Friday, October 30, 2009

Episode 28: In Which DFM Uses Quantum Physics To Understand How To Speak Korean, And Uses A Microwave To Make His Shoes Stop Smelling

Back in College I had to read a book by George Leonard called Mastery. In this concise, to-the-point book, Leonard claims that learning does not take place on a continuous curve, but rather in a quantum fashion, in which time must be spent on a plateau of non-improvement before the next small jump in proficiency can be noticed; the plateau increasing in length with each quantum jump.

My experience with attempting to master climbing has definitely shown me that this is true, however Leonard's model also suggests that at the beginning of the "curve," the plateaus are so small in length that one gets the impression of near constant improvement every day. While this might be the case for learning simple tasks like weight training - didn't everyone feel they would keep getting stronger for ever when they first started, or am I the only one? I have also experienced the near soul-crushing frustration of trying to learn complex tasks such as making an open field tackle in football, or hitting a back-hand on the move in tennis. Fortunately I have another theory as well.

While I was experiencing said frustration in learning how to tackle, my coach shared with me a bit of wisdom that he had learned from his coach. My coach told me that learning a complex task is like trying to poke your finger through the plastic wrap you use to cover a bowl of fruit salad. You push and push and push, but the plastic wrap just stretches and you are still left without any fruit. Then finally, at some unexpected moment, you reach some magic tipping point and your finger bursts through the plastic.

As I look back on my own experiences learning new skills, the Leonard "Quantum Curve" (as I've just now decided to call it) definitely holds true for learning new, simple skills and for mastering both simple and complex skills at which I've already become proficient. So then, why do we all experience the "fruit bowl plastic wrap phenomenon" I described before when trying to learn complex tasks from scratch? And moreover, why am I talking about this in my blog about Korea?

To answer the first question, I believe that complex tasks follow the same rules of the Quantum Curve, but that one or more prerequisite skills need to be mastered before the brain can start the process of mastering the complex skill. This theory seems to be justified by the research I read on the subject as part of my Phys Ed degree (and to think some people consider the BPE "useless"). Unfortunately, the brain tackles learning multiple skills in much the same way Microsoft Windows copies multiple files from your computer's hard drive to a USB drive, and that's why we have the frustration my coach explained using the fruit bowl analogy.

And now the part where this fits into my Korea trip...

Up until this point I have been studying Korean every day for roughly one hour. I wouldn't call my improvement meteoric, but I'm also honest enough to admit (and have said on this blog) that I can see some improvement. My Korean friends are also constantly tell me that my Korean is improving (especially if they haven't seen me or talked to me in some time). Nevertheless, I would never say that I have reached the point of proficiency at which I could call myself "functionally fluent" in my Korean. Sure, I know how to give and receive simple instructions in climbing like "move your left foot up," and some, like myself, would even argue that this is all the communication one needs to live a happy life, but "Talking With Beauties" (as it's known on expat bloggers' websites) will not be inviting me to take part in their rare "Talking With Handsome Men" episodes.

This past week though I seem to have experienced a plastic wrap break through of sorts. While many foreigners living in Korea are too lazy to even learn the hangul (the world's easiest "alphabet" to read), I've said before and I'm saying it again now that I'm still surprised at how every time I meet a new Korean they're still surprised at "how well" I speak my limited Korean. If any Korean came to Canada with the same level of proficiency in English as I have in Korean, you'd have every secretly racist person in the country (or roughly 90% of the population) complaining around their dinner table that these people "should go back to their own country" and that "we don't go to their country to work when we don't know their language." However, this week on two separate occasions I participated in extended introductions with strangers (in Korean) that lasted about 3-5 minutes, and this impressed even me. My grammar was more or less right, and I believe I said most of the words correctly.

One of these conversations took place at Summit Climbing Centre. I had been meaning to go back to Summit for the last two weeks, but as you read in my last post a wedding got in the way and ruined my plans (is there anything weddings don't ruin?), but better late than never I suppose.

Unfortunately, nothing much to report. I met a new friend, Yun Jun, and just like every other time I've been to Summit and met a new friend, this was her first week climbing. (Does Summit actually have any climbers who are regulars?) I spent more or less the whole evening showing her how to move left and right, but that's okay. I actually only come to climb at Summit when I feel like having a rest day, and like most of Summit's new climbers Yun Jun could speak fairly decent English, so we were able to have an enjoyable conversation while we weren't climbing.

Probably the best part of the evening though, was when I paid $0.50 and had my shoes de-odourised. My climbing shoes have been emitting an absolutely abysmal smell for the last six months or so, which has not been helped in any way by the fact I lock them up in an unventilated locker after I sweat in them for three hours while climbing three times a week at Ace. I'm not sure how the deodourising machine works exactly, but Mr. Chang sprayed them with something from a labeless plant sprayer bottle, then he stuck them in a plastic microwave-like machine, and 8 minutes later they came out being much much less smelly. Now I don't have to feel embarrassed when I take my shoes on the subway and it smells like someone peed in my bag.

Speaking of shoes, my roommates bought a new shoe rack to clean up the front entrance. Here's a picture of what the new entrance looks like.

