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Archive for November, 2008

At the end of the day on Wednesday there was a meeting in the office that no one had told me about, to decide which students should level up. I’d already written my recommendations on a wad of printoffs listing every student at the hagwon and what classes they’d been in for the past year, and put it on the head teacher’s desk.

I came in late from my last class because I’d wanted to finish off whatever question we’d been working on. The meeting was in progress; no one said anything to me. I left the room and went to the computer room for a while. I went back and everyone was still facing the head teacher, who sits at the opposite end of the room to me – some of the teachers who sit at my bank of desks had moved closer to her. It was approaching the start of my taekwondo class. I waited until I had a reasonable margin to get there and get changed, and slipped out.

No one has subsequently said anything about it – although I have learned that our head foreign teacher, Jon, is quitting at the end of the month.

I went to taekwondo and discovered that, finally, the students who had been absent from taekwondo for the last few weeks had returned. And at the end of the class, my female teacher, Lee Sabeomnim, came out of the office carrying a yellow belt. She called me over and said I’d levelled up. I was kind of surprised (‘Jinjja?’ I asked (‘Really?’)), but also pleased – as you would be. There was no ceremony – she just took my white belt off me and tied the new one around my waist for me. Then told me to go and get changed.

The white belt I’d got with my dobok was new like the rest of the uniform, but this yellow belt is clearly used – it’s lost the stiffness of newness. It may be that both belts are intended for children, as they’re far too short to wrap twice around the waist as taekwondo belts are supposed to be. But it may just be black belts (and the prior red/black belt) that are are supposed to go around the body twice.

I think it might be a while before I get one of those.

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Elected

About a week ago I had an e-mail from someone inviting people to a Democrats Abroad meeting on Wednesday to watch the US election results at a place near Itaewon. I asked Botond if he wanted to go with me and the answer was in the affirmative. So, after a minimum of sleep, I met him on Wednesday morning at Changdong Station and we headed down to Noksapyeong Station.

Noksapyeong Station is on one of the newest subway lines in Seoul (it seems like there’s always a new line under construction somewhere in the capital or the equivalent of the Home Counties (Gyeonggi Province)); the lines stations are often quite impressive – it’s a bit like the Jubilee Line. Noksapyeong has a fancy multi-levelled cylindrical concourse bisected by escalators, and is one of the nicest I’ve seen. It also has an hideous mural of football players (must resist the urge to say ‘soccer’ – must … resist …).

Anyway, the event was held in a modest bar in Haebangcheon called the Orange Tree, which is above a modest restaurant called Indigo (the Itaewon area is saturated with foreigners, especially Americans – it’s where the US Army base is). The two establishments are owned by the same people, and both are quite pleasant – in a modest, trendy way. Bo and I got hot drinks from the restaurant, took them upstairs (via the street) and sat at a table in front of the projector screen.

On said screen was projected an internet feed of MSNBC. We arrived shortly after 10 in the AM Korean time, which was something like 8 in the PM on the East Coast. Thus, polls had closed in some of the eastern states and the network was able to broadcast its own projections. Obama was winning, but it seemed like things were going according the usual plan – Obama taking Democrat states and McCain taking Republican ones.

At one point, a guy came over to us and asked us if we were European, and if one of us was British. Late the previous night I’d sent an e-mail to the person who’d sent the invitation asking if it was OK for non-Americans to attend; he’d e-mailed back saying ‘No problem’. And this was him. We shook hands, said hello, and he went back to his conversation with someone else. That was about the extent of our mingling.

There were about thirty people present, I’d say (but don’t quite me on it), and a good handful of Korean photographers and cameramen. These latter set themselves up by the projector screen so they could shoot people in the face – so to speak. As Bo and I were sitting right there about three metres from the screen we aroused some interest. I did my best to ignore them as they leant in and took my photo. I’t be funny if I turned up in the papers described as an American. I had a couple of days’ worth of stubble on my face, so I reckon it’s unlikely that happened.

Further projections were aired as polls closed at 11 and 12 o’clock – some of these provoking big cheers and rounds of applause from the Americans. We joined in with the clapping.

I wanted to leave shortly after midday so I had plenty of time to get back to Nowon and have time to see to a piece of business. However, Bo wanted to go and look at clothes in Itaewon. I decided I could drop into a PC room to check whether I had a payment to make, so I went with him. It turned out I didn’t have a payment to make (which situation was to be reversed the following day – see my next post) and Bo ended up not buying anything.

Of course, when we got back to the hagwon we learnt that Obama had won – and our American colleague was ensconced at the reception desk computer watching MSNBC on the internet. By then my interest had – not exactly waned, but been concealed under my grey office persona (that’s a grey persona for offices, rather than a persona for grey offices).

Obama’s win is fantastic, it goes without saying, and historic not just because he’s a black man in a country that has a painful history vis á vis people of African descent, but also because he’s a northerner, a middle-class liberal in a country that appears to see ‘liberal’ as a dirty word, that seems to distrust anything that smacks of intellect. And also because of the grass roots support he’s motivated.

The last thing to do with America that captured the world’s interest so sharply was probably the attacks of 9/11. And it seems to me that Obama’s election is a kind of inverse 9/11. In 2001 people outside the USA said, ‘Today, we’re all Americans;’ and I think the world must feel the same now. But this time it isn’t sympathy for gut-wrenching destruction – it’s hope, it’s excitement. It’s pride.

With a Democratic White House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House, America should really be able to move forward with a progressive agenda for the next for years – and the rest of the world will be willing it on. (And George R R Martin might just finish A Dance with Dragons.)

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New gaming, new strangers

I went off to Children’s Grand Park bright and early on Sunday afternoon to join this roleplay group, Section 8. I knew the appropriate exit from the subway station was number three, but there was no sign of the gaming shop. I walked up one road, then up another road, but still no sign. Finally, I tried calling the guy running the game, Adam, on the number he’d provided. I got a Korean woman who spoke English, but she told me I had the wrong number. I tried again, thinking she maybe hadn’t understood me, saying Adam’s name loudly and clearly. But no, there was no ‘Ah-dam’ there.

So I went into a PC room to log on to the groups, um, group on Yahoo.ca. I posted a message asking for help, then searched for another instance of Adam’s number. I found it, and (like Eric Morcambe said to Andre Previn) the number I’d rung contained all the right digits, just not necessarily in the right order. He’d managed to transpose the middle four and the last four numbers. I posted a ‘never mind’ message, then gave him a call.

Having got directions to the venue (a bit of a walk from the subway station) I headed off. And outside, smoking, was Max, a young Korean American guy I’d met at the Itaewon Book Exchange a month or two before. Inside, I met Adam, who was wearing a bright yellow wizard’s hat – part of the previous night’s Hallowe’en costume.

My character sheet was some way from being completed so I tried to work on that as Max and two other players arrived. I held up the start of the game somewhat.

My route into the story was that as a wandering bard, I’d spent the last year with the Walrus Clan at the other end of the planet from my homeland. The other characters had arrived on this ice-bound island by magical means. Both them and my Walrus Clan companions had just killed a giant, bus-sized walrus. The party were uncouth barbarians, while the Walrus people were deeply suspicious of these strangers. With my great Diplomacy bonus I was able to smooth the waters between them. The game climaxed with a game of ultra-brutal Stone Age ice hockey. I declined to play and instead acted as a commentator.

I’d only had a couple of hours sleep the previous night, so I might have been even less locquacious than usual, but the game seemed to go well. The other characters are all monosyllabic Bear Clan men – including two barbarians, and one druid, possibly (or maybe they’re all barbarians). My character originally comes from the nearby Stag Clan and is a little more sophisticated. I’m not that comfortable doing the character acting side of roleplaying, so my input was markedly different from the other players’.

Unfortunately, the game is only scheduled for once a fortnight and at the moment I’m not sure if there’s anything up for the coming Sunday.

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An evening in Hongdae

Hongdae is a party area around a university (Hongik, I think it’s called) – there are loads of restaurants, bars, singing rooms and so on. Before last Saturday I’d been there once before, shortly before I left Korea last year, when a bunch of English teachers went to Carne Station.

As it was Botond’s friend, Peter’s last night in Korea (for the time being) they decided to go to a singing room there. In fact, it was a singing practice room (I believe this is the translation), and it was a fancier joint than many singing rooms and it didn’t allow alcohol. Before we went in Bo and So-young bought us all drinks (us all being Peter, So-young, Botond, Sukyung (from the volunteer hike a few weeks ago), and a friend of So-young’s whose name I can’t remember).

We booked a room for two hours. About half an hour in, one of the staff members came into our room and took our drinks off us – except for one beer he missed. We all thought it was pretty amusing, so it didn’t dampen our spirits too much. So-young had apparently been telling everyone I was a great singer; lack of inebriation on my part made me a bit more nervous of demonstrating my skills. But I do enjoy singing, so it wasn’t too bad.

The problem with singing in a social situation like this that my favourite songs – Metallica songs – aren’t perfect because a) people might not know them, b.1) they tend to be very long and b.2) they have long lead and rhythm guitar sections. I had a go at ‘Hound Dog’, which is easy because it’s the same all the way through. At one point Bo selected ‘Take the Power Back’ by Rage Against the Machine. Of course, he declined to sing it (if sing is the right word) because of his bad throat, so I took up mic duties – and it went down surprisingly well. Knowing the lyrics helps. As opposed to the time I had a go at ‘American Idiot’ where I didn’t know the words well enough, and so gave a pretty lame performance. Our female Korean companions tried their hands at various songs – mostly English language – and they all had very pleasant voices. I didn’t know most of the songs they chose, though – apart from ABBA; everyone likes ABBA.

Before I met Bo and So-young and friends (who had run very late) I met Sukyung and I asked her to help me use one of the lockers at Hongdae Ipgu Station. The one time I’d been there before a south Asian guy had asked me if I knew how to use them and I hadn’t been able to help him. These lockers aren’t of the simple coin and key type. Oh no – this is Korea, so there has to be a hi-tech solution. Using the touchscreen at one end of the brightly coloured locker unit you select a locker, put your stuff inside, enter your national identity number, your phone number; you get texted a password number, which you then enter and it prints you off a receipt. The payment (₩1,200) is added to your phone bill.

Anyway, after singing ‘practice’ people wanted to go to a bar. Sukyung said she was happy to join us – although, at around midnight, it was much later than she’d told me earlier she wanted to stay out. I also wanted to go and retrieve my bag. We went back to the station, where they were in the process of expelling the last of the subway users and locking up. Fortunately, the security guys let us use the lockers. And then Sukyung got a taxi home, but not before I’d asked her to come and see Quantum of Solace with me – which we did last night (at the time of writing).

Then I went back to join the others. Bo seemed very happy – he’d been quaffing a Korean liquor, baekseju, while the rest of us were on beer. He kept exclaiming ‘Chohayo!’ – Korean for ‘Good!’ – which the karaoke system had said when giving singers a favourable score. Apparently, baekseju isn’t particularly strong; it’s a hell of a lot nicer than soju, though.

We sat there drinking and eating for a while. Then it was decided to move on to a new place. I told the rest about a hookah bar that I’d visited on the Carne Station night, so we set off to look for it. I had no idea where it was, just a general impression of the street it had been on over a year ago. Our search was in vain. After some wandering, we piled into a taxi (beanpole Bo in front; the four shortarses in the back) and went home.

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Roseanne Barr’s character, Millie Banks, on My Name is Earl.

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Telling Storyteller's story

Peter’s return to the States has left a gaping, roleplaying-shaped hole in my life. He wanted to continue his game via e-mail, but that doesn’t seem to have panned out – I haven’t heard anything from him in a while (I haven’t tried too hard to stay in touch, either, sadly).

Last Sunday I did what I should have done long before and looked on the internet for more roleplaying action, and found Section 8 Games. They’re a group of oeguks meeting in a gaming shop near Children’s Grand Park to play various games. I’m now signed up to join in a game running every other Sunday; it’s based on D&D 3.5 (with some modifications – the basic alignments available are tribal and outcast; instead of money you use honour points) and uses a stone age-style setting. This latter fact means that a lot of the traditional D&D elements are unavailable – no wizards, no clerics, no literacy, the highest Int score for non-arcane spellcasters is 10, no metal weapons and armour, und so weiter.

My character (who I’m still working on) is called Storyteller – a savage bard. That’s not a comment on his personality – it’s a non-civilised variant of the bard class. My first D&D character was a bard (back in the mists of 2002 or 3), and I’ve always wanted to try it again. He’s middle-aged to old and, since he was cast out of his village (losing the right to a personal name in the process), has made a living travelling from place to place entertaining (and intimidating) with his stories. As a tribal outcast he’s feared and despised. His main skill, of course, would be his storytelling, but he also plays a bone flute.

I should write out a more detailed history for him tonight and work out his skills and feats. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

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A testing time

On Tuesday night I took a pair of scissors to the blisters on my toe. I now have two or three fewer warts, but the large mass of warts on my big toe doesn’t seem to have been affected at all. I also have some big holes in my big toe. A thick layer of skin has been removed and below is almost raw flesh. Fortunately, it’s not especially painful.

The following day I went to taekwondo. And found the class before mine in a little white regiment on the practice mats, and in front of them, behind a desk, the ‘super master’ (I can’t remember the Korean term; my sabeomnims’ superior). They were evidently being tested – displaying their pumsae (and that’s not obscene – ‘pumsae’ (‘kata’ in Japanese martial arts, I think) is a routine demonstrating various moves). At the end of the session they were rewarded with certificates, and a few won medals. I didn’t see any belts being handed out.

While I was watching this a bevy of students turned up for the 9:10 class. To be tested. I’m in the 9:10 class. I was a little concerned. A week or two ago, Lee Sabeomnim had mentioned something about a test, but I was sure she’d said it would be on Friday. Anyway, I didn’t have any additional notice and I didn’t know exactly what was going to be expected of me.

With all the people milling about it was a little tricky to get my master to see to the gaping holes in my foot. As in previous classes she bound it up with some padding and plasters.

My fellow students – the ones I hadn’t seen for a couple of weeks, or ever – went through their forms in various groups. Then it was my turn. My sabeomnim basically told me what to do, translating into English when necessary. I performed a routine called ‘sinche sam deunggeup’ which just demonstrates parts of the body (sinche = body). Then she had me do some kicks, punches and blocks. I screwed up the axe kick somewhat, but not too badly – I just wasn’t sure whether to alternate feet or not.

When I finished everyone applauded, which we didn’t do for eveyone else’s pumsae. A bit later, the two girls who had been the only students attending with me for the past fortnight donned padding and helmets and sparred with each other.

At the end of the session the students received their certificates and medals and whatnot. I didn’t get anything, but on her way out, the ‘super master’ paused by me and talked about me (in Korean) and everyone clapped me again.

And that was that, really. The following lesson was back to normal – me, the two girls, the two masters. We did jumping on Friday and now I have aches in the muscles at the front of my thighs.

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