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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Imbue this 9 iron with the wisdom of the Ages!

On the hill across the street from the school is an old traditional cemetery with big grassy burial mounds, and ancestral stone carvings. It's the kind of place that gives off the appearance of being especially sacred and peaceful, especially as the late afternoon light lays on it through the trees, as it was today.

I was walking back from the grocery store and stopped at the lights where you can see the hill in profile. On the highest part, standing between two mounds, was an old man with a golf club. Of course I mistook it at first for a simple walking stick, as perhaps this gentleman needed support in his trip to pay respect to those past.

Nope.

He was practicing his swing.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Jejulist List & Other Tidbits

Okay... when I arrived here I thought it was pretty strange to see Star Craft played competitively on TV, but I just flipped on FOX which is currently broadcasting a competitive eating contest out of Santa Monica called The Glutton Bowl.

People are whooping and cheering on 4 "eaters" competing to see how many sticks of unsalted butter they can consume in a minute and a half.

The announcers are somehow able to deliver lines like this with a straight face:

"Watch as he gnaws away at that butter like a squirrel!"

"Do you see many women in the competitive eating circuit?"

"Yes indeed Mark, and they can match any other eater, cheek for jowl."

"With a record of over 50 hot dogs, many believe he is history's greatest eater."

A pneumatic barrel lift drops cooked beef tongue ceremoniously from the ceiling, and swollen, pasty gluttons make heroes of themselves to the bleating audience.

Fans cheer on their favorites: Lester "Cool Hand" Tucker, a world record pickled quail egg eater— 42 in 60 seconds. A Hawaiian onion-eater, a Surrey B.C. pizza champ, and the reigning 130-pound Japanese hot-dog eating king— "The Tsunami."

I suddenly have a whole new world of respect for the Star League Pros.

Anyway, on to the randomness of the day.

I confronted Paul and Joseph about the "Jejulist" remark from yesterday and they offered me this by way of explanation. They devised a list which categorizes intelligence.

It goes like this:

Crazy
SuperCrazy
Normal
SuperNormal
Smart
Smartest
Smartlist
Junior
Juniorlist
Senior
Seniorlist
Genius
Jejulist

So they are in the self-defined upper echelon of the scale— two of the world's few and foremost Jejulists. I suppose I should be proud.

I'm sure it's a sign of his obvious brilliance when he plucks his cheeks with his thumbs and index fingers to make two pink, puffy skin ovals and yells, "TEACHER! Don't you want my eggs!?"

***

While trying to explain the meaning of the word "magic" to my last class of the night, I gave up meeting blank stares and simply said, "Harry Potter?"

Of course, they lit up with instant understanding. One effeminate 13-year-old boy shouted out:

"Dumbledore kick the the bucketu! Game over man!" then made a telling finger-slitting-throat gesture (I'm looking at you Emms...) in case the dooming phrases weren't enough to get the message across.

I'm sure they didn't understand why I laughed as hard as I did, but then I'm certain that they never do.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mo' Crazy Mo' Problems

Paul invented an interesting adaptation of the classic "eeny meany miney mo" (sic) in class yesterday. It went something like this:

"Eeny/meany/moany/moony/tiger/is a/crazy/boy/eat a/toe/and go to/ jail/I/think/second/is/YOU!"

I've given up trying to understand this boy. He is truly (if self-described) "power crazy."

Apparently he and several other students have formed a club called "Jejulists." It sounds very suspicious and I plan to get the scoop tomorrow. If these kids seize power and transform Korea into "dung world" remember you read it here first.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Christmasu (Part 2)

Some photos from Olympic Park:


Bemused monkey stone head with safe— actually a series of both heads and safes. I love the expression on this thing's face.


The reflection of this building in the pond reminds me of a gaping mouth, not unlike Audrey II's in Little Shop of Horrors.


Here I am sitting on the Creepy Holiday Mantis' lap asking that it please spare my life for Christmas.


A shiny chrome tower of balls. I'm sure it was suitably molested by the statue guy on his way in.


Two birds having a lover's spat.


One big-ass thumb.


