Monday, 30 November 2009

Taekwondo day 1

Just back from my first Taekwondo class. After a few weeks of checking prices and times one of my co-workers and I decided to go for it. The place we are now going to is just five minutes from our apartments and the time is 1:40 - 2:40. which is perfect as it gives me all morning to do things but also gives me over an hour of free time before work begins It is the first time our new Master has taught non-Koreans. He doesn't speak much English right now but it looks like his wife has decided to take classes with us - his wife speaks decent English, which is a great help. The atmosphere is good, very friendly and relaxed.

Because this is the first time for him to teach people Westerners our first month is free. Our uniform is also free. From my experience, uniforms are usually around 20,000won (£10). If we like the classes, we can continue at 60,000won for three days a week or 80,000won for five days. I think I'll be sticking with the three days for a while, not bad for £30 a month. The dojang is filled with young kids when we study but today we went to a side room and did some basics such as warm up routines and stances. So far, so good and not too difficult. I'm hoping my hapkido experience will stand me in good stead. I am, though, a lowly white belt once more. Hard to get used to that feeling again but I'll have to. More to come as the adventure begins.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Day at the basketball

After a week or two of persuading, my wife agreed to go with me to see a basketball game here in Daegu. I am not a fan of the sport but from experience I can say that its a lot more fun than watching professional Korean football or baseball. I'd only been to two previous basketball games (both in Korea) before and knew that the skill level of the players and teams wasn't fantastic. However, I did enjoy both times and thought we could have fun while not spending too much money. Christmas is coming, after all.

The tickets were 7,000won each (£3.50) for the area we sat in. These were the cheapest tickets available but even from the back you could see all the action. As soon as we got there I could see my wife would enjoy the day. Her enjoyment made me have a great time too. She really got into the game and the relaxed atmosphere. I enjoyed the game even though Daegu Orions lost to Ulsan. I don't think the game was particularly good but that wasn't really the point because I didn't have any stake in the game. The buzz in the stadium was good and there were no breaks in the action/entertainment. Hopefully we can go again some time soon.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

After Dark (there is only noise)

For two years in my Daegu apartment I've had some good times. Nothing to really complain about. Sure there's been some crazy noises here and there but by and large it's been two years of trouble free peaceful living. Then a few months ago another ESL teacher moved into the building (not a co-worker). And things changed. At first there was no difference but that didn't last long. I. Have. A. Very. Noisy. Neighbour.

When I say noisy I must stress that during the daytime there is no trouble. In fact there is probably more noise coming from the music on my laptop than from her place. And then day turns to night. AM turns to PM and things often change. She has an unbelievably noisy voice, unbelievably noisy friends, makes unbelievably noisy phone calls that I cannot fail to hear, has a noisy TV and has a friend that recently knocked on her apartment for ten minutes without answer at 7am recently. But none of my Korean neighbours complain. It beggars belief. I just don't understand it.

I am a light sleeper at the best of times but when someone is so bloody noisy at 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7am AM (times I have been woken up at least ten times during the past two months) then you can't help but be extremely annoyed. Let's be honest, it's not every night and recently things have been largely pretty quiet but last night the straw broke the camels back and I had to knock on her door after being woken up at around 4am. Again. After asking for a bit of quiet things were great again. I'm sure she's a nice person but her voice is intolerably loud. I have never met someone who talks as loud as her. Perhaps she is deaf. There is a solution at hand. I'm probably going change apartment next month, fingers crossed. My noisy North American neighbour, I won't miss you.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Hapkido update

My body is aching in several places after my hapkido Master put me through my paces these past two days. I'm still far below the level I reached at the end of September but that's to be expected. Never mind though, there's no rush because I won't be taking the latest round of tests.

Every two months at my hapkido dojang we have a series of tests with students all of levels. These tests have to be passed before the students can move onto the next belt level. There is some stress involved but in reality the hard work has gone in before test day. Barring a disaster I feel passing the test is probably a formality.

The latest tests were due this weekend but won't take place in their usual format. There will be no parents coming to watch or judges to check them out. The tests will take place during the classes that the students have at our dojang during this week - the usual test format has been changed due to H1N1 fears. Due to missing several weeks through illness I won't be taking any test till next year, around the end of January but I'm not too fussed at that.

