Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back from Blog Hiatus...a few things if you will

Back from my blog hiatus…….

Nearly 3 months have passed since my last post, and in that time, it’s hard to wrap around all the things that have happened during that time.

Trip to Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan…..
In a quick nutshell, I went to Hong Kong and Macau back in August with my friend, Ikee. Here are a few fun things about Hong Kong:
A: The shopping----For connoisseurs of fashion and antiques, Hong Kong is the place to go. With some great street markets to top-of-the-line fashion designer stores, Hong Kong has a great variety of selection for anxious souvenir shoppers. Temple Street Market should be the top of the list for bargain seekers. Homemade crafts, paintings, tools, electronics, food, and a block full of “pleasure devices,” the market has it all, and you can haggle down the price with the vendors.

B: People and accessibility----Hong Kong is one of the premier Western capitols of Asia. With its mixture of Western culture and commerce integrated with its deep-rooted Chinese tradition and values, Hong Kong offers a wide range of culinary delights, terrific accessibility and convenience of its public transportation, and many Buddhist temples and villages (see New Territories) without compromising its rich history and identity. Unlike many other Asian cities like Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, and Beijing, Hong Kong continues to flex its international muscle, and what has made it stronger than its competition is its English proficiency. It may not be as strong as it was during the British colonial period, but the abundance of English signs, and English-speaking Chinese and other foreign citizens makes this an easy place to navigate, and lessen the worries of having to do a crash-course lesson on Cantonese which is widely spoken in Hong Kong as well as Mandarin.

I found the people there to be very courteous, and professional. Unlike my experience in Korea, many of the Hong Kong natives are not very shy and intimidated about using their English which is their 2nd language, even if it’s not at a fluent level. Even the older generation of Hong Kong citizens can pull a few English words themselves without reluctance.
Places to see there:
Big Buddha Village---Take a 20 minute cable car ride (be aware that the wait is nearly an hour, and get on the car that has the glass floor view), and see the majestic view of Lantau Island. As you arrive, you will find a village selling various local crafts, glassware, and of course, your typical cheesy souvenirs.

Ocean Park---a nicer alternative to Disney World….More for kids, but you have another cable car ride which overlooks the sea and islands. Not to mention, there is a panda exhibit to tickle the little kid inside you.

New Territories---The upper part of Hong Kong….Away from the craziness of Tsim Tsa Tsui and Kowloon, New Territories is a vast rural area filled with villages, lush mountains. It shares resemblance to my time in rural Vietnam; none of the corporate, faceless identity that’s unfairly tied to Hong Kong. The villages there are mostly farmland, and an absolute escape from the urban life of HK. There’s a botanical garden that is highly recommended. It also has a mini-zoo which you can spot various exotic animals in China.

Macau---Macau is another province of China. It was once colonized by Portugal, and like Hong Kong, it was handed over to Mainland China at the end of the 20th century. Little attention seems to be given to Macau. However, Macau represents more than just a former province of Portugal. It is known for its casinos, the largest in all of Asia. The architecture of Macau is a combination of both old Saigon and Old Europe. The cobblestone roads, and decorative housing reminded me of Prague, the top view of the city reminded me of Saigon with its faded out, unglamorous apartment complexes. Macau, unlike other places in Asia, provides the classical old school Europe feel through its Portuguese influence even after a decade from the handover.

Places to see in Macau: The Ruins of St. Paul Church, the botanical garden (people doing Tai Chi, the lotus flower pads, a small building which houses some paintings and calligraphy, etc), Largo de Senado Square

My trip to Tokyo nearly came at the last minute. I headed over there during the Korean Thanksgiving week at the end of September. My initial plan was to travel to Taiwan or Cambodia, but flights were nearly booked much to my chagrin. Luckily enough, Tokyo flights were available. My initial reluctance to do Japan was simple: Expense. The exchange rate for Japanese Yen is currently at its highest, much stronger than the US dollar, so imagine how much agony exchanging the Korean won was. Despite the exchange rate hell, I was all set to go on my first solo vacation and experience the cultural richness that is Japan.

