Friday, October 10, 2008

The New Blog

I've got a new blog going now,, which I'll be writing on as I travel the next 8 or so months through some 30 odd countries. So, g'bye to "Korea", hello to "Rich Goes Pogonic". Not sure what "pogonic" means? Check out the new blog to find out.

Friday, August 01, 2008

All Good Things...

It's close now, the end of an era - well, for me anyway. In less than 20 days I'll be back in Canada, and things here in Korea are quickly winding to a close. It's funny how 20 days can be an incredibly long time under some circumstances, but after 2 years in Korea it feels like I'm watching the last few seconds of a clock being whittled away towards midnight. Hmmm, I like that last sentence, sounded quite deep and meaningful, didn't it.

I think this may be my last blog on Korea, or at least my last blog while I'm still in Korea. There could be more, but my schedule is moderately busy these days, and with no 4-hour stints of nothing to do at school, taking the time to blog is something I actually have to put effort into. Yes, I know the idea of effort isn't something that should scare me away from the task, but when Korea is almost finished, it just seems a little less necessary to write what's going on.

I'm ending again with another observation of the people and customs here, something I like writing about, and something I'm always surprised at by how many people read and remember. While I'm by no means a blogging all-star, I'm shocked at the number of people who mention my blog at times, and I really appreciate those who read it, especially since I never read anyone elses (except Dave Barsam's, cause he puts so much real and pertinent information in his, from bus schedules to movie show times).

When I first got to Korea, I certainly felt this was an other-worldly country, filled with the kind of social conventions and nuances that I could never really adjust to. Even after 2 years I'm still blown away by just how different this place is (I'm not sure if you're able to view it, but here's a really interesting story on Korea a friend wrote - The second year here I've really enjoyed the country, and now I'm quite sad to leave. I'm definitely ready to leave, but I will miss it with definite certainty. The scary traffic habits, the mysterious seafood dinners that still move, the intensity over things like volleyball and the total disregard for other things any other country would call an integral part of life; I'll notice all of their absences.

I've typed about food a fair bit I think, but I've never really gotten into some of the cultural conventions of it I don't think. There's a powerful history in Korean society regarding food, much of it to do with the scarcity of food in the winter months. Kimchi, that pickled spicy cabbage (or other vegetable) that Koreans hold so dearly to them, was a staple in the diet and survival of Koreans hundreds of years ago, and now it's served with every single meal. What's more, sharing of food is an absolute necessity - you know how kids in Canada will get some candy from someone, then say they need one more for their "friend"? Well here they say the same thing, but they mean it. I've never seen a Korean child horde food, and I've never been in a situation where someone, even total strangers, didn't offer to share. Last week I caught a taxi, and while I wasn't eating in the taxi, he saw that I had some open cookies in my hand. I knew the whole ride that he wanted some, and felt I should give him some, and when I finally got out, he put out his hands and asked me to share my food.

Meals are eaten off shared plates, restaurant servers generally serve meals to everyone rather than the one person who ordered it, and the idea of withholding food from someone for any reason is quite unusual. A friend brought pizza into his class room to encourage kids to speak English, but he said the plan totally failed, since instead of working and trying to speak English for pizza, the kids just got upset that the mean teacher wouldn't share with them.

Anyway, it's time I finished here, I'm off to Busan for another ultimate tournament, then maybe some rock climbing before heading to Seoul and touring the DMZ. North Korea is closed now for South Koreans and foreigners, as someone was shot and killed on one of the tours last month. Seems things are still a little nuts up there, so Shannon and I will be missing the North Korean experience. Oh well, we've certainly covered most of the rest of the country. Maybe there will be one more blog to post up after our last little adventure, check back in a week or two to find out.


Friday, July 11, 2008


Writing about the treatment of animals in Korea can be a little tricky, since mistreatment of animals is not just specific to Korea, and it's hard to guage whether it's even worse here than anywhere else. However it certainly is more noticeable here, perhaps because there's less support networks for the animals, or because the denser population here makes poorly treated animals more visible. In any case, there's a high percentage of foreigners in Mokpo who have taken in a stray animal to get it healthy and away from a sad situation.

My dog Miso for example was a stray, abandoned at 3 months and found by our friend wandering the streets.
He was dirty, hungry, and terrified of everything. I'm pretty certain he had been bought at a pet store, since his breed is quite commonly found there. Shannon and I also think he had a great deal of trauma, mostly involving peeing or pooing. It took us months to get him properly used to excreting outside, and we often would wait for an hour somewhere, only to give up and have him pee in the house as soon as we opened the door. He would shake and urinate whenever a Korean person would come near him, and even now, a year later, he still doesn't deal well with Koreans.

