Saturday, December 27, 2008

I didn't plan on not writing for two weeks, but it just happened. My addiction to late-night crime-based dramas intensified to the point that I was watching two episodes of Cold Case, which I hate, every night, just so I could experience the ups and downs of a murder investigations. Just two months ago, I had never heard of most of these shows save Law and Order, and now I watch about 4-5 hours a night. The result is that I have less time for everything else: running, sleeping, eating and, yes, even blogging.

Yes, you can look to the trusty Elliot Stabler for why I'm on track to run a fourth straight dismal marathon, haven't slept much of late and never manage to do all those little things like pay my bills (on days where I finish work early, I choose to go home to catch up on sleep instead of going to the bank). However, now I'm back in Canada for about two weeks, where I can't watch TV in bed. Clearly, there is a chance for a new beginning, one where I run everyday, sleep at reasonable hours and dramatically reduce my risk of bedsores.

It wasn't easy getting here. I've never been someone whose Christmas Day has been anything to envy, but even for the most hardcore Christmophile, my 40-hour-long Christmas Day was not something to envy, mostly because it was thoroughly devoid of anything even remotely enjoyable. It began like any other day, with a midnight episode of Without a Trace, but then I couldn't sleep until 3 am, which was bad because I had to wake up at 6 am.

Four countries, forty hours and one mystified Nepalese who had never left his country or been on a plane later, my day came to an end. The only person who had it worse was the Nepalese, and his day was far worse than mine. We met in Tokyo, but he had flown from Kathmandu via Bangkok, where he had spent about 8 hours waiting. There were about a dozen other Nepalese scattered on the plane, who formed part of the strangest corps of humanity I had ever seen: there were Koreans, massively obese Americans, Chinese, Canadians, Filipinos, Thais, and one American or Canadian with long hair and a massive beard who was wearing a tank top and shorts. Oddly enough for a flight originating from Japan, there were no more than a handful of Japanese.

Everything was new to the Nepalese I sat next to, who spoke the best English of the group. His story, though touching, was so bizarre that I just wanted to laugh. He was on a multiple-day plane trip through hell, which included lengthy stopovers in Bangkok, Tokyo and Minneapolis, with the end result of studying biology somewhere in North Dakota (seriously). During the entire 11-hour flight to Minneapolis, the Nepalese conferred among themselves constantly about how to fill in their arrival card for US customs, deliberating on each question (eg "have you been around livestock in the last two weeks?") as though it was a matter of life and death. They also talked endlessly about what they saw outside the window, choosing to ask me if it was really controversial.

Anyway, there's now a Nepalese student at an American university near you. Please be kind to them.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Any time you learn a language, there are bound to be some unfortunate misspeaks. When I was learning English in Canada, I had a hard time learning which words were swear words because the kids just swore so casually. I confused asshole with fossil, and didn't realize that "fuck you" was a really bad thing to say. Once a kid said the latter in front of me in class, though I didn't even notice it. Someone told the teacher and I got dragged in front of the teacher, unsure of what was going on.

"Tell Ms. Craft what Kyle said," I was asked. "Fuck you," I said. "Gee Adeel, you didn't have to actually say it," she said. As a result, I wasn't all that concerned at first about my 8-year-old students debating which finger corresponded with the strongest epithet in the English language, until they started saying it over and over, at which point I had to make them stop.

There were other curious moments. Another time, Ms. Craft told me to "apologize" to another teacher. I knew I was in trouble and that I should probably say I was sorry, but I didn't want to embarrass myself by saying the wrong thing, and I had no idea what apologize meant. As a result, I just stood there, not impressing anyone. As the poster in the classroom admonished, you'll miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Given my enthusiasm for practising my Korean, I've made more than my share of unfortunate statements. Some of them, I'm not even sure about, but I think I'm wrong.

I'm starting to think that when I ask people to not put ham in my food, I'm actually telling them to sit down.

I once asked a friend about his makeup artist. I was actually wondering about his boss, however.

More than a few times, I've said "spinach?" instead of "now?".

I invited a friend for dinner by telling him that me and my friends had already eaten chicken for dinner.

I told a few waiters and waitresses that Riyaad was a desk. I was telling them about his vegetarianism.

I once told a friend that I couldn't meet him because I was Seoul.

I confused the word for dinosaur with the word for advertisement.

When the girl at the coffee shop told me to wait a little bit while she made my latte, I said sure, but I thought I was responding to the question of whether I had eaten lunch. When she said "here's your receipt", I said "no, can I get it to go, actually?"

When I say goodbye, I'm actually saying hello.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

There is a doll being sold in the United States, apparently, that promotes Islam. All I can say is subhanallah! Islam really is the light. Fat, stupid Americans such as the ones in the video really ought to heed the doll's message. Inshallah.

Fisher Price Doll Promotes Islam in the US. (must See) - Celebrity bloopers here

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

It's not often that South Korea looks like North Korea, but sometimes, under the right conditions, I feel like I'm in the North Korea I see in documentaries. In those films, the sky is perpetually gray and the people are dignified and well-dressed, but they can't hide the stress and the poverty in their lives. A massive but deserted public space made of concrete also makes me feel as though I'm in North Korea. Nearby there is a large park with long, wide concrete paths the size of a road, and a massive statue in the middle. On a cold day at dusk, it's almost completely empty and feels like one of the many perpetually empty monuments in Pyongyang. Whenever I pass a large, empty concrete space here, I try and imagine what it would be called in North Korea: the People's Liberation Bridge, the Shopping Plaza of Workers's Glory, the Kim Il Sung Jogging Track (not as funny as the John L. Davenport Track at the Varsity Centre at the University of Toronto), and so on.

I heard of a gray market at the massive Dongdaemun market in central Seoul, so off I went to try and find this ethereal location where you could find bizarre items of all sorts on sale. A gray market, of which I hadn't heard prior to yesterday, differs from a black market in that the goods themselves aren't illegal, but the way in which they're being sold probably is (eg France '98 hats). It started off ordinary: there were cameras, laptops, PDAs and other electronics for sale on tarps on the street. They looked to be used and/or stolen. It got a little stranger, as I saw piles and piles of badminton rackets and birdies, some of the rackets looking to be relics from the Korean War based on how rusty they were. Then I began to see audio tapes, video tapes, obviously used jewelry and, the strangest sight of the day, a store selling VHS copies of Forrest Gump and other '90s movies and various sexual lotions on the outside, and nothing but sex toys on the inside.

It got weirder still. I saw people selling whatever they could. Clothes that looked to be their own, single units of watches, jewelry, cell phones and computers that looked like they might not work. There were many sets of rusty golf clubs, a pair of skis and, by God, even a hockey stick. There were records (those round black things that play music) for 50 cents each, pornography from the Soviet Union, used power tools, a handful of video games or CDs of both Korean and Western next to unrelated items. The arbitrary nature of what was being sold reminded me of Third World countries with collapsed economies where people sell whatever they can to survive. At the end of the road, the stores behind the stalls weren't stores anymore, they were rocky, unfinished rooms with walls that resembled caves. Inside many of them was either nothing or frightening heaps of scrap metal the size of a house.

I never thought I would get scared anywhere in Seoul, but there was something about the panic and absurdity of the gray market that made me intensely uncomfortable and disgusted. After a while, I stopped taking pictures and when I was done, I walked into the nearest subway station and went far, far away.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Inviting myself to the wedding of my friend's cousin ranks up there as one of the most audacious things I have ever done. I showed up there with a friend as the only foreigner in a sea of hundreds of Koreans. The women wore hanboks, traditional Korean clothing, and the men wore yangboks, traditional Western clothing. The crowding and overwhelming secularism in Korea made for a genuine spectacle. This is so without mentioning that the wedding was held at the Suwon World Cup Stadium, concurrent with a highly-anticipated soccer game between the Suwon Blue Wings and Seoul FC.

Four weddings happened in the time I was there, each taking a little less than an hour. Each wedding has the same decorations and as you leave the hall with your new spouse, you'll see the next wedding party filing into the hall. Given that half of all Koreans have no religion, a favourite university professor or your boss will marry you. The food after, if the wedding I went to was any indication, will feature roughly 100 items on the menu, mostly Korean food, but without any chopsticks.

I have never felt so self-conscious as I did at this wedding. If this was a joke, no one missed a beat. The couple thanked us for coming, my friend said it was an honour for him to have me there, and the photographer even asked us to pose for a picture with the others. Wearing a dress shirt over a turtleneck and wearing a tuque indoors, he ensured that when they look back at their wedding pictures years later, and their grandchildren do the same, they will see two foreigners they didn't know and only invited because his cousin asked. I guess it's all about making your wedding day as memorable as possible.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I'm not a minor celebrity in my neighbourhood in the way of my blonde co-worker, but I'm definitely easy to remember as the one who's neither white nor Korean. True story: she once dropped some money at the grocery store, and the entire store tried to tell her about it when she came back. Still, I do attract a little bit of attention wherever I go, and what I lack in interesting or attractive looks, I make up for with amusing Korean. A foreigner who speaks Korean ranks very high on the amusement scale, and I don't need to say anything more than "what is this? Is it egg? Is it fish?" to make someone laugh.

