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Category Archives: In Korea

I’ve been dreading to write this post for months. I’m finally out of Korea. I can say that the hardest thing I had to do was to say goodbye. I’m not good with goodbyes, so I did my best to make the situation as ugly and angry as possible. I guess I still don’t know how to deal with emotions, and I regret the way I handled myself. I’m feeling pretty low right now.

I’m sitting in Dallas Fort Worth airport waiting for my cheeseburger, nearly in tears for the 20th time today. I feel a huge loss and emptiness in my heart. I’ve lived in Korea for nearly 2 years, and I did a lot of growing and changing there.

There was actually a point when I had a small panic attack on the flight from Japan, and I was ready to jump out the window and somehow parachute back to my home in Geumho-dong, Seongdong-gu.

I guess you really don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

I have a funny feeling that I will return to Korea soon.

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Seollal is the Korean Lunar New Year. It’s observed by Koreans around the world, and has its roots in Buddhism. It is the first day of the Korean lunar calendar. This year, it falls on Valentine’s Day, February 14th.

This is a huge celebration for Koreans, who get a day off work, and spend time with family. They play traditional games, including flying kites, kicking hackie sacks, and play on a seesaw.

Many Koreans travel during this time to be with family and friends, so buses and subways are absolutely packed with holiday travelers. Koreans will wear the hanbok, the traditional Korean dress for both men and women. You can see Koreans wearing their hanboks around town, on the subways and in the streets.

This is a very family and filial-piety-oriented holiday, where children wish their parents a happy new year by performing a traditional bow and say kind words. They say 새해 복 많이 받으세요, which translates to “Please receive many blessings in the new year.”

A burial mound at the base of Dobongsan (도봉산)

Koreans also visit the grave mounds of their deceased relatives and pay their respects. In North America, we bury our dead, deep underground, but in Korea, they place the body on the ground and pile dirt on top, creating a large burial mound. These mounds can very often be seen high up in mountains, as well as in many rural areas.

What did I do during my Seollal break you ask? Nothing.

Alright Mike. Keep it together. Stay focused. You’re the hard-edged artistic guy, the one with the constantly stagnant stare, the one people wonder about

The thing is, the thought of me leaving Korea has me in a huge mix of emotions.

This guy is pretty sad that I'm leaving...

I talked to my boss yesterday about my situation. He said he’d get my flight booked for the first week of March. That’s like 3 weeks away. The thought of leaving has me up all night. I was up at 5:30am this morning, no chance of going back to sleep. So right now I’m running on caffeine and adrenaline.

I’m just worried about what I’m coming home to. The job market isn’t exactly sparkling in Niagara. Honestly, I know how awesome and talented I am. I am good looking. I am young. Being good looking alone puts me ahead of the rest, as sad as it is. I have a lot going for me, but I need to find a place that will let me focus my talent and energy, and the only place I’ve found where I can do that is through writing and photography.

I can’t see myself living the way I want to while doing the starving artist thing. I am coming back for my brother’s wedding in July, and if I can’t secure a decent job by then, I’ll likely come back to Korea or maybe Japan next year. I’ve already registered my WordPress domain for my Japan adventure, should they happen.

One thing I know damn well, is I’m gonna get a huge prosciutto sammich from Big Red. It was an absolute staple during my college and university years.

The next few weeks, I’m going to try and do whatever the hell I want. Maybe head back to the mountains, weather permitting. That is one thing that I will really long for… there is nothing like the kiss of a mountain peak on a cool October day.

Myeongdong is a hugely popular shopping district in Seoul. It’s the 9th most expensive shopping area in the world, in terms of rent space in cost per square meter.

There are some pretty high-end stores there, like a Tommy Hilfiger outlet, Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Lacoste, etc. It would be heaven for someone with more money than sense.

Speaking of more money than sense…

Frisbee, an Apple reseller in Myeongdong

It was pretty chilly out there, so I decided to bask in Apple’s warm glowing warming glow. It’s a typical Apple reseller layout; minimalist with a focus on the products. I really want lot of things in that store, particularly a 2TB Time Capsule. I can’t wait for the iPad to show up there. I likely won’t be able to afford one of those for a while, but it will be cool to play with one once they end up on store shelves. This store is 3 floors of Apple goodness, including a seminar room loaded with iMacs. Heaven.

Of course I took the opportunity to show off my smashed iPhone. I get a kick out of their reactions.

After the Apple store, I went home. Not much to see in Myeongdong unless you’ve got some money to spend, but a cool place to look around if you’re bored one night.

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!’

Whew.

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:

yummy

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:

驚きおよび満足!

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.