Sunday, August 30, 2009

Episode 5: In Which DFM Faces Some Korean Gangsters And Later Discovers Secret Korean Technology

Today Lee decided to take me to the Caribbean Bay water amusement park. It is a massive outdoor water park attached to the massive outdoor amusement park Everland. Both parks are owned by Samsung, and are located roughly an hour's drive away from Seoul. To get there we took a tour bus which cost us only $10 for a return trip ticket. Where I lived in Canada you get charged $10 if you even look at a taxi cab.

Caribbean Bay has some odd rules which are indicative of the Korean government's regulations, so I assume they say something about the Korean psyche, but I am not yet sure what that is. The first rule, which did not bother me but which did struck me as odd, was that every swimmer had to wear a swim cap. I assume this was to prevent hair from getting in the water, or other sanitary reasons and I have no problem with that (or perhaps it was to prevent the water from getting on one's hair, since the Koreans seem downright anal about getting wet). However, Lee told me that if I wore a baseball cap I could get around the rule because I was "making an effort" to follow the rule. This would have seemed incredible to me if it weren't for the fact that Korean media censorship rules work in exactly the same way.

For example, from what I've read it is not legal to make advertisements dealing with sex. However, you can have explicit innuendos and as many scantily clad women as you like making said innuendos, so long as there is a token effort made to not show anyone actually having sex. This leads to some of the most ridiculous, uncreative, "sex sells" advertisements in the world, in which the content of the advertisement has nothing to do whatsoever with the product in question, and in some cases can even work to discredit the product altogether.

The second rule was that everyone was required to wear a life jacket (which you have to rent for $5). This really angered me. It is just another in a long line of examples in which the government treats its citizens like children (and the citizens seem to gladly oblige). Why can I not choose to swim in the deep end of the wave pool without a life jacket? The waves don't break or become dangerous until after the point at which I need the jacket anyways!

You might think I'm overreacting here, but consider the new trend I've seen in which people do not push or shove on the subways or in the corridors, but rather walk nicely and stand on the right side of the escalator holding the railing. When I was nearing the end of my first stay in Korea back in late April I started to notice a lot of films being played on the subway's TV screens telling people to stand on the right side of the escalator and to not push. When I came back the first thing I noticed was everyone standing on the right side of the escalator, not pushing. Now, we've been doing this for years in Canada, but I was amazed that in less than four months the outrageous Korean subway users could be transformed so completely into civilised individuals.

I was overjoyed with the transformation at first, for I thought everyone was standing on the right to allow a lane on the left for people who wanted to walk (you know, courtesy). However, I was later informed by a Korean friend that it is "dangerous to walk on an escalator" and that the posters and videos I saw were telling people so. When I questioned my friend why, I was told that the escalator is very steep, and that if it were to suddenly stop I could fall all the way to the bottom. I was prepared to shrug it off as just one person, but I asked two other friends and they both subscribed to the notion of escalators being dangerous.

Really? My neighbourhood has no sidewalks and I walk on the street with two way traffic on a one lane road, and the government sees fit to make a fake propaganda film about people falling down and getting their hair caught (could happen I guess, but the simple solution would be to cut your hair) and now you're trying to tell me that a healthy young male like myself cannot cope with a "suddenly stopping" escalator? Escalators move so slow that I frequently out pace them walking up four floors of stairs coming out of the subway tunnels. But I digress...

Back to the story. Lee had told me that the food inside the park was overpriced and that I would need to get a refundable bracelet that I paid for and could use to buy things inside the park. While the food was more expensive than I could normally get it on the street, $7.50 for a pork cutlet feast hardly classifies the Samsung company as "gangsters" as Lee called them. In Itaewon that would have cost me at least $15, and if Lee went to a movie in Canada he'd have to declare bankruptcy. (Note: I was refunded the unused portion of my bracelet.)

The first ride we tried was the new Boomerango. This ride involves standing in line for 2 hours (not a joke, there was a sign that said the wait time was 120 minutes), for about ten seconds of thrill. The thrill was indeed immense, with the drop sending your stomach up to your throat, but I'd say it was hardly worth the two hour wait.

