Walking with Haechi (Part 1b)

4 12 2009

After lunch we checked out of the hostel and boarded the bus for Seoul

Remember I said that Korea seemed to be full of apartments? My impression was only reinforced during the two-hour bus ride – there were clusters of apartments so high and expansive, it looked as if they could easily hold the population of my city here in the Philippines.

For those of you who have been to Baguio city in northern Luzon, Seoul resembles it to some degree: the city is built upon several rolling hills, most of which are covered with buildings of one sort or another. Yet somehow, Seoul manages to retain a decidedly suburban atmosphere – even with highrises and skyscrapers all around me, I ever lost the feeling that nature and the countryside were only an arm’s-length away (contrast this with say, downtown Makati, where nature not only feels far away, it actually is far away).

We checked-in at the Hamilton Hotel on Itaewon Road. We were told that more foreigners were in this district than native Koreans, and the plethora of shops and restaurants cateringto foreign tastes stood as testament to this (there was even a mosque!).

With a few more hours left in the day, we were taken to Insadong – a well-known shopping district that, according to Hojin, specialized in traditional Korean…stuff. Jeff and Elsa, one of our NYC supervisors, attemptes to brave the cold in flipflops. I guess nobody informed them that the temperature drops at night.

Insadong street was, to put it simply, crowded. Sidewalks teemed with pedestrians and shopping stalls,competing for space. More than a few just set up shop in the middle of the street, leaving the few cars foolish enough to attempt to drive down the road to their own devices in negotiating their way through. It was here I saw my first ever homeless Korean – he looked (and smelled) very similar to our “taong grasa” – the difference being that he was bundled-up.

Korea is famous for its cheap and awesomely filling streetfood, and I think no variety of streetfood was absent from Insadong – there were stalls selling sausages on a stick (Soondae in Korean), rice cakes dipped in meat-and-chili sauce (ddeokbokki), fried dumplings, and my personal favorite, bbundegi – silkworm larva, which came boiled and served by the cupfull.

I just had to try bbundegi – what’s the point of going to a foreign country and not experiencing the native fare? Besides, we feed balut to foreigners with undisguised glee, so its a fair trade. Bbundegi’s texture in the mouth is like shrimp with the shell still on – firm on the outside, pretty juicy on the inside. As for flavor, I suspect it takes on the flavor of whatever it is cooked in – the critters in my cup had a decidedly nutty flavor. Not bad, really – but Jeff took one bite and to this day, cannot stand so much as the smell of bbundegi.

We made our way to Ssamzegil (spelled “ssamjigil” in Korean) market, which is a shopping arcade of sorts. With three floors built in a continuous upward spiral, all one has to do is walk along the main walkway and pretty soon you will find yourself on the roof, never having climbed any stairs.

It was at this point that my colleagues could no longer restrain themselves and thus introduced the Korean people to the “jump shot” – basically, a picture taken while the subjects are suspended, mid-jump, in the air. It is no doubt quite fun to do, but it is not the easiest shot to make, and repeated jump shots in public places quickly become obnoxious. I soon began noticing the annoyed glances thrown by passers-by at our little group (my companions couldn’t care less), and to keep my sanity, I chose to stick close to Junghyun and Hojin as they wandered off towards a tea house on the second floor.

True to form, I pestered them with questions regarding how some of the women (actually, a lot of them) could walk around in short (above the knee) skirts despite the cold (“They’re suffering for their fashion.” Hojin answered.), the popularity of bbundegi (“Excellent food if you’re into body building.”), and why everyone seemed to dress in somber-colored clothes (“I only noticed that now, once you mentioned it.”).

Dinner was at a restaurant in the basement of Ssamzegil – I didn’t get the name, but apparently, the place was one of the best restaurants in Seoul when it comes to bibimbap, a dish that consists of various vegetables (and an egg) arranged on a bowl of rice.

Now I’ve had bibimbap before (its one of my favorite Korean dishes, actually), but not on the scale that I had that evening. The bowl was immense…I think three cups of rice (the way they serve it at our local carenderia) could have easily fit in that brass bowl (now that I think about it, the bowl actually did contain that much rice), and while I’m known to finish whatever is set in front of me, I just couldn’t…there was just too much bibimbap. And did I forget to mention there were still about five or six sidedishes that were served alongside it?