A good friend in Mokpo lives near a market that she walks through often on her way home, and has now taken in about 6 cats she's found being sold in the market. They're kittens actually,
usually hardly a month old, are given a little rice each day, no milk, and no other kind of care. They're tied on short strings, and are often half-dead in their cages. Of the last 2 that were rescued, only one survived.

A few of us have mentioned that paying - yes, you have to pay for these poor starved kittens - will only encourage more kittens to be put through such an awful ordeal in order to make money from people (generally foreigners). It's probably true, but then some people, like my friend, just can't help but try and make a difference when they see these sad creatures.

Veterinarians unfortunately aren't always a lot of help. We've met a few Koreans who feel that being a vet is a good job and choosing it as a career should have little to do with love of animals. Our vet speaks great English, but Shannon and I have decided he really doesn't care for any animals' well-being. He often neglects to find proper treatment for Miso, and when Shannon and I find what's needed, he mentions how he knew that already, doesn't bother to look at our dog for any
illnesses, and carries on his way. That kitten I mentioned earlier that died, our vet looked at him - well he didn't actually look, he just glanced - and said the cat was fine. 3 days later a more accomplished vet said the cat should have been on an IV and had a heat pad the whole time, and it died shortly after.

Conversations with Koreans haven't yielded a lot of success at bringing out the emotions so many westerns associate with animals. Generally they say animals are just animals, and while it's a sad situation they often must endure, they're not concerned enough to do anything about it. The following was the worst I've heard about this yet.

A teacher in town was walking to school and noticed a pile of garbage bags had something scurrying through it, and decided it was probably rats. 2 days went by of this scuttling, yet she never actually saw a rat, just movement amongst the bags. Finally curiosity got the better of her, and after 5 days, she dug through the garbage and found a puppy tied to a pole at the bottom of it. It had been there at least the 5 days she had noticed it, but the rope it was on was so short it had been stuck under the garbage pile the whole time.

She took it to the vet who asked why she saved it, as obviously someone wanted to get rid of it. He was even more surprised when she wanted to clean it up, get it healthy and take care of it. There's a strong "why bother" mentality here, with very few opportunities for disadvantaged animals to survive. When the one shelter I had heard of for animals shut down (no funding), it was predominantly foreigners who intervened to save as many of the animals as possible. I've cut animals loose from short choking ropes because they were given no food; I've changed the routes I walk to and from work to avoid the distressed dogs or cats tied up on the sidewalks; and while I've never actually seen it, I've heard horror stories of the trucks of dogs being sent to slaughter.
I hesitate mentioning the dogs, since a truck of dogs here is no worse than an overflowing truck of pigs or cows at home, but it does strike a different chord in my emotions given the feelings I have toward canine creatures.

Regardless of how it is here, animal abuse does happen in other places, including Canada, so I don't want to sound too damning of Korean culture. It's much more in your face here though, and there's much less help for animals in need. Miso was the last thing Shannon and I really needed to add to our lives while here in Korea, but I am pretty happy we did. His ears are too big, he can't go 5 minutes without some form of attention or affection, but he's happy now and feels safe with us, and I'm glad we were able to do that for him.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Of University Students, Animals, and "The Rules"

It's a mixture of stories, happenings and personal feelings on things this week, some of it funny, some of it sad, and some of it just being how I feel.

Let's start off with the funnier stuff - University students.

I've talked with nearly a dozen university professors in Korea now, so without actually having taught a class, I'm still fairly confident my descriptions of what it's like are fairly accurate. There's plenty of interesting things to be said about university students in Korea, but I'm going to stick mainly on the subject of entitlement.

I think I wrote about this several months ago, but I had heard a story of a Korean family who moved to Canada, enrolled their son in some college classes, and when the son failed school, the family became incredibly upset. Not at the son mind you, but at the school. How could the school have failed their son when they paid so much money for him to get his degree? While I can't guarantee the truth to that story, I've heard plenty more first-hand experiences that would lead me to believe it's true. Every prof I know has failed a student, and every prof has had that student or their parents complain about how they should not be allowed to fail their student. Here are two of my favourite stories:

A student at a Seoul university fails a class. He didn't attend any classes after the first week, showed up to the final and failed badly. Upon receiving his failing grade, he went to my friend (his prof) and told him he needed a "C". "Without a C grade I will lose my job placement," he said. My friend refused, told him he should have come to class, studied, and basically worked for his grades. After a week of continual requests, my friends boss finally phoned him and told him to give the student the C he wanted. Apparently it's quite common for students to be able to requests certain grades assuming they have some kind of special (or even not so special) circumstance.

