Archive for March, 2009

Zoned out, part one

This weekend I went to a village called Odaemi which is close to the border with North Korea. It’s something like five kilometres from the Demilitarized Zone (which I usually remember to refer to as the Dee-Em-Zed) and is actually within the Civilian Controlled Zone that borders the border. So to speak.

The weekend started bright and early on Saturday morning. I knocked on Travis’s door on the next floor down from me at around 7:40. He answered, slightly distressingly, in his underpants and explained that he was feeling sick and wasn’t going to come. Even though he’d promised to pay ₩99,000 for the trip. I said I hoped he felt better soon and went off to meet Botond at Nowon Station.

From oop north in Nowon we had a longish subway ride down to the Express Bus Terminal, sahf o’ the river. Here we gave our names to the young guy (his name may, in fact, have been Young – I can’t remember) from Adventure Korea. Adventure Korea is the same company that ran the trip to Jeju that I went on in November. The young guy was the selfsame young guy who represented the company on that trip and who flew back with me to Seoul on the slightly earlier flight.

The bus turned up around 9:30 and left about ten minutes later carrying its load of oeguks. The drive to our destination, an area called Cheorwon in northwest Gangwon-do (the province that occupies the northeast corner of the country), only took a couple of hours. In purely geophysical terms the area is very similar to Seoul – it’s all a mix of flood plains and low mountains. Of course, this part of the country is a lot less developed than the capital – it’s countryside, in fact.

As we passed into the Controlled Zone, we stopped at a checkpoint where a soldier came aboard and checked us out. Although there were a number of troops at various such checkpoints, the military presence was by no means overwhelming. The soldiers generally seemed quite relaxed and would wave as we passed.

At the tail-end of winter, as we are now, everything was very bare and grey; except for all the pine trees on the hills there was very little greenery. The fields were all filled with neat rows of stubble. The evidence of civilisation is nowhere near as picturesque as Britain – it’s all breezeblock walls, telephone lines and colourful signs. Still a nice change from the Big Smoke, though.

The first stop on our itinerary was Goseokjeong War Museum. The museum itself wasn’t much to talk about. It contained a number of North Korean artefacts – ordinary items like money, stamps, toys, liquor bottles, clothes. All the information panels were in Korean. In front of the museum were a number of examples of wartime matériel – a tank, an APC, an artillery piece, a few planes.


Behind the museum ran a river where the actual Goseokjeong was located. This pavilion overlooks a very scenic gorge with a huge rock sitting in the middle of the water. Also nearby was a funfair; it seemed somehow incongruous.


Our second stop was Infiltration Tunnel Number Two. North Korea is believed (so our guides told us) to have dug as many as twenty tunnels beneath the mountains in order get a jump on the South in the event of a war. Obviously, they wouldn’t have finished the tunnels until they were needed, so South Korean engineers discovered the four known ones by drilling. The actual tunnel wasn’t much to talk about, although one ought to be impressed by the feat of engineering. We walked down the jag-sided passage for a few hundred yards, banging our hatted heads on the undulating ceiling every now and then, until we reached a wide area (complete with seating), where a couple of model soldiers and one real trooper guarded a gate to the further tunnel. Apparently the tunnel could hold 30,000 men. We had been instructed not to take photos inside, and, because I’m a good boy, I didn’t. Though I did take a snatch of video.


After that we were ferried to Cheorwon Peace Observatory just a short distance from the now-legendary DMZ. The observatory building was typically Korean: very new, all sharp-edged grey stone and shiny steel railings and, to be honest, quite soulless. The weather on Saturday was crystal clear so we could see hills and mountains poking out of the flat lands well into the North. There were guardposts on most of the hills, belonging to one side or another; just visible winding through the countryside was the modest fence marking the edge of the DMZ.


The interior of the observatory consisted of a small museum with various displays on the DMZ and the battles around Cheorwon all with good English translations; and an auditorium of maybe two hundred seats facing the windows to the North. Suspended from the ceiling were several video screens which played us a short (really short: only a couple of minutes) film about the area. This began with the opening of bars of the main theme from Back to the Future and then the background music to the voiceover was some awful sinister music like something from a bad eighties horror film. Dead classy.

We had been told that, once again, photos were verboten – at least of the North. However, while we were there, there was no one enforcing this rule – no soldiers – and so it was open season. Although the sky was impeccably blue, the wind was strong and sharp as a surgeon’s tool box. I froze my fingers off getting a number of panoramic shots and zoom shots of guard posts.