Stuffed as we were, Jeff and I still stepped out of the hotel later that night (about 10 o’clock) and I…I treated myself to a nice big cup of Baskin Robbins ice cream from across the street – my first in over 20 years (I was maybe 4 or 5 years old the last time I had tasted their ice cream). I can’t quite express the satisfaction of buying something in a language other than one (or ones) you are comfortable with – just pointing to Raspberry Cheescake and saying “Igeo juseyo” (This please) and having the crew actually understand me was just bliss – almost as good as the ice cream itself. Almost. 😉

…although I must admit a little bit of awkwardness when specifiying the size of cup I wanted, since I had to pronounce it with a Korean accent – “King Cup” became “King Cuppa”…not to mention I couldn’t understand the cashier when she told me the price – “Samcheon won juseyo.” (3000 won please).

We then decided to walk the length of Itaewon, all the way to the highway, where we watched the cars (Kia and Hyundai, mostly) go by and shivered as the temperatures plumetted to the single digits. There were times, especially when the wind blew into our faces, that we could swear it was already below zero. Whoever said that there’s no wind in Seoul has never actually been to Seoul, as far as I’m concerned.

I spent a long time under the hot shower after that, needless to say.


Walking with Haechi (Part 1a)

25 11 2009

I was up at 6AM the next day, mildly disoriented with regards to where I was on the planet (I think I was dreaming about someplace in the Philippines, so you can imagine the initial schock when I awoke and realized I was in Korea). It took me almost an hour to get my bearings while I took a nice, hot shower.While my roommates slept, I decided to go for a walk.

I don’t know how it is in the Spring and Summer months, but 7AM in November has about as much light in the sky as 530AM here. It felt very strange.

Even stranger to me was the fact that the streets (covered in yellow ginko – or 은행- leaves) were almost devoid of traffic – pedestrian or otherwise. I kept checking my watch in disbelief. “When is everyone going to get up for work???” I wondered.

I first stopped by the little children’s playground nextdoor to the hostel. The ground around the playground was covered in a mat of rubbery yet styrofoamy material, and there was exercise equipment right there for anyone to use, free of charge (mostly step masters, a low-resistance pec deck, and this curious contraption shaped like the wheel of a ship) – I couldn’t help thinking that if such a place existed in the Philippines, somebody will have chopped the equipment up and sold it as scrap metal, 50 pesos to a kilo, long before anyone actually got to use it. Sigh.

It was nippy that morning (and every morning for that matter), so any sighing produced those delightful puffs of steam that bring such delight to first-time visitors of Baguio City (a very high-altitude city in the Northern part of the Philippines).

I wandered onto the property of a community middle school, noting with amusement how the playground had this big sign on it saying, “Teenager Land”. In the Philippines, a place like that would have been swarming with children by that time in the morning. But there, like I pointed out awhile ago, all was still and quiet.

I proceeded to walk around the block, behind the building with the massage parlor (we had passed by its front the night before), noting the convenience stores we had passed over in favor of the familiar 7-Eleven. Middle-aged men and women were busy sweeping the leaves from their storefronts while a few were clearly walking around the block for exercise (their tracksuits were a dead giveaway). I spotted a few students, mostly girls, headed for the subway – I shook my head in wonder at how they could still wear knee-length skirts despite the cold.

Sparrows are not a common sight in Korea. Instead, they have this bird, about the size of a crow or raven, which is black on top and white on the bottom. I took a few photos of one, but I never did find out what it was called.

Breakfast was “Western”, according to Junghyun – toast, jam, eggs and ham, and orange juice that was too “intense”, according to Shella, another co-delegate (actually, it was just real orange juice; in the Philippines, orange juice is usually from concentrate, and given our sweet tooth, comes loaded with sugar). There was a bit of a laugh when we tried to get some coffee – the staff had this look on their faces as we spoke to them in English (you know, the “look”); I tried to communicate in what Korean I knew (“Kopi juseyo” – a bit inadequate, I must admit), but this apparently came as such a shock to the staff, they couldn’t understand what I was saying.

We had a bit of free time between breakfast and our 11am program orientation with none other than the NCYOK president himself, so everyone either wandered outside to take photos or went in search of wifi hotspots, laptops in hand. I do recall a few of us, trying not to appear cowardly in the face of the cold, ventured outside in t-shirts and flipflops. That didn’t last long, obviously.

A few minutes before the meeting, we were introduced to Hojin, our interpreter for the duration of our stay. Dressed in his sharp-looking business suit, we thought he was an employee of the NCYOK. Turns out he was a 22 year-old college student who had been hired specifically for the program.

