March 30, 2011

white out warzone...

Today was test day at my new school, and it wasn't pretty. The lazy day joys that once consumed test day have instead been replaced with a migraine, and shell shock. My current school employs the use of scantron sheets, or OMR cards as they call them. Normally these sheets don't create pain in the brain, but they are different from the scantrons I've used before.

First, the top of the sheet must be entirely filled out in pencil (unlike the name field I only filled out in High School). These sheets are customized, and have several fields that the kids can screw up, such as Korean name (they have to write in Korean) and class name (not the classroom they are in, the actual class name). I realize that it is not rocket science, but I'm giving these sheets to 6 and 7 year olds. I love them, but it doesn't take much to confuse them.

I originally scoffed when I was allotted 20 minutes to explain the cards to my students. It was brutal, horrible, and painstaking, nothing seemed to sink in. I can't blame these children, this was their first big test at the school, and their little hearts are usually stressed to the max anyways.I found myself explaining the top row for the first 20 minutes, the time flew as the kids asked question after question. At that point I wanted to rip my hair out, and I had yet to explain how to fill in the bubbles. The sad thing was that I walked into class knowing that would actually be the tough part, I thought the kids would understand how to write their names.

OMR cards differ greatly from scantrons when it comes to filling in the bubbles. Instead of the trusty No2 pencil I used as a child, this school employs the use of a specialized computah (computer in konglish) pen, and these pens are the devil. They have a very high smudge level, if such a level exists. To make matters worse, these OMR cards are sensitive to smudges, and detect the slightest hint of errant ink. Couple this with the fact that I'm dealing with humans, and like all people, children are susceptible to making mistakes; Wrong bubbles are accidentally filled in. With the use of these pens, the easy method of erasing and redoing (as with pencils), is replaced with students asking for me to white out the wrong answer EVERYTIME they mess up. I should also insert here that I'm horrible at using whiteout pens.

Out of the 65 OMR cards I've had turned in today fewer than a third are handed in clean (free from errors). The next third arrive at my desk with authentic battle damage, and randomly applied whiteout. The rest arrive almost unrecognizable. There is whiteout applied all over, and smudges smearing the pages like blood from a wound. Some even cards slip into the pile so damaged that I have no choice but to redo them during my next class, where I will have to deal with new questions, and new cries for whiteout.

I realize that the use of the OMR cards save me from having to mark 80 or so multiple choice tests, and I appreciate that. But I entered a warzone today armed with little, and not expecting the bloodbath that ensued. If I'm sure of anything I'm sure that I've added a few new grey hairs.

March 29, 2011


Baseball season has started in Korea. I made an attempt to go to a game last weekend, I planned out an entire day of American festivities. First, baseball followed by Mexican food and Canadian beer. The plan didn't unfold at all, as the game was cancelled due to a tiny amount of rain (

Fortunately there was another game this weekend, and another America day was launched. In this attempt the Mexican food was switched with an American buffet, and no rain fell from the clouds.

In toe with my new coworkers we arrived at the Olympic Sports Complex, seeking tickets. For most events in Korea you can stroll up the day of and purchase tickets. At first I found it shocking that most seats are general admission for sports, yet assigned when it came to the cinema. No matter how assbackwards that may appear, it is the way it is in Seoul.

Anywho, we strolled up to the ticket window to find it closed. The loud cheering emitting from the suggested that a game was being played. We all looked at each other with a confused look we wandered to find another booth. The next booth was also vacant, and yet people were walking into the stadium. Finally we decided to follow suit, and walk in till we were stopped.

Well that never happened, the main gates were unattended, and all employees were concerned about other matters. The baseball was free... well it wasn't entirely free, I paid 8,000 won for refreshments. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Only in Korea would there be free baseball, I feel that this country misses the boat on so many endeavours in which western businessmen would make a buck, and it's the people that benefit the most!

The 8,000 won was also not the price for a single beer. It was enough to buy me two, and a I topped that off with a big bag of potato chips. The Korean economic system doesn't seem to thrive off ripping everyone off, they appear to work on volume, sell as much as you can to everyone (this includes beer, and noisemakers!) You may enter any jealousy here, as baseball is the most interactive sporting experience, and it was free this weekend! The video I've attached shows the crowd during a pitching change. Cheerleaders are dancing, and people are pounding inflatable tubes.

