Sunday, 28 February 2010

Lunar New Year in Tokyo

Over the past four years or so I've been lucky to have been to some great places such as Vancouver, Hong Kong, Thailand, Beijing, Seoul, London and Daegu. Only kidding, London's a dump. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend four days in Tokyo.

The first thing you have to come to terms with is that in such a short space of time you can only, just, scratch the surface. Tokyo is huge and even if I lived there for a number of years I still don't think I could say I know the place. There is a lot to see and discover. Tokyo is also grand. Things operate very differently from both England and Korea.

February felt like a decent time to go to Japan. Not too cold and certainly not hot, however from my research April/May would seem to be the best time to visit due to the famous cherry blossoms. If I could make the trip again then I would wish to go during Spring.

There are two airports in Tokyo, Narita and Haneda. My wife and I were unable to get a flight from Daegu, Busan or Incheon that arrived at Haneda (Narita is new like Incheon but is further from the centre than Haneda) so we had to fly from Gimpo which is in Seoul. Haneda airport and Gimpo are similar but are limited which made me appreciate what a great airport Incheon really is and fully deserved of those international airport of the year awards.

We arrived in Japan at around 3pm and took a coach to Shinjuku where we were staying. The trip should have taken an hour but due to traffic and roadworks took nearly two and by the time of our arrival we were both fairly tired - we had to get up early to make our train from Daegu to Seoul. Our hotel was the Shinjuku Washington. The price was not so bad but the room was very small, but that's Japan where space is at a premium.

We figured we'd spend our first night relaxing in the Shinjuku area. At this point I must say that Tokyo really is full of neon signs. Living in Korea for four years has left me to a certain point immune to how they look to people who have never been to Asia. Tokyo is on a different scale to Korea though for neon, it's ubiquitous in the shopping and bar areas and is as striking in person as it is on TV and in images.

We spend a few minutes becoming familiarised with the area surrounding the hotel and then headed for the bars and restaurants. Surrounding the pachinko parlours and stores that seemed familiar to me were some bars that were pretty small, though I don't think they were the Golden Gai bars that I had read about, perhaps next time.

We went into our first bar and I had some fantastic Japanese beer. People who know me will know I detest Korean beer. It is pound for pound the worst in the world. For many years I'd liked Japanese beer but this time I got the chance to sample a great deal. Here is my ranking scale of Japanese beer brands based upon my findings. 1 Suntory, 2 Kirin, 3 Sapporo, 4 Asahi. I didn't try Orion, again, perhaps next time. Of course each company brews many beers, of which I got to try many but Suntory (which is known more for it's spirits) on tap was my favourite with Kirin running it close. If I ever ended up teaching English in Japan I'm pretty sure I'd end up an alcoholic, though a happy one at that!

After sampling some bar food we headed off to eat a more substantial meal. We tried to eat different food every time we ate and sampled many dishes during our four days, but we didn't even scratch the surface. There food is a lot more expensive than in Korea and in smaller portions but like Korea many people seem to eat lots of side dishes. Japanese food has similarities with Korean but the preparation seems to be more delicate and thoughtful - maybe that's an illusion glimpsed on a happy holiday. After drinking more beer we headed back to the hotel ready for a busy day to come.

The next day, Sunday, was Valentines day and we planned for a great day. First we headed to the Shibuya area and started off in what may or may not have been Yoyogi Park. After a while we ended up at the Meiji Shrine. This may have been the highlight of the trip. Certainly we greatly enjoyed ourselves. I must have taken two hundred pictures. Here we saw some nice scenery, interesting buildings and also three or four weddings taking place. The place was busy yet quiet and peaceful. This is definitely one of the places any visitor should go to in Tokyo.

One of the more famous areas seems to be Harajuku. This is an area famous for its shopping and fashion - Takeshita Street (that's a real street). As this was a Sunday we got to see some of the more 'different' fashion statements that come out of Japan, i.e. youngsters dressing up in clothes that nobody else would wear. We got there a little late and I think we missed the more bizarre elements. I could not stop myself from thinking some of these people were attention seeking losers, probably from rich families. Nevertheless, they are free to dress how they like.

Later we spent some time in Omotesandō primarily window shopping. Here we got to see some very expensive things but I managed to pick up some fairly inexpensive souvenirs. It was at this point that my feet started to ache from all the walking I had done. Later we headed back to Shinjuku and went for a nice meal to celebrate the day.

