Wednesday, 28 April 2010

K-pop in the ROK

Working at an all-girls middle school can be quite exhausting. The daily dose of confusion and mood shifts caused by changing hormones and estrogen, can take a toll on the teacher at the end of the day. However, there's also many perks that come with this situation. For one thing, I'm always in the know, when it comes to music and entertainment.

My students' lives pretty much revolve around the latest Korean pop bands and their members. Their unwavering dedication to the boys and girls who sing some of their favourite songs is something not to be messed with... though I sometimes wish they'd put a little of that dedication towards my classes.

In any case, some of you have asked me what the music scene is like, here, in Korea. Well, let's just say that it's an ongoing stream of pop, pop, love songs, ballads, and more pop.

There's a few entertainment companies here, that literally manufacture boy/girl bands, almost every week. Sometimes, they even go to other parts of the world to scout for talent, who they then bring back to Korea; putting them through an intensive program involving music training and dance. The end result? A cookie-cutter, practically perfect in every way, pop band.

The songs are sung in Korean for the most part, save for a few English words thrown here and there for kicks.

To fully understand what I'm taking about, I ask that you check out the next series of videos in this blog. I asked my students for help with this, and they came up with some 'must sees'.

1. Run Devil Run by Girls' Generation
This all-female group consists of nine members; some from Korea, some brought in from the States. They're one of the leading female groups in the country, with a new hit surfacing every couple of months or so. They also appear on various TV shows and at events. The song is about a guy who's a 'super playboy'. The women have had enough of him, and are pretty much telling him to hit the road.

2. Hip Song by Rain
This is the latest song by one of Korea's most famous artists. Rain has been around for a few years and has released tracks that have gone on to achieve worldwide success. Earlier this year, he starred in Ninja Assassin -- a movie that secured his place in the entertainment industry as a double threat. I must admit I enjoy the beat on this one.

3. I did wrong by 2AM
A lot of K-pop music videos tend to take on the same format as that of a Korean drama. There's always a story that goes along with the song. 2AM were introduced to me by a student who has now graduated and gone on to high school. She gave me their album of love ballads as a parting gift, earlier this year. In her letter she said, "Teacher, I think they are your style. I have watched you, and out of all the singers, my thoughts are you will like them." Go figure, I find myself absolutely enjoying their songs, music videos and way-too-metro outfits! This song is about four friends falling for the same girl... and the girl playing all of them like a violin. It's a two part video/drama. You can find part two on YouTube.

4. Follow Me by 2NE1
I must start of by admitting I really enjoy this group. The all-female group consisting of four members is spunky, edgy and a lot of fun to watch. They have a style that parallels that of other female groups in Korea, where they choose Converse sneakers and baggy pants, to heels and mini skirts. And the best part is that every member has a distinct personality, making them easy to pick out. This is their latest single and music video.

5. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Hyori
Hyori is a solo artist who just released her latest single last month. I don't completely understand the music video, but it seems like there's something to do with aliens and UFOs. Regardless, it's a fun video, and she's also pretty edgy. My students all know the dance to this song. I remember the first time they asked me to play Chitty Chitty Bang Bang... I thought they were referring to the old Dick Van Dyke movie, and was so thrilled they knew of it. My mistake.

So there you have it. Five artists who are hot in the ROK right now. What do you think?


Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Where are you from?

I am Canadian. Yet for some reason, I've always struggled to identify myself as one.

I suppose this is partially because I spent the first half of my life as a citizen of India. I was born there and spent my childhood immersed in its culture and traditions. Growing up in Goa wasn't easy either, because there were many times I felt I was different from other Indians. I didn't have a traditional Indian name, I went to church, and ate beef during meals. Being Goan in its own sense, however, allowed me to be part of a particular community... I was a child of post-colonialism. Yet, when I finally began to feel like I was part of something larger than myself, the time came to relocate and take on a new culture, with new values in tow.

The struggle to find a balance between what was ingrained in me as a child, and what I came to know as a teenager and young adult has always occupied my movements, thoughts and decisions. I've never been able to simply just do something. Every time I take a step in life, I zig-zag and teeter-totter between what I know I should do, and what I think I should do. It's gotten better over the years, but the struggle is ongoing.

Canada is a plethora of cultures from all over the world, existing together to create a unique and modern blend of multiculturalism. In a way, I was blessed to have spent my teenage years growing up in a community that wasn't defined by race, ethnicity or colour. However, any Canadian will admit that one of the first questions a stranger will ask them is, "What's your background?" As in, where are you or your parents/grandparents from? That's part of Canadian culture.