A major surprise awaited me at the orientation: I was to sit at the head of the table beside the NCYOK president himself…and give a speech!

Before actually setting out for Korea, I had been appointed as delegation head by the NYC (for reasons I still do not know, to this day) – but nobody informed me I would actually have to give a speech – much less smile and have my photo taken repeatedly with the NCYOK president! I tried to differ to the two NYC representatives who were with us, but everyone seemed more inclined to tell me what to say instead of saying it themselves (a typically Filipino trait, by the way).

I must admit it is a bit odd delievering a speech via interpreter – one must pause after a sentence or two to allow the interpreter to do his job. This of course becomes a bit of a problem when you are going for a long sentence, or one with multiple points, as one tends to forget what one is trying to say while the interpreter…er…interprets. Nevertheless, things went without a hitch, and I did my best to be as diplomatic and ambassador-like as possible. We exchanged tokens (while smiling for the photographer) – a golden model of a jeepney for him, an inlaid jewelry box (oh so that’s what that was!) and a spoon-and-chopsticks set for me – and then piled onto the bus to a local restaurant for a traditional shabu-shabu lunch.

It was during this part of the trip that I noticed how odd Korean time felt to us – it was past noon, and yet the sun was only at the 10AM position (for us in the Philippines) in the sky (just so we’re clear, Korea is an hour ahead of us). Needless to say, it felt awfully early for lunch.

For lunch, we were all seated at this low table with legless chairs – me opposite the president and beside the interpreter for good measure. The serving ladies (you can’t really call them waitresses) began fussing over us, firing up the burners on the table, changing out spent fuel containers, and setting plate upon plate of leafy vegetables, paper-thin slices of beef, various sauces, and of course, the omnipresent kimchi – in two varieties for good measure.

We committed our first somewhat embarassing faux pas here: Jeff, our youngest delegate, spotted a container of rice near his plate. Naturally, he thought he should eat it (I had a similar container next to me, and the only thing that stopped me from dumping it onto my plate was the fact that I was too busy asking Hojin my first of countless questions – a habit that I would later be remembered for) and emptied the dish onto his plate.

There was a small fuss as one of the serving ladies hurried over, grabbed his plate, and dumped the rice back into the container, all the while saying something none of us Filipinos could understand (duh).

It turns out that the rice was meant to be mixed with the leftovers of the shabu-shabu to be turned into a sort of porridge with which to round-off the whole meal. Well, Jeff and the rest of us responded the way Filipinos do when faced with embarassment: we laughed. For the rest of our stay, we would regard a lone bowl of rice at the table with caution, first asking our hosts if it was meant for immediate eating.

I posed a question to Hojin regarding how to call someone’s attention in Korean. You see, Korean culture is big on politeness and respect – so big that it is reflected in the language: there is a particular way to speak to elders and people in authority (formal speech), a way to speak to people in general (polite), and a way of speaking reserved only for those one is intimate with. Getting it mixed up is a sure way to receive raised eyebrows. Our only real exposure to the language being from the ubiquitous Korean TV dramas and movies in the Philippines, I wanted to know how it was really done.

Hojin quickly told me to get rid of the word “ajumma” (middle-aged or old lady), since only the truly elderly would suffer a stranger calling them that. Instead, he told me to use the word “jogeyo” (it sounds like “chogeyo”), which is similar to the English expression “excuse me”. “But wait,” I followed up, “what about `Sillye hamnida’?”

“Well, yes, that can be translated as `excuse me’, but it connotes an apology of sorts, and so is best used when you are interrupting someone, for example.”

I was ecstatic, having received this new knowledge, and tried to put it to the test. I was in need of another saucer, so I took a deep breath and went for it.

“Jogeyo~” I called out (Koreans tend to prolong the ending vowel when calling out, so I’ve added the “~” at the end to illustrate this), right as one of the serving ladies was walking by. To my surprise, she stopped, looked at me, and I heard her say in this soft, almost musical voice, “Ne~?”

Remember that word: Ne. It means “yes” in Korean, and you will hear it a lot everywhere you go.

I was so shocked I had actually caught her attention, I almost forgot how to ask for a dish.

“Jeopshi juseyo.” I managed to mumble (“May I please have a saucer?”).

“Ne~.” She acknowledged and made a move towards the main counter. Very quickly she came back, holding up a finger. “Hana? Hana?” She asked.