On the Monday the weather took a turn for the worst. It rained almost all the entire day which limited us for the things we could do. To try and make the best out of a bad situation we headed to Odaiba, a large man-made island. Here we spent most of our time window shopping again is some nice, yet uneventful malls. This was perhaps the low point for me.

As day turned to night-time and the rain started to lessen we headed to Shibuya again. It was here that we saw for ourselves the famous crossing area where four cross-walks merge and hundreds of people cross the road simultaneously. It was still raining though so most of my pictures we disappointing but the feeling is one of "wow". This is definitely a place of Tokyo that I want to see again. It's very impressive at night I wonder how it is by day. We found another bar and ate and drank and enjoyed being where we were.

The next day we were very limited because of our flight departure time. We stayed in Shinjuku but headed to a different area where we again relaxed and went shopping. When our time was over we headed off to the airport. In truth I didn't want to head back and it took me a few days to readjust to like back in Daegu and being back at work. Tokyo is a great place but like I said we could only scratch the surface. The see a lot more of the touristy places I'd say you need about seven days or maybe more.

There are many differences between Japan and Korea, too many to mention here. Being my third time I had been there the differences continued to stand out though not as dramatic as before. I will mention some without trying to put down Korea too much. Japan/Tokyo is without a doubt cleaner. There is more grass, more parks and places to enjoy some nature. Traffic seemed to be more patient and respectful of pedestrians. Everything in Japan is FAR more expensive and the sooner you accept that the sooner you can move onto enjoying the place. Architecture, what little I've seen is more interesting. There is a lot of choice, compared to life in Daegu, Korea. There I could buy, look at or do a lot of things I can't here. Life there is different that's for sure. Perhaps Tokyo cannot be compared to the rest of Japan, it being a mega-city of sorts. I intend to go back. There is so much more to do.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Taxing times

Yesterday right at the end one of my classes and faced with another lesson that I'd taught, three or four times before I almost fell asleep. Usually that nearly happens only when the class is very small. Doing the same thing again and again is taking a bit of a toll on me. It's probably time to go but it's not as easy as that.

Whilst in Tokyo I had such a good time that I was even considering extending my contract by six months. Now my vision is clear and that is almost certainly not going to happen. I have to come home some time. I'm set to leave in October or December depending on whether or not they let me stay a little longer and if I need the money. That's some seven and a half months to go. Hopefully today will be better than yesterday.

On a side note, yesterday I got a tax refund of around £100 (I've had to pay extra in the past so this is extra satisfying). It has come at a great time for me considering today I had to pay my huge gas bill and my monthly rent. In fact most of the Western teachers got a similar refund. In general taxes are much lower here in Korea than in the UK, one of the advantages of working here and it means you can save more easily. I think I'll buy myself something this weekend to cheer myself up, alas it won't be a plane ticket.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A small difference in culture

A simple, random observation from the past week of life being different here in Korea from back home. Surely this is constitutes as some kind of fail? Shopkeepers doing this would be cutting their throats in the UK but it is not so uncommon out here. However there is an alarming rate of small companies and shops that go out of business quickly.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Korea and the Winter Olympics

Watching the Winter Olympics has been quite fun. I always enjoy watching top class sport and this competition has been pretty good, what I have had time to see that is. My access to some previous sporting events have been limited here in Korea. At times it has felt that unless it was football then Korean TV only seemed to show sports with Korean athletes - The Beijing Olympics being a case in point where events like archery dominated TV schedules.

This year though things have been different. I've been able to watch ski jumping, hockey, figure skating and even yesterday I watched curling. I'm very happy with this years coverage (SBS has three channels that show events, live or recorded). One dampener is Britain's perennially poor performance, or should it really be regarded as poor? At the time of writing Britain has 1 medal, a gold. That doesn't seem like a lot when you consider over sixty million live there. However Britain has only won nine gold medals in the history of the Winter Olympics, success shouldn't be expected.

I am comparing Britain with Korea, but lets be honest, Britain is cold but it is not a snowy place (normally). We have no big mountains and the Winter Olympics are a mere fascination. Winter events like skiing and skating are viewed as middle class pass times, not even real sports. The preserve of the rich - this is perhaps not so in Korea. As of today, Korea has nine medals including four golds and are almost certain to add to that. What a great achievement. Certainly Korea feels like it's punching above it's weight. It's good to see Korea doing well.