A few days ago, some drunken men cornered me at the corner store down the street. "Where from?" asked one. "Kaynada," I replied. "Ahhhhh!" he replied, giving me a thumbs up. "Have you been?" I asked. He stared back at me. I asked him again in Korean. "Calgary. Olympics," he said. "Oh, wow, really? Was it cold?" He just grinned back. I asked him again in Korean, though I actually asked if it was hot. He smiled back at me. His friends had been watching this, and he told them I was from Canada. One of them got right up in my face and asked, "Quebec?" I smiled said "yes, yes, Quebec..." The first one got closer to me and grabbed me. "Handsome," he said, pointing to my face. Worrying that I'd managed to attract the unwanted attention of the only gay guys in Korea, I smiled and moved around the corner.

Everywhere I go, everyone wants to know where I'm from once they establish that I can talk to them a little bit. Somehow, I look American to most people, even if I'm not with any other foreigners. I don't know why that is, except for at the grocery store, where I purchase coffee, donuts, potato chips and Coke, like any red-white-and-blue-blooded American. There's a woman at the grocery store who sells baked goods. She's been pushing me on the cream donuts and when I told her in Korean that I didn't like the cream-filled ones, she thought it was adorable, like a small child who had just used a really big word.

Fortunately for me, she doesn't speak a word of English. Those are my favourite Koreans. At many places, they happen to speak English and they're both eager to practice and eager to serve me in my language. However, I really like to practice my Korean, even in situations when all I have at my disposal are pronouns and gestures ("this, that?"). I spent two weeks learning how to say "how long will it take" when I went to the dry cleaner's, and I didn't appreciate being preempted by a man who could tell me to come back on "Tuesday". With the donut lady, however, I can ask her to give me three donuts, explain that I don't like the ones with cream, and tell her that it's very cold today.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

My name is Adeel. Adeel is, to my understanding, an Urdu version of the Arabic Adil. Adeel sounds like you just agreed to something, Adil sounds like you just want a pickle. Koreans try and say my name the way it's said in English, but it comes out as "ah-dil" instead of "a-dee-yul". A Korean once asked me if they were saying it right. To be honest, I don't really care how you say my name, because you're going to say it wrong anyway unless you speak Urdu. I tried to explain this to them, but they insisted that it was my name and that they should say it the way I want it said. Exasperated, I said that they were trying to say, with a Korean accent, an English pronunciation of an Urdu version of an Arabic name. The person didn't really understand.

In some frustrating moments, I've thought about a name change. In my time here, I've acquired a Korean name, much as many Koreans acquire English names. Some put lots of thought into it. I know a Faye who gave a lot of thought to becoming a Violet, but in the end decided against it. Others don't give it much thought. I know a Jasmine, Cinderella, Snow White, Honey (a boy), McQueen, Euro, Hercules, Tiger, Celine, Mini and, yes, even a Hubert. My Korean name (given to me) is Cheol Su, which is a popular name for characters in children's books. No one really knows me by Cheol Su, but it's a wonderful icebreaker. I've told maybe 15-20 people my Korean name. Of those, only one has failed to laugh, and he had run the first 16 km of a half marathon.

Of course, you might think that it's no big deal how you pronounce my name. Adeel by any other name would be just as caustic and loquacious, you believe, and you're mostly right. Then there's that retort Kal Penn offered when playing a young terrorist named Ahmed on 24:

Scott: But Ahmed, we're friends!
Ahmed: What friends? You can't even pronounce my name.
So how did it go with the silver dollar last week? It went 7-8 with a missed bet on the Rams-Dolphins game. I think I'll stick with the coin for coming weeks. The coin got routed a few times, but its chief strengths lie in predicting games no one could possibly be interested in, such as the Texans-Jaguars, Chiefs-Raiders and Bears-Vikings.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

In lieu of a real and boringly serious entry, and while I dig up the pointspreads on last week's games, I offer this video, which speaks to my own career aspirations.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

It has been a week of interesting reactions from my students and local children:

Reactions to me wearing a tie

A girl named Eugene: Mr. Adeel, you are a man!
Other student: Yes, Mr. Adeel is a man!

Student: Ah! It is so cute! Very cute!

Reaction to my drawing

Adeel: Now, remember to cut out a hat as big as the head you drew. Like this.
Adeel: What? Why are you erasing it? Does she not understand?
Teaching partner: Oh, she understands, but she says that Mr. Adeel draws very badly.

Reactions to my authority

Student #1: Mr. Adeel, you are going to get no presents from Santa!
Student #2: Yes, Mr. Adeel, you are going to get a rock from Santa!
Student #3: Yes, a black rock!

Reactions to my Korean

Adeel: Your Korean is Kwok Min Seong!
Min Seong giggles hysterically.

Another student asks me to read her Korean name. I read it, she giggles hysterically at my horrendous pronunciation. This repeats itself for the next few minutes.

Reactions to my appearance

Mulleted student, pulling his hair back: Mr. Adeel is like this!
Adeel, grabbing the party end of the mullet: And you are like this!

Last night and this afternoon, kids at restaurants have walked over to my table and stared wide-eyed at me for a good 2-3 minutes at a time. Maybe I'm wearing the wrong kind of cologne, but I don't wear cologne. This didn't use to happen.
Wal-Mart worker dies after shoppers knock him down

NEW YORK—A worker died after being trampled by a throng of unruly shoppers when a suburban Wal-Mart opened for the holiday sales rush Friday, authorities said.

At least three other people were injured.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in Bentonville, Ark., would not confirm the reports of a stampede but said a "medical emergency" had caused the company to close the store, which is in Valley Stream on Long Island.

Nassau County police said the 34-year-old worker was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at about 6 a.m., an hour after the store opened. The cause of death was not immediately known.

A police statement said shortly after 5 a.m., a throng of shoppers "physically broke down the doors, knocking (the worker) to the ground." Police also said a 28-year-old pregnant woman was taken to a hospital for observation and three other shoppers suffered minor injuries and were also taken to hospitals.

Way to go America. I wonder if there's a number out there as to the number of people that have been killed in stampedes on Black Friday.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm wearing a purple tie today. This week, my hours were reduced from 23 a week to 17. If I'm not going to be working hard, I figure, I should at least look like I'm working hard.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Even though I successfully called the Jets' upset of the undefeated Titans, I was 8-8 against the spread in last week's football games, which, as Andre is already thinking, is only as good as random chance. As a result, I will predict this week's games by flipping a coin. The coin to be used is a United States silver dollar featuring Andrew Jackson (editor's note: the coin is actually gold). Let's see if Old Hickory can smoke out a winning record this week.

If the coin lands featuring the visage of Martin van Buren's predecessor, I will pick the home team; if it features the morbidly obese French immigrant to America, I'll pick the visiting team.

(Bonus historical fact: Andrew Jackson should not be confused, a mistake I made, with Reconstruction-era president Andrew Johnson. Jackson was president from 1829-37, in that period of American history about which I know little save its obscure presidents.)

The dollar picks:

Lions, Seahawks, Eagles, Ravens, Browns, Panthers, Buccaneers, Redskins, 49ers, Falcons, Chiefs, Patriots, Jets, Bears, Texans.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Seoul's massive, chaotic Namdaemun street market is not what I pictured when I thought about coming to Korea. It's how I picture the crowded Ichra market in my hometown of Lahore, where I never actually went because my mother was afraid that I'd get lost and never be seen again. If it can be sold, you will find it somewhere in Namdaemun, which literally means South Great Gate in Korean ("nam" meaning south, "dae" meaning great, "mun" meaning door). It's a little different from Hong Kong's street markets in that there you will find just about anything that can be made (toys whose function you can't discern, souvenirs from other countries, Coca Cola flip flops, t-shirts billing a Starbucks in Chiangmai, Thailand, etc.).

Today I saw box after box quantities of large Hershey's chocolate bars, peanut butter, microwaveable hot dogs and bacon stored at room temperature, Korean bills turned into boxers, $30 suit jackets and three deep-fried jumbo squid for a dollar, my favourite. Don't even get me started on the many stores which sold blindingly powerful Christmas decorations, robot Santas and, in a city of 20 million where there are only apartments and parks are just squares, several lawnmowers.

Walking between neighbourhoods in Seoul is a bit like walking into a surreal no-man's land. There are no street names in Seoul, at least not names that anyone knows or cares about, no grid system, nothing. Walking in a neighbourhood is fine because people simply overwhelm cars. If you want to move around the city, however, take the subway, a taxi or drive in a car that has a GPS (I've never seen a car that didn't have one). The space between neighbourhoods is entirely roads, roads that were designed for driving, not walking.

I decided to walk from the Namdaemun market to the seedy Itaewon foreigner district. Itaewon means "foreign pregnancy", named after the Japanese who raped and impregnated female monks in this area during the Japanese invasion of Korean in the 1590s. Itaewon is full of American soldiers with room temperature IQs, foreign teachers who aren't much better, and migrant workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria and elsewhere. It's like walking into an uncomfortable depiction of a not-so-distant future where poor, lascivious men eke out an uncertain living in a technologically advanced but destabilized society. Nothing about Itaewon will leave you with a good feeling, except maybe the Indian food, which is what brought me there.

