Saturday, January 31, 2009

This video seems to be on the money, more or less, though the newscaster is speaking even faster than reporters on Korean TV speak, which is already comically fast. Reporters do, however, speak in that urgent tone which suggests that they're currently carrying a house or small asteroid on their back. Other than the fact that they write North Korea as North North Korea or that part of the footage shows the current president of South Korea, I think it's a pretty amusing production. Of course, owing to the scarcity of North Korean speakers outside of North Korea, they found a South Korean, which is sort of like hiring Bill Clinton to imitate a Canadian accent.

Kim Jong Il Announces Plan To Bring Moon To North Korea

For your amusement, here's some actual North Korean TV:

To the best of my knowledge, this describes the laborious process of Kim Jong-il's lunch. "Kim Jong-il picked up the fork, Kim Jong-il looked at this plate, Kim Jong-il scratched his neck" and so on.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

After a long time of wanting to go, I finally made it to the People's Republic of China this weekend, and it was really a glorious three days and change of witnessing the workers' revolutionary spirit or something like that. It was certainly a very instructive few days. When I managed to stay at a five-star hotel for $100 a night, I figured that Beijing would be a very cheap city, cheaper than Seoul, where you can have lunch for $2, ride the subway for $1 and buy a T-shirt for $7.

Right from the start, however, I was trapped in the massive tourist trap that is central Beijing. I was told not to catch a cab at the Beijing Railway Station, since the drivers there are scam artists, but I couldn't figure out where else to catch one. A sign on the cab plainly says that the first 2 km costs about $2, but they demanded $10 (the numbers are more significant in Chinese yuan).

At 11 pm, nestled close to Tiananmen Square without any restaurants in sight, we decided to eat at one of several restaurants in the hotel. This was the first of two nights that I ate dinner in a completely empty restaurant, thanks to Lunar New Year, which left the city deserted, or as deserted as a city of 15 million can be. A worker in rural China earns less than $60 a month, and our dinner came out to be just under $60. And so it went on: $80 at a famous roast duck restaurant, $40 at a North Korean restaurant, and $8 for a coffee in the hotel lobby when we were killing time before our flight.

Note: this doesn't even count prices at relatively high-end stores like Nike. Even though Nike shoes are made in China, they come back to China costing anywhere from $150-200. I saw Levi's jeans selling for $600 and a Columbia jacket for $1000.

In Beijing, I learned that just about everything can be faked. I saw more people wearing fake Nike goods than real ones. I saw fake watches (I paid $3 for a Fauxlex), fake clothes, fake shoes, fake electronics, fake handbags, fake jewelery, and the list goes on. My friend even claims his Corona was fake, and I saw a fake brand that inverted Nike's swoosh and Adidas' "impossible is nothing" into "anything is possible".

I learned the power of space. Tiananmen Square, which can hold about 1 million people, is at its most powerful at night, when the soldiers close it off and the empty space is lit up with an eerie glow. Changan Avenue, where a man with a shopping bag halted a procession of tanks 20 years ago (today you need to go through a metal detector to enter Tiananmen Square and all subway stations), is about 10 lanes wide and brutally intimidating when empty. The stretch of Changan Avenue near Tiananmen and the famous picture of Mao is as immaculate and well-developed a space as any in the world. Similarly, at the Beijing airport, I went from the bus to the gate in 12 minutes (including customs, checking-in, security check, immigration) in an inexplicably deserted airport. Owing to Beijing's status as a regional hub for all sorts of strange places, the only flight after mine was a midnight flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan.

If you include the guy who offered us a ride on his ramshackle pedicab to the Forbidden City for 60 cents and parlayed it into a tour of Beijing's many alleyways and a $60 charge (I gave him $10 because he was so funny), and the fact that Lunar New Year sounds like a never-ending gun battle with the occasional artillery shell being lobbed, Beijing is probably one of the two or three most interesting places in the world.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

One of the things I do which I have a hard time explaining to others is that I like to wander. Living about an hour outside of Seoul by public transit, I like to go into Seoul on Mondays, which is a day off for me. Unlike everyone else I know, however, I go without a reason. I'll say something about wanting to check out this market or check out some landmark, but really I just want to walk around and see what happens in Seoul. Sometimes, a lot happens.