When there are Saturday tests, previous test students who have passed a significant black belt test (1st, 2nd and 3rd dan) are awarded their belts by judges in front of fellow students. That won't be happening so I will probably pick up my belt next week in one of my classes. That's a bit of a shame as last test I won a prize (roughly translated into 'best of the best') so I was looking forward to picking up my new belt in front of the kids. Well at least I'll be getting my belt. This will represent a big portion of the last two years of my life. I can't wait.

Monday, 23 November 2009

10 reasons to take up Taekwondo

I have decided to take up Taekwondo. I find myself stuck in a similar routine most week mornings and lucky to have enough of time, money and enthusiasm to study with the aim of getting a black belt before I leave Korea. All over Korea there are thousands and thousands of Taekwondo dojangs and practically every week day I see some kid in a uniform so why not take this up?

There is perhaps too much choice though. How am I supposed to know what dojang is better than an other one or what Master is better than somebody else? I have done some research and found six dojangs within five minutes walk from my apartment. I am still in the process of deciding and hope to pop into one some time this week. Each place costs around the same, 80,000won a month (£40) but the times vary though they are all do-able so it's probably pot luck as to which place is better. Here are my considered reasons, in no order, for taking up Taekwondo.
  1. Some extra form of exercise can't do me any harm
  2. Meeting some new people could be nice
  3. Logically this should improve my Hapkido which I am planning on continuing. It should help both my flexibility and my kicking. Doing Hapkido for two years should also give me a head start for the first few months
  4. I can be a little more immersed in Korean culture. I'm aware I should do more 'Korean' things
  5. Helping me have a more meaningful daytime.
  6. The challenge of something new to do and a goal (black belt) to go for
  7. It will mean me wasting less of my time on the Internet reading
  8. Probably will only take up three or four days a week so I have more than enough time
  9. The possibility of getting a 2nd black belt but in another discipline is a bit exciting, especially as getting a black belt in anything back home in the UK take two or three times longer than in Korea
  10. It's cheap so why not? I know I won't have this opportunity back home

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Obama in Korea(n popular culture)

Student view on Kim Jong-il

Yesterday. The aim of the lesson was to understand and to use HAS TO and HAVE TO. After a while I wrote six names on the board including my name. I asked the students to roll a die and make a sentence with the relevant grammar and using the name they rolled. Example "Gavin teacher has to be nice to students". Student rolls a six thus picking the name Kim Jong-il. Student, emphatically "Kim Kim Jong-il has to die!"

Monday, 16 November 2009

New name. Again

I am constantly having my name said wrong or incorrectly written (here in Korea). Yesterday I heard of a new name for me. Hyeong Boo (형부). It may sound like an insult but it's not. One of my wife's friends used it over the weekend. I didn't know what it meant so asked. It means older sister's husband. My wife doesn't have any sisters but here in Korea it is common to hear of friends referring to an older friend as 'older brother or sister'. It is an affectionate term. I doubt I'll hear this name again pretty soon but it was nice to hear about it.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Books in Korea. Watchmen

Time on my hands and money to burn. So it would seem whilst being Korea. One of the pitfalls of ESL teachers here is how do you spend your time? Over the four years or so I've been here I've wasted a lot of time but not all of it! One pleasing thing about this excess of time is the chance to read. I spend a big chunk of the day reading the English newspapers and some selected blogs of people in Korea. And of course I also like to read books when I have the chance. I say "have the chance" because choice, on first inspection, is limited. Limited because where I live, there is only one main bookstore (Kyobo) in the downtown area of Daegu, where I live. The main bookstore downtown has a very limited choice in its store and also the prices are far too high. Getting books shipped in from home is too expensive so you can rule that out. So, looking at the Internet I have two main choices. The Kyobo book store website and WhatTheBook.

After my recent DMZ trip I spend the rest of the weekend in Seoul relaxing with my wife. This gave me a chance to visit the What The Book store in the Itaewon district. It was exciting to be in a real book store again with an emphasis much less on education than is the case with Kyobo. There was a decent selection but a few too many second hand books taking up shelf space. One good thing about What The Book is that they speak English, the website is in English and they have free delivery. However, for many publications, the Kyobo website is just a little bit cheaper and they do have a point card system where you can use your points as cash on purchases. The drawback here though is, realistically, you have to read Korean or get a Korean to order your book for you. It is manageable though.

