Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Korean Year in Review

So I did what I set out to do: live and teach in Korea for a year.  And now I'm going home... No, not for good. I've signed another contract that'll keep me here until next June.  I'm just going home for a quick 10 day visit.  But before I leave, I thought I'd commemorate my one year anniversary by looking back on the best parts of the year.

1. My first kindergarten class:  My kindergarten class that I joined when I first came, the one I had before my current class, was surely the best class ever.  My kids were brilliant, and I'm not from the U.K. so I don't use that word too often.  I had a lot of fun teaching them.  My current class has a lot of character and I love them too, but they stress me out so much more than the other class did.
2. Joyful Church: This is the name of the small congregation that meets at 2:00 on Sundays for an English service, which I have semi-regularly attended.  Every time I go, I'm thankful for it.  And I've gotten to know some pretty cool people from it.
3. Soccer: Both our weekly Tuesday night futsal games and being part of the foreigner team have been a consistent highlight for me this year.  It keeps me active, I hang out with great guys, and I love it.
4. Scooting: I'm pretty sure I've expressed my joy in scooting enough in my blog, but I'll just do it again.  It's so great.  Around Pohang, I save so much from not taking a taxi, and I love to explore new areas of the city when I get the chance.  I can't wait for our next trip into the mountains.
5. Snow Days: We had three of four of them, and they were just lovely.
6. Vietnam: It was an awesome trip.  I'd love to go back to see more of it sometime.  I'll never forget the crazy triffic and the constant chaos of the intersections, nor the beauty of Halong Bay.
7. Tilt: The bar.  It's been a good place to hang out on quiet nights, and a good place to dance on loud nights.
8. The Jazz Bar: So relaxing.
9. Pohang Steelers games: They always turn out to be fun games to watch.  And we usually get a good group of people to watch them.
10. My drum: I love it.  And I loved playing it.  I've been lucky to have the chance to jam with cool people here.
14. Buffet Lady: Every day for lunch we walk down the road to a buffet place run by this very cool woman who makes very Korean food which is very good.
12. My parents' visit: It was not long enough, but it was a great week.  Having my parents come here and showing them around made this a cool place to be.
13. Alisa coming: I've really come to appreciate her being here.  She's settled in so quickly, it's almost as if she's been here the whole time.
14. Japan: One great weekend full of excitement, worry, and an awesome boat ride.
15. The beach: I didn't think I'd like living on the coast as much as I do.  Volleyball on the beach is the perfect summer activity.
16. Building relationships: There are some great people here and I've made some relationships that will surely last after my time here.
17. Learning about Korea: It's just really cool to be in a totally different country with a totally different culture.  I love the funny little oddities that foreigners don't really understand.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Next week, I will probably not post a blog as I will be camping with my family.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Have you every heard of hurling?  No, not the slang for throwing up - the national sport of Ireland.  It's sort of a mix between soccer and hockey, but it has been played for over 3000 years.  I heard about it from Peter, and Irish friend of mine.  Something that I've come to appreciate here is the chance to have friends from all over the world.

This past weekend was mudfest.  What's mudfest you ask?  Let me enlighten you...

peace, love, mud
Mudfest is an annual festival of mud held in the coastal city of Boryeong and is attended by seemingly all of the foreign population in Korea.  Mudfest is craziness.  Here's how it went:
Boryeong is on the west coast of Korea so to get there we needed to take a 4 hour bus drive across the country.  The plan was to get a really early start on Saturday morning... like 4:30 am early! (some people here typically go to bed around that time Saturday morning).  So around 4:30 am about 100 of us congregate in an empty parking lot, board our two coach buses, wait for the one guy who slept through his alarm, and head out of Pohang.
Now I've written a little about buses in Korea.  And I've written a little about noribong (singing rooms) in Korea.  But I haven't yet mentioned noribong buses.  This is because I hadn't experienced them before, not until I went to mudfest that is.  So this bus has a karaoke (noribong) machine hooked up to the TV at the front of the bus so that at 8:00 in the morning, we can sing our hearts out on our way to mudfest - which is what we did.
When we arrived in Boryeong, instead of going straight to mudfest central, our organizers had planned to have our own personal Mud Olympics.  So, ready to start the muddy craziness, we park, divide into teams, and walk out onto a mudflat that is wide open in the early afternoon while the tide is out.  Well, while the games were a lot of fun and quite crazy, our retreat from the mudflat was much more crazy and much less fun.  To get to the open area of mud we had to walk gingerly over a couple meters of rocks covered in sharp muscle shells.  Heading out to the mud, while the tide was out, this was done without too much difficulty.  But, after an hour or two, before we had finished all our games, the tide started to come in, and it came fast.  In no time we found ourselves ankle deep in water, rushing to, unsuccessfully, locate our shoes and sandals, and hobbling back over these rocks covered in sharp shells which were now invisible under a foot of muddy water.  I don't think any of us made it out without minor cuts on our feet.  An interesting start to mudfest.
Wet, muddy, and limping we got back on the buses and headed to where the real mudfest was happening, Daecheon beach.  Now, I've heard that the city of Boryeong, which isn't too small of a town, makes about 50% of it's profits on the two weekends of mudfest alone.  After seeing mudfest for myself, I don't doubt it.  The place was covered in literally millions of foreigners.  The area around the beach is purely hotels and minbaks (cheap accommodation houses), which are most likely empty the rest of the year.  And the restaurants and temporary food tents must make a killing during the two weeks.  It was just so full of people.
After dumping our our stuff in our minbak, grabbing something to eat, we braved the centre of mudfest.  The main attraction of mudfest is the designated carnival area full of inflated obstacle courses covered in mud.  Apparently, mudfest began as a way to advertise the cosmetics that are made using the special type of mud that they have in Boryeong.  So the mud that everyone gets covered in is actually a really nice clay-like mud that, potentially, is very good for your skin.  Around this carnival area are stations where you can cover yourself in mud or paint yourself with coloured mud.  And when you go on one of the inflated obstacle courses, you get coated in mud. 

