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Hostel Takeover

Dated:  February 10, 2011

Okay.  I’m feeling pretty decent again for the first time in almost a week, so I thought I’d finally start talking up my recent trip to the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia (and six hours in China).  With regard to my sickness, my fever is back down to normal and my appetite is gradually starting to return after one of the worst sinus infections I’ve ever had, but at least I lost about 7 or 8 pounds as a result of having the damn thing.  I guess it’s not all bad. 

So, for this first entry, I wanted to start by just critiquing each of the three hostels we enjoyed in Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, which I was going to abbreviate “PMS” to save time, but that suddenly seems like a poor decision.  I don’t have a lot of complaints about the hostels.  Each of them is very highly rated and, I believe, had the highest rating on HostelWorld for their respective countries.  So I’ll start with the beginning of our trip and work my to Singapore and Malaysia from there.

OUR MELTING POT (Manila)

In the Philippines, we stayed at Our Melting Pot in Makati City, Manila in the Philippines.  It’s not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue.  Maybe they couldn’t use “The Melting Pot” because of legal reasons, as it would then share a name with that horribly overpriced chain of fondue restaurants.  Anyway, I usually start with the weaknesses of a place so that I can exit with the more positive things that I enjoyed, but for this place I really want to flip that around and say that “Our Melting Pot” is one of the most professional, clean, and enjoyable places to stay you’re likely to find as a backpacker in Manila.  Also, breakfast rules.

The people who operate the hostel speak great English and I can’t compliment them enough on the way they do business.  They are extremely knowledgeable about the area and, indeed, all the Philippines for that matter, and they are also relentlessly passionate about what they do and about helping travelers who stay with them.  I cannot recommend enough getting to know them and talking to them as it could pay big dividends if you want to have a unique experience in and around Manila.  Many backpackers, for example, like to make the one-day pilgrimage to Taal Volcano close to Tagatay and the hostel actually helped us get our own driver and a nice air-conditioned car there and back for only about $17 a piece (there were two of us).  Trust me, I would have paid double for that kind of convenience.  They also know the best places to eat and the places to just have a good time if you’re going to be around Manila for a few days.

The only negative things I have to say don’t really pertain to the hostel directly, but indirectly.  At the moment, there is a building being constructed literally only a few yards away from the eighteenth floor of the A.Venue Suites building where Our Melting Pot is housed.  The construction is currently about sixteen floors high and will obviously only be going up for the next couple of months, I presume, so the noise can get a bit intense in the morning so, if you’re planning to sleep in, good luck.  Also, and more importantly, the hostel isn’t in a great location.  I’d qualify that by saying that it IS close to the most amazing mall I’ve ever seen (Greenbelt, which is about one mile away), but it isn’t close to Roxas Boulevard and the areas along Makati Street leading to the hostel can be kinda sketchy at night, full of peddlers, begging children who can get really pushy, and (unfortunately) a prostitute or two.  I’m not saying it’s dangerous, because it really doesn’t have that kind of vibe; it’s just kind of seedy.

CITY CENTER BACKPACKER’S HOSTEL (Singapore)

CCBH is an extremely new hostel but another great example of how I think every backpacker hopes his or her hostel experience will be.  Opened in January, the owners are clearly still kind of perfecting their craft, but the young Indian man in charge makes up for it with incredible kindness and hospitality.  We were only there for a night, so he didn’t have the chance to impress me to the degree that the people at Our Melting Pot did, but the place was spotless, the beds were comfortable, and the bathrooms were adequate, and in Asia, that’s really all you can ask for.  Any place that has a guitar on hand for guests is also going to earn points in my book.

Another positive that I would highlight would be its location, which is fantastic for Singapore.  You’re within walking distance of everything and boy, did we walk.  It’s also in what appeared to be a fairly quiet part of the city, located on the outskirts of China Town on Hong Kong Street.  However, we were there on Chinese New Years Eve so I was awoken (and terrified) by unexpected fireworks at midnight that were launched from China Town so, yeah, they literally rattled the whole row of buildings to which we were attached.

Negatives?  I’m not too picky, but after being spoiled by the hostel in the Philippines, there were definitely some things I immediately missed.  For example, the beds at Our Melting Pot have these cheap little curtains around every bed that affords some privacy.  These things are great for numerous reasons as they let you sleep without feeling like someone else in the room is staring right at you and you can leave clothes on your bed to dry during the day without leaving them out in the open where they might catch someone’s attention.  Not to mention, curtains tend to make people act a little more quietly and a little more respectfully when in the room because you never know if someone might be on the other side.  So, yes, I love curtains.  The bathrooms could also have been a little better, but they’re perfectly fine for a short stay like ours’ and clean enough.  Oh, and of course some Americans are going to complain about the 67 stairs leading from the street up to the hostel, with no elevator. 

Haters gonna hate, I guess.

THE RED PALM (Kuala Lumpur)

I hate to be instantly critical of a place, but this was a pretty big disappointment for me.  That said, the people who operate the hostel can’t really be blamed for most of the problems I had.  For the most part, I think you’re just dealing with Kuala Lumpur and its distinction from other places we visited.  I would also say that the Red Palm was at a disadvantage in being the third and final place we visited after what had already amounted to six tiring days of long travels and frustrations associated with such a trip, so I’ll give them some bonus points for just taking us in. 

That said, I’ll tick off the things I didn’t like about the place.  Considering that the place has won awards for being the best hostel in Malaysia and 3rd in Asia, there were a lot of things about the Red Palm that surprised me.  I don’t want to use words like “frustrated” or “irritated” because they’re very negative and running a hostel is hard work and I don’t want to slight the very real efforts of the people who run the place. 

