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.
Korea won gold in baseball tonight. I saw a few of their games over the course of the tournament, and I was very impressed by the harmonious, efficient, Confucian smallball played by the Koreans. For example, in a first-round game against America, Korea came back from a 7-6 deficit in the 9th inning. I tuned in with a runner on second and no outs. They moved the to third, and the next batter hit a grounder to first. The American went home, but the throw was towards the first-base side, and the run scored. The runner on first then went to third on what appeared to be a throwing error and scored on that most exciting of plays, the sacrifice fly, to win the game.

Tonight's Korea-Cuba semifinal was the stuff of dreams. I had hoped that Cuba would oust America (for fun, sorry Americans) and that, of course, Korea would beat Japan. I saw some of the game in the 4th and 5th at a restaurant, and left with Korea ahead 2-1. Every restaurant on the street was showing the game. I came back outside maybe 10 minutes later to a roar. Everyone in restaurants was yelling, people on the street were yelling, and even people in cars were opening their doors to see what had happened. It was a run-scoring double. I saw the game on every restaurant and store, saw some of the 7th inning at a bus station, and caught a tense bases-loaded situation near the end in a cab (yes, cabs here have TV). It felt like I was in a movie. The singular focus on this game was astonishing.

In other news:

- I learned to read the Korean alphabet over two hours on the subway on Monday.
- A 6-year-old girl asked me what that was on my arm. I told her it was hair.
- I realized in a discussion with my students that I haven't seen a plate since I've been here. Everything here comes in bowls. I also haven't seen a bathtub, a house (just apartments), a knife or an open space greater than a few acres.
- All 19 of my students today live in apartment buildings. There was one who claimed otherwise, but I'm sure he just didn't understand the question.
- I work with someone who lives on the 13th floor of an apartment building. No, it's not marked as the 14th floor.

Finally, life as a minority minority is hard. I'm a foreigner, yes, but I was already a foreigner where I was from. I tell people about my first language, and they politely nod. Today, however, I met someone who had heard of Urdu. Why? She had studied counter-terrorism.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I left at 10:25 tonight for a very precisely scheduled 52-minute run. I was going to do a 15-minute warm-up, 5 repeats of 4 minutes hard with 3 minutes easy and a 5-minute cooldown. That would get me back to my building at 11:17, into my apartment at 11:19, and give me one minute to find the men's 200 final on the TV and sit down on the floor. I did all of the above according to plan in time to see the last of the introductions and the "on your marks" call.

Usain Bolt is also a master of scheduling. After the gun sounded, he took precisely 19.30 seconds to cross the finish line, two-hundredths of a second faster than the world record. Michael Johnson ran 19.32 at the Atlanta Olympics and I always thought that the record would either never be broken or be broken in the middle of the 21st century. I've never seen anyone so big move so fast. If you saw this race tonight, you witnessed history. Bolt's 19.30 alone, without his 100-metre gold medal and world record, is as impressive as Michael Phelps' 8 gold medals put together.

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than Bolt's run was that he ran it into a slight headwind. Also in the list of absurdities about this race is that the silver medalist, Churandy Martina, hails from the Netherlands Antilles. Hands up if you had ever heard of the Netherlands Antilles, IOC abbreviation AHO, or know just what on earth is an Antilles.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Here's a bird's-nest view of last night's 100-metre final:



I think this race has already aired in just about every country around the world except for America, where it will be shown on about a 12-hour delay so that there's enough time to blur out any non-American athletes, spectators or officials. So, if you're an American, here's what you missed.

As for my marathon prediction, I didn't do too badly: Kenya and China went 2-3, and the winning time by Romania's Constantina Dita of 2:26:44 was just 76 seconds too fast.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

There's something about sunsets here that I don't quite understand. For a city where you often can't see the sky or the horizon because of pollution, the sunsets are astonishing. I saw a fiery orange sunset over the mountains last Saturday, a dazzling pink Tuesday night tonight, and as I headed out for a 10-mile run, an electric indigo. The other strange thing about tonight was that I was actually a little cold when I stepped out the door: it was only 22 degrees, making the run actually comfortable.

The weather is good here in Korea and the weather will be good tomorrow for the women's marathon in Beijing, where, so far, no athletes have dissolved in the Venetian heat of that city-planet. You might recall the dire predictions that outdoor exercise in Beijing was a life-threatening undertaking due to the heat, humidity and pollution. Therefore, it's astonishing that all 31 competitors in last night's women's 10,000 metres are, to the best of my knowledge, still technically alive. After all, it's not the case that there had been international competitions held in Beijing in August in the past, never mind competitions with a mortality rate of zero.

Tomorrow's forecast in Beijing is for a starting temperature of 22 degrees at the 7:30 start, rising to 28 degrees by the roughly 10 am finish. Those are horrid conditions for a marathon, to be sure, and they're typical of Beijing in August, but it's nothing that hasn't happened before, not that the anti-China hysteria is concerned with what has and hasn't happened before.

Given my fondness for the obscure, I'm going to root for the Chinese: Zhou Chunxiu has the times (2:19), big city win (London 2007), championship and hot-weather credentials (runner-up at in last year's world championships, which were hotter), and not to mention the home-field advantage, to win this. If Chunxiu wins, she will be accused of coming out of nowhere, you know, by being Chinese and not American. If Chunxiu doesn't win, I pick a Kenyan, any Kenyan. The winning time will be no faster than 2:28.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

One of the strangest things about Korea, though I guess this is actually normal, is that everyone is the same. I don't mean that all Koreans look the same, but that everyone I see is Korean. On my fourth day here, I took the subway for about two hours (you can do that here) and saw one person that wasn't Korean. I often looked around in a packed car and noticed that I was the only person out of maybe 200 people that wasn't Korean. If you think that all East Asians look the same, what you need to do is visit Seoul, Beijing or Tokyo and examine a crowd to see just how different everyone looks.

