Dec 29, 2009

Chapter Eighteen: This Must Be the Place

Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb - born with a weak heart
I guess I must be having fun

Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there
I come home - she lifted up her wings
Guess that this must be the place

Big changes are coming to the blog, I hope. I redesigned it recently as well. When I moved to Seoul I wanted something dreary and grey and impersonal. But it turns out that dreary is...well, rather dreary. I want to make this blog easier to follow as well. Soon I will be traveling and there will be more updates, more pictures, and more videos.

In other news, I lost my camera (see the sidebar "An Irish Ambush in South Korea"). A new one is on the way but in the meantime this blog is going picture free.

I am working on some thoughts on Korea/wrap up posts. In the meantime, here are some of the things I miss from Portland after almost a year away. (Of course, friends and family top the list. But you guys all have big egos and I don't want to do anything to make your heads swell further.)

Powells: It's a city ... of books. Duh.

Bye and Bye: Good beer, vegan food, good music; just a cool place. Maybe the best hang out place I have found.

Sweat Pea: I have only been here half a dozen times or so, but I can say this is the best bakery I have ever been to. The fact that it's vegan is almost irrelevant; this place is simply awesome.

New Old Lompoc: This could be any of a thousand microbreweries, but I dig their seasonal stouts and filling mason jars with beer is always fun.

Laurelhurst Theatre: You mean there is a cinema that serves beer AND is cheaper than the big cinemas? Seems too good to be true. I chose this over the Baghdad and others because they offer more movies and better beer.

Wildwood Trail. Almost as amazing as the length and beauty of it is the ready accessibility. You can hope onto this sucker from so many different places and instantly you are transported into a wilderness experience.

Rain: Scoff all you want, but the winters in Oregon are beautiful in their own drizzly way. If nothing else, they make the first sunny day of spring feel like an international holiday. And if that doesn't convince you, consider that I've been waking up to temperatures of minus twenty (Celsius).

Atomic Art: Joanne is a legend and I wish I was still getting some work done from her. The only consolation: for the price of a large-ish tattoo, you can live in SE Asia for three or four months.

Blossoming Lotus: When I think about the food I miss, their avocado sandwich on whole grain bread comes up first. *Drools*

Belmont Station: A truly impressive collection of great beers. If they allowed international online ordering, I would have spent embarrassing amounts of money on importing IPA's and imperial stouts.

Por Que No? The food and daily drinks are great, but this is one of the only places where I feel the ambiance alone is worth the visit.

Last Thursday: Pure awesome. Urban life at its eclectic best, and one of the reasons that NE Portland has supplanted SE as my favorite part of town.

Wandering and discovering new things. Urban wandering in Korea is still fun, but you come across the same restaurants, shops, and areas that you find everywhere else. I miss wandering and finding something like an interesting new cafe or shop.

Fred Meyers: It surprises me too; Freddies is about as glamorous as finding ecoli in your salad. But it is one place that has many of the comforts of home. Homeplus and Emart are nice, but they don't quite have the same variety (though they crush in the gimchi and dried squid department).

Dec 17, 2009

Chapter Seventeen: Happy Christmas (War is Over)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun

John Lennon, despite getting Christmas and New Year's Eve mixed up, could write some songs. In the battle of best ex-Beatle Christmas anthems, poor Sir Paul could only muster Wonderful Christmas Time. Poor show, Sir Paul.

Christmas is a strange holiday because it sits in the middle. Most holidays, I think, fall into one of two categories.

Some holidays are outstanding when you're a kid You can spend the entire year looking forward to them and when they happen they're the best days of your life. Days like Easter, Groundhog's Day, 4th of July, Arbor Day (who knows why but kids love planting trees), birthdays, and, of course, Christmas.

Other holidays seem unnecessary when you're a kid but you grow to like: Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve, Memorial and Labor Day, MLK Day. Most of these are good because they involve days off from work and heavy eating/drinking.

I can only think of two in the middle: St Patty's and Halloween. It was great to dress in green and pinch the people you liked in elementary school, and it's great as an adult to drink as much Irish Stout as you want. The nature of the holiday has changed, but I think kids and adults like it the same. Substitute booze for candy, and Halloween has the same appeal for all ages--create a clever costume, see your friends, overload on the treat of your choice.

Christmas is definitely more adult friendly than Easter, which becomes mostly useless, but I think it's hard to capture that excitement that children get the night before Christmas. Still, Christmas is great because, no matter your age, you can find something enjoy from it.

Anyway, happy holidays to all who have stopped by. Whatever your reasons for celebrating this year (I always think celebrating Christmas is like celebrating winter, at least in the Northern Hemisphere) I hope you have a merry time of it.

I mentioned last month that I would try to come up with a list of the top 10 movies of this decade. This was a lot harder for me than music--I love music, but I can't go a day without comparing it to some movie or other. And I have shockingly little music aptitude or understanding of the craft, but with movies I at least can approach them with more understanding. I do tend towards a bit of film snobbery, and you won't find some obvious choices on here. The likes of Shrek, Juno, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings, Wall-E, Little Miss Sunshine, Almost Famous, Napoleon Dynamite won't be found here, because I consider them all some form of horrible.. But for fun I've mentioned, where appropriate, the movie that a proper critic would have included instead of my choice.

Honorable mentions: Ghost Dog, The Cuckoo, The Castle, Children of Men, Donnie Darko, Hallam Foe, In Bruges, The Fountain, Coraline, Requiem For a Dream, and Choke.

10. Best in Show
Fans of Waiting for Guffman and This is Spinal Tap were treated to the zenith of the mockumentary, while others were blown away by a simply hilarious movie.
Replaces: Any Judd Apatow comedy.

9. Stardust
This decade was fantastic for the sci-fi genre, and Stardust was, for Neil Gaiman fans, highly anticipated and somewhat overlooked. Amazing scenery, an impressive cast, and a well-written adaptation makes this the representative of the genre.
Replaces: Lord of the Rings.

8. Memento
This movie came out so early in the century that it's hard to remember how incredible it was. The unique structure, however, hasn't been matched since. Nolan of course went on to direct the Batman movies, but the performance he gets here from Guy Pearce is good as anything from Heath Ledger's Malcolm McDowell impersonation.
Replaces: The Dark Knight.

