Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year That Was

I see from my Blogger dashboard that this is post number 400 to the Seoul Patch. I see also that I have posted some 1,450 photos here since June 15, 2008.

To recap 2009:
  • went on a great vacation to Beijing, walked the Great Wall and ate like a king with TB during February
  • started reading fiction again, polishing off approximately one title per week this year
  • got serious at the gym in March, and have been slowly getting fit ever since
  • line 9 opened in July, making it easier for me to get around Seoul
  • went to a live game to watch each baseball team in the Korean league, including the season opener and Game 7 of the Championship Series
  • renewed my contract with SMOE in August for another year
  • went to the dentist for the first time in ages, got a gold crown for $350
  • had a fun holiday in New Zealand with pal Andy, an exotic and unforgettable land
  • somewhere in there, crested the learning on curve on how to teach these kids something
  • still didn't sell my house, toyed with the idea of strategic foreclosure

My New Year's Resolution in 2009 was not to make any resolutions, and I managed to keep it. So, I'm going to make that my resolution for 2010 as well--why mess with success?

And finally, to the Teeming Dozens I say, with feeling: Have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Street Scenes VI

What follows is a handful of photos taken at various times and places that I never used. I thought I'd clear out the drawer in preparation for the new year.

Roundabouts seem rare in Seoul, and especially roundabouts with a fountain in the middle. This one is in Jongno, near the Seoul Art Museum.

A street, er, subway station performer doing mime clown magic. His mark is a pretty girl in her school uniform. Many stations have a small performance area--on Line 9, I think all of them do.

A celebration in the parking area of Boram Apartuh, with traditional drummers and traditional drunks dancing. I believe the festivities were in honor of a resident who just passed the bar--the law bar, I mean, I'll do the jokes here.

A seating area-cum-sculpture in the middle of the street in Cheolsan's party district.

You can often see sandwich-board type advertising on the streets, but it's rarely so well synchronized. And the value! 10% all the way up to 13% off!

Last, but certainly not least, a whole pig hanging in a butcher shop waiting to be converted into samgyupsal. Yummy!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

School's Out!

... except for 25 days of so-called "Winter Camp" running from Jan. 4 to Feb. 3. It is only half-days, too. Which means I have the rest of this week, and the month of February, free. At this point, I'm hoping to plan a little jaunt to a sparsely populated beach in the Gulf of Siam to warm up in the sunshine and read a good book.

I finally got the details of camp, and my class rolls today--after being told class sizes would be no more than fifteen to twenty, first period has 25. Which is really just too big to have the kind of conversational tone and speaking activities I put together. Oh, well. On the other hand, if it's true to form, the student attendance will dwindle rapidly to reasonable numbers.

Second period has 16 English-enthused souls, since I am informed everyone voluntarily signed up to take English with me, third period is planning, and fourth period, just before lunch, has only eleven.

Today being the last day of school, we had a brief ceremony followed by a free lunch of galbitang--with makkuli and beer. For some reason or other, I was singled out by the principal to stand up and be applauded. I clarified later that no one was under the impression I was leaving anytime soon. I guess they just appreciate my diligence, enthusiasm and creativity. Hey, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tally Snow!

Snow: It snowed in Seoul pretty much all day yesterday, accumulating an inch or two, and today's high temp was about -5 C, so the snow went absolutely nowhere, except into slushy piles along the curbs of intersections, and into my shoes.

Still, the stuff looks pure and lovely, so it provides a fine photo op. Here are two shots, one looking onto Maehwa Park next to my building, the second looking up Jeungmisan, the hill behind my building, both taken yesterday:

The hill had frozen over pretty good by this morning, so I was unwilling to negotiate it at the risk of my bodily integrity. I went the long way round, and met up with my morning co-walking co-worker Mr Hwang at the crosswalk.

In spite of the inclemency, the HiMart next door still insisted the poor young lass barking their perpetual Grand Reopen Sale stand outside under the inflatables and yammer non-stop into the PA system. If you look closely at the photo, you can see she has a HiMart (I assume) space heater warming her lower extremities:

Tally: After school today, we had a meeting of Tuttle's co-teachers at the garlic-fed duck restaurant, and I still didn't get pictures (FAIL). It was scrumptious! Afterwards, Hwang and I ended up at Indis, a "Western bar" without ice table for a few beers, where I finally asked about the Korean bartab tally system. Here is a photo:

You see there, next to the 500 (meaning 500 ml beers), a strange accumulation of sticks. That is a jeong 정, which literally means justice or truth or actuality or something like that. It comes from a Chinese character.