I stayed at an amazing hostel called Tokyo Khaosan Ninja which is off the Asakusabashi subway stop. Getting into central Tokyo from Narita International Airport was a bit of a hassle (90-100 minutes) through the subway which includes making a couple of transfers. The subway system is very efficient yet quite damning when looking at the map. There are two types of map (the regular subway map and the subway plus the JR lines). Keep that map handy, or better yet, download the Tokyo Subway Map application (the one including the JR Lines) on your iPod Touch/iPhone. Luckily enough, there are subway officials that can help you despite their limited English proficiency.

Like Korea, Japan’s English proficiency isn’t the strongest, but its accessibility and the general politeness of its citizens make it an easy place to navigate. The food was nothing short of excellent. Some of my favorites included sushi, sashimi (raw fish), Shrimp Tempura mixed in with raw tuna and salmon and rice, vegetables, and wasabi, and Japanese sobe noodles (served cold) with fried shrimp.

Besides the exchange rate hell, Japan is one of the world most expensive countries, and Tokyo itself is the front engine of the country’s running ATM machine. A normal lunch can set you at least $6-7, taxi rides are to be avoided when you have public transportation at a somewhat decent cost, dinner can set you at least $10, and bargain hunting is fairly non-existent unless you head out to the marketplace near Ueno Park.

Despite the extravagant cost of traveling through Tokyo, I found myself being rewarded by being able to do the most inexpensive things. I visited some of the best local parks Tokyo has to offer, something that was sorely lacking in Korea with the exception of Gyeongju and Gangwon-do.

Ueno Park: This spacious park is surrounded by some of the various museums including the Tokyo National History Museum, the local zoo which includes a panda exhibit. There’s also a few Buddhist/Taoist temples along the way. Nearby, there’s an open-air market which sells souvenirs, local crafts, clothes, medicine, food, and so forth.

The Imperial Palace and Garden in Central Tokyo, the large temples and shrines off of the Asakusa line which also includes local crafts is a must-see.

The colorful characters and fashion trends start at Tokyo’s famed Harajuku district. If you want the busyness of Tokyo at its finest, then venture out to the Shinjuku and Shibuya district. It’s filled with some of the top designer stores and shopping malls.

From my time in Tokyo, I came away realizing how different it is from Seoul and Busan. There’s less of the pushing and shoving on the subway, there’s a better understanding concept of the word “space” when it comes to how building and streets are constructed whereas in Korea, it’s very congested and claustrophobic at times. Let’s not get started at how clean Japan is versus the major cities in Korea. Overall, it became more than I expected. I not only was enlightened by the fine Japanese cuisine, but I was taken aback by the friendliness of the locals, the welcoming of international influences inspiring Tokyo, and the immense cultural opportunities of activities and places to see and do without breaking more Yen.

……..In other news…..

This fall, I recently joined the cast for Busan Night Live. Busan Night Live is a sketch comedy show done by a group of fellow expats. This is the second version of BNL, and both times it has been successful, especially the last one. We had just finished up our two shows earlier this month to great success. Besides traveling, being involved in theater was something that I would not have envisioned in the past. A year ago, I made my sketch comedy debut for the mock Shakespeare performance. My friend Brittany got me into the idea of doing some acting for the pure thrill of it. Working on Busan Night Live became more than I ever expected. I came in with the idea of two written scripts, and maybe get a minor role. However, I ended up being in a couple of sketches, and more importantly, I got to host both nights, something that I was never asked to do. The time to put the show together was time consuming. Outside of school, my life was relegated to rehearsals, editing, video shoots, and having to travel back and forth. Despite the hectic nature that often is associated with theater, it was well worth the experience. I made new friends, I became more involved with the creative and critical process, and I learned a lot from my cast members who several of them are far more experienced with theater. I’m grateful for the experience especially with the cast members, and this one certainly ranks very high on my most memorable experiences since being in Korea. Thank you to those for attending the show, and being so supportive.