However, the water pressure was virtually non-existent in the bathrooms, meaning that every girl who took a shower took about 30 minutes.  Accordingly, the upstairs bathroom was almost never open the whole time we were there (3 days).  And the downstairs toilet could only be flushed roughly every 15-20 minutes, which seemed to bewilder a lot of the visitors there.  As my companion pointed out on the trip, a hostel like this really should make it more clear, also, that they have cats as there are some people who have very extreme cat allergies.  Keep in mind, I’m a cat guy to the hilt.  I love my kitties, but if you’re running a professional business, it’s usually a good idea to make clients aware that they have animals in their facilities that could potentially kill them before taking their money.  Finally, the rooms upstairs do not really have ceilings so much as sheets or tapestries strewn across the walls, which means that all noise from other rooms bleeds across.  One jerk on our third morning in Malaysia let his alarm clock go off for about five minutes on the other side of the wall to our room and it might as well have been at the foot of our bed.

A final note that I would make is, compared to the people we met at CCBH and Our Melting Pot, a few of the workers at Red Palm seemed kind of cold to me.  I’m not going to judge them for this, though, because I would imagine that operating a hostel literally sucks the life out of you over time and the Red Palm has been going strong for several years now.  I can’t imagine what kind of snobs and pretentious douches they probably run into on a weekly basis as during our 9 days touring Asia we encountered absolutely some of the rudest, most obnoxious people I could possibly imagine.  I tip my hat to anyone to runs a good hostel and keeps good spirit.

On the bright side, you absolutely can’t beat the Red Palm’s location.  It is very centrally located and it’s no more than 20 or 30 steps from a KL City Tour stop where you can buy a $15 24-hour double-decker tour bus pass that allows you to jump on and off at all of the city’s major tourist sites.  It’s definitely worth it.  You’re also within easy walking distance of KL Tower, the malls, tons of great, friendly bars, and of course the Petronas Towers.  I also need to mention that one of the employees at the Red Palm absolutely came through for us when he let us enjoy some of his vast DVD collection while we waited for our flight back to Incheon that left at 2 o’clock in the morning.  Most of the movies didn’t work, of course, but we did watch “Old School” and “Monster’s Inc” (there’s nothing odd about that combination) and I could not have been happier to call that an evening.

So, like I said.  No BAD experiences at all, but there was some disappointment.  Our Melting Pot was my favorite but I would happily recommend any of the three to backpackers looking to experience the beauty of the Philippines, Singapore, or Malaysia.  The Red Palm and OMP had pretty diverse crowds while we were there, and there is a good reason why those two hostels attract such unique travelers from around the room.  They have developed reputations founded on the way they do business and their enthusiasm for helping introduce their respective countries to international travelers. 

To anyone looking for affordable lodging in the aforementioned countries, any of these hostels is a great place to start.

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Blogging…Against All Odds

Dated:  February 8, 2011

Well, I’m finally back at the blogging this week here in Korea.  I know I haven’t been as dedicated to the page recently as I had been several months ago but there really just wasn’t much happening in January aside from the usual apartment troubles.  I’m going to try to use the 13 days between my return from the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia and my departure to Cambodia with my folks to blog it up about my Southeast Asia adventure, but in the meantime, I just want to touch basis with everything in general.

So, I returned from Malaysia and was promptly greeted with what I’m guessing is a really terrible sinus infection.  On Monday I had a 104-degree fever and had to go to the hospital.  I’ve had the shakes like crazy and my head feels like it’s rocking at the bottom of the local swimming pool.  My left ear is so congested that I still haven’t been able to work out the pressure from the flight back to Incheon and I’m practically deaf in it, but the doctor has informed me that there does not appear to be any damage to it, luckily.  The fever has since broken but I still feel dizzy and nauseous most of the time right now.

But I will force myself to be healthy by next Saturday.  This, I promise.

So as soon as I’m feeling 100% I’ll try to blog away about all things related to my trip to the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia, starting with my experiences at the hostels.  Then I’ll probably highlight our food experiences and later get into the more touristy stuff.  I’ll also devote an entry to exploring simply the atmosphere of Manila vs. Singapore vs. Kuala Lumpur.  I’m not sure I could conceive of three more distinctly different cities in such (relatively) close proximity to each other and if the trip accomplished one thing, I feel it was to truly capture the vast diversity of this great continent. 

East Asia is probably the most diverse region on the planet and the culture shock was pretty jarring in Manila after being in Korea for six months.  Filipinos probably give you funnier looks than Americans when you go around bowing to them.  More on that later.

In the meantime, I think I might finally be on the mend with regard to my illness.  I think I’ll be feeling great as soon as I can unplug my ear.  I feel like once I can yank out the stopper, the headache and everything else that hurts will just drain out of me.

5 Months

It’s hard to believe that yesterday marked my 5-month anniversary in Korea.  It only feels like I’ve been here for an eternity until I think back to that first few weeks here.  The details are still so vivid in my mind.  Time hasn’t even had enough of a chance to distort my memories and exaggerate my stories.  My hand still hurts from the time I tried to jump over a tree after that first night of trying soju.  Yeah, I might have forgotten about that for a little while, but the scar on my hand will remind me at least until I go home.

Five months feels like sort of a conquered hurdle for me.  When I first arrived I remember meeting some people who had been here for five months.  Those people were veterans in my eyes.  They had been here for a span of time that seemed almost impossible in my young eyes.  Now I’ve crossed that threshold myself and the veterans are only a month or two shy of heading home.  That’s a lot to take in.  For the next month, I will be traveling half of Asia.  After that, my beautiful girlfriend will be paying me a visit for nearly three weeks that are bound to go by far too quickly.  On the other side of her visit, I’ll be only five months shy of going home.  Less, actually.

In other words, I’m only one more school semester away from going back to the states.  I’m only fifteen weeks of crossword puzzles, phonics games, textbook conversations, and tutoring lessons away leaving Korea behind, but now feels like a good chance to reevaluate everything and make sure I’m getting the most out of my Korean experience.  I don’t mean to be counting down the weeks already, but it’s hard not to.  I’m so eager to go home now and see how much my perspective has changed.  Will the old things still frustrate me or will they feel as foreign now as kimchi was in August?

