Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bound for Hong Kong

Just one day left at work before a five day vacation. Starting tomorrow, Korea begins to celebrate Chuseok which is their Harvest festival and one of the biggest holidays of the year. I have managed to get extra time off work and am heading off to Seoul tomorrow morning to do something very important and special before flying to Hong Kong. Last years trip their was a great experience and one I can't wait to repeat and do the things I couldn't last time. Today I will be on autopilot, like most Wednesdays. I need a holiday so badly its not true.

The forecast for Hong Kong is pretty grim though. Looks like its scattered thunder storms during my entire stay. Hopefully they will be scattered while I am sleeping. Regardless a wet holiday is still a holiday. I will be spending a fair bit of cash if I see something which takes my eye and cannot wait to sample some decent quality food. Daegu lacks good Western restaurants and that's not something you can accuse Hong Kong of lacking.

And on top of my trip to Hong Kong I am going to squeeze a day trip to Macau. That's Macau - where the casinos take in more money than on the Las Vegas strip. Macau is just one hours travel from Hong Kong so time is no issue. I have never been inside a casino before and don't exactly know what to expect other than to come away a poorer man, money-wise. I think inside the buildings photography is prohibited but overall I hope to take some pictures on my holiday that have some essence of the time I spend there. The rain cannot dampen my enthusiasm for this trip out of Korea. Time to relax and enjoy myself.

Cashing in some of my chips

Yesterday was pay day and possibly the biggest single pay day I will see in my life. On top of my monthly wage I picked my assorted bonuses for finishing my contract and I can tell you I am one happy man right now. The bonuses for an ESL teacher in Korea can make it worthwhile living here, that's for sure. I have a few days left on my current contract but I got paid up for the whole twelve months. One thing though. My maths and the accounting staffs maths seem to be different and I feel I am missing around £150-300. I cannot dispute this yet as I am yet to receive my pay slip though should get it any day soon. I hope everything can be ironed out soon.

Pay day has come at the right time as the exchange rates have recently been pretty favourable. About three months ago £1 was about 2,100 won and now the rate is around £1 = 1900 won which is not bad at all. Not perfect and not even a twelve month high but OK considering around one year ago £1 was 2413 won. I don't know if its a strengthened Korean won or a weakened British pound but I suspect its a stronger Korean currency. I have sent home roughly three months salary with more to be sent home after I come back from Hong Kong. Maybe the exchange will be even better then, who knows.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Indiana Jones and the rain that won't stop

It's Sunday here in Daegu, South Korea. 8:30pm and its been raining all day. Times like this remind me of being back home in Bolton where it seems to rain everyday. I've stayed inside for most of the day with my girlfriend and Korean cable TV has been running the Indiana Jones films (not the recent one which is poor). What a nice way to spend a lazy Sunday, particularly after yesterdays exertion.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Hapkido black belt success

In the lead up to todays test I felt confident that I knew enough to pass but also enough to show I have improved a lot in the twelve months since my 1st degree black belt test. Though I have practised hard in the past year it has not always shown in my tests so I was a little anxious to actually show what I could do. Anxious but not really nervous, which is in total contrast to this time last year.

Feeling more relaxed certainly helped me as I did quite well, the best I have done so far. I have definitely passed this test (though they wont tell me officially until I pick up my new belt in two months time). The reason I know I have passed is because I won an award. I won a trophy and a certificate. At every test at my dojang after everything has been completed there are prizes handed out for best kicks etc etc and a prize called 최우수상, which translates to roughly 'best of the best' and that was the award I was given. Shocked and surprised, I've had a big smile on my face since. I also got a lot of praise from my fellow students, many of whom speak only a few random words in English. This meant a lot to me as many a time I have felt that my technique lacks something when compared to some of the kids who I see. To be honest I don't know if I deserved the award, but it feels good to have won!

The thought of winning an award has been a motivation for me for a long while and there have been one or two times where some eleven year old has beaten me, much to my chagrin! I have to admit that for a long while I thought that I wouldn't get an award because a) I'm not good enough or b) I'm not Korean. I am glad to be proved wrong on both counts. I am still very surprised that I was awarded the best 'performer' on the day. It proves that I am improving and there is a sense of vindication and validation for me taking up hapkido and continuing even though I am the only foreigner at my dojang. I wonder if I am the only foreigner to have won 최우수상 or any trophy at my dojang?