The next stop on the trip was Woljeongni Station – apparently the last stop on its line going north. The main point of interest here was the Iron Horse – a rusted, collapsed hulk of a train full of bullet holes.


Also at the site was a nature museum – the DMZ area is an important temporary home for migratory birds. The museum building had an overwhelming rubbery, gluey smell of newness. Many of the stuffed animals were badly, erm, taxidermed – there were lots of squishy heads and scruffy plumage. My favourite part was a map with lots of arrows emanating from Korea each with a bird silhouette next to it; it seemed to imply that all the birds of east Asia and Oceania come from Korea.


Our final stop of the day before reaching our accommodation at Odaemi was the ruin of the North Korean Labour Party Building. Cheorwon was controlled by the North for five years and this building was the scene of torture and executions. Today it’s just a hollow shell – it reminded me a lot of the British Residency building in Lucknow, actually. We walked around it and took photos. I had my first coffee of the day from a vending machine outside a convenience store – both of these things are ubiquitous in Korea.


Then we went to the guest house in Odaemi Village where we (or most of us) would be staying the night – it was tastefully modelled on the Labour Party Building. I’ll write up the rest of the trip soon.


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God to Satan in Old Harry’s Game, series 7, episode 4.

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The new term

We started our new term at work last week. It’s been fairly stressful.

There’s all the paperwork that had to be sorted out. Vocabulary lists for the novels being studied by the elementary students; syllabuses for all classes (the foreign teachers were responsible for the speaking class syllabuses); grade sheets for recorded homework; getting used to the timetable. We also had a new teacher start with us, an American woman called Sandy – that wasn’t stressful as such, but we needed to advise her on how things ought to be done.

Getting the syllabuses and vocabularies done wasn’t too much of a hassle. I did most of the former myself, and even the books that don’t easily break down into ten units aren’t all that tricky to do. I tried to make the homework as specific as possible, balancing it with the amount of work done in class. I knew that one or two textbooks, though, would be difficult to complete more than a couple of pages per class, so my homework for that one was ‘Finish classwork’. I don’t take those classes, but I’m sure the students weren’t too impressed. I don’t think my colleague Travis put in as much thought. I have one book with long units (and therefore difficult to finish in one 45 minute class) where the syllabus he made has just one page of homework per class.

The most stressful part is getting all the pieces of paper ready for the classes. On each classes very first lesson each teacher has to hand out a range of sheets: the overall syllabus, a timetable, that class’s syllabus, the students’ new books. Then the students should glue, tape or staple their papers into their folders and books. Some classes have addition pieces of paper – vocabulary lists and ‘mini-tests’. The second speaking class of the week for the elementary students also requires the handing out of green tape grade sheets. Of course, I forgot to get enough for some of my first SP2 classes – and then the green paper ran out.

There was one moment where I’d put students into groups to work on a sheet of questions I’d made up for the SP2 class and one girl was sitting on her chair in the middle of the aisle up the centre of the class. As she was sitting right on the edge of her chair and I needed to leave the classroom to make photocopies and I didn’t have much time I decided not to get her to move out of the way, but instead just stepped on her chair and headed out. She wasn’t too happy about this, but the main embarrassment was that the father of one of my students was right outside the classroom with a book that his daughter had forgotten.

And then there are the large middle school classes. These are the really soul-destroying ones. The smaller middle school classes with students who don’t say anything aren’t too bad – frustrating, but also quite relaxing in a way. I don’t like the classes with a large percentage of boys who won’t shut the fuck up. I’m going to start giving detentions early on this term I think. We also have a new piece of paper in the registers which is to be used to make notes on problem students. I’ve not really looked at this so far, but I should.

The highlight of last week’s schedule was probably the extra speaking class on Wednesday with L6 students. The L6 classes (with maybe eleven year old students – they’re in the middle of elementary school) were some of my favourites last semester – and I had a lot of them. This term I have none – except for this special, double-length Wednesday class. I was asked to choose a book for the class a couple of weeks ago – and it’s turned out well so far. My students (mostly, if not all students I had in the previous term) had to brainstorm ideas for things to include in a spacecraft that might be received by aliens – a Voyager II, basically; then, in a second discussion, they had to pare this list down to five items. One group said they would send one of themselves, Betty, along with food and water, air, and a cellphone so she could call home.

