dal niente

Month: January, 2008

Time Well “Wasted”

I’m having a bit of trouble typing right now because my biceps are killing me.  I just walked about 3km in -15C weather, carrying a computer casing (an entire tower) in my arms.  It wasn’t heavy for the first few blocks, but afterwards, it was getting really goddamn heavy.

So how did the night begin?

After work, I went to place of a co-worker.  He’s leaving Korea at the end of this month.  We weren’t really close or anything, but I was dropping by to pick up the 50cc scooter I’d be buying from him.  Well, that and other things.  Usually when teachers finish their contract, they have a lot of stuff to get rid of. In the end, I only ended up taking the computer.  The battery of the scooter was dead, so I couldn’t ride it home.  Probably due to the cold.  It’s as cold as I remember winters back home in Montreal… with the wind, it’s much worse than -15 I think.

But after dropping by his place, we got talking.  He’s had a lot of time to think about his experience here in Korea, and in general, about life.

He’s perhaps the first person that I connect with out here in Korea.  We’ve got a lot of common, despite our differences.

One of those things is the wondering of how people grow up.  When someone comes to Korea to teach, what is this?  I mean, one of the reasons is because it’s easy.  It’s only recently that Korea’s requesting criminal record checks into foreigners looking for work visas…  but prior to that, one of the major attractions of workin in Korea was that one could get an ESL teaching job relatively easily.  It didn’t matter what your background was.  It didn’t really matter if you were good with people or not, or if you had any training in the field– you basically had to speak standard, ‘neutral accented’ English, and you could get a fairly deent paying job pretty easily.

This usually means that ESL jobs attract a lot of people who don’t have ESL as a career choice.  This usually means that people who become teachers are at a crossroads in their life– they’re looking for answers perhaps, or they’re trying to do start from scratch with the isolation afforded by a foreign country. 

But what is the typical ESL teacher like?  They’re very different from a homebrew, education-degreed English teacher in most cases.

It doesn’t really say much to generalize, so we started talking about ourselves instead.

We both started working at a relatively early age– he started when he was 17, while I think I started when I was 18.  I think that this has a lot to do with the difference between us and most other teachers.  Teaching isn’t easy– there are days when it’s a downright terrible job.  This largely depends on the kind of personality you have and the kind of energy you put into it, since it’s reflected back at you by your kids in interesting ways.  But the main idea is that, frankly, some people aren’t made for teching.  Some people don’t have the patience for it.  Or, by the lure of the money, they’re just interested in doing it for mercenary reasons– they put up with it because it’s an easy job to land, and the pay is good.

But is this a good approach?

I don’t think so.  I think that that’s where going through a lot of work in my life and learning about all sorts of different management styles and industries is what makes me know what I want to do next.  It helps me to have ‘a plan’. 

And I think, for that reason, that it’s good that I started working so early in my youth.  Sure, you could argue bad things about it–  but since I can’t change the past, my reasoning is that I made the most of it by suffering.

Sure, that sounds like a strange idea– but hear me out.  My theory is that experience is only useful for knowing how much suffering you can put up with and figuring out how much you ‘deserve’ in the next stage.

Part of knowing what you want to do in the future has to do with knowing your limits– which ones you don’t want to cross, and which ones you want to push.  You can’t do that if you don’t have experience in the jungle– I think that people who have worked shit jobs from the very start and inched their way up are the ones who have the brightest futures, because they know what a shit job is and why they don’t want it.

On the other hand, some people have it too easy– they work later in life and as a result, they don’t know what that suffering is.  And so, being a bit older, they’re not so determined and perhaps lack the ambition to find something better, because they’re still at an energetic stage in their life where the ‘shit job’ is still okay.  Had they started sooner, they’d be at a point where it’s about building a career.  Or, where it’s an implementation of a plan, rather than the stage where someone is thinking about getting a drawing board.

