Monthly Archives: March 2010

And meanwhile back home…

All right aside from the Korea experience, my attention has been diverted back to Canada this week due to the ongoing political situation there.

This week doesn’t really contain any surprises as parliament resumes after Stephen Harper’s most recent prorogation, and by no surprises I mean the dawning realization that the prorogation was in fact just a weak-handed attempt to avoid accountability.

We know that Harper was empowered only by a Liberal scandal, since Canadians had consistently denied him of federal leadership until that point. We know that during that campaign, Harper championed the issue of “government accountability”, an issue that he has ironically dogged throughout his minority leadership, most notably through his latest prorogation. He has consistently shown contempt for the concept of transparent government on which he based his entire campaign. (more)

A politician who does an about-face on campaign promises is nothing new. It’s nothing less than we could have expected from Stephen Harper. But what bothers me most is what lies under the issue of the Afghan detainees that Harper has been so fervently trying to dodge.

Harper consistently uses the line “The Canadian Forces have conducted themselves with the highest performance of all countries,” as recently as this past Thursday. Every time the issue of the Afghan detainees comes to his door, he answers with the suggestion that anyone is blaming the Canadian military for being some kind of torture-mongers. The fact is that this is not at all the case.

What many Canadian want to really know is if Afghan detainees were handed over for torture, was this a matter of policy? The military serve the bidding of those in charge; that’s what they are trained to do. They’re not in Afghanistan because they wanted to go there. They went because at the time the Canadian government deployed them. The military acts as an arm of the Canadian government, and the issue of prisoner transfer is a matter of policy, not tactical whim. By suggesting anyone is blaming the Canadian Forces for being complicit in the torture of these detainees is a completely underhanded. Harper implies that if you want to know the truth about Afghan detainees, well then you must think that the Canadian military are wrong in what they have done. And by questioning the Canadian military, you undermine their mission and fail to support them in their work and morality. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

This type of politics tastes like the Bush-Cheney era, when you were “with us or you are with the terrorists”. If Canadians are inquisitive about what’s going on in Afghanistan, they somehow undermine morale in the Canadian military. What an utterly ridiculous claim.

If Afghan detainees were handed over for torture, it was a matter of policy set by the Harper government and dates perhaps as far back as the Liberal leadership. To suggest that the Canadian Forces are doing anything else is to deflect blame from Harper’s own policy onto the military. By defending the military, Harper is actually blaming the military for the charges at hand.

By holding the Canadian military up as some sort of patriotic shield against the larger issue at hand is the lowest form of politics. Harper has consistently side-stepped, obstructed, and denied the detainee torture issue from the outset, and now uses our military to hide behind Canada’s desire to get to the bottom of the issue by suggesting that Canadians are blaming them for possible war crimes.

As the issue progresses I hope we find out what was written in the heavily-redacted document first submitted by Richard Colvin. Whatever it is that Stephen Harper doesn’t want us to see should reveal a lot about his style of politics, further expose his true feelings about government transparency, reveal what his policies were on the issue of torture, and possibly even uncover evidence of war crimes at the highest level of government.

To suggest Stephen Harper is crusading to protect the integrity of the Canadian Armed Forces is ridiculous. He’s fighting to save his own party’s reputation, fighting a possible charge of contempt of Parliament, and he’s using our military to do it.

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Posted by on March 6, 2010 in Oh Canada


Part Two: Finally on Jeju Island

Part Two: And finally on Jeju Island

There were 19 of us from Canada, the United States, England, and Ireland. We were met in Seongnam by three representatives from the Jeju Ministry of Education, who brought us to the airport where we got aboard a domestic flight bound for Jeju Island. The tickets were 93,000 Korean Won (about 90 dollars Canadian) and all of us were relieved to find out that Korean Air was overlooking all of our luggage weight and dismissing any extra charges, which was so great since as all of us had brought everything we thought we needed. From the time we entered the airport to the time we were waiting on the tarmac for lift off was less than an hour.

Sadly, Jeju was overcast and rainy as we came in, and it’s been like that since we’ve been here. But it’s February, and I’ve heard all about this province’s early springs, incredible summers and late falls. Last weekend there was a gigantic annual fire festival, where they set an entire hill on fire and the Koreans roast the Japanese like marshmallows (just kidding. Sorry, Japanese friends.) Everything was waterlogged from the rain but the fireworks were said to be amazing. I hope we’ll get to see it next year.