For me, this was surely the highlight of the trip.  It was just so unique to be in a place where the sole purpose is to cover yourself in mud and join in the fun.  Unfortunately, we only had about an hour in this carnival area before it closed.  So we walked down to the beach, which was absolutely packed, and swam around a little.  We also had a chance to walk around the beach area...

.. which of course had specifically made picture taking areas

 We stayed until Sunday afternoon and then headed back to Pohang.  The return trip was much quieter, no singing, everyone needed to catch up on sleep.

This summary certainly doesn't give you all the details, but it maybe gives you an idea of what mudfest was like.  Oh, one more thing: alcohol might have been involved ... even at 8:00 in the morning on the noribong bus ... 

Bonus Material: The night before mudfest Alisa, Jane, Japan Dan, Eddie and I joined Canadian Dan and Natasha for dinner.  We had 'Shabu Shabu' - beef that you cook in a hot soupy broth in front of you.  It was delicious.  And, the restaurant had play place that some of us couldn't resist.
the ones who couldn't resist

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I've written about education in Korea earlier, but because it's flabbergasting to me and because I'm a part of it, I'm writing about it again.
I have just started a debate class with my grade sixers and our first topic is whether or not the Korean government should control the cost of privately owned academies (hagwons).  One of the articles we read in researching this topic argues that the average Korean family cannot afford the cost of private education in Korea and this creates an unfair separation between the students who come from families who can afford it and those from families who can't.  It mentions one student who's family pays $280 per week for his academies.  It claims that Korean families spend more of their personal income on education than any county in the world and that the Korean government spends less money per pupil than other countries with similar economies.
A second article, against government regulations of hagwon tuition, argues that private education is a business and the business of hagwons give Korean families a choice of where to send their children and therefore should not be controlled by the government.
My hagwon fits right into this debate.  The families that send their children to Poly are all quite well off.  I don't know the tuition of our school, but I have heard that it is surprisingly high.  But what I find the most astounding about education in Korea is just how much it permeates students' lives.  The grade six students in this debate class come to Poly at 5:20 and stay until 7:20.  Then they go off to other hagwons.  I've heard many middle school and high school students don't finish taking classes until around 11:00pm.  And then they still have homework to do!  What's more, often families spend so much on their child's education that they don't have extra to spend on special trips during vacations.  So children spend their time off at home, probably studying.
What I've learned is that all of this educational craziness is driven by competition.  There is so much pressure in Korea for students to get into a good university and to get a high paying job.  So much that they spend their whole childhood trying to reach this dream.  If you ask any of my kindergarten students what they want to be when they grow up there's a good chance that the answer will be either a doctor or a dentist.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a doctor or a dentist.  I think my students are brilliant and could be doctors or dentists if they really want to be.  I just couldn't have imagined myself wanting to be a doctor when I was in kindergarten.  At that age, I wanted to be a garbage man.  I think it's sad that children are brought up with this competitive mindset at such an early age.
So what are the outcomes of this competitive, pressure filled education system?  Most likely a positive outcome is a well educated work force.  No doubt, Korean students know a lot.  But a negative correlation, if not outcome, is Korea's high suicide rate.  According to wikipedia, South Korea has the second highest suicide rate out of all countries.  I think the Korean government and the Korean people need to weigh the pros and cons.

Tonight I saw the final movie in the Harry Potter saga.  I liked it.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Fiftieth

This past Sunday our foreigner's soccer team finished our season.  Going into Sunday's game we we had played 11 games and lost 11 games.  We weren't a bad team but somehow we always managed to lose.  Every game we knew we had a chance and I would hope that this game would be the turning point for us.  And every game those hopes were dashed.  So going into our last game, knowing this was our last chance, we were determined not to lose.
The game was close.  Both teams had good chances.  Then, midway through the first half, Sean, another Canadian, put us ahead 1 - 0 with a nice shot into the corner.  We held onto our lead until halftime.  We were pretty pumped, this being the first time we held a lead for more than five minutes.  The game went on and still our defence (of which I'm a part) kept them from scoring.  Time was running out and we knew it.  We were getting a bit frantic, just trying to keep the ball away from our goal.  One minute left and they had a throw-in deep in our half ... Luke heads it away but not clear ... a header puts it back in our box ... a wild shot ... the ball arcs toward the net ... and falls just inside the goal post.  Game over.  We tied 1 - 1 on the last play of the game.  Disappointing, but hey, we didn't lose.

I've noticed something interesting about the language of my foreign friends and I when we refer to people living in Korea.  Instead of talking about them as 'people' we call them 'Koreans'.  I might be reading too much into this, but I find it funny that when we're telling a story, we often feel the need to distinguish someone as a 'Korean person' or as a 'Korean man' instead of simply a 'man' for example.  And it goes the other way as well.  The Korean word for foreigner is 'waygook', which is a word I've often heard in reference to myself or other foreigners.  I wonder how much this type of language supports the 'us-and-them' mentality and encourages the separation between cultures.  But maybe I hear these terms being used more often because of the homogeneity of the area we're in.  Compared to my experience, I find Korea, Pohang in particular, to have a low level of cultural diversity.  Foreigners tend to stand out here.  Maybe in more diverse places terms for 'foreigner' become arbitrary and are used less.  Interesting anyway.

Thanks for reading,