 And so I find that I’m bored when I go in the teacher’s room sometimes.  They talk about classes– do I really need to hear about it? I am in school for over 11 hours each day– do I REALLY need to hear stories about how so and so is a rotten kid, or this and that is bad about the educational system here?  I really don’t.  I need a bit to keep it in perspective, but my point is, this is not all there is to teaching, and this is not all there is to Korea.  This is not all there is to the foreigner experience.  This is not all there is to life.

There is more to life than a job about which we only complain.

So anyway, I was having dinner with this coworker and we talked about all sorts of things from videogames to work.  Parallel in themes, when I was working in a library, he was working in IT.  When I was coordinating at a hospital, he was managing at a hotel.  We have stories that in background are different but in theme are very very similar.  It was nice to meet someone, for a change, who didn’t see Korea as just a ‘plug in’ 1-year contract of life, and was actually using the time and experience as peice in a larger puzzle.

I haven’t met anyone else like this in Korea yet.  It’s a refreshing change to meet someone who has found his Way and is striving for it.


Power Balance

I have three classes.  The first one is a Senior 3 class (S3), and in the afternoon, I have a Junior 1 and Junior 4 class (J1 and J4).  The ages range between about 11 years old to 14  years old.  I’ve learned a number of things while working out strategies about how to go about this.  It’s hard to organize it into a post so I’ll try and put it in point form.

  • Most people don’t like knowing that they’ve made a mistake.  When a kid does something wrong, it’s usually enough to point out that they did it wrong.  But care must be taken that the kid knows that what you’re saying has to do with the material, and not with them as a person.
  • If it is a problem of character (regardless of test scores, the kid has a bad attitude) you need to at all times let the kid know that you’re giving him better options.

There was a comic book I read once, I think it was Azarello’s 100 Bullets.  One of the lessons is that no matter what the situation, when you catch a man doing you wrong, you have to leave him a way out where he can save face.  If the person is your enemy, sure– corner them, and just tear ’em up.  But in a teaching environment, and ideally any environment (why would you want to make enemies?) it’s much more effective to be the better person and let that person save face.  Don’t force them to do as you do– give them the option of doing what’s right.   Pride doesn’t care about right and wrong– oftentimes, pride hinges solely on the novelty of free-will, even though in truth what’s right and wrong is very unoriginal.

I’ve found that this simple idea works not just with kids but even with people my age and older.

  • When it comes to talking, some people just dish ‘advice’ out by the barrels.  But I’ve found that the best advice has always been the kind that tells you to do your best.  When someone tells me a ‘formula’ for success, I’m a bit wary.  Oftentimes people are talking out of the love of their own voice more than they are out of a concern for your predicaments.
  • When it comes to people who  you should be taking advice from, look for the people who are listening to your problems rather than trying to fit you into a mold of their own experieinces.  Advice is really just a comparison of experiences– it’s never really going to be custom tailored to your situation.
    • But of course, this all assumes that you’ve got at least some understanding of what you’re dealing with.  For example, an ESL student who knows nothing about a subject isn’t asking for the teacher’s advice– he’s simply in need of instruction because he hasn’t acquired enough of the mechanics of the medium itself to even bring strategy into the equation.  I’m really talking about, for example, teachers asking for help from other teachers.

Random notes:

  1. I can’t stand the word ‘virus’.  People are always blaming computer problems on viruses.  It’s one thing to blame one’s own computer problems on viruses–  but don’t tell me to do this or that because of a fear of viruses.  Viruses is a lot like mad cow disease or avian bird flu– even if it is potent, the proliferation of is highly exaggerated and the ignorance and unwillingness to understand more about them is almost as dangerous as the virus itself.  When people who know nothing about viruses say “I bet you it’s a virus!” or say “maybe it’s because the hard drive is too full and there’s not enough memory” I really have to bite my lip.  I sometimes try to tell the person why their hypotheses are illogical but oftentimes, I just think: I have more important things to do.  It’s true that I’m not helping the situation by just nodding and trying to end the conversation as quickly as possible, but yes, I do have more important things to do than to try and reverse techonological prejudices.
  2. Negativity is way easier than positivity.


