Thursday, June 30, 2011

Japan in a Weekend

I have a friend here who we call Japan Dan.  There are a lot of foreign teachers in Pohang who's names are Dan, so they've all adopted nicknames: Canadian Dan, Liverpool Dan, Average Dan, and Japan Dan, to name a few.  Japan Dan is not really from Japan, he's from Texas, but he spent many of his growing up years in Japan because of his parents work.  He's also taught English there for a number of years.  So he speaks Japanese fluently.  And he loves Japan.  And he promised to take me to Japan.
From the sounds of it, the tsunami that hit Japan in March and the ensuing nuclear disaster has hurt it in a lot of ways, including its tourism.  There is a ferry that travels from Busan to Fukuoka on a regular basis, and normally the price is around 200 dollars, but since the tsunami, the price has gone down to 90 dollars.  When Dan saw this, he decided that this was our chance.
It turned out that quite a few others saw this as a good opportunity to visit Japan as well.  There were 17 of us that boarded the ferry in Busan Saturday morning, including Alisa, Jane, Canadian Dan and his wife Natasha, who are from Ottawa.  2 hours and 55 minutes later we were standing on Japanese soil. 
Now, I really had no idea what to expect Japan to be like.  Naively, I pictured it to be somewhat similar to Korea.  But I was very wrong.  I'm surely generalizing, only having been in Japan for less than 36 hours and also having a limited Korean experience, but I couldn't help but be blown away by how different the two countries are.  What I discovered to be true is that Japan is a more developed country than Korea.  And this shouldn’t have surprised me.  Korea hasn’t been a developed nation for a very long time.  It has a unique history of wars and foreign occupations that it still is recovering from.  While Japan, on the other hand, has a history of being a powerful country; of being the occupants, not the occupied.  So I don’t mean to put Korea is a bad light by stating these differences.  Korea has a lot of character and I like it a lot.  But I found that I like Japan a lot too.

Coming into Japan
The first thing I noticed was how clean Fukuoka is.  It might be the cleanest city I've been to.  But more than being clean, I found Fukuoka to be a very well planned and well organized city.  And this is a difference from Korean cities.  A consistent frustration in Korea is the lack of garbage cans in public places – there aren’t any.  So garbage often ends up on the ground.  Also, with Pohang as my only real example, I haven’t found Korean cities to be particularly well planned out or nice to look at.
I noticed another major difference when we jumped on a bus to go downtown.  The Japanese drive on the left side of the road!  I totally didn’t see that coming.  And while I’m on the subject of transportation and busses, I found the Japanese to be quite eco-friendly.  Whenever our bus driver stopped at a red light, he would turn off the bus and then turn it on again when the light turned green.  I thought that was pretty cool.
Also, I found Japanese people to be very friendly.  Little things like a smile, eye contact, or a hello (konichiwa) seemed to be more common than in Korea and maybe other Asian countries as well.
Japanese food is different too (I expected it to be, but it’s a good intro to my story).  We were all pretty hungry when we got off the ferry and Japan Dan had told us all about how good Japanese ramen was.  Some of you might be thinking, “ramen? You mean noodles in water ramen?  Like, midnight snack in college ramen?”  That’s what I thought too when I first heard about it.  But no, it’s not just noodles in water.  Japanese ramen is delicious.  The place we went to had a variety of ramens to choose from.  Dan read the menu and one of the options was egg ramen.  That sounded good to me so I ordered that.  But what the word ‘egg’ means to many people in the world, doesn’t mean the same thing to others – at least not the cooks at this restaurant.  What ‘egg’ meant to them was fish eggs – tiny little red ones.  But not just fish eggs on their own – fish eggs inside a fish womb.  I could describe the pink, veiny body part that I found in my soup or I could show you.

Afterwards, I opened the womb up and ate the eggs and they were actually really good.  But certainly a new experience for me.
After lunch we took a train out of town to a spa which was very much like a Korean Jimjilbang.  Then, hoping to find a temple, we took a beautiful walk in the rain through a rural neighbourhood up in the hills.  We didn’t find the temple, but I really enjoyed the walk.

beautiful bamboo

Cars in Japan are different as well

 That evening, we had sushi for supper.  You’d expect sushi in Japan to be good.  And you’d be right. It was good sushi.

 Later, after experiencing Fukuoka’s night life, we headed to our hostel and to bed – which wasn’t particularly easy – the going to bed part – because the owner of the hostel had given away some of our beds during the day.  He still had some room left for us, but it meant that we had to cram nine of us into a very small room with four beds.  And Alisa slept in a room with a group of Japanese girls who were having a birthday party.  I think if you’re going to stay in hostels, you have to zero expectations.  That’s kinda cool.