All of these shoes were on the floor of our ridiculously tiny front entrance (about 3 feet by 5 feet). There were so many shoes on the floor, that one of my room mates actually forgot which ones were his and thought that one of his own pair of shoes was mine. However, not all animals are created equal here. Only one of these pairs of shoes are mine. If you consider that each of these shoes averages $50 a piece (most of the shoes in Korea are just knock-offs), that's over $500 worth of shoes for my roommates. My shoes, on the other hand, were $150, but I got them for free, because I used to work at a running shoe store and I sold more than $1000 in one sale to one customer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Episode 27: The Rest Of The Week

This week has been one of the busiest yet for me. I'm so tired I couldn't even come up with a clever title for this week. (I invite readers to suggest clever titles in the comments section.) That said, since I'm almost a week behind on my blogs I've decided to include the remaining three days of the week in this one post.

* * * * *


Typically the Ace Climbing Competitions are held on the third Thursday of every month. However, for some reason this month's climbing competition was moved to this Wednesday.

When I used to attend Ace climbing competitions back in March and April, there were a significantly larger number of people there. Both last month and this month though I've noticed that the number of people attending the competitions seems to be getting less and less. Perhaps this is the "climbing season" and everyone is off in the mountains, and in winter the numbers will pick up again? Either way I'll keep coming even if I'm the only one.

Readers may remember that during the last competition I won fairly easily in the Intermediate category. This month I was "volunteered" for the the top Expert category by Choi. I wasn't that concerned however, since I was thinking of going in the category anyways.

My biggest worry about entering the Expert category this month though, was that the Expert problems from the last competition were impossibly difficult for me, and even after a month of practice I could not finish more than even two moves on any of the five problems. Choi must have realised this, because this time around the difficulty of the Expert category problems was much easier, and more or less right where it should have been considering the calibre of climbers in the category this time. Long story short, I had a very good competition and managed to tie for first place in the Expert category (I later lost on a tie-break for having one more total attempt than the eventual winner).

* * * * *

On an unrelated, but personally exciting story that I will include here, I met Jenny from Summit at Ace gym on Monday. I had no idea she would be at Ace, and in fact I was planning to go to Summit this Friday to see her there. When I first saw her though, I said to myself "wow, that woman looks a lot like Jenny," but was thrown off by what appeared to be a three-inch growth spurt she experienced over the last six months (she's older than me though, which is why it's so surprising). I tried to go over and get a closer look, but at that time she was climbing on a wall and I could not get a good look at her face. I decided to put it out of my mind and went back to climbing, however later we crossed paths again and she seemed more surprised than me to be meeting up again in this gym. Apparently her business had relocated to the area, and I may get to see a lot more of her in the near future. (Don't go reading anything into that statement though, I know how you readers think!)

* * * * *


After class on Thursday, Elise and I went for our regular, weekly trip for coffee. On our way to the coffee shoppe, Elise mentioned that she knew of a store where I could get my favourite Korean snack, waffles. At first I wasn't that impressed because I can get a waffle in almost any subway station. However, Elise insisted this place was special.

I don't know what the store was called, but in the picture you can see a large number of signs plastered to the window. The two large, full window yellow sheets on the left side of the store front is the nearly 100 choice menu. Keep in mind, this store only sells waffles.

I'm not sure if this is unique, or if other places in the world offer the same kind of deliciousness, but when you ask for a "wapple" in Korea you are not eating an Eggo on a plate with a knife and fork drenched in maple syrup. Rather, in South Korea the round waffles are quickly reheated in an iron, slathered on one side with a sweet apple syrup and then with whipped cream on the other. The waffle is then folded in half, wrapped in a small piece of paper and handed to the anxious, hungry customer to be devoured (click here to see this process in action). All of this is wonderful, and it takes place for less than a dollar.

Back to the story though. As I mentioned, this store in particular sells nearly 100 variation of these folded waffles including green tea ice cream and coffee flavours. Furthermore, there is a sign on the window that says "do not talk to us." You can't ask any questions, nor can you give any compliments. You are merely permitted to call your order into the microphone. You are handed a token with the number of your order on it and then you wait for you number to show up on the sign. Even when your number does come up you aren't allowed to say "thank you." The employee inside opens up a small window, holds out a basket and you put your money in the basket. Of course, when I first heard about this it sounded ridiculous, but when I saw it in person it was really quite funny. I will definitely be coming back here in the future to sample some of the other choices.

* * * * *


This morning I woke up completely exhausted (that's not new though), but when I looked in the mirror my eyes were completely blood shot (that was). My eyes looked like an Interstate road map there were so many red lines; it was actually a little scary. While I have been working less than your average Korean, it seems the stresses of big-big city living (about 14 million people in the greater metropolitan area) and trying to teach over 120 students a day who don't actually speak the same language you do have started to take their toll. That said, I've managed to make it two months working around walking virus factories without getting seriously sick, so I think I am still doing alright.

As I mentioned earlier, I had planned to go to Summit Climbing Centre after work today to see Mr. Chang and everyone else. However, the night before, my room mate Lee told me that Aeri, Hyeun-a's manager whom I met in March, was getting married today and that she had invited me. The incredibly short notice and disappointment about not being able to climb aside, I figured it was a rare opportunity for a foreigner to experience a Korean wedding, and so I agreed to come along.

Obviously I can't speak for the rural areas in Korea, but weddings in Seoul weddings seem to happen as quickly and efficiently as just about everything else. This wedding hall could only be rented for a maximum of two hours, so to save time the bride was on display in her wedding dress for individual pictures with guests before the wedding. There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen at the wedding, nor was there even a best man or maid of honour. (Correction: there were none that I could see taking part in the ceremony, they may still have existed.) The groom walked down the aisle first, followed almost immediately by the bride and her father. The wedding process itself lasted only 18 minutes (I timed it), and even that probably could have been trimmed down a bit more - I heard the old man in charge of the proceedings say "happy" more than once, so he may want to work on that in the future. After the whole ring thing and the official pronouncement, the immediate family took a group photo with the bride and groom, followed by a group photo with friends in which I took part.