Some kids scaling up a strange, grass-covered structure that sort of looked like the claw of a giant hammer.

***

The story continued...

So, after watching the clear and present man-handling of the nude statues, Shane and I beat a hasty retreat back to the Park main to meet up with his girlfriend at the Coffee Bean. Woe of woes, as we made our way along the path, I found my hilarious musical Christmas Card from Shane had fallen out of my pocket.

We back-tracked and had almost made it to the statues when out from behind an art bluff, came a young couple dressed in head-to-toe animal suits. They were holding hands and walking about 6 feet in front of us. He was a raccoon and she was a tiger. Tails and everything.

"Trick or treat?" Shane asked me with confused distress.

We lagged behind for a few surreal moments, before breaking ahead as they stopped to admire a strange glass pyramid filled with traditional Korean dolls suspended by twine.

The card was long gone in any case, and I have every reason to suspect it was purloined (pun intended) by the man with the busy hands. I hope our strange inside jokes make the conversational business English circuit.

At least the loss gave us the chance to check out the furry aficionados.

After meeting Shane's girlfriend we headed to the COEX to find a place to eat, and settled on the Irish-German-Korean cultural fusion of O'Kim's BrauHaus. It seemed the perfect end to an especially absurd Christmas Day, raising sturdy pints of "German" micro brew to the background droning of "Last Christmas" by Wham for the millionth time.

God bless us everyone.

Merry Christmasu (Part 1)

So my Korean Christmas Day was interesting to say the least.

I took a grueling subway ride to meet Shane in Jamsil in the eastern part of Seoul, about an hour and a half away. The train was packed but that sure didn't stop some guy from hawking his orthopedic insoles, taking up space not only with the box he stored them in, but on the floor space he was using to demonstrate their wonderful uses... like putting in your shoes... yes, we get it! It was especially irritating because symbolically, this was actual foot-shaped space that could be used to get one of the bodies boxing me in on all sides to shuffle out and give some breathing room.

With the long ride over, I met Shane and we headed to Olympic Park.

What an amazing place.

The park was built for the 1988 Summer Olympics; in fact the Olympic torch is still burning at the entrance. Behind the barrier around the torch are scattered a few small coins, so maybe people figure that if you can melt your money with the Olympic flame it's good luck. There was a massive ice skating rink near the Olympic arch, but it was swarming with people so we decided to pass and walk through the massive, and dearly craved open space.

There are hundreds of strange interpretive sculptures from artists all around the world, lining the paths in the park. Some of them are particularly bizarre, like a lotus-legged praying mantis type creature, a bunch of round baboon-faced stones next to safes, and a giant red parking meter-like machine with a crank on one end and what looks like an arse on the other. It was intensely awesome. Of coarse my camera ran out of juice about half way through our adventure so I missed some of the best photo ops. The most notable being this:

We're turning a secluded corner of the park and see a series of hollow, metal statues of a man— fully anatomically correct— which start off dull, and get progressively shinier, until the fourth and final one which has no head.

Neat.

So we check out some surrounding statues, and a middle-aged man in a black coat comes walking by the statues with his wife (we assume). They admire the work, he even gets her to take a few pictures of him crouching next to the headless one.

Neat?

Anyway, the wife goes on ahead while the man lags behind. Shane and I are just walking up the path near the statues and we see the guy grab the headless one by the shoulders and give it a little shake. It wobbles but hold fast. Then for some inexplicable reason he grabs the statue's shiny metal member and gives that a shake too. Shane and I both look at each other like "Did you just see that?!" and while we exchange our baffled looks, he does it again to the next statue!

He goes through each of the four statues and shakes their shoulders and their junk, then goes on his merry way to catch up with his wife.

It was surreal. Like one of those dog shows where the judges look the pooch in the mouth and then grab it by the balls. Maybe it was some kind of good luck ritual. Maybe he was trying to see if it was detachable so he could toss it in the Olympic flame to melt for good luck. Maybe he wanted to see if the veins were embossed. These are the things we will never know.

Another of the great mysteries of Christmas.

Stay tuned for Part 2...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Holiday Fantasy 2006!