March 16, 2011

dollar store merchants...

Even though I do not drive in Korea, I am still vulnerable to the same visual pollution that most people experience on highways and motorways. The subway is home to many ads as you are figuratively and literally a captive audience.

The' visual pollution' on subway cars is pretty basic, and rarely extreme. Although, I have seen some cars completely decked out, for example I have ridden on a car with a zoo animal theme, and another promoting Thai Tourism. While sometimes visually pleasing, most of the adverts are lost on me because I don't read Hangul (the korean written language).

Because of my inability to read, makes it very easy to block out the ads. However, what is not easy to screen out is a man walking down the subway yelling. There is a very special breed of salesmen who make their living hocking goods on the subway. If you ride the subway in Seoul during daytime hours, you will probably have encountered these individuals. Their screams are used to promote various and often random products, basically what you find in a dollar store.

Cheap gloves, mini flashlights, and plunging remedies are among the products on display. The biggest reason I compare them to dollar stores is the price and relative quality of what is being sold. I've yet to see a product for more than a chun (dollar) and I feel that they resemble products I receive in my stocking on Christmas morning.

I've come to respect these people, despite their loud rants. I think that this group of people make a decent living off selling these oddball products for two reasons. First off, the minimum wage in Korea is around $4/h, and this obscenely low wage would be easy to achieve if you sell at least 4, let's say 5 items an hour (5 to cover the cost of the products, to earn $4 profit). Secondly, the average time between subway stops is around 2 minutes, and it's rare that I don't see at least one stocking stuffer sell. At this rate these Koreans would earn far beyond the minimum wage, and it may well could be a way of life for some Koreans. Although it wouldn't be an easy way to make a buck, I respect these Asian entrepreneurs.

annoying or not, these vocal billboards mostly ignore weiguks. They don't frequently get in our faces because we aren't their main clientele. I find them to be an entertaining, and reoccurring reality while traveling on the Seoul Metro.

March 14, 2011


The weather in Seoul is starting to properly reflect a changing season, and spring was present in full force this past weekend. The weather alone was enough to coax me outside, and despite my inability to run, or jog, I went out Saturday afternoon to throw around a(n) (american) football.

I quickly realized how lame a participant I was, because coupled with my lack of running, came an inability to throw the ball. I've never been great at throwing a football, but I was embarrassed, it took me a while before I remembered I wasn't throwing a baseball. The other guys from work, both American, could throw the ball (spiralling) huge distances with relative ease.

It was this ease and distance that attracted the attention of several Korean High School students. These students were fascinated with my two coworkers. They were completing running plays with dazzling accuracy, as one jumping catch created a cheer team of energetic highschoolers. It didn't take long before this audience wanted to participate.

I can't imagine what they thought of this sport, as it is not a common sight at all in Korea. The only thing that comes to mind in comparison would be if I saw a group throwing around a boomerang. I've them before on TV and in stores, yet never actually tried one. There must be subtle nuances that I wouldn't understand, and people would find humour in my attempts.

The reason I mention this is because these highschoolers were hilarious to watch. Catching the ball created confusion, as footballs hurt if they are caught improperly. Yet through trial and error some of the kids got pretty decent. Throwing the ball was a different story. Some of the students were throwing the ball sideways, like a giant malformed baseball. The ball would lurch through the sky tumbling awkwardly like a plinko chip. One Korean student threw a perfect spiral on his first attempt, he was so clueless as to how he did it, he couldn't replicate the feat.

The highlight, in my mind, of the afternoon was their touchdown dances. One of my co-workers got them started on the idea, and had some dancing around the ball like fairies. One student spiked the ball after going down in an Asian squat. With spring (hopefully) just beginning I hope to bear witness to such events again. The kids were having a blast, and laughing along as they tried out this foreign sport.

I mostly wish that I too will be able to join in on the running plays, as my throwing abilities sincerely suck balls.

March 08, 2011

dieses ist Galbi...

Of all the Korean foods Galbi is the most popular. While there are many varieties of Galbi I have found two in particular that I enjoy more than any other, gal megi sal, and dak galbi.       

