Archive for November, 2010

so first is first. im not an american. nor am i that much of a vegan.  however, i foolishly have this deep belief that if you combine two things that are fiction…they sometimes become fact (or something along those lines). this theory has been proven successful in the past when at one time, i mistakenly considered myself an educated social worker.  

if the night of the almost vegan almost american thanksgiving dinner was any indication, the okpo factor remains completely unaffected by the “activities” (again, heightened strife) that is taking place with the USS George Washington. who knows what kind of media paranoia is being brewed up by those trusted “frontline” outlets on the other side of the globe but here in the ‘po, it’s all gravy (of the animal-free variety, of course).

as pals passed around the maple syrup (completely unrelated to thanksgiving…or america for that matter, but by all means, still essential to any harvest-related meal), you would never believe that south korea is “inching closer to the brink of war” (as reported by CBC in canada) or that the artillery attack “is a dangerous provocation that must be condemed”  (as reported by the japan times). but if the recent flood of emails from distance relatives is taken as evidence, international media is still doing its part to toss around as many war-laden terms as possible in its 30-second segment on asian news.


as for me, i’m keeping my news intake local, just like my almost vegan almost american thanksgiving dinner.


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“learn to live with”

the north korean border is roughly 530 kilometers from the okpo factor. geographically speaking, this means that the factor is one of the southernest tips of the country and perhaps if you were to travel any farther south, you would probably end up in the middle of the yellow sea (and who knows how dangerous those unclaimed waters can be). 
now before i go on, perhaps some disclaimer is in order. my opinions may very well change when k-town (with the urging of the powerful hybrid, Obama-Japan) releases a series of drills on Saturday involving a 97,000 ton nuclear-powered carrier into the west sea. but for now, the spat between k-town and our neighbours to the north has been a great topic of discussion with the myriad of koreans I communicate with on a daily basis. from the wazoo of 6th graders, to our tactless director, to my favourite coffee barista (who prefers to talk about the unavailability of soymilk but whatever), k-towners certainly agree that the “activities” of our northern neighbours have been above all, childish at best. as a glass-half full (hopefully of soy milk) kind of esl teacher , these “activities” (“activities” being the preferred descriptor, it’s conflict-free and easy to pronounce… win-win) have also served as a learning opportunity for new words like “censorship,” “famine,” and “anxiety.” words that may not have even made their way into a korean 12 years old vocabulary until years later (or never if we’re talking about words like “firing” and “artillery.” those “r” and “l” sounds are darn tricky).
one awkward conversation with an adult student led to us discussing the term “learn to live with it.” i insisted that this may not be the best term to use during times of heightened strife (my preferred descriptor) but is more of a stage of acceptance for coping with things like cancer, a bad hair cut, or a noisy landlord who lives above you and invites every single person in okpo over to her house on thursday evenings to listen to her sing her own rendition of kid rock and sheryl crow’s picture. yes, these are the things you “learn to live with.”
as we discussed n.k’s antics further, dedicated adult-class-attendee #1 insisted that s.k. has “learned to live with” n.k.’s aggressive and provoking attitude, in addition to their refusal to have any sort of actual dialogue with their south korean counterpart. he showed just enough compassion to this stubborn country that i didn’t feel it necessary to point out his misuse of “learn to live with it” (or maybe it wasn’t misuse and if that is the case, i may have met the most poetic korean ever. and he attends my class). 
of course my first reactions were altruistic in nature (everyone should seek refuge in okpo) but then they quickly turned selfish. in just over one week’s time, tb and i will be trogging over to beijing for a handful of days. china’s stance on these activities (slash heightened strife) is a little unclear right now. the chinese embassy also may still have my passport.
but right now, these are not the matters at hand.
being a registered alien in a foreign country on the potential escalation of military tensions and deployment of nuclear-carriers (without a passport, mind you) is just something I will have to learn to live with.