Watching some short track speed skating over the weekend Korea got a gold and a silver in one race. My wife was so happy to see her country doing well. Despite all this, my students still continue to show little interest in things unless Korea wins and rather than enjoying their wins took more satisfaction when Apollo Ohno didn't win something (Korea hates the skater Ohno). I hope one day they begin to appreciate it's the taking part that counts and enjoy watching the competition without rabid nationalism and enjoy the excellence, wherever it comes from.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Gold handcuffs and a knife

I have a class on Wednesdays, mainly comprising of a rowdy bunch of lads that I do no discernible teaching to. There is a lot of shouting, screaming and general horseplay. They must think I am some kind of Army General, such is my over the top 'strict' character for those thirty five minutes but I think it works for them as some have been motivated to work harder in the class. Despite me acting a little crazy with them in class I think they like me. Today some were on the stairwell, one of them in plastic, gold handcuffs. And a (toy) knife. I'm glad I captured this picture.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Kapow. Holy Batman look at my gas bill

Today I got my gas bill for the month, effectively for the use of January. The amount is 142,870 won (approx £75). It's the biggest utility I've ever received in Korea. In my old apartment in Winter I was paying about a quarter or a fifth of that price. I can't complain about my new place. It's much bigger and more comfortable and also quieter and has natural light, but I am still in shock about this bill. It's a correct amount so no complaints there. There are now two of us and when it's cold we put the heating on. That's gonna stop now I guess. Roll on Spring. I am now wondering what the electricity bill will be for the Summer months when the air conditioner will be on.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Koreans and their gifts

Lunar New Year has come and gone. It's common for workers to receive gifts here in Korea from their employers for the big holidays. In the past I've received such things as shampoo, soap, toothpaste and even a nice green tea set. This time, for Seollal, everyone was given a gift set of seaweed.

Seaweed is used in many of Korean dishes but I can't say I like it or even dislike it. I am ambivalent but some of my Western co-workers have said they like it. I'm sure the Koreans appreciated it. I won't be using it buy my wife will so the gift is useful. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for a pack of beer for next time.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Live from a Tokyo PC

Day three of four. Tomorrow I leave Tokyo and head back to Korea. It's going to be a struggle because I have enjoyed my time here so much. There is nothing like travel to clarify and crystallise the mind. If anyone reading this is thinking of going to Tokyo then they should just go. It's amazing. Back to Korea and Daegu for me. A sobering thought.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Lunar New Year: Tokyo Bound

It's the Lunar New Year holidays in Asia this weekend. I'm heading off the peninsula and going to Tokyo with my wife. I have been to Japan twice but not for over three years and never to Tokyo so I'm very excited because it's been a long time coming and you can never spend enough time in Japan. Tokyo and Japan in general are just so different to Daegu and South Korea. When you have been to Japan it is hard to think of Korea the same way as before. I know many teachers say they wish they were in Japan instead. I like Korea but Japan has a lot going for it, it has to be said.

I have done very little planning besides booking things and changing currency. I plan to look more into it tonight and tomorrow on the way. I'm hoping It'll be obvious what I want to do when I get there. My wife has things planned for herself so I'll be tagging along with her. I just want to relax and see some things I haven't done before. Right now the Japanese Yen is strong compared to the Korean Won so I am not sure how far mine will take me especially as Valentines Day is on Sunday and I have to buy my wife a birthday present. Sapporo beer here I come, though it may have to come from a convenience store and not a bar.

Taekwondo: Five down, four to go

Four tests down and I am now a taekwondo purple belt. In the grand scheme of things I am on my fifth belt in just over two months (white, yellow, orange, green and purple) and the next one will be for a blue belt (then red, brown and black). That's quick progress by anybody's standards but I think to really improve I need to lose weight and train more. This is a sacrifice I would like to make when the weather becomes a bit more agreeable. In the lead up to today I've been a bit ill, missed one days practice and couldn't train hard the other time but despite this I felt confident going in to the test. I felt no nerves this week at all.

