Posts Tagged ‘South Korea’

Big Bang

Big Bang

One year is a long time.  Three hundred and sixty-five is a large number, especially when meted out in days.  No matter how fast time might seem to have flown, one year, taken incrementally, hour-by-hour, takes a long time to pass.

We are now over ten months in Korea and both Colleen and I are finding ourselves yearning, more and more, for home.  A significant proportion of our current malaise is simply that the sheen of this adventure has long rubbed off.  Except for occasional forays out of the city, we hardly feel like tourists anymore.  We have settled, you could say.  We have so normalized our routines of living in Korea that we are slightly offended by the oft-voiced surprise from our Korean acquaintances that we a) eat spicy food, b) can read basic Korean (note: reading Korean script is not synonymous with understanding written Korean), or c) know the words of the latest K-Pop song (or the previous one, or even the one before that).  “What?” we wonder silently and vent about later, “do they think we’ve been hiding under a giant piece of kimchi this whole time?”  Our students, too, can’t believe we deal in Korean Won and manage even to make purchases at the grocery store.

But this doesn’t explain our malaise, except that in feeling “settled” we also feel “anxious;” anxious to move on from here, anxious to take in, however briefly, a few more corners of Asia (before influenza of the piglet closes borders, before North Korea detonates another nuke, before the markets take another suicidal nose-dive), and finally, anxious to simply come home.

Okay, so that does explain some of our malaise.  But there are a number of other contributing factors, each worth mentioning here:

Yellow Dust

Yellow Dust Storm - Seoul, April 2007 (image by Joongang Ilbo)

First, healthiness has proven to be virtually impossible, for us anyway.  Between bouts of food poisoning, numerous cold and flu symptoms, and recurring near-chronic bronchitis, we hold our breath, pop vitamin-C, and wonder when the next round will hit.  It seems as though our best option, in the springtime anyway, is simply to stop breathing, seeing as how Asian yellow sand wafts incessantly into our apartment and classrooms.  On the plus-side, we’re on a first-name basis with our friendly neighbourhood doctor.  He laughs each new week we walk through his door.  Fortunately, too, the drug cocktails they dispense here only cost about $3.00 CDN.  Now, if only we can kick this prescription drug habit….

Secondly, a goodly number of Korean Mothers have proven to be virtually intolerable.  Each passing week at our academy adds further incriminating evidence against this lot, the kind of stories that solidify cliches.  Mothers, for instance, who freak out that our academy took a one-day holiday in May, the first such non-national holiday since October;  mothers, for example, who finish their child’s homework in neat, undisguised print and then resolutely deny they are doing so;  mothers, por ejemplo, who jerk their head sideways in disgust after I tell them that their child is “a wonderful student to teach,” because, from their perspective, that child is  ‘most certainly not wonderful’, since they ‘lack work ethic’ and ‘their printing is lazy’.   “But they’re eight years old!” I find myself screaming within the cavernous space between my ears, made all the more vacuous by encounters of this kind.

Thirdly, there is the epidemic of foreigners here in Korea, a group we are admittedly a part of.  The problem is that the lure of good pay and ridiculously cheap alcohol brings a host of shady characters through the turnstiles at Incheon Airport.  When in small groups and with similar interests, there is hardly a problem (provided you can dive beneath the surface pleasantries before the year is up).  But couple some aggressive types

1 bottle of Soju = $1.00 CDN

1 bottle of Soju = $1.00 CDN

together, letting them roam through the fermented night, and in fairly short order flat screen TVs will be thrown from hotel windows or shirtless, machismo brawls will end with concussed bodies and bleeding head wounds.  In a country where the racial lines are so neatly divided between “han-guk-in” (Korean) and “wei-guk-in” (foreigner), the actions of a subset of either group immediately stand-in for the larger.  As such, the actions of other ‘foreigners’ can be rather embarrassing, since I’m associated to them by our shared continent of birth.

Interestingly enough, as I typed that last paragraph at 3:00am, a group of sojued Korean businessmen escalated a verbal dispute into a brief fist-fight below my window.  I contemplated throwing eggs.  It’s a reminder, at least, that embarrassing people belong to no one group– they transcend them all.

All this is to say that our time of departure is nigh, and can’t come soon enough (July 14).  The year, of course, has hardly been all bad.  It’s just that, in contrast to the first six months, the last few have creeped by so slowly! The result is a greater general fidgitiness  (that ticking sound of wasted time adding to our anxiety) and an ample amount of escapist travel planning to keep our minds off certain inanities of the job.  All told, we’ve got 61 920 minutes remaining, which is really only 1043 hours, which is then a paltry 43 days. And 43 days, happily, is a measly six weeks.  Really, it’s all a matter of perspective– this, we keep telling ourselves.