Central Seoul is arranged almost like the numbers of a clock around Namsan (literally "south mountain"), which acts as a barrier of sorts. It is an oasis of calm in a numbingly loud city, and also offers spectacular views of the city. Going from Namdaemun to Itaewon by foot requires you to go up this 800-foot hill and to descend into the filth, much like to go to the Piraeus in ancient Athens was to go down to the Piraeus, a phrasing of Plato's of which my professors made sure I was aware.

Of course, when there are no street names and you're standing on the only landmark in the area, you're bound to get lost. Get lost I did, at dusk, in a maze of narrow, confusing streets that sometimes ascended breathtakingly and dropped steeply at other times. After about an hour, just as sunset was starting to make me wonder if sharing the road with reckless cars in this miserable three-dimensional labyrinth wasn't going to get me killed, I saw a Turkish restaurant filled with men of questionable morals. From there, it was a few zigzagging turns and then I was surrounded by Nigerians renting VHS tapes, Americans buying XXXL clothes and old Korean women hauling a tractor's worth of knicknacks on their backs.

Friday, November 21, 2008

If I could live anywhere in the world, I would probably live in Chicago. Everything about the city seems part of an elaborate conspiracy to convince you that it's the greatest city in the world, but it works. There's something about Chicago that I love. The long, straight streets are lined with tall buildings, each an architectural masterpiece, and the city is flat as a pancake. Coupled with the harsh wind on a cold day, the entire city seems to consist solely of straight lines drawn up on graph paper.

Every single person I've ever met from Chicago, or Illinois for that matter, has been singularly if needlessly devoted to convincing me of the greatness of Chicago. The city's ambition is impressive for a place that already has so much. In addition to some of the most spectacular architecture anywhere in the world, a gorgeous waterfront and an array of excellent museums and universities, Chicago is adding more architecture, bidding for the Olympics and counting America's new president as its own.

Too bad all the teams suck.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's snowing in Seoul today. Wow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sixty-six million dollars, about 70 billion Korean won, were in the balance when a referee reviewed and overturned a meaningless touchdown at the end of the Steelers-Chargers game on Sunday. If you missed the play, don't bother, and watch this Troy Polamalu interception instead.

Anyway, the enormity of the play highlights to the intrigue of the betting line, which keeps football games interesting even when they are by no means interesting to watch. Given that I haven't watched a football game in two weeks (it involves either staying up all night or getting up at 6 am on a weekend), I thought this would be a good way of staying in touch with the league. This can also help Richard make decisions.

Tomorrow the Steelers take on the Bengals in what will surely be an unbearably dull game. The Steelers are 11-point favourites. Somewhere, there is probably a statistic which shows, one way or the other, the likelihood of a very good team beating a very bad team at home by more than 11 points. If I had to bet, I would say that it's less than 50%. Bengals cover.

You can't bet on a 10-0 team to go 11-0, especially against a good team. The Jets will keep it within 5, and probably win.

I wouldn't bet on the Rams (+8.5) to stay within 10 points of any team. I don't think I've ever seen a team so good at losing big. They have lost 8 games by 35, 28, 24, 17, 7, 21, 44, and 19 points. This means that 7 of their 10 games this year have been loses by 17 points or more. Those are two-in-three odds!

The Lions (+8.5) are due, at least to lose respectably.

I don't have much confidence in the Dolphins (-1.5) to beat the Patriots again. I think the Patriots will win by a touchdown, maybe two or three.

The Redskins (-3.5) will definitely cover against the 2-8 Seahawks.

Other picks: Bills (-3), Eagles (+1), 49ers (+10.5), Broncos (-9.5), Giants (-3), Texans (+3), Jaguars (-2.5), Panthers (+1), Chargers (-2.5), Saints (-2.5).
The Chinese don't have a saying which says "may you live in interesting times", but we in the West do. And these are interesting times for football fans. The Tennessee Titans, somehow, are 10-0, and the Eagles, Bills and Saints are in last place despite having 5 wins in 10 games. In the NFC West, by contrast, the 49ers are in second place at 3-7. The Titans are astonishingly close to replicating New England's 16-0 regular season last year, and it's worth noting that the Titans have not resorted to cheating in order to win any of their games.

Sweeter than the Broncos' fumbling first-place ride is the fact that New England finds itself in third place this year behind the Jets and Dolphins, neither of whom have a convicted cheat for a head coach. There's nothing quite as sweet as watching unmitigated evil dissipate into nothingness. The Jets play the undefeated Titans this week, and I think it would be very profitable (and haram) to bet on the Jets.

I also have to say I'm happy about the resurgence of of Kurt Warner, who, for three years at the turn of the century was the best quarterback I have ever seen. After 6 years of ignominy with the Giants and then the football death sentence that is playing in Arizona, Warner has emerged like the phoenix with Phoenix at 37. He is on pace to throw for more than 5,000 yards this year and on Sunday could return football's oldest franchise to the playoffs for just the third time since 1975. I never thought I would give so much thought to the Cardinals or to Kurt Warner ever again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The gift that keeps on giving:

BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the current issues on the agenda right now. And I speak to you as someone who is a emerging as a potential leader, not only in the Republican Party, but maybe if you want to run again for president or vice president down the road.

Right now a big issue, should the U.S. government, the federal government bail out the Detroit -- the big three automakers?

PALIN: Oh, that is the discussion of the day. And there is going to come a point here where absolutely the federal government must play an appropriate role in shoring up some of these industries that are hurting and will ultimately hurt our entire economy and the world's economy if there aren't some better decisions being made.

But we also have to start shifting some debate here in our country and start talking about personal responsibility and responsibility of management in some of these corporations and companies so that from henceforth it's not assumed that the federal government is going to be bailing out everybody who is going to soon line up, Wolf, for more taxpayer assistance.

And I'm talking about personal responsibility too in terms of homeowners and in terms of folks who maybe have extended their own credit. Sure, predatory lenders are to blame in all of this also, but we have got to make sure, for instance, we're not talked into buying a $300,000 house, because really we know we can only afford a $100,000 house.

And we've got to start living those lessons that we try to teach our children in terms of not living beyond our means and extending our own personal credit to the point of not being able to pay our monthly bills and then expecting government to grow and be the answer.

BLITZER: So, sorry, I'm still waiting for the answer, should the government bail out the big three automakers?

Or how about this?

My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Korea is known as the Land of the Morning Calm. In the early morning, a mist has settled in overnight and, for an hour or two, the screaming lights advertising karaoke, restaurants, Internet cafes and whatnot are turned off. Walking through the streets feels about as right as walking a living room filled with sleeping guests, but it's a rare moment of peace in a fish market of a country. However, there wasn't much calm inside the cab I caught at sunrise on the way to a race today.

Adeel (in Korean): Hi, Suwon station, please.
Driver (in English): OKAY! Suwon station? OKAY! CANADIAN?
Adeel (in Korean): Ah, yes. Yes, Canadian, yes.

The rest of the conversation was in Korean, except for when the driver punctuated his sentences with "CAN YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?", which seems to be an exclamation from whatever TV show or tape taught him English. We got onto the topic of the US election.

Driver: I like McCain.
Adeel: Why do you like McCain?
Driver: McCain [unintelligible] taxi [unintelligible]
Adeel (thinking): John McCain presented a better deal to Korean taxi drivers? American taxi drivers?
Adeel: I don't understand
Driver (in English): McCain white, Obama.
Adeel: Yes...
Driver: Black Americans (here he made loud, growling noises that sounded like an imitation of English swearing), white Americans (here he imitates my slow, overly polite Korean).
Adeel: Ahh, Obama black, McCain white. You don't like blacks.
Driver: Yes, yes.
Adeel: Ah, here we are. Three thousand nine hundred won.
Driver (in English): Thirty-nine
Adeel: Nice to meet you, bye!
Driver: Yes, nice to meet you, bye.
Driver (in English): I love you!

The morning calm was restored when I crossed the Han River, which divides Seoul into south and north. The Han is a kilometre-wide river spanned by towering bridges in Seoul. From one such bridge, I had an excellent view up the river looking east. It was covered in mist, and the tall buildings on either shore were invisible. This calm, of course, is only in the morning. When I ran along the river an hour later, the mist and the calm were gone.

Friday, November 14, 2008

It's never good to rejoice in the failure of others, but I have to admit I'm very happy about the current woes of American automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The three have presided over a mind-numbingly stupid intransigence in the face of innovation that has seen the American market overtaken by Japanese, Korean and German products. The Big Three in Detroit, of course, represent for the backwards-looking face of the automotive industry: they produce large, inefficient vehicles and, the vice-chairman of G.M. has been quoted as saying that global warming “is a total crock".

It would be gratifying to see companies so willfully blind to the market fail, and fail spectacularly at that. Detroit, much like the city itself, has been undeniably and irrevocably left behind by the modern world. Ford only makes money when it sells large pick-up trucks, and the future strategy of American automakers consists of lobbying Congress to not change fuel efficiency standards and, failing that, to begging Congress for money.