I have no way of knowing.

Five months is two months longer than I spent studying in England with Centre.  That’s kind of an eye-opener.  That felt like such a long time in 2006.  THREE MONTHS.  Now I’m rapidly approaching half a year away from home and I know that I’m not done with this place yet, nor is it done with me.  I still have so much left that I set out to accomplish in Korea.  So many boxes left unchecked on my Korean bucket list.  I hold myself accountable for anything left unmarked—any road left untraveled.  But I’m also saving so much for the spring.  When the weather warms up, I’m hoping to do everything I can to make the time pass all the more quickly in Korea and feel that I have truly done justice to my time here.

I don’t see a need to belabor the point with this entry.  To summarize, five months is a time for introspection and reflection and it’s nice to remind myself of what brought me here in the first place.  In the meantime, I’ve now reached the perfect place in my year abroad to begin planning for the next year—the return.  How can I make it better than the year before I came to Korea?  Now that I’ve spent this time alone abroad, how have I changed and how have I truly bettered myself?  I refuse to let myself or anyone believe that I am worse off for having embarked upon this adventure, but how do I prove it?

A happy life is awaiting me in the U.S.A.  The pieces are aligning and I can see them, even from across the ocean that divides us.  Job prospects, an apartment with Nina, closeness to friends and family…These are the things that will make me happy in the second half of 2011.  And if Korea is the avenue that leads me to these things, well then I may have taken the long way to get there, but I can safely say that I ended up exactly where I wanted to go.

Apartment Woes: Part 2

I know I’ve already touched upon my apartment situation in prior blogs and God knows I’ve complained enough about my situation on Facebook.  But my predicament does bring up a few interesting (if however frustrating) points about the EPIK program that might be useful to anyone who happens across my blog while in the process of considering teaching in Korea as an employment option. 

To that end, I would say that there are plenty of people who have written scathing blogs about their experience here and often their complaints ring untrue of many other parts of Korea.  Indeed, many of the people who complain the most were recruited independently by hagwons (private schools) and got what they had coming to them in a sort of way.  Independent recruiting is almost like a black market for educators and in the worst situations it came be damn near to human trafficking, except instead of dealing in sex they’re dealing in English teaching. 

That has not been my experience in Korea.  But I also want to say that the EPIK/GEPIK program is far from a perfect apparatus.  Indeed, its merits have proven so questionable in my province that rumors run rampant of cancelling it altogether.  At my second orientation, we were instructed to refrain from posting absolutely ANYTHING negative about the program on our blogs because of how hard Korea has worked to make this program successful.  The comment rubbed me the wrong way and, indeed, I have ignored it completely.  A government-run program with numerous examples of shortsightedness and general incompetence deeply embedded into its bureaucracy refusing to take practical and pointed criticism from those it employs?  Man, I thought I was back in the states for a moment. 

No, if EPIK/GEPIK ever hopes to achieve its lofty goals, then it needs to learn how to take some criticism.  I’m not encouraging bloggers to post some of the heated, hateful, and ambiguous rants that I have read during my time here, but I will always dedicate my blog to pointing out problems with the system, and that is what I have been building to in this entry.  Yeah, sorry I took the long way to get to my point, but here I am, so won’t we continue?

From pretty much Week 1 in Korea, I have had problems with the apartment provided to me by my school.  I’ve dealt with ant infestations, mosquitoes, mildew and mold (that left me with a very serious cough for about two weeks), a broken boiler that put out no heat for most of October, exploding ceiling lamps (I’m not exaggerating), and of course shower and sewage backing up onto my bathroom floor because of abundant problems with the building’s pipes and drainage system.  In the course of dealing with these problems, I have never felt that the school did not have my interests at heart.  I have always known that the people at my school, including my principal, vice principal, and teachers, who have never shown me anything but the utmost kindness and generosity, are sympathetic and even embarrassed by the problems I have experienced this winter.

But now I am in a very unfortunate catch-22.  Okay, not exactly a catch-22.  More of a deadlock, I guess.  I am in a situation where the two primary parties involved with the apartment situation, namely my landlady and the school, are both aware that my apartment (in layman’s terms) sucks ass hard.  Cold weather means busted pipes and sewage on the floor.  Warm weather means ants eating my foot and mosquitoes eating Sean.  My landlady, however, is refusing to pay for the proper repairs to the building and my school is complaining that they cannot afford to pay for the repairs either, which leaves me royally screwed. 

Given my situation, the first thing that many people propose to me is to threaten to leave Korea.  That’s an empty threat.  If I leave before February 27th (The halfway point on my one-year contract) I am obligated to reimburse the school the money they gave me for the plane ticket to Korea.  If I refuse to pay the money back, then I risk being denied entry into Korea in the future.  That’s all pretty grim talk, of course, considering my special circumstances, but I’m being put in a corner where my contract is essentially useless and I’m not even sure where my rights exist.  There is no writing in the contract (not in English anyway) that requires the school furnish me with an inhabitable apartment.  There is no writing in the contract that prohibits the school from putting me in a place where I am ankle deep in my own waste.  There is no dialogue at all stating what actions I can take if I am not provided with a suitable place to live.

As a result, my school is sitting on its hands right now because they don’t want to opt out of the contract they have with my landlady.  They don’t want to pay what it will cost to move me to a new apartment (which, by the way, my contract seems to imply that I am responsible for paying all costs related to such a move in ALL circumstances).  And the only alternative they have suggested so far is to move me to the teacher’s dorm again and place me in a room that lacks half of the stuff to which my contract says I am entitled, including a desk, a bed, and a sofa.  Oh, but thank God it has two televisions so that I can watch twice as many Korean dramas that I don’t understand.  Maybe if I’m lucky they’ll show “Home Alone 3” for the twentieth freaking time.