It's Christmas Eve in Korea!

This morning I went to "Everland" with my boss and his family. It's essentially the Korean Disney World— rides, animals, bewilderment.

We arrived shortly after 9:00 a.m. to join the mass exodus of those seeking holiday schmultz. En route to the parking lot on a two-lane turn, we passed a middle-aged man urinating in the bushes next to his car which he'd pulled over to the side. Next we passed a group of Everland employees in purple doorman's jackets and winter hats shaped like white tigers. These hats are everywhere. They're cute, plush and cover your head as though your face is peeking out of the tiger's gaping maw. Another animal hat, apparently further along in the digestive process, was in the likeness of a polar bear with pompom ties for feet and the wearer's face bursting out from the creature's bowels.

Speaking of bowels (come on, how long did you really think it was going to take on an outing with Paul?) The first ride Paul and I hopped on together was one of those "sky dragon" type jobbies, where you're latched into a ship-shaped ride which flings you back and forth like a pendulum— only this one didn't go upside down. When the safety bar clamped down on us, Paul exclaimed:

"Ahh! Teacher, it is very tight for the pee hole!"

Quite.

Pee holes secured, we surrendered ourselves to the tossing.

"Oh the pee hole!" Paul lamented with each pass up and down.

When we were done and walking down the exit ramp he swaggered and muttered something about his gochu.

Everland is truly a strange place to behold. It's very much a candy-canes and domed fairy-tale towers kind of affair. Near the food area though, you can't help but feel confused by the sweet looking architecture, when the air is potent with the scent of boiled fish-paste cakes and squid.

We saw a trained seal show, a small walking zoo which had a few rare white Korean tigers, and an over-the-top Christmas parade which featured a float of a strange atomic bomb looking device blasting forth reindeer, presents, and soap bubbles in lieu of fake snow.

In my 6 hours hours at the park, I received more "Merry Christmas" wishes by volume than virtually all the spent Christmases since I was Paul's age. However they were all from the disturbingly energetic, purple Everlanders, and so didn't quite carry the same weight.

I enjoyed the sensational, face-value Christmas energy of Everland, and it's certainly what I was hoping for in my preposterous Korean Christmas. But since it is yet only the Eve of said Christ's Mass, I think I'm going to enjoy a little more holiday showmanship of my own.

I have a fruitcake, lovingly sent from my family.

A lighter, from my significantly less loving Family Mart.

And about an eighth of a bottle of French brandy, left in the pantry by the previous tenant.

It's not one of Rosebud's plum puds, lit up ceremoniously in the company of a well-sauced family, but I'm going to eat the whole damn thing, listen to the CBC Radio 3 Christmas podcast, and think a thought of everyone I miss so much right now.

...and to all a goodnight.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Apologies to the late Dr. King

I knew this morning's reading material was too ambitious way before the following words burst forth from the reigning King of grade school Scatocracy:

"I have a dung!" Paul spoke proudly, head tilted righteously upward, imitating Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic civil rights speech.

Need I say more?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

In one ear and out the arse

I could yammer on about grammar until my lips fell off and lay on the ground like two withered parentheses, and these kids would not retain a bit of it. Offhandedly mention words like "arse" and "quadrillion" and they're guaranteed to have the gift of crude hyperbole for the rest of their lives.

That's right. They didn't forget about my unintentional "arse" lesson, it just lay dormant in their minds until someone mispronounced the word "Earth" again. It was then speculated by Paul, that his hypothetical "Dung World" should be one quadrillion miles long and shaped like an arse. Right poetic, that.

Selective language retention is to be expected I suppose. I remember cool sounding Spanish words like delgado but not too much else.

You can tell the game junkies pretty quickly too. If they can catch your attention for a second they'll bombard you with questions like:

"Teacher! What is 'fire in the hole'?"

"Teacher! What is 'Mission Objective'?"

I wonder if they know "frag"?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Seoul Survivor

On Saturday I went to the COEX to pick up a few things, and as I entered the outdoor plaza coming from Samseong station, I could hear music. As I got closer I could pick out the familiar riff:

"Da (chika-chik-chika) da da da (chika-chik-chika) da da da (chika-chik-chika) da da DAAA!"