Now some notes on everything else. The groom looked particularly handsome in his tuxedo, but the bride chose to wear the standard Victorian style white wedding gown that almost every woman seems to wear to their wedding. For the record I hate these dresses and consider wearing one to a wedding as a justifiable grounds for the groom walking out before he even gets marriage. They're ridiculously expensive, and show a lack of judgement that could severely put the family and its children at risk in the future. Not only that, they look hideous. The trail was so long on this one, that the bride needed a personal assistant to pick the tail up and carry it around and then replace it for every photo if she moved even a step. Do I feel bad for making fun of the bride? Sure, she is my friend, but I just really hate wedding gowns (and weddings). To be honest though, I was a little surprised that she wore the dress, since I figured this would be one of those weddings in which the direct participants all wore hanboks (remember those colourful outfits the kids wore for Chuseok?), but that must be a family choice and not necessarily a cultural norm.

After the wedding there was a massive catered banquet. This was the real reason I think I was invited along in the first place (by Lee, not by Aeri). While I was told not to take part in the tradition, every guest is expected to pay money to the bride/groom as their gift, usually in the form of $50 to $100. If you don't pay you don't get a ticket to the buffet. The rationale is that on your own wedding day you will be repaid by your guests and so everything will work out. Lee is not necessarily happy about this custom, and told me the night before "don't eat a big lunch tomorrow because I need you to eat lots of food at the wedding so I can get my money's worth." I did my best and went back to the buffet table three times (not including desert). Lee later thanked me for my "sacrifice."

* * * * *

On Saturday (today for most of you reading this blog in Canada) I was supposed to take part in a blind date. However, the young woman in question apparently got sick and had to back out. I wasn't that worried though as I really just wanted to spend all day watching The Young Turks radio show on YouTube (which I did).

Koreans seem to be afraid of interacting in a friendly manner with strangers (I really have heard Koreans say they're afraid of it), so one of the few acceptable way for them to meet members of the opposite sex to marry is to be set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. These blind dates are actually called "meetings" by the Koreans. I only mention that because it leads to a funny story.

For my work I have to attend bi-monthly "tutorial" sessions in which I am given the materials to more effectively teach my lessons for the next two weeks. (Actually, during the time frame for the context of this story I was attending them every week.) The meetings are rather long, and until this week they took place in a completely different city called Bucheon. Consequently I could never climb on a day in which I had a tutorial. When asked why I couldn't climb by the members of Ace I used to tell them that I had a "meeting." For a few weeks until the misunderstanding was cleared up, all of the members of Ace thought I must be the most popular playboy in Seoul.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Episode 26: In Which DFM Goes To Heaven And A DVD Bang

One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending on how you look at it) of studying my Korean textbook on the subway, is that on a regular basis some Korean will ask me if I'm studying Korean and try to start a conversation with me (typically those over thirty, the younger Koreans are too busy listening to their mp3 players or sms messaging).

A couple of weeks ago I met one Ms. Yun in this manner. Ms. Yun teaches kindergarten like me, but at a school for black children (Nigerian or American immigrants, etc.). It's the first time I found someone with a teaching job more rare than mine.

We were going to meet for her birthday later last week, but scheduling conflicts arose, so we decided to meet this last Saturday for kimbab (note: posting delays have made this event a week old now). I have, of course. had a lot of kimbab in my four total months in Korea. However, Ms. Yun took me to a special restaurant whose name translates into Kimbab Heaven. At first I felt this was just some more optimistic advertising, but I must say kimbab at Kimbab Heaven is every bit as delicious as the name would suggest.

Up until this point I had thought there were only two kinds of kimbab: The kimbab I can buy on the street with some vegetables and mayonnaise-like sauce, and the kimbab I eat at home which is only rice (bab) and seaweed (kim). However, at Kimbab Heaven there are well over thirty varieties of kimbab from which to choose. On this particular day I chose the tuna kimbab and the beef kimbab rolls and they were delicious. To be completely honest I never knew I could combine my love of tuna with my love of kimbab; it was amazing.

(At this point I should probably explain for those of you who forgot my last explanation seven months ago, that kimbab is basically sushi with the seaweed on the outside and the rice on the inside. I believe this is called a California Roll in America.)

I had thought that Ms. Yun would eat the kimbab with me, but she said she was already full so I was tasked with finishing off everything by myself. While I love kimbab, one roll (about twelve pieces) is a essentially a meal in itself, so I was quite pleased when I was able to stuff down twenty pieces and finish the soup and kimchi side dishes at the restaurant. I made sure to bag up the remaining four kimbab pieces for an evening snack.

After kimbab we went to find a DVD bang (bang is Korean for room, and is actually pronounced "bong") to watch a movie. Ironically Ms. Yun does not like Korean movies, so the DVD bang is her best opportunity to find the American films she do enjoy.

Ms. Yun had originally wanted to see a comedy, but there were no comedies there that I considered to be of any value, so I convinced her to watch The Bourne Supremacy instead (one of the finest American films ever made in my opinion). Since Ms. Yun had not seen The Bourne Identity (the first film in the trilogy, of which The Bourne Supremacy is the second) I had a fair bit of work to do at the begining, catching her up on the back story and all the references to characters from the first film both dead and alive. However, it was all worth it, as she now wants to see The Bourne Ultimatum on our next visit. This particular DVD Bang did not have The Bourne Identity for some reason, but luckily DVD bangs are a common as mosquitoes in Seoul (especially around the university areas) so I'm sure I can find it somewhere.

