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.