7. Religulous
Bill Maher can come off as a smarmy asshole, but this is one of the few movies that will really important questions. How can a supposedly secular country not bat an eyelash when its president starts a war because "god told him to"? With Larry David directing, though, it's never dull, and perfectly strikes the balance between thought-provoking and entertaining.
Replaces: Fahrenheit 911.

6. Layer Cake
In my opinion, the best British gangster movie of not just the decade but all time. Fans of this film were stoked to see Craig get nominated for Bond; this is one of those immanently quotable re-watchable movies that deserve to be watched by large groups.
Replaces: Snatch

5. Science of Sleep
My favorite of the surreal, mind-blowing films of the decade. Gael Garcia Bernal is slightly off-cast as an unsure Everyman, but he handles it with aplomb. The blurring of reality and fantasy is deftly handled, the supporting cast is great, and Gondry's direction is uniquely brilliant.
Replaces: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

4. Into The Wild
I loved the soundtrack, I loved the movie. It's so hard for a Hollywood production to be truly inspirational, it's amazing when it can actually happen.
Replaces: Broke Back Mountain

3. Shaun of the Dead
This is going to be a controversial statement, but this is hands-down the best rom-zom-com ever made. EVER.
Replaces: Nothing. There's nothing in the same class with it.

2. The Proposition
To me, the greatest western ever made. An amazing cast, a well-written and told story, a superb soundtrack, and a location that oozes off the screen. The advance of dreadful inevitability invokes Euripides and Camus.
Replaces: There Will Be No Country For Old Bloody Men

1. The Fall
Reminiscent of Del Toro or Gilliam at their best, this tale within a tale of a young girl is both highly familiar and unlike anything you've seen before.
Replaces: Pan's Labyrinth.

There you have it. If you haven't seen any of these films, even the Honorable Mentions, consider them to have my highest recommendation. Let me know if you agree/disagree with these choices, your feelings on the Yuletide season, or your Granny's recipes for home-made fudge in the comments please.

Dec 8, 2009

Chapter Sixteen: Ignorance is Bliss

"Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

Keen-eyed viewers will have lately noticed a certain lack of, well, Korean things in this blog. This is mostly because after eight or nine months, life is pretty routine and it's hard to keep saying, "So I saw some funny signs today."

But I realized that I have neglected one of the most amusing aspects of life in Korea. Koreans believe in some funny things. I say this, knowing that I hail from a country that thought not once but twice that having a retarded cowboy manage our lives would be a good idea. So understand that I laugh not at Korea but with it.

* Names. Korea is a literal place. The capital city is Seoul, which translates as "Capital." The river that flows through the city is called the Han, which translates as "Korean." The most popular food here is made of seaweed and rice, and it's called Kimbap. Kimbap literally means, of course, "seaweedrice."

* A fruit by any other name. They think westerners are quite silly in their classification of the tomato as a fruit. Strangely, though, I have not seen a fruit salad here that didn't prominently include tomatoes.

* Why is everyone playing Basketball? I assumed the reasons for this were self-evident. But Koreans start playing at a young age because they believe it will make them taller. They do tend to be quite tall, so maybe there's something to this one.

* Avoid the rain. What you or I might call a drizzle causes Koreans to duck under doorways and brandish umbrellas. The reason: they think that rain causes hair to fall out.

* Japan is evil. Koreans hate the Japanese with surprising ferocity, to the point that they won't eat their version of sushi with soy sauce because the Japanese do. To be fair, Japan was pretty brutal, both historically and in living memory, to Korea. But the children here will "Boo" and be very comfortable when Japan is brought up. North Korea to them, by contrast, is just a funny, "angry" place.

* Eat your fermented cabbage. An apple a day may no longer keep you medically fit, but Koreans have a superfood that will actually prevent swine flu! Kimchi says so right on the package, and it's been presented in the paper, on the news, and, well, everywhere. I never touch the stuff and I caught the swine, so this one might have some merit. One problem: Koreans eat it three times a day and still hundreds of thousands have caught the flue.

* Why was six afraid of seven? They don't know about the Panama canal, and hence lump America into one mega-continent. Why Europe, Asia, and Africa don't get the same treatment is unclear.

* I'm your biggest fan. This one sounds made up, but it's the mother of them all. If you leave your fan on, it will suck all the oxygen out of the room and you will die. This is not urban legend, it is in the news, validated by scientists, and even highly educated people are convinced it's true. Fans here are made with timers so they can shut off automatically and thus save your life.

It makes me wonder what follies we've all swallowed from our own cultures? Surely nothing as blatant as fan death? Would we know it if we did?

Anyway, here's something that my students have been learning recently. Sometimes I feel that teaching them to sing Beatles and quote Bill & Ted might not be of the utmost importance (only sometimes though, don't worry!) but the truth is that their coursebooks are less than useless and so full of errors that they hinder more than help their education.

Nov 15, 2009

Chapter Fifteen: November Rain

And when your fears subside
And shadows still remain, ohhh yeahhh
I know that you can love me
When there's no one left to blame
So never mind the darkness
We still can find a way
'Cause nothin' lasts forever
Even cold November rain

Don't ya think that you need somebody
Don't ya think that you need someone
Everybody needs somebody
You're not the only one
You're not the only one

Autumn officially lasts another month, but winter is coming. Brutally hot as the summer blazed, the winter is not to be outdone. Armed with freezing cold and bolstered by frigid Siberian winds, winter is not worried about living up to its end of the bargain. I walked through a foot of snow yesterday in the mountains a few hours north of here. I like winter a lot. My favorite thing about winter is neither skiing nor eggnog nor Christmas. It's pockets. You put on a sweater and a jacket and suddenly you have pockets coming out of your ears. It's all well-and-good to chuck on a t-shirt and shorts in the summer time, but what about your pocket needs? You really have to look to winter for those. Stuffed with books, mp3 players, snacks, phones, and whatever else you want, it's easier to be prepared in winter.

As of today, I've hit my three-quarters mark here in Korea, which is strange for two reasons. Part of me thinks I've only been here for 9 days, whereas the rest of me is convinced that I've been here for 9 years. I suppose 9 months is a happy medium. It is a bizarre amount of time, though. I have the ennui-laden ambivalence that college kids call senioritis. I feel like I have one foot out the door already, but 3 months is no short time. Sure, in retrospect it will have gone by quickly, but what part of life doesn't, in retrospect?

