Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport

I can't say I've ever read any of Kafka's books, but I have seen the word Kafka-esque used in enough different contexts to be able to piece together the contents of his works. Still, this video makes me want to go and read The Metamorphosis.

The closest thing I've ever seen to Franz Kafka International Airport is Beijing Capital International Airport's Terminal 2. That was where I went from the bus to sitting at the gate in 12 minutes, clearing two security checks, customs and a check-in counter. There was no 32-hour delay, but nothing about what I'd just done felt right at all. There were precisely three flights that night at the terminal, which is part of the world's 8th-busiest airport: one to Seoul, one to Kazakhstan, and one to somewhere with a lot of obnoxious Westerners. A midnight flight to Kazakhstan has to rank terminal 2 pretty high up on the absurdity scale.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A kindergarten class is a wonderful example of political dynamics in action. To be a teacher is to learn intimately about the interactions of a state with its citizens, as well as the existence of a patron-client relationship. I learned this right off the bat when I started teaching in August. Half the class was divided into a faction known as the Alligators, and the other half was grouped into a faction called the Crocodiles. Similar to a state that is evenly divided along ethnocultural fault lines, I had to choose judiciously when making apppointments and awarding privileges. Half the privileges had to go to Alligators, and half had to go to Crocodiles. The lessons I learned in those first two weeks would serve me well.

The most important idea, at least at the start of a school term, is one of the most basic lessons from a political science class. The classical definition of the state as enjoying a monopoly on legitimate force within a territory is critical to my classroom. I realized it was very important for me to make it clear that I had such a monopoly, especially when it came to punitive measures. Only I am allowed to punish students, but students are forbidden from writing on the board or distributing worksheets.

Patron-client relationships are perhaps more important to my job, though they exist in tension with my desire to be, as a professor put it, "the only game in town". In my experience, patronizing students with candy for speaking in English or a game for good behaviour erodes the monopoly on force. The result is a gradual shift in power such that good behaviour is a reward from students for playing a game. The classroom is not a democracy, however, and the moment it becomes one is the moment that the teacher-sovereign has signed his own death warrant.

Preserving the authoritarian orientation of the classroom requires reinforcing the initial, crucial idea of a monopoly on force. Reinforcement is best achieved through the capricious exercise of executive privilege at random intervals which both establishes a climate of fear and makes an example out of offenders to would-be transgressors.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Seoul has to have some of the world's worst architecture for a city with its size and money. There are some buildings in central Seoul that are quite interesting, but on the whole, the city consists of massive shoebox-like apartments and office buildings, each of them indistinguishable from the others. This is partly the result of history, given that most of Seoul was destroyed in the Korean War and that Korea wasn't a developed country until recently. There is one area, though, where I think Korea excels, and that is the edifice. There are many large, monolithic buildings that stretch horizontally instead of vertically, and the concrete indicates power and intimidation instead of a lack of imagination.

Before I get carried away, most of these mammoth blocks of concrete house movie theatres, department stores and restaurants, though sometimes they're museums, train stations or government offices. Nearby Suwon Station is a good example of the style and why I like it. The building is at least 500 metres wide, and though only 7 stories, it looks dominant and imposing in a way that a dozen 30-storey apartment buildings can't quite manage. The Korean National Museum is a more imaginative example, as is Seoul Olympic Stadium. I can't tell just how big the buildings actually are, because they're situated next to nothing, perhaps for the effect, perhaps because that's where land for public works was available.

The effect these buildings have, I think, is to make the individual feel as tiny as possible because of the unity of the structure. Skyscrapers have windows, but the Korean edifice is only one giant block of concrete. In a city of 20 million people, where streets, buildings, cars and people create an incredible controlled chaos, I think the effect fits the city perfectly.

Suwon Station



National Museum of Korea



Jamsil Olympic Stadium

Sunday, March 15, 2009

It began at 6 this morning. I was sitting at a table in the locker room of a sauna in central Seoul, where I'd spent the night in a dorm for $12, eating a stale bagel from the night before next to a couple of men who were on their second beer already. Nothing about the moment made me want to go out and run a marathon, but I'd already pinned on my bib, and the start line was much closer than home.

The marathon is very, very unpredictable. On days when you think you're on and have every reason to be confident, something goes wrong. On this day, when I had no reason to be confident, I stood shivering at the start line, arm hair standing on end in the cold, and wondered if this race would stretch out to 4 hours. Of course, this would be my first marathon without a hitch. Speaking of stretching, I couldn't help but notice the warm-up leaders the fine people at the Seoul International Marathon obtained for the almost entirely male field: what looked to be high school girls wearing impossibly short plaid skirts and dancing to K-pop.

In the interest of not repeating the mistakes of the past, where I started racing 30k from home, I decided to not look at my watch for the first 10k. The first 10k became 15, 20, 30, 35, 40, 42 and then 42.2. You'd have to be a dolt, however, to ignore the clock every 5k. Instead of running 22 minutes per 5k as I'd hoped, I was hitting 23s, but the important thing was that they were coming easy. There was no Gatorade at this race, only a peculiar "ion supply drink" called Pocari Sweat. However, they made up for it with bananas and choco pies (Jos Louis in Canada, freedom pies in America) at 20k and 30k.

At 20k, I was nervous about the second half, but I focused on hitting the 25k water station, then the 30k choco pie station, then running on Nikes and a prayer to 35k. I focused on keeping the same pace until 40k, and after amusing myself with the kilometre-long water station, it was all-out until the end, which came at 3:23. The goal for this race was to run a good race and to pass the road kill instead of being passed by people I'd left in the dust some 30 kilometres earlier. I did just that, passing a longhaired fellow in a spandex triathlon suit at 39k, having last seen him 25 kilometres previous on the other side of Seoul.

