Sunday, 31 August 2008

A change of scenery

As easy as my job is, each day brings along some difficulties/challenges which sometimes test my sanity. What am I doing here? When am I going home? How much longer can Groundhog Day go on? Why do people in the street still stare? Why can't people here que for up for things like the rest of the world does? Etc etc...

It had been about 10 months since I had returned to Korea and that was 10 months without a day off work and no vacation time. I badly needed to get out of town and go somewhere. This time, I went to Seoul with my girlfriend to spend two days relaxing. I needed to spend some money on myself, see different faces, see unfamiliar things and eat different food. It turned out pretty well.

Our hotel was smack-bang in the middle of Seoul, Myeongdong, close to everywhere and with some good shops to spend money in. We spent time in Itaewon, which is not a great place but the places to eat are good and there are some nice bars to drink in too. I met up with a long-time friend and his girlfriend and we ate and drank together. Good times.

We later passed by our hotel and found there was a huge demonstration/protest about to kick off. It was about the President, American beef that Korea imports which may or may not be infected with Mad Cow disease and the FTA (a big over simplification, but I don't know the story well enough to speak much about it). The whole thing was a little intimidating but not scary. I've never seen so many policemen, all armed with riot gear, in my life before. I must have seen 20-30 police vans too. The streets were packed and the vibe of the place was unsettling as this was the only time I've ever felt a little unsafe here. Korea in general is far safer than like back in England and I never feel in danger here, never, but this was different. The situation was awkward so we left quickly to another area. There must have been plenty of arrests, but the feeling I got about the situation was of people who like protesting found something to shout and complain about. They wanted a fight and found someone/something to fight against. All very strange, different and unsettling for a while but the whole thing left me feeling negative about certain aspects of life in Korea and the Korean mentality for some things.

The next day we watched some of the Olympics on TV then went shopping, more quality eating and then onto Insadong which is an area where tourists and locals can find plenty of traditional items to buy. It's a great place to buy gifts for family and friends. I've been before many times but I always come back and always buy something. This time was no different. We also saw an exhibition of a martial art I'd never heard of, Taekkyeon or 택견. This was very enjoyable and like hardly anything I'd seen before. the best description would be a cross between Tai Chi, dancing and Kung Fu. Very rhythmic, fluid and graceful. A most unexpected pleasure.

That was pretty much that as we headed home on a coach as we missed the last KTX train home. We had a good time and I got what I needed

In two weeks time my latest Asian adventure takes me to Hong Kong. I can't wait to get on that plane

Thursday, 7 August 2008

I've heard it all now

Ever since coming to Korea in 2005 I've heard my name mispronounced and misspelled countless times. It hasn't really bothered me much, after all what's in a name eh and not one I chose myself.

Gavin, or 가빈 in Korean is sometimes a little difficult for locals. The B and V sounds are very similar so for many people my name is pronounced GaBin. This I can take. My current school even booked my plane ticket as Gabin. No big deal, just a simple correction needed, right? During my time here I've also been called Kevin, Kavin, Kelvin, Garvin and Gevin (bizarrely by a former co-worker). My Costco card even reads Cavin. Students also seem to take particular delight in calling me Galbi teacher (a popular local rib-based barbecue dish found in countless places), which I pretend makes me furious, but as I said - It doesn't bother me at all. I'm sure there are others too, but I cannot recall them right now.

At my school our names are written on small card on the wall of the desks where we sit, so people can easily find who they're looking for and also spell and hopefully say our co-workers names correctly. Who cares if someone makes a mistake once or twice? My Korean is awful and I know it, so I don't think I am any 'better' than the people I work with and am surrounded by, far from it. Anyway...

Today we got a new Korean teacher and we were introduced.
Newbie "My name is (I can't remember it)"
Smiling, I say "I'm Gavin"
She said "Garden?"
Stunned, I say "No, Gavin"
New face again "Garden, really?!"
Again I say, now slowly, loudly and clearly irritated "Gavin"
Once more "Garden, hmmm difficult!"

It's possible that I will never speak to this person ever again.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Movin' On Up

As I sit at my computer drinking an ice cold beer on this hot and sticky night with my air-con cranked up, I feel most content right now. Today I received my Hapkido Brown Belt, awarded for a test taken over 2 weeks. Now the next challenge is for my Black Belt. Before returning to Korea i'd never have considered the possibility of taking on any form of martial arts. I'd passed them off as too time consuming, too difficult and even too macho for my liking. But now, nearly 10-months into my second spell in Korea, I am a few weeks away from testing for the Black Belt.

