Tuesday, March 30, 2010


When they put Mao on the US dollar bill, Americans can thank people like the ones below. They'll be eaten alive faster than General Tao eating his own chicken.

Book #3: Hot, Flat and Crowded

Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded is a thorough, thoughtful argument for the existence of an energy economy. Friedman argues that in the coming century, prosperity will be tied closely to the ability to produce clean, renewable sources of energy, as well as minimizing climate change and the use of existing dirty energy. In reading the book, Friedman's relentless optimism and unbridled corniness jockey for attention with the actual subject matter.

Friedman, who coins phrases like "my grandma back in Minnesota had a saying: never cede a century to a country that censors Google", is perhaps unique for a famous political commentator in that he tends to eschew cynicism and vitriol. Even when delivering an apocalyptic message, as he does in the first part of the book when discussing climate change, he manages to maintain his frequently irritating composure.

Much of the book doesn't say anything new, but what makes it interesting is how Friedman ties it to his well-known book, The World is Flat. As technology has increased competition for jobs in the West from countries such as China and India (producing a "flat" playing field), it has also produced millions of prospective new consumers, even billions, who can not manage to live in the way that we do. Combined with a growing population around the world, as well as the rapidly growing number living comfortably, the world will also get more crowded. The part about the world being hot is simple enough to understand.

The solution Friedman proposes is an urgent, high-priority drive to develop green energies. He predicts that whoever manages to get a jump start in this field will wield a great deal of power in the world in the 21st century. It's a convincing argument. American dominance of what Friedman terms the IT revolution enabled America to remain the world's most powerful country, while the importance of oil to the global economy has dramatically amplified the power of oil-exporting countries.

A running theme through this book, as well as The World is Flat, is the importance of innovation, as well as education. Funding for research and development in the area of energy is impossibly small given the size and importance of the area, as well as relative to other industries, which invest a great deal of money coming up with new products. Friedman repeatedly uses scare tactics (mainly about the Chinese) to scare his American readers into doing something about the matter.

The idea of investing in a green economy is a personal favourite of mine because they can replace the high-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs that were so important to Canada and America in the twentieth century. Those jobs have since gone elsewhere, but without such jobs, the only alternatives are for everyone to go to university and become a lawyer, or for some people to make $100,000 a year and for others to make $10 per hour.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

All foreigners rook arike; Dr. Donut

Two things have happened so far today that contrast the neat, precise germophobic upside of this country with its easygoing, freewheeling side that I wouldn't quite call a downside, but it probably doesn't make its way to the tourism office.

In the morning, I went to buy some donuts from a chain called Mr. Donut. Mr. Donut, unlike our True Patriot Lover Tim Hortons, has a six-foot tall sign informing customers that all their donuts are made at the store. The selection wasn't all I had hoped for, and the prices were higher than at the Dunkin' Donuts down the street, but I was alone in the spotless, gleaming shop, under the glare of the lights and the two employees behind the counter who hadn't hesitated in shouting "welcome!" at the top of their lungs when I walked in.

I chose a couple of plain donuts and a chocolate donut. In Korea, you self-serve your donuts onto a tray and take them to the cashier. With the precision of a surgeon and a general that could only be rivaled by the Soup Nazi, my donuts were removed from the tray, put into a paper bag, which was creased better than most pants I own, and taped at the top. When the general-cum-manager was putting a napkin in the bag, it fell onto the spotless counter. He promptly replaced it with a new one, and the offender was snatched up the by the subordinate cashier, never to be seen again.

After breakfast, I was out running when a van driving next to me slowed down and I saw a boy poke his head out the window. I took out my earphones to hear him yell "hello teacher!" In my confusion, I gave him a half-hearted wave, which probably didn't look too kind. In my defense, I'm pretty sure that I've never seen that boy before.

After thinking about it, I came up with three possibilities. First, that is one of my students. I think it's the least likely, but the van did slow down just so he could say hi to me. Second, he's not one of my students, but he goes to my school since he was too big to be in grade 1, but too small to be in grade 5. The third possibility is the funniest and the worst. That boy really wanted to say hi to a foreigner, or he mistook me for some other foreigner, since we all do look the same.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Just desserts

A Whopper with cheese combo at Burger King has 1200 calories. That means the processed food in the burger, designed to break up so easily in your mouth, and the liquid calories in the Coke, are the equivalent of a dozen bananas. It's also most of a day's worth of food, but I'm more amazed by what else you can get for 1200 calories.