Sunday, we explored the city a little more.  We found a nice temple-like building…

a massive wooden 'float' that a large group of people carry on their sholders at a special celebration
 … shopped a little and then found ourselves in a place called Canal City.  I had heard of it before the trip from some of my students, but I didn’t expect it to be such a spectacle.  In this ‘courtyard’, surrounded by nicely architectured mall, were a canal, children playing in fountains, people sitting on beach chairs as if on vacation, and music.  Upon further investigation, the music turned out to be a choreographed fountain show.  It was impressive.  The whole place seemed like a small wonderland.

 But wait.  So far this trip sounds like it was stress free.  This was not true.  Before the trip there were predictions of a typhoon in the area.  Some of us were a little worried about how this might affect our trip and we joked about the fact that we could get stuck in Japan.  I didn’t know much about the typhoon (or about our trip for that matter), so I just trusted that it would all work out.  But then, Saturday evening, we got a call and were told that our return ferry was cancelled due to the weather.  Now it looked like our jokes could turn into a reality.   Instead of the ferry we were expecting to take, we were given the option to take another one instead – one that left later and moved much slower and would arrive in Busan on Monday morning.  It was either this or flying home, which would have cost a lot more.  We chose the ferry.  Those of us who had to be at school Monday morning called our directors to let them know we would most likely be a little late to school, and we wondered and worried about how this would all work out.
It turned out to work out wonderfully.  We took a bus to another city on the coast and then boarded the biggest boat I’ve ever been on.  It was smaller than a regular cruise ship, but large enough to be pretty impressive.  And we made the most of it.  We stood on the deck and watched the beauty of the Japanese coast go by; we ate a scrumptious dinner; we took showers and relaxed in the spa; and, best of all, we played an awesome game of hide-and-go-seek and sardines.  Picture this: playing hide-and-go-seek on a big boat in the East Sea in a Typhoon – pretty cool.

This is a small model of the ferry we took.
The Titanic-esk staircase
There are many details that are left out, but this hopefully gives you an idea of our wonderful, crazy trip to Japan.
'Arigato gozaimasu' -Thank you for reading,

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Korean Language uses the Hangul alphabet, which was created in 1444.  Before it's creation, Korean was written using Chinese characters.  Then king Sejong, the creator of Hangul, decided that since Korean was a language of its own, it should have it's own alphabet.  As with many other things that distinguish them from China or Japan, Koreans are quite proud of their language.
Korean is one of the five most difficult languages to learn for Native English speakers - another excuse for us foreign teachers who haven't gotten past 100 words.  But Hangul, the written form of Korean, is not difficult to learn.  I can now sound out most of the signs around Pohang; understanding them is another thing.  Quite a few Korean words, though, are English words that have been Hangul-isized.  Although, because Hangul is organized into syllabic blocks with no consonant blends, many of these English words gain a couple of syllables in the transition.  So words like bus, ski, sports, news, TV, toast, and juice are bus-uh, suh-ki, suh-po-chuh, nyu-suh, ti-buh-i, toe-suh-tuh and ju-suh in Korean.  When us foreign teachers don't know a word in Korean, which is all the time, we just guess by saying the word in English and adding an 'uh' at the end.
Funny things happen also when English names are converted into Korean.  The English 'r' sound isn't a part of the Korean language so we have some students with some pretty funny names:  'Scarlet' has become 'Scallet', 'Laura' has become 'La la', and 'Ruby' has become 'Luby'.  I don't even notice anymore.  If I ever meet another Ruby, she'll forever be Luby to me.

When I think about what to blog about each week, I usually try to talk about something that describes my experience here in Korea.  Then, it occurred to me that a big part of my experience here is me writing my blog - it's certainly on my mind a lot.  So I decided to blog about my blog.  Overall I think it's been a success.  It's made me realize how much I like to write, and that's pretty cool.  It also helps me to remember and internalize the experiences that I'm having.  It's nice to have an account of things.  It hasn't always been easy though.  In some blogs, I'm really stretching for ideas - hopefully you can't tell.  I can hardly believe that I've written 48 blogs so far. The funniest things is, a year ago I never would have thought that I would enjoy blogging. So that's one way I've changed I guess.  I'm proud of my blog.

This weekend Alisa, Jane, and I were walking on the beach and this is what we found - so Korean:

Here are some examples of the summer, taken from my walk to school:

This weekend we're going to Japan!

