Tuesday, October 21, 2003

This past week marked our one-year anniversary in Korea. Strange to think that only twelve months ago, Amy and I stepped off the plane in Incheon into this strange land of kimchi, soju and singing garbage trucks.

When I think back over the last year, I can’t believe how quickly time has passed. We’ve seen and done so much. Snowboarding at Muju resort, windsurfing at Jinha beach, scooter rallies around Ulsan, trips to Thailand, Japan and China – we’ve certainly been busy!

Over the last year, we’ve lived through just about every conceivable weather condition from bitter Arctic winds to typhoons, heat waves and lung-clotting smog. We had a rainy season that seemed to last for an eternity - where we couldn’t dry our laundry if our lives depended on it and I lost a handful of t-shirts to mold. We’ve fought off invading ants, swarming dragonflies, screaming cicadas and the omnipresent mosquitoes.

Highlights for me from the last year would certainly include learning Hapkido. Who would have imagined I’d ever be able to leap headfirst over Amy and land into a roll. That, plus learning handsprings, rolls, flips and flying kicks, punches and wristlocks. I’ve especially enjoyed the relationship that we’ve all developed with our ‘Sahbuhneem’ (esteemed teacher). He has us in stitches laughing most mornings and even though he knows about as much English as I do Korean, we still manage to communicate somehow. We’ve learned so much from him and I know I will miss out morning workouts with him once I returned to Canada.

Another highlight for me has to have been our trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Given all the media hype over the North Korean “issue” over the last year – having the opportunity to visit the front lines of any potential conflict on the Korean peninsula was a powerful experience. I still find it hard to see a people so divided and the conflict between them saturated by so much ideology and venomous hatred. To this day, it’s strange to be living in a potential war zone - where the sight of uniformed soldiers in the streets or fighter aircraft in the skies is commonplace, as is being woken up by air raid drills.

Teaching English has been an interesting experience. For one thing, it’s taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the English language. Does anyone else know what a gerund is? Or had to explain it on the spot to an expectant classroom?

Teaching has also provided me with invaluable insight into Korean society. From my students I’ve learned more about the culture, traditions and history of Korea than I ever could have from any guidebook. I’ve learned more of the Korean language than I could have from studying from audiotapes or videos. Though, to be honest, most of it has been the dirty words. In either case, it’s been a very rewarding experience.

I think the most surprising thing for me over the last year has been that both Amy and I have made some very good friends here. We both came over here expecting to meet people but not really expecting to make any close friends. So we’ve both been pleasantly surprised that we’ve made some friends I know we’ll keep in touch with long after we leave Ulsan.

So what does the future hold?

Well, as most of you know Amy and I are planning to get married next summer, so there are all the preparations that need to be done for that – including visa applications, something neither of us is looking forward to.

We’ve signed new contracts with our school that will see us here in Ulsan until roughly May-June of next year at which point we will return home to get ready for the wedding. Our school director was very happy to have us sign on for an additional period, which was nice. We even managed to negotiate a bit of a salary increase, which was even nicer!

On a personal note, I’ve started writing a weekly column for an expatriate magazine published here in Ulsan and that has so far been a lot fun. Basically, it's just my thoughts and observations of life here in Ulsan. It’s also opened some doors with the guys at Hyundai Heavy Industries (the world’s largest shipyard) and may lead to some part-time work in the near future.

We continue to run hash runs every fortnight and I’ve now assumed the Assistant Grandmaster position, which allows me to dole out all kinds of penalties (beer down downs) for infractions, either real or imagined. I also just passed the 20 run milestone with this pack!

Amy and I continue to plan some more travels, with our eyes on Shanghai for the Chinese New Year and possibly another trip to Japan or even to Vietnam. We’ll have to see how the financial situation holds up!

By the way, a gerund is a verb that ends in -ing but functions as a noun (e.g. My favorite activity is sleeping.)

Monday, October 06, 2003

Fall has arrived quickly here in Korea. It’s almost as if overnight, it decided to get cold. The days are still warm and sunny, but the evenings have taken on a definite chill. That, and as the days get shorter and shorter, means the Siberian winter isn’t far off. Time to start unpacking the down jacket.