During my time in Seoul at What the book I must have spent an hour there looking forlornly for things I wanted (many of the great titles on my shopping list needed to be ordered in advance) but also going through sections I would normally ignore. In the comic book section that I would normally ignore I saw a second hand copy of Watchmen, the famous Alan Moore graphic novel. Having seen the film earlier this year and enjoying it I thought I'd give the book a go, especially as a) the copy was in very good condition and b) the front cover is so damn cool. A few days later I picked it up and started to read. What an amazing book. A real page turner. Well written, compelling and challenging too with diverse and interesting characters. I would recommend the book to most people who can suspend belief, have an open mind and who don't detest violence. However I must say that I preferred the ending that we see in the film version over the book ending (good though it is). Has this opened up a new world for me of graphic novels? I look forward to spending my free time here in Korea.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Yesterday. Korean Laser beams

Elementary school Wednesday class.
Subject: Conjunctions AND, BUT, OR

Me "Ok make two sentences but change this into one with AND"
Girl "My friends girls AND boys"
Me (teasing her slightly) "You have a boyfriend? I didn't know"
Girl "NO! I have girlfriends!"
Boy "Girlfriend? Ha, ha ha. You're a Laser beam!"

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

I need a new watch

A mere eleven months to go. Surely a formality to finish this contract with ease. Malaise. Do I want time to fly by or drift aimlessly as usual? I am not sure anymore. Repetition, repetition, repetition. A wheel that turns again and again but never goes anywhere. Going nowhere. New students have changed the dynamics of most of my classes. Perhaps this is a good thing for me. New personalities to figure out. Eleven months in the grand scheme of time is nothing but for now this is not my line of thought. I cannot stop myself from checking the clock.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My Korean neighbour

I don't know if my neighbour has a new DVD our a CD or whatever but I wish they would stop playing Michael Jackson's Heal The World very loudly at 1am every night. Thank you Mr. Korean neighbour but I don't need your jukebox medley of 80's hits right now.

Halloween at the DMZ/Panmunjom/North Korea

July 27th, 1953. This was the day of the ceasefire of the Korean war. The following armistice saw a buffer zone created on both sides of the border with troops from both armies retreating . This border stretches some 155 miles long and around 2.5 miles wide. This is where I travelled to on October 31st, 2009 to tour the DMZ, "the most heavily militarized border in the world".

Both Koreas are still at war as a peace treaty was never signed. Despite the passing of time, the situation is still a serious one and reunification remains only a distant prospect right now. Both sides currently represent different ways of life. All throughout the tour were reminders of the severity of the situation. Millions dead, families torn apart and one nation pursing a course of action that would lead to the deaths of countless numbers of their people. Technically still at war with neither side winning one wonders what may happen next with both countries.

Onto the tour. Living at the other side of the country meant that my co-workers and I had to travel to Seoul in the early hours of the morning. Being a light sleeper I didn't sleep on the train, leaving me exhausted later that day. The actual tour departs from Camp Kim, Seoul at 7:30am though I never did truly work out why such an early start was needed. The journey to the DMZ took around ninety minutes during which our Korean guide gave our a briefing on what we should expect and what we would be doing. She also gave her slant on the North Koreans and some stories of what had happened between the two countries over the past few years.

Upon arrival at Panmunjom, a small village around the DMZ area, we transferred to a new bus accompanied by some American troops. They proceeded to give us their viewpoint on a few things before we went to a room to see as quick presentation and summary of the war. Here I was also given a form to sign stating what we should and shouldn't do and that we understood that we were entering such a dangerous area.

Panmunjom is home of the JSA (Joint Security Area). It was in this area that we saw things that I shall remember for a long while. After another quick bus ride where we saw what has been dubbed the worlds most dangerous golf course (just one hole), a massive North Korean flag and and some lovely autumnal scenery - the area, because there are so little people around has become something of a wildlife haven.

During our time in the JSA we got to see the Military Demarcation Line. Here there are many building on either side of the 'border' and in one of the small buildings we were allowed into. This building is where various negotiations, meetings and signings have taken place. While here there was one American soldier (our tour guide for this part) and two South Korean soldiers, a table and some chairs. Going around the table you step onto North Korean territory so technically I have been into North Korea.

It is around the Military Demarcation Line and inside this building that the tour gets very serious indeed and you are constantly reminded of what you can do and what under no circumstances you cannot do. You cannot engage in any contact with the North Korean soldiers. The South Korean soldiers inside the building we went to were there to prevent North Koreans entering. However during this time several North Korean soldiers hovered around the building and the Military Demarcation Line taking pictures of themselves. No eye contact is made but you can see them. Of course they are really watching you and taking pictures of you. It was utterly fascinating for me and I managed to get a few pictures at the time.