The same friend gave another student a D in a class. The student phoned my friend one day and said, this:

"I'm confused about my grade." What's the problem, said my friend.

"It's too low." Well if you'd studied harder and done better on the test, it would have been better. "Oh," says the studend, "hold on." The student's mother comes on the phone:

"I'm confused about my son's grade," she says. Why are you confused, says my friend. "It's too low," she says. Well if he'd studied harder, my friend tells her, he could have gotten a better grade.

"Oh," she says. "Just a moment."

The father comes on the phone.

"I'm confused about my sons grade..."

I know I said 2 stories, but I just thought of another friend who had three students fail a test. They pleaded for a week to be allowed to pass. Finally she relented - sort of. She let them re-do the test AND they had to clean all the windows in her house. I thought that was pretty funny.

I'm gonna skip my part on animals right now, it's pretty sad and will take a while, so I'll fill that in later this week. Instead, let's touch on "the rules".

I'm currently signed up to work for an English camp outside of town for two weeks this summer, and I had to ask special permission to attend this camp. Another English summer camp came up, one which paid a significantly higher amount of money, and so after finding a replacement for my first camp, I asked my school if I could switch. OK wait, that's not entirely true. I didn't ask them, I told them, thinking it wouldn't be a problem. Weeeellll, was it ever a problem. While I only deal with the one teacher in my school who speaks English, everyone has been harassing her over why I'm trying to switch camps. It hasn't been very easy on her since I've been phoning the first camp to explain to them that I'm not coming, they then phone my school, and my school gets upset again because I'm not letting it go.

It seems making a "first promise" is quite a big deal, and I committed to this first camp so I should do it. What's more, working in a school means I'm a public servant, and I'm not allowed to work outside my set boundaries (in my case it's within Mokpo only). Both these camps are out of town, so I need special permission to go. Since I'm the only one benefiting from my going to the camp, my school doesn't see it as appropriate that I go. There's no real difference in how the camps work, there's still the needed number of English teachers, everything would work out just fine, but since I'd already been given permission to work one camp, they won't change it to allow me to work a different one.

Anyway, I'm rather bothered by it, but there's really nothing I can do now. My school contacted the other camp I wanted to work and told them specifically that I would not be allowed to attend. It's not a fun way to finish my time in the country, being upset with my school for something like this, but at least it does give me some more free time to see Korea before I leave.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Way It Is

I was sitting at my desk, modifying my after-school attendance sheet so that it equaled 20 classes, and I realized I should probably write this down in my blog. I'm sure I've already touched on how I need to fudge the numbers each month for my class's attendance, but I'll go over it again as I write about the way things need to be in Korea sometimes.

There are about 20-22 classes in my extra class each month, and regardless of holidays, sick days, absent students or even a city-wide natural disaster, I need to have 20 days marked down as having taught my extra class. One month I only taught 16, and so another teacher guided me through the process of erasing all the dates, adding imaginary classes into the attendance book, and being sure I was now logged as teaching 20 classes. I was only one short this month, but I still went and changed it anyway. That's just the way it is here.

I've taken quite a liking to the fruit juices they make at a lot of the snack shops and cafes here, but again, you have to get it the way it is. For example, mixing of the fruits in your juice is generally a big no-no. I love getting strawberry and banana mixed together, but 90% of the time, it's not allowed. I've offered extra money, pointed out that both fruits are RIGHT THERE and just need to be put in the blender, but regardless of how hard I try, the menu says it's like this and so that's the way it's gotta be.

Anyway, it's almost the end of an age, as there's less than 2 months left for me here in Korea. That's only about 6 more blogs! Geez, time is rolling by fast, but there'll be new stories and countries to write about soon after. I'm doing a Round The World trip with Shannon starting in October, which will last over 8 months and reach probably several dozen countries. I'll post a rough itinerary in the next week or two, once I have a better idea what it will be like. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Four Days In China

So depending on how you add up the land mass of the US, China is either the 3rd or 4th largest country in the world. When people ask me now if I've been to China, I suppose I can say yes, but 4 days in Shanghai hardly constitutes exploring the country.

Shanghai is exactly the opposite of what I had expected China to be, even after hearing from so many people how un-Chinese it is. In my mind I saw densely crowded streets, buildings and people jammed together so tight the city might explode, and every square inch of available space would be used for something - anything - given such a large city in such an over-populated country.