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Did you know that astronauts and spaceships that are in orbit are actually in a perpetual fall?  They're falling around the earth.  They're travelling at enough speed that their fall takes them around the curve of the earth.  That's what being in orbit is.  And that's why there seems to be no gravity.  There is gravity, but everything is falling at the same speed.
If you could throw a ball fast enough (over 8000 meters/second) the ball's fall would align with the curve of the earth and it would never hit the ground! It would be in orbit!
This is what I learned today in my middle school physics lesson on gravity.  Hopefully, this is what my students learned as well.

Changing the subject; there are a lot of people on this small peninsula.  Did you realize that Korea has 14 million more people than Canada, while Canada has 9 884 950 more sq km of land than Korea? I was reminded again about this major difference between Canada and Korea this past weekend.  I went for a run in what I thought was a secluded area outside of the city.  On the way I saw a group of at least 100 kids and their parents, around 30 ajummas all decked out in their colourful walking attire, a whole other village, and when I thought I finally found a trail all to myself, I ran into a good sized rice farm.  It's hard to get away in this country.  I didn't realize how lucky I was growing up with the quarry behind our house.

I'm in need of a good sleep so I'm going to leave it at that.

Thanks for reading.
Go Canucks.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Scooting Through Southeast Korea

The warm weather has arrived and this past weekend a group of us made the most of it.  In the process, I went off-roading on my scooter in one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.
The story starts the weekend before when two friends, Kory and Alyssa, joined a group of Korean motorists on a trip to a place north of Pohang.  They enjoyed the trip so much they decided to organize a group to go camping in the area that they had gone.  I hadn't heard about their trip (foreshadowing) but scooting and camping sounded great to me, so I joined.  Note: Kory and Alyssa have full sized dirt bikes, not scooters (more foreshadowing).  Here, actually, is a selection of the motored vehicles on the trip.

Kory's bike.  Notice the large shocks.  Perfect for rough terrain.

Lance's 450.  It's a nice bike, and not perfect for rough terrain.

Megan and Jenn's 125cc scooters.  A lot nicer than mine.  But still scooters.

My 125.  Not real pretty. I like it enough. But certainly not because it's perfect for rough terrain.
So we headed out Saturday afternoon, late as was to be expected, travelled down the highway for a ways and then turned off onto a side road.  One of the few things that Kory had mentioned before the trip was that, on the way, we'd be going up and over a mountain.  And here's where you need to start picturing how great this was.  So we are scooting through the countryside and everything is green - trees, grass, rice paddies - such a stark contrast from the city.  But even greater of a contrast was the smell.  For the first time in a long time I could smell nature clearly.  Scooting through this experience made the beauty and smell all the more vivid.  Then we head into the mountains and we start climbing, following the switch-back road higher and higher, a little worried that our scooters can handle the climb.  Little did I know what was to come (further foreshadowing).

The group
We reach the top and we cruise down through the trees and into the valley.  And this is where the surprise happens.  The concrete road stops and becomes loose gravel, which I wasn't expecting but apparently others were, so on we go.  After the first couple of minutes of cautiously trying to avoid pot-holes, washboard bumps, and larger rocks I start to think that this portion of the trip isn't temporary.  What's more, as we get further down the road, it's condition gets worse.  At some points I am going down hills, bouncing along on sizable rocks, and doing all I can just to keep my 'bike' underneath me.  I hardly noticed the beauty that we went through because my eyes were glued to the spot two feet in front of me.  And let's not forget, this is a scooter I'm riding - a scooter made for city roads - the occasional pot-hole, well ok, but not a rocky path recently hewn out of the mountain. Of course, Kory and Alyssa are having a great time, buzzing past us on their dirt bikes.
Eventually we made it through, but not without some bumps, bruises, and bitterness.  The next task was to find and set up a campsite - and there weren't a lot of options.  We had come out into a narrow valley between some sizable cliffs and most of the space in the valley was taken up by the road and a rocky, meandering river.  It was an awesome place, but not a lot of grassy areas for a couple of tents.  At first, the only flat place we could find was a rock bed beside the river.  It might have worked, but it would have made for a very lumpy sleep.  Fortunately, we met a small group of older foreigners who showed us a much better spot next to them.  Pretty soon the tents were up, we had a fire going, we were jumping in the river, and the anxiety over the trip had vanished.