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When I first started this blog last summer I envisioned posting new photographs regularly.  I thought it might challenge me to produce better photographs, while also giving me the chance to talk about certain images that I really like.  Since I have yet to do this and am also busy with a writing project I shelved two years ago, I thought I may as well begin now.  Here’s to hoping for a shorter blog post….

Contrary to the pleasure with which I photograph natural landscapes, I find urban settings especially difficult to capture.   It is often hard to recreate the mood of the place.  Since I can’t expect the city to pose for me, the lines and the postures are never mine to control.  The city always explodes past my frame and, unless I’m in the right ‘frame’ of mind, I find this frustrating and daunting.  So without happening upon a particularly arresting pattern of lines or a striking outline of architecture, I tend not to take the camera from its bag.

Of course, this means, too, that I’m reluctant to photograph human subjects within these urban landscapes.  I find myself reluctant to sleuth with the camera, to steal away shots, to fire multiple frames per second into the faces of the unprepared.   But, I know that if I’m going to push my photography, I need to embrace the act of photographing people, preferably alive and moving, within the places where they live (ie. the city).

In Korea, people are most abundantly available for photographing in the shopping districts, which are truly sights to behold.  Thousands of people spill through brickwork streets, pouring in and out of boutiques and brand name stores, purchases in tow.  Scooters rev their way through the flood tide and food stalls part the sea down the middle.  These open-air stalls serve up roasted corn, foil-wrapped sweet potatoes, pork skewers, deep fried peppers, and the ubiquitous tteok bokki, a rice cake/processed-fish concoction served up in a spicy-sweet red sauce.

I’ve walked through an untold number of districts like this and have never managed to capture the scene to my liking.  There were either too many disembodied human parts pressed into a frame that told no narrative, or wide stretches of unpeopled pavement, giving the illusion of a deadened shopping district– something it decidedly was not (if there is a global recession, it’s not recognizable here).


Passerby, Eunangdong

Frustrated by my lack of success, I resolved one evening to focus on a single food stall in our downtown market.  I walked circles around the tented booth and snapped shots from different angles.  The electric lighting seemed perfect against the slightly dimmer streetlights and the rising steam lent a warmth to an otherwise cold photograph of an even colder day.   I finally happened upon an angle that seemed to work especially well; I took a number of wide-angle shots from behind the stall, as shoppers lined up for warm food.  I then waited for the street-cook to serve up a dish of the aforementioned tteok bokki, hoping to capture the hand-off across the grill.  Just as she did so, and just as I pressed the shutter, a boy walked across my frame.

Since this had already happened numerous times, and since the ritual passing of the tteok bokki, which I was waiting for expectantly, had occurred squarely behind his head, I silently cursed at the boy and walked away from the food stall in frustration.

Only later, with the photographs uploaded to my computer, did I realize that this photograph was far more interesting than any of the other shots I had taken.  Despite blocking the food exchange I so desperately wanted to capture, the boy’s pixelated movement covers up an otherwise boring foreground; this also serves to direct the viewer’s eyes to the lighted warmth of the couple, huddled by their own plate of tteok bokki.  The proximity of the boy’s passing body to the camera lens, plus the steamed faces of two female shoppers in the upper right corner fills the frame with a sense of crowdedness, of a street scene spilling beyond the arbitrary cropping of my camera.  The result is (finally) something akin to the feel of the shopping district.

Which brings me to the lesson learned:  if I’m going to push my photography in urban spaces, I need to embrace the dynamism of the place, which means not only accepting unpredictable movements but utilizing them as best I can.

So about that shorter blog post….

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Lest you think my students are only capable of techno-brutalized Engrish sentences, I thought I should make mention of a few instances where the electronic translator, well, worked…kind of.

Ex #1

Usually, after working through a new reading passage with my students, I request that they create sentences using their newly acquired vocabulary.  Try as I might to get my students to actually invent new sentences, most simply copy the word’s usage directly from the story we read.

Last week, the word “chew” seemed to be particularly problematic.  Their homework, then, amongst other words, was to create a sentence using “chew.”  Statistically speaking, these were the results:
70% returned with a fully plagiarized sentence: “Little Billy chewed his food noisily.”
20%” handed in fairly simple (but commendable nonetheless) sentences of their own imagination:  “I chew food” or, it’s variant, “I chew gum.”
10% (ie. one student) submitted this delightful ‘creation’:  “He spent the whole night chewing it over.”

