Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It is getting close to Christmas and for many foreign teachers in Korea this means a long awaited week off.  On Saturday, myself and five others, Alisa included, are heading to the warm country of Cambodia!  I'm really looking forward to a vacation, and Cambodia seems like a perfect place to see a different culture, learn about a different history, and lie on a beach.  Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious building and the biggest reason tourists travel to Cambodia.  I'm really looking forward to seeing it, but we're also going to be travelling around the country quite a bit.  We fly into Phnom Penh, take a boat down the river to Siem Reap, which is near Angkor Wat, then head to the coast before getting back to Phnom Penh for our flight home.  It'll be great.

Unrelated to this, something important has happened on the Korean peninsula this week.  Kim Jong Il has died.  This has brought back opinions and debates in the news and in conversations about what the situation is really like in North Korea.  In the news, you see North Koreans crying hysterically over his death, but are they crying real tears, or is it all for show?  From what I've gathered, the situation is drastically different outside of Pyongyang, the capital, as opposed to inside the city.  In the news, we only see videos and pictures of people in Pyongyang.  But, as I understand it, the people living in Pyongyang are not a good representation of all North Koreans.  This is because North Koreans are only allowed to live in the city if they are chosen.  And, of course, you have to be pro-North Korea/dictator to get in.  So maybe the crying people in the news are genuinely sad that Kim Jong Il is dead.  Or maybe in order to be in the authorities good books, you have to be a good actor.
What do South Koreans think of Kim Jong Il's death?  No doubt they are influenced by it.  It hasn't yet been a full lifetime since the two countries were one.  And yet, I don't get the sense that the Koreans around me feel all that affected by it.  It is on the news, of course, but it doesn't seem like people talk about it at all.  It even seems like CNN/America is making a bigger deal of it than South Koreans.  Of course, as a foreigner, I can't claim to know at all how Koreans feel about things.  Yet, more than on this occasion, I've been surprised by how much of a barrier (both physical and mental) has been built between the North and the South in such a short time.

In other news, I'm a recorded musician!  This weekend, my co-teacher Roman, another friend Scott, and I got together with a guy from out of town who's putting together some kind of 'Foreigners in Korea' album.  He brought his recording mechanisms with him and, in his small hotel room, we jammed out and put down a pretty good cover of "With a Little Help From My  Friends" by The Beatles.  Here's the link for it.  I'm the drummer. (Unfortunately, the other guys didn't think a drum solo was appropriate for the song):

I'll leave you with funny Christmas video that I've been showing my afternoon students just for fun.

Thanks for reading,
Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

This past weekend I went on a ski trip.  The best part of the trip was the first time I looked out of our van window on our way there and noticed snow on the ground.  I missed snow and it was awesome to be in a place with lots of it.  I went with an energetic group of friends, and our trip included a beautiful night drive through the mountains, getting stuck in the middle of an icy hill, walking for an hour in the middle of the night to our hotel, very little sleep, an early morning, long lines at the lifts, an awesome day skiing, a joyful Christmas dinner with a large group of foreign teachers from all around Korea, a better sleep, and a good drive home.  The drive back was so good because I got to drive the van the whole way.  I hadn't realized how much I missed driving a vehicle larger than a scooter until I was given the chance.  Another highlight of the trip was meeting a German guy.  We met him while we were skiing on Saturday, and he's awesome because he is in the middle of a bike trip... around the world!  He started with a friend in Kyrgyzstan and are making their way through Asia.. on their bikes.  You hear about people who do amazing things like this, but I'd never met one before.  He was a cool guy.  I was inspired.

Taking a beer break.  (Fritz is the guy in orange on the left.) Good group.
This week I made pasta ratatouille.  It turned out pretty well.  I'm telling you about it because I'm proud of myself.  That's all.

Without a computer at home, I've been reading a lot.  I read "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah.  It's a powerful memoir about his experience as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone.  From the book, I'm struck by how easily humans can make horror seem normal, and by how amazingly our spirits can recover from that kind of experience.
I'm now reading a drastically different book.  I'm reading "Home From the Vinyl Cafe" by Stuart McLean, the storyteller on CBC.  His short stories are perfect bedtime stories.  They crack me up.

Apologies for the late and shortened blogs lately.  Christmas time is busy at school with us planning our Christmas party.  Not as busy as last year though.  This year the kindergarten classes won't be putting on any Christmas plays, thank goodness.  We'll do that in February.

Thanks for reading,

Friday, December 9, 2011

The weather has been getting colder and colder here and last night I even saw some snowflakes falling.  And, as I remember mentioning in a blog post last winter, this means that our school gets steadily more frigid.  Keeping warm air inside the school building doesn't seem to be too high on our directors' priority list.  I'm always finding wide open windows throughout the day.  And, I forgot to mention this in last weeks blog, in the mornings, when our custodian cleans the school, she won't vacuum a room until she has opened a window in it first.  I'm sure it's related to the fan death idea.

It's been a tiring week, since my co-teacher was away, but at random times in the middle of my kindergartens driving me crazy, they say or do something that brightens my day.  The other day, just randomly as I was teaching, Apple, with the round apple cheeks and the New Zealand accent, raises her hand, and with a big smile says very matter-of-factly, "My little sister's English name is Marshmallow".  I couldn't help but laugh because I'm sure, if Apple's sister looks anything like her, Marshmallow is a perfect name for her.
Alex also has been making me me laugh lately.  Every once in a while, also randomly, Alex starts reenacting a scene in the movie "Up". The one when Russell, the chubby boyscout, knocks on Mr. Fredricksen's door.

Alex knows it by heart and does a really good job acting it out.  So funny.

Tonight I'm joining a group on a ski trip.  First one of the season.  I'm excited.  This is where I'll be:

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fan Death

I think it is about time that I told you about Fan Death.

Fan death is a belief held by South Koreans (only South Koreans - not even North Koreans) that a running electric fan in a room in which all doors and windows are closed can kill a person.  I'm not making this up.

I get my information for this blog about fan death from Wikipedia ( , Ask A Korean (an interesting and helpful blog for foreigners, and from personal experience.