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anytime you move somewhere, (be it across the street, across the country, or even across the world), you want to find commonalities in places where they may not even exist.
commercial dr. in vancouver is just like kensington market in toronto.

 markham st. is just the same, even 6 houses north.
the okpo factor is just like….well, it’s actually in its entirely own playing field.
ANYWAY, i s’pose sometimes people have this innate need to find similarities within and consequently, throughout their life. i s’pose this is what makes us feel comfortable in places where we are completely removed from our own comfort zone. your mind may think, “hey self, if you did okay in kensington…you will probably do just as well (and fingers crossed…even better), on commercial dr. ”
now don’t get me wrong, i am certainly aware that moving from one hipster-concentrated compound to another is really not that far removed from one’s usual level of comfort. but sometimes you find yourself searching as hard as you can for similarities in places and inevitably, come up empty-handed (and undoubtedly upset that you can’t get the same brunch on commercial that you could in kensington). 
and with that long-winded nostalgic intro, such was the case with the g20 summit in seoul as i attempted to find a string of similarities where they did not exist….. all for the sake of feeling comfortable.

(as if a weekend of protests, citizen congestion, and general police vs. public aggression would make me feel comfortable. but we all have different ways of processing feelings of homesick okay?  no need to judge.) 


without rehashing the hashy details of that b-a-n-a-n-a-s weekend in toronto, the g20 was definitely my most unexpected event of the summer (however, it should be noted that flava flav’s unannounced set at the sasquatch festival comes in at a very close second).

 it certainly made me question a whackload of the people who make decisions about the everyday happenings on earth and the seemingly impossible feats that these decision-makers make so easily feasible …including toronto’s  apparently “easy” task of spending $857 million during the 3-day circus. (for some budgetary perspective, that’s just $3 million shy of vancouver’s expenses for a 2-week multi-sport international best-time-of-my-life frenzy).  (the latter was also a circus of sorts but had waaay more winter ale, and for the record, a more impressive band line-up). 

i vicariously felt the injustice of all those detained throughout the weekend in toronto and was almost pleased to have a policeman order me to pull over my bike and examine my backpack of weekend contents on the corner of yonge and king by himself and his buddies.

if only for the pleasure that this could be my own grounds for a political tirade. and if that failed, i knew i could just embellish this story to my parents… just to see the look on their faces when they begin to think that they raised a brick-throwing anarchist for a daughter.

i had no real expectations of the g20 summit in seoul. perhaps i was just assuming that i would walk out of seoul station and get hit square in the forehead by something (let’s just assume that it would most likely be a brick). with hoards of black bloc members ready and willing to destroy every starbucks in their path. 

 but other than this woman trying to light herself on fire, the seoul summit could not be substantially compared to that of toronto.

well, why the eff not?

for starters, seoul was able to learn from the mistakes of their beaver buddies. and instead of viewing the g20 as an excuse to spend those extras cash-dollars on fancy rooms at the hyatt, south korea saw the weekend as an opportunity to embrace patriotism as “the first asian country to host the summit.”  

presumably (and from a non-seouler’s perspective), overly-crowded urban life went on as usual. there were no bike rallies outside of detention centres. there were no unwarranted arrests for carrying around a suspicious amount of plastic bags. and there were no policemen pulling me over to look through my well-stocked backpack.

(and good thing, because who knows what those korean cops would think of a foreigner yielding a backpack full of dirty black scarves and anti-globalization propaghanda…all just to make her feel like she’s right at home.)

