Sunday, April 13, 2008

A frisbee flop

One of my main motivations for coming to Korea was to try new things - I imagined these would include visiting splendid temples, trying strange cabbagey foods and singing in small rooms (all of which I have ticked off my imaginary Korean to-do list). One thing I didn't anticipate was taking part in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, but I'd heard such positive things about the sport, it seemed something I shouldn't miss out on.

For those not in the know (which included me up until a few weeks ago), Ultimate Frisbee (also simply known as Ultimate) is a non-contact, team-based sport, which began life on US campus in the sixties. Apparently Joel Silver had a role in creating the rules, and setting up the tenets of the sport, which include a strong emphasis on sportsmanship and mutual respect. A game plays out as something like a cross between American football and netball, with two teams trying to pass the disc to their opponents' end-zone.

Despite the relative simplicity of the rules, as a almost complete newcomer to Ultimate, I was all at sea when it came to playing the actual games. My pathetic level of fitness didn't help matters either, as there is a ridiculous amount of running involved in a game. On sand. Quite frankly, I was appalling, and although I was starting to get a bit of a feel for the game by the end of the first day, by that point I was too exhausted to care very much.

Thankfully, this was a 'hat tournament', with a mix of beginners and more experienced players assigned to teams, not randomly as the name would suggest, but to create a balance of skill levels. Alongside a few Korean participants, most of the players were an interesting mix of foreigners, who had travelled from all over Korea to play on Haeundae, Busan's most popular beach. The beach gets horribly crowded in the summer months, but on this weekend in early April, it was relatively quiet, even though the weather was beautiful.

My team were knocked out early on day two, so I could spend most Sunday resting my aching limbs, enjoying the sun and watching the other games. A good game of Ultimate can be very impressive to watch, with a mixture of fluid teamwork, lightning fast changes of pace, and more than a little good, old fashioned showing off. I'm very much looking forward to seeing more of the same at the International Ultimate Frisbee Tournament on Jeju Island this week, but won't be competing again until I've had a complete body transplant, at the very least.

Photo album:
Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Busan

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Since we last spoke

Since my last posting, one or two things have happened in South Korea.

Last week saw the National Assembly election, which resulted in a large majority for president Lee Myoung-bak's Grand National Party. In the weeks leading up to the election, the streets of Changwon (and presumably the whole country), were invaded by vans blaring out the various candidates' slogans and theme tunes. The candidates were all numbered for easy recognition, and the vans were usually accompanied by a throng of young women in brightly coloured t-shirts, either dancing in unison, tirelessly chanting or making enthusiastic gestures. There didn't seem to be much in the way of political debate going on, which could explain why the election resulted in a voter turnout of only 46%, the lowest in Korean history.

Capturing the public's imagination a little more effectively was the story of Yi So-yeon, Korea's first astronaut, who blasted off from Kazakhstan and arrived at the International Space Station last week. Yi is supposedly leading the way for a rigorous programme of Korean space research, but for now her achievement has a mainly symbolic value. As a young (29 year old) female scientist, it is hoped that Yi will become an inspiring figure to the nations' youth, and her cheerful humility sets her in good stead for this role. She's certainly made an impression on some of the earnest teenage girls in Anmin, and more importantly, has succeeded in transporting specially modified versions of Korean national foods into space. The presence of ramen noodles, and kimchi in the space station has been seen as in some ways more significant than the fact that Korea has become the 37th nation to send a person into space.

The past few weeks have also seen the coming and going of cherry blossom, magnolia flowers and other beautiful blooms. This explosion of life is a real source of national pride, especially in the South of the country, with many annual festivals dedicated to celebrating the emergence of spring. The biggest of these is the Gunhang Festival, held in Jinhae, one of Changwon's neighbouring cities, which regularly attracts over a million visitors over a ten-day period. I somehow managed to completely miss the festival, but seeing Changwon's streets swathed in white, pink and purple flowers more than made up for it. The blossom really did bring a sense of hope and rebirth to the city, and transformed even the dreariest industrial street into a festive, romantic avenue. The infinite shades of green that are now emerging - along city streets and on mountain slopes - are going a long way to filling the gap left by the absence of daffodils and bluebells.

