Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Hello, Autumn!

Autumn in Seoul is definitely not the same as autumn in Toronto.

I shouldn't even compare.

When I lived in India, a tropical country, I always imagined that if I were to move somewhere with cooler weather, that winter would automatically become my favourite season. After all, think of all those Christmas cards with picturesque paintings on front, making snow seem so magical... and not truly COLD. What can I say, I was a child with a flare for absorbing visual images.

When I moved to Canada at the end of July, the first complete season in my new home was autumn. I'd never given it a second thought back then, but I now realize that I'd fallen in love very quickly.

I fell in love with the smells... so cozy and comfortable. Maybe it was the smell of maple sugar or pumpkins, or coffee. I can't quite figure it out. All I know is that the air was sweet, mixed with a warm breeze.

I loved the fact that everyone looked cozy, all bundled up in their sweaters, scarves and coats. It wasn't as harsh as winter. Autumn had a softer look, with layers and warm colours. I guess it also helped that everything from the trees to the wardrobes were sporting my favourite colours.

And it's stayed that way ever since.

This is a recent shot of autumn in Toronto, taken by my friend Matt Cohen. I'd had a little chat with him about what I missed about the city, and he was kind enough to go out and get this shot, with me in mind.

Each year as September approaches, I begin a mental countdown to weeks of serenity. With autumn comes a sense of peace that I don't feel at any other time in the year. I make more of an effort to go out on walks and take in nature. I look at things more critically, and am truly overcome by the beauty of this world.

My friends used to joke with me about being morbid.

"Fall is a season of death, you know?" they'd say.

But I never thought of it that way. It just seemed too beautiful to be considered that.

I met someone in Seoul a few weeks ago, and shared this information with her. She said she'd run this by her mother, who happens to be a kindergarten teacher in Texas.

"Mom says it's not about death," she said. "The trees are simply absorbing all the photosynthesis so that they can keep warm for the winter. That's why the leaves fall."


Another reason to simply love this season.

I know, this post is rather nostalgic, isn't it? I must admit, I'm missing autumn in Toronto. But, for what it's worth, autumn in Seoul is just as beautiful. It's just... different.

More on the Seoul version, later.


Image courtesy of Matt Cohen in Toronto

Monday, 26 October 2009

I laugh with you

I've been watching this Korean variety show on TV for the past couple of weeks. In fact, I've been following it pretty diligently. I think it's been on three nights each week. But, here's the insane part - I don't know the name of the show. In fact, even if I did, I'm sure it would have some complicated Korean title, and I'd forget it after the second word.

What I know of the show is this: currently there's six famous Korean celebrities from various dramas and comedy sketch shows participating in it. They're made to perform a series of tasks that range from taking conversational English tests, to going out to the country and farming for a day.

But... it's all in Korean.

Still, when it's on, I can't seem to turn the TV off. I find myself laughing when the audience laughs, and sometimes even understanding what the actors are saying... despite not knowing a lick of Korean.

A friend and I were chatting over dinner a couple of weeks ago, about how we seem to catch on to the k-pop songs so quickly, despite not knowing what they're singing about. She said it's because they're so repetitive and catchy. I think this is true, but I also think it's because we're getting used to the language on some subliminal level. We may not be fluent in it, or even speak it, but on some strange level, it's what's normal to us right now.

A few students asked me to play Lady GaGa's "Pokerface" in class the other day, and I was taken aback by the English-ness of the song. Bizarre? Yes.

Another reason for watching this variety show with such fascination is because of this man:

This is Kim Seong-min -- a Korean actor and overall celebrity. The only reason I know his name is because my girls at school conducted an intensive search on their Naver search engine, for me. I told them I thought a Korean man was handsome. That's all it took. I didn't even have a picture of him.

I didn't know his name when I first wanted to figure out who he was. So my class, full of intermediate grade eight girls, got to work.

"Teacher, where did you see him?"

"I saw him on Sunday night. A KBS variety show."

They pulled up a bunch of images of random actors who were hot on the tube that night. None of them were him.

"Teacher, what's the name of the show?"

"I don't know. I know there's six male celebrities on it."

Another load of images populated the screen. Still, none of them were him. After the circle of girls surrounding the computer grew larger, and the bickering of who this mystery man could be grew by a whole octave, another girl asked me the final two questions.

"Teacher, he is on Korean drama?"

"Yes. I don't know which one."

"OK, teacher, is this man on it?" she asked, as she pointed to the photo of a random comedian who was also on the show.


Ten seconds later, Mr. Kim Seong-min took over my desktop.

My reaction?


My girls' reaction?


I think she meant "at you," though.

Still, this could have been a lesson plan in and of itself. It's difficult getting my girls to speak when talking about lessons from their textbook. But send them on a mission involving k-pop or TV shows, and boy, does their vocabulary ever grow!