It's been a long road to where I am now, and looking back, I was so inflexible it's not funny. The journey started with the beginners belt, White, with it's introductary steps and basic principles that run through the upcoming belts. Then onto Yellow where more emphasis was placed on movement and power. Next came Blue with more kicks and more speed. And then onto Red which focussed on honing techniques already learned. Now I am a Brown Belt the hard work really starts.

Right now we're in the middle of Summer and after working, I go to my Dojang (the place where I train - like a gym, but different) at about 11pm. It's much cooler than in the day-time, but it's not easy for me at all. Each day consitutes a challenge of mind over matter, wanting to stop and relax but knowing that I won't improve if I do. I want to stop for a beer before and after every session but seldom ever do. I wonder what kind of dedication some of the people before me had in the days before air-con.

It's not a given that I will become a Black Belt. With each passing week my body is tested more and more and knocks become more longstanding. In training for the Brown Belt test I nearly broke one of my toes. That was over 3 weeks ago and I still have pain just from walking sometimes now. some time ago during one session of Falls, I banged my knee and have shooting 5 seconds of pain during some rolling movements. No, it's not certain by any means that I will pass. But, my Hapkido Master gives me confidence in myself and as my tecnique improves (fitness withstanding!) I'll be able to give it a real go.

Unlike Western society, Black Belts are ten-a-penny here in Asia, particularly in Korea where Taekwondo dojangs are abundant. Seemingly almost every kid has some form of training and its amazing how many children have Black Belts or higher status in their chosen field. Frankly, a Black Belt is no big deal here - totally unlike the almost mythical status they have in the West. Apart from 2 middle aged Korean men who sometimes test too, I'm by far the oldest person taking testing at my dojang. I don't know how old the youngest ones are - I'd guess 7, 6 or maybe even 5 years old so I'm over twice some of the kids size and over 3 times some of the kids weight.

Of course, there are plenty of teenagers, but it's been a long time since I was one of those! Oh, and from the next test onwards I'll be the only foreigner or 외국인. My Hapkido partner just left with her Black Belt, so now it's me on my own. I basically get a one-on-one lesson so there's no excuses for failure.

"Hapkido" is a Korean martial art based on self-defence which employs kicks, punches, joint-locks and other techniques.

hap can be translated into "harmony", ki describes "internal energy, strength, or power" and do means "way" or "art"

Friday, 1 August 2008

Are you satisfied with 24 to 25 billion won profit a year? (or) Coffee's For Closers

Last month, everyone in the staff-room receieved a letter from the owner of our school in what must be an idea to improve standards or something. When I think of motivational techniques, I prefer to think of this from Glengarry Glen Ross

I have read over this a few times and I'd love to think it's a late April Fools day gag but it isn't. I re-typed the letter to prove to myself that I wasn't daydreaming at work...

Dear M******** Family
How have you been? How are you doing in these hot summer days? I feel really sorry whenever I see people losing their patience. Nowadays, people in the city can't stand sweating even a little bit. Summer is supposed to be hot and we are supposed to sweat. But air conditioners are on everywhere and they block our sweat pores. This is why we get sick so often. (We lose patience and become weaker.)
Recently, local newspapers have been writing about me, about which I hear a lot of comments. This is why I decided to write to you guys.

For CEO's who own one or two academies, M******** is HUGE. But I do not have time to compare my academies with those little academies. Tunton English schools and Yoon's English, Si-sa, Kumon, etc... There are a lot of bigger English Education companies that make over several hundreds billion won of profit every year.

My question is this. Can we catch up with them? Are we ready? I'm asking you this because it's not a battle between us and them, it's a battle in ourselves. Now is the important moment to look back at ourselves and see if we have it in us. Is this what we want? Are you satisfied with 24 to 25 billion won profit a year and being compensated accordingly? Please don't say "yes."

My dear family! We have a long journey to travel. That journey could be boring, tough, and irritating. But we must keep going. we must enjoy the journey. We, M******** people can do it. I can promise you something. Our company may not become the largest in Korea, but I assure you that it will be the best at compensating employees. But can I do it all alone? No. We all have to do it TOGETHER.

So my dear family, let's keep our eyes open and make people think that M******** is different. Good luck to all of us again! CEO M********

I particularly 'enjoy' the line where the owner ask us if we are satisfied about how much money he makes per year. All the foreigners in the office read in disbelief at this, laughed and poured scorn over this bizarre letter, but none of the Korean staff joined in with us or even seemed to acknowledge it ever happened.

Towing the party line is the done thing here for Korean employees and anything else seemingly isn't socially acceptable. The boss is never wrong, you are indebted to them for employing you (in public that is) and losing face must never happen. Whilst i'm pretty certain most of the Koreans felt the same way as the rest of us, it would have been nice to hear one of them to admit it even in private.

Maybe "3rd prize is you're fired" would have been better...
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