“Ne, ne.” I replied, and the lady scuttled off. Hojin grinned. “That was perfect.”

I could get used to this.


Walking with Haechi (Part Zero)

24 11 2009

The plane we were on had a passenger manifest that was basically 90% Korean. You could say that simply boarding the plane was already an act of entering a foreign land.

Frankly, I was too excited to get any sleep during the four hour flight. I passed time mainly by reading, filling-up the quarantine and customs forms the flight attendants passed out to everyone. I remmember a brief glimpse of the setting sun. When darkness finally fell, my seatmate Boots – an instructor at the famed Ateneo de Manila – decided to try and decipher the Korean alphabet. I helped out what little I could. Before long, the lights of Seoul could be seen outside our windows.

I remember seeing the Incheon Bridge as we came in to land , and how unfamiliar the lights of Incheon City looked.

Our initial landing was a bit rough – one wheel, the left one, landed first with such a jarring impact it popped one of the overhead storage bins open. I remember taking note of how long it took for the plane to get from the runway to the actual passenger terminal – around 20 minutes. And I remember a curious feeling overtaking me when I saw that the ground crew were Koreans bundled-up for the cold and not my brown-skinned countrymen.

First, lets get this straight: Koreans are tall people. Sure, there are people on the short side, but throughout my stay, I noticed that they were usually the middle-aged and the elderly. Koreans in their 20’s and 30’s, on the otherhand, average 5′ 7″ and up – including the women – which means most Koreans are actually taller than us. For the record, I am 5′ 7″, and in the Philippines, that places me on the short side of tall. This means I don’t meet many women who are taller than me. In Korea, however, I never had to look far to find a lady who could look me in the eye while keeping her head completely level. Add to that the fact that a majority of the female population I saw wore heels, and well…you get the idea…

Incheon International is huuuuge – I later learned it was the largest in the world – so huge that we had to take a monorail of sorts to go from the disembarkation area to baggage claim. In between, we had to stop at immigration to get our passports checked – I remember the fidgety feeling standing in a long line of foreigners (95% of whom towered over me), waiting for the Korean gentleman at the counter to go over my passport and allow me entry into his country.

Having gotten through immigration and customs without a hitch, we got some of our money changed into Korean won before exiting the terminal to meet our handler.

Turns out our handler was this cheerful young lady by the name of Junghyun (the official romanization of (정현) would be “Jeonghyeon”, but Junghyun is what is on her business card). Her English, though halting, was clear and understandable, and she had a big, easy smile. She was dressed for business – mostly grays and blacks. Remember those heels I mentioned? She wore those. She was also wearing what I do believe to be gray, pinstriped “business shorts” over black stockngs – a definite first for me. she strutted through the terminal, leading us to the bus that would take us to our accomodations for the night.

Up to this point, we had felt little of the famed Korean cold that we had fully expected to greet us full blast upon getting-off the plane. Well, when we exited the airport building itself, it was there to greet us with open arms.

Now its true I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where winter often brings brutal, debilitating cold – but having lived in the tropical heat and humidity of the Philippines for 20 years, whatever antifreeze I had in my blood while in America had already thinned to the point of non-existence. It was cold – really cold. The oldest delegate, Jamel, tried to brave the cold in just a t-shirt and a muffler; that attempt didn’t make it beyond the bus.

Our bus driver (whom we referred to as “Manong Driver” for the remainder of our stay) was this cheerful gentleman in shirtsleeves, a vest, and a tie who did his best to keep pace with the somewhat over-energetic Filipinos who had taken over his bus. We all greeted him loudly (“Anyong haseyo!”) as we got on, and he greeted us back…although I didn’t understand what he said.

The first thing that struck me was that Korea’s highways are wiiiiide…we’re talking eight lanes or more; not even our famed North and South Expressways are quite as wide. They’re also almost devoid of traffic – although the fact that it was 10 at night could have contributed to that.

We drove through the Incheon countryside, and all I could see were the dark shapes of rolling hills, broken only by the somewhat eerie illumination of large expanses of apartment complexes. My dad told me of those complexes back when he was in Korea, but I never really imagined it would be the way I saw it that night. The closer we got to the Gimpo area, the denser the clusters of apartments became.

The main district of Gimpo was a mixture of commercial buildings and apartments, brightly lit with lights and signs advertising…well…stuff – while I can read Korean, I cannot necessarily understand it. We all laughed when we saw a hair salon called The Orange Salon – Jamel quipped it was probably because of all the oranges being sold on the sidewalk infront of it (we later learned why – and it made me feel like an ignorant idiot).