Like Bilbo Baggins before he gave the ring to Frodo, I am feeling a bit stretched out. A bit weary. Luckily, Rivendell looms in a few short months. and though there be orcs, Nazgul, and forgetful innkeepers opposing me, I'm pretty sure I'll make it. As rewarding as teaching the young kids can be, if I teach again I think I'll go for a slightly older crowd. Like high school students. Or senior citizens.


Do you know what's weird? This decade is almost over. Wha? Y2k was ten years ago! Holy hell, that makes me feel old. And did we ever decide what to call this decade? Aughts? Naughts? I guess it's a moot point now, but here's a more topical question. Do we call 2010-2012 the teens or the pre-teens?

Hmmm. Anyway, in recognition of the decade's closing, I've compiled a baker's dozen of the best albums of the decade. I make no claims about these other than personal preference. If it wasn't already clear, this list reveals that I am not a scenester. This music is all pretty well-known and accessible. I'm also trying to rank these based on how great I thought they were at the peak of their popularity, not how I feel now.

Compiling this was tough. This soon-to-be-gone decade tried to help by completely sucking for the first 2 or 3 years, but the middle years of the decade were not nearly so complacent. I think the 2000's rank with the best of any other time in terms of quality rock.

First the honorable mentions, and there are quite a few. Many of these albums could be in the conversation for best ever, and if you were to tell me one of them was your favorite album, I would perfectly understand. The list includes:

Black Keys: Rubber Factory.
Audioslave: Audioslave.
Battles: Mirrored.
QoSA: Songs for the Deaf.
Killers: Hot Fuss.
Xavier Rudd: Solace/Food in the Belly.
Weezer: Red Album.
Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend.
Pendulum: Hold Your Colour.
Camille: Le Fil.
Bernard Fanning: Tea & Sympathy.
Tegan and Sarah: So Jealous.
Decemberists: Plcaresque.
Snow Patrol: Eyes open.
Arcade Fire: Funeral.
Datarock Datarock.

And now, the top thirteen albums of 2000-2009.

13. Gorrillaz: Demon Days. Albarn at his best and the videos are awesome.

12. Postal Service: Give Up. Such Great Heights might be THE anthem of the decade.

11. Pinback: Summer in Abadon. These guys are just amazing.

10. Red Hot Chili Peppers By the Way. An album that sounds better the more time goes by.

9. Death Cab for Cutie: Plans. Gibbard again. Though fans will claim the earlier albums were better, this is the one that will always remind me of 2006.

8. Into the Wild Soundtrack As good as anything Vedder has ever done.

7. Interpol: Antics. Like their global crime-solving namesakes, there's nothing these guys can't do.

6. Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand. This album restored my faith in music.

5. Modest Mouse: Good News For People Who Love Bad News. One of the rare albums without a bad song.

4. Bloc Party: Silent Alarm. There's never a time I'm not in the mood to listen to this.

3. Kings of Leon: Only by the Night. Good old fashioned rock, at times reminiscent of The Joshua Tree.

2. The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely. After seeing them live, my respect grew exponentially.

1. Wofmother: Wolfmother. Though they split after this album, it was enough. Like the previous two albums on this list, it was a throwback to the 70s and enhanced by blues. I wish I could have seen them live.

Special mention goes to The Knife, one of my favorite bands. But I can't decide between Deep Cuts, Silent Shout, and their self titled album to list just one.

Next month, I'll try to come up with something even more challenging. The top 10 films of the 2000's. And then maybe even the top 10 books too. I like lists.

What bands/albums did I forget? Please comment with thoughts or complaints.

Oct 22, 2009

Chapter Fourteen: This is Halloween

Boys and girls of every age
Wouldn't you like to see something strange?
Come with us and you will see
This, our town of Halloween
This is Halloween, this is Halloween
Pumpkins scream in the dead of night
This is Halloween, everybody make a scene
Trick or treat till the neighbors gonna die of fright
It's our town, everybody scream
In this town of Halloween

Well it's late October now, which is the best time of the year. In Korea they know about Halloween--Korea is one of the rare places not biased against American holidays (even though Halloween derives from the Celtic holiday as we all know). But it's not like you can get the things you need for a costume or party very easily. I'm not complaining; you don't come to Korea for the Halloween parties but I am a little wistful thinking about all the celebrations back home. And I miss things like pumpkin beer, warehouses filled with costumes and props, haunted houses, apple cider, and crisp, colorful leaves.

But I've got Halloween movies, and that's no mean consolation. With that in mind, I've made a list of my seven favorite Halloween programs. What makes for a good Halloween flick, you ask? To me, it can be something as gory as Saw or as tame as the escaped gorilla tormenting Donald Duck and his nephews so long as it captures something about the spirit of Samhain.

7. Night of the Living Dead. This classic is almost Lovecraftian with its applications of creeping dread, and I think it still has a claim as the greatest zombie movie ever made.

6. Simpsons Treehouse of Horror V. Yes, I'm including the Shining spoof but not the Shining. I love Kubrick's flick, but it's just not seasonal enough for me to include on this list. This one is, and you get Homer's time machine toaster and the cannibal cafeteria segments to boot,

5/4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Both Disney's Bing Crosby version and Tim Burton's re-imagining ooze the crispness of autumn and Halloween.

3. Halloween. One of the few "slasher" movies that relies on suspense as much as a high body count. Carpenter's score is legendary, and Donald Pleasance is inspired. Plus, you know, it's called "Halloween" for a reason.

2. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. "I got a rock."

1. The Crow. I'm a dude and thus don't cry at movies, but this one is sad enough without even thinking about the real-life horribleness that accompanied it. More importantly, it's freakin' awesome!

Am I missing anything? Please add others in the comments.

UPDATE: It turns out I was missing one, but that's not to be blamed since it didn't exist a week ago. Presenting the newly created masterpiece: THE GHOUL AND THE GIRL.