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the currency of cheese

yesterday afternoon, i almost paid for a couch with cheese.

yes, that statement may take awhile to sink in. and as it does, please know that the following story will most definitely be one of the first i tell if i ever return home to the unanswerable question of “eh you! how was korea?”

having recently upgraded to one of the bigger units in the foreigners’ apartment (seriously dudes, this place beats the pants off those closets i was living in during toronto times), i have an opportunity to fill up more space. in times past, when i felt the need to acquire things without sloshing out actual dollars, i would resort to craigslist or anything from my cottage that had not hosted various hybrids of moths in the past. and just like a creature of habit, i enlisted a korean alliance (how militant of me) to scope out geoje’s classified ads for free or second-hand couches. surely someone would take pity on a recently immigrated alien and would offer up their couch, their pick-up truck, and maybe even their home-cooked korean left-overs from dinner (even though beggars can’t be choosers, apparently i believe that beggars can still be….well, beggars).  

and as we found a couch that would be suitable to seat my handful of friends, i also found out that the korean won (₩) is not the only acceptable currency in south korea. after my Korean alliance got off the phone with the couch “seller” (more like “barterer”, but we’ll get to that), i was ecstatic to find out that the seller/ barterer would not take money for the couch. instead, she wanted cheese. organic baby cheese, to be exact. 5 packs. available at homeplus. and just in case i find the extremely limited variety of organic baby cheese overwhelming in the dairy section of the city’s only department store, the woman texted me the exact name, details, and price.

somewhere somehow some lactose karmic greek god is getting a kick out of this right now.  

this whole scenario almost made me snort out my soy milk (take that, dairy fairy) but also reeked of curiosity. this woman is giving me a massive couch in exchange for 20 dollars (inflation inflation) worth of cheese? i don’t understand any of this.

luckily my korean alliance is always readily available to translate menus, negotiate cell phone contracts, and other seemingly odd korean nuisances like couch-for-cheese exchanges. she explained that it would be quite rude for the organic baby cheese woman to ask for money for the couch. BUT, it would also be more painstakingly expensive for her to ask the city of okpo to come and collect her unwanted furniture. so why not create a win-win situation by posting the couch on okpo’s craiglist, asking for dairy products for her lil’ one, and getting rid of the pale-pink worn-down sofa that collects dust in the back of her apartment? her logic was inarguable.

now i know this story would be that much better if i had actually followed through with my cheese commitments and got the couch. but in the end, it was too far, with limited trunk space to actually transport the couch, and i found a brand new couch in okpo that only cost me the equivalent of about 15 packs of organic baby cheese (this is now my preferred currency).

for those that know me, i will probably exaggerate the crap out of this story. as the fable grows and grows, i will have gotten the couch and in the end, convinced the woman that this worn-down piece of furniture is in fact, only worth 4 packs of organic baby cheese.

but for now, yesterday afternoon i almost paid for a couch with cheese.

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as I have mentioned before, i miss writing in a more public venue. now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like i was writing leftist movement pieces for a glossy publication with circulation numbers inching towards the half million mark. i wrote about music. i judged bands based on their comparative dance moves to that of Craig Finn. i streamed 14-track cds and then tried to sum it up in under 200 words. i elbowed my way through photo pits in an attempt to capture a sole shot that would epitomize a musician’s 90-minute set. 
i started the gig because of the obvious perks. free shows every night of the week. hefty bar tabs were covered. witnessing those indescribable sets with a handful of other kids that also just so happen to have stumbled upon something pretty fucking fantastic (save for the fact that they did not have the pressured task of trying to put the night into more accurate words than “pretty fucking fantastic.”) these were my motives for bearing the title of “contributing writer/ photographer/ all-round trash bag.” 
or so i thought.
this morning i listened to Hooded Fang’s new record for the first time. it’s now well past noon and the play count is currently sitting at 9. (in addition to the actual tunes spurring even the most lethargic listener to start a rhythmic hand-clapping sequence, the artwork is done by the same dude that paints the signs for Honest Ed’s. unbelievable.) this cd makes me realize what i really enjoyed when writing about music. it wasn’t the “plus one” on guest lists, it wasn’t the daytime writers meetings which consequently turned into nighttime blurs, it wasn’t even the very last round of PBR as the band cleared out their gear. in actuality, what i enjoyed the most about writing about music has nothing to do with all those added perks.
as the play count rolls up to 10, i am beginning to realize that its those moments when you listen to a tune or hear a chord live or have an amusing conversation with a band that you pegged all wrong, those moments when you want to scale a city building (or at the very least, the dive bar down the street) and scream as loud as you can “i freaking love this band!” 
for now, i don’t really write about music.
but if i did, the new Hooded Fang record is pretty fucking fantastic.

