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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Four Cloudy Days in the Land of the Rising Sun

I'm at Narita airport on a coin-operated Internet kiosk, with a pocket full of 100 yen coins from a purchase of Mentos (I forewent the Pocky, Black-Black or trusty Crunky) on a 1000 yen bill.

The Mentos are also in the pocket.

Don't worry they aren't touching.

Tokyo was intense. I can't imagine living in a city that size and functioning as a well-adjusted human being. That said, wandering around the Imperial Gardens or deep green Meiji-jingu in the light summer rain made it hard to fathom that I could be in the middle of the biggest metropolis on the planet without a soul in sight.

More tomorrow after I've recovered.

My feet hurt.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Gaijin & Tonic



I couldn't help myself.

I'm heading to Tokyo tomorrow for a 4 day sensory overload.

Stories and photos will follow on the weekend.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

In which Sam-Sam meets drunkenman and becomes the wall

"OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOhello!" said the red-eyed man as he saddled up beside me in the subway station.

"Hello," I said.

"Where are you from?" he asked, making himself comfortable against the same wall I was leaning on. He was shorter than me by at least 4 inches. He was probably 50, but definitely wore a golf shirt. His eyes were really much redder than when I just said "red" that one time in the first sentence.

"I'm from Canada," I told him.

"Waaah! Canada," he said dazzled, his eyes bulged quite amphibian. "Quebec?"


"Ahhh, Toronto then!"

"No. By the sea."

"Canada is a verrrrry beautiful country, a very green country, forests are the best, Canada has the best forests in the world, Canada is great!" His words all ran together like Lego bricks stacking up a precarious stairway to nowhere.

"Canada is very beautiful, " I agreed.

"What is your name?" he asked.


"Sam, you have a very beautiful name."

"Thank you."

"I am drunkenman."

"Pleased to meet you drunkenman," I said.

"Have a wonderful visit," he said in what would commonly be considered the end of a conversation, but he continued, pulling an incredibly wrinkled 1000 won bill out of his pocket with mysticism that was entirely uncalled for.

"This is Korean money," he announced.

"I know."

He tried to force the bill into my hand, but I refused adamantly.

"No, thank you."

"Please! yesyesyes."

"No, really. I have my own Korean money," I insisted.

"Sam, you are a careerman?" he asked.

"No I'm a teacher. An English teacher."

He cast his eyes off to the speeding trains.

"Once upon a time I was an English teacher," he said, leaving the thought hanging vaguely in the air.

I was going to ask him about his life as a teacher, when he suddenly started to chuckle to himself and began rubbing his forearm against mine, obviously amused at being tickled by my arm hair.

Suddenly, drunkenman spread his arms out and leaned back flat. He looked over at me and leaned in close as if to tell a secret.

"We are the wall," he told me and raised both his eyebrows.

"We are the wall," I agreed.

It was 4:00 in the afternoon.

My Rights vs. Yours

Two short things:

I am on vacation until the 3rd. Then just two short weeks until the big flight.

I am in love with the new New Pornographers single. Listen to it here.

I always knew these guys were excellent but this song makes me so happy I've just been listening to it and smiling all morning. Every now and then you find a song that perfectly captures your mood.

In this case it is being on the edge of something you've been waiting for— seeing land
from the sea if you will.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

No you aren't

"Hello, how are you?" I said to the two teenage girls who were walking in front of me and alternating peeks and giggling.

This prompted a look of shock from one, and bashful laughter from the other.

"Hi-eee!" she said awkwardly.

"I like your shirt," I replied, finding it hard to keep it to myself during the block I'd been looking at it.

"?" she said with her face.

I just smiled and passed them.

"Pure-f**kin' Canadian! 100%!" the shirt yelled again as I walked by.

That so?

Choi Hong-man vs. The Wall

Another unique Japanese game-show that puts the rest of the world's entertainment to shame.

The kicker is about half way through when you see one of the contestants is the giant Korean boxer Choi Hong-man. Watch him try to squeeze through tiny holes in fast approaching pink walls.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Twice one hundred speaks

200 posts.

Less than a month to go.

I wish I had something inspirational to say.
Paul found a copy of the infamous book Everybody Poops and showed it to me today. He was so excited I thought he might add his own illustrations.

I guess it was only a matter of time.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Carefully Remiss

There has been a bit of a posting drought around here lately, so I'll rehydrate using the collective tears of the nation's youth.

Yesterday I came across a certain Korean English proficiency test, which will remain nameless. I hate standardized tests mostly due to the fact that there is no standardized education, especially when you sent your kid off to "talk" to some random foreigner for a few hours a day and expect them to return as foreign investment bankers quoting Chaucer. Here is an example of one of the questions on this test designed for 5th and 6th graders. Granted, the test is more or less intended as a challenge for kids who have been sent to study abroad and attend a number of English Villages and Academies since they were old enough to say "ne" and their parents saw that as the first step towards saying "neo-anarcho-syndicalism."


"Red was in so many ways a heartbreaking figure. He was physically unsuited to riding. His intellect made him an oddball at the track, and he was incredibly accident-prone. While his peculiarities suited him to Seabiscuit, a kindred soup, he was by no means a great rider. After Seabiscuit, he was consistent only in failure. Racing punished and humiliated him. But for all his failures, Red lived exactly as he chose. Most of us don't, and live narrower lives because of it. He just loved to ride, and so he did."

Which of the following best describes the author's tone?

1) respectfully celebratory
2) pitifully grudging
3) carefully remiss
4) gently aloof
5) reluctantly sympathetic

A better question would undoubtedly be, Which of the following best describes even the most studied and intellectual 5th grader asked to answer this question?

