Archive for June, 2009

Coming home – briefly

I have now booked tickets for flights to and from the UK for my summer holidays at the end of August. I originally considered flying to Manchester, but I checked out flights to Heathrow and they were much cheaper – about £140 cheaper at £530. So that’s what I got.

I leave Korea on Saturday 22nd August, and get to London (via Hong Kong) the next day. I leave Britain on Saturday 29th and get back to Korea (via Beijing) on Sunday.

I’m planning a triangular whistle-stop tour to visit my family and as many friends as I can. It’ll be something like two days in London, two days in the northwest, two days in the southwest. If you’re in one of those places I look forward to seeing you.

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He came as I went

Yesterday I went down to Nowon Station to visit the KEB bank to pay a couple of bills and transfer some money for a trip I’ll be taking with Habiba in a couple of weeks. Once I’d done that I headed to the Holly’s Coffee for a bagel and a strawberry smoothie.

I placed my order and sat at a table; I got The Neverending Story out. When my order was ready I picked it up and went to sit back down. A man had sat at the table next to me. The coffee shop wasn’t especially busy, but there a couple of Korean girls on the other side of me and some Koreans on the other side of him. He was maybe in his late twenties to early thirties, and wearing a black suit with an open-necked shirt and, I think, sandals. Something about made me feel awkward. He seemed a bit odd and lonely in quite an obvious way. When I sat down – we were on the same bench seat along the café wall – I tried to maximise the distance between us and angle myself to look the other way.

I had my bagel, sucked at my smoothie and read. After a while I noticed, from the corner of my eye, this guy’s hand moving rapidly at his crotch. I felt a pang of oh-my-gosh-he’s-not-really-masturbating-is-he? I gave him the benefit of the doubt – he could just as easily have been scratching – and resolved to ignore him. But I couldn’t – and I could sense that he was still doing whatever he was doing.

I decided to leave. As I did – edging between my table and the two girls’ table, not wanting to look at him, but also kind of wanting to look – I saw a little jet of fluid down by his lap. I only saw it with my peripheral vision – which was more than enough. No one else in the place seemed any the wiser. I briefly considered saying something to someone, but what can you say in a situation like that, and in a foreign country? I left hastily.

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Taekwondo news

A week or so ago I told my taekwondo master about the situation at work, not being allowed to leave until 10:10. She was quite concerned – one of the other masters, a short man with close-cropped hair, exclaimed, ‘Don’t go!’

Having talked to her boss, the wonjangnim, about it, she’s offered to give me one-to-one tuition between ten and eleven on Mondays and Fridays. Which is fantastic – and very generous; I know she has a tough and tiring schedule. Money-wise, I might be paying less than I currently do, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

My next taekwondo challenge is to get my red belt – and it’s going to be difficult. I’ve already been shown the two forms that I need to memorise and they’re tricky – they have new moves that I struggle with. Hopefully, I’ll make more headway once I have my master all to myself. That said, I’m currently allowed to leave work early because the foreign teachers have a reduced schedule due to student having exams. And in a month’s time we start our summer intensive classes – which means we work something like normal office hours.

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Goodbye, Paul

Last week I said goodbye to my friend Paul who is leaving Korea after three years here.

I met him at Seoul Korean Language Academy, during my second – and favourite – of three stints there. We had a fairly small class and the four regular Westerners – myself, Paul, Rachell and Kristian – became friends. The relaxed, friendly atmosphere of our classes was due in no small part to Paul’s easygoing nature. We had fun learning Korean and laughing at the difficulties and the anomalies of that curious language.

Paul left the class shortly after I left Korea in 2007 and when I came back last year our disparate locations made it tricky to hook up more than occasionally. I definitely missed Paul and the others when I went back to the Korean hagwon to restart my classes.

Paul’s on a new adventure now, travelling in southeast Asia; on Thursday he flew out to the Philippines.

All the best, Paul – you’re a superb gentleman and I hope too much time won’t pass before we meet again. And keep writing the blog – there’s no need to stop just because you return to Canada!

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King's DragonThis is the first book in the Crown of Stars series and was first published back in 1997 – a few years after Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series got started.

The story is pretty standard fantasy fare: two young adults (in separate locations) embark on journeys that take them away from their homes and thrust them into the affairs of kings and sorcerers. With the one character, Alain (there is a French theme to some of the names), there is a sort of messianic overtone: he is chosen by the Lady of Battles for some purpose she can’t be bothered to explain. With the other, Liath, there is a rather darker plot: she taken as a slave by a churchman of noble blood, unsuccessfully seduced by him, then brutalised when she refuses to give him what he wants.

These two lives don’t meet until the end of the book (and even then not quite), but the events that transpire around them are interlinked to form the overall story. There are two other viewpoint characters, but Liath and Alain are the main protagonists. The book’s title, King’s Dragon, refers to the king’s bastard son and leader of an elite band of warriors – the Dragons. He is clearly central to the series’ plot, but he isn’t a viewpoint character.

The writing is pretty mediocre. There’s lots of telling instead of showing, and providing interpretation for the reader. The world is not the most inspiring, being a simulacrum of mediaeval Europe, but it is enlivened by the centrality of the religion to people’s lives (a facet often absent from fantasy) and the preponderance of bastards and concubines – at least among the nobility.