The pre-test group practice went well but with ten minutes to go my technique deteriorated and I began making mistakes. Luckily this didn't carry over too much into the actual test. I passed but this was my worst display so far and I am not very happy with myself. I won't be dwelling on things but having just seen a clip of the next test poomsae there is a lot of work to be done to improve. When will I be able to take the black belt test? My estimation was initially for August but now I am thinking May or June. A May test would be amazing. Purple has never been my colour and I want to get rid of this as soon as possible. Hopefully I won't look so portly in my next picture.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Coffee (I am not a bad boy)

As well as having Korean teachers and native English language speaking teachers, my workplace employs a handful of extra local 'teachers'. They don't do any teaching but spend the duration of classes in the corridors marking papers or preparing some materials for the rest of us and of course completing lists of all the students who have to. These are Jaeshi (재시) teachers. Jaeshi loosely means retest. Where I work, students who don't do their homework, perform very badly repeatedly in class or have poor class test scores get jaeshi. They stay behind after their classes have finished for around an hour or so.

In over two years working at my academy, in largely the same rooms, I have seen lots and lots of Jaeshi teachers. Some I have become friendly with and some who just don't like talking with non-Korean speakers. They all seem to be university students trying to make some money in a part-time job and who from time to time are studying English, but usually not. I talk to them a bit and joke around, trying to make my work as fun as possible because it's repetitive. There is a language barrier but communicating seems to work OK. The rooms I teach in are side by side and right next to the jaeshi teachers desks so I can see them working and they can see me (not) working etc etc. There's no room for me to hide. Or them.

This week on the way to a class a few of the jaeshi teachers were joking that I never buy them a coffee and I always have a cup in class, calling me a "rich guy" etc, etc. After the joking around I said I'd by them some coffee. All this week I've had "bad guy" and "liar" amongst others because I didn't 'pay up'. After another verbal battering today, I gave them 10,000, roughly £5 to buy them some drinks from the coffee shop below our school and asked them to get me a drink too. They were very surprised when I actually said I would buy them a coffee. They somehow managed to get my drink and enough coffee to be split between five of them, which I found very impressive. Afterwards they treated me like a prince with some silly and over-the-top compliments (like I'd fed a starving child) and gave me this piece of paper, below. I hope they liked their coffee, the shop I go to needs the business.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Michael Myers staring at me every night

Every night after work I make my way home. Usually the same way, seeing largely the same things and think nothing of it. However, as I am almost home I chance upon a scene from someones window that is the same every night. The first time I saw it and every time since, it has reminded me of the character Michael Myers in Halloween. Of course, it's not some menacing figure with a penchant for murder. As you can see from the (poor) picture it's clearly someones suit or overalls or whatever hung up, but still, every night I think the same thought and wonder what goes on in that house.

Monday, 8 February 2010

In the classroom

Me: "In Korea, what job is better than a doctor?"
Student: "Medicine"
General laughter as the class corrects the boy.
Student: "Ah, President"

Friday, 5 February 2010

Hitting the bottle

Just back from a trip to the local supermarket. I'm armed with a beer and a bottle of wine. Not the cheap stuff tonight though. Do I have enough alcohol? I think not but we'll see where it takes me. I'm not drowning my sorrows but I need a drink after my last class. I haven't been so frustrated with some students in a long time. My last class is my highest level consisting of supposedly my best students. Apart from three or four, that couldn't be further from the truth. I enjoy being their teacher but not teaching them.

Recently, well over half of my curriculum changed. The reading classes switched to writing. We've been told that Koreans don't do much writing, creatively, especially regarding English. This would explain the difficult transition we're having. For my last class of the week there are three students who are patently in over their head. One in particular just cannot do it. The work is difficult enough without spending most of my time helping him with work he cannot do. I am frustrated both with them and myself. Clearly I need to improve some of my teaching for this class. By the way this Japanese beer tastes great, roll on my four days in Tokyo.

Student message

Yesterday I got this card/gift from one of my students. Inside she wrote a message in fluorescent yellow so it doesn't show up too well in a picture. The message reads "Thank you teacher! I like you but sometimes I want play. So I want you and us have a game time a little bit". A nice message from a nice student. Perhaps I'll make some time for a few games next week.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Stunning pictures from China

Reading today's Times I have seen the most stunning picture I have seen for a long time. The picture is of a child chained to a post by his father in Beijing. The reason for this was to prevent him being abducted. The article quotes the father as saying “To chain him is better than losing him.” Very emotive pictures and a story behind it.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Seeing is believing

This is pretty hard for me to believe, but whilst out on a recent bike ride I found evidence that Koreans actually learn how to drive. Based on four years worth of first hand experience I can tell you that Korean drivers rank amongst the worst in the world. They seem to have nothing but contempt and disdain for the rules of the road - I presumed they just didn't know them or that they didn't exist here. Korean drivers come in mainly three categories. Bad, terrible and slow. There are exceptions but every single day I see appalling driving and feel like I'm likely to see an accident when I'm out and about. Koreans can be very respectful and courteous people. IF they know you. If they don't, then they are prone to ignore your rights, step over you or fly past you - this is if you are a Korean or not. Nationality doesn't seem to come into it. Perhaps this is an older generation problem but younger drivers aren't so great either.