Photo courtesy of Google Images

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Losing it in translation

I get it now.

I completely understand how people who don't speak English feel, when surrounded by loud, obnoxious English-speakers, who are oblivious to being in the presence of those who don't understand a word they're saying.

Everyday at lunch-time, I sit at a table full of Korean teachers. Women who use the hour to vent, laugh, gossip and chat... in Korean. I have eaten with them every day since I started working at this school. Initially, it was difficult for me to ignore the banter. And because I didn't understand it, all I heard was loud noise as I ate my lunch.

This week, something happened. As I sat in my regular spot at the lunch table and ate my kimchi, I noticed that I'd drifted off into my own world. I no longer heard the teachers chatting in Korean. It was silent (in my head, at least). I quickly realized that the chatter had all along been some kind of white noise... that I'd become used to. So much so that I didn't hear Mrs. K ask me a question about my weekend plans.

I have quickly come to understand how lost non-English speakers must feel, when surrounded by these words almost everywhere. At least this is me, in Seoul. I know I can go back to Canada or to other English-speaking countries and be just fine.

At lunch, after I snapped back into reality, I quickly counted my blessings for having English as my first language... and for the ability to drown out the white noise.


Image courtesy of

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

So, you're a teacher now?

It's something everyone's been saying to me in recent days, from friends to family. I guess I am. Not that I'm trained as one, save for the 10-day orientation that I had to undergo upon entering Korea.

My background is in humanities and literature. In recent years I've studied journalism and have worked in the field too. But my longing to get away from the mundane drag that my life had become, made me look towards the east. In this case, I applied for a job to be a native English language teacher in South Korea.

And the main requirements for me to get a job with the Seoul public school board was that I have a degree (in anything, really), and some experience teaching, in any capacity.

Fortunately, I had both.

That application process took about three months... and my life in Korea began two months ago. It's difficult for me to grasp that concept... that I've been in this country for two months. It truly seems like days. But when I sit down and think of all that's happened, and all that I've seen and experienced, I realize it truly has been months.

I've yet to spend a Saturday at home since I've moved here. Every weekend, I end up meeting with one or a few other foreign teachers, and we venture out on day trips. Sometimes, it's a simple trip to the fashion pockets in the city, where we search for 'kun' sizes... bigger sizes for our bigger, western bodies. And sometimes, we find ourselves having truly Korean cultural experiences, thanks to some of the locals who find amusement in making us try different foods, music and customs.

It can be exhausting at times, though. It's so tempting to keep on keeping on because I know I'm on borrowed time. For the moment, I know I'm here on a one-year contract. There's an expiry date to my adventure, so I try to make the best of every single day. But a recent conversation with S got me thinking... This is a year of my life. I'm not going to get it back. So I figure the best way to keep moving forward in a productive sense, is to find the balance I seek in the everyday. This means only doing what I can, without exhausting or draining my energy.

Teaching does tire me, I won't lie. It's quite the task, being a circus act at the front of a class full of girls, who only seem to grasp every 5th or 6th word out of my mouth. But, at the end of the day, no matter how tiring it all is, it does feel worth it. It puts the biggest smile on my face when even one or two students come up to me during the day and try to speak in English. This is when I know they're moving in the right direction.

The main issue with English in Korea is this: They study it from childhood, in both, the regular school system, and in private classes as well. By the time they get to high school, they pretty much know how to read and write. The only thing is that most times, it's not always perfect.

This is where the problem is.

Koreans (and don't hate me for generalizing, but this is through my experience only) are perfectionists. This is from the mouths of my co-teachers and also from Korean friends. They would rather keep their mouths shut, even though they know the correct thing to say, than actually speak, and perhaps say one or two words wrong. The idea of speaking less than perfection is simply not an option.

My co-teachers would not speak to me for the first few weeks at my school. These are people who've been teaching the English language to students for 10-20 years. I had to convince them that I wasn't the enemy and that despite our moments of miscommunication, speaking to me rather than ignoring me would work to both our benefits. They're only finally starting to come around.

Overall, it's a pretty good experience. I'm being tested in ways unimaginable, and I'm learning to be patient and open-minded. It's not easy, but it's worth the challenge. Every bad experience is overshadowed by about a dozen good ones.

For instance, my week has been pretty rough because of some lesson planning chaos. Today, I was dreading teaching my 8th grade afternoon class because I was pretty burnt out. As I sat in class and waited for the bell to ring while the students mingled among themselves, I noticed a few girls pointing to something by the computer and staring, wide-eyed. I quickly looked to see what it was... it turned out that the ceiling was dripping water all over the printer, floor, windows, computer desk and so on. One or two of my students got to work quickly, dabbing the water with tissues, rags and a mop. One girl ran to bring my head co-teacher into the room. The result was absolute chaos.

