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Monthly Archives: January 2010

I’ve been meaning to write about this guy for a while. This is Sejong the Great (세 종대왕), pronounced ‘say-jong dae-wong). He ruled Korea from September 18, 1418 to May 18, 1450. He is the creator of Hangul (한글). In my humble opinion, Hangul is the greatest written language ever. It works like this… every word is divided into syllables, so each character represents one syllable. Example: 마이클. That’s my name… Michael. But in Hangul, it’s divided into 3 syllables: ma – ee – kul. Each part of each character is like a letter in the Roman alphabet. Here’s the Korean alphabet:

Not my image.

It looks kind of intimidating at first glance, but once you know the basic alphabet, you can read pretty much any Korean. I can read Korean pretty fluently, but I have no idea what it means most of the time. It’s very useful for ordering food, getting directions, you know… the basic stuff. Having a Korean girlfriend has proven very useful for common phrases such as “I’m hungry” (배고바) and “I’m cold” (초어)

One thing us English speakers have trouble with is ‘rieul’, or ㄹ. It’s pronounced something like a cross between R and L. This explains why Koreans will often mispronounce words like ‘lonely’ as ‘ronery’.

Korean is much easier to learn in comparison to Chinese. I haven’t studied Chinese extensively, but I’ve had a Chinese girlfriend in the past who taught me a bit of it. The reason why Chinese is so difficult isn’t because of the complicated characters that (in my eyes) aren’t really intuitive, because you can’t really tell one ‘letter’ from another. It’s difficult because each word can possibly have 4 tones. Kind of like this: ー, /, \, and ^. The long dash represents saying a word steadily, with no intonation up or down. The second is the tone rising, as we English speakers do when asking a question. The third is the tone moving downwards, as we do at the end of sentences. The last one is going up and then down, all in the same character. This is why the Chinese language doesn’t use upward intonation to ask a question. Instead, they have a word they say at the end of the sentence to indicate that it’s a question. That character is ‘ma’, or 吗. The phrase 你好吗, literally translated, means “you good (question indicator)”.

Korean doesn’t have these tones, so we can use tone and inflection in our voice to convey emotion, whereas the Chinese rely on speaking their feelings. Pretty neat eh?

I’m not saying one is better than the other. I love the sound of Chinese speech. In this video you can clearly hear the up and down intonations of each word:

Before Sejong, Koreans used Chinese characters, called Hanja. Hanja doesn’t use the tones that Chinese does, but it’s still pretty difficult to read. Hanja is now antiquated, but is still used sometimes in advertising and such to promote a more ‘prestigious’ image.

So there you have it… a bit of history on Sejong and Hangul. It’s little things like this that we don’t appreciate until we research it for ourselves.


View facing East down the Han River from the 64 Building

I’ve been going through a really rough time the past couple of months. Long story, and none of your damn business anyway, so don’t ask.

Starting before all this ruckus though, I’ve always had an idea to do one good thing for another person each day. I don’t know about the karma of it, or if I believe in karma at all. I just do it because it feels good, and I hope that one day when I’m in need, someone will do something nice for me.

I’ll talk about 2 recent things I’ve done that have made me feel kinda fuzzy inside, and I hope they make you feel the same way. Yeah I know we’re supposed to go and do our good duties and not say a word, but I say scrap dat mess. If I keep it to myself, there’s absolutely zero chance that I will inspire someone else to do a nice deed. And that would mean that we have lost a good deed in the world because of this arcane idea of ‘doing nice and not telling anybody’. Not worth it.

This was a few weeks ago. I was at 왕십리 (Wangsimni) station. There was an old lady, must have been 75 or so, carrying 2 big bags. Now, ajummas generally have more strength in their fingernail than I do in my entire body. She was really struggling with her awkward bags though. Me, being the fit and able young bachelor I am, I decided to slowly… gently… making no sudden movements… reach for her bags to help her carry them up the stairs. I didn’t want her to think she was being mugged after all.

One she looked and realized what I was doing, her eyes lit up. The unpredictable nature of the ajumma made me almost jump back for fear of a wild, flying right hook. Not so. She gave a big, toothy (minus a few) grin and exclaimed what I could only make out as ‘what a nice foreigner boy!’