Overall I would rate my test 7/10 for my performance but 10/10 for the experience. I feel that I made a few mistakes but some can be put down to adrenalin but looking back at the video I can see things that I messed up but don't do when I'm not training. I now cannot wait to get back to training for my next test at the end of November. Picking up the new belt is going to be a fantastic feeling. I already feel extremely satisfied. Getting a black belt here in Korea is not so difficult especially if you dedicate some time and make some sacrifices but getting a 2nd degree one is not so common for foreigners here as many stay for only one year. One thing I know is that I can get better as long as I train hard. I know I can train harder. I hope I continue to improve and wonder what great experiences there are for me in the future. Suddenly all the aches and pains feel worth it.

In shock, some how I was awarded the 'best of the best' award

Receiving my award, still in shock

A proud picture with my hapkido Master, a 6th degree black belt

With the Master's assistant who oversees much of my training. He is a 4th degree black belt

Above is the video for the test with some edits (I left a few things out). Looking back at the video I remembered how much fun I had during the test and even watching it again made me smile. Despite my technique flaws its important to remind myself why I go to hapkido, because its fun and that's while I'll keep going.

Friday, 25 September 2009

One track mind

On Wednesday I gave my classes a simple activity that they could do in pairs or alone. They had to match a list of countries with a list of food that comes from that country. Korea matches with kimchi, Japan matched with sushi etc etc. After completion I asked them each to make a sentence beginning with "I would like to eat..." then make another one "I would like to go to.... because....".

One answer I got back was "I would like to go to hamburger"

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Cards in the classroom

A few months ago I caught one of my students playing with some cards when he should have been studying in class. I confiscated them and planned to give them back later on. I never did give them back to him as I basically forgot, and they held so little value with him that he never asked for them back. I jokingly hand them to kids who give a bad answer sometimes in an exaggerated manner like a bad football referee. A couple of weeks later, one kid handed me a new card with a new piece of student artwork. He was kidding and it was funny at the time.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Hapkido AND Taekwondo

As my 2nd degree black test edges closer and closer I find that my mind is not just focused on this but on what I might do next. I'm ready for Saturdays test and feel I could pass it today if need be but there is something else. After getting this belt there will be a relative ceiling on how far I can progress rank-wise so I'm thinking of looking into taking up something new. I find hapkido both enjoyable and challenging but to some extent there has been a lot of repetition over the past two years and I continue to wonder how far I can go with it past getting my 2nd dan. I do not want to stop hapkido this year but I have been thinking that some time around March or May I may stop going. I certainly doubt that I will be training at night when the summertime comes around again in 2010.

Over the past few months I have had the thought running through my mind that perhaps it could be time to take up taekwondo. There are a few hapkido gyms (dojangs, 도장) around where I live but there are lots of taekwondo dojangs within a twenty minute walk from my apartment. With nearly two years of hapkido training I believe I could pick up the basics without too much hassle. I have been told by a few people that it is mainly kicking but I find this hard to believe. Reading up on taekwondo over the internet, several sites claim that many of hapkidos kicks are derived from taekwondo so I would have a nice head start if this is true. It would be very interesting to find out more on the sport as so many people grow up studying it in Korea. Many of my past and present students have learned it for years. It is far more popular than hapkido and it is rare on a week day to not see some kid on the street wearing a taekwondo uniform.

Is it possible to train in both martial arts at the same time? Time-wise, yes. I train at hapkido at night, after work. I start work at around 4pm so after then it is not possible, but before then I would have plenty of time. Money-wise there is no problem. I pay 80,00won a month at hapkido and would imagine something similar for taekwondo so that's easily manageable. One potential problem would be that IF I trained early (I can't define early other than being before 4pm) then I would probably train with a bunch very young students and that would not be ideal for both me and the instructor. Perhaps there are some very early am classes where only adults train. The big problem of course would be finding someone who speaks decent enough English to train me. I believe it to be possible as somebody I knew when she was in Korea studied at a place very near where I live and told me that her instructor spoke English. I think I will pop in one day and ask a few questions.