Instead, Shanghai came across as a strange mix of European architecture, western North American urban sprawl, and with lots of money to make everything look bright, lively and artistic. I obviously didn't even see all of Shanghai while I was there, but the parts I did see featured wide open boulevards, pre-planned green spaces tucked between gated communities and European-styled apartment complexes, and massive downtown skyscrapers reminding me of financial districts from Canada or New York city. I should have taken pictures of the city itself rather then the frisbee tournament.

But yes, it was the frisbee tournament I came for, and that's where most of my energy and time went into. I did spend Friday touring around the Shanghai Museum, it's downtown shopping districts and Yuyong plaza where all the tourists go to shop, but after that it was nothing but green grass and frisbees.

My team did pretty well the first day, going 2-2 despite a few setbacks and winning a really tough game at the end of the day. One of the major setbacks we had was that I got a minor bout of heatstroke. For a few hours all I could do was sit in the shade and drink water or gatorade. I took some tylenol and some unexplained Chinese herbal medicine, and while I was able to play later in the day, I wasn't quite "right" again until the next day around noon. I think I was the first person in bed that night out of all the 200+ people at the tourney.

I wasn't the only one who got ill though - on my team alone, 2 more people got heatstroke, another had food poisoning, and at least 2 or 3 put themselves into poor shape from partying too hard. By the time the second day rolled around, we were
certainly not at our best form, and the team we worked so hard to beat the other day walked all over us. Regardless though, it was an awesome weekend with tonnes of good food, frisbee and other activities, many involving alcohol. It was probably the only chance I'll have to see China, and though it may have only been about 10% of Shanghai I saw, I at least have the big ol' stamp in my passport proving that I made it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I'm not sure why people have such a proclivity and fascination with round, precise numbers (especially big ones), but hitting my 100th blog seems to be a event worth noting. This means I've been putting out just over a blog per week for the past 21 months, and keeping up with it has made me pretty proud.

Things here are going pretty great, though I've nearly been hit by more cars than normal these past few weeks. I actually had one guy on a scooter deliberately swerve at me, I suppose since he felt I was walking in his driving space, so I was mildly surprised the other day to find a man sleeping in the middle of the road, one shoe flung to his side, his arms under his head for a pillow. No one seemed to take much notice of him though, and both cars and pedestrians maneuvered there way around his outstretched body with little concern for him.

I ended up taking two days off of work last week due to illness, and even now I'm still suffering from a nagging cough, though otherwise I feel quite good. My coteachers have shown a great amount of concern for me, and while their suggestions on why I might have gotten sick (cold mornings followed by hot afternoons) aren't too helpful, it's nice to know that they want me to get better rather than show up for work regardless of my state of health.

A Case of Spite

Shannon's school held an English competition today, and they had asked me to come and judge it. My school then requested an official document of sorts, something to excuse my absence from school, but by the time Shannon's school sent it to mine, they had decided to hold an English competition of their own on the same day. I suppose my principal didn't feel like being outdone by anyone else, but the thought that went into planning this competition was brutal. While I knew from Shannon that my school would hold a competition today, no one from my school informed me until yesterday at 5pm. Shannon has spent the past week helping students prepare speeches, practice pronounciation, etc. and I have done zilch. Until I was given the list of who was reading this morning, I had no idea which students were competeing or how many there would be. Things went about as well as you could have expected, though I was impressed with a few of the speeches that were written. One was done on the "Mad Cow" situation currently happening:

"The chances of getting mad cow are very small, but if we eat mad cow beef, the chances go up. Koreans have genetics that make them more likely to get mad cow. It could take 10 years for symptoms to show up. In 10 years I'll be 23. Do you really want me to lose all my hopes and dreams for cheap beef and risk getting mad cow?"

It wasn't quite that well written, but you get the idea. For those of you who are unaware, Koreans have been protesting the import of USA beef for stwo months now. Over 12,000 people are gathering almost nightly in Seoul to protest, hundreds of people have been arrested, and nightly the news shoes police beating and water-canoning protestors in the streets. It's quite a big deal, and as I check the Korean Herald, it seems as many as 80,000 people have been gathered to protest importing US beef. Even Mokpo has candlelight vigils these days slamming US beef and the Korean government for allowing it in.

My class just wandered in, so I best get off the computer and begin teaching. I'm going to China this weekend for ultimate, which I'm incredibly excited for. Hopefully I'll have some fun stories, great pictures and interesting things to say on Chinese culture to share next week.