After waiting for the ride in the everyone was so cold (the weather decided to choose today to be less than sweltering for the only time all summer) that we had to find a hot tub fast. Caribbean Bay also has an indoor water park, but it's mainly for the kids and their parents and I'd never compare it to the West Edmonton Mall's World Water Park (although I guess I just did). We went inside to attempt to find some warmer water. Lee and his wife went to the sauna, but I went to find an overpopulated hot tub into which I could squeeze myself.

After I had warmed up I went exploring the indoor section a little further and found a tube ride that looked exciting. This ride required standing in line for half an hour to get an inner tube, and then walking up the stairs with your tube so that you could stand in line for another half-hour to get on the ride. On the way down I decided to get some extra speed by balancing myself on top of the tube so my feet and backside would not touch the ground. My plan backfired though when I carried so much speed into the final corner that I moved too high up on the side of the wall and flipped backwards, landing on my head (this ride is dangerous, they should have made me rent a helmet too). When I got to the bottom of the ride ahead of my tube I was a little worried that I'd get in trouble. However, when I made the "flip over" sign with my hand, the attendant just asked if I was alright (in English). This gave me the chance to say "it's okay" and "fun fun" (which I had just learned to say in Korea that day). The attendant laughed.

After the tube fiasco I tried to body version of the same slide. You stand in line for an hour to find out which tunnel you will enter (I suppose the second time on the ride you'd know). I was in the "small" tube line (the small referring to the diameter of the tube). I thought I'd be in for a less enjoyable ride, with less sloshing up the sides because of it, but it just so happened that the small diameter of the tube allowed for a more efficient ride (with less of the aforementioned sloshing to slow me down). Because of the incredible speeds I could both obtain and maintain through the corners, the G-Forces created by this ride were some of the highest I've experienced on a water slide before. I'd say I loved every minute of it, but I don't even think it lasted one minute.

I had to close my eyes to keep the water from spraying in I was going so fast, so I didn't realise until after the fact that I had exited the tube. Before trying the ride I had watched all of the other riders fall below the water and flounder around for breath, becoming disoriented. I wondered how a simple water slide could have such an effect on so many people. After I came up from under the water on my turn though I was pointed in the wrong direction and completely disoriented myself. The attendant on staff repeatedly said "wah wah wah wah..." (supposedly to draw my attention) until I managed to steady myself and start moving in the right direction with a huge smile on my face.

By now it was 3:00 PM, and I figured I'd better head for the Sky Screamer-like ride I had seen on my first pass through the park. In the lineup for the ride I met some high school students. While I normally wouldn't hang out with people eight years my junior, under the circumstances I didn't figure I would be able to discuss politics or philosophy in Korean, nor they in English, so it didn't really matter.

The boys were actually quite funny and really helped to pass the over one hour wait time for the ride. At one point, one of the boys asked me who my favourite singer was. Since all of my favourite songs were written before any of them were even born I picked the first Korean "musicians" I could think of, Brown Eyed Girls. The Brown Eyed Girls are a former teen-girl pop band, who are now in their twenties. You'd think that a "girl band" would have a slightly more Y-chromosomeless following, but I've seen grown men with the Brown Eyed Girls on their iPods, and their number one demographic is high school boys (along with all the other girl bands). Therefore, it's funny but not necessarily surprising that when I told these boys that I liked the Brown Eyed Girls (I've only heard one song) they all cheered and gave me a "high-five."

When we neared the top of the ride it came out that none of the boys had ridden the ride before and all were scared. We all joked about how they'd have a heart attack, and one boy's lips were actually turning blue. When we made it to the bottom of the ride we all high-fived again (actually I got a high-five for pretty much anything, including knowing what basketball was). We then took turns calling each other "nam-ja nam-ja!" Which means "man man!" or, "now you're a man" (I found it interesting that the ladies weren't "all up-ons" after that touching moment).

By this time it was nearing 5:00 PM and I needed to find my friend, since our bus was leaving soon. The boys also needed to find a friend, and so we set off on a mission. We were looking for a "Korean man in a baseball cap." In a place where everyone has to wear a baseball cap, and everyone (save me and maybe four other foreigners) is Korean, this was no small order. Eventually I decided to just leave without him and discovered from a text message that my friend was at the nearby amusement park, Everland. Since the boys were going there too, we went together.