So, yeah.  On any given day, my apartment could be basically uninhabitable but money is the issue.  If I stay here, I get to be stuck in the middle of an ongoing blame game between my school and the landlady as both try to squeeze money out of each other (money that the other party, admittedly, does probably not have).  If I quit and return to America, I’m screwing myself.  I’ll be coming home with about $2,000 and I’m gonna miss out on going to Cambodia with my parents and spending March with my wonderful girlfriend.  Yes, Korea loves foreigners and is wants to do everything possible to make us happy, but there is a risk that we will place you in the worst apartment in the neighborhood, act baffled every time something goes wrong with it, and shrug our shoulders while we all realize that your contract did not actually provide you with any rights to defend yourself in case something like this should happen.

I would like to get in touch with the people at GEPIK and voice my concerns, but would they really care?  Rumor has it that they’re not planning on replacing me anyway as the program is considering giving up on forcing the students in my town to learn English.  If I threaten to quit, aren’t they just going to high five each other and look at it as saving $14,000.  Aren’t they just going to point out all the places in my contract that absolve them from any accountability? 

Yeah, there’s no doubt about it.  Korea sure knows how to make an American feel at home sometimes. 

The point is, I’m tired of hearing about how sorry and embarrassed the people at my school are.  I’m tired of hearing them ask me to give the landlady and the apartment a second chance when I have already compiled a list of problems with the apartment that runs two to three pages deep.  If you are coming to Korea, my advice is to document absolutely everything that is wrong with your apartment when you arrive.  If possible (as in my situation, for example, having replaced a previous English teacher), interview the person who lived in the apartment before and ask them EVERYTHING about the apartment and write it down.  Because right now, that might be the only thing that saves me when all of this is said and done.  I did at least take pictures of everything.

Okay, that’s all the rant I have for now.  Hopefully next time I’ll write about K-Pop or something.   Something happy.  Because I’m sick of the cold and I’m sick of complaining.  God see me through this winter.

Starcraft II and “Camping” in Korea

Yes, “camping in Korea”.  And, no, it’s not as exciting as it sounds.  I’m not talking about the kind of camping where you get up close and personal with nature and end up spending three hours trying to wash the s’mores off your jeans because you got attacked by a rabid raccoon at the campire.  I’m talking about the Ildong Middle School 2011 English Camp—a very officialish-sounding title for a relatively unimpressive but more ore less enjoyable exchange between myself and about 13 students.

English camps are common throughout Korea, if not pervasive.  If you’re doing the whole teaching thing over here, at some point you’re probably going to have to do one.  Some are a really big deal, lasting two or three weeks and incorporating everything from multimedia to arts & craft; even some homework.  The point of the camps is to give the native English teacher a solid block of time to spend one on one with a smaller number of advanced students and cater to their levels in a fashion that is perhaps impractical in a normal classroom setting. 

Take my “normal classes” for example.  I have 33 students in each class and maybe 3 of those students are considered “gifted”, and all that means is when I ask them “How…are…you?” they don’t give me the fish eyes—they give me a thumbs up.  My Winter camp was supposed to be a time for me to joke around with the smart kids and laugh about all the others who just aren’t getting it with this English thing, right?

Not so much.

Unfortunately, the problem with gifted students is that they tend to be gifted in other things too.  Why?  Because they’re actually smart.  They actually give a rat’s ass.  So they literally can’t find time to come to my little Siberian Winter English Experience in the dead of January when your slippers will freeze to the classroom floor if you’re not careful (okay, that’d never happen).  No, they’re too busy going to the gifted math student camps, the gifted science academies, gifted piano lessons, and even gifted tae kwon do lessons for those kids that just truly excel in everything.  I once saw one of my 14-year-old girl students isolate the width of a hypotenuse while reciting the dialogue for how to order pizza at a restaurant while chopping a board of wood in half with her foot.

HER FOOT.

Needless to say, she’s not in my camp.  She’s probably too busy saving foiling a bank robbery or something, or sneaking 100 km deep into North Korean territory to free hostages.  Kids like her are borderline superheroes.  They don’t have time to come to my class and struggle through a game of Scrabble with me—a scraggly-bearded, baritone American running on more coffee than sleep who’s a very sore loser.

Instead, I’m stuck with one class that has only four students in it.  One kid has not shown up and, at the time I’m writing this, we only have one day left.  The other three boys in the class did not show up the first day, were 20 minutes late the second day, were 35 minutes late the next day, and were 10 minutes late today because I scolded them yesterday for being late.  That’s right, they still weren’t on time.  They were just LESS LATE.  Evidently these kids learn how to compromise before they learn how to not be rude, which puts me in a weird situation.

But what drives me crazy about the three slackers who were so late on Wednesday (35 minutes, as I mentioned) is that they’re too young and unmotivated to even be good at slacking.  If you’re going to be terrible students, at least excel at it like Americans.  After waiting on them for 30 minutes, I locked up the classroom and headed back to my computer in the teacher’s room.  The students, of course, did eventually show up, only to discover a dark classroom and no American to teach them.  Now, you would have thought they’d have been smart enough to realize “We beat the system!  We’re so late he gave up and now we’re going to go home, and if anyone says anything to us about it, we’ll just say we showed up and HE wasn’t in the classroom”. 

NO!  They proceed to wander down the hallways, talking loudly, and eventually stop to bounce a plastic basketball…OFF THE FREAKING DOOR TO THE TEACHER’S ROOM.  I would liken that driving home one night, only to stop your car in front of your house and find it on fire.  You stop to think, “Yep, everything in the house is insured.  This is really only a minor setback in an otherwise great year.  Thank God we weren’t inside and everybody is completely unharmed.”  And then, afterwards, you proceed to calmly waltz straight into the house where you are promptly overwhelmed by the smoke and flames and burned to a crisp along with your Seal albums.  All the students had to do was LEAVE.  Instead they alerted myself and the vice-principal and the head teacher to their presence and got a firm scolding before I was forced to actually teach them for 40 minutes.

