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Archive for the ‘Korea’ Category

Ever since I knew I was going to return to Seoul as a tourist, I felt a strange anxiety. On one hand, I was excited to see my friends again and feast on the delicious food, but on the other, I was worried that this visit would shatter the embellished image of Korea I had formed in my head over the past few years. Since I left Korea, I always reminded myself of the good times I had (never the bad times) and I always kept the option of going back as a backup, however unlikely. I knew that if I couldn’t find work and a place to study, I could go back to Korea, be able to find a job, be able to travel, and be able to save money. I don’t know if I would have actually gone through with it, but that thought helped me at times.

Now that I’m back, I realise that I wouldn’t enjoy coming back, at least not to teach English as I had done before. Sure, I still love the food and the chaos, but Korea isn’t the same as when I left it. My friends are mostly gone, I’m a different person, and the people here have changed. It may seem over dramatic to say that after only 3 years away, but anyone who has been here knows that Korea changes at an absurd rate. Things are different now. My friend with whom I’m staying, one of the biggest partiers I know and the first Korean friend I made, doesn’t go out anymore. He works 12 hours per day, has a girlfriend and relaxes at home when he’s not working. We went to Hongdae (a trendy club area) together when I got in on Saturday and we hardly recognized the place. Sure, the bars were mostly the same, but the crowd had changed. One of the bars I went to on one of my first weekends out to Seoul is now “Korean Only”. Places change just as people do, I guess. We ended up waking around the area with a few beer from a corner store, looking at the people and talking about the how things are different.

I’m about to go visit my old school. I’m looking forward to seeing my old boss and coworkers. I hope we will all be able to go out for supper and drinks tonight, I hope at least some things stay the same. There is apparently a new foreign English teacher at the school. I’m excited to meet him or her, but because I’m so vain, I’m a bit worried he or she is cooler and better liked by the teachers and student than me. I will soon find out.

Yesterday, I got to meet with an old friend from my neighbourhood for the afternoon. He, my friend who I’m staying with and I walked for the afternoon. I never really took time to walk around Seoul. It’s an interesting city with so many hidden streets and corners, and while it’s super easy to get lost in the labyrinth of streets, you get to see a side of the city that you don’t se by sticking to the subway. I woke up at 5am this morning and walked around my friend’s neighbourhood. There’s a certain life to the streets that you don’t get in Montreal, even in the early morning. That energy is one of the things that I miss most about here.

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Suspicions (of kindness)

Sitting on a park bench, reading some old Kerouac and waiting for a friend, an old Korean lady sat next to me. She spoke no English and started speaking to me, offering me a yogurt she had just bought. At first, I had my guards up, suspecting a scam. Somehow. Maybe I’d accept the yogurt and then the old lady would charge me an absurd amount for it. Who knows. After “talking” with her for a few minutes (and drinking my yogurt), her friend showed up. She spoke a bit more English, but that’s not saying much. We “spoke” about where I was from, where I was going and Korea. I understood that she went to Thailand and she liked trees (perhaps the tress in Thailand?). That was the most I got from our exchange. I should probably point out that the woman was clearly drunk. It was also 6pm on a Thursday.

Eventually, my friend showed up and the old lady insisted on bringing us to her house for coffee and food. We went. Old Korean women can quiet persuasive. She obviously lived with her son (or daughter), but no one was home. It was a really nice place and we had our coffee and some grapes (though coffee at 6pm is never a good idea, so we didn’t drink it). The woman kept on referring to me as an American even after pointing out I was Canadian on several occasions. Oh well… I tried. Apparently, she was lecturing my friend on how I was a lonely American and how Koreans should be nice to me because I was so far from home.

Eventually, we managed to leave the woman’s house under the guise of a dinner reservation. She walked us to the elevator (she was on the 6th floor)(we walked up, but took the elevator down). Before sending us on our way, she did my unbuttoned shirt up (I should look presentable!) and told me I should drop by again.

I wonder how many strangers she’s brought up to her house…

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“What do you think of Korea?”

A teacher at my school asked me this question. He asked me for an honest answer.