It just so happened that it was the last day of "the season" (whatever that means) today and there was a special on - anyone going to Caribbean Bay also got in to Everland for free. The boys really wanted to take me on their favourite ride, the T Express. They told me it was made of "ood" (wood, for those of you who don't speak Konglish). When I said that from a distance and in the particular light that afternoon it looked like metal (not in so many words, obviously), one of them told me "it is Korean technology." All joking aside, the coaster is nothing to scoff at since it is the highest wooden roller coaster in the world, with an inclination of 77 degrees and a top-speed of 104 km/hr. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to ride on it because my bus was leaving in half an hour and the line up was two hours long, but I got a chance to see the cars move around the track from a distance.

On the way to the ride we witnessed a long parade featuring an endless stream of princes and princesses, dancers and mascots. I'm not sure why, but a good number of the women, and almost all of the men were foreigners (i.e., "white" because the other races don't really matter in Korea). I don't know where they all came from, but it seemed like every white guy in Korea was in this parade as either a prince or a flag bearer/marcher. Oddly enough, the Korean women who did make it into the parade all had blonde wigs. It would appear Disney has done its job well and now royalty is synonymous with "white" (who needs athletic glory when you've got the theme park parade market cornered?).

Unfortunately my good time soon had to come to an end, and I had to say good-bye to my "brothers" (the boys asked if they could call me "hyoung," which means brother in Korean). Perhaps I'll get to meet them again, since they live on the East end of Seoul, and my work takes me there on Fridays. I'm sure we'll have an adventure, since they're like "grown up" versions of the young boys I met in the school yard on my way to Ace Climbing Centre on my last trip.

A note: the reason the rides took so long was not because there were too many people in the park (which there were), but that Koreans are Nazis when it comes to needless regulations. I've already touched on the life jackets and escalator issues, but at this theme park they wait until you are not only out of the slide but out of the water before they let the next person down. I told the boys that in Canada we send the second person down before the first person is finished and they told me "Koreans would be too scared." I believe them too.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Episode 4: In which DFM Gets Lost Hiking And Then Gets Taken Out For Dinner (Again)

Saturday is here, and after one "hard" day of feeling like three people at once (refer to Episode 2), I take a well deserved rest. First though, I need to head to "Korean Hollywood," Chungmuro, to see my boss and sign my contract.

On my way there, my boss phoned to tell me that he told my roommate and "agent" Lee to tell me to phone him at 11:00 AM, to set up an appointment. Lee however had told me to go see my boss at 11:00 AM. Since my boss said it would take him about an hour to get to his office from his house (Seoul is a big city), I thought I would make a detour to do some shopping in Haebongchon (long time readers will recognize that place as my original Korean stomping grounds for one day).

I had always been told that Haebongchon was an area in which many foreigners (any non-Asian is automatically considered a foreigner) lived. Since most of my hiking to Namsan started in the late morning during my last visit, I must have not seen them since they were at work. Today though it was warm, and they were out in full force. Sometimes they could be seen "prowling" the street in groups of five or more. One such group seemed to be from Australia, and I could have sworn I heard them say they were going "crocodile hunting," but I must have misheard them.

Namsan Park is a large green wonderland in the middle of an otherwise grey Seoul. You'll remember I used to hike up to the tower and that there were many workout parks located throughout. There is a running/biking path around the base of the park, and I had always wanted to see where it went but never had the time or motivation in the spring. Today though I thought since I had an hour (about a half hour earlier) I might as well see if I could get to the other side, where my boss' office was located. However, Namsan Park is a lot bigger than it looks on a map and it took me two hours to arrive. On the bright side, I managed to successfully ask for directions, in Korean, twice.

Eventually I stumbled into my boss' office, exhausted and dehydrated. I must not have fully recovered before signing my contract though, for in the blank to enter my salary I wrote "2 000 Won," which those of you with access to the CDN -> KRW exchange rate will recognize as only being roughly $2 a month. My boss corrected me and we had a good laugh. He was particularly glad with his joke that he "saved me life."

Speaking of funny, I witnessed a Korean trying to pay off a police officer today on my hike. I'm not sure what happened, but he and the police officer were having quite an argument (you can yell at police officers without having a white undershirt on?) and I saw the man pull out a wad of bills and try and hand it to the officer. For all this Korean Cop's criticisms of Korean police officers and the Korean justice system, to this officer's credit he did not take the bribe. I don't know what happened of the situation though, since I left before the argument ended (for all I know it is still going on, since the officer did not seem prepared to do anything concrete about it). But I digress...