We spent our first real day here trying to take care of getting settled in. We visited E-Mart, which turned out to be the Korean version of Wal-Mart meets The Bay meets Loblaws. There’s three levels and the top two are everything from shoes to electronics, and in the basement there’s a massive supermarket that has everything. Everything. Live king crab tanks to stocked liquor and a bakery. A pack of twenty live clams for about $1.50. Jeju’s local fare consists of seafood and tangerines.

I’ve never seen so many employees in one store before. There was literally two employees for every aisle, and about 2 dozen sample stations set up in the grocery store. But despite all the obvious differences in foods and language, the entire structure of it felt completely familiar. The whole store followed a very Westernized structure and feel, right down to many of the products. Nescafe, Sun Chips, Jack Daniels. Things were a bit overpriced by Korean standards, and often par or slightly cheaper than by Western standards. Notably cheaper were alcoholic items. A 26er of gin for $7? Uh oh. $1 for a bottle of soju? Weeee!

I haven’t experienced much of the culture shock everyone at the training sessions had warned me of, but we’ve only been out of their care for a few days. Well, I’m not sure it counts as culture shock but Maria didn’t take too well to her apartment. It’s small, but slightly larger than a dorm room. We’ve both been given a computer, a monitor, washing machine, and otherwise furnished apartment (even bed sheets though Maria’s are a poisonous shade of pink. Korean colours schemes are… different). Her apartment is also lacking the desired closet space, so we found her a portable clothes rack. Her shower is a also a showerhead over her bathroom sink. The showers here just spray out; there’s no set shower space. Your whole bathroom is your shower. In the case of my apartment, my washing machine is pretty much right in my shower. My apartment is bigger than Maria’s, but my TV is old and my computer monitor is about half the size of Maria’s LARGE HD TV, and mine doesn’t seem to work. I do have about three wardrobes and lots of space for clothes and storage, but only have a single stove burner and no oven. Maria is living large with two gas stove elements. Also, my fridge is slightly larger than a beer fridge, and hers is full sized and new, with the freezer on the bottom. And my bed is twice as big. So, I can kind of understand where she’s coming from, but we don’t even pay for the accommodation so hey! I just got lucky. I left poor Sophie behind because I anticipated my place would be even smaller than hers. (Will post pictures of the apartments soon.)

We live in the new city, 2 blocks apart.

I’m not sure why it turned out this way, but there was only one vacancy in my building so I likely just got lucky. Apparently my new boss is one of the women who came to Seongnam to meet us, and I will be working for the Korean Foreign Language Centre, which is different than the public schools. I have no co-teacher, it’s just me and several classes of about 16 students. I was told my job will be “somewhat difficult” since I will teach grades 1-3, 7-8, and advanced adults. Greeeat, give the guy with no experience the hard job. There are four Language Centres on the island – One in Jeju-Si where we live (the main city), one on the east side of the island, the west side, and the south side. Maria will be teaching elementary, grades 5 and 6. She didn’t like that idea two weeks ago, but after our training period and finding out what that entails I think she’s looking forward to it. It involved less preparation time since it follows a curriculum straight out of the text book. And Korean kids are so adoring, and so much fun, so she sounds pretty excited about it now. She will also be doing all of her work at one school, with two co-teachers, which makes things a little easier than having to travel to different schools. I will also be at one school, but my hours will be 9-6 on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, then 1pm to 10pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m being optimistic about it though, since I will have direct contact with high level administration and the possibilities could be good if I do well. Maria has also been offered an opportunity for extra hours on Saturday mornings, which she may take if transportation is provided (it’s a little bit outside of the city).

It’s hard to believe it’s been two weeks since I left BC, and a month ago that I was preparing to say farewell to my friends in Toronto. Because we had so much time to psychologically prepare ourselves for this experience it’s been going well so far, and I’m hoping it continues on this path. Right now I’m just waiting to settle in to my new apartment and get everything I need, then settle into the new job. It will take time to adapt to the new Korean lifestyle (which I love so far), and wait for the weather to get better.

More on Korean culture soon.