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weekends spent strictly in okpo are few and far between. having reached the three-month mark (just barely), i can count the number of Friday-Saturday-Sundays spent in the ‘po on one hand. in one of those amicable break-up excuses of “it’s not you, it’s me” there is really nothing wrong with okpo….just most other places in korea have better bars, better food, better transportation, better sights, and generally speaking, make for better stories. but other than that, okpo is pretty much completely like every other city in south korea.
like beating a dead horse of a relationship, i gave okpo another chance this weekend. he claimed he had changed. i wanted to believe him.
and he was right.
after coming to terms with the fact that brunch (as a verb) will be absent from my weekends for the next year or more, i have discovered the joys of in-house brunching (okay so maybe I can still use ‘brunch’ in all of its verb glory.)



i think my stomach is also quite pleased with this conjugation. 
soon after the caramelized apples digested, we headed to an unmarked trail behind one of the few high schools in okpo. vancouver-america thought that the trail may or may not lead us back to our beach. we were surprised to find that the trail had all sorts of treasures along the way to occupy a couple of troglodytes. two outdoor gyms (complete with HULA HOOPS!!!), a mineral water restoration system of sorts, and some pretty extensive vegetable gardens. just the thought of us breathlessly trogging up this steep trail only to be lapped by an ajumma with a sack full of freshly-picked sweet potatoes lugged over her shoulder made us giggle.

just as vancouver-america predicted, we ended up back at our beach…only to discover a buddha statue and garden that could very well have been someone’s private backyard. come to think of it, it was probably one of those mountaineering ajummas that needed somewhere to wind down after scaling an okpo mountain for their daily fill of produce. 


the remainder of saturday included fruit-infused soju, hijacking the music selection at various bars, and ddeokbokki served in a tiny black plastic bag (korea routinely gives a big “eff you” to planet earth and presumably, David Suzuki as well). 
sunday was welcomed with a mild headache and even milder weather. rooftop lunches and a quick dumpster diving session for apartment finds left me completely satisfied with okpo’s weekend performance.

(in my mind, if okpo were a male, he would be the kind of blue-collar no-frills human that enjoyed the basics of a cold beer, the same t-shirts he wore in undergrad, and secretly cherishes his collection of bob dylan on vinyl. he gets too drunk on fridays, spends too long at the batting cages on saturday, and considers himself “adventurous” when he eats pakistan cuisine on sundays. with his relatively short attention-span, he cannot commit to much of anything but continues to put all of his efforts into projects that will inevitably fail. he keeps his religious views to himself and is stuck in some sort of trades-like job after realizing that his major in political science is up to this point, inescapably useless.)  
so what if i am naively beating this dead horse?
i think i have a crush on okpo.

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the marionette syndrome

i think i’m coming down with something.

i could list off my symptoms like a pepto bismol commercial but i will spare you the details. however, i am pretty confident that this is more than just an ordinary flu. oh yes. this is not just one of those “24-hour bugs” that you can shake off in a day or two. no no, this is something much much worse.

i think i am suffering from the marionette syndrome.

now sometimes (i.e., all the time) i will use the internet to self-diagnosis. for reals. google probably knows more about my medical history than my japanese family doctor. and that guy knew me since i was a strange toddler who had an obsession with sticking popcorn kernels in my ears and stickers up my nose.

unfortunately, google failed me this time.

if you tried for yourself to search ‘the marionette syndrome’, you would come up with a couple hits for a japanese anime pop song from 2009 that is laced with yamaha synthesizers and performed by a digital android that fights crime with her synthesized-theme wardrobe (i could not have even made that up if i tried). but i can assure you, this has nothing to do with comic books (or synthesizers, for that matter).