  • is a powerful tool.  I’ve seen students use attention tools, such as direct speech, body language and yes, even fistfights, to direct attention at eachother.  The light shone upon people either inspires a warm environment for growth like in plants, or it inspires fear like a limelight.  In some cases, that same limelight is the opportunity for glory.  I had one student last month who no teacher beleived would ever get anywhere because he was ostracized for his facial features, which don’t fit the Korean standard of beauty.  As a result, he was always in the limelight.  He’s not a bad kid– always polite, always giving that average effort, and the social supression left him getting 50s and 60s on his stests.  The conditions never let him beleive that he could be anything better.  I told him everyday “so what if they make fun of you. You know, this is also good– they watch every single thing you do.  Most people have to work for that, you have it by magic.”  And what did the kid do?  He started using the attention they gave him.  When they called him ugly or stupid, he rolled with the punches.  He countered.  Example?  When they said that anything he touched was ‘dirty,’ he actually went as far as kissing another boy in the face.  In Korea, kissing in public is a huge social taboo– homosexuality is even worse.  When this happened, I just started laughing– it was the turning point for him, and even though the class got a bit crazy at times, it was at that point that Scott learned to surf the attention.  He learned to turn it into his own energy.  He used enemy arrows against them.  And in the end, Scott was firmly part of that class that the rest of them would wonder about if he was ever absent.
  • in my J4 class, I have 3 boys who constantly try explicitly to get on my nerves. I’ve started giving them high fives whenever they do something good.  It’s not much but it’s a start– it has them talking to me now.  I indulge myself a bit in their craziness, but when they cross any of the clearly defined rules, I lay down the law.  It’s tough, energy consuming work, but it’s turning around.
    • One of the J4 bad boys got into serious trouble yesterday night after school.  Not just my counselor, but two counselors, spoke to me this morning to explain the incident.  One of the conselors was the bad boy’s former counselor, and the other was his current counselor.  What happened last night was that he had stuck bubblegum in a girl’s hair and given her a noogie.  When the girl started to cry, he offered to cut her hair with a pair of safety scissors.
      • So, yea– do you think I’m exaggearting when I say that I have bad students?
      • The parents of that girl demanded that he be expelled from the school.
        • This is a concern… shall we say… in progress.
    • I should add that in my class, this same boy has a 95% average on all his test scores.
    • Today was better though, like i said.  I’ve even got the bad boys teaching me a bit of Korean… it doesn’t matter what we talk about, but the tactic right now is to develop some trust with them by getting the channels open for reasons other than me scolding them.

Anyway, a bit too tired to write much more right now.  I’ll tell you folks more once I had a bit more sleep.  Ciao for now!

War of Tug

Said William Barclay, “endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” 

Ever since I came back from vacation it’s been pandemonium.  Being at the school all day has made me feel almost that I live here, because, fact of the matter is, I spend more conscious hours here than anywhere else. I’ve been lacking sleep, and I’ve been mentally and physically exchausted.

In large part this has to do with the Taekwondo exam that I had on saturday– preparing for it the night before and actually participating took a lot of energy out of me, and those are hours of sleep that I have yet to recuperate.  On the day of the exam itself, I misread the korean instructions for the exam time and showed up at 5pm to find that the exams were just starting; I thought that *warmups* started at 5, and that the exam started at 6.

On Monday, more TKD after 11 hours of work– and because we’d just finished exams, that gives Gwanjangnim more time to let us do non-poomsae training.  That meant, on monday, volume kicking exercises to work on our cardio. And it wasn’t a 1 hour class like usual– we were there for a bit over two hours that night.