I recently had discussions with my school about where my intentions are for next year. All of my teachers as well as my vice-principal asked me to stay another year. From the last blog I posted, I was wondering if I had enough energy to pull in another year, let alone finishing the year on a high note. However, things have turned around for me this semester. I am feeling much more self-assured in my classroom. I am, for the most part, able to get the most out of my students and find ways to maximize their creativity and critical thinking during class time. The latter part of that turnaround is what is influencing me to stay. For the nearly two years that I’ve been at my school, I’ve been able to watch a lot of my students make personal improvements in both attitude and academic performance. Of course, every now and then, some of my classes will give me an additional 20 years to my life, but overall, I have enjoyed teaching my kids and the majority of them have been asking me to stay. When I think of Korea, I think of my kids first. They have brought an inexplicable amount of joy and laughter (with the occasional headache) into my life that I probably wouldn’t have had elsewhere.

With that said, I am hoping to make a home visit to Chicago in the month of February. It’s not official yet, but I know my home stay would be rather short, and part of that reason is the fact that I want to see my grandma down in Mobile, Alabama as she is getting a little sick these days. However, I am excited about the prospect of coming back home, even for just a little bit, because it will have been two years come next February. Though some things have changed back home, it hasn’t dampened my excitement to see what’s going on, and to see my friends and family after being away for awhile.

For now, so long and I want to wish all of you back home a Happy Early Thanksgiving!!!!!!!! Thanks for checking in and I’m sure I’ll post something before the holidays! Cheers!


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spring, where art thou?

Spring is sort of in the air. It's almost May; the cherry blossoms are blooming, the temperature is rising ever so slightly, yet it's been more wet, windy, and cold the majority of the week. Global warming hasn't made its appearance yet, but when it does, I'll welcome it with open arms and a kiss.

I'm already 2 months into my second year in Korea, and I find myself enjoying this year even more than I did at this point last year. Though things have been considerably busy with a bigger workload, and working with an almost completely new staff, I find myself having a more balanced approach in how I teach and manage my classroom. The first month of the semester was wildly inconsistent; I had been getting sloppy on my time-management skills. I started turning into Atilla the Hun, as I became more aggravated and less patient with some of my other classes. I had a short fuse; the sparks were beginning to light up, I was one wire snap from turning my classroom into a fiery mess.

My Korean head co-teacher talked to me privately, and felt that I was beginning to scare more of my students. Admittedly, I became a pretty intimidating, and even an unlikeable teacher. She suggested that instead of getting very aggravated with them, I start being more silent when the boys are talking, and allow the Korean teachers to start disciplining certain students who are misbehaving. Luckily, the results have been working. Plus, my teachers have been placing a lot of focus on classroom management which allowed me to teach and stop at certain points. I find that my patience has led to more students policing themselves and each other, and with me finally ending any threats of a classroom nuclear holocaust.

I do enjoy my new teaching arrangement very much. I have my own classroom that I use; no running around from class to class, and getting mobbed by my students during break time, or worrying whether or not the computer connection will work in the classroom TV. The classes that I'm teaching are divided into levels, and I don't have to worry about teaching the beginner level which was a major challenge for me last year.

Though several of my friends have left Korea, and with a different outlook into this year, I have been more than content with my new situation. I don't miss the craziness and claustrophobic nature of my last apartment. My current apartment, though slightly bigger than my last shoebox, has given me more comfort in ways that I had been yearning for. Gone are the cacophony of orgasmic sounds emanating from a group of sexually-hungry felines. Gone are the loud stiletto footsteps of my Korean neighbor frantically running up the stairs in the middle of the night. Gone are the 5 minute hot water running when I take a shower. Gone are the sounds of that fruit truck giving me my premature wake-up call on an early Saturday/Sunday morning reminding me that there are fresh grapes, strawberries, and other fruits necessary for purchase and consumption. Lastly, Gone are the days when I could reach my kitchen from my bed with my legs.