Under a monumental-sized Christmas tree was a small stage where three beautiful Korean girls in short, fur-trimmed "Santa" skirts were playing "Eye of the Tiger" on cello, violin and bass.

I rocked out accordingly.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Out and About

Shane and I wandered around in Seoul on Sunday, and took in a few sights:


First we walked through Namdaemun, which is a tight-squeeze street market affair with a vast array of goods both cheap and bizarre. Bottles of whole ginseng roots, pickled in strange golden liquid, are lined up like tuber-men in Sci-fi style suspended animation. Pig trotters and octopus arms share stall space with ceramic banks and chintzy souvenirs. It's an interesting stretch of compact commerce.


The recent snowfall begat this pimped out snowman on a manhole in front of a gross table of stank fish. As such, it leads into a nice anecdote about a vendor Shane saw in the subway. He was selling a vast array of gold chains, and setting out his wares for the day. He had a blanket in front of him and was scooping the chains out of a sack, and— in Shane's words— "sprinkling them out like cheese on a pizza."


This is Sungnyemun, Korea's #1 National Treasure, and one of the two remaining gates from Seoul's 14th century city walls. After I snap the picture and Shane and I are trying to plan our next move, a 68-year-old man with translucent bottom teeth and a fake Burberry scarf approaches us. He introduces himself as a volunteer heritage guide and we reply that we are teachers. After asking us many questions about our origins and impressions of Korea— as well as announcing that we must be "very affluent" because of our teacher's salaries— he proceeds to inform us about the cultural significance of the gate, and the evils of the Japanese in equal measure.

He explains how the additional gates were torn down during the Japanese occupation, and how Koreans suffered greatly under colonial rule.

"The Japanese are very vicious people, and very cruel," he said "I hate them all. You should cut off all ties with any Japanese friends. Do you have any Japanese friends?"

I had to truthfully reply "no" but I wanted to tell him I was married to a Japanese woman just to see how he'd react. Shane said he only had Korean friends and the old man gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

After the racial screed, he proceeded to lecture us on the importance of compass direction in Confucian philosophy. North, south, east and west all correspond with a virtue, a colour, an element, a season, and a spirit animal god. After explaining each in detail, he quizzed us on the information and when we successfully recited how North was wisdom, black, water, winter and turtle; South was courtesy, red, fire, summer and phoenix; East was benevolence, blue, wood, spring and dragon; West was righteousness, white, metal, autumn and tiger; and Center was but trust, yellow and earth, he told us we were now "allowed" by him to be teachers in Korea— which later prompted the question from Shane: "Were we teaching in sin?"

He showed us the gate's wall close up, and the pock-marked stone from gunfire during the Korean War. He talked about the hard history of Korea spending most of the early 20th century under one boot or another. He talked for about half an hour, and finally let us on our way with a polite handshake and a business card. It was certainly informative. One might easily dismiss the guy as having an ax to grind, but seeing as how he was a teenager during the war, I can only imagine the perspective from coming-of-age in a time of starvation and violence to a modern era of prosperity, disconnect, and yes, "affluence." A high-school English teacher for 40 years, he had something to say about how Korean youth don't understand the significance of the war and the meaning of freedom. It seems like a generation gap that is nearly impossible to broach. That said, he gave us directions to the nearby shopping district which he promised had many beautiful girls and affluent restaurants.


At said affluent plaza we saw this interesting combination of mixed messages. The "Nutrition Center" luring the attention of passers-by with dozens of dripping rotisserie chickens.

After omurice omelets and coffee, we headed to Itaewon which is the sketchy "American ghetto" of Seoul. It was a very different, very uncomfortable vibe. I had no urge to take any pictures and we stopped quickly for a few needed items, before fleeing back to the subway station, away from the propositions from heads peeking out of "hostess bars" and creepy dudes in dirty fatigues hawking Rolexes.