So, I helped her carry her bags all the way up to the platform. I even took them up the stairs while she rode the elevator up. When I got them back to her at the platform, she shot me that toothy grin, and said to me (I’m sure I’m spelling this wrong) 금어워, which is, in the hierarchical language that is Korean, an informal way of saying ‘thank you’ to someone you’re friendly with. There are only 2 times I can remember hearing this said to me, and this is one of them. It filled my heard with warmth on that cold night to hear her say that to me, because that meant that she saw me as a friend.

We were awkwardly standing there, and she asked me where I was from. I replied 카나다 (Canada). Again her eyes lit up. I wasn’t an American! Even better! I told her I am from 나이아가라 폭포, Korean for Niagara Falls. She was thrilled. The subway came, but before we boarded and parted ways, she felt she had to offer me something. Here’s what she gave me:


This is extremely dry, cooked rice, with a few dried beans in it. I don’t know how they make it, but it seems like they just let the rice sit in a rice cooker for too long, and then scrape this stuff off the bottom. The result is an extremely crunchy, nearly tasteless melange of ricey goodness. I don’t take candy from strangers, so I haven’t touched it, and likely won’t. We boarded the subway and parted ways. Again she smiled her broken picket fence grin, mouthed the informal ‘thank you’, and I was off.

I hope I made her night more pleasant to know that in the craziness of such a huge city, there are still some people who aren’t all about themselves, and are willing to help others with no expectation for compensation.


My second story

Yesterday I was at a subway station that isn’t too complex, but it’s a transfer station, meaning there are two levels. They can get confusing to people who haven’t used them before.

I was exiting the turnstile when I saw a young Japanese guy, about my age, asking people for help. The Koreans ignored him (and who could blame them, the guy was speaking in Japanese). I caught his eye, but he immediately dismissed me as being unhelpful, because I am not Korean, so how could I know the intricacies of the subway system? Ohh my little skinny Japanese friend, ye of little faith.

He was trying to purchase a single-ride ticket from the new automated machines. He showed me his Japanese/English map, and showed me where he wanted to go. The problem was that he was trying to purchase a ticket from the machine that only gives refunds. I had a pretty loose schedule, so I decided to help him out. The look on his face was similar to this:


I walked him over to the appropriate machine, set up his ticket, showed him which direction to take the subway. He was thrilled that I was willing to help him, in the sea of Koreans who weren’t willing to lift a finger. He reached into his pocket and pulled out two Japanese strawberry-flavoured candies, mustered his best ‘thank you’, and was off.

I do my best to go a good deed every day for someone, anyone. From holding doors, to carrying heavy stuff for old people, even walking old ladies across the street when it’s slippery with snow.

I hope that this has inspired others to extend their hand in kindness to someone else today. The smallest thing, even holding a door open for someone carrying a heavy load… the meaning stretches far beyond simply making sure the person gets through the door unharmed, but also signifies that we should all do our best to share each others’ burdens, and help out whenever possible.

I don’t really believe in organized religion, but I do believe in spirituality. And if there is some sort of way to elect yourself to be a better person, then I think that setting a rule of doing one good deed, every day, will definitely do some good things for you.

And even not, when you help someone else, you get a feeling of sweet selflessness, which I feel is severely lacking in ‘today’s society’. Listen to me ramble… I’m 25 and speaking as if I know anything about society.

Just some food for thought. Hold a door or two open, not just for pretty ladies, but for those in need of assistance. I think if everyone adopted this rule, the world would be a better place.

So I decided to get out to Cheonggyecheon (청계천) tonight to see the lights. It was pretty awesome. They had a bunch of laser light shows going on in the mist of the night. It made for a really nice atmosphere.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been to Cheonggyecheon. Tonight I got off at Gwanghwamun station (광화문 역), which is at the top of Cheonggyecheon, and walked about 4km. It was rainy and wet and cold, so I’m pretty happy to be at home now. I wish I had brought my video camera to take some short clips.

There was basically nobody there tonight because of the weather. This was a nice change from the usual crowded conditions there. Since it was raining, the snow had turned to ice, which made me do a pretty interesting dance a few times.