That kind of entertainment aside, I've been having a lot of fun on the weekends. The last month or two has included hiking on Bukhansan, a trip to a massive man-made waterfall, two more excursions to Seoraksan, the discovery of a vegan cafe in Seoul, beach camping on an island, a festival featuring the Prodigy and Pendulum, and a ten-day whirlwind visit from my mother. Those who have lived abroad know how nice it is to share the experience with friends and family from back home, and my mom loved Korea. I think that as a tourist destination, it's vastly underrated.

But don't take my word for it. Check out the photographic (if not necessarily photogenic) proof.

This massive structure was built recently as part of an enducement to encourage Koreans to move to the outskirts of Seoul. It would work for me; this area is one of the nicest I've seen in Seoul.

The foliage and mountains of Seoraksan.

Rachel and I visit an Irish pub.

A trip to Loving Hut, a vegan cafe.

My mother and me at Lotte World, an insanely fun theme park.

The views from the highest peak on Deokjeokdo, a nearby island.

Koreans love statues of genitalia, and the wood carvings aren't by any means limited to the male anatomy. Still, these were rather special even by Korean standards.

Sep 9, 2009

Chapter Thirteen: Noraebong and Road Trip Games

I never thought I'd see the day, but I've run out of Seoul/Soul song name puns. Ack! That leaves me at a bit of a loss but fear not ... I'll probably think of something else punny to include sooner rather than later.

Today we take a look at the Top 10 Noraebong songs. I know you've all been desperately curious so it's good that you clicked on the blog today. This list is obviously skewed towards music that I like, but I've found that these go over with a variety of people, including Koreans and other foreigners.

There is a bias towards fast songs, because slow ones simply don't get people involved enough and because it's harder to hide your own crappy singing in slow songs. But perhaps they'll make their own list later.


10. Feel Good,Inc: This is a great song in and of itself, but getting some singing, some rapping, and some harmonizing all in one song makes it a great contribution to the Noraebong night.

9. Buddy Holly: This is a song that everyone knows and it's fun to go "ooh-ooh" along with Rivers.

8. Total Eclipse of the Heart: This song's inclusion is probably self evident.

7. Hey Ya: This is a fun song to sing and includes shout out to the ladies and the fellas. And everyone enjoys shaking it like a Polaroid picture.

6. Tainted Love: The 80's don't have a huge representation in Noraebong, at least not songs in English, but this one is great (though hard to find; not every place has it).

5. Mr. Brightside: (You can substitute "Somebody Told Me," "When We Were Young," or any other Killers song for that matter. They all make great Noraebong fodder.

4. Song #2: Fast, loud, and requires lots of jumping.

3. Bohemian Rhapsody: Wayne's World proved that this was an awesome song to rock out too, and the noraebong just confirms it.

2. Take me Out: With a nice slow intro, a crazy change-up from nowhere, and a chorus that was written to be shouted, this is the song I pick most nights as the grand finale.

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit: This is the song with everything. It had to overcome some difficult competition, but with slow bits, loud parts, jumping parts, passionate parts, and lots of talk about mosquito and libidos this is the number one song in Noraebong.

Honorable mention: Ghostbusters, Living on a Prayer, Betterman, I Want to Know What Love Is.

Wishlist: The Noraebong book is massive and the Korean songs are updated quite frequently. The English part is maybe 1/10 of the book and the newest songs are still 2-3 years old. But if I could request new songs, these would be amongst the leading contenders.

Rooster, It's Tricky, No Rain, Computer Camp Love, Sex on Fire / On Call, Evil, Level, Alive, White Winter Hymnal


A plethora of long trips has caused some new games to be developed. Continuing with the theme, one of the more interesting is called "Name that National Anthem." Somebody names a song, any song, and the others have to pick the country that it should be the national anthem for. You can give any rationale you like, but you are required to justify it. Obviously, once a country has been listed it is off limits for the rest of that game.

Here are some examples. They seem obvious now but naming a random song and hearing an answer you didn't expect is quite hilarious. If you find yourself on a bus or waiting for a train with an hour or three to kill, I recommend trying this out.

[Most of these should be pretty self evident, but feel free to ask a question in the comments if you want to know. ]

Stand by Your Man (Saudi Arabia)

Hey Jealousy (England)

Hello Goodbye (North and South Korea)

Groove is in the Heart (Holland)

Stayin' Alive (Congo)

Sex and Candy (Thailand)

Monster Mash (Scotland)

Baby One More Time (India)

Shut Up (France)

Don't Look Back in Anger (Germany)

Mad World (Madagascar)

Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? (Palestine)

Scar (Cambodia)

Aug 25, 2009

Chapter Twelve: Seoulja Boys and Girls

With my halfway point officially in the rearview mirror, I still have so much to do and see in Seoul and in Korea. Many of my friends are leaving now; their contracts are up. It's weird seeing them leave, as they were the seasoned veterans I relied on both for advice and funny stories. And it's weirder thinking that I'm now where they were when I got here.

I am now the longest tenured teacher at my school--counting the Korean teachers, which is rare. (And a sign of how poorly our school is run.) We now have two teachers doing the work of three, and our boss thinks we are her servants, to the point of commanding us to spend time with her on weekends. It can be unpleasant. The best thing about the job, by far, is the kids. While they still can and do hit, lick, spit, and cry, seeing kids who 6 months ago didn't know their English names ask questions using complete sentences is pretty amazing.

I try to make English as fun as I can, so I have taught them a couple of things not in the course books. (I have spent the last week trying to make a video of this all compiled but Windows Movie Maker has crashed on me every time. So the following videos are raw and uncut, just the way my readers like it.)

The first is a line from Bill and Ted they are learning, the second is part of their Princess Bride education, and in the third they show off their ninja moves.

Aug 5, 2009

Chapter Eleven:: Konichiwa Bitches

Today's (slightly profane) entry is brought to you by that Swedish songstress Robyn.

Hit the gong-gong
Bring the sumos on
I'm 'a kick ass all the way to hongkong
Make the balls bounce like a game of ping-pong
I'm so very hot that when I rob your mansion
You ain't call the cops, you call the firestation

I recently had my first 5 day break in a while, maybe about year. I ended up in the Kyushu region of Japan with my girlfriend Rachel, who is from New Zealand. Japan wasn't my first choice. I was thinking of taking the night ferry to Russia, or hiking in rural China, or possibly camping in Taiwain. But once Rachel pointed out that she had studied Japanese for five years and had heard of a place with "lots of hiking and hot springs" then the choice became obvious. It is only an hour plane ride from Seoul as well, which is amazing since it's a whole 'nother world.