I was walking around Yongsan station (one of the coolest names in Korea: 'yong' means dragon', 'san' means hill or mountain), home to a massive electronics market, when all of a sudden, I walked right into a column of about 200 riot police marching at a slow jog. Two hours later, I saw them again, and this time they were all business. There were 200 standing on one sidewalk, another 200 on the other. They were on the median where there was a bus stop, they were coming around corners, and so on.

I had heard a lot about public protests in Korea and how they could get very violent, so I figured I should probably stay, at least for a while. I walked around for an hour, and things looked tense, but nothing was happening. Eventually, I got bored and left.

The next morning, the details came out. The police had surrounded a block of abandoned buildings that were due to be demolished and redeveloped into something newer and shinier. The tenants of those buildings, who would not be compensated for the loss of their homes and apartments, barricaded themselves into one of the buildings Monday morning. They had been there for 12 hours when I got there. Twelve hours later, one of them threw molotov cocktails at the police. One of the molotov cocktails ignited paint thinner on the roof of the building. Six people died in the ensuing fire.

Here are a couple of pictures from The Han Kyoreh. I was too scared of getting arrested to take pictures. Protests in Korea aren't exactly the same as back home.

Police used a crane to lower a shipping container with commandos on top of the building.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I told my 6-year-old students on Saturday to draw a picture of themselves when they're 20, and to tell me what they would be doing. The most ridiculous answer of all, ironically, was the most realistic at 20. Cinderella wanted to be a ballerina, which can happen by 20, I suppose. Yun Seo wanted to be a doctor, Mina wanted to be a fashion designer, and Alex wanted to be working in an office and to be a father. Thomas wanted to be a father who worked in an office and wore a yellow shirt with pink sleeves, a green tie and blue pants. Right away, there were some problems with that.

For Yun Seo, Alex and Thomas, the truth was especially bleak. At 20, they would be in the Korean army, serving the mandatory 2-year term, and they wouldn't even finish university until about 25. I didn't have the heart to tell them, however.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Euro is 6 years old. Believe it or not, it's actually her Korean name (pronounced Yu-ro). As one of only a handful of students that are named after currency, she has become one of my favourites.

Adeel: Do you like watermelon?
Euro: I do.
Adeel: I don't, I don't like the seeds.
Euro: I eat the seeds!
Adeel: Oh, really? My dad does that.
Euro: You have a dad?!?
Adeel: Yeah, why? Everyone has a dad, Euro.
Euro: I didn't know you had a dad.
Adeel: Yeah, my mom and my dad live in Canada.
Euro: You have a mom too?!?

Postscript, the day after: Euro went home and, after careful inspection, was able to report that "my dad is in my house".

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When I started teaching, I had almost no experience with children that didn't go back 15 years to when I was 7 years old, just like my students. Consequently, I treat all my students like adults. I teach them like they're adults, talk to them like they're adults, yell at them like they're adults, and so on. This is mostly possible because I'm fortunate enough to teach a group of highly intelligent, hyper-active and hyper-motivated 6-year-olds. The arrangement works well: the students are smart enough to adapt to the fast pace of the class, laugh at my bewildered looks when they share the incoherent details of their social life, and they enjoy in kindergarten the freedom you'd expect as a university student. These kids speak a highly-developed system of broken English where most sentences begin with "Annnnnnd, my issssss" and then follow the structure of Korean grammar ("Annnnnddd, my is, Cindy's house go"). It's because we can have conversations about all sorts of things, unlike other students in the school, that I think of them as adults.

Every now and then, though, the arrangement breaks down. One of the slower, weaker students can't handle having to do everything on their own, or, God forbid, someone starts crying. There is, also, the matter of speaking Korean. For the hour that this class of kindergarten geniuses lasts, they are not allowed to speak Korean. Ironically, it's usually when they speak Korean that I realize that my students are actually 6 years old. Everything was going swimmingly well as each of the dozen students told me how much they hated the class and that they were never going to come back. Then, one of them saw a Korean teacher.