I was surprised to see ducks and even some kind of crane in the water while I was there. The crane was really skiddish and wouldn’t let me get close enough to get a good shot of it. As I quietly approached it, it took off in what appeared to be slow motion. At this point I could barely see it because of how dark it was. As I glanced over into my predicted flight path, I saw it soaring away into the cold, damp night.

HiSeoul is a festival that goes on all year round, with events for every season.

Right now they’ve got a cool winter festival going on, with lights all along Cheonggyecheon (청계천). I’m going to try to get there sometime this week to take some pictures and enjoy the mild temperatures we’ve had lately.

I went to the HiSeoul festival back in May when they had an international kind of thing going on, with booths from many countries from around the world. It was pretty awesome.

I’ll make this a short one because I haven’t actually been to the winter HiSeoul festival yet. Expect more soon, and check out my new blog for something a bit different.

Sorry it’s been so long, and that my posts lately haven’t been about Korea.

Christmas is over and now I’m on the 2-month stretch for home. I’ve decided that I will go back to Canada for spring and summer, and possibly come back to Korea for the fall. I’m also considering Japan, but something makes me a bit weary of that place. It’s like meeting a really pretty girl who’s self-sufficient, confident, and successful. What gives? There’s gotta be a catch. I’ll be doing some more research before I make my decision.

These days I have been pretty busy with schoolwork, as well as a new project that I’m working on, about design and typography. I’m basically trying to diversify my writing by forcing myself to write about something I know very little about.

I hope it takes off like this site has. I’m just about to hit 13,000 unique visitors.

We just did the grad photos of the kids here. It reminds me of last year at this time, and how sad I was to see the kids go. I get too emotional about stuff. I guess I get that from my mom. It’s just sad to know that they’re moving on, and 15 years from now likely won’t remember me at all. But I will remember each of them and their personalities that I’ve taken so long to try to understand. It’s not just babysitting here… it’s really like being a parent to these kids.

I will likely be leaving mid-March or early April, right when the new semester starts. I hope that I can be around to help out with the new classes before I take off.

I’m gonna go home and wait for my pizza. If you’re a foreigner in Korea and want some damn good pizza at a good price, check out Domino’s Korea. Good deals and they even have an English site. You have to pay with a credit card on the website, so I just use it to find a local store, and they speak pretty good English there.

Stay tuned.

Image copyright Alex Gray

It seems some people in the world are just born with their dreams in the palm of their hand. It takes a lot of work and strife, but they eventually get there. Some of us are born to be normal people, others are born to change and shape the world, or at least share a unique talent, and make a healthy living from it.

Some of these people include Steve Jobs, Patrick Stump, Slash, Buckethead, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Tom Waits, Ben Gibbard, Richard Branson… I could continue. These people have had various ways of making themselves successful, but one common thing unites them. They are all doing what they love, and getting paid for it, in a substantial way. While doing what they love, they are contributing to mankind.

I can hear the laughs now… the lead singer of Fall Out Boy contributing to mankind… Mike what have you been smoking? It’s not that he cured cancer or unfolded the human genome. He inspires people. Ben Gibbard, the singer and songwriter for Death Cab for Cutie has written some of the most inspirational and vivid poetry I’ve ever read. Slash from Guns N’ Roses… his riffs (from the 80’s and 90’s anyway) speak a story, and express his soul. Buckethead, through his ridiculous guise, exudes pain and loss through his riffs, be them shredding or melodic.

These musicians express themselves in the ways they know how; with their instruments and their words. They were all born with natural talents. Not everyone is born with something special. Remember how your grade 3 teacher told you that everyone is special? She lied. Very few people are special. Luckily, I’m one of them. My gift is the ability to express myself through photography and writing. There are others with a more diverse style than me, and there are definitely better writers and photographers than me, but I am still utilizing my gift in the only ways I know how.

The difference between Tom Waits and me is a few million dollars, and a smoking and alcohol habit. I’d much rather have the former.