I work till ten on Fridays so that’s conflicting with my taekwondo classes. I had no taekwondo last Friday (although I did get hold of my blue belt on Wednesday). Master Lee did say she would stay behind later on Fridays to teach me, but she was meeting friends last week. We sent a few text messages back and forth on Thursday to see if I could come at a different time, but nothing came of that.

That was last week. This week has been less stressful (although I’ve only taught Monday’s classes so far). Well, except for marking the dictation homework for listening comprehension classes – it’s the first time we’ve been required to do that and, having done it twice last night, I’m still not sure I quite understand what’s required.

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Fahrenheit 451This is a classic science fiction novel, and one of the most polemical books I’ve read. It’s the future (as it so often is in science fiction novels) and books are forbidden. With advances in technology, homes have been fireproofed, so the firemen (I suppose I should say ‘fire fighters’, but they are exclusively men in the book; it is over fifty years old, after all) of the future don’t put out fires, they light them – whenever someone has been reported to be in possession of contraband literature.

From the get-go, the main character, Guy Montag is depicted as a manly man, proud of his book-burning duties. However, his humanity and curiousity are quickly stirred by his encounter with a young ingenue called Clarissa and by both his wife’s latest suicide attempt and her addiction to the wallscreens in their home. Guy embarks on a dangerous journey, some of which is inevitable – like the desctruction of his own home – some improbable – like the scene where he openly reads a book on the subway. The climax of the book is something of a deus ex machina, the end result of a sub-plot that simmers in the background of the novel.

Some of the writing in Fahrenheit 451 is impressively poetic and powerful; at other times it descends into melodrama. I found that the story itself didn’t flow all that well – it starts with a brooding period that lasts about half the book, then Guy has a breakdown and ends up having to flee back and forth in fear for his life. You could say the jerkiness of the pacing reflects the unpredictability of Guy’s plight.

Where the novel scores big is the prediction of the drug-like immersiveness of TV and the diminishment of the the role of books in American society. I can’t say I I’m an expert in this latter area, but Bradbury in one of several afterwords appended to the novel describes how universities wanting to use his books had also wanted to edit out some of the more controversial passages. In the story, it isn’t the government that leads the move to outlaw books, it’s pressure groups and religions objecting to this and that until there’s nothing left worth reading and the government decides to do away with books altogether.

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“Did you walk along the goods platform?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I wanted you to see it, because I often see it in my dreams, just as it was when a pet of mine jumped off the train after me. We had a heifer. It was sandy-brown. I had raised it from a calf. After the two little ones it was for me the third child. Its coat was every bit as silky as the twins’ hair, its nose was pink and soft, and it smelled of milk, just like them. People laughed because it followed me everywhere. But then we had to sell it. They locked me in the attic so I couldn’t run after them. In those days hysterics weren’t tolerated in the village. Children were given a good smack and told what to do, and if you still didn’t understand, they hit you on the head. Maybe things are different now, and they are more tolerant down there, I don’t know. Anyway they beat me round the head and shut the door on me, but I managed to get out. I knew that if they sold the heifer they’d take it to the station, so I ran to the platform, but by the time I got there they’d already bundled it into the wagon with all the animals the other farmers had sold. It was mooing away pitifully, up there in the van, and I screamed out its name. They hadn’t yet closed the door, and when it heard my name it jumped down from that great height. Children are stupid; I didn’t know what I was doing when I called out to it. It landed on its front legs and broke them both.

“They sent for the gypsy to hit it over the head. My grandfather was cursing and swearing. It would have been better if I had died, rather than valuable livestock – I was such a useless good-for-nothing.

“They butchered it and weighed it. I had to stand there while they killed it and cut it up into pieces. Don’t ask what I was feeling, but let this teach you not to love anyone to death because you’ll suffer for it, if not sooner then later. It is better not to love anyone, because then no-one you care about will get butchered, and you won’t end up jumping out of wagons. Now you must go. We’ve both said quite enough and the dog’s exhausted. Take him home. Come on, Viola! Oh yes, the heifer was also called Viola. My mother called it that. Off you go, now. This dog’s half asleep.”

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Racing snails

Well, life moves on at its own pace. It seems like not much has happened lately, but actually there’s a few things worth noting here.

I spoke to the hagwon director’s brother (who’s one of our teachers) the other day. He said I’d get three days holiday in April or May, but they couldn’t tell an exact date yet. We’ve already had two days off this year (not including national holidays), so the fact that it’s three days doesn’t bother me. The vagueness regarding the date should do, but I’m not cynical enough to suspect the hagwon of lying to me about it.