"Seonsaaeengniiiiiiiiiiiim, nuguya?" one asks ("teacher, whose is it?"), holding up a wayward scarf. Personality erodes so quickly when they switch to Korean, and all the maturity disappears. Their voices get whinier and higher and I realize that maybe I put too much emphasis on being able to write your own sentences. This class, like any other kindergarten class, is a success if no one ran headfirst into a table corner or lost a tooth.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Having seen one game of football in the last two months has it prices. After last weekend's playoff games, even with the advantage of hindsight, I figured that I would've only picked one of the four games correctly. In retrospect, I couldn't see how the Cardinals, Eagles won, and I wouldn't have leaned toward the Chargers, though I can certainly see how the Colts could lose a playoff game. The good news is that the very vicissitudes (an auspicious alliteration I never thought I would attempt) which kept me from Detroit last weekend allowed me to watch four football games last week. I don't think I'm any closer to being able to call these games, however.

The easy one is the Cardinals at the Panthers. I have a strong aversion to watching NFC football games, and an even stronger aversion to watching games including either one of these teams. The Cardinals are lousy and they will lose to the 12-win Panthers on the road.

The most exciting game is the Ravens at the Titans. I've never really been a fan of the Titans, and I love the Ravens, who are purple-shrouded like death in the Iliad. Not in the least because of Ray Lewis, the Ravens are the sort of ferocious team that could potentially and actually kill their opponents. Every single player on the defense seems to be a star, and they excel at turning football games into the equivalent of slaughtering chickens: boring on the surface, but surprisingly appealing to your morbid curiosity. Needless to say, I pick the Ravens, mostly for the Homeric allusion.

The Chargers at Steelers is another very exciting game. The Chargers are lousy in theory, but very dangerous in practice, as well as in games. The defense is very good, though I think it simply matches up very well against pass-heavy offenses like Indianapolis or last year's Patriots. That said, the Steelers offense is sputtering all-round, so the Chargers have an edge there. The Steelers probably have a better defense, and I don't like how my picks have the Chargers hosting the AFC championship game with 8 wins, so I'll pick the Steelers to win.

The Giants will beat the Eagles. I probably won't watch.

I don't have a coin to make experimental picks, but I'm sure it would have done better than I would have. Feel free to use a coin or uniform colours to make your own picks and leave a comment.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

One of the highlights of my trip is that I get to spend three hours in Detroit on my way back to Korea (interestingly, there's a direct Detroit-Tokyo flight since the F-150 can't make it over there just yet). The last time I was in Detroit, I was on my way back from Chicago by bus. At the Chicago bus station, I asked someone where I could catch a bus to Detroit. I know I pronounced the name wrong, but I didn't realize just how wrong it was.

Adeel: Excuse me, which exit is the bus for Ditt-royt?
Man: What?
Adeel: Where do I go to get the bus for Ditt-royt?
Man: Huh?
Adeel: Uh, Dee-troyt?
Man: Oh, Dee-troyt, that way, number 5.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

When I was young, my father used to say to me, "nobody circles the wagon like the Buffalo Bills". Those, of course, were the days of the K-Gun offense, when the Bills won four straight AFC championships and when there were still jobs left in western New York state. On Sunday, I found out that the reality is that the Buffalo Bills mostly run around in circles with the express aim of avoiding victory or the very pursuit of victory, at all costs.

The gold standard of football is a cold, snowy day, but failing that, a cold day with inclement weather will do. As it just happened, I chose a day with 100-kilometre-per-hour winds, which are magnified by Ralph Wilson Stadium's positioning next to the lake and all-round shoddy construction. The place, in short, has all the atmosphere of a refugee camp, and is populated on Sundays by beer-swilling white trash of the most authentic sort. It's like winding up in the real America of Sarah Palin's dreams.

The stadium consists of an open-air concourse exposed fully to whatever weather might come strolling across Lake Erie, and a bowl-like playing field with excellent views. The seats in the end zone are metal bleachers so it makes sense that everyone stands on a cold day, which was the first thing I liked about the place. The second thing I had to admit to liking was that the wind blew all the food away. My brother's popcorn flew right out of his bag and into people standing 5, 10, 20 feet away. My chili fries flew away, and a few children standing in the area almost flew away as well.

If you go to Ralph Wilson Stadium to watch a football game, it's hard not to like the place, even in the face of icy, hurricane-force winds. Fans beat the metal bleachers on third downs, creating a din. Seventy thousand people show up, regardless of the weather and, more importantly, regardless of the feeble, toothless team, which plays mostly to keep the score respectable. They may not know much, in fact, they know next to nothing, but they know their football. The result is that even a two-touchdown loss by a hapless team to a despised opponent in some of the worst weather imaginable, three hours after the last time you felt your toes, comes across as fun in the end.