Despite its mediocrity in almost every aspect, King’s Dragon is reasonably engaging. I would say it’s better than Magician by Raymond E Feist, but not as good as the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. And I would further say that it’s not good enough for me to want to read the second book, Prince of Dogs.

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Jason handed out an edict to us foreign teachers on Thursday, supposedly from ‘main branch’. We’re not allowed to leave work before the end of classes at 10:10; some sort of penalty will apply to anyone who leaves before this.It means I can’t go to my taekwondo classes, which begin at 9:10.

My options, include defying this rule and just continuing to leave early on Mondays and Wednesdays; I could try to negotiate an exemption; I could look for another class that starts later (there are at least one or two other dojangs in the vicinity); or I could just stop doing taekwondo.

I can see there’s some logic in not having employees leave before a certain time, but I can’t really take a hagwon seriously as an employer – and it makes little sense for us to sit around using the internet or reading just because the Koreans expect us to.

In summary: motherfuckers.

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Exchange rate watch

1 GBP = 2056.9173 KRW
1 GBP = 1.1735 EUR
1 GBP = 1.645 USD

2,300,000 KRW = 1118.1782 GBP

Bonus Exchange Rate

1 GBP = 1.1377 pounds of copper (XCP)

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A new term started at the hagwon this week. Declining student numbers mean I have a much easier schedule – I’m down to 23 classes a week, as opposed to 29 previously; and on Wednesdays I have two classes. I also have a number of very nice classes – small classes, novel classes, classes with students who are – gasp! – interested in doing some work.

I have three novel classes with elementary students. These have always been among my favourite classes to take. To be honest, they’re quite easy – on both teacher and student, so the classroom atmosphere tends to be more pleasurable.

The three books I’ve started with are The Opera Stories (consisting of Turandot, Carmen and Aida), Heidi and Robin Hood. These aren’t original texts but condensed, simplified versions for students of English. I’m planning to do as I did a couple of terms ago and download film versions (and music) to show the kids.

Yesterday I also started using a student points system on the board for a couple of classes. I tried a couple of variants: three strikes = detention; and a more generous automatic five stamps per student, to be reduced for speaking Korean or for bad behaviour. This latter worked well with my PL4 class of four girls.

One thing that annoys me about the new schedule is that classes now finish ten minutes later, at ten past ten. The ten minute break between the afternoon classes and the evening classes has been expanded to twenty minutes. I suppose the extra time to relax and/or prepare is OK, but I’d prefer to be able to leave earlier.

One final thing related to work: the hagwon finally told us the dates of the summer vacation – it’ll be the week commencing 24 August. I plan to go back to Britain for the week. Unfortunately, I’ve just remembered that my credit card has expired and I’ll need to get the new details from my sister before I can buy a ticket (unless I can pay via PayPal … or maybe just go to a travel agent and pay in cash).

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On Thursday, I signed a contract for another year at E-Castle. Which is kind of silly, as E-Castle is only going to exist for a few more weeks. I have no doubt that my official relationship with the newly formed Ginius [sic] Academy will be technically illegal for eleven months, but the issue will be ignored in typical Korean fashion.

On Friday, I returned to the Immigration Office at Insadong to meet my boss, Sharon. There, we got my visa extended for another year; I’m legal until 31 May 2010. I also made sure I got a multiple entry visa, unlike the past year.

I don’t often see, much less talk to Sharon. Usually, I just pass her at reception on my way to classes on the fourth floor; occasionally I have need to talk to her – but only when there’s contract and pay stuff to discuss. So it was unusual to spend an hour with her waiting for our number to come up. She was dressed casually in a cap, T-shirt and shorts; she looked a lot nicer than she does in her office clothes.

She asked me about Habiba and we chatted about things for a while – the suicide of former President Roh, which has shocked the nation this past week, and swine flu among foreign teachers. She advised me not to go to any parties.

Which was ironic because the following day I went to Paul’s leaving party down at Big Rock hof in Gangnam. Habiba and I got there some time after most people and were sat at a table with some of Paul’s colleagues and Kristian (from the Korean class I used to go to with Paul) and his friend Chris. Habiba had cajun chicken salad while I plumped for fish and chips. After we’d eaten, we got a sampler of five or six types of beers, mostly pretty good.

We didn’t get to spend much time with Paul – he was on another table – but we chatted with the people around us. In particular it was good to catch up with Kristian. With out meal done, Habiba and I and Kristian and Chris passed the time playing table football and darts and drinking black amber ale, a creamy stout.

When we left we met Habiba’s friend Charlie and I persuaded them to go and play pool – in order to complete the trio of bar games played that night. They were pretty awful, Habiba slightly less awful than Charlie. After that we went and got noodles from a convenience store and ate them outside (the convenience stores in Korea provide hot water and chopsticks, and even a slops bin). Then we taxied home.

It was a good night, and, although I haven’t seen all that much of Paul this past year, I’m going to miss him. Hopefully, we’ll see each other one more time before he leaves in about a week.

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