Each time you order an additional item, the server adds a stroke to this figure, until it is filled up. Then it starts anew. If you recognise that we've had six beers at this point, you can adduce that the first stroke is a horizontal one. Here's how it works:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Offal Good!

Shown above is a table grill cooking up something called gopchang 곱창. On the right are small intestines of a cow, the brown cubes are cow kidney, and the white stuff on the left is just onions and garlic with a couple slices of sweet potato.

Andy convinced me to come out with him and give it a try--I'm game for anything once: if I don't like it, I won't try it again. Well, I'll be having gopchang again, it's definitely a tasty change of pace from samgyupsal.

After dinner, we wandered around Seouldae/Bongcheon, stopping in at the famed makkuli place:

Next up was an indoor pojangmacha where we had beer and some fried fish:

We finished up in a western-style bar called WaBar, which has an "ice table" stacked up with imports:

Happy Boxing Day!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Cake Day!

It seems a big part of the Christmas celebration in Korea is the cake. The bakery chains here clutter the sidewalk on Christmas Eve with stacks and stacks of pre-ordered Christmas cakes. And not just vanilla sheet cake with canned frosting, either.

These are rich cheesecakes, tiramisu creations, or velvety choco, often elaborately decorated--and priced accordingly. Check out the one I got at Paris Baguette today for W20,000 (yes, that's pretty expensive, but the thinking is that Christmas comes but once a year):

I actually taught classes today, for the first time all week, wearing my Santa hat. At the end of the day, some student left this drawing on his desk for me:

As the artwork says, Merry X-mas! And Happy Cake Day!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Festival of Lights, 2009

While I was in Jong-ro yesterday, I decided I might as well have a gander at the Christmas festivities. There wasn't much going on at the Cheonggyechun, except for this laser light show playing on a cloud of mist.

Turns out, Gwanghwamun Plaza is where the action is. On arrival, I saw that the ship model that was previously displayed in front of Admiral Yi's statue (the inventor of the turtleship):

... has been replaced by an electronic installation titled "Fractal Turtleship" by Nam June Paik (1932-2006), considered the first "video artist".

Behind the Admiral's statue was a Chamber of Lights with several interactive artworks, including "Notation Theatre" by Jun Ga-young where participants sit on little blocks and thereby light up different parts of the installation, and "Touch the Light, Touch the Moon" by Lee Kyung-ho, which does a nifty fractalizing-thing to objects placed in the light. Here's me:

Part of the exterior of the chamber was decorated with something called "Zipper Pipe" by Woo Haemin:

Further along the plaza you could view the "Media Facade", in which images were projected onto the buildings surrounding the square as music from the Seoul Philharmonic fills the square. This was hard to capture with my mediocre camera:

Additionally, there were the more standard illuminations--Christmas lights--and the obligatory photo opportunities.

That says "Green Santa & Happy New Year" behind them, if you can't read it. There were also a few photo booths where you could pose with friends:

This year, they moved the ice skating rink from City Hall to Gwanghwamun (built over the Flower Carpet), and shrank it in size somewhat, in a section the brochure calls Light of Repose. Here is the Korean zamboni preparing the ice:

The small children's rink is limited to scooter boards:

Older kids and adults skated in the larger section:

Afterwards, I stopped in at Texas Ice Bar for a few really expensive imported beers before heading home with a full day of teaching ahead of me today.

Except, as I found out from Mr Hwang on the way to school, I didn't. The second grade was taking a practice exam, and the first grade was doing some kind of reading competition (these are the last few days of the school year, as well as the calendar year). So I ended up having no classes at all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

SMOE Workshop Covers Same Old Ground

sign of how signs wold go for me today
So, someone thought this sign would be helpful ...

Firstly, Korea University's campus, on the northeast side of Seoul (a short walk from 안암 AnAm station on Line 6, exit 2), is very much like the US land grant colleges I've seen--open plazas, a mix of Gothic-style and contemporary architecture, appropriate statuary ...

The only thing missing was the continuous stream of cars prowling the roads looking for an open parking space.

There was considerable confusion surrounding our meeting places--well, let me back up; there was considerable confusion surrounding the whole workshop. My school was notified late Thursday, and I found out Friday AM. Again, the conference was Monday and today. I asked Miss Lee where and when, and she said, "They will tell us later."

