Archive for December, 2010

read any expat blog about being away during christmas and they will all suggest the same thing:

“just get drunk and forget that it ever happened.”

now i’m not one to heed the advice of others (especially those dangerous self-labelled “backpackers”) but this suggestion seemed as good excuse as any to deck the halls of okpo. and unbeknownst to me, it’s practically a ritual in korea to get downright belligerent the day before the most family-driven heavy hitters of all holidays. (not to mention the race to the nearest love motel for those coupled-up koreans. but tis neither here nor there).

now i can’t speak for everyone (especially those solo korean males, left with only a room key and a half-empty pint of cass), but i was filled with all kinds of gin-inspired christmas cheer. the kind of cheer that really only meant me stationing myself next to the pretty christmas lights at any of the better bars and spending the rest of my drink snapping shots of the twinkles while requesting mariah carey christmas classics for the umpteenth time.  i left my surliness and aggressive headlocks at home. and i probably only lied, like, once….my very own christmas miracle! 

now that’s not to say i took all of this advice to heart. yes, we upped the ante a bit and even finally closed the case on what’s hiding behind those black-tinted windows of foreigner clubs that contribute a lil’ something special to okpo’s “charm.” but it’s not like i could just do as these righteous backpackers do, and forget that christmas day even exists.

instead of blatantly ignoring the day, i celebrated december two-five with a handful of pals and solid intervals of delicious meals followed by pirated christmas-centric movies . i think i passed out sometime around the time when ralphie parker started to narrate his cleveland christmas of 1940.

even though i didn’t get an official red rider carbine-action two-hundred shot range bb gun or the asian easy bake oven that i blatantly requested, i still think that this christmas was pretty much fantastic.


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“even though i know christmas is less than a week away, it just doesn’t feel like it.”

i whimpered something along these lines last week as i walked to school wearing the same sort of get-up that i wore when i first experienced the okpo factor back in august. without snow on the ground, or any real temperatures dipping below the 10 degrees mark, i was finding it difficult to get into the christmas spirit.

to me, i can always tell christmas is coming when i have to give up my dirty moccasins with wool socks combo for something that is more suited for ice, snow, and anything else that occurs between the months of december and february. now for me, this often happens all too late in the game (and my feet are usually already soaked at this point), but i’ll most likely start to accept that it is now time for winter. and winter means christmas. and christmas means new socks. and new socks mean that i can now wear them with my dirty salt-stained moccasins (see? it all comes full-circle).  


but without the snow, i can continue to make poor footwear choices. and since i apparently use my shoes as my solstice calendar, it’s still october in my mind. (geoje weather does absolutely nothing to dispute this illogical reasoning.)

lucky for me, a mandatory work weekend caused a glance over to my real calendar (and not my feet). the day started with a two. and ended with a zero. 

game on, christmas.

there was no messing around when it came to christmas training for korean kiddies. lessons included the importance of starting a steady diet of sugar and chocolate well before the 25th. we all know that without any real preparation, an overload of toblerones and jujubes on the morning of christmas, is a recipe for holiday trouble.

and this is why the advent calendar was invented. because without this daily cocoa build-up, millions of children around the world would be wincing in corners (and clutching their stomach in sugar-agony) before mom could even hand out the brand-new christmas day pajamas. 


christmas training also meant that i was assigned wreath-duty. hands down it was a major success. a weekend of red & green paper crafts had me running for my closet and searching for the warmest pair of shoes i could find. i mean, so what if the kiddies didn’t really understand the door decor purpose of a wreath?

as the kiddies ran off, wearing their wreaths as hats, i didn’t care much. my feet were toasty warm. 

i’m ready for you, christmas. i have socks and shoes to prove it.

(sidebar: i really hope that dami’s parents step up this year and buy her a subscription to e-harmony. with this matchmaking service in place, it shouldn’t be too hard to find her a handsome helmet-hair korean boy with disproportioned fire-red arms and legs and black-as-night googly eyes. or at the very least… just get her a new ipod).