Let's think about the up-side of doing both together. Surely learning taekwondo would compliment my hapkido, leaving me more flexible and maybe stronger. Fitness-wise it would help. I need to lose a few kilograms and hapkido alone isn't always an intensive workout. Studying taekwondo would help be exercise more and perhaps be a little more self-disciplined. A wonderful bonus may be that I would actually be tired before 3am and get more sleep. Of course one of the factors running around my brain is the prospect of picking up another black belt but this time in another martial art. Back home, picking up a black belt would take a lot longer than here where I would be getting expert guidance. My feeling is that it could be an unmissable opportunity. At the very least I would be learning something new and meeting new people which can only be a good thing. I ask myself, is it possible to study and train in both hapkido AND taekwondo at the same time? Much to think about.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Friday window in Korea

Disillusioned with the day at work I again turn to matters outside and witness some excitement away from my workplace in Korea. This time, a new electronic store had opened right near my academy. This was one of the ideas they had to promote the store. Sadly the balloon was only up and running for the one night.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Hapkdip black belt test coming up

I've pretty much learned all the things I need to learn for my next hapkido test. There is just some fine tuning left before next weekends test for my 2nd degree black belt. This is the thing that's been a big motivation for me over the past twelve months. As in previous tests I am a little nervous but my technique is sound enough to pass. Also, like previous tests I feel compelled to try extra hard because I am the only 'foreigner' at my dojang, where a whole bunch of kids and their relatives will be gawping at me for a while.

Another motivation arrived yesterday when I was handed the form I need to fill in to take the test. Every time I take a test I have to pay a fee. As was with my 1st degree black belt test this time the fee is a lot higher because you get a new belt plus other things when you pass. The belt is very nice to look at. Last time the fee was £75 but this time it is £100 (200,000 won). Doh. It will be worth it when I pass the test and pick up the new belt at the pre-test ceremony in November. I have no fear of failing. My Master knows my strengths and weakness' and seems to think my technique is getting better and better.

Right now my body is aching after all the jumping around and falling I've been doing this week. There are just six more practice sessions before the test and hopefully I can get some rest when I'm not training - i.e. at work. After the test I will take some time out to relax, go on holiday and get some small medical problems looked at. Beyond that I feel that maybe I have perhaps six-eight months left of hapkido in Korea. It will be a sad day when I pack it in here but that's some way off for now.

When Harry Met Sally moment. In Korea. With Pepsi

I'm not one for drinking a lot of coke, lemonade, fizzy drinks etc etc. They rot your teeth and leave an artificial feeling in my mouth. I like the 'diet' drinks even less so. They have zero calories and no taste like medicine to me. This Korean model however just loves Pepsi. I mean really loves the new Pepsi Nex out here in Korea. Anyone would think she was being paid for this ad. Oh wait...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The sound of Korean Summers

It is unmistakable and unavoidable. It is hypnotic and suffocating. It is the sound of Summer in Korea. It is cicadas, cicadas and even more cicadas. If you have ever visited Korea during the Summer time then you must have heard that noise. If not, then the best way to describe it is similar to electricity power lines crackling with power. Buzzing, alive and unnerving, the sound ripples through the daytime on this peninsula. Here is a video clip where I hope the sound gives a brief impression of what it's like here during the Summer months.

Summer is at a close and the seasons are changing but the noise can still be heard sometimes during the day, especially when you are close to some trees. You will hear a loud electrical kind of sound coming out of nowhere. The noise then moves to another set of trees, then to another and goes on and on. This is the true sound of Summer in Korea to me. Not children playing in the streets. Not fruit selling men driving trucks early in the morning. But cicadas. When I first came to Korea in 2005 I knew little about the many things that lay in store for me and naturally I had never heard of cicadas. I look forward to the future where I never hear them again because the sound is most unnatural. I know I won't be hearing them back in England. Anyway, I tried, unsuccessfully (despite their size) to take a decent picture of a cicada. Here is my attempt.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Ernesto "Che" Guevara Korea loves you

During the bus ride back from shopping at Costco over the weekend I was left standing for the duration of the journey back home. Glancing around the bus I noticed something which has probably been on there for many a week or month.

The poster is advertising Daegu bus/subway cards. Nothing out of the ordinary, these are essential for anyone who isn't super rich or people who must use taxis. Using the city bus card means you can travel cheaply. Apparently these bus cards now come in a variety of guises. Mine is just the simple ordinary card but for those who like a more colourful card then take your pick. And for those revolutionary Korean bus riding folk there is this.

A "Che" Guevara bus card. Another example of Korea borrowing popular culture and KoreaFying it. I just made up a word there. I ask myself, who would buy such an item? I doubt very much that the average potential consumer of such a product here would know the differences between Marxism, Communism or Socialism. Regardless, South Korea loves you Ernesto "Che" Guevara. If I see a David Beckham bus card I will probably be involuntarily sick or spontaneously combust.