So my answer has always been, "I'm from India."

It's usually not the answer these strangers are looking for, as my name says something different. My family's accent says something different. My family's religion says something different.

The other day, a student asked me the same question, "Teacher, where are you from?"

"Canada," I said.

"No! Just Canada?" she asked.

"Well, Canada... and before that, India," I answered, knowing exactly where this was going.

"Wow, you are lucky! I envy you," she said, with a sad look on her face.

I was curious about her reasons so I asked her to go on.

"Your blood is mixed, so you are lucky!" she said, with a straight face that told me she was serious.

She'd somehow interpreted my answer to mean that I was of mixed-race. I sighed, and then spent the next 20 minutes explaining immigration to my sixteen-year-old ESL student. I can only hope that she understood at least some of what I said.

As it turned out, neither answer -- Canada, nor India -- satisfied her.

It's been the story of my life, and I know I'm not the only one with these experiences. Still, I haven't come across a lot of people who've spent their lives in two or more very different cultures, without choice. A lot of immigrants I've met in my age group have either been born in a country different from their parents, or came there at a young enough age, where the only values and traditions ingrained in them, were that of the society they lived in.

However, coming to Korea, just shy of 25 years on this planet, has made me realize that I'm one of the fortunate ones. Having two different cultures make up my being, has made me open-minded and understanding when it comes to the traditions and values of others. Though I may not always agree with them, I'm able to see things from their perspectives.

I've found myself constantly sympathizing with the misfits and those who journey towards self-discovery. I think I'm one of them. And though I spent a fair number of years confused and absolutely irritated that I wasn't able to fully fit into one particular identification group, I'm now thankful for just that. I don't want to fit in. I like sticking out and not being able to look at the world from just one angle.

The view I have, allows me to see the world from so many highs and lows. Traveling a fair bit and meeting people from all walks of life has given me a chance to pick and choose fragments from different cultures, and add them to who I am. I prefer it that way.

I'm finally starting to embrace the fact that I'm a child of post-colonialism and multiculturalism -- a regular jambalaya.

And I think the world's moving quite well towards a sense of global citizenship... and we're fortunate to live in these times.


Jambalaya image courtesy of Google Images

Monday, 26 April 2010

Hampyeong Butterfly Festival

This past weekend, three friends and I ventured on a spontaneous trip down south to Jeollanam province, to check out their annual butterfly festival.

The 12th Hampyeong Butterfly Festival was a refreshing sight after months of dreariness during the long, cold winter in Seoul. It being the end of April, we were craving moments of Spring in all it's glory, and wanted to experience and be around nature.

We took a bus from Seoul to Gwangju city, followed by a short transfer to Hampyeong - a rural town in the province. The differences between this place and Seoul were drastic to say the least.

Acres of land with trees, flowers and streams replaced the concrete jungle that I've gotten so used to. The air was fresher, the people smiled more, and there was an overall sense of calm and peace.

It was exactly what my mind, body and spirit needed, after coming back from Thailand. The new semester got off to a chaotic start at my school, and I quickly became quite overwhelmed; not to mention, I'd also been sick for the entire month of March and some of April. So, escaping to an event such as this, was just perfect.

It was a lovely day for families and couples to be out and about, enjoying the events at the festival. We couldn't have asked for better weather, as the sun was shining the entire time we were there. I managed to take some good people shots, some of which included children who had their faces painted with butterflies on them.

The Korean countryside is beautiful, to say the least. It's traditional farmland, with hints of modern technology, all merged into one. We took the KTX back to Seoul from Gwangju on Sunday, and were able to really enjoy the lovely scenery, during our three-hour journey.

I've now realized how easy it is to travel around Korea, and plan on getting out of Seoul as much as I can on weekends. Transportation is a breeze, and there's numerous festivals and events that happen all around the country that I can check out. It's a win-win situation, because I'll be happy to escape the chaos of the city, and my camera will be happy with all the photos.


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Happy Rider

This morning, while riding the bus on the way to school, I must have seen one of the happiest guys that I've come across in a very long time.

The bus had pulled up to a stop-sign while going downhill, and a quick glance out the window showed me a young man riding a much-too-small-for-him bicycle, uphill. This might not seem like such a big deal, aside from the fact that he didn't look like he was seeking breath, or that he was even grumpy for so early in the morning... much like me.

Instead, he was singing to himself, as he leisurely rode up the hill towards Korea University. I couldn't make out what the song was, but he was smiling from ear to ear, while belting the words out with such strength.