Okay, at this point, if you’re not aware that I’m making these observations in good humor, please understand that I am only joking.  I’m not suggesting I don’t care about the education of all my students—even the bad ones.  And I’m not suggesting that I have any right to not fulfill the obligations of my job, even during Winter Camp, but poking innocent fun at my students in order to deal with some of the petty frustrations they cause me is really the only coping mechanism I’ve got.

Truth be told, this camp has had way more ups than downs.  Two of my classes have really good kids.  One of the groups even showed up 10 minutes early today.  THE WHOLE CLASS.  It was unprecedented.  I wanted to get right on the phone with the office of education in Pocheon and let them know, and I rewarded the group by playing Scrabble games with them all class that they really seemed to enjoy.  One kid even commented that class today was “Fun”.  Are you KIDDING me?  I hope he didn’t respect me less when I kinda cried a little bit and carved his name into my arm with a piece of metal I found in my desk drawer.

Thank you for validating me Hong-Su.

My English Camp might not put on quite the pretense of being as a prestigious as other schools in the country, but it has given me a new chance to get to know some of the students.  That’s the hardest part about teaching here.  The language barrier really is just that—a divide between me and my kids that keeps me from being able to hear or relate to their future hopes and dreams.  That makes it difficult because I can’t tailor my lectures to those innermost desires that these kids have.  I can’t scrape past the relatively shallow layer of “computer games” and “Spongebob” that defines the interests of most of my students.  But this is a chance for me to at least chip away at a few of them.

Turns out, there is more to be these kids than Starcraft II, if only a little bit.

An Update for 2011

Why, hello, 2011.  I didn’t see you there.  Won’t you come in?  Sorry I’ve been out of touch.  I guess I just can’t let 2010 go. 

Actually, the reason I’ve been M.I.A. these past few days is that 2011 hasn’t been kind to my apartment in Ildong.  Not at all.  January 1st was one of the greatest days of my life.  While most of my friends in the states were probably at Liquor Barns across the country purchasing alcohol and junk food (not that there’s anything wrong with that) in the wee hours left before Dick Clark was shamefully paraded out to painfully stammer through yet another televised celebration, I was standing at the base of a mountain. 

Standing at the base of a mountain in pitch black darkness.  Standing at the base of a mountain in one foot of snow.  Standing at the base of a mountain with 8 Koreans, only one of whom spoke English.  Standing at the base of a mountain…with the heat of almighty God’s wrath scorching my flesh beneath 8 layers of coats and thermal underwear.

Okay, I wore way too many layers.  But hiking 3.5 kilometers through the snow and darkness to the top of a mountain to watch the sun rise in 2011 was a helluva way to start the year (especially if we’re all going to die sometime between April and December of next year, depending on which Armageddon theories you believe).  Sipping coffee from the family thermos and trudging along the rocks with my metal cleats on and plunging my hiking pole into the snow with each eager step, we arrived at the peak only 30 seconds before the sun broke the mountainous horizon.  We made our wishes for 2011, marveled at nature’s beauty, and felt the cold Korean winds greet us from Siberia, bestowing upon us good fortune and health for the next year.

Then I returned to my apartment and found that all that wind stuff was total bullshit!  My hot water had frozen in the pipes (Ironic, I know) and my bathroom and kitchen had begun a 12-day flood that would make Australia blush (that’s right, I watch the news).  The worst part about this whole situation is that, despite my degree in international diplomacy, I can’t list this debacle on a resume when applying for any international jobs in the near future.  Why not, I say?  I was more diplomatic in dealing with my landlady, my school, and concerned Korean friends and balancing my own interests with the local culture than most American diplomats are who in charge of protecting our political relationships with our allies throughout the world.  I’ve done telephone diplomacy.  I’ve done email and memo diplomacy.  I’ve even tried a little shuttle diplomacy between the various groups involved with this conflict.

And what’s more, it seems that I even got an elderly Korean ajumma to apologize to me…Twice.

So yeah, I’ve dealt with having about two inches of murky shower water from my neighbors in my apartment building pooling out of my bathroom floor for the last week and a half.  I haven’t been able to do laundry, take a shower, or cook (blah, blah, blah, blah to all of the people who have heard me dishing out that line on Facebook over and over again with the world’s tiniest violin), but I’ve been patient and I’ve been squatting in the teacher’s dorm next to my school all week, which has really worked out pretty well considering that I have English class this week.  I have been spared about eight minutes of walking through bitter Pocheon cold and snow on one of the worst weeks for it (although the temp on Saturday is supposed to be -14 F).

Is the problem fixed?  I doubt it.  In Korea, nothing ever ends when you think it has.  My school has promised me that the next time something like this happens they will find me a new apartment.  I plan to hold them to that promise.  Were the promises ever “really” promises in the first place, or simply words meant to encourage me and make me feel better?  One can never know for sure.  I know that the school cares about me and they take my problems very seriously, but in Korea I feel like people are seldom comfortable in being brutally honest with you…Unless you really don’t want them to be, and then they can’t wait to tell you exactly how they feel.  It’s complicated.

Anyway, the good news (and that’s the only news that really matters) is that Nina booked her plane ticket to Korea today.  In less than two months, I’ll feel a little more whole again for the first time in months.  She’ll be arriving right after I see my parents and head to Cambodia in late February so I should be able to ride that high for the rest of my time in Korea.  Now that it’s 2011 I can finally start counting down the months instead of contemplating how many more I have left.  In 2010, I always knew that no matter how quickly time passed…It was still 2010.  2010 was going to end with me sitting at a desk in Ildong and that was that.