£80million Liverpool FC deal

Today Liverpool have announced, as expected, a new shirt sponsor from the 2010-11 season. Standard Chartered Bank have agreed to pay an estimated £20million a year for a four year contract with the Reds. With the transfer window now shut till January Rafa Benitez obviously cannot spend any of the money. The question is, will he be allowed to spend any of the cash when the new window arrives or will he have to wait till the Summer of 2010? Perhaps more pertinently, will he be allowed any of the money at all or will it go to servicing our astronomical debt?

The deal certainly is a positive step for Liverpool as many aspects of the clubs commercial side have been woefully inadequate. You have to say certain people over the last twenty years at the club have sold LFC short commercially, so well done to those at the club who have managed to pull this off. The problem of Tom Hicks and George Gillett still remains. The debt is still significant and the new stadium is still only on the drawing board, with some recent reports suggesting that it might not be ready until 2018. While 'they' are at the club, the future does not look bright, sponsorship deal or no sponsorship deal.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Wednesday art apology

Last week, one of my Wednesday students got under my skin as she was showing a lot of 'princess' attitude. As the class was wrapping up I let one of the kids know that her behaviour was unacceptable and she needs to treat people better in future. I've taught her before and she's a good student but recently she was developing a bit of an attitude. As I've posted before, this class is a lot of fun and always produces something interesting so whatever craziness goes on in class I always let it slide. I immediately forgot about last week as soon as the class finished. I came to the classroom yesterday and was greeted by more artwork, an apology and another incorrect spelling of my name!

13 months

Looking today at the mental countdown that I'm constantly running in my head, I have just three weeks to go before the Chuseok holidays and my trip off the peninsula. More importantly there are just thirteen months before I finally leave Korea. One of my co-workers told me today that he has 111 days left. Lucky him, but at least I'll be able to save quite a bit in the remaining months. The upcoming holiday is well needed and is timely. As for the future, it seems a long way off but is within touching distance. Will my sanity hold up or will something be forever lost in Korea?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Another window in Korea

Wednesday. Bored. Outside always seems more exciting. Lights, camera, action.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Masquerade day at work in Korea

Today was the first day of the rules implemented to help 'prevent' H1N1 at my workplace. All the teachers had face masks on at work. However about 50% of my students didn't bring them and those that did, didn't like wearing them so in general didn't for most of the classes. I expected a kaleidoscope of colours and a display of Korean popular youth culture on the kids faces but today it just wasn't to be.

I had interpreted the information given to me by my managers to be that student's must wear them at all times inside the academy. This was far from the case so either I got this wrong or the suggestions were not being implemented. A far bigger issue, for me was that some of the Korean staff were taking this less than seriously. Either we all we wear the masks or we all don't. A halfway house cannot work. So far so useless. But we will persist. Here are some pictures of some of my students taken today at work. Some with masks, some without and some improvising.

Teacher: "Where is your mask?"
Student: "Errrr. I was busy"

A student clearly enjoying my class. By that I mean not listening to me and drawing for fifty minutes.

A success story!

Face mask or napkin? Or towel? Or nappy? Improvisation is what it is!

Making the best out of the situation. I guess.

More to come as the story continues...

Sunday, 6 September 2009

£1 H1N1 solution

Today I purchased my now mandatory-for-work face mask. It cost 2,000₩ or £1. As I said when I found out it was compulsory for work, I don't object to it whatsoever but this cynical Englishman finds it hard to believe that £1 will prevent me from picking up H1N1 or other problems. Especially when there is no soap in the bathrooms at work! Old habits die hard in this country and there certainly are some hygiene issues that need dealing with before getting hysterical about influenza. On a side note, I look ridiculous with the mask on. I would dearly love to go to work wearing something like the William Shatner/Halloween mask but I think that's out of the question here.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Snapshot of the classroom

Let's end the week on a positive note. Here is one of my favourite students where I work. I think I enjoyed his t-shirt more than he did on this day.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Michael Jackson look-a-like competition next week

Developments at work.

A memo has been sent round to all branches of my company in response to the growing concern in Korea of the H1N1 virus. Whether English teachers like it or not, people in Korea are starting to get more and more worried. For what it's worth, I am not concerned myself. People get ill, people get flu and sometimes unhealthy people die from flu. I know it's more complicated than that but I look after myself and don't consider my lifestyle to be putting me at risk. However, working with kids all day changes the equation doesn't it.

A number of schools in my city, Daegu, have at some point closed for a while or have sent students and teachers home because of H1N1 worries. So far, so good with my workplace. Now though all the children are back at school after their long summer holidays and there are worries that somewhere and somehow the H1N1 virus will start to spread.