Just as Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple in the 80’s, perhaps this is my ‘rock bottom’. But how will I rise up? Will some bigshot agent from National Geographic or Digital Photographer magazine stumble upon my blog and offer me a nice big fat contract and all the gear I need? Likely not. But hey, miracles happen.

This is one of my self-centered posts that’s basically me thinking out loud. I’ve been told many times how I’m talented, special, and lucky. That’s true.

Alright, I know I go on and on about Hiroshima. This blog is called Mike in Korea, not Mike in Hiroshima, but this trip has changed me as a person, permanently I think.

Never before have my eyes been opened to the power that we possess, and the ways we use it. Standing at the place where so many people died, it’s like I could feel their souls. Yeah it sounds cliché, but that’s the honest truth. Reflecting back on it now makes it feel even more real to me.

Yesterday I was showing my conversation student pictures and telling her about the history of the war and what happened there, and she started to cry. That was a really moving moment to me, because from my understanding, Koreans learn more about the torment and strife of their own people, rather than that of other countries. Granted, us Canadians don’t really learn a lot about Asian history either, which is understandable, because we’re busy learning about North American history.

All I can say is that this trip has changed my outlook on life, and further highlighted my drive to become a photojournalist. If anyone has experience in photojournalism, I’d love to hear from you. It seems like a really tough job to be good at. I need security in my job, so freelancing doesn’t really feel like a reliable job.

I’ve actually upset some of my Korean friends when I told them how I was moved so deeply by seeing Hiroshima. They argue that the Japanese had it coming, and that the Korean people have suffered as well. I am well aware of the struggles that Koreans have fought through throughout their entire history. It’s just that I haven’t had a chance to actually visit a place where so many innocent people died. A lot of innocent people died in Seoul at the hands of the Japanese, and Japan colonized here most recently from 1910 to 1945, I think.

My stance on all of this is that any war is in my mind deemed ineffective the moment that an innocent person dies. I doubt there has ever been a war where only the fighting parties were involved, so I guess that means that all war is ineffective. It’s just my hope that the world can learn from its past mistakes and use advances in technology to develop precision strike weapons, instead of those which obliterate an entire city with the push of a button.

In the paraphrased words of the great Bill Hicks, let’s stop spending money on wars, and come together, every country, as one group of people connected in love and respect. Let’s put all the money we spend on wars and weapons development towards spacecraft, and explore space in peace and love together.

One of the greatest quotes of all time:

The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever. Because this is just a ride.” And we…kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok? But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, not work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.

– Bill Hicks, 1993

I am in the airport bus waiting to leave Hiroshima Station. I can’t believe that 3 days went by so quickly.
This trip did many things for me. It gave me a chance to get away from Seoul. Again, don’t misunderstand. I love Seoul, but it’s nice to get away sometimes.
Here are some funny things that happened while I was here. I found myself accidentally speaking Korean to many of the people I interacted with. In Japanese, to say yes, you say ‘hye’. Of course, in English, ‘hye’ means ‘hello’. I would walk into a convenience store and the cashier would welcome me in Japanese, to which I would reply ‘hye’. So to them, I wasn’t greeting them back; I was saying hello. An old man working at a 7-11 near Hiroshima port was completely blown away by my camera. “Ohhhh… Good! Handsome cameraman! Ohhhh very professional… so good. So good.” I had a lot of awkward moments with some of the staff at the hotel. Just as I’d wave and say hello to anyone who’s helped me, I saw them walking in the hallway and went to smile and wave, but they buried their head in her shoulder. This made me really uncomfortable because I’m not a pervert. Maybe it’s just a cultural difference.
The weather in Hiroshima is much warmer than Seoul. The warmest it was while I was here was 15 degrees, and the coldest was 0. It never dropped below 0 degrees. One night it was 10 degrees in Hiroshima, but -10 degrees in Seoul.
Another thing is the language. Korean Hangul (한글) is MUCH easier to read compared with Japanese. Also Japanese has 2 kinds of characters, kanji, which is very close to Chinese characters, and kana, which is more close to Korean, using each character as a syllable of a word. Korean is much easier to learn, in my opinion. Once you know the Korean alphabet, you can read Korean very easily. My opinions on this are obviously biased, since I have spent much more time in Korea, and only a week total in Japan.
I did miss Seoul, for many reasons. First, it’s really cheap to eat in Seoul. You can get a full dinner with 5 side dishes for about $4 Canadian. Not so in Japan. Even McDonalds here is expensive. I enjoyed Japanese food, and had some really awesome udong noodles, but I missed my Korean comfort food, like kimbap and bibimbap. Also, transportation in Korea is very cheap. A typical subway ride anywhere in Seoul is usually about 80 cents, and rarely more than $1. In Hiroshima, the streetcar system costs 150 yen (about $1.75). I paid $1.75 to go 3 stops. A typical taxi ride in Seoul is usually around 2,500 won, or about $2.50. I don’t go very far, so I rarely pay more than that. Taxi fares in Hiroshima start at a minimum of 500 yen, or about $5.75. I know it’s not a huge difference, but if I were living here and taking taxis as much as I do in Seoul, it would get really pricey.