What do I think of Korea?

I put it quite simply for him (because of his English)(and my Korean).

I said, I think Korean people are great. One-on-one, Koreans are kind and welcoming. They are generous and friendly. I honestly love Korean people. I want to learn the Korean language to I can hear their stories and share some laughs. But Korean society is the opposite of Korean people. It excludes foreigners (and even some Koreans). It is hard to penetrate unless you are already accepted. It looks at foreigners with suspicion and (up to a certain point) disdain. It does not want to change. Things are done how they’ve always been done, because that’s how they’ve always been done (why should we change it?). There is sex and corruption to a level where it make my head spin.

I love Koreans, I really do. But Korean society for me is hard to accept, as it will never accept me. That’s what I think of Korea.

Fine, I didn’t put it exactly like that, but it was very similar, perhaps with more hand gestures…

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Finishing up

I finished my year-long contract Monday.

How does it feel? I don’t know. I have no issue leaving my job. I didn’t really like it. It didn’t give me a sense of accomplishment and I felt like I was nothing more than a symbol of “globalization” for my school (and the Korean government). But I’ll miss my kids. I’ll miss the ones that told me not to leave. The ones that gave me a note telling me they love me (and wrote “lie” in the back). I’ll miss the ones that never spoke to me in class but stared at me so hard (and smiled shyly when I returned their gaze). I’ll miss the ones that always shook me hand. The ones that couldn’t speak English but always spoke to me (in Korea, so I’m not sure what they said). And the ones that showed up late for class, but I let it slip because I know they were good students. (I’ll miss the one girl who gave me a note and a bookmark. In the note explaining she wants me to read many books so I can use her bookmark and think of her often. I wanted to cry at the beauty of her words)(Still do)

It’s weird. I hope they remember me. I hope I don’t fade away and get replaced by a vocabulary list. I hope I made a positive impact on their lives. I hope when they grow up, they can look at a map and think “that’s where my middle school teacher was from. I should go check it out.”. I hope they grow up to be smart and successful. Happy. Thinking about them, I want to cry at their first heartbreaks. When they’ll be in relationships with abusive partners. When they’ll be so scared of the future. Laugh and cheer when they’ll achieve their goals. When they’ll impress themselves with skills they didn’t even know they had. Dreams.

But I’ll be home (where ever that may be), and I’ll  think of them from time to time. And I’ll wonder what they’d doing. And I hope no tear comes to my eye, only a smile.

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Daydream

Sitting on the sidewalk in the shade today, a truck drove by my corner.

I wish I could draw what I dreamt when I saw it pass.

The Bongo truck was in good condition, but you could tell it had been put to good use. The blue paint was worn off here and there to show rust, or dents.

In the driver’s seat sat a handsome man. Strong features; high cheek bones, good-natured smile, thick black hair and eyes that carefully surveyed the road. His skin was dark. Like you’d expect from a man who works outside. Maybe a construction worker, or a farmer. His white shirt made the contrast with his skin even more striking.

Sitting next to him, his son was looking out the window. Small, maybe 5 or 6 years old, but with his father’s good-natured smile. The child was looking out the big passenger seat window, watching the unfolding scene with great interest. All innocent and interested. Full of love for his father. The man who controlled what he was seeing. The most powerful man in the world.

I like to imagine the son’s love and admiration for his father. A man, who despite being a good and honest man, might not have the respect those qualities should give him. But he doesn’t care. When he’s driving his truck, maybe delivering something, or picking something up, or whatever else you can do with a truck, he knows there’s not better job. The way his son loves to look out the window and point things out to him makes him smile that good-natured smile they share. When his son laughs at a small dog leading his equally small owner, the man wants no other job. His eyes survey the road with such caution. He would never want anything to harm his son.

When they go home, his heart soft and tender with joy and love, he’s the proudest man. His wife senses his love. She returns it. She sees her son’s love. She wants to show him how much she love him but there are no ways to express that. She does all she can and she hopes that he’ll know how deep her love for him goes. He’ll know, if he hasn’t already understood. The parents want to cry at the beauty in their house. Outside, pollution and noise and a ruthless sun. Inside, calm and beautiful.