A few of you may be wondering what one gets as a reward for paying $12 to watch a DVD... not much. You get one free 200 mL beverage, and the luxury of sitting on a couch in a room the size of my first gosiwon, while a movie is projected in LD (low definition) on to the opposite wall, and the sound is buzzed through blown speakers. That said, the couch is quite comfortable, and you do get a matching ottoman on which to rest your legs.

While Saturday started out quite warm, by the time I reached Sillim-dong (you may remember this as the place I went to have sundae with Charles, Woojin, and Seong-bok some time back) the wind had picked up considerably. Most of the Seoulites have been wearing scarves and coats for a few weeks now, but my blood still had at least some of its formerly high Canadian living induced thyrosin levels and I was able to manage quite fine. However, on Monday I finally bit the bullet and put on a jacket. Some of my friends were quite surprised and thought I "would not wear a coat even in winter." (Note: Since this event I have gone back to wearing short sleeves again.)

One last exciting note: tangerines (mandarin oranges) are back! These have been really expensive since my return, but the season has started and Jeju island is pumping them out by the thousands again. Like buying clothes for less than the price of a cup of coffee (at Starbucks) in Korea, because they're made right in the store's own sweatshop in the basement, I never get tired of buying a bucket of fresh fruit shipped in that day for less than it costs me to buy 2 Litres of synthetically created "milk."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Episode 25: In Which DFM Feels As Though He Is Stuck Inside Of A Hollywood "Body Switchers" Movie, And Receives Mana From Heaven (Jjinpang Too)

With the "daily grind" starting to wear on me, this Friday I received "mana from heaven" in the form of a much needed day off from work. I'm still not sure exactly why I received a day off, but it had something to do with a teachers' convention type activity the school was holding.

Hyenii (the English teacher at the school with the convention) invited me to see a movie with her and her friends. Since long time readers will remember I've been trying to see a Korean movie in a Korean theatre since I first came here, I of course jumped at the chance.

The movie was called Season of Good Rain (well, that was the English translation anyways). It was about a Korean business man on a trip to China for his construction company. The company had a contract to rebuild part of the country, after a devastating earthquake the year before. While there, he runs into a woman he used to have feelings for while they both studied in America. Over the course of the film, the man tries very hard to rekindle the possibly romantic feelings they both shared while studying in America. However, in a cruel twist of fate the woman is constantly riddled with guilt over having feelings for her old friend on this, the one year anniversary of her husband's death in the very earthquake that brought the man there in the first place.

We had chosen this film because I said I wanted to see something Korean. Ironically though, since the Chinese woman could not speak Korean, and the Korean man could not speak Chinese (in the film anyways), all of the dialogue between the two characters was carried out in English.

The Chinese woman's English was not overly strong, but she managed alright. I could tell though that the Korean man had studied quite a bit, as his timing and pronunciation were almost "fluent." Unfortunately some of the scenes lost a bit of their emotional value, since the "timing" and stressing/accenting of the phrases were just a hair off, and consequently did not quite convey the same meanings they should have. Knowing it would be an utter disaster if just about any Westerner I knew were to try and act out an entire movie in Korean or Chinese, I still had a lot of respect for the actors for trying.

After the movie Hyenii and her two friends (both females) asked me about my thoughts on the film. They were a little disappointed though, as my strongest feelings revolved around the use of a panda in the obligatory montage scene. Pandas, as I explained, are in my opinion the most pointless animals on Earth (from an evolutionary perspective), in that they are more or less unwilling to defend themselves, and eat a diet of nutrientless bamboo. They still remain on the planet almost solely because of human intervention, and will probably be welfare mamas for the rest of the species' time on Earth.

* * * * *

I also had made plans to go back to Namhee's church this night. In-hye had told me on Sunday that Scott Brenner (a famous American Christian musician) was coming to give a performance at her church this day, and I told her I would come.

I wondered about the wisdom of inviting an English speaker to sing to a congregation consisting entirely of Koreans. However, continuing with the day's theme of irony, Scott Brenner sang about 85% of his songs in Korean. He has a Korean wife, and his ministry has been based out of Korea for over ten years. I really didn't see that one coming.

The Scott Brenner event was exciting, and the church band and back up singers were really impressive as they had no problem playing any of Scott Brenner's songs. Furthermore, I have yet to see normally quite reserved Koreans make that much noise and approximations of dancing at a church. Indeed I have been to a Van Halen concert in Edmonton, Alberta, that was a funeral compared to tonight.

The first hour was really lively, but since the concert started at 8:00 PM at the end of a long week, it was inevitable that the overworked Koreans would start to die out after that. The whole event lasted until 10:30 PM, by which time most of the once lively audience members (including myself) were sitting down and trying not to fall asleep.

I had hoped to get something to eat with In-hye after the concert, but it was quite late, and I had still had to get back to the subway station before the trains stopped running from there (it was at the end of the line, and would be one of the first stations to end service).

At home I knew I only had some rice and an apple to eat, and I had not eaten this day since lunch, so I was pleasantly surprised and relieved when I saw a jjinpang merchant in my neighbourhood on the way home.