To be honest, my personal experience is pretty limited. I can't actually remember coming across an electric fan here in Korea, which makes me wonder if Koreans are afraid of them.  But I read that the fans that are sold here are sold with built-in timers that you can set so that the fan will turn off automatically after you have fallen asleep in order to prevent fan death.  Also, in 2006, Koreans were warned by a government-funded agency that "asphyxiation from electric fans and air conditioners is among the country's five most common summer accidents." Saying that, in a two-year period, a total of 20 cases of fan or air conditioning asphyxiation were reported.(Wikipedia).

There are multiple explanations that I have heard or read about that offer an answer to the question: How exactly does a fan kill a person?  The first explanation that I became aware of (and the most ridiculous) was that while the fan is running, the blades chop up the air particles making them unbreathable and causing the person in the room to suffocate.  Other theoretical explanations given on Wikipedia are: the fan creates a vacuum inside the room; the fan uses up all the oxygen in the room, leaving only carbon dioxide; and that air blowing on a sleeping body could cause hypothermia.
The author of Ask a Korean admits that there are a lot of unscientific explanations and rumors for how a fan can kill someone, but he still defends fan death by explaining that, for a fan to kill someone, it has to be very hot in the room, in which case the fan begins to act like a convection oven that blows hot air onto the sleeping person who then eventually runs out of liquid in their body from sweating so much and dies of overheating.
To me, this explanation is a little more credible than the others, but I still think it's crazy to believe that a fan can 'cook' a person to death without them realizing it.

So the question is: if none of the fan death explanations have any credibility, why do Koreans believe it?  Well, some people probably think it's due to a lack of critical thinking skills.  This could be part of it I guess, but Koreans aren't stupid.  Wikipedia explains one theory for the origin of fan death: in the 1970s the government created the idea of fan death as propaganda to conserve energy during a time when energy supply was low.  Another theory that I've heard about, which sounds plausable to me, is that Koreans use fan death as a pseudonym for suicide. 

It's funny to think that something like fan death could be believable, but the author of Ask a Korean makes a good point in his blog.  He says that fan death really isn't a very big part of Koreans lives.  He compares it to the belief that red wine is benefitial for our health, some people believe it, some people don't.  And it's probably true that every culture has beliefs unique to them that seem unbelievable to others.

A quick update of how things are going here: It's been a dreary, rainy week and my co-workers and I have felt somewhat bluesy lately.  To combat this, on Wednesday, Alisa and I went over to Roman's apartment and had a movie night complete with popcorn, hot chocolate, and Tim Tams.  We watched "Almost Famous", which is one of Romans favourite movies, partly because his sister is in it.  It was lots of fun.  Then Alisa and I did a 'honk run' up and down our stairs to work off the Tim Tams.  It was a good night.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

We got down with some seoul music this weekend and visited our nation's capital.  We put the soul in Seoul.  James Brown kind of soul.
Actually, I didn't know who James Brown was until this weekend, and we didn't do too much dancing, but we made sure to keep the the soul in Seoul joke going the whole time.

After taking the night bus which brought us to Seoul Station at 3:30 a.m., we discovered how bad 'love motels' can be.  The only one that would take us put us in these super small cubical rooms with paper thin walls, down in the basement.  I didn't get much sleep.  Thankfully we found a much nicer one for the next night.

The highlight of our trip was Saturday night when we decided to climb up to the Namsung Tower, which is at the top of a pretty big hill.  Despite not knowing the way and getting lost once, we found the staircase leading to the top and all made it up in one piece.  We would have had to wait an extra 50 minutes to go up the actual tower, so we decided against it and just hung out at the top for a while.  The view was nice and the company was great.  Then we took the cable car down.

The next day, we had some afternoon hours to walk around Hongdae, a cool area of Seoul.  There, we found the coolest coffee shop ever.  It's called "Thanks Nature Cafe".  It was cozy... it had great hot chocolate... it had cool little sheep figurines on the table...

... it had a really nice sheep painting on the wall...

... and it had REAL SHEEP outside, just chillin in a small pen! Sheep in a city, who'd'a thunk it?

So that was our trip to Seoul.  It was fun.

Back at school, things aren't as exciting.  Some parents have been complaining more lately for some reason or other, and as it always seems, the teachers are the ones who get talked to.  So again, I feel like more like a puppet of the parents, and less of a teacher.  So that's frustrating, but we'll get over it.

On a happier note, Alisa and I and a couple of others have just bought flight tickets to Hong Kong for the Lunar New Year holiday in January!  Can't wait!

Thanks for reading,

Monday, November 14, 2011

I'm making a change.  I'm getting rid of my computer.  I realized that I don't really need it.  I realized this because my computer broke down a little over a month ago.  I brought it to a local computer guy who speaks a little bit of English, and he told me, that I needed a new hard drive.  So, after a week, I picked it up from him thinking my computer problems were solved.  But when I turned it on, up pops a nice new Windows 7 Ultimate operating system... all in Korean.  "Unfortunately the computer guy didn't pick up that I don't speak Korean when I didn't speak Korean to him" I thought grumpily.  So I brought it back to him and he was apologetic and said he'd fix it.  But three weeks later, he hadn't fixed it.  With the help a co-teacher I found out he doesn't have an English Windows and he couldn't find one (to his credit, I think he did try to find one - I just wish he would have told me after the 2nd week).  So I took my computer back and looked up how hard it would be to download an English Service pack.  It looks like it wouldn't be too hard.  But being without a computer for a month caused me to realize that I don't really need one. I wasn't using it for anything productive anyway.  We have computers at school that I use, and I have a kind sister downstairs who'll let me use hers when I need it.  So I decided not to have one.  Hopefully that computer guy will buy back his hard drive and take my computer with it.  Though I do feel sorry to my dad who got this computer and brought it over here for me.  Sorry dad.
This change will likely bring some change to my blog as well.  I'm pretty sure I'll be able to keep up the weekly blog schedule, but they might not be finished on the same day every week.

