A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

At dusk

Sometimes it's hard to see a pretty girl walk down your street, and have no words to offer her but annyeong haseyo.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Damn fine coffee here in Ichon, and damn fine cherry pie

Another in the list of Korean contridictions (so far we're at kimchi vs. instant noodles and fanatic exercise vs. air pollution) is the quality of the Western treats you can buy just about anywhere.

My friend Shane bought what looked like a pecan pie but turned out to be filled with red-bean paste. I bought what I imagined to be a peach pastry, but was misled by the illustration on the package and bit into what was essentially a dinner roll crammed with pumpkin. The Korean take on coleslaw is chinese cabbage with ketchup on top. You become wary very easily. This is why delights like Lucy's Pie Kitchen quickly become Grails in the urban sea of Seoul. Our friend Edison first discovered this place, and has since taken every foreigner he knows there. So he, Shane, myself, and another aquaintance from King's found ourselves in Lucy's on a Sunday afternoon and saw first hand, what FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks; watch it) once described as, "where pies go when they die." While the pie could never best my step-mum's blackberry, it was still a miracle to find such foodstuffs here. My fork quavered as I pushed the lemon merangue towards my tongue, instinctively expecting it to secretly be green-tea compote, some form of glutinous rice paste, or a special kind of yellow jellyfish which is only delicious when scared. It was so good I almost fainted. Plus there was unlimited free coffee, which made my heart sing. I can't find the real stuff in Siheung, so I cry a little into my cup of pixie-stick sealed instant "mocha gold" every morning.

The shop appears to take it's name from the dozens of pictures of Lucille Ball hung up on the pink walls inside. She should be proud. I'm serious.

The other big adventure of last weekend was visiting the COEX in Samseong. This was a seriously huge mall, and Shane and I spent the better part of two hours wandering around, eating ice cream and oggling the latest electronic offerings from Samsung in a room that looked a bit out of place on Earth.

I saw a squid stand in the movie theatre, and an unscale smoothie shop called "Le Crapeau." The sales culture in Korea is really a thing to behold. When we walked through a swanky food and department store in the COEX we wondered how they could make enough money to sustain the hundreds of salespeople they seemed to employ. Every few feet, seemingly near every distinct product, is a different person trying to convince you to buy it. Be it coffee presses, decorative rice cakes, or yes, a suitcase full of shrink-wrapped Shiitake mushrooms. Willy Loman might have learned a few things from these guys. A man stopped to check out a display of leather jackets and the saleswoman took one off the rack and started to put his arms through it, as if to convice him that it was in fact the perfect fit and the world would end if he didn't drop some mad won on it.

If this was ever the proverbial "Hermit Kingdom," then the commercial sector has come miles out of its shell.

More to come...

...and pictures once I get my laptop online.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Carpal tunnel never paid so well.

A few hundred rapt Korean teens, 4 wall mounted LCD monitors, 4 uniform clad pro gamers, 2 live TV cameras, and 2 confused Canadian boys in the biggest mall in Asia. My friend Shane and I had wandered into a live taping of a professional match of Starcraft, the computer game which seems to be Korea's unofficial national sport. I found it odd when I was first flipping channels and found a station devoted to Starcraft competitions, but when I saw the players in the flesh, hands working horrifying speeds over their keyboards, and their red, white and blue racing jacket uniforms stamped by corporate sponsor Samsung, I was utterly agape.

We were lured into the small room by the cue of applause. It was packed with mostly teenage fans, although a few older men in business suits stood out in the crowd. The gamers were introduced on the screen in a blaze of fan fare (actually to the hijacked overture from Pirates of the Carribean) and the air was immediately filled by screams and the flashes from camrea phones.

The game itself played out quickly, but instead of the complacent over-the-shoulder type watching you might expect from a kid sister unable to understand her older brother's obsession, these spectators were on the edge of their seats for the entire 15 minute match. We picked out crowd members nervously biting their nails, or waving small banners with Korean slogans written on them. You could have heard a pin drop if it weren't for the rapid-fire laser sound effects, and the equally rapid fire Korean colour-commentary. So scratch that. There'd be no way a pin would have gotten any play.

When finally the shaggy-haired victor had mopped the floor with his rival bases, the players all shook hands sportman like, and emerged from the plexiglass box (yes, there was one) that seperated us from them. The screams and flash fire were quick to rekindle, and while Shane and I looked at each other and laughed in disbelief, the TV cameras swung close to bring total coverage to the audience watching at home.

This was only 15 minutes on Saturday night, and I had a busy weekend.

Tomorrow: ever wonder where you might be able to purchase a leather suitcase full of shrink-wrapped shiitake mushrooms for $500?