As MC Hammer once wrote, "it's good when you know you're down". It was wonderful to approach Seoul's Olympic Stadium going all-out in the final kilometre, passing an army of weary men to the left. The only thing better would have been to run a half-decent time, but there's always next year. Congratulations to Richard, whose pessimism won him a package of ddeok (it is a kind of traditional Korean rice cake) or the indigenous Korean food of his choice.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

These days, I've become infatuated with the Rush & Cash (Korean: Rushee and Cashee) commercials. They tell the story of one adorably anthropomorphic radish (at least I think that's a radish) and his struggles through life, as well as his ability to do one-armed pushups.

This is my favourite:



This is his wild night out:



And, finally, one that hits close to home:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tensions are high these days on the Korean peninsula. South Korean flights no longer pass through or close to North Korean airspace (I had no idea they did that!) because North Korea is throwing the sort of hissy fit it throws every now and then. If you, like me, live within range of North Korean artillery, then this North Korean military parade should put the fear of God into you. That is, of course, if the commentary doesn't put you to sleep.

Fun fact: when the two Koreas chose names for themselves, South Korea got Dae Han Min Guk and North Korea wound up with Joseon Minjujueui Inmin Gonghwaguk.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

I think I'm supposed to hate it, but I love getting new students, especially complete beginners that don't speak any English at all. There's something fascinating about trying to communicate with someone using just your tone (I've never had a dog). Actually, it's more hilarious than fascinating. I had a new student Thursday in what was already new class, and after telling me that his name was either Pear, Bear, Peel or Phil, he just stopped talking altogether. When I had him copy the words "go", "slow" and "stop" off of Charles, he even wrote in his name as Charles. When I ask one of them to stand up, they all stand up. Since I often tell them to read a book on the carpet, when I tell them to go read a book, they just go sit down on the carpet. Or, when I tell them to sit down on the carpet without a book, they go and get a book.

Of course, ignorance can be just as amusing as incomprehension. I asked advanced elementary students where they would travel if they could go anywhere. They told me, as a group, that they didn't understand the question, which I wrote on the board.

"It asks where would you travel?"
"What is travel?"
"Traveling? It's going to another place."
"Oh, like Daejeon, Daegu, Jeju-do..."
"Yeah, but not just in Korea, to another country too."
"What's a country?"
"What's Korea? A country is a place like Korea, or Japan, or Canada."
"Korea is hot in the summer"

I gave up before my class degenarated into a discussion on statehood.

Today I had a class of 15 new kindergarten students who eyed me warily for an hour, and then decided that they were going to treat me as a motherly Korean authority figure. At the start, a few children told me their names, but then one of them wrote the first name he saw in the class, which unfortunately happened to be Mary. Then one of them wouldn't tell me her name because it wasn't an English name. Getting their favourite food out of them was like an interrogation. Everyone just opted for English foods like donuts or spaghetti, except for the intrepid fellow who thought he understood the question and replied, "I like noksaek (green)". That puts him right up there with the lovely girl who replied "I'm fine, thank you, how are you?" to the question "how old are you?".

Normally, I benefit from the fact that children are scared of me as a man, a foreigner and a dark-skinned foreigner (we at AWYHIGTC also accept swarthy). Today, I wielded all sorts of mundane queries, and in rapidfire Korean at that, questions that are normally directed only at Korean teachers. I had no idea kids were this boring.

"Is it okay if my traffic light is red, orange and green?" No, it's not.
"I didn't eat this banana, what should I do with it?" Put it in your bag.
"All finished! All finished!"
"I don't have pockets!" I'd told them to put the candy I gave them in their pockets.
"Can I have some more chocolate? What about more candy?"
"Unintelligible" from a boy holding a strawberry in my face. This one was translated by one girl who mysteriously spoke fluent English as "the food fell on the ground."

My favourite moment of the class was when a boy stood at attention, saluted me and called out across the room in Korean so formal that I had no idea what he'd just asked:

"Can I go to the bathroom?"

Friday, March 06, 2009

The signs of spring are all around us, and that can only mean one thing: I'm set to run yet another ill-fated marathon. Comment and guess my finishing time for next Sunday's race. Whoever guesses closest will receive a package of ddeok (it is a kind of Korean rice cake). The possibilities are anywhere from 2:03 to about 9 hours, though 3:05 to 3:20 is more likely.

Here are the particulars. This is by far the least I have trained for a marathon, I've put in five weeks of about 70k a week preceded by four weeks of dormancy, preceded by 6 weeks of 70-80k a week. I ran a 37:51 10k in November and I'm in similar shape now, though the clock at the 10k I ran Sunday read 41:24. I've had two 30k runs, and both have been very good, and the handful of 24k runs preceding that were even better. The Seoul course is flat (course record is 2:07). My goal is to beat my PB of 3:10. Failing that, I would like this to be the first marathon I run that does not end in a med tent.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Of all the strange things I've done in Korea, I never even dreamed of doing what I did last night. It was late at night and we were hungry. So, we got in our SUVs, the one I was in had a booming rap soundtrack, and drove to McDonald's. We, four Koreans and myself, hung out in the parking lot for a little bit before going in to eat, and then we loitered inside for a while. They were playing a collaboration between Jay-Z and Beyonce. The loitering came to an end when I realized that today was a school day and that it was almost 11 o'clock. Some things about my life will never change.