without google to immediately rely on, and left to my own knowledge of the DSM-IV, i have been forced to understand and consequently, navigate, the strange (and worsening) facets of the marionette syndrome.

for starters, the onset of marionette syndrome often takes place in a english-as-a-second-language setting. patients may not even notice that they are beginning to develop signs of the marionette syndrome as they are too busy having one of the easier jobs on the planet. this is compounded by the patient’s disbelief that they are actually getting paid to relay a skill that is of second nature to them.

but soon, other signs or symptoms become present. patients may begin to realize that yes, their job is definitely unlike most other nine-to-fivers. however, the job description outlined in their poorly translated pdf contract and the patient’s actual purposeful function in day-to-day scenarios are ridiculously divergent of one another.

and these contrasting differences very well lead into the origin of naming “the marionette syndrome” as such. patients of the marionette syndrome may begin to understand that their purpose as an ESL teacher is not really to teach English to adorable korean children. sure, patients may act as teachers, they may conjugate verbs, they may even regurgitate a lesson plan or two. but in reality, their purpose as an ESL teacher is to perform.

to perform. like a marionette.

(get it? tis clever. i know.)

although some patients may actually feel like they have strings attached to their arms and legs and their boss/ director holds a firm grip on the wooden cross that secures those ragged strings. most patients’ symptoms stem from more abstract comparisons to the austrian puppet.

marionette syndromers (this is what we call ourselves, we may even have a foundation set up already) are merely there to perform as a face of westernized culture. a face of westernized culture similar to those advertisements of now c-list hollywood celebrities that glue the walls of a seoul subway station. to perform in such a way that encourages a more heterogeneous korea. a korea made up primarily of korean-koreans and a sprinkle of english speakers-turned-marionettes.

the boss that holds the strings (wikipedia refers to this person as “the manipulator” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marionette)  can  jerk the strings ever so slightly, and the puppet will go balls-to-the-wall berserk. work 12 days straight. wrangle a herd of hagwon crazies. perform the same class with the same routine for months straight.

it could very well be that this post is instigated by the circus that was the last two weeks (which included the above-mentioned 12-day work bender).  but it suddenly hit me that i too, have become a victim of the marionette syndrome.

 i spent a day at school being miserable about my condition. i was fully prepared to spend the better part of the afternoon being even more miserable (some would say i was in the grieving stage of acceptance) when i was assigned to complete two quick speaking tests with students. these tests would “decide” which level of afterschool class the students entered. but it is no secret that they really are assigned a class based on their age, english competence is not a factor here. again, i was just performing for the kiddies.

i started off with an 11 year old who had fantastic english skills. she would be well-suited for our top afterschool class but i knew full well her fate with the english language lied in the three-ring circus of the mid-level class. rushing through a set of generalized questions, i asked her about her favourite hobbies. i had already deemed her as a “play computer games” kind of gal. (much different from the kiddies that typically answer “i like watch tv” “academy” or personal favourite, “my hobby is sleep.”) her answer was fantastically unexpected….to say the least.

“i like to bark like a dog.”

i almost spit out my miniature cup of maxim.

“you like what?”

“to bark. like a dog.”

and almost as if i was an owner asking my cocker spaniel to “speak,” she lets out this yelp of a bark that causes all other teachers in the room to also spit out their miniature cups of maxim (seriously, why is something so delicious so small?).

“oh yes. i also like playing tennis.”

amazing.   “do you bark like a dog while you are playing tennis?”

“hmmm…well, yes, sometimes i do.”

this was sensational. all of it.

and i suppose that is the final piece of information about the marionette syndrome: the prognosis. for some people, it may be a long, difficult and uphill struggle to lead a healthy life in korea once you have been diagnosed with the syndrome.

but for others, all you need is a strong dose of a little korean girl who enjoys barking like a dog while playing tennis.

(the little girl also ended up in the top-level class…. i hope she soon discovers the full potential of her canine skills).

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