Asking my wife, she tells me that for many years people before getting a license people didn't actual have any practice on roads and they learned to drive on 'courses' such as in the picture above. This is frankly ludicrous. I passed my test about thirteen years ago and all of my (expensive) driving lessons and the test were done on the road, barring one theory test. That's really the only way you should learn. Now this has changed here (I don't know when though). Nowadays Koreans actually have to practice on roads where there is traffic. I ask myself if Koreans will improve their skills over time or will things stay the same? And how hard are these tests? Whatever driving lessons they have, surely they don't teach them to drive whilst using phones.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Do Koreans study geography?

Today one of my class topics is about trips, travelling and holidays. As I write the same questions (though with higher grammar) that I feel like I have been asking forever I ask myself, do these kids actually study geography OR care about non-Korean geography? I know the answer is no for the second one (for many many kids). Whenever I play a game in class I try to encorporate an element of geography in the hope that they will appreciate that other countries barring Korea, Japan, America and Canada exist. They may know the name of other places but know little about them or care even less.

One of my major gripes about some of my students has been their lack of imagination. For some but not all, the cruelest thing you can ask one of them is to think for themselves and be creative. Today I will be hit with the usual "I don't know" when I ask about vacation destinations or "Korea. I'm Korean". It's enough to make me lose my temper, but I won't. Though I may bang my head against a wall.

Putting it bluntly most of my student's have an appalling lack of knowledge of geography and the world. It's not a new observation but I've been thinking about it over the last few weeks and been shaking my head. Sometimes I wonder what they actually learn at school. Whatever it is, it is limiting and doing them both a disservice and an injustice.

For the younger students I can understand that they lack information and knowledge of the world but there's no excuse for the older ones. When I was their age I studied geography for five years at Secondary school. I also studied History at the same time. Both gave me an appreciation and a basic understanding that the world is bigger than my own country and that their are many interesting people and cultures across the world.

How many times have my students asked me where I am from when it is obvious I don't come from North America or Australia? The only thing my students know about England is footballer Park Ji Sung or just football. Why are Korean students so abysmal in general at geography? Do they actually study this in class? These are the seeds sown by years and years of a policy of isolation and rejection of other cultures.

This month one of Korea's superstars, Kim Yu-Na is going for gold in the Winter Olympics in Canada, yet precious few know much about that country. If I showed these kids a map, then I think three things would happen. 1) They wouldn't know many countries there. 2) They would find Korea, of course. 3) They would complain that Korea is too small. And not, that other countries are bigger and have bigger populations. Geography is important.

Back to the old routine

Last night I went back to hapkido for the first time in around five months. During that time I've out on a few kilograms, which I'm slowly shedding, and felt it was the right time to come back. I need both the exercise and the practice. I expected a gentle session with an emphasis on stretching but spent most of the time practicing kicks. I thought it would stretch my fitness but I coped quite well and was pleased with how well I did considering the gap. It felt good to be back. Sometimes hapkido feels like part of my family in Korea. After over two years of classes I still find it enjoyable.

I've noticed that when I practice kicks at taekwondo I don't feel like there is much skill or technique involved (yet). We've been progressing very quickly, perhaps too quickly and at times I feel like we should be doing more. A bit stupid I suppose. I would like to be learning more things at taekwondo but I should stop and realise that I'm only a lowly green belt and been practicing for around eight weeks. The more difficult kicks will come when the time is ready so I should be patient and try to do as well as I can with what I'm learning.

Yesterday we learned when our next test will be. It was scheduled for the 17th February but on that day one of my practice partners will be out of the country. Korea's New Year holiday is at the start of that week too and I will be in Japan for a while too. Our Master then suggested a week later but I felt that maybe the 12th February would be better. Perhaps that's a mistake on my part but I feel like we'll all be ready. Knowing that the test is coming soon should motivate us to work harder. I hope I can continue both these martial arts. My body is aching today. A familiar feeling.
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