It was such a refreshing sight. I must admit it's rare to see the young men and women in my neighbourhood smile so easily.

I couldn't help but wonder what it was that made him so happy. I wanted to run off the bus, chase him down, and inquire. And although I didn't end up doing what I imagine in my mind, I did find myself smiling at 8 a.m. as well -- something that rarely happens, because I'm not quite awake.

So I guess what I'm saying is, thanks, Happy Rider. Your smile certainly was contageous, and just what I needed on this cold, wet, April morning.


Sunday, 18 April 2010

An eight-month mash-up

Last year at this time, I was processing the paperwork that would eventually land me on the other side of the planet for at least a year. It seems like a lifetime ago, really, because an unbelievable amount of things have happened since.

I still remember my reasons for wanting to quit my job at an up and coming, national magazine in Canada, and move to an unknown part of the world, to do a job I wasn't exactly trained to do.

It all came down to my desire for a challenge. I knew of many people who had taken the same path, following a similar trend: they'd finished school and moved to Korea to work, travel, pay off student loans, and simply, find themselves.

Though I was of a similar thought process, my hunger for a challenge outdid any of these reasons. I'd felt it was time to take off from the nest and do something different. Something for me. Something that would add to my life, and to the person I wanted to become.

So last August, after never having been anywhere by myself, I took the long flight to where I am right now: Seoul, South Korea... and it's been eight months since.

I can't tell you where the time has gone. Some days felt like they were on fast-forward, while others seemed to drag on by (especially during the long, cold winter). Yet, regardless of what I was doing, or who I was with on those days, I know for a fact that I'd never trade these past eight months in for anything.

But last Friday, I finally said six words to my co-teacher that I'd dreaded saying aloud.

"I won't be renewing my contract," I announced to Mrs. P, over lunch.

Though I knew for certain that I was ready to end my journey in Korea, I wasn't prepared for her reaction... or that of the other teachers in the lunchroom.

Suffice to say, she was sad and rather heartbroken. She kept mouthing the Korean equivalent of, "What will we do?" over and over again, while choking back sobs. It was an awkward situation to say the least, as she tried to make me change my mind.

"What about the students? They like you so much. You are so kind to them. They are speaking a lot more English than ever before!" she said... almost in hysterics.

I knew this was true. I also knew that I'd grown attached to the students in ways I never thought possible. It's true, they'd opened up a lot more since I first came to the school. They were more confident in their speaking abilities, and were even willing to take on more work to improve their English. All of this was a huge shift from last semester.

It was more than any ESL teacher could ever ask for. I knew long ago that one of the saddest parts of leaving my job here, would be having to say goodbye to the students.... but I knew I had to do it.

I'm ending my journey in Korea and headed back to The Big Smoke at the end of August. A year has been the perfect amount of time for what I needed to do.

Somewhere between teaching some 700+ Korean middle school girls each week, and trying to adjust to the newness of this part of the world, I figured a few things out.

For one, I've gotten to spend quality time with myself. I've learned, in truth, how I react to the good and bad things that happen to people on a daily basis -- honest emotions... many of which are new. I've made mistakes and recovered from them.

Without influence, I've figured out (to some extent), that there are things I like and dislike. For instance, I like being put in situations where I have to meet and talk to people I don't know. I'm good at it. I don't like it when I'm forced to make small talk with people I do know. It drives me absolutely bonkers.

I've learned that sometimes, quality time alone is exactly what the doctor ordered when facing an existential crisis. Crying is therapeutic. Laughing is reviving and energizing. Dancing alone to old 90s hits is amusing and silly... but still fantastic!

People watching is good. Staring blatantly is not.

I'm not a foodie by any means... but I do enjoy seafood days during lunch in the school cafeteria.

I love walking. Everywhere. Walking clears my mind, energizes my soul, and allows me to look at what's beyond the four walls of my shoebox.

Speaking of shoe boxes, I've realized I don't need a lot of space to be happy. Just a space to call my own. Everyone needs that... even if it's a closet to escape to, during chaos.

I've been surprised by strangers who've shown me more kindness than I expected, and have been surprised by people who have disappeared when I thought they'd be there.

The best part is that despite what seems like global chaos and disorder, I've learned that the world is a beautiful and kind place, where there's more forms of love and generosity than there's hatred and selfishness.

And finally (for now), I've spent amazing amounts of time getting to know the love of my life.