Today every student received a letter whilst in class informing them that from Monday they must come to class wearing a face mask - exactly like Michael Jackson used to wear in his later years, presumably to avoid something! And all teachers are to wear masks too - though not at all times in the classroom, mostly just in the corridors and stairwells where there are many people intermingling. I picture a scene of fifty minutes of mumbling in the classroom for 'as long as this lasts'. Indeed one of my students wisely asked me today how could the class go on if nobody could tell what anyone is saying. It won't be as bad as it sounds. At the very least it will be entertaining and something to talk about.

It could be worse. As I said some schools have has periods of closure where people don't get paid. All workers have been reassured that schools will not be closed, vacations will not be cancelled and there will be no quarantine of teachers who go abroad for the October holiday period - basically that would be everybody! I do not know for how long these measures will be taken but I am presuming for a few weeks at least. 'As long as I get paid' is the mantra that I am holding onto.

Prevention is better than a cure and I hope any changes are embraced by myself and my co-workers. So far it looks like we don't have to do much and I need to remember that this is going to protect my job. Hopefully this will make some parents feel that their children are 'safer' and hysteria will, as the seasons change be not be so manic nationwide. I'm pretty certain that if I was a parent I would be more concerned about things too. Roll on November time when the so-called vaccinations are due.

I am still not used to seeing people wear face masks, When I first came to Korea I was often surprised to see many people wearing them out and about the streets largely during the Winter months. I assumed that it was because of the polluted air but was once informed that it was the keep your face warm from the cold. In Korea face masks worn by children are often colourful. I look forward to taking some pictures of how this pans out and what colourful masks the children come up with.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Bumping into Ricky Martin in Korea

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery right? Well in Korea imitation is sometimes seen in many places. On signs, posters, logos, shops etc etc. There are certain things Korea likes to 'use' in order to aid a business - for example, fried chicken stores are pretty good at copying other peoples ideas for logos or even company names with a slight spelling change. When I go to Costco I sometimes get their pizza, and the other day another pizza company posted a flier on my apartment door. Their name was CostCut and the packaging/logo design was indistinguishable from Costco. For many a foreigner there is some kind of pleasure to be drawn out of seeing the latest example of 'replication'. Here's what I found whilst stumbling around Homeplus one evening last week.

The picture is not fantastic but a closer look (clicking on it) shows you that the name of the company is Ricky Martin, well RickEy Martin. Unless said Mr. Martin has joined the fast food business I firmly doubt that this has his legal endorsement. Regardless, being associated with a 'star' is seemingly essential to the success of many a company out here. So many fast food chains send out fliers to apartments with semi famous people plastered all over the cover in some fake excitable pose. Turn on the TV and you can sometimes struggle to see a commercial with someone who isn't famous. They love to use pop stars to promote many goods. Of course this is not necessarily a trend unique to Korea. It's true that every country uses it's famous people to sell products and it's always funny to see Woody Allen or Sean Connery totter of to Japan to collect their millions for selling whiskey. But in Korea it just sometimes seems like they go the extra mile with 'celebrities'. I wonder what these celebrities actually make from the endorsements.

So what is RickEy Martin selling? It's squid - a Korean favourite of many a native here. If you can read the Korean alphabet (Hangul) you can see that you can order a Ricky (3,000 ₩) a Martin (3,000 ₩) or a Ricky Martin (5,000 ₩). Tempting prices even for this squid hating Englishman. God bless you Korea and your very relaxed/non-existent copyright laws! A likely explanation for Rickey Martin is it's some kind of cartoon character being used to peddle the food but it's a bit cheeky eh.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Turning the page

As I flip my calender over to September I have a feeling of relief that Summer is finally coming to an end. It's not over yet and I'm sure there may be a sting in the tail with some temperature spikes still to come but basically Korea and Daegu (the warmest city in Korea) are cooling down. Temperatures are down from the low thirties to the high twenties. What a relief this pleasant Summer has been. I remember one Summer in Daegu having many few days of 38°C weather. I think the highest we've had this year has been 34°C. The weather has been unseasonally cool for most of the time. The problem of humidity has not been such an issue this year too.

Times seems to go so quickly these days. Seasons come and go where am I heading? September should see me in a good mood. I expecting to be picking up my contract completion bonuses at the end of the month. I've been looking forward to that for a long long time. Alas it's all going to be sent home to be put in the bank for 'the future'. Perhaps September will be a low key month but it will be a very expensive one. Paying for my hapikdo test and new belt, a holiday and something very shiny is all going to cost money but everything should be worth it come October time.
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