I’d also asked about the renewal of my contract, and he said that they likewise couldn’t tell me because they would have to know how many students they’d have. The term starting on Monday will last until the end of May, and my contract runs until June. It’s annoying that I don’t have any certainty about this – if only because I know that I ought to be looking for other jobs just in case. I want to do two consecutive years in Korea, and I think I’d be happy staying at E-Castle. I suppose I should start doing more to prove myself a useful member of the team.

Botond had his last day at our hagwon on Thursday (Friday was one of our days off), as did at least two of the Korean teachers – the widely disliked senior teacher (by foreigners, anyway), Sunny, and the much nicer Eun-yeong. From Monday we’ll have at least one new Korean teacher and a new foreign teacher – an American called Sandy.

Last night (at the time of writing – who knows when I’ll actually upload this) I had my test for blue belt at taekwondo. This was a strangely depressing experience – but then last time was, too. On the previous Wednesday I tried to ask my sabeomnim about one of the moves (or combination thereof) that I was supposed to do. I texted her about it and she didn’t reply. On Thursday I tried calling her – also no reply.

The move I was trying to get her to describe more specifically wasn’t really that complex, but with an exact definition to practice to before I would have performed it better than I did. I did carry off the two pumsae that I was required to do pretty well. On the other hand there was another movement that I feel I haven’t had enough instruction in for me to do it well.

As with my previous test I was required to break some flimsy boards – which, again, hadn’t been covered at all in class. I did a left and right roundhouse kick and made pieces of board fly off to the side. Two right side kicks proved easy enough, but I needed three attempts on a left side kick.

Unlike last time, there was no audience whatsoever, and my sabeomnim tested me herself, taking notes as she did so. She gave me some feedback, too. My side kicks were too low, although, at 32 and having been doing taekwondo for only a few months, I don’t think there’s much I can do about my lack of flexibility. She also said my gihap (‘spirit shout’) was late, but I’m sure the students and masters also often perform the gihap just after the kick, punch or block.

I’m to be given a result on Wednesday. I left in a dark mood, ignoring one of the expert students when she said goodbye to me.

I resolved to go for a long walk. Shortly in to this I remembered that we hadn’t talked about meeting the master who’d left the other week, so I called I Sabeomnim to suggest we all go out for drinks some time. Strangely enough, she answered and she responded positively, although she said she and the old master were busy giving tests. This made me feel a bit happier. On reflection, though, it seems like her response to anything I suggest is that she wants to but she’s busy, and maybe next month.

I walked for a couple of hours hoping to get lost. I found myself in some unfamiliar territory beyond the bus routes to Hagye Station, but I semi-purposely wandered in a long loop and ended up returning to the vicinity of Hagye. It was a little before midnight so I decided to investigate the Hagye branch of Homeplus (you’ll remember that Homeplus is co-owned by Samsung and Tesco and was my number one choice for shopping when I lived in Ansan). I bought two large boxes of Tesco cornflakes (yay!) and had a short conversation in Korean with a boy who stopped next to me on the long, sloping escalator.

Homeplus turns out to be about twenty minutes walk away – about twice the distance to Lotte Mart, and in the same direction. I’ve resolved never to shop at Lotte Mart again. At home, having skipped breakfast by virtue of not having run out of both cornflakes and milk, I ate a couple of enormous servings of Great British cereal from a cooking bowl.

I missed my Korean class last week and was late to today’s class (I skipped breakfast again so I wasn’t too late). I haven’t been enjoying as much as I had before; there are a couple new American students in the class that I feel slightly intimidated by for no good reason. But anyway, today we finished the level one textbook, next week we start a new book with a new teacher.

I’ve been thinking today (prompted by the fact that in the previous month I saved a grand total of ₩300,000 – about £150) that I might stop going to the classes and instead find someone to teach me Korean in exchange for me teaching them English. I could ask one or two of the Korean teachers at work if they know anyone. I haven’t asked any of them about getting someone for a private class (for money) because it’s illegal (though many foreigners do it) and I don’t want them having something to hold over me. This is rather more innocent, though.

I’d noticed recently that the clip attachment bit on the strap of my new laptop case was starting to resemble the the one that came apart minutes after I bought it. This morning I took a few minutes to loop one of my black hairbands through the attachment and clip. And whaddaya know, shortly after my Korean class, the attachment popped out of the hole in which it’s supposed to pivot. My hairband saved the day.

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