After the nasty business of talking about money was complete, my boss took me out for lunch where he attempted to convince me to stay for longer. If I'm not careful I'll be a partner in the company before I leave.

I haven't taken a lot of pictures yet this trip because I'm just in Seoul, and readers of my last Korea trip blog will have seen most of the exciting things in Seoul there are to see. However, during my last trip I was rarely able to get a clear shot of Seoul buildings because of all the yellow dust. I noticed today, from the base of Namsan Park, looking over Yongsan-gu (in which my old home Itaewon is located) that summer brings about relatively clear skies. I have decided to upload this photo, for your viewing pleasure, of a view that I always found enjoyable but was never able to accurately capture during my last stay. It's tough to appreciate, but I'm actually standing halfway up a hill, and the view is looking down on the city. It is quite breathtaking, each time I view it, but I fear the same sense of wonder does not work as well in 2-D. You can however click on the image to see a larger version in which the many individual roof tops can be better seen.

Episode 3: In Which DFM Is Told He Smells Pretty, But Is Also That He Should Put A Paper Bag On His Head

Today was my first day of teaching. I won't bore everyone with all the details of every day this year, but things would seem to have started ominously as I somehow managed to mistime my journey and arrive an hour and a half early. This led to an awkward conversation between myself and the director who had very limited knowledge of English. I salvaged the situation though when I managed to "accidentally" under guessed her age by 10 years (34 v. 44), thus finding myself rewarded with the most delicious citrus juice in the world from the famous Jeju island.

Once I got into the class and started teaching though, things were back to normal and I felt like I had never left. Although it was a different school the children behaved exactly the same as my other students. They asked if I was a friend of their old teacher, J.M., and when I said I was they fell down with excitement (or horror) and squealed with delight. After that I was called J.M. or Seth (yup, the same teacher who taught at my other school and for whom I was also mistaken also appears to have taught here too) or Canada Teacher by all the students. I suspected they were having me on though, so when one of the girls asked me what my name was I said "J.M." She scrunched up her face and said, "nooo!" So I thought about it and said, "Seth." "Noooo!" "Hmm... DFM?" "Yes! Good job." "Thank-you."

Another humourous situation involved my bodywash. I have a bodywash by L'Oreal I use every day. One of the young girls smelled it and said that I stunk. But then later one of the boys smelled my arm and said "pretty!" He then proceeded to try and smell the rest of me. I'm not sure what the marketers of L'Oreal Body Wash for men would think about this, or even what I think about it. It may just another or the many closeted aspects of Korean culture I've yet to learn about though.

After work I went to Ace to buy a three month membership and start getting back into climbing shape. Last time I was here I completely ignored every balancing muscle to climbing in my body and paid the price for it with a months long recovery process for a destroyed shoulder. This time I have undertaken a daily push up and neck routine in my room (finally I have a room big enough in which to do push ups), and a bench press, shoulder press/rotator cuff program at Ace Climbing Centre's workout area. If the results are impressive I'll post an article on The Kindergarten Cop blog.

While climbing I managed to communicate to the regulars in limited, but well chosen Korean. I was quite proud of myself since I have endeavoured to learn at least two new Korean words or phrases every day for the remainder of my stay, and this was a sign that my work up until this point was starting to pay off. Earlier in the day I was even told that if I put a bag over my head people would think I was Korean. Unfortunately the comments about my Koreanisation have not all filled me with joy. Ji-hyeun told me that when she hears me speak English now, she sometimes thinks I am not a Native Speaker (It's official, I speak Konglish).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Episode 2: In Which DFM Discovers A Plot To Unleash Giant Destructive Guinea Pigs In Korea, And Has A Mishap With A Hot Glue Gun

My first full day in Korea was a very long day. For the most part this can probably be contributed to the fact that my body had not yet adjusted to the time difference and I woke up at 3:30 AM.

When I arose it occurred to me that I had not yet procured food stuffs for breakfast, and while the bars and clubs seem to stay open all night in Korea, the "food marts" keep fairly "normal" hours.