So all that physical exertion stacked up and by yesterday, I was just totally out of it.  I woke up in the morning feeling like I had bricks on strings tied to my brain through my eyesockets.  That’s strange imagery, I know, but as painful as it sounds that sort of approximates the encumberance I felt as my day went on.

But things are looking up.  Yesterday, in the class with the most delinquents, one out of three of the bad boys wasn’t there, so I was finally given the opportunity to divide and conquer, turning the two remaining bad boys against eachother.  They behaved better for the rest of the class once I managed to orchestrate a sense of betrayal between them.  Basically, I said that “one of you is going to be punished for this thing that you’ve done.”  Finger pointing ensued.

Is turning friends into ennemies an awful tactic? In some contexts yes.  But I make it a point that they understand that it’s not their friendship that gets them in trouble– it’s their endorsement of class disruptions.  It was my success for the day when the two students, tired of having no backup, remained mostly silent for the rest of the class and stayed focused on the work.

That was a plus.

The other plus is that on Monday, I got my blue belt.  Oh, and a medal.  Apparently I did quite well on the exam!


I’ve been really busy lately, pretty much alternating between work and sleep so I’m really behind in all my Xanga-ing.  I’ll get back to all you folks who commented over the past few days!  Until then, keep writing!  Though I don’t always have time to write, reading about other peoples lives always helps me get through the day whenever I can check it out.

Effects do Stack

In about 10 hours, I’m going to be waking up to go to work.

For this month only, I’m going to be teaching Intensives  I mentioned this in an earlier blog, but this perhaps needs a bit more clarification.  It’s 3 classes of 3 hours each that I teach.  I have another 2 hours at work to do prep time. So I spend a bit over 11 hours at work every day until the end of January.

It’s really draining.  It really is.

I’m kinda on the good side of the counselors at work.  It’s funny how that turned out, because I was getting in trouble not too long ago for various things just about every 2-3 days.  Now I have more resposabilities and a more decent salary, plus a bit more bargaining rights when it comes to administrative favors.

That’s all fine and dandy but what I really think was most gratifying about the past 3 months at my job were some of the ‘bad apples’ that I turned around.  I used to rant to my cousellor about how great it felt to finally reach a kid who was scoring 20% on vocabulary tests and to be able to bring that up to a 60 or 70… I made a note to myself to not be like some other teachers, who would go as far as calling their kids stupid. 

This doesn’t make me special, does it?  Perhaps it just means that I’m stubborn, or that I’m stupid.  The usual quick method of quelling an uprising in class is to punish the kid.  The usual method of dealing with a student with poor grades is to punish and assign more homework.

Where’s the humanity in that?  Where’s the customization of the formula?

And so I reiterate my stance on rules:  rules aren’t meant to be upheld, they’re meant to be guidlines.  They’re meat to make it more time efficient by taking away the need for reevaluation of every little thing. But like any RTS players know, strategy is only half of the game– the other half is the down-and-dirty micromanagement.

I’m a headfirst sort of person so I usually do better at the micro part than the rest.  But this is where it’s backfiring– the new January intensive semester has me teaching a whole new set of kids.  And for some odd reason, I have more than my fair share of delinquents.

I just find that I have an excessive amount of bad students this month.  Is it because the company expects me to work miracles? I mean, sure– I will do my best, and that’s what did turn kids around last semester  But even this– this is a bit much!  In the last three days of teaching, I’ve discovered the same amount of problem children that it took me a month to discover last semester.  This isn’t because I’m looking harder– it’s just that much more obvious.

I have to fight to keep control of my classes.  I mean, it really is a marathon– 6 hours of teaching would leave me just a bit tired, but 9 hours?  By the 9th, I’m mentally and physically exhausted.  Usually, entire classes of kids are just assigned a new teacher to take over the whole group (since that’s administratively easy– since everyone in the class is the same level).  But for me, somehow, I’ve got hybrid classes of some of the worst of every class. 