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the not-so-secret secret great wall

sometimes people really enjoy doing things, even if they are awful at them. for me, its things like sudoku and painting.

the activity of trying to figure out if it is a 6 or a 9 that will be fitting in that top right hand corner box is enjoyable. but the puzzling limitations of sudoku often leave me frustrated and in the end, there are waaaay too many 7’s in each and every row.

with painting, i could argue that it is semi-therapeutic and that i could spend hours just gliding my dipped brush over some crisp-white canvas (sounds calming, doesn’t it?). but the final piece always looks like something that should be hung on a kindergartener’s fridge, not the walls of the AGO.

oh yes, and secrets. i’m a big fan. love em. secrets make me all kinds of wound up and i cannot picture a better scenario than leaning in for someone to tell me one of their whispering facts (or fictions) that only a handful of other people know (yes, i really hit my stride as a 14-year-old gossiper. it’s all down hill from here, i s’pose). 

the minor problem in this scenario happens after the secret is shared. it’s more the fact that i am awful at keeping them.

but let’s just focus on the appeal of a secret. and what’s more appealing than gaining access to a secret part of the great wall of china for less than the price of a serious night out in okpo?

nothing. the answer is nothing is more appealing.

our motives for staying at the shady (re: authentic) leo’s hostel went beyond the $5 a night price tag. they also offered a clandestine package that included access to a secret part of the great wall. “only you and friends on the undiscovered secret wall.” ex. cite. ment.

i was almost expecting leo’s to really play up the whole “shhh its a secret” thing and blindfold us on the cramped mini-van trek up to the wall. or even make us take an oath to never pass on the coordinates or exact location of the secret wall to anyone ever forever (don’t worry, i would have obviously crossed my fingers behind my back). or even you know, threaten us a bit with a rock or something that if they ever found out that we told someone, they would hunt us down and bury us inside the wall itself (i’ve read that the casualties of the building of the great wall were actually buried inside the wall. apparently, the human skeleton makes for a great architectural foundation).  besides, i doubt they would actually bury us in the wall.

ANYWAYS, these things were absent from the secret.

the only thing that really made the trip so secretive was the security guard we passed on the way to the base of our hike. this security guard didn’t try to intimidate us or even make us pinky-swear. instead, he simply ducked his head inside the mini-van, let out an exhale of bone-chilling air, and offered us some shaky advice.

“if the air gets cold, put your body down.”

tb and i kind of snorted out our cucumber-flavoured chips (seriously lays, bring this delectable snack over to s.k. i’m begging you) and thought that this character must be part of the secret.

fast-forward in time to me ducking inside a corner of the wall, clutching to the corners of my toque as the wind practically pierced my eardrums. putting my tendencies to exaggerate aside, trust me when i say that as i wobbled up each unrestored step of the great wall, i have never felt that low degree of temperature before.

to illustrate the weather conditions further: at one moment in the hike, the 5 of us who were in on the secret sat huddled inside one of the handful of watch towers perched along the wall. as we clinched our entire bodies and anticipated the next gust of wind, a piece of rock slid out from one of the sides of the watch tower. the wind was so strong that THE WALL WAS ACTUALLY FALLING APART. the great wall is apparently no match…. for the great wind of china.

i cursed the wind, the weather, and my ridiculous choice of mittens without thumbs, and then realized i was clambering up one of the greatest man-made wonders of the world. and leo’s was dead-on about it being uncrowded. try more like, empty. yes, that’s more like it.

as i mentioned before, there were 5 of us on this part of the wall. 5 ice-cubed travellers from spain, germany, and okpo. over the course of three or four hours, we only saw one other person on the wall.

for reals, we didn’t even see our tour guide (slash “secret keeper”) after the first 5 minutes.

and there was no exaggeration on leo’s behalf when they advertised this section as “unrestored.” in addition to the deteriorating pieces from the wind, many parts of the wall were without railings, or steps,…or even walls (i’m sorry, i just had to).

needless to say, my time spent gripping onto decrepit ledges as my knuckles turned white (and my thumbs turned even whiter) became the highlight of my time in china.

so if you are ever in beijing seeking out the secret part of the great wall, just drive an hour out of the pollution until the  wall starts to dot the skyline. if you pass by the security guard that tells you to put your body down in times of frost-bitten temperatures, you’ve gone to the right place.

just don’t tell them that i can’t keep a secret.