Friday was a special day.  Why? Because it was 11/11/11 of course.  But, while this was a special day for the world, it was an extra special day for Yale Class.  You see, I have a student named Danny who is very interesting.  He usually doesn't play with the other students during break time, but that isn't a problem for him; he'd just rather play by himself.  And everyone likes him because he's so good natured.  He's Thomas' best friend (mostly because he's the only one who doesn't get mad at Thomas for being a bad friend).  But Danny is also brilliant.  He was the first one in the class to start reading Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series.  Now half my class reads them.  But Danny is the only one who remembers the jokes so that he can tell me at school every morning - "What is invisible and smells like bananas?...  monkey farts."  He cracks me up.
So a couple months ago, Danny discovered that the time 11:11:11 was considered to be a wish second by some.  He told us all about it and then consistently grabbed my arm during the day to make sure he hadn't missed it.  Soon, everyone wanted to know when the wish second was going to happen.  Well, just for fun, and to reclaim my students' attention, I set my watch alarm to 11:11 so they wouldn't have to check the clock all the time.  So for a while now we've been celebrating wish second every morning during our second class.  Then along came November 11.  I was going to be 11:11:11, 11:11:11 !  Danny couldn't wait.
But there was a problem.  November 11 is special in Korea for another, similar reason.  It is Peppero day.  Pepperos are stick-like crackers made by the huge food distributing conglomerate in Korean and Japan, Lotte.  Someone at Lotte had the great idea to market pepperos by making 11/11 Peppero Day, since pepperos look like the number one.  It's kind of fun, but this turned out to be a distraction to Danny's big day.  And not the only distraction.  Friday was also a special day for Poly school for another reason.  It was our field day.  I love field day, and the kids do too, but this meant that at 11:11:11, instead of being in our classroom amonst people who know about and appreciate wish second, we were outside in the middle of an intense kindergarten soccer game.  Despite the distractions, I told Danny and my class that I'd let them know when the big moment was going to happen so that we could all give a big "whoopee!" and then get back to the game.  But that was before I found out I was the coach of the red team, which meant that I was busy substituting players and cheering on my team...  and I wasn't checking my watch...  and Danny was also distracted by the game so he couldn't remind me...  and by the time I remembered, it was too late.. it was 11:20!  Alisa and I tried to pretend like we hadn't missed it and gave a big "whoopee! It's 11:11:11!"  But Danny had to see it on my watch, and when he did, he saw that I had missed the big moment, that I had let him down.  Sad.  But nothing dampens Danny's spirit - "We'll just wait until 12:12:12, December 12, 2012," he said, and went on playing.  What a good kid.

Thanks for reading,

Monday, November 7, 2011

This weekend I had the chance to observe and participate in another different and new (to me) event in Korean culture: The 1st birthday.  Through church, Jane and myself had gotten to know a very kind and welcoming Korean couple, June and Sara.  One year ago they had their first baby, a girl named Hanna.  I remember seeing them shortly after their baby was born and I remember how happy they were.  Lucky for Jane and I, they invited us to their babies first birthday, which was on Saturday night.  When I first heard about the invitation, I remember thinking it a bit strange for them to invite us, who they don't know really well, to their child's birthday.  But that was before I realized how big of a deal first birthdays are here.  First Birthday's are such a big deal that they have their own name: Dol.
So on Saturday, another friendly couple picked us up and drove us to a large, special events hall in a remote place overlooking the bay and right away I knew I was underdressed.  I wore my corduroy pants and a nice sweater, thinking I'd look nice for the occasion.  But people at the party were decked out in full suits and wedding dresses.  June and Sara were wearing a very fancy matching outfits, which also matched their baby's attire, who hereself was in a fancy white dress. (She later was changed into a Hanbok, which I think is traditional for Korean babies on their first birthday).

- You have to realize that the last 1st birthday party I've been to was Ruth and Andrew Ippel's Henry's birthday in the living room of Harambee House in GR. Andrew and Ruth certainly weren't wearing a white dress, vest and bowtie, and Henry was probably mostly naked. (It was a great party though).
We were also treated to a wonderful buffet, lovely music, and all the guests were given a gift of their own (which just seemed backwards to my western way of thinking).
One part of the party, which I hear is traditional for Dols, was when the baby, Hanna, decided her future, or at least what she will become when she grows up.  A tray of toys was placed before her and she chose one.  Some of the toys were: a plastic stethoscope (doctor), a microphone (kpop star), a pencil (teacher), and a judges gavle (judge).  She chose the gavle.  (I wondered - where do you find a toy gavle? But I'm sure there are stores here which sell these kinds of toys just for 1st birthdays).  I find the whole idea of having your one-year-old decide her future by picking a toy very Korean - they start them early here.
I was also surprised by how quickly it went.  We were all in and out of there in 2 hours.  It seemed like so much planning went into such a short event.  But I guess 2 hours beats the 1 hour weddings that they have.
Overall, it was very cool to go to a Korean 1st birthday.  I'm happy and lucky to have Korean friends who invite me to such special events.
During the party, I was wondering about the reason 1st birthdays are such big events in Korea.  I thought that it must have something to do with the past, when, during tougher times, when Korea had less medicinal knowledge, many newborns would die from childhood diseases or because of Korea's seasonal temperature differences.  I looked it up later and I was right... exactly... word for word on Wikipedia... I'm genius.
It turns out, according to Wikipedia, Dols used to be even more extravegant and complex.

I also want to quickly mention something that seemingly has taken Korea by storm: Angry Birds.  You may know about it, but for the benefit of my parents and grandparents, who probably haven't heard about it, I'll explain. It's a video game for smart phones where you sling wingless birds at structures and evil green pigs to knock them down and retrieve the stolen eggs.  I don't know about North America, but it's huge here.  In some of my classes, I have to collect cell phones so my students don't play Angry Birds during class.  But it makes sense to me that anything having to do with cell phones is going to take off here.

Thanks for reading,

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween.

It was a bitter-sweet Halloween weekend.  We had some good Halloween fun, but we also said some sad goodbyes.  On Friday, we had a Halloween themed open-mic night.  I got to play my djembe with some other musicians, which was great.  I didn't dress up though, because Saturday night was the real Halloween party.  And I was reminded, on Saturday when I didn't have a costume or any ideas, how much I dislike dressing up for Halloween - well, I dislike it before hand, but afterwards I'm glad I did dress up.  Anyway, there I was Saturday afternoon, in my apartment, with no costume.  Other friends were dressing up as Star Wars characters and I had wanted to be Yoda, but all I had for it was green face paint.  That wasn't enough, so I scratched that idea.  It was too late to go out and buy a costume, and that's not very creative.  So I decided to use what I had in my apartment.  I had a textbook.  An old Educational Psychology textbook that I picked up somewhere for free, but that I, let's be honest, wasn't ever going to read.  I decided it would work for my Halloween costume.  I went as a textbook.