Here is an example of why I would relish seeing the US auto industry fail. In late 2007, the US Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act. The law aimed to increase the fuel efficiency of new cars by 15% by 2015 and 30% by 2020. Here in Korea, Hyundai has decided that it can improve fuel efficiency by 30% by 2015. Detroit has decided that it can't even do half of that by 2015, and doesn't even want to try: they are already lobbying Congress for an exemption. Big, slow animals like dinosaurs, the Ford F-150 or American automakers truly deserve to be relegated to the history books.

Friday, November 07, 2008

My heritage is something of a mystery to people here. I've heard Turkish, Puerto Rican and even Indian, but the last few days have been rather absurd. On Tuesday, some of my 6-year-old students mistook a picture of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker for me. Considering that it was a tiny picture, it's an honest mistake. Some older students shout "Mr. Adeel!" whenever they see Franklin, the token black character on Peanuts. That's a little more accurate, I suppose.

The most flattering comment, at least I took it to be flattering, came today. Every afternoon, kids from neighbouring classes yell things at me as they go home, and I'd never understood it until today. They've been shouting "MR. OBAMA!!!" at me for the last month.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The reaction to Barack Obama becoming president of the United States is everywhere. Roughly 60-70 of my Facebook friends updated their status to reflect this historic moment. All but one, a Republican-leaning co-worker, expressed the utmost joy, in a way that is mystifying. You see, most of them are Canadians, and this event really has the most peripheral of outcomes on their lives. Of course, this has the effect of making America a more attractive and appealing country than it has been for the last 8 years, but it really didn't mean as much to me as it did to Americans.


  • My Republican co-worker and his wife have determined that everything in America will henceforth be free. Obama will raise taxes and ruin the economy and give money to poor people. Or something like that. Never before have I so deeply enjoyed someone's misery. Never before and, likely, never again. Never again.

  • Free Republic reports that the price of gun ammunition is going up because the Democrats are planning a 500% excise tax (sic) on all ammo (sic). The ammunition market, as sensitive to political developments as the other major commodity markets, is, of course, far more complicated than Freepers would have you believe. The cost of extracting, refining and pumping bullets is determined by myriad factors, the exposition of which is surely a topic for another post. In a nod to the genius of the sort of person who sells ammunition in the first place, the seller of ammunition will not be restocking this newly expensive product.

  • Vanguard News Network, the trashier of the many white supremacist websites I read, reports that "this is a very low point in Western history."

  • Stormfront, my white trash website of choice, has crashed from people simultaneously rejoicing that Obama's election will bring a racial war at hand and others, screaming at the terror of being under the yoke of the black man for a change.

  • FOX News, which I've lately determined to have an astonishingly sparse website, has responded with a turgid op-ed piece that tries to focus on all the obscure events of the last 15 years. It's a narrative constructed in a tortured connect-the-oblong-trapezoid fashion.

  • If you're reading this and you voted Republican, you're a moron. There's sadly no way around it. If you are in a wild panic about the state of your country, know that I take the greatest of pleasures in your wild panic, and that I hope your taxes get raised and Obamamaniacs come and take your PSP and plasma TV. I do share your regret that Sarah Palin will not enjoy more publicity. I enjoyed her interviews and public appearances greatly.

    Lastly, Chicago's Grant Park, one of the most architecturally spectacular places in the world, was an excellent choice for Obama's acceptance speech. Both Obama and Chicago's waterfront are constructed, however ostentatiously, to project the very best of America.
  • Wednesday, November 05, 2008

    I watch my Sunday night football on Shanghai TV and I'm watching my US election coverage on FOX 5 from Atlanta. It's important to me to watch FOX today, much like I sought out the Boston Globe after the Super Bowl.

    Sunday, November 02, 2008

    45 miles per gallon

    Created by The Car Connection

    The test is kind of nebulous, but I'm pretty sure that I could run 45 miles on 4 litres of water (I walked that much in 19 hours on less water). I could definitely do it on four litres of lentils or liquified pasta or something. That's a lot of food.

    Friday, October 31, 2008

    Halloween in Korea, like most things Western, is just a more comical, amusing version of the original. I've seen a lot of Halloween costumes at school in the last week and having seen just about everything I'm going to see, am ready to judge the best costume. Many kids wore dragon suits, Janine wore a panda suit complete with a giant bobbling head, and a few tiny kids wore adorable mouse or bunny suits, but the best costume by far is from the kid who dressed as Jelena Isinbayeva.

    Isinbayeva is a Russian pole-vaulter who is likely better at her discipline than any athlete in the world. Isinbayeva is a two-time Olympic champion who has broken the world record 24 times and hasn't lost since 2004. Of course, she is hardly a household name, but when my Korean partner asked the girl what she was, she answered with the Korean word for "athlete". My partner asked "EE-jeen-ba-yay-ba?" and the girl nodded in the affirmative. Somehow, in Korea, Isinbayeva is a household name, though my partner explained her to me as a marathoner. Close enough.

    As for me, I desperately bought the first costume I saw at a department store. It's a pirate outfit (hat, sword, eye patch, vest) for kids aged 5-8. It cost me $16 and I can only wear the hat and eye patch. Pictures will, sadly, crop up on my school's website.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2008

    I'm the only runner I know in Korea and I generally do a pretty good job of limiting running conversation to pointing out remote locations I've run to and asking people if they want to run with me. That is, of course, unless someone asks a question like "do you run in the winter?" in which case I regale them with story after story of frozen-beard runs in Whitehorse and the time I won a race in a New Year's Day blizzard. Still, story after story about my misadventures on the roads are really no different from story after story about my childhood in Pakistan or Alexander of Aphrodisias, or the time I tried to explain the word 'confession' to some Koreans by referencing Augustine.

    Reading this article, of course, was eye-popping, probably the most shocking thing I'll read related to Sunday's New York Marathon all week. It's usually newer runners who think others care about the details of their long run, their marathon, or whether blisters. Worse still is seeking reassurance from people who know absolutely nothing about the sport.

    What's bizarre are those in-between people, the ones who aren't very good at running, but let it dominate their lives, such as Cohen. Cohen is running as many as 80 miles a week to run a 3:20 marathon, about as incommensurate as taking 6 years to finish high school unless you're a woman. Still more comical is how running has completely eliminated the rest of his life, and how tragically it did so: he bought a $900 muscle stimulator (I have no idea what that does), takes ice baths, is a germophobe and a nutrition fanatic in the literal sense of the term. This is like watching a remedial student buy or copy an unrelated essay off the Internet in hopes of acing a course.

    The only thing I endorse are his stern warnings about the Willis Avenue Bridge in New York, marking the 20-mile mark of the marathon, the sort of warnings I issue regularly to anyone in earshot. The only thing I would add to this would be to remind the children that the last six miles will put the fear of God back into you. That is, of course, if the first 20 didn't do it to you.

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008

    The autumn wind is a pirate, says John (The Voice of God) Facenda, but it hasn't quite blustered over the East Sea yet. The weather here has been too pleasant for too long. I never thought I could wear sandals into late October, but here we are. The daily highs are still over 20, and a kid wore shorts to school as late as yesterday. The brisk fall air that I love so much isn't here yet, and I figure it won't be here for another month.

    Meanwhile, North Bay got 6 inches of snow last night, Barrie got about 2 inches, and the overnight low in Toronto was -1. I can't say I would give up the option to wear sandals into November, but the fresh snow and crisp air on Highway 11 look really good for some reason.

    Speaking of the Raiders, they've won two games this year, but my Broncos somehow remain in first place with a 2-game lead (one game plus a tiebreaker). The Bills, Cardinals and Bears are also somehow in first, though the Bengals and Lions are predictably winless.

    Monday, October 20, 2008

    This weekend marked a tour of two of the three World Cup stadiums in the Seoul area. On Saturday, I went to the Suwon World Cup Stadium, which is the 43,000-seat Big Bird that could, ostensibly, reside in Beijing's 91,000-seat Bird's Nest. I saw what I was told was the semi-final of the K-league, a game between Suwon and Gwangju in the southeast. Suwon's Bluewings came out flying, scoring in the 7th minute and adding a second goal in the second half to win 2-0. The rowdy crowd sang the entire time, mostly in Korean, though I did understand "Suwon, happy, happy goal! Suwon, happy, happy goal!"

    Today I travelled to the Seoul World Cup Stadium for the Something or Other Half Marathon. Though it was billed as a international marathon, it was neither international (all signs were in Korean) nor was there a marathon. The goal was to run 1:24 or faster, which was the third straight time that I was trying to do this on the third Saturday in October (note: I actually ran a 1:21 this March). From about the 4k mark, which was on pace in 15:53, I pretty much knew what was going to happen. I would make it to 10-15 km at race pace and then die an agonizing death.

    As scripted, I made it to 11k in 43:48, and then stopped looking at my watch and decided to stick with the navy member in front of me. I hit 15k in just over an hour, but that was all I had today. The sailor I was running with him would put 3 minutes on me in the final 6k, and I staggered home in 1:30. It was a clunker of a race, but what I think is most impressive (or pathetic?), is that I didn't actually jog it in over the last 5k, but fought tooth and nail to run the last 6k in 30 minutes.