Afterwards we shuffled around Lotte Plaza in Jamsil and watched people wipe out on the ice-rink. I think Lotte World is the plan for Christmas. If one can't be with family on Christmas you might as well take in the showy lights, fireworks and bells and whistles of a Korean-style theme park named after the heroine of Goethe's seminal sob story.



To end, here a shot of a kid trudging to school this afternoon through the heaviest snow my boss has seen in his 12 years living in Siheung.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

More Popular Than Jejus

So I suddenly have a self-proclaimed fan club among my students.

It all started with the most unassuming gesture. We were studying "everyday activities" such as going to school, eating breakfast and watching TV. One student made an offhand remark about watching her father watch the news. I held an imaginary microphone up to my mouth, and in a mock deep newscaster voice I said:

"Hello, and welcome to the news."


The kids went completely ape-shit.

"Handsome!" they wailed like so many crushing banshees, "Oh Teacher, please, again!"

"Hello, and welcome to the news."

"Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" came the chorus immaculate.

Today, I did the voice again at the end of class, just to see if they remembered. They swarmed me, screaming gleefully like it was 1964 and I was all the Beatles mashed together. They went so far as to get me to sign the inside of their workbooks— multiple times!

On the white board they wrote: "Sam is good reporter and best! We're pen."

"Pen?" I asked Na-young, obviously the groupie savant.

"Pen club!" she said with enthusiasm.

"Oh... FAN... it's FFFan club, with an 'F'."

"Handsome! Handsome!" they chirped to each other and jumped up and down.

So the school has succumbed to Samsangnimania ("Samsangnim" has become my nickname, from seonsangnim, which is the Korean word for teacher). I don't understand what is so handsome about a TV news reporter, but it's certainly amusing.

I'm performing on Ed Sullivan next week so I don't expect this will blow over anytime soon.

***
P.S.

Somebody from Halifax better tell CTV's Bruce Frisko to hurry up and get his ass over to Korea. If this newscaster obsession carries on into adulthood, here he could finally be the sex-god hinted at in his lascivious looks on the late night news.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

For That Stubborn-as-a-Mule Taste...


Once it's been deep-fried you can barely tell the difference...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What Kid Chases the Steamed Crab Truck?

Last night I was walking back from the grocery store with the latest in a series of purchases of experimental Korean fruit wines (black raspberry was the vin du jours) and I thought I saw a car accident at the crosswalk ahead.

There was steam pouring out of the back of a truck, and behind it was a car with a dented bumper. On closer inspection, the damage to the car wasn't new, the closeness of the vehicles was simply bad Korean driving, and the steam was from a source I couldn't conceivably have thought of.

As the truck pulled through the lights I heard a megaphone sales pitch similar to the propaganda fruit wagons coming from it. As I got a better rear-end view (no chuckles kids...) I could see the upward poking of dozens of crustacean legs.

It was a mobile steamed crab stand.

Surely that would have been my next guess.

The streets were deserted, besides myself, so the crab truck steamed on into the darkness. If only they had had an ice-cream truck jingle, I'm sure a small flock of children would have been in hot pursuit— Pied Piper style.

"Piping hot seafood, seasoned with exhaust! Perfect for the late evening crowd of street gawkers and fresh-water swabs! Get them while they're billowing clouds of steam infernal! Crab! Steamed crab! It tastes better in motion!"

Monday, December 11, 2006

Crack the Life Code

Let me say but two beautiful words: Carne Station.

On Saturday my recruiter took his newest teachers (about 3o of us) out to this restaurant in Hongdae. It was free, and both all you can eat and drink.

It was done in the normal Korean BBQ fashion of cooking meat on a grill built into your table, only here you had unlimited meat of at least a dozen varieties. If that wasn't to your taste add shrimp, tempura, kimbap, soup, fruit and veggies, plus beer and scotch on tap.

Did I mention the freeness of it all?

Things would have been very sloppy if I hadn't had to catch a 10:00 subway in order to get back home.

That said, I stuffed myself senseless for an hour and a half, while a slightly peculiar old Australian man talked to me about arsenic in the water and the variety of stamps on his wrinkled passport...

While waiting for the aforementioned subway— standing behind a young man who's hoodie made the strange proclamation: "Integrew jeans real exist and the life code which create new future"— I saw a young couple slumped against a ceiling support.

