Monday, January 31, 2011

  One of the suggestions in the pre-Korea information package that I received from my teach-abroad agency was to bring a gift for my director because Koreans are gifty people.  So I brought some maple syrup (thanks mom), which I think was well received, and since then I've come to find that it's true, Koreans do seem to give a lot of gifts.  This has been especially demonstrated to me by the mothers of our school's students.  Every once in a while we find a box of donuts on the table in the teacher's room, from one of the parents.  And sometimes, when I come into my classroom in the morning, one of my students will come up to me with a iced coffee - which I don't usually drink, but I certainly appreciate the sentiment.  Then on more festive occasions, bigger gifts are sometimes given; I received a very nice Korean fan from a student over Christmas.  But it seems that the most popular gift to give someones teacher on these occasions is socks.  The Lunar New Year happens on February 3, which has meant that I've received 6 new pairs of good quality socks in the past week.  One pair is even a nice pink color.
  Another interesting part of Korean life is how the value they place on all things cute.  This means that even regular, everyday tools are made to be as cute as they can in Korea.  This includes cute socks, pencil cases, note books, backpacks, bags, cell phone charms, cell phone ring tones, and even pencil sharpeners.

This is the one we have at school, but I've seen much more extravagant ones.
The cuteness also extends to restaurants and cities.  On the outside of many restaurants is a cute cartoon picture of a smiling animal (duck if it is a duck place; cow if it is a beef place).  But these pictures are also very helpful to foreigners who don't know enough Korean to read the restaurant sign.  Moreover, every Korean city that I've been to has a cute slogan (interestingly always in English) and sometimes even cute little mascots that you see on a sign as you drive into the city. 

  Changing the subject, as I mentioned, the lunar new year will be starting later this week and according to wikipedia this is the most important traditional holiday in Korea.  I've never celebrated this event, so I'm interested to find out what it's like.  Tomorrow, our morning classes are going to celebrate by playing Korean games.  Then we have the rest of the week off, which I'm very much looking forward to.  I'm not sure yet what I'll spend my time doing over the break, but I'll probably be heading up to Seoul for a couple of days.  I'd like to see more museums there.  It would also be nice to get the scooter fixed.
  Changing the subject again, I've been watching a lot of the documentary series "Planet Earth" by the BBC lately.  It's awesome.  If you haven't seen it, you should.  And, I'm learning a lot about the earth's atmosphere and it's surface from the two higher level science classes that I just started teaching in the afternoon.  Whoever knew that science could be so interesting?

Thanks for reading.

P.S. : Did you hear about the baker who stopped making donuts because he got tired of the hole thing.  (chuckle chuckle).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Special Place and Being a Part of Scholarly Discussions in English

A good Canadian guy had a birthday today which calls for a proper celebration, so I'm getting to this blog a little late, but here goes:

In most of the places that I've lived I've had some kind of 'special' place where I can think, run, pray, and just be.  In Hagersville it was the quarry (probably the ultimate special place); at Calvin it was a spot near the Sem' pond; there were a couple places in Gallup; and now I've found 'my place' here in Pohang.  Just across the main road is a forested hill, a couple blocks long and wide, that I've mentioned earlier.  Since I got here, I've wanted to 'explore' it, and a couple weeks ago I finally did.  In it, I found a really great trail and quite a few burial grounds (which I shouldn't have been too surprised about.  Anywhere there's an 'open' space, there seems to be burial mounds, whether it's right in the city, or in the middle of a paintball course).  It's really a beautiful, quiet place and perfect for running.  It means a lot to me that I have a place where I can somewhat get away and just sit, or run.