When it comes to traditional galbi, samgyeopsal, is the most popular amongst Koreans, personally I'm not the biggest fan. I prefer galmegisal, and there was a place by my old house that consistantly served great meat. I would frequent this place monthly, and last time around I finally remembered to snap a few photos.

First up, the uncooked meat, which is brought to the table (above left). along with the sides. At this place they bring Kadan Mari (egg souffle, pictured left), and lettuce, for wraps (below right). The peppers can be eaten raw, or they can be grilled on the BBQ alongside the meat (below left). Another popular item to girll is slices of garlic (not pictured).

Once you are given the heating element to the BBQ in the center of the table, you thrown the meat on and cook it.  The meat takes anywhere from 5-10 minutes to cook. A simple trick in flipping the meat is not to pick up the pieces one at a time. Simply roll the meat with the tongs along the grate, and you will look like a pro!

Dak Galbi is my favourite galbi to eat. Even moreso than galmegisal, I think the reason is because it is a great blend of flavours and textures. There are several components of Dak Galbi, and you can see several of them pictured (left). There are mushrooms, rice cake (chewy rice noodles), perilla leaves, sliced cabbage, scallions, chicken, and of course red pepper paste. All of these photos were taken at my favourite dak galbi place, which also happens to be near my old apartment. 
Once the ingredients are cut up and mixed together the whole dish is stir fried together. Dak galbi takes a while longer to make than regular old galbi. This is for several reasons, first and most importantly you don't want to eat undercooked chicken (pretty common sense). Secondly the whole dish cooks down quite a bit and the vegetables and rice cake soften up substantially.

Sitting and waiting for dak galbi can get frustrating if you are hungry right away (above right & left). However, the first thing to finish cooking are the rice cakes (pictured below left). The red pepper paste in the dish heavily seasons the cakes, and makes them quite spicy. 

A minute or so after the rice cakes have finished cooking the chicken, and rest of the meal is ready to be devoured. At this point of the meal you focus very little on the side dishes, and mostly gourge on the main dish.  Little warning though, dak galbi can be supremely spicy, and it is a spice that often times builds as you eat it.

I recently read a magazine article in which dak galbi was voted as the top Korean food by voters (see the whole list here). Considering my experience with the food, I whole heartedly agree. As does Corwin (below left).

March 04, 2011

teaching observations....

I started my first day at my new school on Wednesday, and I don't think there is nothing better than the first day butterflies. Simple decisions such as, What do I wear? and What time do i show up? become monumental as first impressions are everything (especially in an Asian workplace).

After a short kafuffle with cabbies I arrived at work eager to start my second year. I figured the day would be easy because I'd be observing the other teachers. I thought of these observations as very important, as I could learn the lay of the land. If I was sure of anything it would be that this school was going to be very different from my former school. Considering that I walked in with the knowledge I'd be observing classes, it removed most of the jitters, I knew I wouldn't have to stand clueless in front of a class.

Well that last paragraph was laden with foreshadowing (it was deliberate). When I walked in expecting not to teach, I was wrong. My school is currently undergoing a 'staff change' to word things lightly, and the Korean teacher that I was to observe quit that morning. So, I was then told to teach the classes I was supposed to observe. With that news my heart sank, and the small room started to slowly spin. Worry not, I didn't pass out, I think I was just trying to make this reality a dream.

The first classes start at 2:30 and it was 12:30, leaving two hours to cram. In that two hours I had to learn the ways of the magnet. For starters I didn't know what classes I was even teaching (it would take another half hour to learn that). While the room slowly stopped spinning I sat doe eyed and attempted to sponge up the information spewed my way. My day kind of blurred together after that, very similar to a night of heavy drinking.

Before I knew it, it was 9:30, time to vanish into the night, and back to my studio apartment. I walked out of my school a changed person. Not because I was thrown into the fire, and taught without training. But because of the students I taught. These students are fluent, I'd even go so far as to say they are better English speakers than many English speaking elementary students. Despite the rocky start, I think this year is going to be something special.

Interesting facts: 
  • In my new school I'm called Mr. Holdforth, and not Sean.
  • There are 1,665 stairs in the Eiffel Tower (A grade 2 student informed me of this fact). 
  •  Ace and Joseph can both be girls names (at least in korea)
  • I now teach a Tinkerbell, who is aparently a talented singer.
  • Most of my first grade students have Iphones.