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“teacha! cunning! teacha! cunning!”
these were the only words i could make out amidst a myriad of young korean boys yelling overtop of one another. at this point, the perpetrator of cunning was still at large. 
now you should know, my korean vocabulary is limited. embarrassingly limited. i have been here for four months and a snapshot of my korean looks a little like this: i know the words for “battery,” “right” (but not left), “smoke,” “yes,” “bobby pin,” “passport picture,” and “really.” i can’t seem to remember words that would be you know, important in day-to-day interactions. words like “no” or “please” just seem waaaay too difficult for me. or phrases that would be mildly useful like “i’m sorry” or “i’m an ignorant foreigner with difficulties learning a new language past elementary-level francais (that’s french…..for french)” are apparently, just too much for me to handle.
oh yes, and i know “cunning.” i have learned “cunning” partly because it sounds english (even with a completely different definition) but also because it is a word that has been “frenemy” of mine in my academic past.    
when translated, “cunning” means “cheating.”
and so it was. with my limited korean vocabulary, i tried to decipher the situation that caused a group of middle-school boys to practically lunge across the tables at their opponents. as i wrestled these boys back into their seats, one gorilla of a prepubescent boy became the perpetrator of cunning. fingers all pointed towards him (korean kiddies are quick to sell out their buds) as he began to whine to me in korean. unfortunately for him, he was not talking about batteries or passport pictures. so consequently, i had no idea what in the world he was trying to negotiate. (granted if he wanted to discuss the pros and cons of wearing bobby pins in passport pictures over a smoke outside a battery store…i still would probably have no idea what he was trying to say).  
now in most classes, you can certainly hope that there is at least one student with manageable english. this student is your lifeline. as soon as he or she is identified, you must present yourself as an ally. always allow an extra second (or 30) for him to translate to his peers the bizarre game you think will help them learn the roles on an airplane. and always let him volunteer first to roll out his cookie dough in cooking class. you will thank yourself later when you don’t have 15 boys covered in flour and picking sprinkles out from under their abnormally long fingernails.
so now i have a gorilla accused of cunning and am searching wildly for my lifeline. praying to the esl gods above that he wasn’t actually placed in a more advanced class. as the noise died down…my lifeline appeared.
probably noticing that i was slightly intimidated by gorilla’s size (and outrageous amount of body hair for a 14-year-old), lifeline stepped in and offered me the kind of advice you would see on the cover of a glossy new hardcover diary from chapters or better yet, read in a fortune cookie from sun sun’s.
“teacha, don’t be mild.”
it took a second to process. all the while, gorilla is still pacing and leering over all of his accusers (most likely looking for gnats to pick out of their cute korean hair). 
lifeline had a point. sure he probably meant something completely different and was mainly referring to gorilla’s neanderthal-like behaviours but as i see it, lifeline wanted me to put gorilla in his place. be stern with him, not mild. teach him all the reasons why cunning will cause you grief in the future. lecture gorilla on the idea that even if you think the prof won’t notice if you copy and paste a stellar paragraph from an obscure journal article into your closing summary, that in reality, the prof will notice. and you will get busted. 

 however, i didn’t think about any of this (besides, my days of cunning are behind me). all i could think of about was that line.

“don’t be mild.”

discerning and yet, slightly encouraging. 
it’s now a daily reminder on my computer screen (in addition to the come-and-gone beijing departure). 

and tonight i had an extra-helping of chili paste on my salad.

see lifeline? i’m taking your advice seriously.

( i suppose plagarism is a far cry from cheating but it shares some of those guilty pit-feeling-in-your-stomach kinds of associations. plus, i have yet to learn the korean word for “plagarize.” but not to worry, it doesn’t seem that useful of a word so i’ll probably pick it up by the end of today).

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an indescribable china

okay, here i go. i am going to try to write about my time in beijing, china.

ya man, i got nothing.
i could waste even more time (mainly, yours) trying to search my literary backlog for some accurate descriptors of china but inevitably, i would just come up with mumbles and grunts. perhaps a joke or two about china “doing my head in” or the entertainment of haggling with chinese vendors while communicating only through a voice-over calculator. but other than that, i can’t really put china into words (and shift + f7 isn’t much help either. dear microsoft word: please update your thesaurus). 
for starters, how do you even begin to describe the people and the city of beijing without considering the jaw-dropping numbers of the most recent statistical census? this city packs in over 22 million people and has a population density 130 times that of canada (yes, beijing is a city and canada is…not). i’m thinking “cramped” just doesn’t seem to quite fit the bill for a beijinger’s style of living.  

 or even more so, how do you try to describe a city so plagued with pollution that the sky always looks like verging sunset, even at high noon? after all, this is a city which clutches onto the rank of the 13th most polluted city in the world. better yet, within the top ten spots of said list, china appears 4 times. 

with shoulder-to-shoulder living considered the norm; the city of beijing faces the very real potential of running out of water reaallll fast. but don’t fret friends, beijing’s got it covered. when the city worries about running out of aitch-two-oh, beijing will shoot off some cloud-seeding chemicals into the air to induce rain-fall. so not only is beijing tending to those parched sardine-packed citizens, they are also contributing to their ever-increasing pollution index. oh beijing, you are a true multi-tasker.  

at the same time, how do you describe the whole i-just-climbed-the-great-wall-and-i-do-not-see-a-soul-for-miles feeling? the spaciousness that is such a drastic change from the whole downtown beijing that’s-my-foot-you’re-stepping-on kind of feeling.