After leaving the building we lined up to let the accompanying tour go where we had just been. During this time more North Korean soldiers 'took pictures'. Across from where we stood was a large building from which one North Korean stared at us through binoculars. That is his job and while most South Koreans serve a mandatory two years military service, North Koreans must serve ten years or seven years (male and females respectively).

Getting back to the South Korean soldiers, there is none of the cracking of jokes and smiles that I saw from the North. They are constantly on alert mode and those guarding anything are usually in what I saw described as a 'modified taekwondo stance'. When they move there is a noise that you probably haven't heard before. It's the sound of ball bearings in their pants. Strange as that may sound, it is because the sound makes it appear that there are more of you and is useful when you expect to be outnumbered. The American soldier tour guide claimed that tradition dated back many years.

The weather now started to go from overcast to wet and the rain left me ruing my lack of umbrella as we went to the Dora Observatory. Because of the weather this was literally a washout as we couldn't really see into North Korea. This didn't dampen my enthusiasm though as we then went for lunch. The final part of our tour took us first to the 3rd Tunnel and later to a video presentation. Following the ceasefire, the North has dug many tunnels with the intention of invading. We went to the 3rd tunnel and I think ten have been discovered but there are estimated to be many more and some presumably currently under construction. We travelled as far as we were allowed. The tunnel was 2m by 2m and quite crowded. It was said that if completed, they were planning to bring some 30,000 soldiers to Seoul to invade, per hour. Parts of the tunnels walls were painted black by the North because they said the tunnel was a coal mine but there is no coal there and there never has been.

Finally, before heading home, we saw a video presentation details key moments of the war. It was OK but a bit too hopeful given the tensions of both past and present. Then onto a small display of some artifacts from the war alongside pictures and models of what the DMZ looks like. it was here that some random Korean was practising his English with westerners. His pronunciation was the worst I've maybe ever heard in Korea and he repeated one word at least 50 times, each time wrongly. A lighter moment on a poignant and sometimes dark tour.

The tour was enjoyable and informative but due to some renovations going on right now the bridge of no return was off limits and there was a similar story at the site of the 1976 axe murder incident. The tour is highly recommended for anyone either living in South Korea or just visiting. It is perhaps THE must do thing for any traveller or working teacher such as me who spends time here. Maybe I will go back again in clearer weather and when I can see the things that were being renovated. We shall see. That was my trip to the DMZ.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Taxi drivers in Korea allowed to watch TV

Often people complain about the laws in Britain and the lack of justice. Wherever you go and whatever country you're in that's a pretty common complaint. In Korea I have started to take more and more notice of what is going on around me, trying to be aware of where I stand as a current resident of this country and what is happening in the news and I've noticed things are not always quite right. From time to time I have heard of some outrageous miscarriages of justice here on this part of the peninsula. At times it feels like the place is still a third world war torn country when the opposite is true. Yes Korea still baffles me with its struggles to keep pace with the changes that take place here. One latest 'crazy' news story is to be found here.

To summarise the piece, taxi drivers in South Korea can continue to have televisions on their dashboards despite the obvious risks they can cause. Not every taxi driver has one but a great many do. At times I feel like I am taking my life in my own hands when I enter a taxi at night time. They operate with different rules to others on the roads, i.e. none at all. I have found Koreans to be the worst drivers I have come across so far in my life. If I had a child I would fear for its life when out walking around. Anyway one thing we see in many taxis is the TV screen on the dashboard that the driver watches when waiting for a passenger AND when he is driving them around. I once sat in the back as the driver drove me home while watching an Eric Clapton gig on his TV. I made it back home somehow but don't want to go through that again any time soon. Luckily we didn't get round to Tears In Heaven. Now this is not illegal. Ridiculous is what it is and it's a very Korean ruling. I 'look forward' to the next crazy legal story I come across, which should be any day now.

Name confusion latest

We can add another one to the ever growing list as some boy now thinks my name is Guben.

Monday, 2 November 2009

November chill

Back in Daegu after a weekend in Seoul and today I woke up to a cold snap across the city and across the county. Temperatures have dipped by around 10°C but will get back to normal by the end of the week, presumably to drop back down right after. Today it feels like Winter which is just around the corner anyway. Time waits for no man, and all that. So what to look forward to this month? In four weeks I will be picking up my 2nd dan black belt but apart from that, not much. Not much that I have planned up to now. I need to find something or this month will just crawl by.
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