Ex #2

In a case very similar to that mentioned above, I asked for a sentence Rockhopper Penguincontaining the word “eyebrow.”  We were learning about penguins and had just read about the splendidly amusing features of the Rockhopper Penguin:

“The yellow feathers of the Rockhopper Penguin look like long eyebrows”

Again, most of my students simply copied this sentence as homework; thankfully, however, one student ventured out into the creative realm, writing, “my eyebrows are novel.”

I chuckled aloud at the idea of ‘novel eyebrows’ but my student was quick to come to the defense of his sentence.  He stated emphatically that, yes, his eyebrows were very novel indeed.  I looked up from his homework to see for myself.  And sure enough, his eyebrows, though wide enough to be bushy, were, in fact, rather sparse– the hairs receding up into his forehead sporadically, with no clear delineation of a single brow.  It was a wonder I had never noticed them before.

“You’re right!” I conceded, “your eyebrows are rather novel!”

Ex. #3

This has nothing to do with techno-translators, but everything to do with a good quote.

I have a student who, on any given day, would far rather be playing computer games than studying English (okay, I have more than a few of these types).  But no other student is like this one.  First of all, his name, Luigi RunsLuigi, is derived from the (in?)famous Nintendo character.  Luigi is quite big for his age, consistently lumbers into class late, and never, absolutely never, has a pencil with him.  But I really enjoy working with him; the more difficult it is to interest a student, the more rewarding it can be when you (finally) have them focused and learning.

Yesterday, unfortunately, Luigi was less than interested.  He squirmed all class, tuning in only insofar as his needing to answer the occasional question.  Near the close of class, he interrupted the lesson with lazy waves of his hand and an equally tired, almost anguished, call:

Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher…I have question.
H’m, yes, Luigi.
Who made English?
Well, no one really.  It happened over 1500 years ago.
Well, I want to kill him.

The bell rings, leaving me feeling quite enamored with my profession.

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“Your late twenties are all about coming to terms with your own mediocrity.”  So said my minutely older friend a few months ago, before resigning his body to the lulling heat of the green-tea bath, sliding out of sight beneath the water’s shimmering, yellow-green surface.  I wanted to object, to muster a bold retort.  I wanted to marshal an argument based on the conceptual fruits of perseverance, discipline, and hard work.  I wanted to wrestle a smidgen of realistic truth out from a tired, idealistic cliche, like “all your dreams are within your reach,” or something like that.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs.  This is the best I could find.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs. This is the best I could find.

But of course, I didn’t (as my grammar makes abundantly clear).  I watched as my friend’s hair spread itself flat along the surface, as it danced cautiously, like seaweed, in the agitated waters of a Korean bathhouse (jjimjilbang).  I watched from my perch on the other end of the small pool; my arms spread wide, crucified to the tiled edge.  My lower torso bobbing weightlessly to the shooting time of two underwater jets.  My stomach exposed, naked.  The steam rising slowly through my sodden mass of chest hair.

I knew that any counter-argument would only amount to hot air and, in this case, quite literally.  Our education systems (both in the West and here in Korea) are structured so as to give off the plausibility of your being anything you want to be: combine hard work and perseverance with good grades and innate abilities and, presto (or is it abracadabra?), you’re halfway up the corporate ladder to a management position, or combing the ocean floor for new marine life, or blasting off to space, or what-have-you.  It’s not that this never happens.  Indeed, many of the people we idealize, whose biographies we keep repeating, seemed on-track for success at a very early age.  Lance Armstrong, for instance, was cycling far out to neighbouring towns at ten years of age and then calling home to be picked up, so of course he went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.  Or a nineteen year old Steven Spielberg, who skipped out of a tour of Universal Studies, retrofitted a closet into his “office”, and worked away on his first film, unnoticed, for some time before being found out (and subsequently hired on for his tenacity).   Since teaching in Korea, I’ve felt this strategy of hero-making a bit more acutely.  The textbooks I teach from are full of short bios on famous people, designed to inspire young students– and depress their aging teachers.

With no such immediately obvious trajectory to famous success, I’ve been developing a bit of a neurosis.  There is, here, an anxiousness to aging that I have not hitherto recognized.  There is an acute, looming sense of coming-up-short, of  having underachieved and, hence, squandered what “could have been.”  This neurosis is relatively minor (or, at least not maniacal– rest assured dear family, friends, and concerned readers).  It mostly consists of constantly, and almost unconsciously, comparing myself to whomever wrote what I am reading, directed what I am seeing, or spoke what I am hearing.  And it’s not an outright comparison either; it is simply noting each person’s date of birth and recognizing that they were a member of parliament at 32, or a published author at 27, or a first round draft pick at 18…etcetera, ad infinitum.