I didn't either, but at least now I know the place.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Beers at "Bros." (the 'o' is spelled with a star)

Turning bar napkins see-through with chicken grease, and swallowing pints of horrible Korean "Kass" we three sat and listened to a ball-capped and pony-tailed korean respectively belt out "Sweet Caroline" and "Hotel California" to a late evening crowd of business men sharing bottles of Jack Daniels and plates of fried eggs.

This is truly a peculiar country.

Korea: dreaming of cell phones since 2333 B.C

It was near a bus station. I only saw it for a split second, and maybe the late hour and the neon glow of a hundred Korean shop signs obscurred my view, but I swear I saw a middle-aged man kissing his cell phone.

I've only been here a short four days, but I wasn't nearly as surprised at this sight as I thought I might be. Cell phone culture is so pervasive here, the things are like extra limbs. A friend of mine says in restaurants and on the bus, he frequently sees couples cuddled together watching a favorite TV show on a cell phone sized screen.

Fitness seems to be another national obsession. There's a small mountain close to my apartment with a walking trail through the forest to a small lookout point at the summit. As I was walking the trail with my boss and his son, we happened upon a small outdoor gym in a clearing, complete with a weight-bench and various balancing equipment. Maybe my inherent Western laziness is shining through, but when walking up a mountain (albeit a small one) my first impluse is not to wish there was a place I could pull over, do a few squats and bench 150.

At least there's also custard filled bread, and deep-fried meat on a stick.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Arriving at Incheon Airport... in Seoul... there is another airport in Incheon... it's called something else

This post might be an exercise in trial and error, since all blogger's helpful prompt buttons are in Korean.

So I arrived in Seoul at a bit past six last night, after a very restless time-zone hopping flight. The biggest move and biggest change in my life so far was personified by 14 hours on a 747. Korean Air is incredibly comfortable though, and thanks to the mini touch display LCD screens built into the seats, after Lucky Number Slevin , An Inconvenient Truth, and a few Korean romantic comedies, the hours just melted away. Meanwhile, a sour-faced Korean woman in the aisle seat quickly snatched up the extra pillows from the vacant one between us and used them to prop up her feet while she played Tetris on her digital camera phone. Go figure.

My boss at the English Academy met me at the airport with his young son, named either Paul or Pol. We talked about dinosaurs and he had a nap on my shoulder. Paul, not Martin. The drive to Siheung took about an hour. The whole layout of the small parts of these cities that I've seen so far make things look very much built around the cars and freeways. My apartment is small and quiet and came with a pair of bamboo slippers that say "cozy at home" on them. It's next to the biggest church in town, which spreads out on the top of a small hill near the street. What kind of church it is though I haven't been able to figure out. Before I left, my best friend's father told me that there's a preponderence of Presbyterians (sorry, but that's alliteration that you can't beat) in Korea. Maybe their example might shine down from the hill, and inspire me to be frugal with my millions of won.

After we hauled my bags up to the apartment and I took a look around (the term 'tour' seems like hyperbole since I more or less just leaned on my heels and spun to see the corners) Martin took me out to a Korean barbeque restaurant. Each table has a small charcoal grill pit built into the middle. You order meat specifically, beef ribs and pork and the like, and they otherwise bring over a bunch of small side dishes of kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) bean curd, pickled radish, soup etc. When they bring the meat to your table, the server cuts it and you cook it yourself, with them occasionally returning to exchange the metal grilling plate for a cleaner one. I showed off my terrible chop stick handling when the time came to place the meat bits into lettuce leaves, add chili sauce and the various vegetable dishes and roll them into little packets and cram down in one mouthful. Things got a little messy.

Afterwords I came back to my new little corner of Siheung and slept like I've never slept before. Today my biological clock is more or less back on track, and Martin is going to take me on a tour of the city.

I'll post pictures when I have them.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An introduction

Ever wonder what would happen if you took a rural Nova Scotian boy with a flair for the vernacular, put him under glass in South Korea and watched the culture shock play out like a moth shaking hands with a Mack truck?

No?

Well keep reading, and I promise you won’t get bored.

By way of introduction, my name is Sam. I graduated last year from the University of King’s College (in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada) with a degree in journalism and contemporary studies. I putzed around in Halifax for a year. I wrote some magazine articles, I wrote a radio play. Now I’m hopping on a plane and flying roughly 100x the distance from my hometown to my alma matter, to teach English to elementary kids in Siheung City, South Korea.

It’s a bit of a departure, but not one that’s never been done before, nor one that won’t be done again by a huge chunk of my generation. What I offer to you here is the observations of a young journalist’s first time in a strange land— an informal foreign correspondence, but also a candid way to acquire your eyeballs to read and share in the “Holy crap, did you just see what I saw?” moments that I’m sure to experience tripping through the Korean streets. I’ll try to be as timely, visual, and fun as possible.

Enjoy the ant-farm of me. I fly on Friday.