    Afterwards, I came away with a finisher's medal, a Chinese apple, a 5-lb bag of rice and a small carton of milk. Hauling the rice on the Seoul subway for an hour was only the beginning of the madness today. I later found myself in a car with Riyaad and some friends, blaring the Bee Gees and riding with six people in a small Kia. I've been in cars with six people crammed in, but I've never seen it done with two adults in the front seat. I've also never paid about $7 for hot chocolate, which is how the day came to an end.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008

    Lately, I've been inundated by messages to vote from both Canadians and Americans. Note that the following diatribe is in no way connected with my own bumbling of the overseas voting process. Display pictures, status updates and various other forms of careful online posturing urge me to not just vote, but to VOTE!!!! I suppose one benefit of these non-partisan exhortations to vote is that the reader is exempted from brain-dead partisan exhortations, but do we really just want anyone to vote? Consider the sort people that are allowed to vote when everyone can vote, and I don't just mean Americans, as is shown here.

    Canadians with half-baked views about all sorts of things marched to the polls yesterday because well-meaning people, possibly including you, urged them to vote. Granted, some of them voted the right way, but others voted the wrong way, and on the balance, people with half-baked or uninformed beliefs tend to vote the wrong way. When you want every voice to count, or endorse some other cliche to that effect, you're counting voices that really shouldn't be counted. They are the raspy voices of lifelong smokers, the booming, intrusive grumblings of small-c conservatives who want their tax breaks, and the unintelligible grousings of community activists, student protesters and Quebecois separatists.

    In the future, please only update your MSN, Facebook or Myspace status to urge people to vote responsibly, and to only vote if they're going to vote the right way. I'll start: if you're going to vote for John McCain, Bob Barr, Ron Paul or Chuck Baldwin in the upcoming US presidential election, please don't vote. Instead, stay home and stew yourself in righteous indignation by spending quality time on Free Republic.

    Sunday, October 05, 2008

    I arrived at the Seoul Olympic Stadium yesterday morning with the goal of avoiding the sort of humiliation for which Canadians are famous in this stadium. I haven't run much at all this summer (about 40-50k a week) for a variety of reasons, such as laziness, moving to Korea, going out too much, and Ramadan. My 10k started and finished on the track at Olympic Stadium.

    From the moment I got off the subway, I knew that a Korean road race would be very different. As is the case pretty much everywhere you go, there were people hawking things on the street. This would be called a race expo in North America, but the name expo implies some sense of order and class. Instead, old men and women sold sunglasses, shorts, shirts, hats, various medicinal substances, and I paid a dollar to an angry old man for a shot glass-sized cup of coffee.

    The Olympic Stadium is cavernous, seating 70,000 people today, and it was filled with thousands of people running one of four races. There was a woman handing out small flags. There's something about Koreans and flags: they just don't know which ones are important. A boulevard nearby commemorating the '88 Olympics has the Thai, Zimbabwean, Botswanese (Botswanan?), Qatari and Icelandic flags, among others. I spied an Uzbek flag, almost 5,000 kilometres from Tashkent, and I had to have one. After all, when else in life, aside from Independence Day in Tashkent on September 1, are you going to get your hands on an Uzbek flag?

    The race started and I was behind a wall of people. I was relaxed, though, because before the start, the announcer, unbeknownst to me, had instructed everyone to massage the shoulders of the person in front of them, and then to turn around and return the favour. The first kilometre was in 4:35 as I dutifully followed a burly lead blocker through the crowd, but then I discarded him and settled into a 3:43, 3:46, and so on. I ran the next 6 kilometres between 3:43 and 3:46, passing people the entire time. I hit 5k in 19:32, feeling very strong if rather slow, and in about 35th place by my count.

    At 6k, I started talking to a black guy I had caught up to. It turned out he was an Ethiopian. I wanted to say, "you're the slowest Ethiopian I have ever met", but I didn't. Instead, we chatted briefly about Haile Gebrselassie before I kept going. Even that split, with all the talking, was 3:46, taking me through 7k in 27:04. I hit 8k in 30:38 and passed the last person, putting me 25th. I ran the ninth kilometre in 3:29, which didn't seem right for how much I was labouring, since I could mail it in on the last kilometre and still split about 18:20 for the last 5k. Needless to say, the last kilometre was a tortuously long 4:23, in which I kicked hard enough to come up just short of the guy in front of me.

    I finished in 38:30 by my watch, identical to the chip time sent to my phone about an hour later. It wasn't the best race I've ever had, but it wasn't the worst. As I finished, a cover band from the Eighth Army of the United States Forces Korea was singing Play That Funky Music. It's disconcerting that I rely on those funky white boys to keep me safe from the Korean People's Army, whose motto, coincidentally, is Play That Revolutionary Music To Glorify The People's Republic And Our Great Leader.

    Thursday, October 02, 2008

    And so it is that I have a hallucinatory, shivery and sweaty fever today, and I have a race tomorrow morning. I feel good enough that I'll probably run the race, but as a result, I'm going to miss the US vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. If you get a chance, please watch it. Here's a hint of what you can expect:

    She sounds just like Tina Fey's caricature of her on Saturday Night Live. I don't know if she can even name a single newspaper.

    Friday, September 26, 2008

    If you went to the University of Idaho (motto: potato ergo sum), I'm sure you might be a wonderful person, but you're probably not a terribly intelligent person. Located in Moscow, Idaho, a town that according to Google does not have a single halal restaurant, University of Idaho alumni have taken a beating of late. They include Senator Larry Craig of "I have a wide stance" fame, St. Louis Rams coach Scott Linehan, whose Rams have lost 38-3, 41-13 and 37-13 this season, and, of course, Ms. Sarah Palin.

    Palin, if she were to apply for my job, might well need to present her transcripts from such institutions as Hawaii Pacific College (guessed motto: hula ergo sum; actual motto: Holomua Me Ka Oiaio), North Idaho College (actual motto: Changing Lives Everyday) and Matanuska-Susitna College (possible motto: books are not sold on campus), in addition to the University of Idaho. There is, apparently, a division of the Korean goverment that verifies the university degrees of foreign teachers. This process presumably applies to schools like Harvard or Princeton, as well as Indiana of Pennsylvania or Miami of Ohio. I imagine they'd blow through the year's budget on Palin.

    Palin is astonishingly dumb. Here is an interview with the ageless Katie Couric. Thoughtful readers will notice that I saw Couric's washroom and office in April.

    It goes something like this:

    Couric: Do you support Henry Paulson's Troubled Asset Relief Program?
    Palin: Only with the right amendments. But what I think is really interesting is that Americans are waiting to see what John McCain will do, but no one cares what Barack Obama will do or say on this matter.
    Editorial comment: many people care what Kim Jong Il will do next, or when he'll next be seen in public. No one cares what Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg will do. According to Palin's logic, this makes Kim the better leader.
    Couric: But polls show that more Americans support Obama.
    Palin: I don't care about polls, I care about track record (even though I just said that Americans are holding their breaths to see what McCain is going to do).

    Couric: You've said that "John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business". Can you give us some examples of what he's done in 26 years?
    Palin: I'll try to find some and I'll bring them to ya.

    No, really, that's what she said. "I'll bring them to ya." She has an IQ of about 75. If you vote Republican, you're probably mildly retarded.

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008

    For breakfast today I had coffee, toast, orange juice, nominally cooked fish and small bread balls stuffed with octopus. Those were just a few of the things on the spread at the breakfast downstairs at my very classy hotel, which also offers "items for hire". So, if you want to give an out-of-work iron some work, or offer a bench-riding pillow a chance to hit the big leagues, give the front desk a call. Don't, however, order the room service: it's 600 yen (about $6) for coffee, not to be confused with American coffee, which is also 600 yen, 800 yen for orange juice, and 1,000 yen for the "toast set", consisting of toast and tea or coffee, quite possibly the most classless set ever invented.

    I wanted to grab a newspaper after I'd helped myself to the more palatable items, i.e. not the french fries, but something about the woman's expression indicated that although I could go get one, it was only because I was a foreigner. In the event, I would abide, but often I like to do things that I can't do but can't be expected to know not to do because I'm a foreigner. In fact, I don't even know what they are, but generally speaking, in Korea, I can pretty much do anything because Western expectations of behaviour don't apply, and neither do Korean standards. I can do whatever I want with my food, walk where I want, touch things I'm not supposed to touch, and so on.

    One place that's a maddening etiquette-free free-for-all is the sidewalk. An army of cyclists, shoppers and walker-abouters are on the sidewalk at all hours. Sometimes, like on this street, they're in the street, because there is no sidewalk. Depending on how much traffic there is, I can walk in the middle of the street or on the side. Running on the sidewalk here is a cross between racing bicycles at about 15 km/h and having all the patience and agility of an NFL running back, waiting for creases holes to open up and then exploding through them lest. Last night, I got to run through a traffic jam and wound up running with the slow-moving taxis, constantly looking over to see if they were as impressed with my speed as I was. Likely not: this is the country of Toshihiko Seko (two-time winner of the Boston marathon, who remarked "The marathon is my only girlfriend. I give her everything I have."), Mizuki Noguchi, Toshinari Takaoka and countless other world-class marathoners.