Leaving aside my dad, who claims he was eating bananas by the bunch in the '70s, the ratio of people who can eat a 1200-calorie fast food combo to the number of people who can eat a dozen bananas must be alarmingly high. Far more effective than posting an arbitrary three-digit number on a neon menu that only makes sense to compulsive dieters and maybe also compulsive eaters like myself, would be a visual of how many bananas are equivalent to the meal. The Whopper with cheese combo would be depicted by 12 bananas, a can of Coke would be depicted by 1.5 bananas, and so on.

Of course, in my case, I was entitled to move one step closer to the grave. I had just run a marathon, which had moved me two steps away, and there are precisely three places to eat at the Olympic complex in Seoul: Burger King, KFC and a GS25 convenience store. Knowing the kind of fried chicken you can get here, which is to say so good that you can't even imagine, and having already eaten at GS25 earlier today, the Burger King was the obvious option.

I skipped dinner and went straight for the extended late night snack: about a pound of rice, a large cup of instant noodles and a litre of apple juice. This is the sort of freak show they should feature on marathon telecasts, not some middle-aged librarian who decided to run a marathon in honour of Crohn's disease while carrying a placard with political manifesto around her neck.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

If the world won't come to China, China will come to the world

I went out this morning at 10 to find the mean streets of Seoul dark and gloomy, the way they might be if they outlawed shiny suits and sweet potatoes. Pictures couldn't do the whole thing justice, but basically the sky looked like the sun had set an hour ago and total darkness was just moments away. Eventually things cleared up, but a sandstorm continued blowing across the country. Last year, cars everywhere just looked a little dirty, so this year's attempt to block out the sun seems really over the top.

This is what you get, I suppose, with an increasingly powerful China. First they cheated in gymnastics, and now this. These dust storms, called yellow dust, originate from the Gobi desert in China (and also, to be fair, Mongolia). Koreans who otherwise smoke a pack a day, drink heavily and never exercise will do what they can to avoid breathing outside, including wearing surgical masks, breathing through paper, cloth and even sharing a scarf between friends.

Warnings were issued here and in parts of China urging people to not go outside due to the sandstorms, which are expected to subside Monday. In China's Shandong province, visibility was reduced to 500 metres. Referring to this dust by its colour seems to evoke the days of the Yellow Peril, or when Mr. Burns' grandfather dismissed "the Japanese" as "those sandal-wearing goldfish tenders" when warned that "the Japanese will eat us alive". Then again, even the night sky has a weird yellowish-gray quality to it, so there's something to it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rome, rebuilt in a day

Kyung Hee University has two campuses. One is close to me in Seoul, the other is close to where I lived last year in the suburb of Suwon. The Suwon campus evokes the concrete grandeur of Pyongyang and the imperial pomp of Rome with its vast concrete squares, elaborately constructed library, massive amphitheatre and imperial gate.

The Seoul campus has the gate, as well as replicas of Paris' Notre Dame, a European parliament building or two, and a few post-apocalyptic replicas of the Coliseum that appear to function as sports fields.

These Coliseums are have imposing concrete rows and a dirt field that's frozen mud right now. In the morning, soccer games there look like death matches between middle-aged men, only without any audience. I was running through there last night in slightly worse conditions. There was a small crowd sitting in the stands at midfield.

Snow was falling and the soccer game was inspiring militant chants from the participants and the crowd. In the corner, a group of students were slowly moving clockwise in a circle, chanting and banging drums as they went. Both noises were trapped in the bowl dug into the earth, and the rows of parked cars ringing the frozen dirt field shifted the scene from ancient Rome to some post-apocalyptic Coliseum with a monster truck rally.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

But who will teach the teachers?

Today I had the pleasure of introducing myself to 36 grade 1 students with varying levels of English. The homeroom teacher introduced herself and, after the seemingly requisite apology for not speaking English very well, stuck around to watch the class from the back. I gave out 40 slips of paper for a true and false quiz.

When I passed by her, I saw that she had found herself a comfortable spot with the paper and one of those electronic dictionaries that many people here like to carry around. If you've ever wondered, for example, about the Chinese characters that form the etymology for the word recycling in Korean, you might want to get one of these things.

On the back of the slip was a reading passage used by grade 5 or 6 students. She was taking the liberty of reading it and translating it into Korean with the aid of the dictionary, taking special note of any unfamiliar words. She gave me an English name but apparently she doesn't use it very often because when I called to her from the front of the room to help explain something, it didn't even register on her radar.

Another homeroom teacher, a soft-spoken man who plays an acoustic guitar in class, sometimes sticks around to watch me teach. In between doing his own work, he'll pop up his head when I write an unfamiliar word on the board. My favourite moment was when he interrupted a lesson just to ask me what the word sibling meant.