It’s hard to compare Hiroshima to Seoul, because Seoul is a much bigger city with much more resources to move people around cheaply.

Wow I’ve been posting a lot. Please scroll down to read from my previous days’ experiences, as well as my New Year’s Eve post.

Today I purposely got lost. I find that the best way to experience a place, without a motorbike, is to get lost. I still knew where I was, because I am really good with direction. I wandered around for about 4 hours. I ended up at Hiroshima Harbor. Nothing too exciting there. From there, I followed the river back to familiar ground.

Nothing too exciting today. I just wanted to get out and see parts that I haven’t seen before. The people here are so friendly to me, and I’m surprised at how many of them speak English. In Korea, store clerks and such don’t bother to try to speak English to me, but I met a lot of people who did. In Korea, it’s usually the younger people who speak English, but in Japan, it’s mostly the older people.

Tomorrow morning, I have to wake up at 5am and catch the first streetcar to Hiroshima Station in order to catch a bus to the airport so I can be early for my 9am flight back to Seoul. I plan on being ridiculously early because I don’t want a repeat of my previous experience. 🙂

I just had a thought. What the heck am I gonna write about when I’m finished in Korea? My Thorold adventures don’t seem too intriguing. I wish this could be my job… to travel the world writing about the places I visit. I can honestly say that I would never get tired of that. I’ve only spent a week total in Japan, including my visa run to Fukuoka, and my time in Hiroshima, but I found that any place in the world can feel like home once you understand and experience it.

This blog and my talents wouldn’t be possible without the support of my friends and family, as well as the people who somehow stumble upon my blog in search of information on Korea, English teaching, visa runs, etc. My photography skills would likely not be what they are today without the guidance of my high school art teacher. Her name escapes me at the moment. She saw how awful I was at drawing and painting, and suggested photography. Boom. My world exploded. The concept of photography had never really interested me, but I do remember as a child that I would take my parents’ camera and use up all the film on them.

I started photography using black and white film, doing all the processing, including chemicals and manually exposing photo paper. I briefly experimented with rayograms, which were a really awesome way to make some psychedelic art.

Anyway, the last few paragraphs don’t quite fit in this post. I will likely add these to an ‘about me’ section of my blog later.

Due largely to the fact that I was alone throughout my entire trip, I spent a lot of time at the Hiroshima Memorial Park. I spent the last 2 hours of 2009 sitting at the park, taking some photos, and reflecting on the year. I had noticed a trend throughout the year… I was always motivated to do things for others. This year, 2010, is the year of Mike.

I was sitting on a bench, and every minute, on the minute, they would ring the peace bell. Its sound was hollow and bleak, and absolutely bone-chilling. If they rang that bell once for every life lost, they would have to ring it about 140,000 times. If they did that every minute on the minute, it would take 38 hours, or over a day and a half. I made a video trying to express the feeling in the air, but I don’t think the video does the feeling any justice. The bell chimes at around the 25 second mark. Here it is:

Absolutely soul-wrenching.

A small group of elderly people were gathered at the dome praying for peace and prosperity in 2010. If there’s one place in the world to pray for peace, I’d say this place would be it.

More HDR shots from New Year’s Eve here.