    There aren't many fat people in Japan and there aren't many slow people in Japan. The sporting goods store I sauntered into had about a dozen trainers for men and a dozen racers, some of the lightest, coolest looking shoes I've ever seen in my life. Marathons here are nationally televised and, uh, people actually watch them. The Osaka Ladies Marathon here in February is a world-class race, and this year had 344 finishers, with last place finishing in 3:35. The Fukuoka Marathon is the male equivalent, where last year's winner went on to win the Olympic marathon, and the last-place finisher was 312th with a time of 2:47.

    Monday, September 22, 2008

    Greetings from Osaka. I walked out of the neverending Namba train and subway station this afternoon and it was happening again. I couldn't tell what it was, but there was something strange about the road, it seemed backwards. Finally, I realized that Japan is another place where cars drive on the left. There aren't that many places in the world where you drive on the left-hand side, but I seem to have been to all of them: Pakistan, India, Barbados, Hong Kong and now Japan. I was tired enough that the switch baffled me for some reason. I kept walking next to the cars, but it seemed impossible to get into one of the many waiting taxis for reasons I couldn't explain to myself at the time. It was like trying to walk up on a downward escalator.

    Osaka is a very nice city. Everyone is very fashionable, at least in this fashionable part of the city, and also rich, at least in this rich part of the city, and in general it looks like a richer, shinier version of Seoul, which is just a 90-minute flight away. The people I've met so far seem to speak a fair bit of English, but they all insist on speaking to me in rapid Japanese until I smile sheepishly, including the old woman at the train station who carried on a lengthy one-way conversation about her job, my manners, or both. And then, when I use what little Japanese I know, they continue to speak in English.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    There's really no way around it. I live 30 km from Seoul, and Seoul is about 50 km from the North Korean border, and Pyongyang is another 205 km from the border. At the North Korean border less than 100 km from here, roughly 700,000 soldiers from the Korean People's Army are stationed, no doubt matched by a good chunk of South Korea's 600,000 soldiers and their American allies. The border on both sides is surrounded by a two-kilometre buffer space that consists mostly of untouched greenery and land mines, what we know as the DMZ.

    Today I went to the DMZ, an eerie mixture of serenity and morbidity that's astonishingly close to Seoul and its 20 million people. The mountains and grass on both sides are breathtaking, but it's eerie to look into the distance and know that you're looking into North Korea, the most reclusive, most brutal, and most totalitarian state in the history of the world. I've never seen so much barbed wire in my life, never mind signs warning of landmines. Everything you see in some way, shape or form has to do with defending from North Korea.

    I didn't see the propaganda billboards facing the North or the concrete blocks overhead on the highway, designed to render the highway useless in case of an invasion, but I saw observation posts on the Imjin River every 100 metres or so. Even rivers contained within South Korea had barbed wire on both sides of the bank to protect against a potential invasion. I did see the world's tallest flagpole, roughly 500 feet, and the nearest North Korean city, Kaesong. Using binoculars, I looked into the North Korean border village of Gijeong-dong...and saw nothing and no one, because it's an empty cluster of buildings designed for show.

    There are South Koreans who live in the DMZ, a curious group of farmers numbering in the few hundred who don't pay tax or serve in the army, is compulsory for all Korean men around my age. This is why I will never meet any Korean males that are the same age as me: they have all been conscripted. There are not, as someone mused, any North Koreans, nor are there commercial flights permitted over the DMZ, as another tourist wondered, and no, those soldiers you see everywhere are South Korean, not North Korean and, yes, you can be sure of that.

    Anyway, I snapped a picture of the world's tallest flagpole just for you guys. The flagpole is over 500 feet tall and the flag weighs 300 lbs. I had to take it from behind a certain line because of "national security" according to the soldier I asked, and there were many rotund tourists in front of me. Yes, that's a North Korean flag.

    Tuesday, September 16, 2008

    The view of the Hong Kong skyline and harbour from the top of Victoria Peak is incredible, both for what you can and can't see. I thought it was the second-most spectacular thing I have ever seen after the Grand Canyon. There are more than 7,000 buildings in Hong Kong that are over 115 feet (about 8-9 stories), compared with over 5,000 in New York, and 1700 in Toronto. The air quality in Hong Kong is also atrocious, pollution was classified as "high to very high" this weekend, and buildings about 5 km away were shrouded in a haze. So, standing at the top of Victoria Peak, this was not exactly the view I enjoyed, though even here the pollution are visible.

    The entire place was unnerving. The buildings were towering, the people were everywhere (roughly 1 million people live on a tiny portion of Hong Kong Island's 80 square kilometres), the streets were narrow and everyone gets around, of all things, by reading traditional Chinese characters. Hong Kong is similar to Manhattan in being a densely-populated centre of commerce and culture, but Manhattan has the semblance of order from wide, numbered streets that ward off suffocation. Hong Kong just seems to happen. You might not realize from looking at it subway map that there are actually 8 or 9 lines leading every which way. Of course, it's true that much of Hong Kong is fairly remote and mountainous, and that only about a quarter of its land is paved.

    In that sense, Hong Kong has everything: massive, crumbling high-rises that look airlifted from Detroit, more skyscrapers than anywhere else, a port that will send chills down your spine, but also mountains and go-nowhere highways that wouldn't look out of place in Canada. Of the world's 12 tallest buildings, 3 are in Hong Kong, 2 each in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai, 1 each in Taipei, Chicago, Shenzen, Guangzhou and New York. Hong Kong borders Shenzhen in mainland China and is about 120 km from Guangzhou. Together, these three cities have 40 million people and constitute probably the most frightening megalopolis anywhere in the world.

    Even Hong Kong's air is a unique mixture of heat, humidity, pollution, and cigarette smoke. It is thick from the perpetual humidity (though a newscast informed me that it was hazy because of dry weather) and has a texture that I've come to associate with pollution. In many cases, the buildings are so tall as to block out the sun. The window in my room looked into a narrow alleyway and another building. I thought it was cloudy every morning when I woke up, and I though it was cloudy when I walked out onto the street, and I didn't realize it was sunny until I looked through the wall of buildings into an opening where the sun was shining.

    It's also very much a global city. I flew on Cathay Pacific, which seems to recruit flight attendants only from beauty pageants, where announcements were made in Chinese, English and Korean. Signs in the city were posted in Chinese, English and often Tagalog when it concerned littering. My quandary in mostly homogenous Korea, where I'm from Canada if you mean where I traveled from and from Pakistan if you want to know why I look the way I do, was non-existent. I was a Pakistani-born Canadian working in Korea traveling in Hong Kong, and it made for a bad answer to Hong Kong customs officer when he asked where I was from. Otherwise, I was just another fish out of water, along with the legions of British colonists.

    Sadly (or fortunately), everyone speaks enough English that I didn't have any reason to use any of the few Cantonese words I learned. I already knew 'whyyyyy' from the TTC back home, but I also picked up yes and no, which I practised pronouncing for a while, along with thank you, which I never really managed to say right because when I said it to the women at the hostel, they stared at me for a second and then laughed politely. Still, that didn't stop me from spending a few hours before I left memorizing the Chinese characters I saw. I picked up 'exit' from doors, 'day' from customs forms, 'entrance' from street signs and middle or centre (if you know Chinese, it's the box with a vertical line through it) from the subway and coffee shops. Once it wasn't so completely impenetrable, I spent a few hours reading through a Cantonese dictionary, picking out simple symbols and memorizing them. Thankfully, by then it was time to go home, and I can put an end to the madness. All of it.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    I can't imagine that there are many places in the world that are worse for running than Hong Kong. It's perpetually hot, humid, polluted, crowded and everything is covered in concrete. I'm staying two blocks from Victoria Park, which from the map seemed to be a smaller version of Central Park. When I got there, I was shocked to see that it was really all concrete: it's like calling Nathan Phillips Square or Trafalgar Square or any other large paved public space a park. Sure, there are lots of trees, some grass, and a swimming pool, tennis court and a quasi-rubberized track, but that doesn't make it a park.

    Still, being the idiot that I am, I've run 36 km in the last 18 hours in this hellhole. I'm certainly going to be faster as a result, but I don't know if I'm going to be healthier. I probably would've been better off eating deep fried chicken and smoking a pack of cigarettes every hour. Today I took my life in my hands by leaving for a 2-hour run at 9 am. I ran one hour in the shade of Victoria Park before stopping for some Gatorade and dutifully trudging up and down a mountain (really a steep, neverending hill) for the second hour. Ironically, as a result of all the people that live here, there are lots of tall buildings that shade almost all the streets, and my life was spared.

    In Victoria Park, which seems like a larger version of Queen's Park when you account for all the old people doing tai chi, I saw more Indonesians than I've ever seen in my life before coming here (three). At least I think they're Indonesians. If you know what to call Chinese-looking women who don't speak Chinese and look very distinctive, let me know. Given that one out of roughly every 30 people in the world is Indonesian, I don't think I'm off-base. I was certainly off-base when I thought that the women who camped on the concrete on sheets were either beggars or prostitutes. I later realized that there was no grass to sit on and have a picnic, so they had to sit like street vendors.