I looked a little frumpy, but oh well.

Then Sunday was our farewell dinner to Dan and Natasha.  They are the awesome married couple who Alisa and I have gotten pretty close to and are very sad to see leave.  But they live in Ottawa, so we promised that we'd go camping together this next summer.  It was a very good dinner and a fitting goodbye full of Dan telling unbelievable stories about his terrible students who didn't learn anything because all they did in class was fight each other - which is how many evenings with Dan and Natasha ended up being.  We're going to miss them a lot.

This was our goodbye cinnamon-roll hug.  Dan and Natasha are the happy ones in the middle.

But Halloween wasn't over yet because today our school had our Halloween party, which meant that I had to dress up, again.  It turned out pretty well actually.  I decided the textbook idea was a little dull for kindergarteners, so with face paint, Alisa, our co-teacher Roman, and I decided to be puppy dogs.  We looked pretty good, I'd say.

It was a fun day.  Our students looked very cute.  And that's the end of another Halloween.

Mentioning the open-mic night earlier reminded me of last weekend when I had another chance to play my djembe with some others.  A friend had somehow gotten a gig playing downtown, on a stage in the middle of the walking road (if you're not from around here, let me just say, that's a big deal - to me at least).  We played Saturday and Sunday and both nights we came on stage after a group of middle school dancers who were a little more high energy than us (but who also were dancing to some terribly vulgar music).  Unfortunately, when we got on, most of the crowd had dispersed and we had a hard time drawing them back.  But I don't think we sounded too bad.  And it was fun playing my djembe.

Thanks for reading,

Monday, October 24, 2011

I'm an uncle!  Peter and Celina had a baby boy last week.  His name is Mateo.  Mateo V. Varela.  The anticipation leading up to his birth and now the reality of him being born has made me think about life in new ways, which I'm sure is all the more true for Peter and Celina.  First of all, I'm struck by how truely amazing the birth of a child is.  To have a completely new life grow inside of someone and then be born as a uniquely independent being is surely one of God's greatest gifts to mammals.  And being related to that new being is pretty special, I'd say.  Reproduction is pretty awesome.
The second thing is something Peter brought up in an email he sent before Mateo was born.  I think it'll be ok with him if I include his quote here.  He said:
Despite the doom and gloom of our unmanaged relationship to creation, the world is a beautiful place. The newly yellow leaves are glowing wet after the rain. Seems like a scary future though.  May our baby grow to be a person of peace amid the inevitable conflict.  I think about the future so much more now that our baby is on the way. Lots of unknown but God is faithful. (Peter Varela)
I told him that I appreciate his optimism because I often find it difficult to see past the despair, suffering, and ruin of the earth, the animals, and humans at the hands of us humans.  In these times I find it hard to be hopeful.  I think hope is a fundamental part of a person's outlook on the future, and something I usually miss or forget is how much it comes down to the question, where do you place your hope?  Peter has reminded me, not just in this situation, that I want to more and more place my hope in a faithful, loving God.  Also, I think the birth of a nephew is a very hopeful event.

Thanks for reading,

Monday, October 17, 2011

Anna and Acupuncture

I have a sixth grade student who's name is Anna.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, her class is the last one that I teach and she's the only one in it, so lately, instead of doing book work, which is what I do all day, we talk to each other.  I figure, the ability to have a conversation in English is more important than anything she'll learn in a book, and she does need to work on this ability, so it's ok.  I also really enjoy talking to her.  She's taught me quite a bit about Korean culture just by telling me about her family and friends and public school life.
As I've mentioned, I haven't been feeling great lately.  With the help of a co-teacher I made it to a doctor who told me I have bronchitis and gave me some midications for it.   Around that time, Anna told me about a traditional medicine clinic that she goes to pretty often.  She didn't know the terms for it, but she explained that they treat people by using acupuncture and herbs (I, of course, taught her the terms... see, she's learning).  And by her description, the doctor at this place sounded like a miracle worker.  She said that he could identify a person's ailment just by taking their pulse.  Moreover, she claims that, with acupuncture, this doctor cured her pink eye overnight!  I was flabbergasted.  But I also knew that Anna can be somewhat dramatic, as middle school girls tend to be. Still, I'd always been a little bit interested in acupuncture, so I decided I needed to check this place out for myself. 
Saturday I got myself out of bed and scooted off to Kim's Traditional Medicine Clinic (or something like that).  The first thing I noticed coming in the door, as Anna had said I would, was the smell.  This place had a great herby-earthy smell.  It confirmed that I was actually in the right place since I hadn't seen the sign on my way in.  The receptionists, after I explained, with actions, that I wanted to have the acupuncture treatment, directed me to the doctor's office.  The doctor, who was very nice and spoke English quite well, asked me what I wanted treatment for (unfortunately not proving Anna's first claim to be true), but then did also take my pulse, and explained that if I were to do the acupuncture and take the taditionaly medicine that he'd give me, I wasn't allowed to also take the 'western medication' that I had gotten from the other doctor.  I said that was fine with me, so they brought me to another room, sat me on a table, and put eight small needles in me.  I hardly felt them go in.  I sat there for ten minutes, they took the needles out, handed me a packet of herbs and I was on my way.  It all took 30 minutes and only cost me five bucks!  How did I feel? Well, I know the placebo effect is pretty powerful, and I might have just been feeling happy about how cheap it was, but either way, I felt pretty good afterwards.  And now, two days later, I feel like I'm just about back to 100%.  Whether it was the acupuncture and herbs or not, I'm glad I did it.