We spent most of our time in Fukuoka, a clean, sleepy city of 3 million. It was amazing how small and green it seemed to us, coming from Seoul. The people were amazingly friendly, with lots of smiles and even drivers would bow their heads to you as you crossed the street. The food was great as well, and there where many parks. I found a vegetarian restaurant and the convenience stores had veggie options--quite an improvement from Seoul where dinners quite often end up being Pringles and Coke. I could have spent a month in the city and not seen it all, but it's a great base for day trips too.

Within a few hours train ride was Mt. Aso (a large active volcano), Beppo (a hot spring loaded tourist town), Nagasaki and Hiroshima (both with acclaimed Peace museums) a Dutch-styled town, and countless beaches, islands, and ancient shrines. Due to a hot tip from a hostel-mate, we spent the equivalent of 70 bucks on a three day train pass, which paid for itself the first day. The volcano was closed (which we found out after we got there) but the train ride was still nice and overall things really couldn't have gone much better. I like Korea a lot, but Japan is an amazing place that compares favorably with anywhere I've ever been.

I've put together a montage with most of the pictures and many of the songs that were running through my head. (They're pretty obvious choices, though). I was hoping to keep this montage a little shorter, but this sort of seems the length it wants to be. It's still under a minute-and-a-half per day, so hopefully it's not too boring.

Jul 7, 2009

Chapter Ten: Seoul Sucking Jerk

Today's blog is brought to you by the legendary Beck.

I got a job making money for the man
throwing chicken in a bucket with a soda pop can
I ain't gonna work for no soul sucking jerk
I'm gonna take it all back and I ain't sayin' jack
I'm standing right here with the beer in my hand
and my mouth is full of sand and I don't understand

I had a strangely vivid dream the other night. I was back in the States, and although I was very excited to find myself there, I realized it was 10:30 pm and everywhere I wanted to see was already closed. In Portland, 10:30 is just a few hours away from last call. In Korea, 10:30 is just about dinner time. Suddenly I really missed Korea.

I never know how to interpret dreams, but this one seems to be quite clear. "Enjoy Korea," it said. Well, okay dream voice. With that instruction in mind, here are several things about Korea that I greatly enjoy.

* Universal phone chargers. Every phone uses the same charger--this means your work place, hotels, cafes, etc all have communal chargers that anyone can use.

* Super duper fast downloading. For those who download, Korea is ridiculous. I've seen it as fast as up to 2 MBs a second. At that rate, you could download a feature-length movie in under a minute.

* 24 hour convenience stores [never more than three minutes away.] They sell snacks, sundries, beers, (and, one time, kittens) and they have tables in front where you can sit outside and eat noodles or drink beer. They also have huge rolls of gimbap (Korea's equivalent of sushi) for one dollar and Korea's answer to inari for 2.50.

* Ding Dong Buttons. Many restaurants and bars have buttons on the table to call your waiter. It never gets old pressing them.

* Altitude. There are mountains to climb everywhere. The views from them are a mashup of hills, granite peaks, skyscrapers, and urban sprawl.

* Hilarious Konglish shirts. This is a post-in-and-of itself. But imagine the funniest sayings you can and then give them worse grammar and spelling than you would think possible. They are always in English; I have never once seen one with Hangol on it.

* Bottles of soju. Soju tastes like nasty vodka and is about half as strong. Why would you drink it? Well it mixes nicely with coke or orange juice. And how much does a 500 ml bottle cost? About a buck.

* Cheap street food. Meals and snacks cost somewhere between 80 cents to 1.50.

* Public Transportation. The subway runs so often that waiting for 5 minutes seems very inconvenient. In addition, subway stations are mini malls with everything from food to clothes to guinea pigs. T-shirts cost as little as 3 bucks. There is one card (or cool device) for phone/subway/taxi. Recharging it is easy as can be.

* Fruit and Veggies. They are for sale everywhere on the back of trucks slowly driving through the neighborhoods.

* No tipping. Enough said.

* AC: The summers here are hot. But who cares? Almost every apartment has air conditioning!

* Noraebong (Korea's version of karaoke) is everywhere. From my co-teachers' apartments, you can see 6 or 7 of them.

* Service (freebies with everything). You never know where or when you are going to get something, let alone what it may be, but it keeps you on your toes. I got a red bean icy last time, which isn't as delicious as it sounds.

* Free bar snacks: This is a good one. You never know what you're going to get, but it's always good. From peanuts to coffee peanuts to buja mix to spicy sesame sticks to fruit loop like balls to wheat rings, bars always serve snacks.

Summing up, many of the great things about Korea fall into one of two categories. Either something is convenient beyond belief (like mini-marts everywhere) or utterly random (like costumed, stilted people in the streets to promote a new business or special sale). Another instance is the Korean word "dong," which can mean "neighborhood" or "poop," depending on how you use it.

UPDATE: July 19th. I forget to include several things in my original list. Oops.

* Green tea flavor: Many things are flavored green tea here, but the best are Hall's cough drops. Maybe not a good enough reason to come to Korea by themselves, but these coughcrops are great.

*Soymilk: Speaking of flavors, I've seen soymilk in varieties such as chestnut, pumpkin, and cereal. (Cereal is sort of wheat flavored and a little strange but not at all unpleasant.)

*Dolsot bibimbap While cultural differences have rendered the vast majority of Korean food inedible to me, this dish is amazing. Rice and veggies and hot sauce sizzling in a hot pot=deliciousness.

*Hair cuts: A haircut here only cost 8 dollars, and includes a head washing and a scalp massage. Just be careful because one barber pole means a barber but two mean a brothel.

*Darts: Most bars have cool dartboards. They are cheap and high tech-- with crazy electronic sound effects and little movies when you get a really good score.

*The term "Assah!" It's usually translated as "awesome" but I think it's closer to "sweet" or maybe "W00t." The kids say it a lot and consequently so do many of the English teachers.

*3D Roller coasters: What do you get when you combine a motion simulator with a 3D Movie? A virtual roller coaster where you can pick settings from the old west to the future to Dinosaurs!