As I've mentioned in the past, street vendors seem to offer specific food with the seasons - every season will see a new fruit and/or snack becoming popular. Since my first taste of the sweet mashed up maggots-like bean paste inside a steamed bun back in March, I have been having withdrawals. But tonight I was able to get three Pizza Pocket sized jjinpang buns for about $1.50, making this one of the best days yet.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Episode 24: In which DFM Steps Into A Time Machine, And Eats Diarrhea

My week may have been uneventful, but the weekend made up for it.

For starters, the latest Sasuke episode came out. This is a big event for me, because unlike the UFC which puts out about two big shows a month, Sasuke (my favourite sports event) is only run twice a year. During Sasuke 22 (the last episode), someone made it to the final stage for the first time since Nagano Makato achieved Total Victory in Sasuke 17.

This year was extra exciting, as 16 people cleared the first stage (I've never seen more than five since the producers completely redesigned the course for Sasuke 18). Also, three of the four original Sasuke All-Stars still competing made it to the third stage; the first time this has happened in about four years. What's better yet, the producers released the first Kunoichi (Women's competition) since 2007. I'm currently waiting for my download of it to finish, and then the fun will begin again.

Later that evening, Hyeun-A made the trip across town from near Itaewon to have dinner with me. Being the lady's man I am, I hadn't actually bothered to figure out where any good places to eat were, so the first fifteen minutes of our date were spent trying to find a suitable restaurant (in my defence I only had two weeks to prepare). Eventually Hyeun-A spotted a tiny kalguksu restaurant though, and we were able to eat.

Kalguksu apparently describes any soup that has heavy, thick noodles in it. Hyeun-A tried to translate the menu for me, but somehow something was lost in the translation, and I ended up with patkalguksu (red bean noodle soup) that was kind of bland, while she had the kalguksu that didn't look like diarrhea.

After dinner I took Hyeun-A for a walk along the stream near my house. I have wanted to walk or run down the paths next to this stream since I first saw them, but had not found that magic combination of time and specific inclination until this. I can say it was a big disappointment. I thought on a Saturday night the paths would be peaceful and quiet. Instead, it seemed like everyone with a bike or set of running shoes was out on the trails in traditional Korean fashion - neither riding/walking on the left or right, but rather scattered randomly across the width of the trail, making for a stressful night of constantly having to move back and forth.

What's more, where I live, I'm used to using the bike trails as a medium for easy, traffic light-/stop sign free-transportation to somewhere important, by way of some place beautiful. However, bike paths in Seoul are always built along the dirty streams and rivers, and right next to the noisy, busy roads, and never seem to go anywhere particularly useful. People just travel to one end of a straight path, turn around, and then head back the other way.

On Sunday I went back to Namhee's church. Like last time, Namhee's friend In-hye wanted to pick me up from the subway station. I sprinted up the stairs to our meeting point and noticed a small white car, just like In-hye's, parked in the same spot as last time. I got in the back seat and said "hello." I had noticed that In-hye had a different friend this week but didn't think much of it. However, when the woman kept saying "no, no" in Korean and pointing up ahead, I noticed that "In-hye" appeared to look about twenty years older this week. When I looked ahead where she was pointing I noticed the real In-hye trying to wave me down about three cars ahead in another small, white car. This event of course produced a hilarious story that would later be told and retold, by In-hye, to anyone who would listen at church.

Namhee's church's service is entirely conducted in Korean, so I didn't understand much of anything that was said. However, the songs are quite catchy, and the church kindly put the words on the overhead screen in large print giving me an opportunity to practice my karaoke (I believe I mentioned this last time).

Additionally, since I recently bought a Korean-English Bible, I use the sermon time to read ahead on whatever scripture is the topic for that day. Today's topic was about two sisters who are so desperate to have children that they get their father drunk and rape him, thus producing two sons who go on to father a great line of The Lord's People. I wonder how Rush Limbaugh justifies that one?

After the service, In-hye invited me to a youth session. There were dozens of University aged Koreans there, and surprisingly they all seemed to speak English to some extent (and many to a great extent). Never-the-less, I was called to the front by the pastor and I introduced myself in Korean to the gathering. As usual, this went over quite well, and made me somewhat of a minor celebrity. It also helps that I've learned how to say "I am Namhee's friend" in Korean.

After this meeting, and another "smaller group" meeting, an even smaller group of just the smaller group leaders went out for barbecued pork, and invited me along. I have to say this is the first time I have been out eating with a group of Koreans and I was the oldest person at the table. It was a little weird.

Most Koreans think that it is hard for me to use honorific verb and adjective endings in the presence of elders, but since I'm always in the presence of elders I've become quite proficient at it. Ironically (for Koreans), I have the most trouble using the "non-polite" verb endings, because I never get to practice them. (In Korean, the same sentence must be said in three or four different ways depending on the age and/or status of the person to whom you are speaking.)

(My new friends [left to right]: Su-min, Su-ji, Won-jae, In-hye, and Min-seon. Min-seon actually studied English in New Zealand. Consequently, she peaks with a slight New Zealand accent, which is really weird to hear coming from a Korean. A good "weird" though.)

The meal consisted of some part of a pig which I was unable to ascertain, as well as the skin of the same pig presumably, barbecued in the typical Korean fashion - at our table. The meal was delicious, and the meat seemed to keep on coming, and I must have ate through two servings myself. Everyone was impressed with my chop-sticks skills, and I of course told them how much I loved eating Korean food. I made a big deal about how much more I like Korean food than Canadian food, but when we went to pay the bill though, the stores owner told us the pork had actually come from Canada. Oh well, at least In-hye will have another funny story to tell.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Episode 23: In Which DFM Teaches Children How To Speak Korean Incorrectly, And Plans To Exploit Children For Economic Gain

Anyone waiting for an exciting update of my week will be disappointed. The long weekend made me realize how hard I had been working and how much I liked resting. Consequently, the first two days back at work were tough to get up for. However, by Thursday I was back in the groove and doing well enough, although all I did was work and climb and go to my English club.