On the upside, the cold has meant less mosquitoes buzzing around, but now Amy has had to go on a warpath defending our home from invading ants as they move indoors to escape the cold. She’s become a lethal, one-woman, ant-killing commando.

Since our trip to China, the last few weekends have been pretty busy, starting with Scooter Inferno.

My friend Fin and I decided one evening over some drinks at the bar that it would be good fun to organize a scavenger hunt or rally. Seeing as most of us foreigners here ride scooters, we decided to make it a grueling all day ride to try and see all the scenic areas in Ulsan (yes, believe it or not… there are scenic areas in Ulsan). Hence, the name Inferno… riding all day on a lawnmower engine sucking down exhaust fumes is as close to Hell as I ever want to be.

So with a little promotion, and getting the word out, by Saturday morning we had over ten riders (in teams of two) lined up to start the race. The rules were simple, visit all of the locations and take a digital photograph of your team in front of the scenic spot. All pictures had to have one of our customized Scooter Inferno towels somewhere in shot, and points would be rewarded for creativity.

Anyway, we had an awesome ride that day, dodging pickup trucks, evading police, ignoring red lights and pushing our machines to the limits of their performance specs. We also saw some beautiful spots and had a great time chasing each other up and down the highways, getting some very strange looks from bemused Koreans laughing at the strange foreigners.

We got together later that evening for a buffet and beers at one of the local bars, where we swapped stories and watched a quick presentation of each team’s photographs. Apparently ‘Creativity’ translates into ‘Naked’ for most people. Lots of laughs were had, and we’re already planning what we can do next to top it!

You can see highlights from Inferno 2003 here - just click on the Highlights! link.

This past weekend we had another long weekend and so we took the opportunity to head up to Chungju to check out the World Martial Arts Festival that was happening.

Traveling in Korea occasionally presents unique problems – mostly caused by our lack of any functional language skills. And seeing as that in Korea, there is a Chungju, a Cheongju, a Cheonju and a Chongju - we were bound to run into problems.

After a five-hour bus ride we arrived in Cheongju and, you guessed it, it was the wrong city. Luckily, we were not too far off course and a trip to Chungju was only another hour. After not too much longer, we finally arrived in Chungju and made our way into town.

As the festival was in full swing, accommodation was hard to come by, so we ending up checking into one of the many infamous “Love Motels” that dot most Korean cities. The hotel was surprisingly very clean and well appointed - but just in case you forgot, the mood lighting in the bedrooms, the sex toy vending machines on each floor and the free porno video collection quickly reminded you where you were staying.

Oh well, we got to the festival grounds just as the Maori warriors we’re going on stage and their presentation set the tone for the next two days’ entertainment. We saw some fantastic demonstrations of Japanese Karate, Native American war dances, Brazilian Capoeira, Korean Kumdo (sword fighting) and Hapkido (a personal favorite), Shaolin Kung Foo and many, many others. Including some I was very surprised to see, who knew the Dutch and the Latvians have their own martial arts!

The festival grounds included static demonstrations where you could learn traditional stretching techniques as well as Ki (Chi) breathing demonstrations. All in all, it was surprisingly a very well organized event, and one of the few times in Korea I’ve felt part of a larger international community. It was neat to be walking around with Australian Aboriginals in full war paint, next to Kenya Zulu warriors, beside Indonesian clerics and Chinese monks.

Saturday evening we made our way about 30 minutes outside of Chungju to the second festival venue at the resort village in Suanbo. Famous for it’s mineral hot springs, we spent the evening soaking and soaking in outdoor hot tubs and dining on a traditional local meal of barbequed pheasant.

We arrived back in Ulsan on Sunday, after another eventful bus ride. This time we managed to get our destination correct but somehow ended up on the commuter bus which I think stopped at just about every small village from Chungju to Ulsan. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful trip as we wound over the hills and through the valleys surrounded by the fall colors and paddies bursting with rice ready to be harvested.