Whether it's for perceived personal gain or the lingering Confucian tradition, Koreans love to learn well into adulthood. When I visited an elderly man in the hospital after I saw him getting hit by a truck, I saw that he spent his spare time making and memorizing a list of English words with Greek roots. When I can be bothered, sometimes I'll watch public television station that functions as a free tutoring service for the non-wealthy, and catch a show where middle-aged people learn to speak Chinese.

Not only do I love the obsessive learning, but I also love learning from ad hoc sources, so translating scrap paper is right up my alley. A great deal of the Korean I learned comes from reading signs: don't park here, we will deliver even one chicken, beware of mountain fires, walk on the right. Other bits and pieces come from reading notices sent home to parents, food packages and the grand slogans on tiny storefronts.

Friday, March 12, 2010

There has to be a better use for paper

The Korean newspaper that I look to for information is the Chosun Ilbo, though you could just as easily choose one of the other major newspapers in Korea (Dong-A Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, Hankyoreh). What amazes me about the Korean English-language media is its complete disconnect with Korea. If you read one of those newspapers in Korean, you'll get a sense of what the major issues are in Korea.

For example, on the Chosun Ilbo's website right now, you will see about a dozen stories about the murder of a middle school student in Busan and the subsequent manhunt and arrest of her killer. Then, there are a couple of article about politician Park Geun-Hye, North Korea and various international issues.

In English, you'll get a bunch of stories about the planned 2012 handover of control over US troops in Korea to Korean command. There are articles headlined "Global Businesses Exit Japan", "Number of Korean Billionaires Nearly Triples" and various miscellaneous topics.

Now, the Chosun Ilbo is just one newspaper, and the English edition is online-only, so let's look at the Dong-A Ilbo, which goes from reporting about the major stories to a miscellaneous collection of stories discussing the aftermath of the Busan rape and murder, a picture of aid going to North Korea, an article about the debt of the Land Housing Corporation and a North Korean financier in Switzerland leaving the country.

This, too, is online-only, so let's look at the English-language newspapers that have no purpose but to write in English. The list of headlines at the Korea Times is "Allies Ready to Remove N. Korean Nukes", "Seoul Needs Romantic 'Storytelling' to Be Attractive City", "Arrest Warrant Sought for Busan Murder Suspect", "Korea, Denmark Agree to Boost Partnership", and so on. The articles at the Korea Herald are better, at least right now.

Often, reading an English-language newspaper in Korea is a cross between reading an introductory and a promotional brochure for Korea. That's why I'd rather muddle through a Korean newspaper that I barely understand than read about Korea's improved ranking in some survey, or some other asinine projection, prediction or analysis that isn't news so much as it is boosterism.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sneouled in

About four inches of snow fell all of a sudden last night, at a time when the first cherry blossoms are imminent. The amazing view of the mountains from the upper floors of my school was obscured due to the falling snow and then the fog, but I got some pictures of the wet snow clumped on trees and buildings.

Monday, March 08, 2010

It ain't no Hallaback, girl

The best plans are the most sudden ones. I've always enjoyed taking trips if for no other reason than the fact that I have the time and the (limited) money they take. If it's a strange trip, even better. That's why I agreed to a 39-hour trip to and from Jeju-do, which was scheduled with the precision and controlled panic of a military operation. We started on time, finished on time, received a $30 discount, as well as the one water bottle and lunchbox of Chinese food that we were promised.

Jeju is a large island southwest of Korea, large relative to the size of Korea. At its centre is the 6,000-foot Hallasan, a long-dormant volcano that is the tallest mountain in South Korea. This trip was actually a group tour that left the Seoul area Friday night, arriving in Jeju Saturday morning after a 14-hour boat ride. Then, we were to take a tour bus to the mountain, climb it, get back on the bus, get on a ferry and come right back. As far as impressions go, it was a bit like Vertical Limit combined with Titanic for the traumatized and muddy masses huddling aboard a massive ship.

Friday night aboard the ship was one of the weirdest nights of my life. If you consider that I was taking a lengthy boat ride just go climb a mountain and come right back, it was odd enough. Our quarters on the ferry was a large, empty room that accomodated maybe 20-30 people who brought their own picnics. Just as I was explaining to my friend that the men next to us would have offered us their sashimi if we had all been foreign, we were offered some sashimi.