I gave her that certain look. She thought for a moment. "Oh, yah, that is problem; today is Friday. You must be there on Monday. I will call to find out."

Well, it eventually got sorted out, in the broadest possible sense of the term, and I joined 200 other SMOE high school teachers for a two-day seminar junket (Andy's post from yesterday is titled "Seminars are Stupid".) Once again, the topic was Co-teaching. This is at least the third workshop I've been to with this topic--at only one of which were the co-teachers included. Enough is enough!

So much so, that when we had a breakout session on Tuesday morning--today--with good ol' Max as our Fearless Leader (you will remember him as my roomie back at Yong-In in aught-eight) (photo below, fearlessly leadering), I told my group I didn't want to talk about co-teaching no more! Let's just share ideas that have worked in our classrooms and gotten the students speaking English. So we did.

I was able to get three ideas that I will try to use next year (two general lesson ideas, one management technique) so it was, in relative terms, a successful seminar for me.
(UPDATE: Here is my report on one lesson I have used in the classroom: Playing ESL Clue.)

This afternoon was different. In a good way! First of all, after a totally unnecessary "Closing Ceremony", everyone received a 4 GB USB drive. Nice!

Secondly, we were treated to a very delicious lunch buffet at a place called Panorama in Jongro-ga--alas, I was near the end of a single-serve line of about 200 people.

But the food was plentiful and well-prepared, though the pork ribs were badly cut, so that each one had hidden lumps of cartilage. A good mix of Korean and Western foods--but it's no Sky Onn Food ...

Thirdly, our main afternoon activity was a trip (well, a short walk from the restaurant) to see the long-running theatrical production, Jump, described in the brochure as an "extravaganza of feet fists and fun". The stairwells down to the performance space were decorated with numerous murals:

They have two performances a day, and our four o'clock included SMOE, a Filipino tour group, and some Korean high school students. I sat in the front row, which was part of the SMOE block. The center seat in the front row.

Signage outside indicated that *flash* photography was forbidden, so I was going to give you, the Teeming Dozens, a real close-up of what is an acclaimed show. It was all going fine for the first 20 minutes, until some staffer crept over and told me photos were forbidden. I wanted to hammer him--there is a universal sign for No photos: a camera with a slash through it. There is also a universal sign for No flash photos: a camera with a flash going off with a slash through it. They clearly had (I double-checked on the way out) the No flash photos sign. My morals are such that I cannot continue shooting after this, even though I know there are chunks of video on YouTube.

I did manage to get a few decent photos beforehand, which are unrepentantly reproduced below. I can recommend the show--well, certainly if it's free, but paying W35,000 for 1 1/2 hours seems a bit steep--since it is very entertaining, easy to follow (practically the only words spoken are Okay, Yes and No), fast-moving and almost error-free in execution. Jump is not Great Art: it's a "comic martial arts performance" with a tenuous but reasonable storyline to showcase acrobatics, physical prowess and well-timed fighting moves that should be pleasing to an audience.

Factoid: the most commonly-understood word throughout the world is Okay.

Factoid: -oid is is a suffix which means "resembling, like, a poor imitation".

So, is a factoid true or just sort of true? Let me know what you think at the "Comments" link below. Okay?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Korea (To the Tune of Maria)

So click on the video from West Side Story and sing the lyrics below instead. Okay, ready? Go!

The most intriguing place you'll ever see:
Korea, Korea, Korea, Korea...
Almost every single meal that you eat will include kimchi:
Korea, Korea, Korea, Korea...

I live in a land called Korea,
Where Samsung is a brand,
And Wonder Girls a band ... I think!

If you ever come here I'll see ya,
Land of the Morning Calm,
Where soju is a bomb ... you drink!

Hyundai cars are the best thing rolling,
English teachers are coming and going,

I'll never stop knowing Korea!

Korea, Korea, Korea...

LG phones are well-known for ringing,
Noraebang are where people go singing,

Don't ever stop being Korea!

The most mountainous peninsula in the world,

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Co-Teacher

My job is pretty straightforward, which is one thing I really like about it: I design and implement a lesson plan to improve English speaking and listening skills for high school sophomores and juniors--one lesson for each per week.

I do not do assessment, except in an informal fashion (to improve my lessons), I do not sit on any committees, run study halls, make curricular decisions for other people, decide budgets or any of those other tasks that used to impinge upon my teaching back home. It is, in a word, luxurious.