I've also managed to partake in a couple of activities synonymous with life in modern Korean cities. First up was a visit to a naoraebang (signing room), for a night of cosy karaoke with a group of fellow English teachers. Almost every building in central Changwon has at least one noraebang, and it's easy to see their ongoing appeal, as the small, private rooms make the sport of murdering classic tracks (including, in my case Don't Stop Me Now and Hotel California) much more appealing than when it involves standing on a stage in front of a bunch of heckling businessmen.

Another ubiquitous fixture of city life are DVD bangs, which are also based around the idea of hiring out private rooms, in this case for watching films. I was intially quite dubious about these establishments, mainly due to the obvious sleaze factor (and some of them are clearly quite shady), but happening upon a high quality establishment near Yongji Lake has turned me into a real fan. Hiring out a room with a few friends is cheaper than a cinema visit and more comfortable, with a huge padded couch (okay, it's probably closer to a bed) to lounge across, complete with pillows and blankets. With a decent selection of new and classic flicks, a good DVD bang is the perfect venue for a the ultimate slumber party (or more intimate activities, obviously). Though the rooms can't compete with the experience of seeing a film on a cinema screen, the projection and sound systems are surprisingly good, and with the advent of Blu-ray and other HD formats, the picture quality should soon rival the multiplex experience.

I've been keen to see as much live performance as possible since coming to Changwon, especially Korean originals, but have been thwarted a little by my hagwon's working hours (usually 13.30 - 21:00, which is quite common). Thankfully, one of the most hotly-anticipated shows to hit the city this year,
The Ballerina Who loved The B-boy, happened to arrive on a weekend.

The show is entirely dance-based, with no dialogue, the thinnest of storylines (uptight ballerina falls for a downtown street dancer and eventually rejects ballet for a life of urban posturing and baggy trousers) and a slightly slapdash, though committed and energetic approach. Apart from a few rather lackluster ballet scenes and the odd dream sequence, the majority of the action takes place in 'B-boy Square', with various flavours of breakdancers hanging out and keeping themselves entertained through the love of flashy dance moves.

The dancing was always hugely energetic, and seriously impressive in places, and with a number of different styles on show, never overstayed its welcome. The music was a sprightly mix of 80s hip hop classics and 90s big beat anthems, which suited the (purposefully) cheesy nature of the storyline, sets and costumes. There was a genuine feeling of celebration to the show, and the audience gave the young cast an ecstatic response. I could have done with a little more conflict (the one fight scene, which could have potentially used the pent up aggression of the dancing to good effect, fizzled out disappointingly), varied pacing and distinctive characterisation, but the show was very entertaining nonetheless.

Perhaps most significantly (for me, anyway) I've started a proper course of Korean language lessons, which partly explains my lack of blogging activity. The course takes place at the beautifully landscaped Changwon College, and has so far been an enjoyable, challenging introduction to some of the trickier parts of Korean (e.g. reading the alphabet, conjugating verbs etc.). My progress has been quite slow (due to general laziness as much as anything), but it feels very rewarding to be properly focusing on learning the language, at least twice a week. It's easy enough to get by with only a few basic words and phrases in Changwon, but having an extra level of recognition makes a big difference. The course has also helped me better understand the problems my pupils have with English, and has introduced me to a lovely, varied bunch of weigooks (foreigners), at similar stages along the Korean journey to me.


Surviving South Korea 101

Another perspective on the life of a hagwon teacher in Changwon.

Kickin' it in Geumchon
A concise, and quite brilliant introduction to key aspects of Korean city living, and the weigook experience.

Photo album:
April in Changwon