    Saturday, September 13, 2008

    Saturday, 5:34 am: I look up cheek by jowl. It means what I thought it did.

    5:40 am: I go for a 20-minute run. It's actually cool, at least relatively speaking, and I'm a little sick, so I wear a long-sleeved shirt and stagger out the door like a malarial Westerner.

    8:00 - 10:00 am: I spend time at Incheon International Airport, reputedly one of the best two or three airports in the world. The washroom floor is cleaner than most people's dining tables.

    12:45 pm: I am in Hong Kong and look over to the woman next to me. I see Korea on her passport, but then I see that it says People's Republic of Korea. Wait, the People's Republic of Korea? The passport is marked "public affairs". I stare at her like she's a ghost and worry if this is going to get me killed.

    2:45 pm: I realize after an hour on the bus that cars in Hong Kong drive on the left side of the road.

    3 pm: I get off the bus, walk two blocks, through a gate, back out the gate thinking it's the wrong place, through the gate again, through another gate into a narrow back alley that comes to an end with four men guarding either their laundry or counterfeit clothing. At the end of the alley are a set of stairs going up, and the fourth door is the one I want. I punch in the code at the door, walk past the security guard and take the elevator to the 5th floor. I walk past three doors, turn a corner and go to door 5. This is my hostel, though for the longest time I thought it was an ambush or a hideaway.

    This is not what I expected. There are more people, buildings and commmotion here than anywhere else I've ever seen. This makes Times Square look serene. Still, I feel at home:

    4:16 pm: I order beef with black bean sauce on rice and an iced tea. This is the first meal I've had in two months that tastes like home.

    4:28: I'm done eating and two blocks away.
    I'm going to the People's Republic of China this long weekend, not to be confused with the antisocial Republic of China. Here's how:

    Last Wednesday, roughly 4 pm: My travel agency informs me that I can't go to Beijing because of visa vagaries. I say "fuck THIS, I'm going to Hong Kong", which is my sort of place, my sort being the kind where you can show up unannounced without a visa or the sort of planning for which I have nothing but disdain.

    Friday, 3:01 pm: I email AWYHIGTC's Senior Asian Analyst Siqi ("Ten things I hate about") Zhu asking for his thoughts on a trip to Hong Kong, as well as a cross-border visit to Guangzhou, the third-largest city in China.

    Friday, 4 pm: I go ahead and book a flight to Hong Kong anyway.

    Friday, 10 pm: Siqi writes back. "The sheer density and cheek-by-jowlness of everything make it a fun place to walk around and explore," he says. But "Hong Kong is often known for its lack of cultural amenities."

    He adds: "I don't know much about Guangzhou except for its pollution, high crime rate, and abundance of knock-off brand name fashion". I make a mental note to visit Guangzhou.

    Friday, 10 pm - 12 am: I spend two hours trying to find a cheap, centrally-located hostel in Hong Kong that will let me book without paying in advance.

    I just realized that Hong Kong has street names. After just six weeks in Seoul, I've forgotten that most cities have streets with names, not oddly-drawn maps and randomly-numbered lots. This is going to be very easy.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    So, finally, here are ten pictures from Korea, five from the shiny new camera I bought today and the rest courtesy of friends.

    This is Yongsan station in Seoul, served by both subway and commuter trains. I took this picture from a comfy commuter train that made the 30-kilometre trip from Seoul to Suwon in a half hour, twice as fast as the subway and for the same price. Since this train was really an inter-city train, there was also food service (I saw Pringles and beef jerky for sale).

    The next two shots are of the main street in my neighbourhood, the grittiest part of the third-largest city in the Seoul area. It's called Gokbanjeongdong (Coke-bun-jung-dung said as fast as possible).

    This is the ultra-futuristic lock on my front door.

    And, this, is my tiny, free and dishevelled apartment. I inherited the plant on the right. I didn't notice it until I uploaded this picture. I've lived here for about three weeks. The instant noodles bowl in the bottom right hand corner was for a leaky AC (top right).

    Show-and-tell with an overworked 5-year-old:

    Art of some sort with a very, very over-worked and overambitious 2-year-old (not my student, thankfully)

    This is the front door of my building. To the right is a bar called Queen Kong. They sell ordinary snacks for around $13-17. Needless to say, it's mostly patronized by the owners and their friends. To the left is a cafe/bar that I've never seen open.

    This is...I'm not sure what this is.

    This is a cake for a going-away party. There's cake everywhere in this country, albeit always vanilla. Note the glass Pepsi bottle to the left.

    Tuesday, September 09, 2008

    Canada is going to have an election on October 14. Much like in 2000, when Canadians voted three weeks after Americans but learned the results of their election two weeks before Americans, the Canadian election will be much more efficient than its American counterpart. The former began on Sunday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament. The latter began when Rutherford B. Hayes narrowly beat Samuel Tilden despite the fact that Tilden won the popular vote, setting up the current mess between Barack Hussein Obama and John Sidney McCain.

    If it seems strange that the Conservative minority government has lasted close to three years, and stranger still that this was both the smallest (40% of seats) and longest-lasting minority government in Canadian history, it's stranger still that American political discourse for the last eight months has revolved around the the next government. The politics section of the New York Times site has become the "Campaign 2008" section, and news about the day-to-day operations of the world's most powerful country is scarce.

    On the other hand, Canada, I've always felt, is a country that really runs itself, at least when it comes to federal elections. The provinces wield much of the power, and it's hard to say that Stephen Harper did anything to appreciably change the lives of Canadians. This ambivalence is reflected in polls over the last two years, which generally show the two major parties as having equal support, with the Conservatives sometimes breaking the 40 percent threshold at which a majority government is possible. In fact, the dominant issue in the election will be that Harper didn't appreciably change the lives of Canadians by failing to act on greenhouse gas emissions.

    Harper as Prime Minister has rightfully acquired a reputation for being dictatorial and having a surprisingly genuine antipathy for the media and the public. At the same time, Harper is an excellent leader, the sort of person you'd love to follow if you agreed with him. Harper's Conservatives can't shake Stephane Dion's Liberals in opinion polls, but Harper trounces Dion by a nearly 3-1 margin when discussing leadership (32% think Harper would make the best Prime Minister, 12% think it would be Dion).

    Given that Canadians vote for Members of Parliament and not the Prime Minister directly, I'm strongly inclined to avoid casting a ballot for my semi-literate five-term MP and defeat him in any way possible, including casting a vote for a Conservative counterpart who will be similarly illiterate but good at capturing the ethnic vote. There is, unfortunately, no Green Party candidate, unfortunate because the Greens are just 153 seats shy of a majority.

    Monday, September 08, 2008

    I started watching the Jaguars and Titans yesterday, but it was boring. Instead, I reverted to that old, familiar past-time of rooting for the Patriots to lose. That's one of the blessings of watching low-quality football on your laptop. I started watching just after Tom Brady left the game with a knee injury. In the end, the Chiefs came up short, losing 17-10 after missing on four chances instead the Patriots' 10 in the final minute. I went to bed at 6 am today and it wasn't until I woke up that I got the good news: Tom Brady is probably gone for the season.

    I wouldn't have wished this on Brady, at least not seriously, but now that it has happened, I have to admit that I'm oddly happy. This is, of course, the same team that played so childishly last year and called it "playing all out" because this is football, not a group therapy session. Well, this is football, gladiators fighting close to the death (Brady was one of 7 star players injured yesterday) in the Rome of our time, and I'm glad that I won't have to watch him play until 2009.

    At any rate, here's a funny video:

    Sunday, September 07, 2008

    More Korean to Urdu translations:

    - village (maeul) means palace
    - tea (cha) means tea
    - camera (kameira) means camera, or maybe 'mine'
    - spider (keomi) means national
    - hair (karak) means lightning
    - mother (eommani) means mother
    - tree (namu) means no face
    - blue (poreun) means right now
    - yellow (norang) means 'no colour'
    - "damn it!" (acha) means good

    Friday, September 05, 2008

    I'm surprised I haven't mentioned my most significant professional accomplishment to date. In the September issue of Canadian Running, you can find a lengthy feature article written by yours truly, aptly named Field of Dreams but absent any Kevin Costner connection. Anyway, if you do find it, let me know, because just about everyone I know (and many I don't) has seen it...except for me.

    Tuesday, September 02, 2008

    Having read as much Plato as I have, about 21 of the 36 known works, I think I'm pretty good at defining everyday words that usually don't require definition. One of the first things I had to do as a teacher was to get my students to name some mammals, which was pretty straightforward according to the method of division from The Sophist. Today, I was supposed to define a machine to 9-year-olds with a tenuous grasp of English. In the event, I just let them draw pictures of bicycles (and taught them the etymology just for fun). Still, I unknowingly went through a mind-numbing Platonic exchange while thinking about how to define a machine.

    "What is a machine?"
    "A machine is anything made by humans."
    "But Adeel, is it not so that not all things made by humans are machines?"
    "How so?"
    "Well, the Temple of Hephaestus is a man-made, but is it a machine?"
    "It is not."
    "Or the lyre played by Hippias' boy? Is that a machine?"
    "It is not."
    "Then what shall be said of machines to distinguish them from other man-made objects?"
    "I think it is not unwise to say that machines will be those man-made objects which have moving parts and perform some function. Is that not so?"
    "It is."