My love's been there for me through every obstacle and triumph... through moments of solitude and spells of socializing... through mental chaos and clarity.

My love's helped me work a lot of things out, and has rewarded me through the good times. My love was a constant companion long before this journey began, and will continue to be, through the next chapters.

You know my love almost as much as I do. You know my writing.

And thank you for spending time with it, commenting on it, and talking to me about it. It's helped me in more ways than you can ever imagine, during moments when you wouldn't believe it could have made a difference.

So thanks for being there for me, everyone. Four more months, and I'll be packing up for a new challenge. I'm terrified, but looking forward to it.


Thursday, 15 April 2010

When nature greets the city

I'd been hearing about the infamous Korean cherry blossoms all throughout winter. "Just wait! All this cold will be worth it when you see the pretty flowers," my co-teacher said one day, as we froze ourselves at school.

"When will they arrive?" I asked, hopeful of a beautiful vision that I could look forward to in the months ahead.

"Spring, of course!" she said. "Somewhere in March."

Of course.

Flash forward to the middle of April.

The blossoms hadn't yet arrived. There were trips planned by tourism companies to take visitors on grand 'cherry blossom tours'. Though they still went ahead, there were none to be seen. Luckily, I held back on the tours, for fear of freezing to death... camera held firmly in hand.

I did take a short day-trip to Yeouido Island in the heart of Seoul, looking for these special trees. Again, I was at a loss, save for a few blooms in the ground.

Then, last Saturday morning, I awoke to the following scene outside my window.

The first of the cherry blossoms on my street in Anam.

I was pleasantly surprised and absolutely thrilled. These flowers had literally bloomed overnight. I was even more excited at the prospect of seeing the beauty without having to leave my apartment.

Flash forward to six days later, and this is the current scene.

If you'll note, the second tree has also taken full bloom.

This is the view along my street in Anam. The flowers have completely canopied what used to be a bare and rather lifeless street in terms of nature. Beautiful, isn't it?

There's something very 'Asian' about the cherry blossoms. I know it sounds silly, but I've usually related them to Japanese gardens and zen parks. It's so amazing that I get to see them every day, as I walk up and down the street in Seoul. It's just another one of the lovely surprises this city has thrown my way.

Here are the blossoms, up close. They're very dainty looking.

It's an amazing sight when they're up against the dark, night sky. They stand out so perfectly, and almost seem to glow, lighting up the entire street. I wish you could see them in reality.

As one of my students put it, "The blossoms make my eyes happy!"

So, here's to Spring finally swinging by the Land of Morning Calm. And here's to all your lives blossoming into something rather special in the weeks ahead!


Monday, 12 April 2010

The stranger connection

One of the many joys of traveling (and I mean REALLY traveling... as in getting out of your apartment, familiar grounds, past the people you know and count on, and going somewhere unknown), is the fact that you forget you're alone. It's pretty easy to be reminded of your lack of companionship and plus one-ness, when you come home to an empty apartment everyday. And it's even easier to fall into a rut and get into the whole, "This can't be it!" mindset.

But forcing yourself to get out of the day-to-day and venturing on an adventure, whether grand or small, can be the most rewarding and soul enriching experience you might have... or need.

My trip to Thailand this past February is one that I won't soon forget. Even though I was traveling with two close friends for the duration of the trip, there were many moments where I experienced the new and unknown on my own. I had moments where I thought, "I'm really here... on the other side of the planet, away from my life as I know it." But that thought would soon pass, and I'd think, "Wait a minute... this IS my life! Sweet!"

Living in Korea has been wonderful on so many levels. But because I'm working a daily schedule here, and coming out of the country's worst winter in a long time, I've had bouts of utter loneliness and regret. And it's not just me... almost every foreign teacher I've spoken to has had one or more of these spells. Well, minus the teachers who intentionally stay here for more than two or three years.

Yet... it's passed, for now. I can't promise those moments won't surface again, because I'm human and it's human nature to embrace the happy and sad. These moments define the whole journey, I think. And getting through them is a test of character and strength... or so I'm told.

In any case, back to Thailand. Traveling through the Land of Smiles was a reminder that no one is ever really alone in this world... even if it seems like it sometimes.

One moment that really sticks out in my mind, is an experience I shared with someone in Ayutthaya. We were staying at a guesthouse, close to the ancient ruins, which was run by an older, Thai lady named Somsay. Somsay was 68, but you wouldn't have guessed it, as she had the spirit to match any 20-something I knew.