Around 9:30 AM (local time, obviously) I decided to explore my surroundings and find a food mart. I was amazed at the variety of stores in my neighbourhood. When I lived in Itaewon I could find an overpriced, "over sized" store for giant tourists without a problem, and I could also have a tailor made suit constructed, but other than that and drinking there were very few stores. Here, though, it seemed like I could find anything and everything. I even found a pastry shop that wasn't called Paris Baguette! Most importantly I found a reasonably priced small food mart, and a couple of local food vendors that sold fresh fruit - including the juiciest nectarines I've ever tasted - for a much lower price than in Itaewon. Apparently the harvest season is upon us (er... me) though, so that could have something to do with it.

After some breakfast, Lee and I went to Itaewon to get my "hand pone" (mobile phone) set up. While the Immigration board was being contacted to make sure I existed, Lee and I went to his office close to the Han River. Lee went to lunch with his boss, so I called up Hyeun-A (who shrieked with excitement) to tell her I wanted to have lunch with her (Hyeun-A works with Lee at the same office and used to teach me Korean during my last visit to Korea).

Hyeun-A surprised me when she said she wanted to go to the nearby taco restaurant. I wasn't thinking straight yet though, and thought I would be getting an American style taco, but I forgot that this is Korea and so my burrito contained rice, coleslaw, and some sort of ranch dressing, along with extra spicy pork. It was still delicious though, and since I wasn't sure when I'd be able to eat supper I made sure to stuff myself full.

After lunch it was time to do what I had been waiting two and a half months to do, ever since deciding that I would return to Korea - surprise Ji-Hyeun and Choi at Ace Climbing Centre. When I arrived, I opened the door and proudly proclaimed "hello!" (in Korean). Ji-hyeun and Choi both had their jaws hit the floor, and they stammered a bit before being able to say something along the lines of "how can you be here now?" Later I asked Ji-hyeun about what she thought when she saw me and she said, "I thought, 'I can't believe my eyes.'"

At 3:30 PM I had to leave for a meeting with my boss. The last time I was here this used to involve going to his "headquarters" in downtown Seoul. However, it now required traveling over an hour and a half to another city to reach my "local office." My hour and a half trip this time turned into a two and a half hour trip though, because I accidentally got on the wrong train and didn't notice until I was heading out of Seoul in the wrong direction. Eventually I was able to get to the proper station but then I almost missed my connection because I got caught up watching a Peruvian pan flute band (I hope the giant guinea pigs decide to wait until I leave Korea before they come to destroy it).

I should mention the bus ride from the subway station to the local office, for it was a most incredible experience. On narrow mountain roads with no shoulder whatsoever, this bus raced around blind corners, sometimes even cutting them. At other times, the outside section of our lane was narrowed even further by rock slides, but still the driver did not slow down and neither did the cars from the other side, and what would have been considered a one lane road in Canada was transformed into a Korean freeway. All this happened while destroying the buses suspension and the passengers' skeletons on the copious speed jumps bumps (jumps?).

The meeting went longer than expected, but was mostly uneventful except for when I burned my finger using the hot glue gun (don't tell my mother or she won't let me use a glue gun again either as well as the knives she is already terrified of seeing in my hands). Also, on the way home I could have sworn I saw the Korean David Suzuki (either that or it was just a Japanese tourist), but that isn't really important.

Finally I made it home at 10:00 PM, absolutely exhausted and incredibly hungry since I hadn't eaten since noon. Tomorrow I start my first day of teaching at a new school though so I'm fairly excited about that (I work at two schools). Since no one knows how many lessons in this unit the children have covered I cannot adequately prepare. This makes me just a bit nervous, so I'll just have to do what Hank Hill would do and "fall back on natural instinct."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Korea Trip II: Electric Boogaloo

Before I left Korea the last time I was here, I promised my friends I would return as soon as I could. My boss joked about blocking my trip home so I'd have to stay, and Ji-hyeun at Ace even said she would hold onto the gift she had not been able to give me before I left the last time until I returned. I was touched by generosity I was shown, and really did want to return, but part of me wanted to follow the lemming-like urge to start my career too. Originally I had planned to work a year in Canada as a teacher before coming back to Korea. However, the high quality job prospects for new graduates are not favourable in education (not that they are in any other industry either), so I decided some time in June to return to Korea early.