1) quintessentially aghast
2) unfathomably depressed
3) congenially challenged
4) vengefully scorned
5) "I hate English."

I hope prize money is involved.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


Today was a hot, hot Saturday of touristy fun with Shane in Seoul.

We started off with a lunch of galbi (marinated beef) and dwenjang jigae (soybean paste soup) at my favorite out of the way restaurant at Insadong:

The spread.

Me psyching myself up for the feast. Our table was in a little nook of the restaurant with ceilings so low we had to seriously crouch to get there.

The next stop was Gyeongbokgung— main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty.

Mount Bugaksan in the background.

The palace guard.

Sajeongjeon, where the King received officials and such.

A grand, off limits staircase to the heavens.

Shane, ever industrious, is seen here in a small underground thatched-roof hut he constructed to escape the sun. Doesn't he just look so pleased with himself?

There were swarms of dragonflies all throughout the palace complex, but near these statues in particular there were dozens upon dozens. I tried to get a picture but they wouldn't stay still despite my giving them all the change I had on me. I didn't press the point to avoid having my lips sewn shut.




C'est tout. After this my camera got heat stroke and went on a manic, unstoppable slide-show until the battery wore itself out.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

I Feel Pretty

I think this is pretty much the best photo of 2007.

Despite the obvious significance of the summit to take place between the Two Koreas later this month, I think J-Il's mind is elsewhere.

In fact, if I didn't know any better I could swear by that impish grin and deliberately concealed twinkle-o-the-eye, that the Dear Leader is so pleased by the success of Yonggary director Shim Hyung-rae's new movie D-War that he is planning the entire summit as an elaborate ruse to kidnap Mr. Shim and coerce him into making the long overdue Pulgasari II.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Don't Fear the Teacher

Today as I was passing out books to my little ones, I did a little dance and a twirl and brought the last one down overhand on a girl's desk in a funny little flourish.

She flinched and held up her hands because she thought I was going to hit her.

God damn...

Monday, August 06, 2007

Rice is Nice

Some days I am so frustrated after work that I can barely unclench my teeth on the walk back to my apartment. On those days, instead of picking fights or lifting weights, I realize I need to take a walk down the rice field. When the sky is clear the trail is just so calm.

There are hundreds of dragonflies zipping through the dusk. Now that the fields are thick there aren't as many cranes picking through the water, but you still see a few gliding.

It is exactly what I need after a hard day.


Oh, and in case you were wondering why Koreans all haul out the "V" when they have their pictures taken, I don't have an answer why but I can tell you that even abandoned gardening gloves pose for the camera.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Please Call Stella

Anyone who's interested in accents should check this out. It's a linguistics project from a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, collecting recordings of people reading the same short paragraph, but with different naturalized accents.

I've always found this kind of stuff interesting a) because putting on an Irish or East Indian accent is always an amusing pastime for me and b) living in Korea for this past year(ish) makes me really notice my own accent when speaking English. Being from the South Shore of Nova Scotia I run my words together a lot. "Going to the store" kicks aside nice art-tic-u-la-tion, and becomes, in my mouth "gointutha store." We usually don't notice our own dialects until we're faced with having to correct someone else's.

Back at J-school I got repeatedly nailed in radio performance training for saying "ta" instead of "to." I'm very conscious about trying to speak clearly now when teaching, because I can't even imagine how hard it is for them to follow me much of the time.

I slam my words together and they draw them out by adding extra vowels. "Damage-e, change-e, strange-e" things like that. There are some students who speak good English with an incredibly thick Korean accent, and some of the younger ones, who, if they go to study in North America won't wind up with an accent at all. Well... that's not true either is it? They'll unconsciously sponge up any number of subtle dialects. One of the presenters on the English Channel Arirang has very significant traces of a South African accent. Others pronounce words with a unmistakable British or Aussie lilt, but don't have a full blown "accent."

I just think it's so interesting. A friend of mine from university did recruiting for another school before she did the program at King's. She spent some time in... Denmark or Finland... one of the Nordic countries. Anyway she said that many of the people she met there all spoke English with a different dialect because they had all studied abroad in different countries.

The speech site is pretty comprehensive, and there are many obvious distinct accents in North America alone (Quebecois, Kentucky etc. no Newfoundland sadly...) but check out the quadrangle— each of the coasts. Nova Scotia to Florida to California to Vancouver. It's interesting the differences you notice. The Maritimer has the same run-together tendencies as me, and the guy from B.C. has an incredibly pronounced "s."

I could waste all day on this site.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Less is More

With August comes the mantra of "just a month and a half" and that is an ever growing comfort.

Today Paul made me laugh so hard I thought I was going to choke.

I fight it so hard because I know it just reinforces his wacky behavior, but I am only so strong.

The assignment was to write how to make something (anything) in five simple steps. I walked the perimeter of the oval table to see how everyone was progressing.

I made the mistake of leaving Paul until the end.

His page looked like this:

I'm going to write about how to make... poop.

Step 1: Give all your power to your butt.

That's all I needed to read.

I started laughing, and my multi-pronged donkey laugh gets the kids going on its own, so soon everyone was on the verge of accidentally laughing all of our power to our butts.

That could have been a bad scene.

But seriously, I think that is the best, most evocative description of flexing I've ever read. There's an occasional clarity in the descriptions of people who are just learning English, that sometimes evades native speakers who flog their words. Their minds aren't junked up with synonyms, and words that "sound smart" which I think is the biggest curse of writing anything. When you only know so many words, I think you're required to be more creative with them. Judy didn't know the word for cigarette ash so she called it "fire seed."

It's interesting to observe.