When we first got to the guesthouse, it was the height of the afternoon, and we were absolutely exhausted from our train-ride in from Bangkok. Despite wanting to sleep and sweat the heat away, we accepted an invitation from Somsay to join her in the makeshift bar/lounge by the side of the house.

Not knowing what we were in for, we went ahead and met a few of the other guests there as well... a young French man, traveling on his own; a Dutch man, who called himself the "Lazy Traveler", and a Japanese man who was also wandering around, solo.

As soon as we sat down, the following is what took place.

Somsay, with the three teeth to her name, sat down and started singing songs from a notebook she'd retrieved from under the bar. "Tom, Tom, you call at night," she sang, with such enthusiasm.

It took us a few tries to catch on to the words, but we soon realized these were songs written for her by other travelers who'd stayed at her guesthouse.

Somsay's book was an eclectic collection of stories -- marks left at her guesthouse and in her heart, by wandering souls who'd connected with her. I felt lucky and fortunate that she was sharing this with us.

It almost felt like Somsay, in all her strange, one-of-a-kind-ness, was a post, meant to connect travelers to one another. By collecting and sharing these songs, she was somehow bringing people together, regardless of them ever meeting.

Though bizarre at the time, looking back I realize, it was pretty cool to have experienced that!

Alone might very well just be a state of mind.


Sunday, 11 April 2010

Take what you need

There's something to be said about living in a part of the world that's alien to what you know and find familiar. Getting adjusted to new customs, traditions, and a value system unlike yours, is something that can be rather challenging and rewarding all the same.  And all of this is heightened, when you're doing it alone.

I tend to find myself evaluating where I am in life, from time to time. It's a bad habit that I am trying desperately to break, but, every so often, it helps to take a look around and gain some perspective of where you are, what you're doing, and who you're with.

With the change of season (finally!) and the spare moments I've had as a result of being ill, I've had a lot of time to think. Those of you who know me are probably rolling your eyes, saying "Oh, not this again!" But please, hear me out. 

My goal for this year was to live from one moment to the next. And so far, with the exception of some self-imposed roadblocks, that's precisely what I've been doing. This attitude has come as a blessing and a curse... depending on the moments.

Looking at the world as segments rather than a continuation, has helped me relax a great deal. I've come to let go of things that weigh me down, and appreciate smaller things... like when the older Korean man walking lazily down the street, smiled at me, rather than scowled and stared. Or the time I found myself on a park bench in Seoul's financial hub, watching business men and women race against the clock on their lunch hour. Enjoying moments such as these has made me appreciate this journey I'm on, a great deal.

Then, sometimes I find myself in moments where I get caught up. Sometimes it's a smile... a stare... a shared laugh, a note, or a "promise". And I can't help but get caught up. Why do these moments have to be different from the easy ones, like the time in the park? I wonder why these moments become so difficult to separate and eventually let go of.

And I think it's because the heart's involved.
Oh heart... why must you get involved when you shouldn't?

I fear it's because the heart likes to feel needed and fed. There's something strange that happens in these said moments, where the flush of endorphins that sail through your body set off bells that you spend a lot of time keeping silent. Sometimes, I guess these bells just want to... ring! But, it's nice when they ring and are heard and acknowledged... it's a whole different game when they're begged to be silent again.

So, I guess the quest for this season is to work on the imposter. I'd hate for you to think I'm not romantic and that I believe love is dead. I don't. I believe love exists all around us, in so many different shapes and forms. I love love.

It's that obvious love... the one that holidays and greeting card companies design... the one people pretend they're not looking for, but are secretly hoping will find them soon... that's the love that scares me.

It's just easier to imagine these moments as unable to move past those few minutes or hours, for fear of disappointment. Sometimes, it's easier to set the heart free for a breather, and then call it back for lockup. Because love should not make you sad. So take the measures you need.


Image courtesy of Google Images

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Will return to regular programming shortly

I've been down for the count.

Since I first encountered that dreaded yellow dust some three weeks ago, I've been in a nonstop battle with a brutal cold and allergies. This all cumulated on Monday, with a visit to the doctor at an international clinic in Seoul, just so he could tell me I had a severe sinus infection that isn't going anywhere for at least another week.


I feel terrible because this ordeal has caused me to miss three days of school, (and those working in Korea know, regular teachers barely ever take time off)... but hopefully this is the last of it.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I haven't abandonned the blog... I'm still here. Just not mentally. I promise more posts as soon as I'm close to 100 per cent.

In the meanwhile, stay healthy and enjoy the firsts of Spring!

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