We took it, but that meant my presence and existence had to be accounted for. After the basics, I threw everyone for a loop by not drinking, because they simply refused to take no for an answer. I must have made an impression, because after a half hour of conversation, one of them placed one hand over his heart and formally introduced himself with a handshake.

His friend would later make a complete ass out of himself by passing out due to inebriation and then committing several acts of sexual harrassment against my person. But, before all that was the TV interview I gave on the chilly deck of the ferry, the all-women's arm wrestling championship that made liberal use of the Rocky theme, the live music put on by a guitarist named Mr. Romance and the fireworks show that degenerated into a middle-aged night club, with nothing but high-quality hiking gear and one alarmingly tight jump suit on a 50-something woman.

After all that, the climb up Hallasan was mild and uneventful. Though it's the highest mountain in Korea, it slopes very gently, with nothing but wooden stairs and somewhat steep sections of conveniently-placed rocks. The biggest challenge was negotiating the simultaneously muddy and icy portions of the mountain. I can't say I've ever been anywhere else that had six-inch-deep mud and foot-deep snow on the same day.

Owing to its size, Hallasan requires 19 km of walking, which we did in a leisurely 7 hours. The view at the top would probably be spectacular if not for the rain that fell all day, making the summit shrouded in gray clouds and sideways mist. The natural scenery is spectacular, with many portions crossing over small streams that have been forged through giant alleys of boulders.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Marvelous Mr. Maybe

For whatever reason, I was told to go by my first name with students at the private schools where I've worked in the past. At this private school that's sort of public, I thought I'd make a clean break and go by my last name since, well, no one ever actually combines your first name with an honourific, with the possible exception of Richard Lionheart.

I was leery at first, even though it's relatively easy to pronounce for Koreans since there are no consonant clusters. That's because it translates roughly to "maybe". Combined with my first name, which sounds like "son", it's a great way of making kids laugh.

But, it went over well and now I get to teach in one of these imposing Korean public schools where each classroom has a large LCD TV but the playground is a well-groomed dirt lot that sometimes gets used for parking. The entire setup is very regimented and teaching here is a little bit like being an army officer directing around fresh young recruits.

The first morning, all the new teachers were asked to stand in the auditorium in front of all the new students, who stood in neat rows and snapped into attention when ordered to do so. Instead of crisp salutes from the students, the teachers gave deep bows instead, but the message and the intention were more or less the same.

Sometimes when I pace around the classroom listening to my students offer suggestions on reducing pollution (that one student defined pollution simply as "Seoul" is a problem), I look out the window and see matching tracksuit-clad gym students jogging around the playground with sagging form. When the rain came, I thought that it couldn't possibly dampen their spirit, or at least their spirit would not allowed to be dampened, but I was wrong. They screeched as the drizzle fell and ran into the nearest door they could find.

To anyone who caught the somewhat veiled Wes Anderson reference in the subject, send me your address to receive a free AWYHIGTC T-shirt.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Silence is golden, ignorance is bliss (but chilly)

I'm a big fan of watching sports without broadcasting. You might not learn the tragic life story of some guy's mother, but you'll probably enjoy the game more. I tried out this philosophy on the weekend, which was another weekend where I followed a few Koreans around the country, this time down the west coast.

We went to Osan, Jeonju, Gunsan and Ocheon. Seen on the way were Asan, Ansan, Iksan, and Oksan, proving that if you can name a consonant and suffix it with 'san', you can name a Korean city. The trip was often a tour of underwhelming delights, such as the first bakery in Korea, a tax office built by the Japanese in European architecture, and what was apparently a 100-kilometre detour just to go eat a $5 bowl of noodles in a tiny cave.

I try and be accepting of the Korean style of making decisions for other people (e.g. "we're having bean sprout soup for breakfast"), but sometimes a desire to make conversation leads me to ask questions like "where are we going?" and "why are we here?" The answers, like the destinations, were often underwhelming.

I considered what would happen if I stopped asking questions and just let the trip happen to me. It would mean that we spent about 15-20 minutes walking along a frosty harbour in a small town looking at buckets and tanks of fish and other marine creatures for no apparent reason. I guess it could have been, like at the bakery, that someone wanted to buy something for their parents, but a box of biscuits is a much better gift than freshly sliced fish.

By turning off the subtitles and the commentary on the trip, the entire weekend had the absurdity and failed poignance of a Wes Anderson movie. I suppose that leaves the question of how I still managed to enjoy myself, unlike a Wes Anderson movie, which drags on and on in a sequence of scenes that are supposed to be funny, but occupy that unfortunate space in which objects lack both gravity and humour, like a paint store or a seminar on nutrition for yoga enthusiasts.