Now two quick stories that either show that Koreans are really nice, or that foreigners get away with a lot here.  After the acupuncture place on Saturday, I joined Alisa and our co-teacher Roman at an indoor rock climbing wall downtown that they had been to before.  The wall is small and only meant for bouldering (climbing low enough that you don't need a harness), but still a cool find for Pohang.  We introduced ourselves to the korean guy who was there and after asking us a couple of questions asked us if we wanted to join him and his friend at the very large outdoor rock wall down the road by the river.  We did of course, so we drove down there, they set up the ropes for us (which requires climbing up without a top rope but instead clipping the rope in as you go up), they let us climb for a good long time, and they didn't charge us a thing.  They just seemed happy to do it for us.  Pretty cool.
The other story is about my fridge.  Last week I decided that the ice in my freezer was getting to be too much.  So I started chipping away at it with a small knife when, accidentally, the sharp end of my knife punctured the flimsy wall of the freezer as well as one of the freon tubes.  Before I knew it, potentially dangerous gas was leaking into my fridge. (I've looked it up online and some sites say that freon is dangerous to breath while others dissagree. But they all agree that it's bad for the ozone layer. I'm not feeling any ill side effects.)  I didn't really know what to do so I left my fridge closed and opened my windows.  At school I told my director about my situation.  He called my apartment host who took my fridge that night and gave me a better one the next day for no cost.  (Moral of the story: If you're teaching in Korea and don't like something in your apartment, break it and ask your director for a new one.  Just joking.  Moral of the story: don't use a pointy object to clear the ice out of your freezer.)

Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Two things Koreans love: their cell phones and their rice wine.
I'm convinced that cell phone companies run this country - or at least this country's economy.  Cell phones are huge business here.  It seems like every second T.V. commercial is advertising some type of smart phone.  And the stores are everywhere.  I've mentioned this earlier, but in case you've forgotten I'll say it again, there's a place in town where you can stand on one corner and see 11 cell phone stores, no kidding.  And everyone has one, even my kindergarteners.  Heck, my kindergarteners have i-pads!  Albeit, Poly school seems to attract the wealthiest of Pohang.
Rice Wine: On Saturday we went to GyeungJu where the annual Traditional Wine and Rice Cake Festival is happening.  It was another lovely autumn day - we've been having a lot of them lately - and we had a great time.  When we got there, we bought a small, one-dollar, traditional looking cup and then we walked through the 40ish stands filling up our cup with all varieties of soju and mokali (Korean rice wines).  The best was the bamboo soju.  This is another big difference that I see between Korean and North American culture: alcohol isn't regulated in Korea.  All this wine was given out freely to whoever offered their cup, children included.  Toward the end of it we really did run into a middle school boy who was much happier than he should have been.  There certainly are less regulations (or at least enforced regulations) in Korea.

In other news, I recently bought a bicycle.  This makes me happy.  I don't need it for transportation, but I missed riding a bike.  Getting back on one made me realize this.  It's not an amazing bike, but I'm happy with it.
Another purchase that I've made, which might be even cooler, is a biker vest... a real leather biker vest with awesome patches.

pretty sweet

Those of you thinking, "that's not something I would have thought Mike would buy."  It's true, it's not something I normally would buy.  But there's a story... not a long one.  So a lot of the foreigners here have scooters or some sort of moterbike, and one day, Teddy (who's great and who is the type of person who'd own a leather biker vest) had the idea that we should make a biker gang, with leather jackets, and biker names.  My biker name is 'Yoda'.  I really like the vest and I'm excited for our first biker gang bike trip.

Crab update: Sadly, my kindergarten class's two pet crabs has become one pet crab.  Here's the story: one of the crabs (Usain Bolt) was bigger than the other (Usain Boldia - the female version of Usain Bolt apperantly).  My kids thought they were male and female, but I'm pretty sure they were both females.  Anyway, crabs molt and shed their outer layer once in a while.  And you're told to leave the skin in the aquarium with the crabs because they eat it - it's good for them.  So these crabs eat parts of themselves.  And, at times, our crabs would fight with each other, or at least the bigger one with fight with the other.  It often happened right in the middle of class, which was quite distracting for me as I was teaching - science class: "So the scource of energy is the sun.  Plants need the sun's energy to... to... to...  um... plants need... the sun's energy to grow... [something like that]).  This past weekend Chavie took the crabs home and she came back with only one.  In her somewhat broken English she told me how it happened.  From what I gathered, Usain Bolt had gotten hungry - not surprising to me considering they pretty much eat only rice - and he/she got a hold of Usain Boldia's leg and started chomping on it.  Chavie said Usain Boldia didn't put up much a fight...  I'm not sure how the rest of it happened, but Usain Boldia is no more.  I'm actually surprised how long they've lasted.

Sorry for ending on a bit of a depressing note.
Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

This late posting is just to say that my next post will be next week Monday.  Yesterday was a holiday in Korea: "The Opening of the Sky Day", or "Foundation Day", or something like that.  It was nice to have an extra day off as many people have come down with some sort of sickness.  I have a persistent chest cold that I'm trying to get rid of.  So I tried to catch up on sleep this weekend.  We also went paintballing yesterday.  It was good to get out of the city on such a nice day.


Monday, September 26, 2011

I want to catch you up on some pictures of the past month.

First, Chuseok at school:

I took this video as I walked into the classroom.  Like last year, everyone came to school dressed in their traditional hanbok.  The video continues until Thomas - the first one hiding under the table - jumped on me.

We gathered in the library.

They practiced their bows.
Then we went outside to play games.
This is Thomas.  As you can tell from the video and this picture, he doesn't like having his picture taken.  But then he got a hold of my camera and took a few pictures. They weren't bad.  Here are a couple.
I like the fuzziness of this one.

Then, for the Chuseok long weekend, a group of us went to Seoul.  We walked around the many different areas of Seoul and ate a lot of good food.

This was in Insadong

On Sunday, some of us went to the largest church in the world.

Inside.  They had a specific section for foreigners where you could listen to a translation of the sermon in seven different languages.  It was certainly a big building.  There are church buildings about as big as it in Grand Rapids, but what makes this the largest church in the world is the amount of services they have.  I'm not sure how many that is, but we attended one at around 2:00 and when we got there, there were large numbers of buses leaving from the service before us.  I think they probably run all day.
And we went to a coffee shop which had Dr. Fish - where you sit with your feet in a tub full of fish that eat your dead skin cells.  It was so ticklish that it was hardly bearable.