In Toronto, I would always look around the subway car and notice that it was surprisingly a hodgepodge. You would see whites, blacks, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Jamaicans, Guatemalans, Chinese, and so on. In New York, there was a little less diversity overall, but a lot more Hispanics. It was really hard to peg the city. Seoul, by contrast, is about 98% Korean, and of the 2% that are non-Koreans, many are American soldiers. Of course, this is true for most of the world's major cities: of the 20 biggest this list, only three are heterogeneous.

The result is that you stick out a lot as a foreigner. In this neighbourhood, bounded by highways and busy roads, anyone who is not Korean works at one of two schools in the area. The guy at the coffee shop down the street knew the name of my school without my telling him. Walking down the main street in the area, I can pick out my fellow teachers from a few blocks away, and it's not just me. Last week, a few of us were walking home when a car approached from behind. The woman in the car assumed we were teachers since we were foreigners and offered us a job at her school. I guess driving around looking for people who look and dress a certain way and asking them to do things for money, all from the driver's seat, is common around the world.

Monday, August 11, 2008

I moved into a new apartment yesterday, the second of three moves in the month of August. This apartment has a working television and cable, and today I managed to figure out which button is the power button (not the biggest button). I think some English programming is available: I caught a bad sitcom on what I think is a FOX-related channel as well as WWE wrestling (it's Monday night here!). But really I want the television to be able to watch the Olympics. Right now, a Korean is facing an Italian in fencing, and the announcers are taking this very, very seriously.

Korea has already won four gold medals, good for second behind China (8) and ahead of the US and A (3). Korea's 6 total medals are third behind China and America, both of whom have 12. I can believe that, but what's amazing is that North Korea has somehow won four medals. North Korea apparently has good judokas, weightlifters and shooters. I'm guessing these aren't the North Koreans who are eating twigs in the countryside, and they're probably fit enough to be able to live in Pyongyang, which is a Beautiful People's Club of sorts. North Korea has four more medals than Canada, but then again, Canadians don't believe that they're doing God's work.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Today is a very auspicious day. Tonight, at 8 pm, the Beijing Olympics will start, a delight to this Sinophile and sportophile. Also on this auspicious date, long-time AWYHIGTC reader Alex will move into a new house. I would like you all to join me in wishing her an auspicious move on this most auspicious day.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Running in the Seoul area in August is oppressive at best. I've run every morning for the last five days before 7 am, which is five more early morning runs than I've done all year. Even leaving at 6 am, as I did on Saturday, I return drenched in my own sweat an hour later, my hair looking like I've just taken a shower. The temperatures aren't extraordinary, with daily highs of around 30 degrees, but the humidity is remarkable, and the pollution doesn't help. I've been doing a lot of my running on a very busy thoroughfare (there are no street names, so I call it The Street That The School Is On) and the traffic at 6:30 is astonishing. It really is the start of a never-ending rush hour. The number of cars and trucks is staggering: there are 20 million people in the Seoul area, including 1 million of them in supposedly suburban Suwon, which has double the population of Brampton and half the area.

Even though there is a never-ending stream of green buses, all with weapons-grade air conditioning, there are just way too many people. When I finish the run and head out to work, the phalanx of high rises three kilometres away past the rice fields are invisible and the small mountains that surround Suwon are illusory shadows at best. I try not to think of how I was sucking in the same air that clouds out the buildings in front of me.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Today was my first day of work as a foreign teacher, one of the noblest of jobs. Plato did it with Dionisyus of Syracuse, Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, Seneca taught Nero and Descartes taught the queen of Sweden. Clearly, I'm in good company. Of course, these things never work out: Plato narrowly escaped with his life, Aristotle's association with his fellow Macedonian got him exiled, Seneca was forced to commit perhaps the most agonizing suicide ever, and Descartes got pneumonia and died promptly. As for me, however, it worked out well today. I also teach the privileged. My 6-year-old students pay roughly double what I paid to learn at the University of Toronto. Given how little their teacher's education cost, maybe they're not so privileged after all.

I think I'm pretty privileged. We get free cappuccino in the basement and the school provides the students with a lunch, and I get to share. Let it be said there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Here is a non-sequitur collection of observations from the last couple of days:

- I took the same plane as the Brazilian women's handball team. I had to look up what exactly handball is. The women were really tall. I called them Amazons from the Amazon.
- South Korea is the sixth country I have visited, the third country I have lived in, and the first place I have ever been to that was never part of the British empire.
- the guy with the hand-held metal detector in Toronto was Muslim and Pakistani. He looked at my boarding pass, saw my name, and immediately switched to Urdu. He asked where I was going, what I was doing there, and then asked me to pray for him because prayers are more likely to be accepted when traveling.
- in the event, I spent about 8 of the 14 hours on the plane sleeping, another two eating, most of that time spent trying to distinguish between ham and turkey sandwiches, and the rest watching 21 and 88 minutes. In the future, I will only watch movies whose titles consist of numbers.
- the barbecue chicken place down the street promises the "best believable quality" and the city where I live describes itself in a booklet as "the very place where you can enjoy comfort and pleasure of your life as well as dream of all our happiness" -- and that's one of the more coherent descriptions.

Still, I shouldn't make too much fun of people who speak good but not great English. I mostly get around by gesturing, putting lots of money on the counter and taking back what's left.
I now live in South Korea, and I am typing this from a legendary Korean Internet cafe. It is very humid here. I paid about 3 dollars for a cup of coffee this morning. I have no idea where anything is, since there are no street signs.

The food is good and the animals are anthropomorphic, including pandas and octopuses. That is all. Oh, and they have Bennigan's here, supposedly.