The air pollution in Seoul seems to have attacked my lungs quite hard this time around, and I've been hacking up green phlegm for the past two weeks (I hope you weren't reading this at breakfast). It makes me appear and sound sick, but I feel quite fine otherwise. I'm not surprised though, as it was also after a month that I had a similar experience during my first visit.

Probably the funniest thing that happened this week was that I heard from Elise, one of the English teachers about whom I wrote recently, that one of the children's mothers told her that her daughter was always talking about me at home. While this was quite flattering, the girl also apparently copies everything I do and say (again, quite flattering). Unfortunately, that also means she copies my accent when I speak Korean. Apparently her mother heard her speaking Korean with a Canadian accent one day and asked her why she was speaking that way. The girl told her mother that "DFM teacher talks like that." She thought that I was an expert at Korean because I could play Korean "Rock, Paper, Scissors." Bless her heart.

* * * *

Every Friday I have to teach a unique class to each of my six different classrooms. While my job is to teach art, a previous teacher at this school decided to make this day a special day, which means I have to come up with the entire thirty minute class on my own with no art supplies. No other teachers for the company have this class. I'm not complaining, mind you, but it does make it hard to ask for extra ideas when no one else has any experience.

I've been managing alright so far, but I was looking for something a little more active than what I normally have the students do. Typically I just have the kids sing some songs, watch a few funny "educational" videos I find, and play some simple games. The "gymnasium" is about the size of your average house basement, so with over twenty students in each class a number of the games I would have wanted to teach are out of the question. This brings me to dancing.

For the past few weeks I've been toying with the idea of teaching country line dancing to the kids. I figured it was an easy way to teach/practice "left," "right," "turn," etc, and it was one of the few things I could do with the limited space. That said, I would not be using actual country music, as I generally can't stand it.

It does feel weird to teach line dancing though. When I was in elementary school I used to hate the dance unit. It usually involved line dancing, which I felt was so boring I might die in the middle of a kick-stomp-clap section. The teachers used to feed me some ridiculous line about how "we lived in cowboy country," and "you might go to a wedding and now you can join in." It was, of course, a load of rubbish. Even if I were at a wedding (which I also hate), and a line dance broke out, I just wouldn't dance at all.

I can say though, that the dancing went over well enough this week. I suspect this had something to do with the fact I only did it for about ten minutes, as opposed to wasting the entire 30 minute class every day for two weeks, like my teachers used to do. Also, I use a combination of Latin music, blues rock, and "oldies" music in place of the standard country songs. I'm even now thinking that with some work, I might be able to turn this line dancing thing into an Asian craze. Hmm... I could even take these kids on a World Tour...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Episode 22: In Which DFM Is A Mime, And Becomes A National Hero

On the five minute walk from the subway to my house I pass no less than three hair dressers. For the first few weeks I was comfortable in my fresh hair cut, and naively felt I would not need to learn how to get a hair cut in Korean from one of them (my hair cut the last time at the Sauna was procured with the help of Lee). However, for the past two weeks I've felt my hair has been getting a little shaggy. Even still, I had let it go this long, but on Thursday I caught Sticker Girl trying to flatten down some of my wild curls that were sticking out worse than Alfalfa's cowlick, so I figured that I could wait no longer.

While I did not know how to say "make me handsome please," in Korean, I did at least know how much my hair cut would cost. A number of weeks ago, one of the climbers at Ace had received a new hair cut and he told me it cost him $8, and that it was the same price everywhere. When I told him in Canada it would cost him over $16 he nearly fell off the wall he was climbing.

Back to today. When I came in to the shop it was empty and the two stylists jumped up out of their seats in surprise (I'm pretty sure I'm the only foreigner they've seen in this neighbourhood). I had planned to stumble through some awkward Korean, but settled on just holding my hair out and making a cutting action with my fingers. The message got through and they had me sit down in one of the chairs.

The stylist asked me if I understood Korean (in Korean obviously), and I responded "a little." It's funny, because whenever Koreans tell me they only understand "a little" English, we are usually able to have a basic conversation. Up until now I've always been saying I understand "a little" Korean, but know full well that if they ask anything more complex than "hello" I'll be lost. However, my studying has really been paying off and I have had quite a few brief conversations in Korean the past few weeks. I can even understand what is being said fairly well, even if I cannot always answer, so I might actually be justified in using the phrase "a little" as a response now.

In Canada, I usually get my mom to buzz my head with a pair of cheap electric hair trimmers that barely work. While I was confident the young professional could make a reasonable approximation of the "roughly even" template left over from my last shear job, I was not sure how I would tell her what I wanted done.

When she did ask me in Korean how I wanted my hair cut (at least I think that's what she asked, all I could understand was "hair") I respond by showing her a half-inch space between my fingers. I assume she took this to mean I wanted it short, but since I heard her say "a little," in Korean, she could also have thought I only wanted half an inch taken off. Either way I wasn't too worried, as my hair was only about an inch long to begin with.

In the end, things worked out well and I'm happy with the results. And what's more, I'll be free from Sticker Girl's fussings for at least another three weeks.