And we went to another strange coffee shop: The Cat Cafe.  It's a coffee shop with about 20 cats of different varieties just wandering around, walking over your tables and inside your bags.  It was kinda cool, but also kinda strange.

They even had one of those hairless Russian cats.
Then my friend Frank (on the left), who lives in Seoul, took us to the river where we found a playground with a merry-go-round.

And then to an island on the river with a relaxing park.
And that was our trip to Seoul.

Then this last weekend, we went to Boegyeongsa (the nearby temple and mountain that I like so much).

We hiked up quite a bit of the mountain this time - almost to the top.  It was a beautiful day.

That's me at the top.

 Let my finish with a short, romantic tragedy from my kindergarten class:  
 At the end of every month, we have a birthday party for the students who had birthdays in that month.   At one point in the birthday party, as a good photo opportunity, we ask each student to call someone up from their class (who isn’t also celebrating a birthday) to give them a birthday hug.  Sometimes the birthday hug also comes along with a birthday kiss!  Now, in my class I have three girls and eight boys.  And, maybe because there are fewer girls than boys, the children have already decided which boy each girl is going to marry.  Ruby and Andrew, Rachel and Robin, and Ellen and Alex.  My kindergarten tragedy occurs between the last of these couples: Ellen and Alex.  You see, whenever it’s one of these students’ birthdays they predictably call up their ‘assigned’ significant other for their birthday hug (and sometimes kiss)…  except in September… because Ellen’s and Alex’s birthdays are both in September…  so they can’t give each other a birthday hug/kiss because when it comes time for it, the other isn’t in the crowd of students who they can choose from...  Isn’t that so sad?

Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Observations: Sounds, Smells, Tastes, and Feelings

Continuing with my sensory observations of Korea:

Sounds of Korea:
- Car horns: Koreans blow their horns a lot more often than in North America, but certainly not as incessantly as in Vietnam.  Something that is unique to Korean horns is the variety of horn sounds.  On top of your regular sounding 'honk honk', there's the 'fading foghorn' which is a three second horn that starts loud and then gets softer, as well as the 'ice-cream-truck' horn that blares a quick little diddy that can be heard by anyone within a kilometer.
- Roving truck vendors: A number of times in the past, on Saturday mornings, when I'm trying to sleep in, I'm awoken by an extra loud, loud speaker giving some sort of automated message in Korean. At first, it sounded to me like some sort of communist public announcement calling everyone to the city square for an important government message.  Later on I realized it was just someone selling something (usually fruits or vegetables) out the back of his or her truck and felt like everyone (including those still in bed) would like to hear about it.
- Construction: If these truck vendors don't wake me up, the construction at 6:00 a.m. usually does.
- K-Pop: Korean pop songs are everywhere.  It seems like every store plays the same K-Pop songs over and over.  And every Korean's ring tone is also one of those K-Pop songs.
- If a store or coffee shop isn't playing a K-Pop song, there's a chance that they are playing a very inappropriate American rap song .  One coffee shop downtown only plays these songs, and it plays them loud.  The funny part is, I'm sure the person responsible for such a horrible music choice has no idea what the words are.  And there we are sipping on our hot chocolates listening to songs we wouldn't even here on radio stations back home because the lyrics are so bad.
- Korean: Of course this is an obvious one, but to be living in a place where I don't speak or understand the language a strange reality, when you think about it.

Smells of Korea
- Jukto Market:  I've never been in a place with such a variety of strange smells.  I haven't lived on the coast before so the smells of the sea are new to me.  These smells are everywhere in this city, and are especially concentrated in Jukto Market.
- Scented Toilet Paper: strange eh?
- Cigarettes: Either Koreans smoke more than North Americans or a lot of the foreigners of Pohang smoke or both.  I'm pretty sure it's both.
- Barf: This past weekend, there was this one spot on this one road where someone must have puked out everything they had.  I know it has been there for a number of days because I scooted through it three times.
- Urine: Korean men have a tendency to just go wherever, whenever.  So every once in a while, you get an unpleasant whiff.

Tastes of Korea:
- There are a lot of new tastes which are a part of Korea food.  I won't dive into all of them now, but suffice it to say that most of them include either kimchi, red bean paste, or the red Korean spice that is in almost everything here.
- My favourite food in Korea has become Pizza Toast.  This one small road-side shop makes it for 2,000 won (2 bucks) and it's wonderful.
- Makkoli and Soju: Korean rice wines.  Makkoli is decent, and Soju is just rubbing alcohol in my opinion.
- Sweet potato chips: it's hard to find chips that are salty, not sweet.

Tastes Not In Korea:
- Cheese:  This isn't completely true; some foods do include cheese here, but they're usually foreign foods.  It is impossible to buy regular mozzarella or cheddar in Pohang.
- Spices: Almost all spices that I grew up with are not found in Korean foods or grocery stores.
- Good chocolate

Feelings of Korea:
(I realize that these feelings don't have anything to do with the sense of touch, but that's ok).
- Scooting!: such a great feeling.
- Confusion: when a person is talking to you in Korean and expects you to understand, but you just can't.
- Frustration: when my students don't understand the words that I'm saying, but I just keep rattling on oblivious to it.  (Hmm these last two are similar aren't they).
- Fatigue: I'm tired often.  I try to get enough sleep, but it just never seems enough.  Maybe it's because I can't sleep in on Saturdays.
- Contentment: when I'm spending time with friends and I realize how lucky I am for all I have here.
- Sadness: when I wish I could be back in Toronto or Grand Rapids or Gallup to be with those friends and family.
- Uncertainty: about what I'll do after Korea.  Excitement is a part of this too, because I have a lot of options.

Two weekends ago was Chuseok and I'd like to add some pictures from that, but our internet connection isn't working really well lately.  So maybe later.

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Due to an extra busy Wednesday and a falty internet connection, I wasn't able to write this weeks blog. So I will take this week as a holiday. I will also be changing my scheduled blog writing day again. Instead of writing on Wednesday, I will be writing my blog on Mondays from now on.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Observations: Sights of Korea

In my kindergarten science class we are learning about observing things with our five senses.  This week, we observed a balloon, hand sanitizer, and gummy bears.  This gave me an idea for my blog.  There are still differences about Korea that I haven't written about.  So here is a list of some, not very scientific, observations about Korea.  Some of them will overlap with observations I've already written about, and I probably won't get through all five senses in this blog.