2011, however, is a year for change and adventure.  It’s a year that will find me traveling to the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia, for certain.  It’s a year that could also find me heading to Japan and Taiwan if I have anything to say about it.  It’s a year that will see me returning to the United States just a little bit more worldly than I was one year ago and hopefully with an acceptable job somewhere in Lexington or nearby.  And from March on, well…Let’s just say I have big plans in mind.

And did someone say laser surgery??

Close to Home

So I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the ongoing aggression between North and South Korea lately for completely understandable reasons.  The media have been hyping it a lot, not only in South Korea, but around the world.  Regardless of the facts on the ground or the actual likelihood of renewed military actions between the two feuding brother nations, this is the one of the most important and historical moments unfolding anywhere on the planet at this moment.  It’s a conflict in which the world’s major powers have vested and complicated interests and it’s one that spans some of 20th and 21st centuries’ most defining moments.

In some ways, the ongoing Korean soap opera is about nostalgia.  It’s about looking at the present and seeing how far both nations have come (albeit in different directions and with different aims).  It’s about looking at the past and assessing how we have arrived at this moment.  And of course, it’s about both nations defending and touting all that they have built in 60 years.

Overall, nobody at my school seems the least bit worried about this.  Nobody in my community seems worried about it, even though many of my local friends have confided in me lately that this is the first time they have ever found themselves considering that the Koreas COULD conceivably go to war again.  That possibility is a specter that is looming large at the end of 2010.  It will make or break 2011 and set the pace for the next decade (or decades) of relations between the two. 

And here I am caught in the middle of it all because I couldn’t find a freaking job in retail or something simple in the U.S.A.

I should qualify the statements I’m about to make by saying that I’m not a religious person.  I’m occasionally a spiritual person and I sometimes believe in Fate without actually knowing whether or not to believe in God (consider this my confession).  Some people would probably find this incredibly ironic or even contradictory.  I get that.  But it’s been hard for me to feel like this whole conflict between the Koreas doesn’t have something to do with me on some infinitesimal level.  The November 23rd attack on Yeonpyeong, after all, occurred the day after my 25th birthday.  On the heels of the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March of this year, tensions between the Koreas have escalated to unprecedented levels and I just happened to pick this year to throw myself into the fold.

Now, as if matters weren’t already kind of stressful for my friends and family back home, I’ve gotten this news from MSNBC and CNN: 

http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/12/22/south.korea.drills/index.html?hpt=T1

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40775126/ns/world_news-asiapacific

Yep, just as things were beginning to settle down, Korea is going to hold the largest live-fire exercise since the Korean War on my doorstep.  We’re talking less than the distance from Bagdad to Shelbyville, Kentucky, these drills will be taking place and the Pocheon region where I live will officially make itself a target along its border with the DMZ.  I’ve heard the fighter jets and choppers all week.  I’ve seen them in scores on my two trips to Bears Town resort to go skiing with friends.  And tomorrow afternoon while I’m at school, if I open the windows or go to the roof of the building, it is very likely that I will be able to hear the tests.  It’s exciting for someone with my academic background, but a little intimidating as a naïve, young man, as a son, and as a teacher in over his head.

It’s hard to say what, if anything, will come from this.  Maybe North Korea won’t go back on the (albeit, mostly ambiguous) concessions they made earlier this week, but this definitely comes as a slap in the face.  Granted, it’s one that North Korea has had coming for a long time, but you can only rattle sabers in a crowded room for so long before someone gets cut.  The North will reply to this whole ordeal with their usual condemnations and I have no doubt that the North will flex its muscles yet again at some point in the coming months.  All that remains to be seen is the extent to which they will respond and how long it will be before they suspect they can sucker-punch the South, as that’s really the only hand they’ve dealt lately.

Everything (Almost) in Its Right Place

For this blog entry, I’m Bogarting the name of a Radiohead song, “Everything in Its Right Place”.  I haven’t listened to nearly as much Radiohead as I probably should—mainly because I’m a huge fan of choruses and music that sounds “rehearsed”—but the Radiohead songs that I do like are among my favorites, and this is one of them.  The title seems appropriate enough.  I blinked and I’m almost halfway through December.  Remember how about 10 days ago I was complaining about December moving at a crawl?  Well, she sped up, Thank God, and now I’m already staring Christmas in the face.  Beyond that, New Years. 

2011 will be here before I know it and 2011 promises to be an adventure.

Today I decorated my classroom with an inflatable Christmas tree and Santa Claus courtesy of mama.  The kids responded to them very well.  If I can last the next two weeks without having the Santa Claus inflatable stolen, I will be impressed.  The thing’s pretty compact and absolutely adorable and the 14-year-old girls seem to think it’s a big, red cuddly toy.  Something tells me it’s not gonna be reindeer that pull Santa out of my classroom and into that snowy, dark night.  Oh well, at least the Christmas Tree is too big for them to steal, although if I find out someone deflated that thing you might as well bring me up on murder charges now.  It took me two hours to blow that thing up with my mouth and I will literally massacre anyone who I suspect of pulling the plug on it.

In other news, I’m about halfway through Season 4 of “The X-Files”.  I feel like each season ought to have a subtitle referring to whatever crap Scully gets dragged through in the overarching narrative of each year.  “X-Files:  Season One – Scully Gets Hired”, “X-Files:  Season Two – Scully Gets Abducted”, “X-Files:  Season Three –  Scully Gets Skeptical”, “X-Files: Season Four – Scully Gets Cancer”.  Why does God hate Scully so much?  Is it because she’s almost a ginger?  Is she suffering as a sort of counterbalance for all the times Mulder should probably have died but doesn’t in each episode?  Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mulder’s father was murdered (after pretty much admitting that he deserved it) and his sister has been missing for blah, blah, blah…But Scully gets kidnapped, has her sister murdered, is probably raped by aliens, and gets cancer all essentially as a side effect of overexposure to freakin’ Mulder.  Which only leads me to presume that Scully is essentially my girlfriend, who would probably follow David Duchovny into Hell itself if he only so much as winked at her. 