And me? I’m at my corner. I’m watching them drive away and I wonder what was behind that man’s eyes and his boy’s smile.

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Visa problem blues

As you may have heard, I was planning on working in China for 4 months as a recruiter. Though I wouldn’t have gotten much money (160$ a month), I would have gotten housing and a meal at work. They also would have paid for my transportation and I would have gotten 10 hours of Chinese language lessons per week. Personally, I think the experience and the Chinese lessons made it worth it.

Unfortunately, I ran into a VISA problem. I needed a business visa for 4 months. To get Chinese visas, you need to go through travel agents. You can’t do it yourself at the embassy. So I contacted two travel agencies and at the end, neither could do a business visa. Probably has to do with being Canadian, contacting a Korean agency for a Chinese visa. I ended up spending a fair bit of time and money (I had a 170 000won physical in the morning and I was told in the afternoon I could get my visa), and in the end, it didn’t work. I called a Canadian travel agent to see if I could get my visa through her, but because my phone connection was a bit choppy, I had a tough time understanding why she couldn’t do it. However, I’m pretty sure she understood what I wanted and, as I understand, “….Business visa….3 months ok, but 4 months illegal…big trouble if you get caught….”. Last thing I need is trouble with the Chinese government. Something tells me they wouldn’t be as nice as the Brits.

It’s a bit of a bummer that my plans fell through, especially seeing how I only have a few days left in Korea, but I gonna keep keepin’ on, I say!

My boss contacted a friend at a local university and turned out there a vacancy at their English language center (a sort of university affiliated English academy). I had an interview and I would have gotten a job had I not wanted to take Korean classes too, since they’re offered at the Korean language center (university affiliated Korean academy) in the same building. Anyway, that probably won’t work out, so as I stand now, I’ll probably end up doing a bit of traveling, burn through my Korean savings and go back home after that. I just got contacted by a friend who’ll be traveling at the same time as I would be, so that’s promising.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at now. I really should start packing though, my contract’s over in a week. WOA! Time flies!

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Climbing Halla Mountain

One week ago, on Jeju, I climbed Halla Mountain. Halla Mountain is the tallest mountain in South Korea, coming in at an respectable 1950m. I couldn’t go to Jeju without climbing it, so at 10:15am, I packed my bag, grabbed some provisions and I scooted over to one of the hiking site to start my trek leading to the crater lake at the top. I started at around 11. There are 4 paths to the top, the one I took, Seongpanak Trail, is 9.6km and takes about 7 to 8 hours to complete. There’s a shorter trail that goes to the crater lake, but it takes longer. I figure it’s a more rigorous hike. Before I set off on my journey, one of the park workers told me that I wouldn’t be able to see the crater lake because the trail is divided in two and the top 3km (leading to the crater lake) closed at 1. Climbing up the 6km in 2 hours is uncommon, so he warned me I would be able to make it all the way. Hogwash, I say! I was going to make it to that checkpoint before 1!

I set off at a pretty good pace. Along the way, sat down on a log to have a drink. The forest was silent and I was surrounded my butterflies (though they may have been moths). It was great. By the 3rd kilometer, I had finished drinking 2L of sports drink. My pack was now a bit lighter and I was getting progressively more exhausted. Though it took a fair bit to push me to make it on time, thanks to my long legs, I made it at the checkpoint at 12:53. I was going to see that crater lake after all!

The top 3km was harder than I expected. I had overexerted myself on the first 6km, and I was now starting to think about a nice shower. By the time I made it to the top, fog had rolled in and I could barely see the lake. Regardless, I had made it. That’s all that mattered. At 2:30, we were ushered from the top (I figure so no one gets stuck on the mountain in the dark). At roughly 2:35, it started to rain. The weather up to that point had been great. It wasn’t too hot and the skis were clear. While it made the rocks a bit slippery, the rain didn’t affect me at all, I was already drenched.

After a good day of hiking, I finally made it to the parking lot at 6pm. And boy did that shower ever feel good!

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