This past Saturday I had an interesting experience.  A while ago I had gone to an 'English Club' where Koreans come to learn English from any English speakers who are willing to join.  There I met a Korean guy who's English name is also Michael.  He's an interesting guy; he's friendly and I think I like him because he seems to smile a lot more than most Koreans (he also has a pretty funny laugh).  He's unemployed, which I think is quite rare for a Korean (job status is a big deal here).  Anyway, I ran into him recently and he invited me to hang out with him and a couple other Koreans on Saturday.  I agreed, and the resulting occasion was interesting for me.  I went with him and his friend, who's also unemployed, to Postech, a university just outside of Pohang.  There we sat in a room with a couple others and just talked/debated - in English.  We talked about two things: first we talked about North Korea and the issues involving South Korea's relationship with them; then we talked about the culture of eating dog meat that is found in some areas of Korea.  I learned quite a bit about both topics.   I felt like an invited guest to a scholarly discussion.  But for them it was totally natural.  I think the main purpose for them is to practice their English and so any time they can coax a native English speaker into their circle, they jump on the chance - which was fine with me.  It was a good experience and I think it demonstrates how important learning English is Koreans of all ages.  One of the guys was taking time away from his wife and kids to be there.  Then on Sunday Michael came to church with Natasha and I - kinda cool.

So that's what's going on here.
Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Snowboarding Take Two and Children At Play

  Skiing on the coldest day of the year was probably a bad idea, but we did it anyway.  Actually, most of us, including me, did it unknowingly.  We went skiing this past Saturday to Sunday at the same ski resort that we went to earlier this winter.  There were more runs open this time, which was nice, but the conditions were not good.  It was windy as all get out and there just wasn't enough snow.  We were able to get to the top of the mountain this time, and, while it was very beautiful, I don't know if I've ever been colder than I was going up that ski lift.  The wind was glacial.  We estimated it to be at least -50 with the wind.  It was cold.  And the slopes were all solid snow - it wasn't ice, but it was as hard as ice and almost as slippery.  This made it very difficult to stay up on a snowboard - at least for me.  If you read my previous blog on snowboarding, you'll know that falling is largely part of the snowboarding experience for me.  Except that last time we went snowboarding, the snow was thick and much softer.  So I only came away with a sore tail bone from countless falls.  But this weekend, it only took one fall to bruise-up my knee.  And because of that, I just didn't have the same confidence in myself, and this made it much harder to cope with the conditions.  On Sunday I did switch to skis, and that made a huge difference.  I felt a lot more comfortable on skis and I had a couple very good trips down the hill.
  But despite the less than perfect conditions, our group made the most of it.  We stayed in a single large room with no beds (many Koreans prefer to sleep on a mat) and played a lot of cards.  The lodge/hotel also had a very nice Jinjebang (Korean spa - see Vietnam post).  So we had a good trip overall.
  When we got back to Pohang, Natasha, Dan, and I went to the new and, as far as I know, only Indian curry restaurant in town (Pohang does have a lack of foreign food restaurants).  It reminded me of the Indian place near our house in Scarborough.  It was good.

  But in this blog I also want to talk about a Korean phenomena that I've only hinted at earlier.  This past Friday I was out at dinner with my co-teachers talking about Korean oddities as usual, and one of us said, "I never see children outdoors playing on the playgrounds."  And it struck me then that I don't either.  In fact, except for the spontaneous snowball fight with the 2 boys mentioned in my previous blog, I don't know if I have ever seen a child playing outside in Pohang - ever.  There are playgrounds around, but they're always empty.  One might say that this is because Korean children spend a lot of time in school - and they do - but for the past month the public schools have been on vacation, and I still haven't seen children outside 'being children'.  The predominant cause for this, we believe, is that when children are not in school, they are studying their buts off, even late into the night.  One co-teacher mentioned that a child had told them that he or she is not allowed to go to bed until all the lights in the surrounding apartment buildings are off, because otherwise it means that someone else is studying longer.  Crazy eh?  Now, I'm sure that this is an extreme example, but it is a fact that there are astounding expectations placed on Korean children - or at least the ones I'm associated with - no matter what their age is.  Play doesn't seem to be very highly valued in this culture.  And it's somewhat sad.  I'd say that the ability to play is far more important than anything you can learn in school. 

Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The cold

  Korea is cold.  Vietnam was warm.  But Korea is decidedly cold.  The snow that we received last week was apparently the most that Pohang has had in 93 years.  And, as you'd suspect, they weren't really ready for it.  I think the city owns only one snow plow and it didn't make it to our neighbourhood until Wednesday or Thursday.  So there are large areas of driven-over snow which has become ice that are pretty traitorous - especially for the scooters. 
  But Pohang, and possibly Korea in general, doesn't seem to deal with the cold very well either.  Every newly and currently-being built building that I've seen - and there are quite a few of them in our area -  are built without insulation.  So the buildings don't hold heat very well at all.  You can tell when the owners of a restaurant thinks you've stayed long enough and wants you to leave because they turn off the heat and it suddenly gets very cold.
  Moreover, our school might be the coldest building in the country, no joke.  We have one running heater in the building and it heats up the entrance area.  But the teacher's room and the upstairs classrooms are frigid - sometimes seemingly colder than outside.  Most of us are teaching in our winter coats.  I know I'm Canadian and should be able to deal with it, but in Canada we have warm buildings at least.  I can only guess that the reason our school isn't warmer is because our directors rival the dutch for cheapness.
  With that in mind, it hasn't been the easiest to transition from holidaying in Vietnam to working in Korea.  I think being with Natasha's family has made me miss my family all the more.  I also miss my old friends.  It's been five months and ten days, which isn't too long, but I've found it somewhat difficult to make solid friends here.  This is likely due to the transient nature of our profession.  You never know when a fellow English teacher's contract expires and they're off to another adventure.  That's certainly been  one difficulty of living in Korea.
  If this blog sounds a little bit gloomier than others, you're right it is.  My mom and sister say that I'm probably going through the usual stages of moving to a new culture: first things are exciting and new, and then things change to being different and unusual.  I think this is likely part of what I've been feeling lately.  But I also don't mean to sound completely gloomy.  I'm enjoying many parts of my life here, one of them being the snow.  I had a random one minute snowball fight with a pair of neighbourhood boys as I was walking back from the store last week.  And I got to church yesterday for the first time in a while.  The visiting preacher told us a quite amazing personal story of difficulty in his life.  The message was 'worry not', which is always a pertinent message I find.  Also, I'm excited that a korean co-teacher has offered to teach Larina, a co-foriegn-teacher, and I Korean.  And school has been going smoothly.  I receive much joy from my students.  I like them a lot. 
  So that's how things are here with me.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Vietnam is a crazy, wonderful place.  Let me tell you about my trip there.
First of all, I was very fortunate to be able to go with Natasha and her family, who not only planned and managed the whole trip, but also were very welcoming and fun to be with.  Here's my account of the trip:
Day 1 and 1/2:  Natasha, Katie (Natasha's sister who came to Pohang earlier), and I took an empty late bus to the airport in Incheon.  There we stayed the night and Christmas morning in a Jinjebong - a Korean spa - the closest thing to an ancient Roman bath.  They're all over Korea and they include a hot tub, a cold tub, sit down and stand up showers, a wet sauna, a dry sauna, individual sleeping rooms, and a uni-sex lounge/sleeping area.  They're great.  There we met Natasha's other sister, Sarah.  Together we took an afternoon flight to the airport in Guangzhou, China, where we had a long, uncomfortable, and cold layover until our night flight to Hanoi.  At the airport in Hanoi we were picked up by our hostel host.  On the van drive to our hostel we got our first taste of Vietnam transportation as we passed by men on motorbikes carrying large bags of vegetables, not really seeming like they were in any hurry at all - at midnight.  We stayed in a room with 3 bunk beds which we shared with a travelling Spaniard.
Day 2:  In the morning we slept in a little - something that didn't happen the rest of the trip - and then, after a breakfast of eggs and a semi-fresh baguette (which are very popular in Vietnam), as we waited for the rest of the family to arrive, we got massages which were only about 5 bucks. (Since I mention money, I should quickly talk about the inexpensiveness of Vietnam compared to all other places I've been.  The Vietnamese dollar is called the Dong and the exchange rate is about 20,000 Dong per U.S. dollar.  That said, most meals we ate were between 10,000 to 80,000 Dong - or less than 4 dollars U.S.  Among other things, clothes, train rides, and massages are also very inexpensive).  This was my first massage and though it was no doubt awkward having a complete stranger touching me while I'm only in a towel, it was also nice and relaxing.  After the massages, we ate a street food soup lunch.
Natasha, left, Sarah, right, busy street in the background.
And now I will talk more in depth about Vietnamese traffic.  The Vietnamese like their motorbikes.  As we ate, a constant stream of motorbikes passed us with no thought to which direction one should travel on which side of the road and who has the right of way at intersections.  As we would later find out, the one rule that Vietnamese drivers do seem to obey is "get out of the way of bigger vehicles".  And it turns out that crossing the street in Vietnam is one of the most exhilarating experiences one can have.  When one crosses the street, the thing they must not do is stop.  You need to pick your spot and walk boldly through it.  Though, this is easier said than done because Vietnamese motorists will not stop for you either.  They head straight for you so that when you move, they will go behind you.  But when you've got a motorbike heading straight for you, carrying anywhere from 1 to 5 people of any age, your gut reaction is stop, cringe, and wait until they pass you.  It takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty awesome.  One member of our group described Vietnamese traffic as a highly sophisticated symphony of craziness.  I even heard that foreigners aren't allowed to drive in some places in Vietnam - and I wouldn't blame them for making such a rule.  I assume it takes a lot of practice before someone can get from one place to another without killing themselves or a pedestrian in that craziness.  For a good example, look up Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh traffic on youtube.
As we finished our lunch, Natasha's mom, Jenny, dad, Scott, and brother, Blake, arrived from the airport and we rushed off in a taxi to catch a bus that would take us to the coast.  I think we missed the bus, but Katie got us on another bus that also worked.  The Vietnamese bus ride is another unique travelling experience.  As we drove out of Hanoi and through smaller towns, with the TV on and the volume turned up too much (not unlike a Korean bus), our bus driver would honk the horn, almost non-stop, at anything he could think about honking at.  As it is, most of the time when Vietnamese pass each other, even when there's 'lots' of room, they lay on their horn just to be sure the other driver knows they're there.  And, as you might have guessed, Vietnamese drivers are constantly passing each other because there's so many of them.  This results in a very loud trip.  But we got there and after buying tickets for the ferry, we jumped on another bus which took us to the ferry, took the ferry to Cat Ba Island where we got on another bus which, as the sun set, drove us through the mountainous island to the town we'd be staying at.  After a meal of American food and half price cocktails, we found our hotel and fell asleep quite quickly.
Day 3:  After a breakfast of pork, lettuce, and tomato on a semi-fresh baguette, we all got on a boat and took off - and that's when I realized what a beautiful place we were in.  The area is called Halong Bay and it is characterized by these awesome limestone chunks/outcroppings/mountains jutting straight up out of the water all over the place.  I've thought that it might be the most beautiful place I've ever been.  Pictures show it better than I can describe.

We motored through this beauty for quite some time while we lounged on the top deck drinking bitter Vietnamese tea, until we came to a place where our hosts put us in kayaks and sent us off.  Now, on the boat we could sometimes see these low eroded 'tunnels' going underneath some of the rocks, but in a kayak we could go right through these tunnels which weren't much higher than our heads.

You can just see one of the kayaks come through that tunnel.

Mr. Heckendorn and Katie
We got back to the boat a little later than out hosts would have liked, but we still had time for lunch as we motored on to another kayaking spot.  Without giving too much detail, the lunch was super: rice, veggies, and fried fish awesomeness.  It was made even better by the fact that we were on a boat going through such a wonderful place.
We kayaked once more and then our hosts took us to an island.  At first this island didn't appear to be any more special than the others, but once we clambered off the boat onto shore we noticed some interesting animals swinging in the trees, coming down onto the beach, and even trying to steal things from the park rangers.  This was Monkey Island and there were monkeys alright, and they weren't afraid of anything.  I watched as a monkey jumped up onto girls backpack, seemingly take it off her (of course the girl was also trying to throw the backpack off), and quick as lighting grab a banana from inside and run off into the trees with a number of other monkeys hot on it's tail.  You'll have to take my word for it because I unfortunately left my camera on the boat.  When Natasha saw the fearlessness of these monkeys shehad to rethink her plan to become their king.
We then headed back to town, and the whole time we were on the boat we passed these floating houses and stores and I couldn't help but think about how amazing and different it is that there are people living here, forever floating; a whole new lifestyle to me. 