I was pleased to have my friend, Rebecca come and visit me recently. She is currently from Austin, TX, but I knew her back when we were in Chicago. She was the first person to visit me from back home, and I can't tell you how grateful I am to play host to my first visitor. Given that most of my friends and family members can't visit me because of how bad the economy is, I am incredibly thankful to have Rebecca make that effort. Luckily, she had a great time. I took her to Spaland, which is an amazing spa/sauna bathhouse, and for only $6. Describing that place wouldn't do me justice, so take my word for it. I introduced her to some of my good friends and some old-fashioned Korean-style barbecue, as well as some good ole' Korean karaoke/Wii room that we rented out. I also took her to my school, and once my students saw me and her walking together, we were harassed with students' claims that we are a couple. This is nothing new to me. Anytime, I bring out a female friend of mine in my neighborhood, my boys get really nosy, and insist that it's not a friendship. I'm like the “pimp daddy” to them, which makes it even more grossly exaggerating.

We went to Seoul that weekend, and the weather was beautiful. We visited Seoul Tower and Namsan Park. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom. People were hiking up the long path along Namsan Park. I actually had a cartoon portrait done on me, but hours later, I ended up losing it somewhere in Dongdaemun. Sadly, and not surprisingly so, I lost track of my own senses and instinct that weekend. However, the cartoon portrait was quite disturbing as the artist drew some wickedly huge cheeks. Think of it as two giant pimples resembling a rocket ready for takeoff. I also had specks of hair below my chin drawn in, and I'm wearing a Superman outfit, but my head is so big that it makes the head of Bobby from the old cartoon show, “Bobby's World” look like Ratatouille in comparison. Yes, it is a satire, but sometimes you wonder, if those physical shortcomings are truly meant in good gesture, or if it's an ominous sign that people nitpick on.

We had some amazing ice cream there in Myeongdong which is a huge shopping area. Rebecca was on an ice-cream binge on her entire trip. I was kindly reminded of Baskin Robbins several times a day, and much to her delight, there were no shortages of Baskin Robbins in Korea. We went to Dongdaemun, and we were harassed by the store clerks who yelled out “Hey...where are you from? We have big size for you.” Not exactly the kind of beckoning call that Westerners would welcome when entering a store. Korean store owners are generally very nice and extremely helpful, but then there are those, some in good gesture, who are seemingly unaware of proper customer service etiquette.

Of course, Rebecca didn't leave Korea without any difficulties on her trip. I was a loud snorer, especially since I had a bit of a cold. It kept her up through the majority of her trip. I would wake up to her iPod blaring through her headphone, only to have her reveal to me that even the loudest volume couldn't drown out the soundtrack I was playing for her. Nevertheless, we had a great time and I couldn't be more thankful to be able to give her that kind of awesome experience, and to get an idea of what I've been living for the past year.

I could only hope that some of my friends and brothers would be able to do this, and be given the opportunity to travel to a new world. I'm telling you; it's an experience of a lifetime. It's an inexplicable feeling once you step outside of your own backyard. You get to see how the world really function, and how little we really know about our world (both from our perspective and the people we come encounter).

On a sad note, my old friend Joe Marsillo recently passed away from complications of testicular cancer. He had been fighting cancer for the last few years. I knew him back when we were working together at the UIC Writing Center. All I can say is what a truly fantastic person to be around. Before Korea, the UIC Writing Center was one of the more memorable events, not only during my time as an undergrad, but in my life. I made many wonderful friends there, and took on several initiatives there. Having Joe around made things at the center all the more fun and interesting. His passing comes with great sorrow and loss, but his time in the world, though rather brief, was a monumental one as he touched so many lives with his kindness, humor, and love. I will truly miss the guy, and I hope that he's in a far better place now.

Who knows what the next 10 months will be like? I know much has been said about how long I'll stay in Korea. To be honest with you, I don't have an exact answer. I am enjoying what I do, but at the same time, I also want to try new challenges and continue to be ambitious whether it will happen back home, or Korea, or elsewhere in the world. In the meantime, I am looking to travel to a new country this summer, preferably in Asia, and to get myself in better physical shape by then.

Until then, I will catch up with all of you soon. Take care. Much love, peace, and continued blessings!