Sights of Korea:
- Buddhist temples: Toronto is pretty culturally and religiously diverse, but I've never had a temple in my neighbourhood or discovered one on a hiking trip through the forest before.  There are quite a few in and around Pohang and I find them pretty interesting.  They're certainly beautiful.
 - Fluorescent lights:  Alisa said that the red fluorescent church crosses were the first thing she noticed about Korea.  It seems like every church has one and there are a lot of churches.  Also, Pohang is known for its mega steel factory, Posco, not just because it's one of the biggest in the world, but also because the whole thing lights up at night with fluorescent lights.
- Squatter toilets: I try to avoid them.
- Old, run-down buildings: In most of the cities I've visited, there are areas of old buildings that look tired and worn-out.  They have a lot of character though.
- Extreme construction: This might be unique to Pohang, but there are buildings going up everywhere around here; tall cranes all over.
- Apartment building density: Korea loves apartment buildings.  In the big cities, they're everywhere, all packed together.
- Hunched older women: Often the older women that I see around town walk with quite a dramatic hunch.  I'm guessing this is a result of years of farm work.
- Couples clothing:
- Coffee shops: are booming business in Korea.  There are at least 5 within a 1 km radius at Bukbu beach.
- Hagwans: It seems like every busy corner has at least one academy of some kind.
- Roadside markets: I've come across a number of these markets on random streets in Pohang.  They're fun to walk through.
- Red light districts
- Marines: both American and Korean.  This is somewhat specific to Pohang because we have a big marine base nearby.  It's common to see guys around town, even at the beach, in full uniform.
(Sadly, I've read that these last two are closely related)
- Strange side dishes: Tiny little fish, or Beondegi (steamed silkworm pupae)
It tastes as bad as it looks and it smells even worse.
 Things you don't see in Korea:
- Stop signs: Most minor intersections don't have any signage.  So either people slow down for them or lay on the horn as they fly through them.  I've seen a couple of fender benders just in our neighbourhood.
- Public garbage cans: This bugs me to no end.
- Homelessness: I hadn't thought about it until someone brought it up, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of homeless in Korean cities.  Although, I haven't looked into this observation.
- 4th floors: In Korean, the number four is "Sa", which is similar to the word for death.  So most apartment buildings and hospitals don't include the 4th floor.  It's not unique to Korea though.  Tetraphobia, which it is officially called, is found in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan for the same reasons.  What these countries have in common is an influence of the Chinese language, from which this association originates.

I'll leave it at that for now.  Next week, I'll try to finish the rest of the senses.

Crab update: Our classroom crabs are still alive; the rice has sustained them thus far.  And today, one of them shed it's skin!  So now we have 2 live crabs and an exoskeleton in our small tank.  Apparently, their leftover skin has essential nutrients and the crabs eat it.  I hope you're eating right now.

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, September 1, 2011

About a month ago, one of Alisa's kindergartners found a salamander-like lizard around the school.  They put it in a small plastic aquarium and kept it for a quite a while.  My student's favourite thing to do at recess was to go catch bugs to feed to Batman, it's name.  Batman has since died, quite dramatically according to Alisa, but since then my students have been wanting to have a class pet of their own.  Not long after, the parents got behind the idea and Chavie let me know that soon they would be buying us a class pet - a bird.  Hmm, a chirping bird in a kindergarten class: definitely not the smartest idea, we decided.  Chavie must have passed on our concerns to the parents because on Monday morning, when I walked into our classroom, there was, not a bird, but two, much quieter pets on my desk ... crabs!  To be honest, I don't think I'd ever seen a crab up close before.  Let me tell you, they are the strangest looking creators.  I'm pretty sure ours are fiddler crabs. They look a little like this.

It's fun to just watch them.  When they come up out of the water, they always blow bubbles for a couple minutes, and they always seem to be grooming themselves with their front claws.  They are quite bazaar.
But I'm not sure any of us know how to care for our new pet crabs exactly.  They're in a pretty small container and we've been feeding them rice, which just doesn't seem right to me.  I guess we'll see how long they last.

The other big news of the week is that the Track and Field World Championships are happening right now about an hour and a half away, in Daegu.  They're not the olympics, but I still think it's cool.  Some of my friends went to see Usain Bolt run on Sunday.  Unfortunately, he false started and was disqualified.  I'm thinking I might go this Sunday to catch the end of it.  As it is, I'm enjoying watching the highlights on TV every night.

These two stories are connected because my kids have named one of our crabs Usain Bolt.

On a sad note, Japan Dan has left Pohang and gone back to Japan.  I'm bummed to see him go, but we're planning a trip to Cambodia over Christmas and we'll see him then.  Also, Frank, the board game guy is leaving this week.  He's such a great guy, a lot of people will miss him.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Let It Be

At school, Chavie, my co-teacher, has been playing songs by the Beatles and teaching my kindergarteners about the Beatles during the breaks lately.  I think the song "Let It Be" must be Chavie's favorite Beatles song because my kids have picked it up pretty quickly.  Also, now when one of my students is angry or frustrated about something, my class has become quick to tell them to "let it be", like this:  (Thomas, sulkingly) "You never give me the new eraser."  (Danny and Luby, directly) "Let it be."  And that's the end of it.  It works pretty well and it cracks me up every time.

Lately I've been feeling homesick because of page numbers.  When we get to pg. 131 in a book at school, it reminds me of highway 131 in Grand Rapids and then I miss all my friends and the good times from Calvin.  And when we come to pg. 66, it reminds me of rout 66 through Gallup and then I miss my friends and the red rocks of Gallup.  And if any of our books had 401 pages, it would make me miss Toronto.  But none of them do, so I don't miss Toronto.  Just joking.

Kids are sponges.  Earlier, I wrote about one of my students, Ellen, who went to New Zealand for a few months.  Well, she's back, and she has a pretty strong kiwi accent.  I think it's amazing how she picked up such an accent in a short amount of time.  No adult could do that.  But I don't know what the rest of my kindergartens think.  I haven't brought it up and they haven't said anything about it, but I'm sure they have noticed because it's hard to understand her sometimes.  So funny.

This past weekend brought two new experiences for me.  First, on Friday, a group of us went to a restaurant none of us had been to before.  That's because this restaurant serves dog meat.  If I haven't mentioned it yet, Koreans, a lot of them at least, eat dog meat.  I didn't know this until I had gotten to Korea, and when I found out about it, I didn't really think much of it.  Personally, I'm not opposed to it.  I don't see much difference between dog meat and cow, pig, or sheep meat.  But I also didn't have a pet dog as a kid.  I know people here who are strongly against it and they all seem to be people who have been close to a pet dog before; so I understandable their position..
Last Friday, when I heard that others were going out to eat dog meat, I said, "well, why not?" and I joined them.  Turns out, its quite good!  It was tender and didn't taste much different than beef.  I liked it.  We ate it in a soup, which is more common, and by itself, barbecue style. 
The second novel experience of the weekend was the Chilpo International Jazz Festival (  Chilpo is a beach about 20 minutes north of Pohang.  A couple of us went early to relax on the beach for a while.  We brought along badminton rackets and I ended up playing some pretty awesome badminton with a Korean woman who was at least in her 50s.  It was pretty cool.
As for the Jazz music, we saw two groups play.  The first was led by a Brazilian percussionist who plays a mean tambourine.  I was impressed.  But I loved the second group.  It was a trio - three French guys - one on the piano, one on the bass, and one on the drums.  I was blown away.  I even bought the CD.  They're called the Remi Panossian Trio.  They've become my new Frank Mills.
Here's a video:

Here's us with the band. I got their autograph. (shrug) no big deal.
Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Kimchi is Korea's national side dish and something that's purely Korean.  So when I discovered that kimchi doesn't tickle my taste buds like it does for most koreans, I was a little bummed out.  While I'm in Korea, I'd like to eat it's food, but kimchi just isn't good in my opinion.  A student even gave me some homemade kimchi and it's just smelling up my fridge right now.  (aside: there are lots of types of kimchi and some of them I do like.  But here I'm talking about the fermented cabbage kimchi).  I was always aware that there were all sorts of kimchi varieties, depending on the region, but I had sort of given up hope that I'd ever truly appreciate kimchi.
BUT... this was all before I went to Jeju.   I tried the kimchi in Jeju and it was decent, even pretty good.  It wasn't as fishy as the kimchi in Pohang.  It had flavour and I liked it a little bit.  And that made me happy.  So there Korea... I do like kimchi - just not Pohang kimchi.

Let me tell you about Jeju.  Jeju is a volcanic island south of the mainland of Korea.  It is a province of Korea but has a history somewhat unique to itself.  There are two sizable cities on the island, but it has also become a very popular vacation spot for Koreans and a tourist destination for Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese (and foreign teachers).  Jeju's geography is dominated by Halla-san, the inactive volcano at the center of the island, and Korea's tallest mountain.
Monday was Korea's Independence day, so Jane, Alisa, and I had planned on going together over the long weekend.  But, due to unforeseen circumstances involving a scooter and a telephone pole, Alisa was not able to join us.  So it was up to Jane and I.
We flew out of Busan on Saturday morning and after a short 40 minute trip, landed in Jeju.  We had not done any planning prior to our trip and so our only plan was to decide what to do as we went along.  This made for a bit of an overwhelming experience at the airport when we realized just how many things there were to do on the island.
We didn't have a lot of time left in the day so we decided to go see Jeju's semi-famous Love Land.  Love Land is an artistic and humourous sex park.  If you haven't heard about it, which, if you're not a foreign teacher in Korea, you probably haven't, don't worry too much - it's mostly tame.  What I thought was the most interesting thing about it was that I find Korean culture to be much less 'sex-infused' as western culture.  But then here's this park dedicated to the subject - seemingly counterculturaly.
The next day, with a rough plan in our heads, we took a bus east along the coast.  The first place we went to was the Manjanggul lava tubes.  Lava tubes are long cave-like channels made by once-flowing lava under the earth's surface.  And they're awesome.  So we walked down into the cave and immediately noticed the temperature change and become much colder.  In the part of the cave that tourists are able to walk through, there are dim lights, information about the lava tube you're in, and quite a few people.  From the entrance to the end of the public area, it was about a 40 minute walk one way - and that's only the part people are able to see.  In all, the caves are a few kilometers long!  They were cool.

A rock fall inside the lava tube

A lava spire

Outside the lava tubes.  There was this lady sleeping and it looked so peacful.  Also, something that makes Jeju unique is all these volcanic rock piled up into stone walls surrounding fields.  They are everywhere in Jeju.
The entrance to the cave
After the caves. we went to another impressive natural volcanic 'wonder'.  On the east coast of Jeju is a place called Seongsan Ilchulbong. This is a 'lava cone' with a large crater on the top that jumps out of the ocean and could be said to resemble a giant crown or a rock castle.  It's beautiful.

We climbed up the side of it (a pretty good hike) and then took a short boat ride halfway around it.  We were quite impressed.  To me it looks almost other-worldly because it's so round.  There are lots of myths and legends surrounding it.

looking back at the way we came.

the inside of the crater

Afterwards, tired from walking so much, we took a beautiful bus ride through the countryside back to the city.  And the next morning we were on our way back to Pohang.

Seeing the lava tubes and Seongsan Ilchulbong were amazing, but for me, the highlight of the trip was going from one to the other.  After the lave tubes, we got back to the bus stop and hoped to jump on a bus that would take us where we wanted to go.  We didn't really know if and when there would be such a bus, but that was seemingly our only option.  After waiting a little while, somewhat jokingly, Jane suggested that we try to hitchhike our way to Seongsan Ilchulbong.  I was hesitant at first, but worked up the courage to stick out my thumb at the passing traffic.  Wouldn't you know it, soon after, two guys in a van pull up and tell us to jump in (well they were Korean, so they didn't actually say "jump in" but we understood from their smiles and gestures that that is what they meant).  They were nice guys.  The driver was even sipping a beer as he drove us, possibly a little inebriatedly, to the next town.  There, with the help of more very kind people, we caught a bus that took us to our destination.  Koreans are nice people.

Thanks for reading,