The dude was wearing a velvet coat and wing-tip shoes. He was so drunk he couldn't stand up under his own power (maybe he had just held his mouth under the beer tap back at Carne station and let fly?). His poor girlfriend— who was functionally, if not stone sober— was attempting to stabilize the poor jerk. As the train arrived, we all shuffled in and the drunkard wheeled around to face me.

"Shut up..." he slurred in heavily accented English.

Unaware I had said anything, I ignored him since I figured he could fly off the handle at any moment. He short of lurched towards me but his girlfriend whined an angry protest and pushed him off to the corner.

The next 45 minutes of the train ride consisted of this asshole spilling from seat to handrail to door with his girlfriend weeping out of obvious shame.

As bad as I felt for her, I still laughed when we reached the next stop and her twit who was leaning full against the sliding door for support, simply fell out onto the waiting platform. I think they figured to taxi it from where he lay...

When I myself taxied it home from Jeong-wang station, the driver was playing a CD of Celine Dion, so the treacherously sped-down back roads of Siheung were accompanied by "My Heart Will Go On."

Go figure.

***

An activity I like to do in early afternoon class with the advanced students, is pick an illustration out of the book and write a story around it— letting the kids pick the characters' names. This always turns out interestingly (Please Johnson, Paul Medicine, Mrs. Mixer and Sarah Monie are recurring favorites...) and today was no exception.

"Joey, what about the woman in the blue sweater? What should her name be?"

Joey contorted his body in the most fiendish way to try and push his arm a little higher up, with a little more urgency.

"CONDOLEZZA RICE!" he yelped.

I had to laugh.

I asked if he knew who Condolezza Rice was, and he replied knowingly, that she was in the American government:

"Bushey... Condolezza Rice... Eat-the-Rice..."

Howls of derisive laughter followed.

These kids are surprisingly adept at word play, when they want to be.

They also always pronounce Bush's name as "Bushey."

I don't feel the need to correct them.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Bread I Bent like a Bowstring

So I just bought a loaf of bread based purely on Engrish impulse.

Remember the peculiar Paris Baguette "Intact Toast"?

Well, this stuff has "peculiar" built into the brand.

"56h bread."

Fermentation is considered at digestion over 56 hours. It is baked thoroughly on bread with a peculiar feeling of elasticity and peculiar softness.

It's funny that the slight variance between particular and peculiar can mean the difference between "specific" and "weird."

Baker: Disaster! My bread— it's like biting into a warm drafting eraser! And I have no more budget for prototypes! We have to sell this...

PR guy: Don't worry, we'll solve this promotional quandary using... ENGLISH!!!

I'll let you know how the peanut butter sandwich turns out. I might still be chewing come tomorrow.

A Peek at the Environs

Here are some photos from a Sunday afternoon of wandering idly through the neighbourhood:



Here is my apartment building– tucked away on a small street, and directly in front of a music school which seems to teach children to imitate the dulcet tones of nails on a chalkboard in song. The bottom floor seems to house the offices of some kind of water cooler dealership. They keep very unusual hours, so I have my suspicions it's a front for something shady.


Virtually every commercial building I've seen is like this— the ads and signage creep up the storefront like shameless ivy urging you to buy things. The white and orange sign in the middle reads (in Korean) "Shoes & Shoes." In case the point wasn't hammered home, in the corner it says in English: "Total shoes shop."


Here's the sign in front of the restaurant I'd dubbed "The Bashful Pig." Is that knowing smile a little more sinister than I thought?


I had absolutely no idea this strange temple-looking building was like a block away from my apartment. I just went for a walk today and stumbled onto it. You really have no idea what you might find down a backstreet in Korea. That said, this is the view if you turn your head to the left:


The irrepressibly crass high-rise apartments take up much of the horizon here (there, and everywhere). With property costs at a ridiculous premium, the only way to go is up I suppose. Still, I wish there was a more attractive way to go about it.