There was a recent article that Koreans think foreigners come here "with fake diplomas to do drugs." This is funny because there are many places where getting drugs can be easier, including our home countries, or Thailand, or almost anywhere else. While this
disapproval is hard to deal with at times, it can be liberating when everyone already doesn't like you. (Koreans on an individual basis can be quite friendly, but using broad brush-strokes they collectively aren't that happy to see foreigners.)

With everyone already thinking you're an idiot, you have carte blanche to do whatever you please. You can make stupid faces for the camera on the subway, pose with statues in crowded places, or just make an ass of yourself whenever you feel like it. The only strange part is that when the occasional other foreigner happens along, it feels extra weird.

Alright, my dream voice is telling me to stop typing and go enjoy Korea some more. Good bye!

Jun 15, 2009

Chapter Nine: (Right About Now) The Funk Seoul Brother

This entry was brought to you by Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim.

I'm coming up on my 4 month anniversary already--1/3 of my time in Korea is over. That's not so long--sort of like pretending turning 25 is a big deal because it's "a quarter of a century." But it's not a small amount of time, either. It's further proof, I suppose, that time really flies regardless of what you have going on in your life. What's strange is I feel like this is my reality, that I've been here forever, but when I look back on my time here I might not even remember the first couple months.

The biggest thing going around recently has been the paranioa about the Pig flu. I've been doing my best to ignore current events and for the most part have done just that. But with alarmed parents phoning in, this one is harder to avoid than, say, the hyserics about North Korea. All foreign teachers at my school have had to get our temperature checked twice now. If we cough or sneeze on the subway or elsewhere in public, we will get glared at (worse than usual) and people may actually move away. Many Koreans think that only foreigners can catch this flu, and they are very suspicious of all of us showing any symptoms of any cold. The irony here is that any sick foreigner here has probably gotten it from working with Korean children, whose idea of hygiene is sucking the snot off their fingers before they rub them on your face and try to put them into your mouth.

My average break at school.

Conditions at the school have been far from ideal, but the more draining the week days, the more I try to do on weekends. In the last few weeks, I've been to Suwon (again), Lotte World (a Korean version of Disney Land), a zoo (called Zoo Zoo) Seoul Grand Park (self-explanatory), up Bukhansan, and ascended the Seoul Tower. This is in addition to patronizing places like various Wa Bars (a western style bar), various Garten Biers (Korea's version of German bars), and several Noraebongs until the wee hours of the morning.

The Teddy Bear museum at the top of Seoul Tower.

Panda Bear ride at Lotte World.

The Legend of "Sindbad" ride.

And continuing the recent trend of videos, here is proof that I am not, in fact, faster than water:

May 18, 2009

Chapter Eight: Seoul to Squeeze

This chapter was brought to you by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Obviously.)

Where I go I just don't know
I got to got to gotta take it slow.
When I find my piece of mind
I'm gonna give you some of my good time.

Everything has been going very well here in the Land of Morning Calm. One-quarter of my time here is up, which is surprising. I have more or less put learning Korean on the backburner--the awareness that learning the alphabet (already somewhat difficult for me) was a small beans compared to accumulating a Korean vocabulary sort of took the wind out of my sails. If I was going to stay for another year there would be no excuse (there's really no excuse now, apart from laziness) and in truth I would strongly consider staying in Korea for another year if there weren't so much of the world left to see. But apart from that, I am set up now: cell phone, bank account, debit card. I know good restaurants in a couple different parts of town, really enjoy Korean bar snacks, don't think twice anymore at having my choice of beer be virtually indistinguishable lager, and don't even notice people staring much anymore.

School is going well, for the most part. There are still hiccups, mostly caused by my own poor decisions. But almost every class I have the kids are showing some real improvement. There are two kids who started off as hideous troublemakers both of whom are highly intelligent and starting to get plugged in and it's pretty awesome.

I've named a few more kids, some inadvertently. In my kindergarten, Rex is now "T-Rex," which took no great stretch of imagination. But I learned he asked his mom to start calling him that, since it was the nickname I gave him, which was cute. In my other kindergarten, another kid who always had a Korean name has, due to prolonged exposure to my geekiness and coloring book choices, now chosen his official English name: Ice Dragon.

Another kid in my afternoon class asked for an English name of a monster, but I was warned that his parents wouldn't appreciate anything too crazy. And so was Je-beoum dubbed "Jaguar;" he seems pretty happy about it.

The key to teaching seems to be simple: treating the kids like human beings. Sure they're little kids and still maturing and learning, but as long as they're treated fairly and consistently they can pretty much deal with any terms or rules put upon them.

One thing at Isponge that I would like to share is how horrible the stories are that we subject to the kids. Stories we all grew up knowing: Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, The Hare and the Tortoise, The Three Billy Goats' Gruff, and The Goose that Laid the Golden Age are all butchered almost beyond recognition. Incorrect grammar, confusing illustrations, bad voice acting on the CD, and confusing word choices all combine to create something so different from the original that I am surprised the kids even like it.

It was hard to choose one for an example, because they're all so epically, tragically bad. But I went with this one because it's pretty bad and also I taught it today so it's fresh in my mind.


Last Friday was Teacher's Day. This is a day that parents and students make a point of thanking the teachers and provide various gifts. I enjoyed mine, and got two roses, some soap, socks, and a Padres hat. It is always nice for people to make a point of being thankful. And I'm really appreciative of it. But from talking to other teachers, I realized it could have been even grander. Some got wine, others got pizzas delivered to them. Some teachers got gift vouchers as good as cash--one person got 200 bucks worth!

Apart from school, I've been exploring Seoul and Korea to the best of my ability on the weekends. I'm gone down to Suwon and up to Ilsan, both very nice places on the northern and southern edges of Seoul, respectively.

I climbed a small mountain in my neighborhood, another called Cheonggyesan and one hill/mountain near Bukhansan. Best of all was an escape from Seoul to the fishing village of Sokcho and Seoraksan mountain in the north part of South Korea. This is the part of the blog where I try to let the pictures live up to their reputation as word-beaters, so without further ado...

Possibly one of the more puzzling signs I've seen. Who needs a toilet when they're hiking?

Sunset in the 'Gu.

A cool farmer's market at Cheonggyesan with loads of veggies.

The castle walls ...

...and the Dragon Train in Suwon.