At any rate, I’m already looking forward to “X-Files: Season Five” which I presume will involve Scully buying “Wii Fit”.  Oh, wait, it’s still the 90s on that show.  Maybe she’ll spend the entire season wondering why “Dinosaurs” had such a depressing finale.  That’s how I spent most of my childhood in the 90s.

Speaking of depressing news, not quite everything is in its right place.  Our cat Sadie finally headed for that great litter box in the sky and she’s probably having her hip slapped without mercy by the man upstairs Himself as I type this.  For more than half my life, Sadie was an integral part of the family.  She kept us balanced and refused to take any crap from anyone, especially my dad.  You always know a pet won’t be around forever, but you ride the good times and never give a second thought to the inevitable outcome.  In your heart, you think just maybe they’ll end up being immortal.  Wouldn’t that be sweet?  Sadie, you’ll be missed.  I, perhaps more than anyone else, will miss you headbutting your way past the bathroom door while I’m using the toilet, leaving it wide open and hopelessly just out of reach, while company passes by in the hallway.  Luckily, it’s a legacy you left behind and our other cat Ollie now carries that torch.

We love you, Sadie.

Helicopters and Snowcrabs

I feel like I’m trying to play catchup on blog posts this week.  The days are slipping away from me faster than I can keep track of them.  It’s not as encouraging as it might sound.  I’m dying for December to be over, so this month is both a crawl and a sprint.  My students are pretty much over the whole school thing and my Grade 3 students look at me like I just condemned them to death every time I propose the simplest English assignment.  Example:  It took them 15 minutes today just to get each student to write the name of their favorite member of Girls Generation on a piece of freakin’ paper.

The phrase in English is “like pulling teeth”.  It couldn’t be more true. 

In other news, last night I went skiing for only the second time in my life and for the first time in roughly 7 years.  It wasn’t a complete failure.  Only two slopes were available:  Easy and Difficult.  Easy got old pretty quickly so my Korean friends quickly decided it was time to take it up a notch, regardless of whether or not I was ready for it.  I wiped out pretty quickly the second time (yes, remarkably I survived the first run) after I picked up way too much speed.  I spun around on my skis and quickly pulled my left groin muscle and fell onto my hand, spraining my thumb.  Not the worst injuries, and at least I was able to keep going for another hour or so on the easy slope.  Also, the cold never got absolutely painfully bitter, so we held our own, even as the ice started to soak through my gloves.

One thing that did seem to catch the locals off-guard was the sudden appearance of thirty pitch black helicopters soaring over the slopes at a fairly low altitude at about 8:00 in the evening.  They made quite a bit of noise and literally they were flying low enough that you could plainly make out their bottoms sweeping over the tree tops and the resort next to the slopes.  Eventually I lost count and I could tell that the Koreans were fairly perplexed by their appearance.  No one seemed worried, per se, but I could definitely tell that they were confused.  Needless to say, I’ll be continuing to keep my eye on the news.  Maybe the government and military know something that we don’t.

On a lighter note, there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken at the ski resort.  Not bad considering the place where we skied is only about 12 kilometers from where I live.

I also have to remark on my first poor meal experience.  Don’t get me wrong.  There was a lot about the meal that I liked, including one gesture on my behalf that was truly special to me.  Let me begin by saying that it’s no secret that I don’t like a lot of fish dishes.  We don’t eat a lot of fish in Kentucky that isn’t deep-fried or lemon-saturated catfish.  Long John Silver, Captain Ds, and Red Lobster pretty much round out my fish experiences.  So every time I go abroad, I am inevitably exposed to eating a lot of fish that contains tons of little bones, if not all the bones that fish has ever had.  I can pick through most of the cooked ones, just fine, and spit out the bones.  Even smoked fish isn’t terrible.

Fish in soup, on the other hand, can be a tricky matter.  I don’t enjoy soups that have a lot of little bones in them as it tends to compromise the consistence of the soup for me.  I usually struggle through it regardless, but when Koreans ask me if something is “Good”, the question really boils down to could I possibly stomach this again if it will placate my hosts.  If the answer is “Yes” (and it almost always is) then I answer “Yes”, but this meal caught me a little off-guard. 

This is where I would remark on that gesture I was talking about.  The daughter of the Lee family (my oft-mentioned caretakers) poured me a bowl of soup.  Immediately I noticed the gigantic fish head peeking out of the bowl, just aching to be placed in front of me so that he could accusingly look me in the eye with that dead, puckered face.  The father immediately noticed this and told her to take out the head and give me some of the body meat because he remembered, based on past conversations, that I have a hard time eating anything with a face (call me a hypocrite, but I still love the **** out of meat). Still, this was a sweet little gesture on my behalf that I thanked him for and it just validates over and over again how important it is to these Koreans—strangers, not more than two months ago—that I some day leave the country with a positive impression and fond memories.  To this end, there is simply no hospitality greater than that which I have experienced here. 

Back to the meal.  The REALLY tricky part of the pre-skiing dinner was eating the raw crab and eggs.  Considered a delicacy, this consisted of two crab-based items.  One involved the shells of the crabs being cracked open and served with all the “innards” basically scrambled into a brownish-gray-colored puree that tasted vaguely of soy sauce and “guts” with a touch of sugar.  Eating it was not a problem, but it’s not a meal I would revisit for the taste.  Then came the pinkish-red “eggs” that were described to me as salty and came served on rice.  I ate this, too.  The problem here was texture, as the consistency fell somewhere between runny eggs and a runny nose and sliminess so slimy that even Slimer from Ghostbusters would declare “I say, that is mighty damn slimy”.  The second dish involved eating whole crabs that had basically been drowned in soy sauce and left in that dark, salty grave to ferment for three days, after which someone removes them and apparently declares “Voila!  Ready to eat!”