Today was a big day for another reason as well. Some time ago I wrote about trying to memorize the song Superman, by Norazo. Well, it's been about two weeks since then, and after "studying" every day I can finally announce that I, DFM, have memorized and can sing every word of the song. Even though I'm probably the only foreigner to have undertaken this monumental task, I'm fully aware that it is still not likely to help me get a date. That said, the boys at my school will think I'm a National Hero, and that's all that really matters isn't it?

Of course, this means I need a new song to learn. Do not worry though, last week I noticed a really catchy song playing at Ace, and I have copied it on to my thumb drive MandDFM lent me. It's called 달이 차오른다 (roughly Englishised as "tali cha-o-leun-da"), and is sung by the indie Korean band Jang Ki-ha and The Faces.

Now you're probably thinking that I couldn't possibly give you any more good news than that. However, I have a special offer only for those readers who are reading this blog on an electronic image producing device.

For the past many weeks I've been working on my endurance at Ace climbing gym and today I had a major breakthrough. There are two routes at the gym which I have hitherto been unable to complete. One is only 32 moves, but takes place entirely on the horizontal roof of a cave, parallel to the ground. The other is a monstrous 100 move mega-circuit. Normally I lack the endurance to complete even twenty move routes but my hard work and diligent practice must have paid off, because today I was able to finish both of these routes from start to finish.

While I am both happy and relieved to have finally completed the 100 move route (it's Korean name literally translates into "100 Move Route"), I must be careful not to get too confident. Ji-hyeun can complete all 100 moves and then turn around and head the other direction all the way back to the beginning. And, as if that weren't incredible enough, the strongest climber in the gym (who was away on a climbing trip during my last visit to Korea) can go from the start to the finish, and then back to the start again four times. That's 800 moves! He'd better watch himself though. I've really been improving, and in another two lifetimes I think I might be able to match him.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Episode 21: In Which Artists Try To Rob DFM, And Astro Boy Gives Him A Rude Gesture

Today (Friday) was the first day of my first Chuseok holiday. Last Thursday, some members of the English club (henceforth to be referred to as MEC) had decided to meet today for some fun and adventure. Being a lover of fun and adventure myself, I accepted the invitation to come along.

(Our group [left to right, back to front]: Grace, Sally, Tom, Hyenii, Vanilla (yes, that's her real [English] name), Ricky, I can't remember the name of the next woman with the green hoody even though I asked her twice [this is the look of letters when they are typed in shame], and finally some guy who isn't actually part of MEC and doesn't speak English either.)

Originally I had thought we were going to some mountain near the 38th parallel to peer into North Korea using high powered binoculars. However, I guess plans had changed, because when the car stopped we were at the English Village in Paju.

English Villages first came to Korea in 2004 from Spain and Italy. The goal of an English Village is to help give Korean children a chance to improve their English language skills through month long, live-in immersion camps, without having to leave Korea (thus keeping more money in Korea). Over 100 foreign teachers are employed to give the camp an authentic feel, and the "town" also has many post office, hospital, city hall, etc. type buildings to give a more authentic role playing opportunity for the children.

When we went to the English Village there wasn't much to see, as the teachers had all been given a week long holiday, and so many of them had gone to Bali or Thailand. Oddly enough, of the five or so teachers who had stayed one of them was Tom. Tom is a teacher from New Zealand that I had met at Ace Climbing Gym last week. I had remembered he told me about his job at the English Village in Paju, so I was wondering if I would see him. However, given the circumstances it was a pretty big coincidence that we ran into each other.

MEC is led by Tom (the Korean Tom in the photo above). And while we were walking through the streets of the English Village, Tom asked me if the houses reminded me of Canadian houses. To be honest, the houses and "stores" looked like something I might see in Disneyland, but even so they did not look Canadian. I told Tom that if anything the houses and street were modelled upon a town in Great Britain, as I had seen very similar lamp posts and street clocks in Edinburgh during my trip there in 2008.

About the only thing worth seeing at the English Village (on this day) was this amphitheatre that overlooked an artificial pond. The weather was as nice as it looks in this picture, and the pond was home to many "water skaters" that I happily watched for some minutes.

After we had seen all of the buildings in the town we went back to have some truly mediocre pizza and spaghetti at the town Pizza and Spaghetti Shop. Then after lunch, Tom broke out the Uno package he had bought, and I prepared to do battle in the most intense game of Uno ever.

While the game was friendly enough, and no one tried to cheat, per se, some of the Koreans' interpretations of appropriate protocol were different than what I'm used to. Grace, who was sitting next to me, was constantly trying to peer over my shoulder to see what cards I had, and every time Tom tried to "help out" by handing out 2 or 4 cards to an opponent who had just received a "Pick up Two" or "Pick up Four" card, he would look at the cards he had just picked up. I learned quite early to "help" myself whenever I needed more cards.

After Ricky won the hard fought Uno game, we moved over to the nearby HEYRI Art Valley. HEYRI Art Valley was was built in 1997, with the goal of creating a place where artists of different genres can gather to communicate with each other and the public. All I saw though, were a bunch of over-priced art stores and cafes that sold $5 2-inch by 2-inch squares of cake.

The one bright spot at the HYERI Art Valley was the toy museum. For the price of a piece of HYERI Art Valley cake I was able to explore 2 of the 3 floors (I had to pay an extra $2 to see Sponge Bob on the third floor), filled with quite probably thousands of toys of all sorts and sizes. Below are some pictures of my favourites.

(It's the underwater Lotus Elise from "The Spy Who Loved Me.")