Fighting frost, the last gochu of the season dangles in one of the many sidewalk gardens in Hajungdong. I don't quite know how to feel about all the gardens peppering (pardon the pun) the city streets. On one hand, it's nice to see a little greenery between all the garish architecture, but at the same time, am I really crazy about eating veggies which are grown in clouds of car exhaust?

More to come...

Thursday, December 07, 2006

When Origami Kills What Nationalism Can't

I'm quite impressed by some of my students ability to render Star Craft creatures out of folding paper— I don't hasten to apply the term "origami" because I'm sure the Koreans have their own word for paper-folding and would take great offense at my insinuating they do anything like the Japanese.

It's interesting to be an outsider with an inside view of Asian politics. With a long history of being alternatively conquered by the Japanese and Chinese, it no surprise that there is a proud underdog mentality in the Korean consciousness. Being around children all day, it's an interesting perspective on the way they perceive their neighbours. The kids viciously hate Japan, and frequently make disturbing jokes about its destruction.

This morning while looking at a vocabulary page about air travel, we happened upon the phrase "stow carry-on bag." I explained the synonym of stow, and made a drawing of a stick man placing a duffel bag safely into an overhead compartment. I asked the four kids if they'd ever flown in a plane before. Being mostly from well-off families, they told me of their trips to Australia and Europe, and *gasp* yes, JAPAN.

One student piped up:

"Teacher! In the future, I go to Japan and in stow-carry-on-bag I have a boom [sic] and then PWHOOOOOSH!" ending the statement with an explosive leap to his feet, and howls of laughter from the others.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

On a much lighter note, another student in another class drew the Korean and Japanese flags on the white-board with an obligatory "vs." between them.

"Teacher!" she cried, "Japan is very ugly but Korea... ahhh... hot! Handsome! Very handsome."

In the words of Futurama's Dr. Zoidberg, the children were swelling with patriotic mucus.

There's a bittersweet pride beaten into the Korean culture— likely from being beaten down— that is really very insular. I don't want, or intend, to generalize based on 3 months of living in a country. This is just an observation from the unique perspective of dealing with developing minds. At 8 I don't remember having much of an opinion of any geopolitical body outside the Lunenburg county lines, let alone a burgeoning national grudge.

If these kids grow up to be political leaders, and they merge their paper-folding skills of simulacrum with the already existing robot machine-gun technology, an army of actualized Star Craft units might do to Tokyo what Godzilla never managed to finish...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ego Scout

I've generally been of the opinion that I'm a modestly attractive guy. I've been called hot by biased girlfriends, and succinctly called "not hot" by girls who were just friends.

I think I fall mostly on the cute side of square.

In Korea, I can barely turn a corner without being called handsome by a gawking tour group.

Students pass me notes expounding on my handsomeness. I'm greeted by mothers in the Teacher's Room who take one look at my mug-shot-esque "alien registration" photo ID card and exclaim: "Oooooh! Very handsome. Sexy! Very sexy... sexy man!" (Granted, Koreans have a fairly slanted view of "sexy." As G knows, my boss once called his umbrella sexy...)

Today when I went to the Bashful Pig for my dinner, I was greeted by the ajummas as well as two gents (I think a man and his father) who were already about 3 soju bottles into it.

It was 6:20.

"Hi!" the (presumed) son greeted me tentatively.

"Hello," I replied.

"Where are you from?" he continued.

"Canada."

"Ooooooo! Canada! Ah... Van-cu-vah?"

"No... um... other-side... Nova Scotia. Atlantic Ocean."

"Ahhh, Atlanticu... you ahh... very handsome! Very handsome face!" and he proceeded to gingerly touch his face as if applying rouge of a shade to match his blood-shot eyes.

He looked over at his (presumed) father hoping for validation on the beauty of the foreigner. The old man grunted and poured another small glass of a red liquid which I assume had painted his son's eyeballs rouge.

Finding no encouragement in the old man, he held out the bottle to me.

"Drink?"

"Thank you, but I have to work..."

"Drink?" he said again not seeming to follow.

"Uh... I have to go back to work... school? ah... teach children?" It seemed difficult to explain that I needed to be of sound mind to go back the classroom. These kids would have plenty of exposure to slurred English when they came to our country for university.