So, essentially this is raw crab smothered in soy sauce.  Okay…Let me put on my game face.  I split the crab open and watched the father as he began to suck out the dripping innards.  I hope it doesn’t taste as gross as that forced sucking and slurping sounds.  I put the cleaved shell to my lips and let out a breath before sucking in everything I could.  Truth be told, it wasn’t bad at all.  Just impossible to eat.  The rest of the family made it look like no problem, but let me tell you that crab is damn near impossible to eat with chopsticks.  You remember how hard it was the last time you had crab just trying to pry open the shells and use those nutcrackers correctly?  Yeah, imagine not having any of those very useful tools and being left with nothing but a pair of cold, steel chopsticks.  I struggled for nearly ten minutes to gnaw off one of the legs so I begin grinding on it with my teeth (reminiscent of the chicken feet from a week or two ago) but it was all in vain.  I simply could not conquer this meal, and I hung my head in shame when the father told me not to worry about it.

Oh well.  At least they topped it off with a hot pork dish that would rival any meal I’ve had in Korea as one of my top food experiences.  Absolutely delish.  The father has now included that as long as something is spicy, bordering on the offensive, he’ll be able to coax an “Mmm…Good” out of me.  There’s a running gag going with that because the first few times we went out I was so nervous that every time I tried anything I said “Mmm…Good.”  Now if I don’t say that for something, the father acts like his feelings are hurt and he asks me “No Mmm Good?”

I guess you had to be there.

This isn’t a picture I took, but it is the same meal we had.  Tell me that doesn’t look appetizing.

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/55/115497753_01707bbe6d.jpg?v=0

Let Me Slip Into Something More…Comfortable.

Long time since an update, so I thought I would catch everyone up on some of the funnier things that have been happening lately.  As anyone would expect this means, first and foremost, that I’ve been going swimming. 

Comedy pretty much ensues every time I go to the pool.  First, a couple of weeks ago we were driving to the pool when we found our ways into the thickest fog that anyone in my town had ever seen.  You literally could not see three feet in front of you and even the streetlamps overhead were invisible aside from their eerie, purple glow.  This didn’t stop about thirty Koreans from having a soccer game behind the pool, though.  We joked that there was probably just one guy out there in the fog chasing a ball around wondering why nobody was passing it back to him.

Afterwards, we drove about 20 minutes to a place that Mr. Lee (my Korean caretaker) said had the best chicken feet in the area.  I have to admit, they were the best chicken feet I’ve ever had.  Cluck cluck.

This week, however, my Korean family bestowed upon me the gift of gifts—something that will change the course of my time in Korea if not the course of my life…forever.  You’ve probably already guessed what it is.  I mean, what else could it be?  What would complete the Sean Chandler package (no pun, intended).  When you sample the finely-honed recipe that is Sean Chandler, what is that one spice that you know in your heart is missing.  It didn’t take the Koreans I know long to guess…

Speedos.

They bought me my first pair of Speedos and I think they were a little taken aback by just how eager I was to jump into them.  We did the whole naked thing in the locker room that made me so uncomfortable several weeks ago—that’s right, now I just refer to it as “the whole naked thing” because I’m so used to it—and squeezed my way into the Speedos.  I can only describe their design as an “Optimus Prime” homage.  If the Speedos resembled Optimus Prime any more than they do, the makers would probably have a law-suit on their hands. 

Just kidding.  If copyright laws mattered in Korea, you’d have to sue the whole country.

Another note on “the whole naked thing”.  Now that I’ve had more time to come to terms with the Korean locker room experience, I really should say that if you have to spend copious amounts of naked time around just one nationality in 2011, make it Koreans.  They really know how to swing—NO, WAIT.  I meant, they really know how to shake it—NO!  What I mean, is they’re really a bunch of upstanding…Anyway, it’s not a big deal.

I also wanted to talk about the increasing trend at the swimming pool of some of the Korean gentleman asking Mr. Lee who I am.  A fair question.  I can recognize enough Korean, though, to understand a few words, though, in these conversations, but not enough to really grasp everything that’s being said.  To me, I feel more like a nice import car.  Here’s how I imagine the dialogue goes down.

Korean Man:    “Hello, Mr. Lee.  Say…I see you got yourself a new American.”

Mr. Lee:           “Sure did.”

Korean Man:    “What is that, an ‘85?”

Mr. Lee:           “You know it.”

Korean Man:    “(Whistles) He sure is a beaut.  What’d you pay for it?”

Mr. Lee:           “Well, with the economy the way it is, the U.S. is practically giving em away.”

Korean Man:    “Well he sure is in fine shape.  A lot of the American models get poor mileage.”

Mr. Lee:           “He’s only got about 20,000 miles on him.”

Anyway, you get the idea.  I’m going skiing tomorrow so I should have something to talk about it after that experience, as well.  Today it snowed buckets in Ildong but it didn’t amount to more than a solid dusting.  I guess it’s still reasonably warm here compared to Kentucky, from what I’ve heard.  Before I end the entry, though, I thought I would remark on a few of my English class thoughts for the month.  It’s hard to believe that my first semester is already nearly at an end.  Hopefully the second one will be here before I know it.

–  Is it too much to ask that just once—ONCE—, given all the episodes of “The Simpsons” that we watch from week to week, that my students notice the “P” between “Sim” and “sons”?

–  Is it too much to ask that just once, my students call a “kitchen” a “kitchen” and a “chicken” a “chicken” and not say one when they mean the other?

–  Is it too much to ask that just once, given all the times I’ve taught them how to spell it, that they spell “Kentucky” and not “Kenturkey”?

Until next time, Friends.  And if you think of it, you might head over to Centre’s website (www.Centre.edu).  They should have an interview with me posted sometime on Thursday (Friday if you’re in Korea).  Frankly, I didn’t think they had much of a story talking to me, but that didn’t stop me from talking to them.  Hopefully their interview won’t become a story before September 2011.