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Saturday, 30 May 2009

A Few Thoughts on North Korea

If you care to know what is going on in the world, then you know that North Korea (NK) recently tested a second nuclear weapon and has been shooting off a bunch of missles in related tests. NK also said it will no longer abide by the terms of the truce that ended the Korean War, and condemned South Korea for agreeing last week (in response to the 2nd nuclear test) for joining the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at interdicting ships trafficking weapons of mass destruction. It was reported this weekend that up to 180 Chinese ships fishing (mostly illegally) near the western sea border between the two Koreas (which NK disputes) fled back home, and NK is showing potential signs of getting ready to test yet another missle. Things are looking grim.

Some people have asked me about things here, given the NK threats, and it is a bit strange. South Korea (SK) has been deeply engaged in mourning the death (by suicide) of its ex-president (involved in a money scandal), and that consumed the national news here. Yet the NK situation is still there, and looks unlikely to disappear from the news.

And, from my personal perspective, it shouldn't. NK has used threats, blustering, and numerous illegal acts (counterfeiting, kidnapping, drug-running, terrorism, assination plots, etc.) over the past decades to achieve short-term financial gain and world support for its impoverished country. Their actions have worked. Of all the countries whose citizens and interests have been threatened, only Japan has really shown the willingness to stand up and say "No."

The world failed to stop a dangerous regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, and has shown an unwillingness to face the inevitable: there will be some type of showdown, and until it happens NK will not stop.

I am reminded of teaching children. They test you and test you, and if you do not establish limits they will continue to do so. North Korea has been acting, for all intents and purposes, like a big baby, but the potential stakes are, of course, much more serious.

NK is reported to be preparing to launch an ICBM. It has also been reported for most of the past year that Kim Jong-il is in ill health. It seems to me that he may be thinking about his "legacy", and one of the few options available to him (since he can't very well open up his numerous concentration camps and proclaim himdelf a 'liberator') is to make his mark on the world in a very violent way.

That is what is so scary. That and the fact that there is no real growth outlook for North Korea. They can't (as India) look to dominate the world through population and customer service, they don't have the potential of the potential (as China) of manipulating the U.S. financial market or hacking into its computer systems . . . they have no forward plan. Excuse the expression, but they are like Myanmar on steroids.

Living in South Korea is extremely safe on a daily basis; there is virtually no crime here, other than the white-collar variety (that did the former president in). Yet having a neighbor such as North Korea does certainly prey on one's mind.

For some additional insight, got to and 'search' for "north korea".

My Baby "Garden"

I planted some basil seeds a few weeks ago, re-using a plastic water bottle, and they are coming along nicely. I've already thinned them out once, and will need to transplant soon. Today I bought two baby plants, one of which (rosemary--the thin-leafed one) I look forward to using in my cooking (in addition to the basil, though I think that will be a ways off. I also planted some cilantro seeds at the same time as the basil, but they have failed to appear, so I put some more seeds in at different depths).

Saturday, 23 May 2009

This is a Seoul satellite city and growing, and this is what Korea does . . . constructing new apartment buidings 'en masse'. I had never seen such projects before I came to Korea, but now it seems commonplace, though only a little bit less startling. To plan and build multiple apartment high-rises (and all of the accompanying facilities)--wow! Not entirely good, in my mind (all of the concrete), yet still impressive . . .

Canine Pal

I'm dogsitting this weekend for a co-worker . . . she's cute, isn't she? And you can hold her in one hand!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Medical Checks: "Rural" vs. Urban

I went and got my medical check today.

Perhaps I should provide some background first.

About 2 years ago, it was discovered that an American teacher in southeast asia (Thailand, I believe) was a primary suspect in a sexual molestation case in the U.S. It was subsequently discovered by the Korean government that this teacher had previously taught English in South Korea. Also, at around the same time, several cases of English teachers being arrested for illegal drug use (especially marijuana) in Korea received widespread national news coverage here.

So, in what was widely viwed by the foreign English-teaching community here (numbers vary, but maybe 10,000+) as a knee-jerk reaction, the Korean authorities decided to institute both criminal background check and medical testing requirements for English teachers on E-2 visas.

Last year, when I worked in a small city (app. 130,000), I was required to get a medical check for the first time. I went to a hospital, had a 2-minute chat with a doctor, and was given urine and blood tests (HIV, TB, drugs).

Today was a bit different. I am now living in the Seoul area ( 10 million +), so I wasn't too surprised, but the testing was definitely quite a bit more thorough.

This was the process:

*Initial blood pressure test

*Hearing test

*Height/Weight check

*Vision test

*Urine test

*Blood test

*Chest x-ray

*Final blood pressure test

Whereas before the hospital simply mailed the results, this time I have to return (no big effort as the hospital is two blocks from the school) with two passport photos to retrieve my results.

Maybe I should be relieved that they are more thorough here, since, in the case of an emergency, such might translate (no, not literally) into better care.

Yet, since they are essentially looking for a reason to kick me out of the country, it makes me wonder if they could turn up something I am not aware of; then again, that could be a good thing.