But the saving grace was this: the chaos forced me to abort my class and lesson plan. The girls were allowed to spend the 45 minutes in class, watching music videos by their favourite Korean bands... and trust me, there's a LOT of those.

So, a hectic week has made a U-turn on hump day, thanks to a flooded men's washroom on the 6th floor, a dripping ceiling in the 5th floor English Zone, and a group of 8th grade girls with a zest for music and a love for all things English... well, when I'm talking about pop-culture anyway. It's funny how they understood everything I said then.

This, my friends, is Seoul, Korea. Never a dull moment. And I couldn't have asked for a better adventure at this time in my life.


Monday, 19 October 2009

60 days of likes and nots

As of the 20th of October, I will have been in Korea for two months. Yes, you read right... ALREADY two months. I can't believe how fast time is just flying. The more I fall into my routine, the quicker the days seem to pass by.

In the time I've spent here so far, I've had my share of ups and downs. There have been many moments where I seriously took a step back and wondered what I was doing here. And on the other hand, there have been days where I've thanked Lady Luck for bringing me to this part of the world. Here's a short list I've compiled of the things that make me smile in the Land of Morning Calm, and the things I could do without.

Good: Moving to the other side of the planet, away from all my comforts and security. Being forced to start from scratch, make mistakes, and learn along the way.

Bad: Moving to the other side of the planet, away from my family and Ginger (who I miss every day), Tim Horton's coffee and Mum's homemade food.

Good: Living in Seoul. I am a city girl at heart, but I love my random bursts of nature. Seoul has a wonderful blend of both. Though it's a cluster of neon lights and chaos, a short subway ride can take you to a beautiful river, or to the city's famous mountain trails.

Bad: The constant flashing neon lights outside my window, reminding me that the karaoke bar down the street is open until dawn.

Good: Sidewalks, so that I can walk just about anywhere in this city.

Bad: Sidewalks, so that motorists (cars and scooters, alike) can take shortcuts through the city by driving on them, and running pedestrians over.

Good: No garbage litters the streets.

Bad: I can never find a single trash can when I need one, making me wonder where people toss their garbage.

Good: Bidet toilets.

Bad: Not knowing how to properly use a bidet toilet.

Good: Making friends with the school bully.

Bad: Angering the school bully when you say no to her demands for candy.

Good: Ondol floor heating.

Bad: Not being able to dry my clothes in less than 24 hours.

There's tons more, that's for sure! This is just a teaser I came up with while waiting for my 3rd period class to come charging in. I hear them down the hall, now. Time to go!


Friday, 16 October 2009

Verbal Therapy

Vent before bed...

I just wanted to go on record by saying I am thankful for this outlet. I am so grateful for words and the ability to put pen to paper and just let the thoughts flow. I can't imagine bottling up all these ideas and allowing them to fester.

I'm even more grateful to now have the ability to choose what goes in this blog. Coming to Seoul has allowed me the chance and the time to get back to writing in a book. I am so happy about this. And although I may not always share what's in the book, tonight, I will say this:

Common courtesy is a fading colour in our world. There may be pockets of it still left... but overall, everyone's in it for themselves.

I need to remember this more often, as I move forward on this journey.


Image courtesy of

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Wordy Seoul!

It's been almost two months since I started living in the Land of Morning Calm. And throughout my days here, I've never been short on advice and random quotes. There's people throwing one-liners at me from all corners, on everything from my diet, to Korean love connections. There's a lot to this list, and I'm sure I'll have tons more before the year is done... but here's some teasers.

"No talking. Just flirting... with eyes."
- Sharon's co-teacher's advice to me, on trying to make friends with the cute intern phys-ed teacher at my school.

"Alive octopus make man very happy. Man happy, you happy."
- Mrs. C's advice, during a 'female teachers only' lunch, at mid-terms.

"Kimbap... kimbap... kimbap!! You eat more food! Look at you! Kimbap plus more, you need."
- Mrs. K - the confidence booster, after I told her I ate kimbap for dinner... three nights in a row.

" Your hair... why do you do it different? It's confusing me."
- Mr. S, every time I wear my hair differently.

"You solo?"
- Mr. cute intern phys-ed teacher, during our one and only conversation... a month ago.

Yes, I'm solo. You solo? Let's duet!
(Perhaps I should try this 'flirt with eyes' bit)...

There's tons more, but I'll get to those in time. For now, I hope you've enjoyed these!


Seoul Writing Dates

I've met a kindred spirit, here, in Seoul. She's from Chicago and I'm from Toronto... we had to get ourselves across the world, to meet in a city where we're both equally confused and amused all the same.