I had hoped to return to the school at which I was teaching before, and so I went about the process of securing a work visa. The process was simple enough, but definitely required a lot of preparation on my part gathering the requisite certificates of health, blood work, letters of recommendation, etc. I had procured the necessary items well in advance of my intended departure, but I ended up having to wait an agonizingly long time to receive a bank statement proving I had enough money on hand to not get myself into any significant trouble in the possibility that I could not find work here.

After sending off my visa application via Canada Post's Priority Courier service, I waited in agony for my visa (and passport) to return from The Consualte General of Korea's office in Vancouver. Unfortunately, while the Korean government officials are relatively fast and efficient, Canada Post's courier service to Hillbilly Hell is not (not that I can blame them). I had to cancel my plane ticket to Korea and, since I now realise I was using the wrong tracking number, I could not tell when or where my return envelope was located, so I could not tell when to buy the new ticket.

This was on Friday. On Monday morning my visa and passport made a surprising arrial at my door, subsequently triggering a frantic race to pack up and find the earliest flight to Korea. I stayed up late into the night and travelled five hours by car to reach the nearest International airport for my flight the next morning. From there I embarked on about 20 hours of flying and sitting in airports finally arriving in Seoul the next day (I crossed the International Date Line), exhausted after having not slept significantly in the last 40 hours.

Before being allowed to board my plane to Seoul though, I was stopped by a Canadian Customs officer who was trying to investigate some sort of potential scandal involving the flow of copious amounts of Canadian dollars from the country. Now, whether my story seemed suspicious or the officer was just intrigued by my choice of "alternative lifestyle" I'll never know, but "a few questions" about my trip to Korea somehow turned into a fifteen minute interrogation about my motives for leaving the country. Eventually I was able to convince the officer I was not tied up in some international money smuggling operation (or whatever it was she was investigating) and was allowed to leave.

When I arrived at Inchon airport, just outside of Seoul, I was approached by a Korean man asking me if I had someone picking me up. I thought to myself, "this is probably a taxi cab driver looking to pick up the rich foreign tourist and make a few bucks." If I had only one suitcase, and a bit more rest I might have ignored him and taken the 2 hour subway ride to meet my friend Lee at our house. However, I did not want to roll around two heavy and bulky suitcases through the busy rush hour subway tunnels and trains, nor was I in the mood for a further two hour trip. I agreed to let the man take me to my destination, thinking that in the land of $1.75 taxis the trip couldn't possible cost more than $45. In fact, I'm pretty sure I remember reading that a taxi from the airport to Seoul was only $45 in my Lonely Planet guide book the last time I was here.

Typically, when you get into a Seoul taxi, the meter will start at 1900 Won (about $1.80). From there you will drive a few blocks before the meter goes up about ten cents every five seconds or so. In this cab, the meter started at 4000 Won (about $4.00). And from there, it would increase $0.25 every few seconds. The trip from the airport to my destination was about 40 km, so by the time I got home my ride had cost me $100. And as if that wasn't enough, I had to pay the $7.50 toll charge to enter the freeway too. You'd think for a $100 ride the driver could manage throw in the toll.

I wasn't too worried about it though, and I cannot claim that the driver was trying to go slow, or take a wrong route. The GPS definitely took him in the quickest direction, the roads were relatively free from traffic (especially compared to the completely clogged up overpass we went under at one point), and we travelled in the outside, fast lane the whole way there. Also, the air conditioning system did a good job helping me forget I had been sitting in a plane in the same clothes for 17 hours. It was in no way worth $100, but next time I'll know better. When I later told Lee about the ordeal he laughed and told me, "you are victim."

Many people will want to know about my house. My house is very similar to the very first place at which I stayed my first night in Korea on my last adventure, and this did not surprise me at all. There were two relatively large bedrooms that shared a common kitchen and bathroom. This seems pretty common as far as "teacher dwellings" go. The fridge was tiny, but at least I had one this time.

As for the company, Lee and his young wife are nice, and we get along well. She was born in Belarus, graduated University in Moscow and learned English in Australia. The house is a real multicultural melting pot where none of the words are really said correctly, but most of what is said comes through.

Now let the second, straight-to-DVD, DFM Korea Adventure begin!