    I have to amuse myself somehow.

    Monday, September 01, 2008

    2 Million Flee Storm; G.O.P. Cuts Back : But Roosevelt Scott, 73, a retired truck driver, said he would rather stick out the storm in his house than spend hours on the highway, as he did during Hurricane Rita, which struck right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He had stocked up on $150 worth of frozen meat and bought a generator to keep the electricity going, he said. He was not going to run this time.

    “Where you going to hide from God?” he said as he walked into a convenience store. “How you going to hide from him?

    “There is a time to be born and a time to die. If he calls your name, you got to answer.”

    I found a copy of Confederacy of Dunces in my old apartment and I started reading it on Friday. This will likely be the second book I read this year, the first being Bryan Mealer's excellent account of post-war Congo (DRC), which I read in about five days. I've now been reading Edward Gibbons' excellent The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for five months and am one quarter of the way done. As much as I enjoy Aristotle's abstruse but familiar writing style, I think books written in the last century are much, much easier to read. I stubbornly stick to tomes like Decline and Fall, however, and consequently read very little that's not Wikipedia.

    Anyway, it was an odd coincidence that I started reading Confederacy of Dunces, a witty portrayal of 1960s New Orleans, just days before the landfall of Hurricane Gustav. If I miss American football for the breathless hype afforded by FOX and CBS, I miss the Zordon-like layer that is the CNN hurricane watch centre. I also like listening to that one Tragically Hip song at times like these. Of course, it's not all fun and games: 1,600 people died during and after Katrina. Both the powerlessness of the state in protecting its most vulnerable and its feeble attempts to reclaim New Orleans from criminals after the hurricane are, I think, forever stamped into the minds of everyone.

    Hurricane Gustav is a tragedy that is uniquely American. So far, 81 people non-Americans have died, but peripheral events relating to the hurricane get more press than their deaths. This unique American myopia is coupled with the exposure of some of the poorest, most pathetic people living anywhere in the developed world. There aren't many things in America worse than being down and out in New Orleans and even if the government can save these people after so criminally abandoning them last time, we still get to see what it's like.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008

    Football season starts again on Thursday night, which is Friday morning here, or maybe Tuesday afternoon. When we left off, the New York Giants had beaten the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII. For a similarly improbable victory, you (or a qualified military historian) have to harken all the way back to Mardonius' campaign against the Greeks in 492 BC, which was stopped when his fleet was destroyed by a massive storm. The Giants, as you might recall, had won only 10 games during the regular season to the Patriots' 16, though it's worth noting that the Giants did not resort to cheating in order to win any of those games. And in the event, the Giants prevailed 17-14, possibly the clearest proof I have seen all year of the existence of God.

    At any rate, it's time for me to make the sort of predictions that embarrass me with their absurdity when I read up on them in the playoffs, and anger Bedir because I didn't pick the Seahawks to win every game by about 75 points.

    In the AFC, the same four teams remain the class of the AFC: the Patriots, Jaguars, Colts and Chargers. The Patriots will no doubt dominate the AFC after winning 16 games last year, though it's worth noting that they had to resort to cheating in order to win at least one of those games. The Jets have Brett Favre, the Dolphins have Bill Parcells and the Bills will be playing some games in Toronto, which does nothing for me, unfortunately. There was a time when being able to watch AFC East games was a good thing, but for the last ten years, I've been treated to all the Bills-Jets and Bills-Dolphins games I can handle. Watching football in Korea is hard, but at least I don't have to watch the lesser AFC East teams play.

    In the AFC North, the Steelers should win the division by default, though they'll need to fix a porous defense to do more than that. Cincinnati sucks, Cleveland sucks and Baltimore sucks.

    The AFC South is the toughest division in the league, and I don't understand why Indianapolis, which is farther north than two of the teams in the North division, plays in the South, but that's a topic to be reserved for the gazetteering convention. The Colts are as good as they were last year when they won 13 games, didn't have to cheat in any of them and did it without Marvin Harrison, who is now back. The Jaguars are also on the upswing after putting some pressure on the Patriots in the playoffs. The Titans won 10 games and finished third in the division, but they have Vince Young at quarterback, so it's safe to discount them.

    The AFC West will be dominated by Chargers, and I don't even want to dignify the other teams by mentioning them.

    Look for the Chargers and Colts to meet in the AFC Championship, with the Chargers winning and going on to win the Super Bowl against over...

    The Cowboys will win the NFC East. I had no faith in the Giants last year, and I still don't think they're that good of a team.

    The Packers will win the NFC North because I don't see who else is going to. The Vikings have a very good team except at quarterback, which is unfortunately the most important position in the game.

    Similarly, someone also has to win the NFC South on a technicality (the team with the most wins; if there is a tie, the team with the better record against the other; if they split those two meetings, then the team with the better division record; failing that, the team with the best record against common opponents...). I don't want to talk about who, however.

    The Seahawks will win the West. Clearly, the more interesting things in the NFL are happening in the AFC.

    The Cowboys and Seahawks will play in the NFC Championship game. The winner will lose to San Diego in the Super Bowl, extending New England's Super Bowl-less streak to four seasons.

    Thursday, August 28, 2008

    Facts from today:

    - banana in Korean is banana.
    - tomato in Korean is tomato.
    - the word for pants in Korean is the same as the word for big sister in Urdu.
    - hello and goodbye mean "about to laugh" in Urdu.
    - thank you sounds like "with sorrow"
    - rice means father in Urdu
    - mother and father in Korea are oma and uppa
    - noon means eye in Korean, and pee means blood.
    - the word for plate sounds like chopsticks and the word for chopsticks sounds like chocolate.
    - I live above a bar called Queen Kong.

    Wednesday, August 27, 2008

    I aged a year when I came here. Koreans count age from conception and with the lunar calendar, so you're a year old at birth and 2 years old at the start of the lunar year. Someone born on the last day of the lunar calendar would therefore be 2 years old the next day. I often didn't realize that kids who were supposedly 6 were actually 5, and so on. I'm 23 years old to Koreans, which they call Korean age, and 22 years old in what they call "Canadian age" and I call "outside age".

    I just happened to notice the date on the Islamic calendar today, which is also lunar, and it's Shaban 25, 1429. I was born on Shaban 25, 1406, meaning that it's my birthday. Please don't be stingy with birthday wishes and gifts.

    Sunday, August 24, 2008

    At first, Korean didn't seem to be a very easy language to learn. People back home said it looked like alien writing, and I was inclined to agree. This is a language where both 'yay' and 'nay' mean yes, where A is B, C is D, T is U, G and K are the same, as are R and L.

    Still, I learned some Korean within a half hour of landing at the airport. I had to take a bus from the airport to Suwon, the suburb where I live. The woman at the information desk wrote it down for me on a piece of paper, which I was to show at the ticket counter. I figured it might come in handy to memorize how Suwon was written in Korean, so I did: it's a T with a hat on it next to a baby holding a key over an upside-down J.

    So far, so good. Then, while running around, I kept seeing 24 with an upside down V and an I, which is 81 in Arabic. That's how I learned that the Arabic 81 means 'hours' in Korean. When someone told me that the upside down V was an S, and that the I was an I, I had a few more letters. I picked up on W, O and N by seeing the baby holding a key over an upside down J at the pizza place, won being the currency. Just like that, I knew six of the 24 letters in alphabet.

    I found a book on the Korean alphabet in my apartment and some friends took the time to teach me the alphabet and how words are put together (each cluster of letters is one syllable). I learned the letters best, though, by seeing station names written in Korean and then English on the subway for an hour each way. It was remarkably easy: A is an I with a right hand, B is an upside A, C is the same as S, D is C, E is an I with a right-hand, there's no F, G is a 7, H is a head with a hat, I is I, J I don't know, K is the same as G, L is 2, M is a box, N is a sideways J, an 'Ng' sound is achieved with a circle, though this is silent at the start of a word, P is a roman 2, R is L, S is an upside down V, T is E, U is T, V I don't know, W is the torso of a stick figure, there is mercifully no X, Y is an I with two right hands, and Z is J (as in Jimbabwe, jeebra, etc.).

    Armed with this knowledge, I can now write my name: 0, I with a right hand, C, I, 2. Armed with this knowledge, actually, I'm driving myself nuts. I felt impervious to advertising and signs, of which there are lots everywhere, because I couldn't read any of it. It was very peaceful walking around because there was nothing to intrude on my thoughts. Now, I try and read everything, to the point that it gives me a headache. The other day at lunch, I spent a few minutes gazing at a sign across the street to painstakingly spell out B, ee, l, d, ng, a: building!

    Korean is the third alphabet I have learned after Urdu, and English, and I learned the first two before I was six. I can't remember how it was learning Urdu and English. I have a memory of learning Urdu, but not of English, but I don't think I managed to learn either as easily as Korean, even though I'm learning Korean at a much older age. English is absurdly and maddeningly hard to learn, as I realize everyday when my students grapple with its constantly changing sounds, spellings and meanings.