This is Sharon on our first coffee/writing date at Holly's Café in Seoul. She never fails to represent Chi-Town wherever she goes. Lest we forget.

Sharon's company has resulted in many ab workouts for me and all those who surround her. Truly, she's a 'what you see is what you get' kind of woman, and if you don't like it, she'd only be too happy to show you the door. I like that about her. I never have to second guess her thought-process. In a country where a lot of people flutter around with hidden agendas, Sharon is a refreshing gem.

Even as we sit her today, on writing date #2, she's managed to make me laugh with some random bursts of questionable grammar and misspelled words. Oh, did I mention she's also a journalist? Amazing times!

Check out her blog... Sharon in Seoul.

I'm inching at the two-month mark, here in SoKorea. It's quieter moments like this where I truly start to reflect on my journey so far. To say it's been a shock to the system would be an understatement. I've had to deal with situations and experiences that I never imagined having the strength to put up with. But somehow I have... and I feel I'm better off because of that. Yesterday, a friend of mine said he thought this would be a life-altering experience for me. I think it already has been.

Last weekend I had to experience my first holiday alone - Canadian Thanksgiving. It was the first time I felt pangs of homesickness. I wished I was home celebrating with my family, and simply lounging on the balcony chairs, watching the maple leaves flutter to the ground. Simple pleasures that make life beautiful.

Fortunately, I've met wonderful friends here, who made sure I wasn't alone on a single day throughout the weekend. I spent my time indulging in some amazing Korean food, watching a free concert at City Hall, meeting Sharon for the start of many writing dates, and ... lesson planning. No complains. I'm loving all my experiences here so far... yes, even the confusing and mind-numbing ones.

This Saturday, I will be joining some of the other teachers for a much needed retreat at a Buddhist temple, for 24 hours. I'll certainly write about it and share my experiences with all of you, once I get back.

Till then, lots of love and hugs!


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Drum for your Life

The only thing better than watching a drumming festival live, is watching a drumming festival live... in a forest... at night... for free.

A few weekends ago, a bunch of the other expat teachers and I ventured on a post ladies-night trip down to the Han river, in search of Seoul Forest. We had learned not too long ago that there was a drumming festival taking place there, so we figured we'd make a day of it and check out the happenings.

After a two hour walk along the river we found ourselves in the heart of Seoul's man-made forest, just after sunset. Greeted by the pounding of drums that literally resonated in our souls, we walked into the clearing to see thousands of people who had the exact same plans for Sunday evening as we did.

Check out some of the photos from this awesome International event.

The 2009 Seoul Drum Festival held in Seoul Forest in September, 2009.

This all-female group was awesome! They performed complicated drumming routines while still managing to look elegant and poised. A true talent, I think... and a wishful dream that I could be one of them!

The traditional Korean drum. "Goom-ta-ta-goom-ta-goom!"

This was a samba dancer who performed with the Brazilian troupe. Traditional drumming and music that made me feel I was back in Cuba... I was in heaven!

A small glimpse at the crowd that showed up for this wonderful event.

All in all, a fabulous way to spend a Sunday evening, I think.


Wednesday, 7 October 2009

SPAMsgiving update

I said it in words, said it with an illustration! Amazing.


Photo courtesy of

Friday, 2 October 2009

Merry Chuseok

It's Chuseok day, here in Korea. I never thought I'd see this happen, but the entire city of Seoul has pretty much shut down. In fact, this started happening as of Thursday. Even the construction workers stopped with the drilling and banging, to take a rest and give thanks. I heard that Chuseok (or Korea's version of a harvest festival) is an even bigger holiday than Christmas, here.

Yesterday, a bunch of the Seoul strays (friends who've stayed in the big city over the holiday weekend), decided to head up to Gyeongbokgung Palace in Insadong to check out the Changing of the Guard ceremony... and to find this beautiful stream that we learned existed in the back of the palace grounds.

It was a great way to start the holiday -- with a traditional Korean cultural experience. In fact, because of Chuseok, there was a sign up on the ticket counter that said people wearing traditional Hanboks could enter for free.... and many did.

Here are some photos from the day.

This little girl walked by with her mother during the Changing of the Guards ceremony. I loved the colour and cute little Hanbok.

Gyeongbokgung Palace and the royal Changing of the Guards ceremony.

Korea is amazing. There's these fabulous, centuries-old palaces that are preserved so well, all over the country... and all around them are these growing, towering metropolis'.

Me with one of the royal palace guards. We could take photos with them as long as we didn't touch them...

I saw this photo in a guide book that my friend, H, gave me in Toronto. I was determined to capture the real deal on my own camera.

K and I take a break by the stream to play with the catfish. Doesn't the backdrop look fake? Thanks, C, for taking this shot.

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