Contrast that with the lot of Miss Lee, my main co-teacher: in addition to assisting me, she does three lesson plans per week with her classes (she does have the advantage of the textbook and attendant materials), has something to do with library acquisitions, something else I don't remember, and is responsible for creating and/or proofing all the school's English communications.

In that role, she came to me today for help with a teacher recommendation form for the graduate school at Columbia University. A recent Young-il graduate is applying there (along with NYU and Yale) after finishing college somewhere in the States. This boy was number 3 in his graduating class, so I wonder if he has set his sights too high.

Anyway, her role was to translate for the actual recommending teacher, and she didn't understand a few things, like how cumulative GPA is different from graduating GPA, and what weighted and unweighted GPAs are. And in what "capacity" the recommending teacher knew the student. It just reminded me how much I don't miss all that paperwork crap.

Then, during sixth period, she doesn't show up until halfway through the lesson--completely unlike her. Actually, unlike any of my co-teachers. It's not that big a deal, since we're mainly watching "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". After class, she explained. The mother of this same student came to see her and was "very demanding." I nodded in sympathy--very demanding mothers are the same everywhere.

The irony, I pointed out to her, is that if that mother knew the co-teacher was being kept away from a class with her child in it, she would be upset about it!

Her eyes flared. "Yes, that's it! You understand!"

Indeed, after twenty years in American private schools, I do.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Saving the Planet with Underwear

First, presidential candidate Bill Clinton was pressed on the boxers or briefs issue, and now this:
President Lee Myung-bak recently said he has managed to lower the room temperature by three degrees in his office after wearing additional underwear.

TMI, anyone? Actually, this bit of "news" is brought to us by our friends at the Korea Times, ever anxious to strip a story to its bare essentials, to dig inside the exterior of events and reveal what's underneath.

The story concerns a report from Korea's National Institute of Environmental Research that wearing thermal underwear has the effect of raising the thermostat by 2.4 degrees Celsius:
The researchers compared wearing long johns and sweatshirts in a room where the thermostat was set at 19.6 degrees.
The finding [sic] shows that thermal underwear traps bodily heat and has effects of bringing the room temperature up to 22 degrees.
"It means the longer and thicker underwear enable people to keep themselves warm at a lower room temperature," said Ryu Ji-wan, the institute's researcher.

Oh, sure, I suppose next they'll tell us that wearing a heavy coat outside during cold weather keeps you warm. I mean, it's pretty obvious, that's all I'm saying.

The article is apparently part of a campaign to lower thermostats in public buildings: "On a larger scale, lowering the thermostat by 2.4 degrees Celsius in public places alone could save up to 1.1 million tons of heating oil a year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3.4 million tons, the institute said." You need about 2 billion pine trees to filter the CO2 from that, according to the article.

You may remember President Carter did this 30 years ago, mandating that federal buildings set their thermostats to 68 F (20 C) in the winter. Of course, once the oil embargo ended, no one seemed to care anymore.

I wish they would apply this principle to the interior of subway cars, which are kept quite warm in the winter, warm enough for shirt sleeves. But everyone is, of course, wearing their coats, sweaters and scarves. As a result, you can get really uncomfortably hot on a reasonably long ride.

image from Korea Times at
The Ministry of Environment held fashion shows last year to portray fashionable ways of promoting warm underwear, and this year we have strange men accosting women in public places wearing their long johns and Santa caps.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Monday Night at #325

The mercury has plummeted again, but I'm nice and toasty thanks to the combination of ondol and my space heater; picked up my clothes from the cleaners downstairs; answered my email; had dinner at ChickenMania; swept up the flat; and all's right with the world.

Well, maybe not all's right with The World, but I mean my little part of it. You know how you get that satisfied feeling sometimes, where you've crossed all the ts, dotted all the is that you can, caught up and gotten ahead, swept up the flat ...

Tomorrow is the last day of final exams at Young-il, though classes continue for another two weeks or so, for reasons obscure to me. As mentioned earlier, I'm mainly going to watch "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with my classes. I'd really like to work up a lesson on Ralphie and the Range Ryder BB gun but it would just take too much explanation. "Oh, fu-u-u-udge!" "Not a fingah!"

Tomorrow is also the day of the English Dept. lunch we always have during exams. This meeting is the one time when everyone doesn't get all drunk and go to noraebang, worse luck! Still, it's free food, always delicious, speaking English with Koreans, and did I mention it's free food?