That's our boat on the left.
When we got back, we ate an 'overpriced' fish dinner on a floating restaurant, then played Up and Down the River in our hotel room and went to bed.
Day 4:  Day four was a travel day.  We took a bumpy bus ride back to another ferry, which took us across to the mainland to another honky bus, which took us back to Hanoi where we got in a taxi to take us to the center of Hanoi.  Being in the taxi in Hanoi was the first time we were actually part of the city traffic craziness and it didn't disappoint.  Every time there was a close call with us and another vehicle (which is almost every 30 seconds) our driver would laugh and say 'ahh, Vietnam'.

We had enough time for a really great lunch at a great place called "Ladybird Restaurant" where Blake and I juggled limes, and then we took another taxi back to the Hanoi airport.  We then took a half hour flight to the southern part of Vietnam to a touristy town called Nha Trang where our hostel was right next to a pretty rockin club.  So after a great supper of Indian food, we went to sleep to the beat of the dance music next door.
Day 5:  To preface our time in Nha Trang I should talk about the street sellers.  The whole time we were out on the street or in a restaurant in Nha Trang and in Ho Chi Minh City later on, we were constantly approached by these sellers selling one of only a number of different things: sunglasses, a select group of books, wallets, cigarettes, or artwork.  It was interestingly cultural at first, but after the 30th time of being asked if you want to buy these bendy sunglasses, it starts getting a little old.  But they're just trying to make a living, and I must say they're good at it.  They're very persistent.
In the morning, we got up early and got on a boat which took us out to a nearby island.  There I had my first scuba diving experience.  It was decent.  I had a guide who held my hand and pulled me along and made sure I didn't float too high or sink too low. There were really cool fish and coral to see.  But it turns out scuba diving isn't as easy as just breathing trough a tube - my ears were constantly popping and hurting from the pressure, it was hard to move around gracefully, and my guide kept stopping me and taking pictures with an underwater camera so that I'd buy them later.  So it was a good experience, but I don't think scuba is my sport.  But Natasha's family has done it more often and they seem to enjoy it, so that's good.  While we weren't scuba diving we were sunbathing on the deck of the boat and it struck me how strange it was to be sunbathing on a boat on December 29.

The Heckendorns
We spent the afternoon shopping, drinking 50 cent beer, and turning away street sellers.

These guys were playing this game on the sidewalk.  I like it because it demonstrates the Asian Squat.  Squatting down like the man on the left is something Asians seem to grow up doing.
Then we took a taxi to the train station where we got on this awesome sleeper train.  I don't remember ever being on a train so that was exciting already, and this train had these cozy little rooms with 6 beds, three on top of each other.  The train even had a restaurant where we ate sausages on a semi-fresh baguette and then played Hearts until we were too sleepy to think.  I went to sleep above a Vietnamese couple as I looked out the passing Vietnamese night.
Day 6:  As nice as going to sleep on a train was, waking up at 4 a.m. on a Vietnamese train was an unpleasant experience.  I was grumpy for a good 2 hours until I finally woke up.  Our train brought us to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest and busiest Vietnam city.  Our tour guide, Dominic, who was a really nice guy, picked us up around 5 from the train station and took us off to the Mekong Delta.  The Mekong Delta is large area of southern Vietnam that is characterized by the many, many distributaries of the Mekong river.  It is also densely populated and has a long history.  As we drove we passed through jungle-like forests and rice paddy after rice paddy.  In most of the rice paddies were these cement grave sites.  We also saw water buffalo.

On the way, Dominic took us to a religious temple/mosque in one of the towns.  He told us that the religion that this temple is a part of includes many of the world religions in it's belief system - believing that there are many ways to the one God.  I would have thought more on this, but right after he said this a woman with three baby triplets showed up - naturally.  She let us hold her babies who were very cute and very mild tempered considering they were being passed around by smiley strangers.  It was definitely a highlight of the trip for me.  I thought it was awesome that the woman was so willing to share in the joy of her babies.  It was a very happy moment.  Then she piled her toddlers onto her bike and peddled off as if it was no big thing.  "ah, Vietnam."