("Marty, you're not thinking fourth-dimensionally.")

(I suggest clicking on the picture to zoom in and get a clearer view. Bonus points if you can guess the yellow toy to the left, just barely in the shot. Check the last picture for the answer.)

(The Nike Free shoe in front actually turns into the Transformer behind it. Zoom in on the image and look at the robot's wings. They're in the shape of a shoe and you can see the laces hanging down.)

("Go, go Gadget Pop Pen!")

(Long time readers will already know about my love for Astro Boy - I've already taken out a membership in NAMBLA - but I was overwhelmingly over joyed by this find. What's hilarious, is that it looks like Atom - his name in Korea - is making a rude gesture. However, the hours I spent watching Sasuke have not been wasted, and I think that in Japan this is considered a sign of self congratulations - like pumping one's fist in the air - since I have seen many competitors on that show use this same action when they have completed a stage in an impressive fashion.)

(The life-sized robots were a hit with everyone.)

(What toy museum worth its robots would be caught dead without a 1/24 scale Hyundai Pony model car tucked away behind a glass pane and some other boxes?)

(Do you remember my question at the top, about what the toy beside the T-1000 skull? If you said "Ripley's exo-skeleton from Alien," then congratulations, because you're the biggest nerd in the world.)

For supper we all went out for duck. It was my first time having duck and I was curious about how it would taste. Duck tastes a lot like really tender chicken actually, and was by no means anything less than delicious. However, I found that I preferred the pork dishes at our meal to the duck, perhaps because of the thicker and firmer texture.

After dinner, we were treated to an impromptu swing dance lesson by a friend of Vanilla's. Apparently she takes swing dance lessons and had invited the instructor to our meal. The instructor said I was a good dancer, but I was more pleased that I could understand enough of the words in his Korean directions to figure out what he was telling me.

Episode 20: In Which DFM "Invents" A Korean Traditional Game, And Watches A Korean Stick Fighting Contest

Thursday was the last day of work this week before the Chuseok long weekend. The children had been busy all week preparing masks and other crafts in their classes in expectation of the important holiday. Today they had a chance to enjoy themselves by wearing their hanboks, eating traditional snacks, and playing many traditional games. While it was great fun for the kids, I've noticed that any time children get to enjoy themselves at school it usually means the poor teachers have to work extra hard to control all of the wild screaming "monsters," and by the end of the day they look exhausted.

As mentioned earlier, there were lots of traditional games being played, including the folded paper Pogs game, and Koosh ball hacky sack, I played played on my first visit. There was also "Korean hopscotch" and the timeless (and apparently borderless) "roll the hoop with the stick" game.

I did not get to enjoy any of those games though, because I was told to stay upstairs on the outdoor, second floor playground all day (the other games were in other areas). The games being played there were the "throw the wooden darts in the bucket" - also featured in my earlier blog post linked above - and a new game I'd never seen before, in which participants try to carry wood blocks on any part of their body (other than in their hands) a pre-determined distance and then drop them at other wooden blocks, standing on edge on the ground, in an attempt to knock these second blocks over (this will now be referred to as "Korean bowling" - a name I just made up - but note that many Koreans already participate in modern bowling).

Up until now I have included very few pictures in my posts compared with my last visit. I realise this, and today I will make it up to you with a super smorgasbord of pictures, including many with your favourite students from past blog posts.

(That's Giant-Micky-Mouse-Ears Girl on the right)

(That little girl who used to stare at me from the top of the stairs.)

(He was actually posing this way for me, of his own volition too.)

(You might remember the shining face on the left as Fight Girl.)

(I'm not sure who this boy is, but if you make a face like that you're going to get on the blog.)

(It's Thomas!)

(Lew - Balance Boy - says "hello.")

One of the games the kids were supposed to play involved throwing wooden darts from behind a red line into a wooden bucket. The darts have hard tips and bounce out of the bucket if you don't throw them just right, so the game is harder than it looks. Here (below) some boys shows us how it's done.

(Lew actually makes a "score" with this shot. I can't remember what it's called when you get the arrow in the bucket though.)

"Throw the wooden arrows in the wooden bucket" (actual name, tuho) game takes patience, and some boys at the school have trouble with games like that (can you believe it?). Below, Lewis (Taekwondo Boy), gets a little too exuberant with his throw. Also, note how close he is to the bucket which is actually being held up by another boy to give him a better target.

(Lew is in the orange pants.)

Other boys though forgot the bucket all together and just had stick fights with each other.

As mentioned earlier in this post, the children were also playing "Korean bowling." The easiest method to carry the block to the goal and dump it accurately, resulting in the necessary toppling of the "pin," was to use the back of your wrist. Sticker Girl shows us how below.

Some of children tried some harder methods, including using their head and shoulders. I was able to even use my thigh. The boy below definitely found the hardest method though. He tried to carry one block on the top of each of his shoes.

The hanboks definitely looked cute, but I'm not sure about the wisdom of sending children to school to play in silk clothes that cost a lot of money. You might have this happen...

Or this...

(Yup, he's crawling on the wooden playground equipment.)

Not to mention this...

(Thomas and friends make sure that the sandbox is still fun to play in, even when you're wearing a hanbok.)

While I'm sure many of you noticed that Louis was not present in any of the pictures, it's not because I didn't want to show him. I'm not sure where he was during my time with his class, but later in the day I saw him running around his classroom in his underwear trying to get in a fight with another boy, so I can only assume he was probably off getting into some sort of mischief.