The cliff beside us. The river where we swam is in that crevasse.
It was great to be camping again.  It's one of my favourite things.  I didn't sleep the best but I was lucky that there was room in someones tent for me - I had imagined myself under the stars (which might have been ok except it got really cold overnight).
I stayed for most of the next day and then decided to head home in the afternoon along with another friend on a scooter, Jenn.  Our trip home was equally as epic as the ride there.
We had all started out with full tanks of gas, happy that that would be enough to get us there.  But once we'd arrived, I soon realized that it would be hard for us to find a gas station in the secluded valley we were in.  My fuel gauge was just about on the E and I had no idea if I had any kind of reserve.  But Jenn and I headed out with high hopes that it would work out.  Of course, we were taking an alternate route home, decidedly not braving the mountain pass for a second time, but also a little unsure as to how our new route would work out.  We had gone a little ways when we came to a fork in the road with a sign pointing in the directions of places unfamiliar to us.  We asked a man if he could direct us and told him about our fuel dilemma.  He looked at our fuel gauges, winced, and communicated to us that the nearest gas station was 8 km away but he didn't think we'd make it.  We had no choice, we had to go for it.  The road took us up another mountain and the whole time I'm picturing my scooter sputtering and dieing at any moment.  We made it to the top and coasted down the other side just hoping that there would actually be a gas station in the village we approached.  There was, yay!  We filled up and headed back the way we came, pretty sure we weren't lost having come across a more helpful sign along the way.  Without the worry of running out of gas at any time and with lots of time to get home, this ride through the mountains of southeast Korea was one that I will remember for a while.
The road took us to the top of a higher mountain from which we had an awesome view of the surrounding area.  Then down into the most beautiful valley on earth.  You have to picture it because I didn't get a photo: scooting along with green mountains rising up on both sides, rice paddy after rice paddy along both sides of the road, farmers standing in their wet fields, possibly harvesting their first crop, quaint little homes here and there, a steady river running beside the road and occasionally crossing underneith, and such a wonderful smell.  It was a great moment.
I'm hopeful that there will be more adventurous trips in the future.

The view from the top of the mountain.  It reminds me of the mountains of Costa Rica.

Monday was a holiday - memorial day.  And what better way to spend it then on the beach.

And Tanya brought a feast.
Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

 I had a kindergarten student last school year who I hadn't seen since March.  She's small, quiet, and super cute.  But despite her timid nature she has a way of making an entrance  when she comes in the classroom.  She's often late, so everyone notices her come in.  Always, when she opens the door, she leans forward with her weight on the door handle, exhales deeply and then trudges into the room looking a little confused and uncomfortable with all the attention.  I had forgotten about this until she returned to our class this week.  So it's Monday and we're in the middle of learning the vocabulary words for our new story when, unannounced, the door opens, everyone looks over, and in staggers little Calla like she had just ran a marathon and isn't quite sure if she's in the right place.  It made my week.

 In other school news, I have 2 new students in my kindergarten class.  But these students are different.  I've talked about Pohang's soccer team before - the Steelers.  The Korean league that they are a part of only allows for each team to have three of four foreign players on their squad.  On the Steelers, one of these players is a guy from Ghana who just joined the team at the beginning of the year and has been a big part of the Steeler's success this season.
 Well, one afternoon late last week I was surprised to see a 'Pohang Steelers' team van parked outside of the school and more surprised to see Derek Asamoah, this Ghanaian soccer player, and his wife in the office.  I wasn't sure but I thought that the only reason he'd be in our office would be to sign his kids up for Poly School.  Sure enough, on Monday morning Chavie, my co-teacher, let me know that we have 2 new students in our class.  Now, sitting right in the middle of my familiar, straight-haired, light-skinned Korean students I have two unfamiliar, curly-haired, black boys.  But if that's not enough, these boys grew up in London, England so they speak in these very proper English sentences with an accent that I have a hard time understanding, let alone my Korean students or co-teachers.
 While I think it is cool to have the children of a professional soccer player in my class, and very cool for my students to be able to experience other children who are completely different from what they're used to, I'm finding it hard to meet these differences as a teacher.  The older boy is too old for our class - he's at least a year older than the rest and, of course, has much better English skills than any of them.  He's also a bit of a talker and has no trouble answering many of the questions.  So now, instead of paying attention to what we're learning, the rest of the class mostly pays attention to him because he's smart and he talks so quickly and strangly.  The younger boy fits in a little better.  In reading, writing, and phonics, he's around the same level as some of the other students.  He's also quieter than his brother, so he doesn't keep everyone's attention in the same way.  Having them in the class certainly spices things up.  They're staying for three months and then heading back to England.  It'll be an interesting summer.

Outside of school, this summer promises to bring some exciting adventures.  This weekend, I'll probably be joining a group going on a scooter/camping trip.  Then, later in June, I'll be heading to Fukuoka, Japan for a weekend trip with a good group of people.  In July, the annual 'Mudfest' party will be happening, to which a big group from Pohang are going (all I know is it involves mud).  At the end of July, I'm going home for two weeks!  And in August, Alisa, Jane and I are going to Jeju Island.

Tonight I cooked a potatoe, apple, and pumpkin mixture to go along with a chicken.  It turned out really well.

Thanks for reading,