And a handful from Seoraksan below.

As always, any acclaim or disdain is welcome. Please share your thoughts in the comments. Until next time....

Apr 23, 2009

Chapter Seven: Seoul Kitchen

This blog entry is sponsored by The Doors.

Well, the clock says its time to close now
I guess I'd better go now
I'd really like to stay here all night
The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights share their hollow glow

My blog posts, never frequent, have slowed down a bit. I think it's because my life here has gotten somewhat settled down. 5 days of teaching; 2 days of exploration or visiting Hongdae. Some of the initial "wow" factor has worn off and I am getting used to the routine. But it's not boring by any means. I am really enjoying living in Seoul; it is a dynamic city with just about anything possible to do at any hour.

But I recently got of out Seoul and it was a welcome change. Korea is a beautiful city with rolling green hills and verdant forests. I went with a company called Adventure Korea and overall enjoyed it. Normally I am not one for tour groups, but in a country where I don't speak the language it changes things a little bit. Though there were over 40 people on the bus, most of them were pretty cool. I think every one of us was an English teacher and we enjoyed exchanging war stories with one another.

One of my more questionable decisions was accepting a bet for 3,000 won (less than 3 USD) to eat a bunch of garlic. If that seems a trifling sum, don't worry, I never got any money at all. It was all recorded here for posterity. Note that I tried to play it off like it was no big deal, but I might not have been that convincing. (The garlic taste lasted for ever too. The strawberries I picked the next day tasted strongly of it).

The best part of the trip was the late-night encounter with the Korean busissmen. I don't have the words to describe what this was like, but it involved Beatles songs, Waltzing Matilda, soju, plum wine, sand soccer, and a whole lot of broken Konglish. Amazing. This picture in no ways sums it up but it's the best that I've got.

I don't know if I'll do another tour with them. The entire tour cost almost 100,000 won (roughly 100 USD) which was probably 2-3 times what it would have cost to do it by oneself. But it is a good way to meet people, and it's nice not to have to navigate by yourself blindly. But enough talking and on with some pictures.

The village at Gayasan.

I really like this, but it was 17,000 won.

A view of Haeinsa temple.

I still haven't gotten tired of the funny translations here.

A cool boat at the Daegaya Kingdom festival. We even got to see a pirates vs. soldiers acquatic battle.

One of many cool and refreshing fountains.

A couple of other things to mention.

My English language skills are really detoriating. Last weekend, talking amongst my friends, I spoke like the sheep in animal farm : "Two good, three bad." It's alarming that I haven't been here that long and my brain has ceased to function this much already.

Another thing about Seoul that I find odd is the smell of the subway. I've never lived in New York or London, cities famous for their subways, but they are usually considered somewhat vile, unclean, and rank . Seoul itself is a putrid smelling city, but the subways are clean! And due to the food carts that cook waffles and other cinnamon treats, they are the best smelling part of the city too. Weird. Or, as one of my friends says when things in Korea are strange, "Shuflne."

Apr 12, 2009

Interlude: Birthday

I now present the video that was banned on facebook. (Due to some sort of licensing issues--which I don't really understand. It's not like I'm making money from using this song.) But I digress.

Warning: This montage contains some not so flattering pictures of all of us. Drinking from 9 pm to 6 am is not, as you might otherwise have believed, an entirely good idea. I, for one, get a hangover just trying to remember that night.

For the record, I had an amazing birthday. It was a day filled with so much fun and good will. But for whatever reason, the vast majority of these pictures are from the 2 hour marathon noraebong session late that night.

For those who weren't able to be there, or for those who were there but have fuzzy memories, I present the birthday montage.

Apr 5, 2009

Chapter 6: Mr. Seoul

This week's title is brought to you by Buffalo Springfield, of "For What It's Worth" and "Bluebird" fame.

This video should provide a little insight into what it's like to teach at our school. It was slightly worse because they saw my camera, but you cannot keep these kids in their chairs. They are wild. In a given week, you will be punched, kicked, bitten, pinched, drooled on, spat on, sneezed on, have your "junk" grabbed, and a korean specialty of two hands put together and shoved up your butt.

And the kids are the good part of the job!

It's really hard to have perspective on what's normal, not having seen any other schools, but from talking to other teachers this is pretty much how it goes. Despite their abundance of energy, most of the kids do make an effort to learn, and they really do soak up English at an amazing rate. And once you get used to being a combination punching bag/jungle gym for them, it's not so bad.

Far more challenging is dealing with what the director wants, and the system of the hagwon. Most frustrating is the expectation to always know what to do, even if it's come up before. In most jobs, intuition and common sense can serve as a good substitute for training, but those won't get you very far in Korea. You have to leave those at the door and just do as told.

My classload looks like this: On MWF, I teach 9 classes. On TTH I teach 8. I have a total of 22 books I use, and a total of 40 minutes a day to plan for these classes. Unfortunately, we cannot even use this time soley for planning as we have weekly and monthly reports that take up a lot of time. I don't mind reports, but these are us just typing the same thing in the book over and over again. If it were streamlined, we could just click a button and be done. But ... it's Korea.

So there isn't much time for planning. A lot of planning is necessary since the way the lessons break down the official curriculum can last less than three minutes. See below:

My actual curriculum for a 40 minute class. It doesn't last long. We play a lot of Hangman. And now Tic Tac Toe as well.

Another thing I wish I had known is that when your contract is for 12o hours a month (30 hours a week, sweet!) that means actual teaching hours. We have to be at school for 45 hours a week, minimum, and we have to mandatorily spend our lunches and breaks with the kids, but only at half pay since we're not "teaching." I think that's the Korean way, and it's not the end of the world, but it is drastically different than my expectations and maybe even how the recruiter presented it to me.

An even more significant challenge is teaching the different age groups. One group of kids, I can spend 40 minutes trying to teach them the phonics of the letter B and how to write it in upper and lower case. And it might take 2 or 3 classes before they start to mutter along with me.

My oldest group of kids, on the other hand, I get to explain things like reflexive pronouns and subject verb agreement. The thing is, they don't know terms like "verb" or "article" so how I am supposed to do that is currently beyond me.

As always, any comments, suggestions, or queries are welcome.