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms.  Photo by Jasonunbound

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms. Photo by Jasonunbound

It was at this jjimjilbang and to my wizened and minutely older friend that I admitted to such unfair self-comparisons.  Incredibly, I found an ally (for misery loves company), someone with the same penchant for feelings of inadequacy before the cultural productions of the young and the brilliant.  It is fitting that our ensuing conversation occurred within numerous hot pools, saunas, and cold waterfalls, all of varying degrees of temperature; a body simply cannot help but feel old in a Korean jjimjilbang.   Perhaps it’s the rapidly pruning fingers and the absorption of so much water that makes one feel closer to death; or it’s the way in which six hours of bathing seems to call for a thousand years of sleep; or, at the very least, it’s the horrific amount of dead skin peeled off by scrubbing brushes at the sit-down shower stalls.

Whatever the case, it is the prospect of death, I think, which drives these ludicrous comparisons, which makes me horrified at the thought of ‘wasted time’.  I rarely read a book twice; I almost never see a movie a second time.  And it was nice to share a genuine laugh at our ridiculous notion of gazing out over the vast expanse of human artistic production and comparing ourselves to any one and all.  It was like an AA meeting for the washed up and old (yep, we’re almost 26 and 27 respectively)!  I know, intuitively, that such behaviour is destructively selfish.  For, what else is it but pure selfishness when you cannot see past the tip of your own nose to genuinely admire the accomplishments of another person?  Admittedly though, we did share a triumphant high-five, in the sea-salt sauna, I think, upon realizing that the quirky and brilliant Cohen Brothers, though youthful, are in fact in their early-fifties!

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

Anyway, I think this habit goes back a long way.  In elementary school, I used to envision the Ninja Turtles breaking through the cinderblock wall of my classroom and calling me away to an all-important battle against Shredder.  My dream never did pass beyond the gaping jaws of my classmates, who were clearly jealous that I was on the “in” with Donatello,  for that was all I wanted anyway, to be different and recognized and, well, cool.  Perhaps not much has changed.  I hope this all sounds rather more melodramatic than melancholic; it’s not that I’m an unhappy, dissatisfied person– much the opposite in fact.  It’s simply that in the face of others’ successes, I feel I must not waste anytime.  And this ticking clock (call it my biological clock) produces a measure of anxiety from time to time.   That’s all.  Besides, the comparisons are not all bad.  Two weeks ago, the Globe and Mail ran the headline “At 70, A Novelist Is Born, about Alan Bradley, a crime writer from Kelowna, B.C.;  though I will never be a crime writer, such stories do give me hope.  And maybe, too, I should stop reading Nietzsche (who, incidentally, was chair of philology at Basle University at twenty-four years of age).

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The UN-blue quonset huts straddle the Military Indication Line.  They serve as the meeting place of dignitaries and organizations from both sides. (photo by Geoff Martin)

These UN-blue quonset huts straddle the demarcation line between North and South Korea (notice the raised cement bed running between the two buildings). They serve as the meeting place of dignitaries and organizations from both sides. (photo by Geoff Martin)

There is something ethically unsettling about buying into a half day tour of a military standoff.  At what point in the progression of battle does one side decide that there is money to be made parading tourists along the line of contention? And at what point does that tour become the “must see” destination of a country, like Disney World for Orlando, Florida or The Farmer’s Market for St. Jacobs, Ontario?

A short section of rusted, barbed wire on sale at the Camp Boniface gift shop for 15,000 won ($13 CDN)

A short section of rusted, barbed wire on sale at the gift shop for 15,000 won ($13)

The answer is relatively simple: you marshal camera-wielding foreigners through the war front after nearly sixty years of a military and diplomatic impasse.  In the Korean conflict, no one is going anywhere, so why not display the theatrics of war to the curious?  As for it being a “must-see”, it is only a matter of time and consistently safe trips before millions of visitors have stood at the line and gaped across at the binocular eyes of North Korean soldiers.

In South Korea it is now something of a rite of passage to go to the DMZ.  Yet, I had never really heard rave reviews (of the level enjoyed after Billy Joel played Seoul).  The experience was largely chalked up as “interesting,” and nothing more.  This, combined with my unease over being something of a war tourist made me hesitant to buy in; yet my brother and his wife were visiting for three weeks and wanted to see the full range of the country.  Since everyone else we knew had done the tour, I thought we may as well do it too.