"Famerous Korean wine!" he pronounced, assuming it would seal the deal, and held the bottle aloft.

"I'm sorry, I can't," I said, trying my best to save face.

"No alcohol... no... just... drink. Drink!"

By this point he had already fetched an extra glass and slid over to my table. I could plainly see the 16% alcohol marking just under the "Traditional Korean Wine" label he was pointing at furiously.

He poured about a thimble full and offered it to me beseechingly.

It tasted like strawberries.

"Very nice!" I said honestly.

"Thank you... ah... sorry... ah... handsome," he managed before he slid (across the heated floor) back to his table and the reproachful gaze of his (presumed) father.

The moral of this unusual tale is that back in Canada, I never got a thin dime for looking good, but here in Korea, I've scored a thimble full of mysterious strawberry wine and the winsome looks of several million schoolgirls.

I am sexy like a plain white umbrella.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bridge Mix Style

This post is going to be a random days events loosely stitched together by asterisks.

Peanuts, gumdrops, jam— all unified by a single-minded chocolate coating.

***

Gochu is the Korean word for chili pepper. It is the taste that thrusts itself on every aspect of Korean cuisine. One day when Paul was one his "pee house" kicks, he was trying to assure me that the proper English name for one's genitals is indeed pee house— he'd seen it on the computer so it must be true.

"Oh Jejus..." I thought.

"Teacher, Korean name for your 'this' (insert pointing gesture) is gochu!"

"I thought gochu was the word for chili pepper," I said.

"Yes, but that is gochu say, and that is a pepper, and the other is like cochu and that it THIS PEPPER!" and he gestured frantically to his junk and starting laughing hysterically.

***

Today— inside, in the heated classroom— the kids were complaining about the cold. Having just read a story at The Globe online about how Alberta has already had lows of almost -41 with the windchill, I explained to them that during a nasty Canadian winter, your eyebrows will freeze and icicles will form along your nostrils if you stay outside too long.

They stopped whining.

After class, in the Teacher's Room, Judy beseeched my boss to turn up the heat in the classroom.

He looked over at me.

"Are you cold?"

"Nope."

Judy then said what I'm certain was the Korean equivalent of: "No fair! He's Canadian!"

***

One of my sweetest, most bright-eyed students walked up to me in class this morning.

"Teacher?" she asked, "What is OTL?"

"OTL? Uh... I don't know..."

She giggled maniacally and scribbled down a cholaman.

It looked like this:



Why didn't I see it coming?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The people at our feet

The man stood out in the crowd of hundreds leaving Samseong station for one obvious reason:

We were all on our feet.

I couldn't see his face— only a bald spot. He sat in the most suppliant of possible positions; his chest on his knees, and his head on a cushion on the dirty thoroughfare. In front of him was a cap with a few coins in it.

I haven't seen many beggars in Korea. In Halifax there are probably more per capita.

What struck me about this man wasn't that he was a have-naught in a sea of affluent Seoulites, but that I've never seen someone look so vulnerable in a public place. He was just lying there in front of the railing that split the stairwells leaving the station. He didn't move. No one bumped into him. The stairs were packed wall-to-wall, but there was a little bubble of emptiness around him.

When I came back down into the subway on my way home he was still there. It was about 2 hours later, and I'm sure thousands of people had poured past him in that time.

He was just lying there. No rattling cup. No sign. No plea or justification to the people who passed by. Just an old cap, and complete surrender.

The image of begging for attention by disappearing is something I'm having trouble getting out of my head. I can't fathom what it's like to feel that helpless— to be a human flagstone.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Orin Scrivello D.D.S

Today on my morning walk I came across the suspiciously titled: "Wooridul Orthopedic Surgery."

That's hardly the image I want when someone is tinkering around with my musculoskeletal system.

"Hey Dr. Kim, those instruments look a little dull..."

"Don't worry."

"Why, exactly?"

"It was just a figure of speech... by the way we're out of ether."

***

On the topic, in Korea there is a Woori Bank and an EverRich Bank. Which one would you choose?