Mar 25, 2009

Chapter Five: Seoul Coughing

I don't mean to walk around in circles, walk around in circles.

I don't mean to make a habit of listing semi-obscure 90's bands and then the only part of their lyrics I can remember, but this time it's quite relevant.

This week I had my first urban escape and went into the mountains. It was awesome; my new favorite part of Korea.

Planning a hike was as easy as googling "hikes in seoul" and picking the first one on what was supposed to be a wet, rainy day.

Or was it?

The website (which it turns out had been lifted verbatim from Lonely Planet) read:
"Take subway line 5 to Gwanghwamun station, take exit number 1. Walk around to the front of Sejong Cultural center and get on bus 156. Tell the driver ‘Bukhansan’. The trip takes about 35 minutes and puts you at the western edge of the park. Usually there will be other hikers. Follow them as they walk to the end of the little village, turn right and walk to the ticket booth. Admission is 1300W and the ticket booths sell maps"

Technically that was close to entirely wrong. The directions got the subway number and stop right. But not only is there no exit number 1, there is no bus 156. (Also there were neither admission fees nor maps.) The truth of the matter is that if you take exit 2 and get on bus 0212, then about 15 minutes later you'd be in the village.

However, being rather naive and trusting, I did not suspect the blatant myths and lies in the directions. Not having any way to learn the truth other than by walking around and around in circles, that's what happened. For just over an hour. But I learned that Gwanghwamun is renovating and making a square of some sort, and there is a big museum there that looks like the acropylis, and we found a huge bookstore that I've always wondered where it was. So it wasn't a loss.

I'll mostly let the pictures speak for themselves. Remember that this is actually within the city limits of one of the largest cities in the world.

Koreans call hiking "mountain climbing." This is not entirely bragging as they don't believe in switchbacks and their paths are more rock than trail.

Good views of the area.

The views of the mountain were amazing. Some of the old ruins were several hundred years old. The King lived up here during a japanese invasion and brought hundreds of concubines. He left his wife and family and duties behind; the story goes that even after it was safe, he refused to leave.

The hike, about 12K, featured several natural walkways.

Thousands of Koreans hike the mountain every weekend. Many really appreciate seeing foreigners who choose to hike with them.

One of the many interesting rock formations.

A view from the temple.

And a view of the temple.

A super nice house in the mountain village. The village felt different than other parts of Seoul I've seen, with outdoor shops, open air restaurants, and a vibe more reminscent of a resort town than Seoul.

One of many large ravens flying around the mountains. I spotted a chipmunk with a big nut in its mouth as well.

This picture just makes me laugh.

Other than that, everything has been going well. I'm getting used to my classes, I should be getting a phone, a bank account, and my alien card soon. Best of all, my birthday is coming up so it's a safe bet that there will be fun times in Hongdae.

Mar 16, 2009

Chapter Four: De La Seoul

I had my first staff dinner recently. Unbeknownst to me, it was a night of impending hedonism. All three foreign teachers, three of the four Korean teachers, both of the administrators, and the Director and her husband went to a meat restaurant. You can grill your own meat (or in my case mushrooms) and this being Korea there were numerous sidedishes. A lot of food was eaten. I repeat: A lot of food. Was eaten.

Three tables and still more food than room.

This being Korea, there was numerous beer and soju right off the bat as well. Soju isn't that strong, but it smells like really cheap vodka. I have had bad experiences with cheap vodka the world over, from Subway West End in Edinburgh to Doc's Pad in Eugene. So I find it a little rough, but it's not that bad.

We were at the restaurant for a few hours before most of us mosied over to a nearby hof. I think I've mentioned hofs before, but they are basically pubs. The major difference is that you need to order food when you're here. Even if you've just come from a three-hour dinner. We went through a couple massive pitchers of beer. I think we figured out that they were 4 liters each, and we went through 4 of them.

Katie's brain is boggled by the bigness of the beer.

Chloe shows the proper pouring skills...

... and how buffed she's gotten from pouring said large pitchers of beer.

After a few hours at the hof, a few of us made our way over to a noribang (Korean Karaoke place). I had been to one before just last weekend, but this one was much nicer. It had a large drum, maracas, a stage for dancing, and a great view of the city from the 5th floor. After drinking for something like 6 hours straight even I was ready for singing and we all had a good time. Highlights included Hotel California, Sex Bomb, and some sad Korean ballads.

Everything I know about drumming comes from watching the Muppets.

These song books have hundreds of pages.

Singing AND drumming takes real dedication.

So does maracka-ing and drumming.

That same weekend, I went out and explored the city. I spent most of my time at Gyeongbokgung, an amazing, sprawling palace. It had rivers, ponds, pagodas, statues and so much more. All for only 3000 won (under 2.00 USD). Also, in 2009 all museums are free in Korea so in the palace area there were two big museums I checked out as well.

The mountain looms in the distance.

The queen's pagoda.

The King's Pagoda.

The snobbiest statue I've ever seen. He's apparently from Apgujeong.

Some art in a museum.

I ended up meeting with fellow blogger Brandy of Life is A Highway fame for dinner at my favorite Indian/Nepalese/Tibetan Restaurant. I had a delicious rice dish with cashews and coconuts.

All this, and I haven't even gotten to the best part of my weekend yet. I was aimlessly wandering around, trying to find how to walk from Hongik University to Sinchon when I ran across the first book store I've ever seen here. They had one book in English in the bargain books outside the store. It was a book that I had to buy. At only 2000 won (maybe 1.50 USD) it wasn't even a choice. I've read it cover to cover twice now.

Recently I witnessed something strange. While walking to the bank, I realized something very unusual was going on. Not a single car was moving. This would be weird anywhere, but in Seoul, where red lights are generally considered an optional suggestion, it was like seeing a green sun in the sky. An alarm was blowing in the distance. And there was a small army of middle aged Korean people dressed in yellow on the sidewalks and in the streets.

What was going on?

Was Japan trying to reconquer Korea?

Where the North Koreans invading?

Had aliens made their first contact with the human race?

As you've probably guessed by the fact that I lived to type this, it was a drill. Of the "prepare for invasion from North Korea" variety. I'm not sure the exact defensive worth of stopping traffic and having people in yellow jackets run around and stand in the street...but it was very efficiently done. And for Korea, that's nearly a victory in itself.