We drove on to the place where we were to get on a boat, hopped on one of the many tour boats, and putt-putted down the river into the 'floating village', eating litchi fruit.

Now, I could talk about what we did next for a long time because it was really cool, but I shouldn't because that would make this blog longer than it is.  So I'll keep it short.  What we did was we got off the boat and went into a thatched building where people were working.  Here we saw many things.  We saw sea water being distilled to collect it's salt by boiling the water over burning, left-over rice husks.  They then use the resulting rice husk coal as fertilizer (wasting nothing).  We saw coconut candies, rice crackers, puffed rice, and sweet peanut-ginger bars  being made and packaged, we drank snake wine (really made with snakes and rice wine), and we saw a man creating these wonderful, colourful paintings.  It was very cool.  Then tourists have a chance, and are subtly encouraged, to purchase the goods that are made -  which I think is a relatively good system of tourism generated economy.

This is where a woman made rice crackers.

A bottle of snake wine.  Yup, that's a real snake.  Yup, I drank some of that.
We then boated down the river a little further where we got off for lunch.  But before lunch Dominic gave us a bit of a nature walk down a narrow motorbike road while honking motorbikes and school children on bikes whizzed by.  As we walk by these Vietnamese homes I can't help but feel like we're intruding on their lives.  I wonder what they think of tourists and how tourism affects them.  I'm sure they didn't get to vote on whether or not these tourist can come tromping through their neightbourhood.

We then ate a great lunch at this really beautiful historic building.  Then the boat took us to our drop off point and we drove back to Saigon where we found our surprisingly plush guesthouse hidden down a bustling narrow alley in the heart of the city.  Conveniently, right across the street was a "World Culinary Festival" where we ate foods from all over the world, saw some people hacky-sack around these badminton-birdy-type-things (awesome), and went to bed very exhausted.

Day 8:  We woke up periodically to a rooster crowing at will.  Then we went off to investigate Saigon.  We found a mall which we dubbed "the mall of death" because as you walk through the narrow pathways the merchants grab at your arms and repetitively ask you if you need whatever they're selling.  It's almost scary.  One lady had a pretty firm grip on my finger before I could yank it away.  But I got out of there without buying anything, which is somewhat of a victory.  In fact, the only peddler who got money from me was guy who had taken off my shoes and was applying this smoky glue where they needed fixing before I knew what was going on.  But hey, I got my shoes repaired for a buck so I'm not complaining.  We then walked further through downtown, had lunch, and back to our guesthouse.
This one's for you dad.

The tall building in Saigon.
The afternoon was a restful one.  I got a haircut for 2 dollars.  Then in the evening we ate our final meal together - I had a burger (I don't get many of them these days).  We then returned to the festival across the street because it was New Years Eve.  There I met a cool kid named Kit, who had very good English and who told me I was "ever so very young".  We managed to stay awake until 12:00 when they counted down, yelled "Happy New Year", and then exited en mass.  Also, I think I heard the song "Happy New Year" by Abba being played at least 50 times in the past few days.
The next day Natasha woke up at 5:30, took a taxi to the airport and began our trip home.  The End.
It really was a super trip.  I really liked Vietnam - the awesome natural beauty, the business of the city, but mostly the people.  It is clear that Vietnamese people are very friendly, easy-going, smiley people and it's quite a contrast to the not-always-so-happy attitude that is given off by many Koreans.  So coming back to Pohang was a little bit strange and difficult.  But this also feels more and more like home.
Oh, and also, when the taxi dropped us off at my apartment, there on the street corner, was the scooter!  Crazy eh? I don't know why whoever had it would bring it back.  It doesn't run, which is a bummer.  But it's nice to have it back I guess. I just don't get it.
And also, it snowed last night and all today which is great because I like snow.  But it's also great because we didn't have school today!  Yah, pretty great.

The view out of my window this morning.  Snow days are the best.
Gahm uhn (thank you) for reading.
I'll post the rest of my pictures on facebook at some point.