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Posted by on March 3, 2010 in Life Abroad


Some images

Hey I haven’t added a lot of images yet so here’s a few from our last couple of weeks. You can click on the images to see a larger version.

A Ceiling in the traditional Korean Village we visited

A walkway in the traditional Korean village.

Some traditional foods, again in the village.

Yay, stone milling!

At the art gallery, a Korean elder depicts a modern, less dignified youth.

At the ceramics museum we painted our own ceramics with watercolour.

It says "From Korea with love" but the colour didn't turn out so well in the end.

The traditional ovens where the ceramics are baked.

Across the street from where we stayed for our training at Eulju University.

Justin and Cassie-Ann, also teaching on Jeju.

Ubiquitous kimchi, and cake.

Dry cleaning is here!

Our kitchen staff looked like Super Mario servers!

All cleaned up and ready for work.

Maria and Junghee, one of our super sweet and cool group leaders.

And finally, Jeju Island. Palm trees outside of the airport.

Our first night in Jeju City, near the City Hall.

Bar snacks!

There are school uniform shops everywhere. Some typical ones.

What do all these buttons do?

A stone grandfather, one of many volcanic icons found around Jeju island.

NAM NAM NAM deep fried walnut bread, just like in Toronto's Korea town!

A typical orange stand. We were surprised to find the larger oranges selling for about $3 each. The local tangerines are cheaper.

Jeju Island is known for its oranges. There are trees everywhere.

In the grocery store you can get all kinds of prepared foods.

Mr. Crab is not impressed.

It's fun to read the packaging in the shops. Though for the most part it's not like this.

A traditional dinner. So spicey, soooo good!

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Posted by on March 3, 2010 in Life Abroad


Part One: Some Catching Up


If you’ve ever considered going overseas to teach, I tell you there is no easier way to take the plunge than by joining EPIK (English Program in Korea.) I don’t want to come off sounding like an ad for the program, but once we received news on what day to arrive, we never had to worry about a thing other than getting ourselves to Incheon airport. We paid for the tickets up front but will be reimbursed with our first pay, and once we arrived at the airport and went to the EPIK check in counter we had nothing more to worry about. They got us to our training site, accommodated us, fed us, and ran us through a week-long series of lectures. They gave us (what we hope is) everything we need to know about teaching in Korea through the week of lectures from Korean teachers, foreign teachers living in Korea, historians, and so on. Basic Korean lessons were provided, and we even had a cultural field trip. On our final day our MOE’s (Minister’s of Education from our designated regions) arrived to greet us and took us to our new locations. If anyone wanting to teach abroad ever had any hesitation about how they might set that new life up, I tell you EPIK is the way to go. You literally have nothing to worry about from the time you arrive in Korea to the time you go to your placement.

Enjoying a nice meal out after our field trip.

It gave us an immediate example of how serious Korea takes its English education program. Here is a country who rose out of complete destruction only 60 years ago to grow into one of the world’s leading economies. They have their eye on the future, and by pumping massive government funds into their English curriculum you can see how serious they also take their role on the global stage. There is a massive movement in Korea to learn English. Not only is it taught in the public school system, there are endless “Hogwans” – private schools, where Koreans can learn English outside of the school system. They have a television station dedicated strictly to teaching basic English. Their newspaper has a supplement to do the same. Their desire to grow is amazing, and it makes me feel for the first time that I live in a truly progressive culture. There are other factors lending to that as well.

Korea’s approach to energy consumption is a refreshing and inspiring new experience for us. Dark hallways lined with light sensors; as you walk down the hall, the lights turn on every few steps, reminding me of the Michael Jackson video “Billie Jean”. By the time you reach your door the lights behind you are already shutting themselves off in the same time that you came down the hall. Kitchens often have one element (and no oven), and gas-powered stand alone elements are extremely popular, available at most stores for less than twenty dollars. Things not in use are unplugged, street lights are seldom used (though the ambient light from the ubiquitous neon signs seem to do all of that), small, energy efficient appliances (what’s a clothes dryer? A bathtub?) and hot water heaters right next to the shower that can be shut off when not needed. As I mentioned earlier, Korea is a country with no oil or gas resources so they are extremely mindful of waste. What a stark contrast to Canada and what I see there.

More in a bit.

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Posted by on March 2, 2010 in Life Abroad