It may be more than I can handle.  It’s nice that the counselors have this much confidence in me.. but really…

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong, maybe this is their way of  me for breaking so many of their rules.

Shall I try to be positive?  I suppose the bright side is that I’ve never felt such a duality between a pressing need to go to class and an infinitely heavy dread of walking into that same class.  This is in itself a learning experience.  I blog now because I try to get the most out of my short weekend before having to go back in that hole… when I suppose, I should be sleeping.

…it’s only until the end of January, I tell myself…

It feels like I’m on a tightrope.  It’s all fine,  because I know what I’m doing– I’m a professional.  But on the other hand, is it just a matter of time until it just wears me down?

Need for Need

While I have yet to see it all, I think I’ve had a good amount of opportunity in my life so far to see a lot of different people of a lot of different ages.  You see a few patterns.  It’s true that everyone is unique– but that uniqueness is also accounted for in the whole concept of society, which implies that we hold a lot of things in common.  If you phrase that a bit less flattering way, one perspective is that we’re not all that original.

Creativity is one issue.  But the one I was thinking about was the opposite– destructive tendencies.  Or more particularly, pessimism.

There’s a real difference between pessimism and cynicism, but lets just address this popular issue of people oftentimes being generally low on hope.  Why? Simply because they don’t want to find any.

From every end.  In the classroom, I found that some kids actually have this brain, this idea box, filled to the brim with an operating software that mandates “this is my limit” or “I am only this good.”  The system tells me to put in a fighting effort for the ones who are lost causes, but smart business practice says that we sweep them under the rug as much as possible and try our best to promote the comfort and enjoyment of the smart kids– they’re the ones who bring the prestige, an indirectly but inevitably, the dollars to the classroom.

The same thing happens in hospitals– you do your best to help those who want to be saved.  Hippocratic oath or not, medical institudtions can and do put in more effort for people who want to be helped.  For those who consider themselves lost causes, the diagnosis of the self-proclaimed victim seems to be the seal on the case.

Few people would go out of their way to second guess a exercise in free will when a bad student or a bad patient says “I give up.”

This is my case for socialism.  I’m not saying, lets all be communist.  I’m not even saying that this is that kind of issue– I’m just drawing a continum from left to right where one one side, we have people telling you what’s best and on the other side, you have everyone being left to their own means.

The latter is that ‘capitalist’ mentality that says competition solves everything– in the big shakedown, it’s only the weak who drop out.  The automatic Darwinism makes the next generation stronger because they pass those hurdles automatically.  A person who is ambitious, for example, easily does the hard work necessary to get those good grades that get the good jobs.  A person who lacks ambition, on the otherhand, falls down the caste ladder until only the jobs knee-deep in the mud are available (deservedly so).

What a lot of people in the middle and upper castes often don’t realize though is that this system doesn’t work.  What is the point of it all?  To accumulate wealth?  We’ve already established: having money doesn’t mean you’re happy. Not automatically.  There is something else, something transcendant of all that.  And that is our humanity.

Humanity means everything in between birth and death, from the saddest to the happiest moments. 

I’m getting sidetracked.

What I meat to write about is that we need to ignore all logic at some point and simply decide to believe in something exactly as obscure and unoriginal as love.  The day we become too cynical to trust someone who tries to do something nice for us or when we become too caught up in intellectual exercises that we can’t appreciate simple happiness is when we are dead.

It is important to understand what’s going on.  Most people don’t go through that effort.  But after we understand, we can’t just stop at cynicism– we can’t just hate the world when we discover all it’s conspiracies against us.  We have to believe that this kind of knowledge is a starting point, and that there is more to it that needs to be done.  We need to try to make the world a better place.

People always ask me, “what can I do?”

It’s not my place to tell anyone, except that in all likelihood, you need to find a reason for yourself.  You need to find this reason more than anything else in your life.  Otherwise, you’ll always feel alone.


