighter's legs to give one the ability to do massive damage to an attacker, fast, and then get out of the fight once you've made sure that you can't get hurt.

Tae Kwon Do is not a new martial art--it's about fifty or sixty years old, and was explicitly designed after World War Two to combine the various divergent Korean martial arts into one that could be universalized across the country, and, eventually, around the world. I recall reading somewhere--don't remember where exactly--that it's become one of the most popular martial arts in the world, partly due to its usefulness, but, sadly, also because it becomes exceptionally easy to turn into a McDojang (you go in, pay your money, and get a black belt in a year, which is, pardon the phrase, bullcrap in my mind).

It evolved from Tang Soo Do, Takkyeon, and older forms of Korean fighting, which date back to the original fighting arts of the old Three Kingdoms period. The Hwarang, a group of young men picked by the Ssilla (Shilla) Kingdom's rulers, which eventually evolved into an elite, aristocratic fighting force, helped develop some of these arts, which may well be the origins of the style I've practiced for over half of my life.

In its best forms, Tae Kwon Do mixes speed training, kicks, punches, 'harder' strikes (elbows and knees, in my mental classification), throws, and self-defense training (close in combat techniques for when someone grabs you or comes at you with a knife). My first dojang (training hall) in Dallas, was an exemplar of this. Our instructor borrowed liberally from Hapkido (a Korean variant on Aikido), weapons training, and Ju-Jitsu  (Japanese grappling) to produce a martial art that was flexible and focused on developing the art of fighting and self-defense. 

There, we studied dozens of kick variants, arm techniques, weapons forms, poomseh (katas in Japanese, or choreographed forms in English), and sparring techniques, all designed to emphasize the training of the body to react instinctively to threat. In short, Tae Kwon Do can be an extremely effective martial art, especially if it leads the practitioner to realize that it can be supplemented with, or used to supplement, other arts and thus combined to make a better whole. Tae Kwon Do is not without flaws, even then--the emphasis on jumps, spin kicks, and high kicks can leave one exposed in a real fight, which, I think, is the real reason one studies martial arts. In its purest forms (whatever that means), it lacks strong hand and arm techniques, and often, emphasizes the legs to the exclusion of all else. That's fine, except if your opponent knows how to fight up close and can grapple.

In its worst forms, I've seen Tae Kwon Do dojangs where the student goes in, pays their money, and gets their black belt in such a short matter of time that they could not possibly hope to fight a real opponent and win, or, worse, where they lack the self-discipline and enlightenment necessary to realize that the most valuable fighting technique is the ability to avoid a fight in the first place. I hold a second-degree (2nd or Ii Dan) black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and have held it for almost 8 years--I've not levelled up higher than that because I've had to move often in the last eight years, and went to a few dojangs that basically told me I'd have to start over, again, in their style (annoying, but when they're the only dojang around and one doesn't have a car, you smile, nod, and swallow your complaints, and take from the school what you can). I have not fought another person in that entire time, nor will I, if I can avoid it, for the remainder of my life. I know I could cause the other person harm, and that entering the fight in the first place is a failure on my part, as a martial artist, to find a more appropriate way out of the situation. 

Some dojangs, like one I went to, here, are exceptionally good--but focus on sparring, training for the Olympics and competition, or demonstration. The problem I had with the local dojang is that they were trying to get me to do the same. I'm not interested in sparring much anymore--I have significant knee injuries that I have acquired over fourteen years of heavy training (most of which are my own fault, or came through sparring!). I also recently discovered I have a problem with one my vertebrae, so, while I'm also simply getting older, I'm not so stupid as to willingly throw myself into sparring with the Korean National Demonstration Team, nor try their tricks. I don't see any practical use in throwing a 720 degree kick in mid air, upside down, in a fight. 

I emphasize practicality in my own training, and when I teach others. If you can't use it in a fight (if you can't get out of the fight, I should add), then what good is it? Unfortunately, I lack the Korean language skills to explain my concerns to the instructors at the dojang, and I've had one too many injuries while there. Part of this is the language barrier... but the other part is a sense in some Tae Kwon Do dojangs, and especially, it seems, here in Korea, to wave off pain as part of the learning experience. Sure, pain, sparring, and the occasional bruises are normal in martial arts training. 

However, and I must say this is a large however, one should not put a student in a position where one is liable to get hurt, simply for the sake of doing so, or for teaching techniques which are only to be used in demonstration. There are some wonderful demo teams out there--the group at this dojang included, they're simply brilliant. I'm not that good. Sure, I'm a good fighter, and I can hold my own in a sparring contest, and I know I could break bones if I got into a real fight. But I'm not interested in demonstrations--I'm pragmatic in my training, and maybe a bit old, and I know when I need to stop, back away, and think about things.

I hurt when I get up in the morning--another sign, sadly, that I need to take a break. I continue to keep up my exercise, privately, at the gym, and in the park near our apartment. I will continue my training, but I will do it my way. I'm not a master--I never earned that privilege. However, I am entirely capable of practicing on my own, and teaching others.

While this blog is dedicated to my travels here in Korea, I may, as time goes on, begin to discuss martial arts in more depth, and my thoughts on them. I begin to suspect that I will endeavor to begin blending, as my old master in Dallas did, various martial arts to find a more perfect union of them. Tae Kwon Do is incredibly valid, and I have no trouble at all with people who want to train for the Olympics and for demonstrations. I simply have no interest in that route. And while sparring is a necessary part of training, it should not be done in such a way that it is unsafe. One of my favorite lessons from my old teacher was that, in a dojang, one studies with the other students--one should not go out of one's way to hurt one's training partners!

I love the martial arts, and will continue to train in them--but I will do so in my own way, and with care and concern for myself, and those who train with me. The goal is to learn self-defense, and self-discipline, not self-injury. It is so much a part of my identity, that I have no intention whatsoever of stopping completely, but I sense a time has come for a pause to reflect on my progress, my capabilities, and what I want to do in the future with my studies. If I should continue in Tae Kwon Do, I will be happy. If I choose, instead, to begin branching out and to study other forms of martial arts, I will be equally happy. I continue to study, and in so doing, to discover more about myself as I grow older and, hopefully, somewhat wiser.

Anyway, rant over--I've meant to talk about this for a while.

Best regards,