Oh well, I'll just have to wait for a few days to find out.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Ride into Town

Here are a few pics of the "subway" . . . out where I'm at, Seoul suburb and all, the rail rises above ground. As you can see, I get off at an elevated station. (There's a department store and a grocery store, along with other shops, in that station building.) Some of the stations in Seoul proper are a ways down and it takes several escalators to get to the surface (they remind me of the Dupont Circle metro station in DC, though I've yet to see a single escalator that long/high anywhere else).

Goin' to Market

A co-worker at my new school was nice enough to take a walk and show me how to get to the closest market. It's about a 15-20 minute walk. (The last pic is the front entrance.) I do plenty of shopping at grocery stores in Korea, but--as you might expect--most of the food in market areas is both cheaper and fresher. Tomatoes and lettuce are two of the things I like to buy from locals . . . and that's another thing--I'd much rather give my money directly to the people who grow/make the food rather than to some large supermarket chain.

Anyway, this one is similar to the others I have shopped at, except that the stalls are mixed; instead of most of the produce being grouped together, and then the seafood, and the ready-to-eat stuff, I saw one followed by the other in some seemingly random order. In a way it makes it more interesting though. Also, this market area, while not huge, is covered. That's a plus.
We saw three kids from our school with their mom as well as a basket full of chickens' feet. Both were market firsts for me. So was the dog carcass (skinned) at the butcher's stall. I avoided taking that picture. I've eaten it (once), but don't feel the need to have the pre-meal image.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

The Nice Class

When I started teaching at my new school last week I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew that I would have roughly the same age groups--elementary and middle school--that I have had in the past, but beyond that my knowledge was cloudy.

Looking back on my first week, the classes I taught were good: well-behaved, higher English skill levels than I am used to, and interesting. I had several classes that were quite enjoyable, in that the students were eager and vocal. This might not seem surprising to some, but think that these kids come from a full day at school; last week was hot (28 C), so their bodies and minds were also adjusting to the seasonal weather.

Overall, I was impressed, which made me happy. Good kids = good classes. Stands to reason.

One class, over all the others, imprinted itself on my mind. It only had three young elementary students. The lesson was partly about practicing the qualifier "some" (as in "not all" or "not every") and so I asked them what foods and animals they like, assuming I they would say "I don't like this . . . and "I don't like that . . ." But the two girls insisted that they liked all foods and all animals. Even bats and hippos are cute, they asserted. They were so sweet and such good students. They hugged me at the end of the class, which is a bit unusual. Wow! Unfortunately I only get to teach them on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I look forward to week 2 . . .

Natural Animals [sic]

Something that was said to me about animals this weekend triggered a thought. When I was in graduate school I moved into an apartment that bordered the university campus. A tree-lined fence served as the border. One day I saw a not unfamiliar sight: a big bird was beating up on little birds. A large crow was antagonizing a bunch of little sparrows, annoying them mercilessly. Then, suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the sparrows, tiny as they were, turned on the crow and pecked it to death. It was over in a second or two. Stunned, I wondered at the viciousness of the sparrows, but quickly decided that they had only been protecting themselves. Still, it was a moment in nature that was powerful , perhaps for its spontaneity.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Microwave Rice

A few years ago some students told me that microwave rice was good, and I was quite shocked. First, I did not even know that such a food product existed in Korea, and, second, I immediately thought that no self-respecting Korean would eat such a thing. Rice cookers (simple kitchen machines that steam rice) are so ubiquitous here and fresh rice is such a standard part of meals (often 3 a day) that it seems like a crazy adventure into the "fast food" world to consume microwave rice.

So I gave it no more thought.

Until last week, when I discovered that my new apartment has a microwave, my first such machine in Korea.

Right away I remembered the past conversation, and so I bought some microwave rice to try.

Rating: damn good.

I was shocked once again, but I guess that in a rice-consuming nation if you are going to put out an "instant-rice" product then it has to be good.

I tend to think that microwaves are not natural and therefore that I should not use them much, but, dammit, they are so convenient. And rice cookers can be messy and take time to clean.

So, pop a rice package in for 1 and 1/2 minutes, toss some kimchi on top, and there is breakfast . . .

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Feels Like a New Beginning

Aside from the fact that it is sunny and warm out, it feels like the beginning of a new year. I'm in a new location in South Korea, and tomorrow will begin teaching at a new academy. This time, instead of being the only foreign teacher, I will be working with two other native speakers and several Korean teachers. One of my employers is a foreigner, and both of them are committed to providing a sound educational environment. I wish I had found this place last year, though I am content to be here now.

My living environment is also very different, and some aspects of it will take some getting used to. I will post some pics later, but today just want to note feelings (as visual images often draw too much attention).

I am living in a large/tall (18 story) apartment building, in an efficiency-style apartment. It is comfortable, and is really not such a big change. What is profoundly different is the atmosphere outside. My old apartments in Korea were in smaller cities, whereas I am now living in a Seoul "satellite" city (essentially a new suburb, purposely built, connected by one of the subway lines). My old apt.s were in neighborhood areas, whereas now I step out into a metropolitan pedestrian area.

I think it will take some time to get used to the crowds of people. There are many restaurants, bars, shops, etc. in this area; I am essentially living in the center of a crowd of high-rise apartment buildings, and many of the people from those buildings come to this central area to eat, drink, and shop. One indicator is that my building has 7 (yes, seven) basement levels of parking (I'm not sure how big each level is, but still . . .).