to try to describe beijing (or even china as a whole) seems like such an impossible task. because on one hand you want to knock it and be like “yo jingers, get yo shit together.” but then on the other hand you realize that this city is so unreal/ surreal that it kind of takes you over….and steals all your witty travel descriptors in the process.

i mean come on, how do you really describe the taste of a deep-fried arachnid?

and i bet chuck klosterman would not even be able to think of a witty yet intelligent passage to describe the contrast between china’s communist/surveillance-heavy regime with such peaceful buddhist and taoist practices taking place at the 100s of temples all over the city. (the irony alone of mandatory bag checks on your way to heavenly temples is enough to stop any pop-culture travelist dead in their tracks).

so with full intent of trying to write about beijing, i get a big ol’ fail.

china: you’re indescribable (and no thanks to you, shift + f7).

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i consider myself an excellent gift-giver.

perhaps that came off a bit arrogant but seriously, i  am jealous of those handfuls who receive bang-up gifts from me each and every year. from concert tickets to hilarious movies (most of which were straight-to- dvd releases) to fantastic value village finds, if you’re on my christmas list, consider yourself l-u-c-k-y.

as i think about this more, perhaps i am not such an excellent gift-giver. instead, i have that garish quality of buying people gifts that in reality, i would like to receive. i buy concert tickets for others so that i can go, i buy movies that i want to watch, and i buy value village gifts in the hopes that you will forget it one weekend and i can take advantage of it until you are back and i will place it right back where i found it.  

this year is really no exception.

in the spirit of giving (with a price limit of 25,000 won), i volunteered to buy presents for a couple kiddies who are associated with one of the local orphanages in geoje. not only would i have liked to receive every gift i picked up, but i also realized i haven’t the faintest idea what a 13 year old korean boy would like for christmas.

the dilemma was this: do i buy the sword that lights up AND comes with some sort of secret key OR do i go for the electric blue amazonian elephant that morphs into a power ranger. see? my life is tough here in okpo.

as i gushed to tb about these fantastic finds, a korean couple overheard and cautiously let me know that the elephant-turned-power-ranger and sword-with-secret-key are actually both best suited for the under-5 crowd. (dear korean parents: the finger dexterity and developmental stage of your kindergartener is far beyond that of any north american 5 year old).  their suggestion? “something for their studies.”

since “educational” is not in my gift-giving criteria, i settled on one of the tried-and-true gifts…a dvd. (the dilemma was then between avatar or night at the museum 2. then i remembered that i wanted to brighten up this kid’s day…not depress him with ben stiller’s acting. so hopefully he finds hope and inspiration in watching blue people plug their ponytails into pterodactyls).  

luckily the gift for the preteen girl was less of a struggle.

check this shit out. you can make your own sushi!

it’s essentially asia’s answer to the easy-bake oven. but better. this girl can make sushi shaped as grapes or better yet, bears. BEARS! i’m not exactly sure how it works but it’s probably awesome and i hope all the other kiddies will be jealous of her when she’s chomping down on rice and seaweed leaves in the shape of smokey (you know, like the bear).

blog readers take note. this is all i really want for christmas.

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gimme some mo

remember that scene in the sandlot when scotty smalls first learned how to make s’mores?

that mean redheaded (aptly named ‘ham’) gave him some lame (and vague) step-by-step instructions about a graham cracker, chocolate, lighting a marshmallow on fire, and then just sticking on the other graham cracker. no wonder smalls was all like “if i haven’t had anything yet,how could i have ‘some mo’ of nothing?” 

there was really no need for ham to go all ballistic on him (insert “you’re killing me smalls” tagline). poor kid.

i’ll stop the critique there but seriously ham, lighten up a bit on the newbie scotty, ya hear? so what if the guy doesn’t know the how-to’s when making a s’more. you’re the brilliant hotshot with an open flame in a full-on wooden treehouse. you lack any real concept of danger. and you’re a pretty shitty catcher. (i’ll forgive you though, only because you drop bombs like calling kids a “pee-drinking crap-face.” class-ic. )

maybe ham tossed out some general guidelines when making s’mores but he forgot some crucial details.

like if you don’t have white marshmallows, you can use mango swirls of soft delight (the package’s words, not mine).

and if you don’t have graham crackers, you can use coconut sesame seed wafer crisps (that’s a rough korean-to-english translation).

and who really needs an old twig to hold the marshmallow when you can use chopsticks?

and while we’re at it, the whole fire thing is really subjective. you can really just use old candles from leftover science projects found around the school.

however, ham and i do share ideals on the final step in s’more making…… “and then smalls, you scarf.”

(self-confession: for an eight year old, i had a wildly mature crush on benny rodriguez.)

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