And so we did.  Last weekend, we took the 45 min. drive north from Seoul and visited the DMZ.  My opinion, I can gladly say, has changed.  The experience was well worth the cost:  walking “across the line” inside a UN-monitored negotiating room; peering out at ‘Communist North Korea’ (as referred to by our soldier-guides) from an observation deck; slouching low through a long tunnel dug by North Korean soldiers for the  purpose of infiltration and surprise attack.  All proved to be immensely informative.

An elite South Korean soldier stands on The Line at one end of the negotiating table.  Vistors are allowed to "cross the line" for a few moments from the other end of the table.

An elite South Korean soldier stands on the Military Demarcation Line at one end of the negotiating table. (photo by Geoff Martin)

I may now be “yet another war tourist,” but I can visualize the conflict a little better because of it.  I have a semblance of the chronology of the war and the subsequent standoff.  In sum, I have a greater sense of Korea-at-war; a fact that is all but absent from the surface level of South Korean culture– the odd eighteen-year-old in camouflage, and nothing more.

The DMZ tour, then, enabled me to actually see, however quickly and cursorily, this entrenched scar running the width of the Korean Peninsula.  The threat is real; both armies continue to seek the intimidation of the other.  Rhetoric is leveraged to extremes.  Small incidents, such as tree-trimming, flare up into axe murders, or the act of raising a flag, into a contest of height and size (the North Koreans are currently winning with a 160m high pole and a 600 lbs flag).

Kijong-dong, North Korea (aka "Propaganda Village" or "Freedom Village" depending on your allegiances).  This uninhabited town was initially constructed in the 1950s to encourage South Korean soldiers to defect

Kijong-dong, North Korea (aka "Propaganda Village" or "Freedom Village" depending on your allegiances). This uninhabited town was initially constructed in the 1950s to encourage South Korean soldiers to defect. (photo by Geoff Martin)

This is a gaping wound that refuses all stitches.  No salve seems strong enough to smooth over the ideological divide, the sixty years of vehement hatred.  This is a crisis now into its second and third generations.  Yet there is internal pressure for reunification, not least of which, from the oldest members of society– those who were children when the conflict began, who were separated from their siblings, and who were kept apart by the militarized border for sixty years.  Now, in their old age, they want nothing more than reconciliation.

My brother, Scott, and I do our small part for the reunification of the Peninsula.

My brother, Scott, and I do our small part for the reunification of the Peninsula.

The DMZ tour, for showing simply “what’s there” and for attempting to contextualize the conflict was entirely worth the time (8 hours) and cost ($44 USD).  I highly recommend.

For details:  http://affiliates.uso.org/korea

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Clothes I'm Wearing... by englishbanana.com

Recently, I was teaching a lesson on clothing to beginner students.  We worked through the standard vocabulary and associated verb structures fairly quickly, so I pushed them to begin describing the clothes.  We reviewed the use of adjectives and I taught them more descriptive vocabulary words (ie.  plaid, striped, checkered); the results, in class, were quite pleasing.

For homework, then, I asked them to write a paragraph detailing their favourite item of clothing.  This they happily did, returning the next day with some rather extensive descriptions of their wardrobes.  One of my students, evidently at a loss for words at home,  had most definitely turned to her technological translator for help.  The result was a somewhat confusing paragraph,  perhaps best proved by the following abstracted sentence:

My white hoody and pink checkered skirt is each other compound is good and cute.

And while I’m on the subject of lessons on clothing, I thought I would include the following open letter to the people of Happy House Publishing:

Dear Happy House Publishing, Department of Curriculum Development

If you hope to guide students through a “delightfully imaginative learning environment,” as is your stated goal, might I suggest not including images of young girls in their undergarments?  What Is She Wearing?

It really causes unnecessary turmoil, what with nine year old boys clawing at their eyes, crawling under their desks, and screeching horrifically all the while.  The braver ones always venture to re-open their books, tentatively and by peripheral vision,  to page 54 only to slide it in front of the unsuspecting eyes of another boy, resulting in, quite obviously, a complete repetition of the aforementioned actions.

As you might intuit from the above description, the sum total of newly  acquired English verges on absolutely nil.  Granted some of the students are yelling, “ahh my gawd!” which does pass for spoken English, but I think you see my point.

Thank you for weighing my recommendations and I look forward to working with your revised editions.

Geoff Martin

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