The first major difference that people back in Canada wouldn’t believe me about is that I almost completely didn’t notice Christmas or New Year’s this year.  Back home in North America, sure, you can say that the day sneaks up on you– but I spent both days in Taiwan this year and really, it’s not a big deal at all.  In the days leading up to Christmas, there were none of the telltale signals that would trip a 25-year trained seasonal internal clock in me: there was no snow, there wasn’t much Christmas music, there weren’t evergreens tassled and trimmed with all the niceties.

There was just a city– waking and sleeping as it always did.  It wakes and sleeps as it always does.

I think this says a lot about people in general.  I don’t mean from a particular culture– I mean, about humans all over the world. It’s something that we have in common, despite the fact that the way in which we employ this mechanic of our existence ends up with different results.

That common thing is values.  Or maybe hope.  Something like… beliefs.

And my point is that it doesn’t matter what we believe in– what Korea lacks in a New Year’s celebration, it makes up for with their own New Year later in the year.  It doesn’t matter what the celebration is– it doesn’t matter if we, as a planetary union, agree on it or not– what matters is that whatever each of us decides to believe in, we do it.

One of Neitsczhe’s ideas, along with many many other humanist philosophers, was that we had to break down all our belief systems and start from scratch.  We had to wonder why we believe what we believe, and not only did we have to destroy our current systems to do that, but we need to take the next step, the great leap forward, to arbitrarily chose something that we want to live.  We have to make our own way.

Being out of America has done that for me.  It’s one thing to live in North America and to think about how things could be different.  It’s entirely another thing to actually go to another continent, not just as a tourist, but as a resident, and to live differently.  Nothing makes it easier to be able to deconstruct North American values that people preach as gospel like seeing that in fact, yes, it can and is being done differently somewhere else.

If there is one thing that I think that everyone should do, it should be to do that which they don’t normally do.  Not everyone has the luxury of travel– but so many people are quick to say “that doesn’t interest me” or “I don’t like that”.  There’s may be a difference between two people who are at Point A– one person was, and always was at Point A, while the other person may have gone from A to B to C and then decided to come back to A.

Is the end result the same? Perhaps– but it isn’t the goals that define us, but the roads we take to get there.

I’ve started working a stretch of classes called “Intensives”.  I’m essentially at work, for about 12 hours a day, and 9 of those hours are spent teaching English as a second language Korean children between 11 and 13 years old.  I requested that I only get the older children– I wanted mostly the 13 to 15 year olds, but instead, I mostly got younger kids.

It largely makes me wonder if my preferences even matter? I mean, sure– we know what we want.  We know what we enjoy.  But do we ever grow from doing the things that we’re good at?  Do calm seas ever make for good sailors?

All of it

Despite enormous economic progress, the Taiwanese are still and likely will always be famous for their nightmarkets.  Here you’ll find a collection of items you won’t ever find in any departmet store, or even an entire downtown city: stinky tofu, switchblades, television remotes, nunchucks, fresh turtle heads (for medicine), dildos, BB Guns, Super Nintendo clones, fortune tellers, candy, live snakes, UFO machines, PR-47s and mahjong kits are just some of the things you can find.

Each propane tank weighs about twenty-five pounds empty, and well over a hundred when full.

A man in his fifties spins two propane tanks simultaneously across the concrete.  One cotton-gloved hand on each tank’s top, they angle a modest 15degrees with the floor but his rhythm for each hand is perfect, timed with his steps, and yet, allowing for the improvisation necessary when he hits a bump on the road.  The Taiwanese “Night Markets” are too crowded for delivery trucks to pass, and even though scooters are the most common workhorse in the country, the tanks are too bulky and dangerous to transport through the crowds on a vehicle.

He does it without any effort, and when he reaches his destination, he smiles as he accepts payment of a few blue bills. 

A few streets away is a man in an expensive suit on his cellphone, in his twenties, swearing as he works his way through the crowd at the crosswalk.