After the semester ends, I'll have about a week off before one month of winter camp, followed by about one month of vacation time. If I can scrape up some cash, I'm thinking of going to Thailand for a week or so to lay in the sun and thaw out.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More Holdays Coming?

By contract, I do not work on Saturday or Sunday. Except, apparently, during camp. But that's a subject for another post.

In addition to weekends, I also get off the national holidays in Korea, like Christmas, Children's Day, Sam-Il (Independence Movement Day), three days of Chuseok, etc. If one of these falls on a Saturday or Sunday, however, that's all you get. The Dong-A Ilbo explains:
Korea has 14 national holidays designated under law. When Saturdays and Sundays are added to those holidays, the number of days off for those under the five-day workweek system is 118 per year. Since three to eight of the holidays fall on a Saturday or Sunday, the number of days off can be as low as 110 or as many as 115 per year.
The number of days off this year, however, is just 110 and that of next year will be 112, smaller than 120 days or more in Taiwan and Hong Kong; 119 in Japan; 118 in Russia; 116 in France; and 114 in the U.S. and Germany.

I once mentioned this to a Korean friend, and pointed out that in America, if a holiday falls on the weekend, we get Friday or Monday off--the beloved 3-day weekend, as compared to nothing at all! He shook his head in wonder, and admitted ruefully that it will never happen in Korea.

Well, never say never:
In Korea, seven bills on raising the number of days off through the introduction of alternative holidays have been submitted to and are pending at the National Assembly.
If the system is introduced, the number of three-day holidays from Friday to Sunday or Saturday to Monday will increase. This is expected to raise leisure activity among the people, which will in turn expand the domestic consumption base, including tourism. [...]
A senior official at the Strategy and Finance Ministry said, “To figure out how a reshuffle of the holiday system will affect the national economy, including GDP, we will commission a study to an external think tank.”
“Because of mixed views on the reshuffle of the system even within the government, we judged it wise to make a decision based on the results of an objective study.”

Why seven different bills are needed is not explained in the story, but this country is desperately in need of a few more days to chill out a little and stand down. In fact, one of the big proponents of the change is the Culture, Sports and Tourism Ministry. Part of this law, in my opinon, should be a requirement that hagwons which serve children close for the day also.

Of course, what the government gives, the government also taketh away. At the end of the story, we find this:
In a related move, the government is considering reducing the number of official public holidays from 14 to 12 in return for assuring the number of holidays through alternative days off.

Cycle Race is Pie

On Friday afternoon I joined Nick and Andy for a trip to the Speedom velodrome in Gwangmyeong, near Cheolsan station on line 7 for the bicycle races. Apparently only in Korea and Japan can you legally gamble on the bikes.

This picture of the ticket window was taken before things really got rolling--the big races at the end of the day saw over a million dollars in bets placed. The procedure is just the same as with the horses: quinellas, exactas and all that--basically, Latin for "you can lose all your money now."

I am not a very good gambler, so I go in with the expectation of losing a set amount of money, in this case, twenty to thirty grand. There were fourteen races, and I placed bets totalling 31,000 W. I won about four times, for a take of 8,000 W, leaving me 23 K in the hole. Andy, for once, did really well--I mean really well--and was gracious enough to treat us to samgyupsal for dinner in Cheolsan's party district, which looks like this:

After dinner, which was possibly the best I've had, and not just because of the price, we went to second round at a place called Longlife Beer, which has refrigerated wells in the table, like Garten Bier:

The final stop was a Japanese place for a big fried fish and a couple more brews before we had to make the subway around midnight.

Anyway, back to the velodrome. It is a very nice, clean building opened in 2006. They race on Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout the year. It was clear from our reception that foreigners have rarely set foot in the place, but they were well-prepared, with a clear brochure explaining the procedure, and a booklet with the history and rationale for cycle racing in Korea. (The title of this post is one of the headings from this booklet, which includes tidbits like "Speedom is Leportsdom, Culturedom. Fundom, Healthdom, and Futuredom rolled into one.")

I put together a video with a few stills and some live action from our day at the races. In each race, the athletes have corresponding colors and numbers, e.g., No. 3 is always in red, No. 5 is always in yellow, etc. This makes it easier to cheer on your man. I put Mendelsohnn's symphony #4 underneath it, the theme music from "Breaking Away":

In addition to the gleaming race track, there was also a nice cafeteria and a Cycle Racing Museum--free of charge.

Inside were a couple of video displays and some Lance Armstrong memorabilia, possibly including his foot: