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Archive for December, 2008

I’ve been on a couple of work-related nights out in the past week or so, both rather underwhelming.

The first was for Todd’s leaving do. This began with a meal at the samgyeopsal (a kind of barbecue pork-type thing) place on the ground floor of our hagwon building. Then we went to what I assume was Todd’s favourite place to hang out, a bar called No Block. I didn’t have a single drink while I was there, and mostly just stood or sat around feeling awkward. I had a game of darts (computerised, with plastic-tipped darts and a plastic board) with Bo, and then again with Bo and Travis; I was crap. I chatted with Todd a little about his plans (although I’d already asked him about much the same stuff in the previous couple of weeks). He asked for my e-mail address, which thought was kind of strange as we’d never really become that friendly. Nevertheless, I keyed it into his iThingy (with some difficulty – the keys on the touchscreen are quite fiddly).

That was also the last time I saw Bo, who, as Todd was flying back to the US, was flying back to Hungary for the holidays.

On Tuesday, one of the Korean teachers told me that there were plans afoot to go out on Wednesday night and to have a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exhange thing. Therefore, on Wednesday afternoon I went to the bookshop that’s just along the basement from my taekwondo dojang. It has a decent selection of English-language books (about a bookcase full) for its size and location. I chose a book I’d read whilst at university and had enjoyed and been moved by – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

That evening I dropped by the dojang to see what was going on. I knew there was no class, but was expecting a party of some sort. Once again my master’s lack of English skills was our undoing. When I spoke to her the previous and told her I finished at 8:30 she invited to come along; evidently, she’d thought I meant 7:30. There were four or five young kids still there waiting for pick-ups or for their parents to speak to the staff.

I offered everyone some chocolate – as I’d been doing for all my classes during the day (I’m not a complete Scrooge, after all). Kim Sabeomnim (my male teacher) told me Lee Sabeomnim (my female teacher) was busy in the toilets – washing dishes, it turned out. He gave me a present that she’d bought for me – a diary. I made the joke to both of them in turn that pretty much the only thing I had to write in there was ‘taekwondo, taekwondo, taekwondo …’. Anyway, I said it was very nice (whilst thinking it was completely useless – although, maybe if I get a few private classes on the go, it might come in handy).

Then Lee Sabeomnim invited me into the office to have some pizza. I accepted – even though it was sweet potato pizza. Blech. I almost invited them to come and see The Day the Earth Stood Still with me the following day. But I didn’t.

I went back home to drop off my bag (which contained, apart from bread, chocolate, Jejudo oranges and my taekwondo dobok (just in case), my laptop and speakers. My last class had been Speaking Novel, which means Othello, and we’d watched a little more of Laurence Fishburn and Kenneth Brannagh. I’d watched the film in full a couple of nights earlier, so I now knew that there was, indeed, a little sex and nudity – and I would have to carefully prepare what to show) and play a bit of Hammerfall, an addictive RPG on Facebook.

Then it was back to work, and then to Itaewon. There were four of the Korean teachers, Jon (husband of our senior teacher, Sunny), Donny (Jon’s friend), Travis (the new guy), and, after a while, the boyfriend of one of the Korean girls. We went to a Chinese restaurant at the Hamilton Hotel. As usual, we automatically ghettoised ourselves and ordered separate food. At this point Travis, who wasn’t hungry, said he’d leave for a while to go and phone his wife in Canada.

We three Westerners talked about film and TV mostly (on Donny’s recommendation, I’ve made a mental note (and now a written one) to download Frost/Nixon). Then, with the meal out of the way, it was decided (by Sunny, naturally) to commence the Secret Santa process. Miraculously, awkwardly, I won the group rock-scissors-paper game and the right to choose, quasi-randomly, a present.

Someone had drawn a kind of brick wall-pattern grid on a piece of paper with numbers at the top and names at the bottom, one of each for each person taking part. I said number one. One of the Koreans to a zig-zagging line from the number one, following the lines of the grid, to a name at the bottom. I received Sunny’s gift which was wrapped in newspaper, in a box about the size and thickness of a small tabletop. Just then, we had to leave because the restaurant was closing, so I didn’t have chance to open it straight away.

Travis hadn’t rejoined us, so the Koreans went to a bar, while the rest of us looked for him. He wasn’t at the telephones in the hotel lobby, and we weren’t at all sure where he would be. After about twenty minutes of looking for him (which mostly consisted of standing around wondering where he was) we decided to leave a message at the hotel reception (my idea) and go to the bar. (Travis doesn’t have a phone at this point, so we couldn’t just call him.)

The bar was BricX, which the others pronounced ‘Bricks’ (so that’s what I wrote on the message to Travis). Once seated (which didn’t happen quickly), we continued with the Secret Santa gift giving. I opened my present: it was a large box of pens and pencils. I said I already had some.

My contribution was taken by Ally, or Eun-yeong, a woman with a very distinctive appearance. For a start she’s built like a man – I don’t mean that to be derogatory, she’s quite sexy, in fact, but she is – with a bit of a Lou Ferringo jaw, even. She’s also dyed her hair to a kind of ginger/auburn colour. She looks like a Valkyrie. She professed to be quite pleased with the book. Other gifts included wine (x2), an aromatherapy candle, and a bumbag. This latter was probably the worst of the lot – I can at least imagine myself using some of the pens and pencils, and candles are quite pretty.

With awful music blasting out of the speakers conversation wasn’t the easiest. Some entertainment was provided by Jon and Sunny arguing about what time they should leave. Jon wanted to go at 2:30 so he could be up early in the morning to call his parents. Sunny, meanwhile, maybe with a little help from the alcohol, kept protesting in the manner of a cute but obnoxious, spoilt little girl – putting her forefinger to her cheek and rocking her head side to side, that kind of thing.

We left BricX to go to Helios, but that was too expensive, so we ended up in The Loft. Our table was covered with old graffiti carved into the surface and grey with dirt; however, there was some newer graffiti etched on top of this – witty epigrams such as, ‘SHIT CUNT’, ‘FUCK BITCHES’, and ‘KILL ALL NIGGERS’. Nice.

I’d had a headache all evening and it was getting pretty bad, so I spent about an hour staring out of the window, while Ally got into an informal dance-off with a short black woman. I left at about half two to find a toilet that wasn’t jam-packed. I ended up in McDonald’s and let guilt (over using the facilities without buying anything; stupid, I know) talk me into buying a cheeseburger. I didn’t finish it. When I returned, Jon and Sunny and Donny were just leaving. Donny was planning to kill time until the subway reopened, and I didn’t want to invite myself into Jon and Sunny’s ride home. I gave my number to Yun-hye (pronounced ‘Yoonheh’) Teacher for her to call me when the rest of them left.

I went to a PC room and felt awful. My head was killing me, my stomach was in revolt and I could barely keep my eyes open. I played a little Hammerfall, went to the bathroom to be sick (it was all thick and dry, and bits kept getting stuck behind my epiglottis – blech), and napped in my seat.

When the call came to meet the girls, one of them was virtually unconscious and was being held up by Yun-hye’s boyfriend. Ally had snagged herself a tall black guy. The taxi driver wouldn’t let us all in the taxi together, so we left Ally behind.

I went straight to bed, and slept reasonably well for the condition I was in. I still had my headache when I got up at one thirty, but some cornflakes and a couple of mugs of tea put that right. After showering, I put some music on and did some more photo-editing – and have now finished off the shots I took one snowy morning in February in Whaley Bridge.

When I left home, I knocked on Travis’s door, but there was no answer. I texted this information to Yun-hye – who had asked me to do so. Shortly afterwards Jon called me to ask me to leave a message on his door. I said OK, but I’m sure there’s no big problem and we’ll see Travis at work tomorrow.

Then I went to Lotte Cinema in Nowon to buy a ticket for the 11:45 screening of The Day the Earth Stood Still and headed into central Seoul. It’s pretty crazy here – far more crowded than the average Saturday or Sunday. My favourite Starbucks was completely packed, so I went to the Quiznos across the road – where they apparently couldn’t serve me any coffee to go with my sub. I lost my temper a bit in Myeongdong and started pushing bursquely past people. But I managed to grab a seat in the Starbucks next to Uniqlo – where I’ve written this post.

And now I’m going to go back to Nowon.

And now I’ve seen The Day the Earth Stood Still, and – theme of the hour – am underwhelmed. The best part of the movie is near the beginning when Jennifer Connelly’s character, Helen Benson, has been taken by Federal agents to a secret briefing on an object heading for the Earth. On entry, all the gathered specialists are deprived of the mobile phones, but Helen puts hers down her top. After the briefing – which suggests that the object is going to collide with the Earth with catastrophic effects – she calls her stepson from the restroom. She tearfully tells him to go into the basement, and tells him she loves him. He answers words to the effect of, ‘OK, bye.’ She hangs up. There’s a banging on the cubicle door. When she opens it she sees a female soldier, who demands to know if she has a cellphone. Helen nods apprehensively. With a catch in her voice, the soldier says, ‘Can I borrow it?’

It was downhill from there, really. All through the film one expected Gort, the big (huge, in this case) robot to totally kick arse in the climax – which, I suppose he did, but only by turning into a cloud of nanobots. I want to watch the original again. The only part of which I recognised in the new version was when Klaatu goes to the home of a scientist and re-does his calculations on his blackboard. The scientist here was played by John Cleese, which was nice, but he was only on-screen for about a minute.

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The second test

On Saturday morning I went to Korean class – the last one this year – as usual. One of our exercises, which the teacher told us about the previous week, was to read out a simple passage from the textbook. It begins: ‘I am Bak Jae-yeong. I’m a university student. My younger brother is also a university student. We are very different.’ Except in Korean. Obviously. In English it wouldn’t be much of an exercise. Although I memorised it during the week, we weren’t expected to have done so. I recited it from memory anyway – and, in a vote by the two Japanese students and myself, won a small box of Jejudo cactus chocolates (I’m not sure if they were really made from cactuses or that was just a brand name). It was a very small box, containing just four chocolates – each in its own vacuum-sealed wrapper – which was quite serendipitous, as I gave one each to the other two students and the teacher. Or rather, it was serendipitous that there were only three students including me this week.

Later that day I was due to have my second taekwondo test so I didn’t hang around in Starbucks as is my wont and headed straight back to Nowon. I would have liked to have gotten more practice in beforehand … but I didn’t.

Back at my apartment, did some stretches practised a few kicks, blocks and taegeuk il-jang (태극 1-장). This is the easiest of the taekwondo pumse, or forms (‘il’ being the number 1). Starting from the ready stance, junbi (준비), you do a low block and a punch to the left, then again to the right, and then again to the front in a different, longer stance. Then you body block and punch to the right, and again to the left, then low block and punch to the front. Then comes the tricky bit – for me, anyway. Face block, kick and punch to the left, then to the right, before finally going back with a low block and a punch and returning to junbi (ideally in exactly the same spot you started from. Actually, the three different stages of the form are supposed to sketch out three parallel lines – the symbol for heaven, as used in the I Ching and appearing on the Korean flag (aka Taegeuk)).

The problem I find with the face block (eolgul makki – 얼굴 막기) is the positioning of the fists at the start of the move: the blocking hand should be at the waist (on the opposite side) with the thumb side outward, the other hand starts the opposite shoulder with the thumb side against the clavicle. From there you bring the upper fist down to its own side of the waist whilst you move the lower, blocking hand up above the head with the forearm horizontal, twisting the wrist so that the thumb side of the fist is now pointing downwards. At best, when it comes to that part of the pumse I have to either pause a moment to make sure my fists are right or just fudge it.

Anyway. I went to the dojang for 4:30 and found that there was another bevy of littl’uns being tested in front of an audience of their parents. The older students – my classmates – were huddled in the small meeting room-cum-office, so when I’d changed I went in to join them. And nothing happened for quite a while.

Kim Sabeomnim (the male master who co-trains my class) took me out to say that I’d been going on ‘last’ at about 5:50. In hindsight, what he must have meant was either simply ‘first’ or directly after the youngsters. For a while I just stood or sat amonst the teenagers as they joked around with each other. Then I got talking with a boy called Jun-hui (pronounced ‘joon-hee’, more or less) (or Alex, as he told me his English name was). He was under the impression that the UK was a violent place and I tried to explain about the gang violence amongst teenagers. He told me that he wasn’t allowed to travel to Britain because Chinese youths get murdered. If this is a reference to a real news story, I haven’t heard of it. He and a girl started discussing what my Korean name should be. The disscussion was curtailed, though, as it was finally time to begin.

To my consternation, not only was I to go on first (by myself, in front of a load of Korean parents), I was also expected to do the sinche 3-deunggeup and taekwondo-ran? patterns (which, naturally, I hadn’t practiced for the two months since my yellow belt test) and they wanted me to break boards, which hasn’t come up at all in training. In the event, Lee Sabeomnim virtually held my hand throughout the entire test – and I still screwed up several times. Breaking the balsa wood (or something similar) boards was the easiest part of the test, actually – I did one about a centimetre thick with a front kick, and another much thinner one with a hand chop.

The whole thing was enthusiastically received by the audience, but when I’d finished and the teenagers took up their marks I felt rather down and quite annoyed. With myself for not performing or practising well enough – but also with Lee Sabeomnim for not letting me know ahead of time what was going to happen – especially as I’d asked her repeatedly about just that.

I sat down by the ranks of little kids as my class mates strutted their stuff. In fact, they weren’t being tested themselves, but were rather putting on a show. Music thundered out of the PA system – mostly dance or pop music, but also including the theme from The Lord of the Rings as the kids did a series of short pieces. One was all about breaking boards left, right and centre; another had one boy with a yellow belt being picked on by a gang of red-black and black belts – and kicking their arses; another had Jun-hui at the centre of a quincunx of students doing basically a dance routine to a highly annoying, highly popular pop song.

When they’d finished, they bundled back into the meeting room where Jun-hui told me I’d been great and asked me if he’d been good, too. I said he’d been very good, but I was preoccupied with my apparent failure. Soon the teenagers all bundled out again, so I followed only to find they were grabbing their coats in order to go to a church somewhere in the building. After that, Lee Sabeomnim congratulated me and gave me a – I’m sure there’s a name for it, but I don’t know what it might be – a matching coat and pants – the kind of thing athletes wear while they’re waiting to do their thing. The coat has a Taegeuk badge on the breast and the words ‘KOREA’ (at the top) and ‘TAEKWONDO’ (at the bottom) on the back; it’s also a size or two too big. Apparently they were from the owner of the dojang.

I explained that I felt I’d done badly, mentioning the eolgul makki thing. She recognised what I meant, but said it didn’t matter and I should receive my green belt on Monday. I wonder if I should tell her I’m annoyed at her for not preparing me adequately. I probably won’t – I’m hoping to start giving her English lessons for one thing. At least I’ll know to practise a lot more for my blue belt test – whenever that might be.

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It’s only three fifths of the way through the week, but there have been a number of changes round my way.

I’ve taught a couple of the older classes now. The first was a little depleted, and each only has seven students. First impression were favourable. They were quiet, but I managed to coax a few answers (or attempts at answers) out of them. Hopefully, things will continue in that vein. Each of these classes required me to do two units; from the week after next there’ll only be one unit per class. Guess we’ll be playing a few games, then.

I also discovered that one of these MA classes has been cancelled. Which I appreciate, but, unfortunately, it was a last class on a Tuesday – I’d been hoping one of my last classes on Monday or Friday would be cancelled (although there’s still a chance for Friday).

Tonight I showed the first ten or fifteen minutes of the 1995 Othello to my Speaking Novel class. They went from being a little rowdy during the early part of the class (all five of them) to watching attentively in the darkness. From the attention they gave it (partly due to the effort of reading the subtitles, I’m sure) they seemed to enjoy it. I was a little concerned that there might be some adult scenes (I haven’t watched it myself). The only thing like that was a couple of time when Othello and Desdemona kissed – and everyone made noises of disgust.

The new teacher arrived today and went from being a mysterious figure known only to the director to being a Canadian called Travis. He told me he’d taught a couple of years in Japan, but this is his first time in Korea. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and either fairly quiet or very shell-shocked from the jetlag. He’ll be taking over teaching duties from Todd who leaves at the end of the week.

Later on this evening I went to taekwondo, but found that my class wasn’t taking place because a bevy of littl’uns were being tested. I sat in their comic book room (no, really) and ate the kimbap I’d just bought, then one of the senior masters came to explain what was going on. He invited me to stay, but I demurred and went home. There is no taekwondo class on Friday, either, so I have to practise by myself until my test on Saturday.

As far as I know, at work we have the 25th December and the 1st of January as holidays, but nothing else. Bo has managed to wangle himself a week or so off to travel back to Hungary; Paul’s also spending the holidays in Canada. Good for them. Such homing instincts at this time of year are pretty alien to me. Bah, humbug etc.

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An emotional Sheldon receiving a Christmas gift from Penny of a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy. The Big Bang Theory, season 2, episode 11 – ‘The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis’.

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New classes

Two weeks ago the new semester started at our hagwon, so I’ve had a slew of new classes to teach. This means becoming familiar with the new schedule, the new books and, of course, the new students. So far things have gone reasonably well. I have a lot of classes with L05 and L06 students – which are higher level younger students – and maybe one or two L04 and L07 classes.

To be honest, there’s a slightly stilted feeling to many of these classes. I hope that this is just a side-effect of the all-round unfamiliarity – me with the books and the students, and the students with each other and with me (where they haven’t had me before). But on the other hand, I hope that future familiarity doesn’t breed contempt.

The oldest students I’ve taught this past fortnight were in my solitary MP class (MP for ‘middle school preparation’ (and L for ‘L-ementary’)) – MP12. One of the students, Louis (or Min-gyu) I know from last semester when I had him for Speaking and for Speaking Novel (Moby Dick). He’s pretty intelligent, but given to messing about continuously: giving non-sensical answers to questions and so on. Last time, his MP12 class went from five student at the start of the semester to a mere two at the end. This time we started with four, quickly gained one and who knows what’ll happen in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, the subject of our Speaking Novel class is Othello (an ultra-dumbed-down version thereof, anyhow). No disrespect to the Bard, but it’s not the kind of thing that’ll grab young teenagers, and the more interesting aspects are probably somewhat beyond a) their ability to discuss them in English, and b) their willingness to discuss them or take seriously.

I’ve downloaded a filim version Othello from way back in the 1990s; it stars Lawrence Fishburn and Kenneth Branagh as Iago. I’m not sure they’ll have any appreciation for it at all, but I think they ought to see what Shakespeare really looks like (he’s a short guy with long receding hair and a little beard … wait a minute: he’s Bill Bailey). It has English subtitles – which will probably prove more useful for me than for them. There’s a more recent film calledO with Josh Hartnett where the story is transposed to a modern-day American high school. I’ll give that a go later on.

I have two other novel-based classes – both L05 and therefore both doing the same novels: A Dog of Flanders later on and currently Anne of Green Gables (in this ‘Happy House’ edition, Lucy Maud Montgomery is referred to as ‘Lucy Mode Montgomery’). I’ve downloaded what I think is an American TV movie – it’s a mere three and a quarter hours long (it might be a miniseries condensed into one file). I débuted yesterday in my two consecutive Novel classes. The response was mixed.

I came into class carrying my small backpack, which of course raised a few questions – which I avoided by saying something like, ‘Yes, it’s a bag.’ Once the register, homework and random stuff was out of the way and I had the classes reading Chapter Two, I got out my laptop and speakers. And when the reading was finished and I’d asked them a few comprehension questions I asked a student to turn off the lights and started playing the film (which also has subtitles).

There’s a slightly disturbing digression to be told here. The previous night, as usual, my last activity before settling down to sleep had been to download porn in bed and have a wank. All my downloads automatically go into my Downloads folder (which makes sense); from there I later move them to the appropriate location: Tools, Pictures, Videos etc. On that Friday early afternoon I went to Starbucks (also as usual – I am a creature of habit). I decided to have a look at Anne so I could have the folder up and ready to play the file. My μTorrent folder is in my Downloads folder.

So up came a modest array of porn and I was acutely aware that there were a couple of women at a table behind me. I lower the birghtness on my screen and angled the computer towards the wall. And then what did I do? In my nervousness I managed to double click a video file. Fortunately, I’d been listening to music at home and Windows Media Player stayed minimised – but still, a few seconds of girly moans were emitted from the tiny, tinny speakers. I muted the speakers. And moved the files, and applied the three-second Vulcan neck pinch to the power button and went to work.

As I was saying several paragraphs ago, the response to the video was mixed. Each class was divided into two camps – those who gathered round to watch intently and those who stayed further back and played on their cellphones or Nintendo DSes. I wasn’t bothered with the latter as long as they were quiet. I should possibly have taken the time to watch more than a few minutes of the film. It looks like the movie has an opening section with Anne living with the Hammonds, before she actually goes to Green Gables, but this episode is absent from our 100-page abridgment. It might help the students appreciate the story if I show them the part of the story they’ve just read. I have to say, watching it made me feel a little emotional, almost – almost, I say – to the point where I was struggling to keep an even voice asking the students questions about the film.

The other thing to note is that my schedule this past fortnight has been on a par with what had gone before. However, many of the middle school students have been absent, busy with school tests (I’m now very familiar with the Korean term ‘naesin’, but I still don’t know what it refers to exactly). Furthermore, we now have one foreign teacher fewer, so next week, I get six more classes – older teenagers, at that. Oh, joy.

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I bought some gauze and sports tape for my foor recently, because it’s a little embarrassing having my masters attend to my foot before every class (I don’t mind it so much, actually – especially when it’s Lee Sabeomnim (the female one)). I forgot to check my blisters before last night’s class and when I’d arrived at the dojang and changed into my dobok I thought I spied a drop of liquid blood amid the dried blood of a cracked-open blister.

In fact, I needn’t have worried. I went back to the hospital today to have my foot seen to. The small pretty doctor took a blade to the blisters and scraped away all the dry blood and dead skin. Underneath, the skin was pretty much whole and almost wart-free, and I’m sure I wasn’t bleeding last night.

I went in to see the dermatologist who said I would need one or two more rounds of treatment. I probably ought to have stayed around to have the first today, but the memory of pain of last time is still sizzling in my mind. So I got a semi-appointment for next week (ie, any time on Thursday).

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Lord of the FliesThis is a book I probably should have read long ago. However, the good thing about reading books later in life that one should have read earlier in life (or so I rationalise) is that it gives you a greater appreciation of them. And I certainly appreciated Lord of the Flies.

The opening (the whole novel, in fact, but especially the opening) reminded me a lot of Lost (although that should have been the other way round, of course). A group of boys find themselves on a tropical island in the aftermath of a plane crash. The flight had been evacuating them from an innominate Third World War (a fact that isn’t especially important to the story, but hovers in the background like stormclouds on the horizon). Their painfully naïve assumption is that they will be rescued soon and that life on the island will be jolly good fun.

Of course, neither is true. The boys organise themselves admirably at first, but they can’t follow through on their early determination. In the end, instead of having to struggle against nature, the elements, the island, the worst threats they face are themselves – both the other boys and their own fears and failings. The boys’ descent into barbarism, superstition and murder follows a natural downward curve and seems all too believable a prediction. One of the most chilling things about this is that, like Ender’s Game, all the adult brutality is committed by children.

I particularly enjoyed the language of the novel – it was at once poetic and stark: a perfect accompaniment to the story. What wasn’t quite so good was the dialogue: Golding obviously tried hard to go for naturalistic conversations, full of cross purposes, non sequiturs, ellipses and slang (which latter is, of course, fifty years out of date, now). As a result it’s a little difficult to understand what the boys are talking about – but maybe that’s appropriate.

The climax of the novel is fairly painful reading – from the death of ‘Fatty’ (whose first action was to request that he not be called Fatty, and yet never tells anyone his real name), through the hunting down of the occasionally heroic Jack, to the burning of the forest and the flight from fire and savage boys. And yet, just when you think the conclusion of the book must be nothing short of a miniature holocaust, the boys are rescued by a Royal Navy cutter. The story slices into itself with a knife of bathos as Jack explains to the officer that there have been a couple of murders, and the officer complains that he would have expected better of British boys.

In short, Lord of the Flies is essential reading.

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