Our lodgings for the night was the Dreamtel Youth Hostel, which was conveniently located in the same building as the NCYOK headquarters. Junghyun apologized for housing us there, but we had arrived in Korea 15 hours ahead of schedule, and so there had been no time to rearrange our reservations at the hotel (more on the hotel in the next entry). You see, there are only two local airlines in the Philippines that make regular trips to Korea, and the airline who’s fares we could afford (Cebu Pacific!!! Wooot!) made only one trip everyday, leaving the Philippines at 4pm. The first item on the NCYOK’s itinerary for us had us having a banquet lunch with the NCYOK president at noon on the 11th, so the only way we could make it on time was to be in Korea on the night of the 10th.

Sorry if that didn’t make sense – suffice it to say that we had quite a bit of time on our hands.

Filipinos as we are, as soon as we had checked into the hostel, we “checked out” and set off into the heart of the Banghwa neighborhood, looking for adventure (and dinner).

Well, we found it – at the nearby 7-Eleven (yay!). The cashier – a bespectacled lady in her late teens – must have been shocked as 13 foreigners (“Waegugin” in Korean) converged on her little store and started wandering around the aisles, loudly broadcasting their shock at the prices (“8000 won for a sandwich???!!!”) in their harsh-sounding language (“Walong libo para sa sandwich?! Ano to?! Ginto?!!”) – we were still converting all the prices to our local currency: a futile effort since no matter how much 8000 won is worth in the Philippines (about 1760 pesos – whoa!!!), we were in Korea (more on prices later). She promptly came out from behind the counter and started pointing out to us the individual items.

A little bit on Filipino culture, for any of my international readers (all one of you! Haha!): even when we are guests in someone else’s house (or country), something inside of us makes us feel awkward when we are served – more often than not, we would prefer to do the serving. I’m not sure why, but its the truth. This was illustrated to hilarious effect during our stay in Korea, but more on that later. In a nutshell, I felt pretty embarrassed that our presence in the store was causing the poor salesgirl to go so far out of her way (about 8 feet from behind the cash register) to serve us – some of us took so long figuring out what to purchase, a small line of some grumpy-looking locals had already formed at the counter, the looks on their faces a cross between curiousity and irritation.I bought a sandwich, nuked it, then hurried out.

There were little tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk, so we had our dinners their, huddled against the biting cold. Guia and Jacky got an instant introduction to just how spicy Spicy Ramyun can be (its just a little short of actually setting your mouth on fire) and got instant runny noses. I took on an extra-spicy curry somebody couldn’t finish (you will know we are friends when I ask permission to finish your leftovers), while Boots got herself a sandwhich with some sort of peanut jelly for filling. Over dinner, this screen in the window of 7-Eleven kept showing this ad for Soju (Korea’s alcoholic beverage of choice), sans audio (turn off the audio for the full, bewildering effect). It thus took me awhile to figure out what it was for. A few moments later, her shift over for the day, the salesgirl exited the store and skipped down the street, apparently happy the whole ordeal with the foreigners was over.

It was so cold outside, everyone seemed in a bit of a hurry to get back to the hostel. Along the way, we noticed these little leaflets advertising the services of a nearby massage parlor with images of scantily-clad ladies strewn about the sidewalk. The ladies themselves stood in these shady alcoves nearby, dressed in black mini-skirts that
exposed their legs to the cold. They had this look on their faces – a look of bored irritation – as we passed them. I was taken aback by the sight of them – I admit that I hadn’t expected to see their sort in Korea, despite me knowing that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and there is no culture on this Silent Planet that is without them – it is merely a question of visibility.

In case any Koreans stumble upon this blog, please understand – this experience did not, in any way, lower my opinion of Korean society. I was just surprised.

The actual street the hostel was on was off the main road, and we had apartments, a church, and a middle school as neighbors – all but dark and deserted on that cold, late night. I stayed outside a few minutes longer than the rest to take photos of the creepy-looking apartment complex across the road (it was so quiet, I could hear a dry leaf scraping along the road in the wind – from around the bend!)…and to pray. Despite my knowledge to the contrary, there was this thought, deep inside: is God here too? Can His hand reach me here, in this far-away land?

I was nervous – our Korean adventure had officialy begun, and despite all the reading and preparations I had made, I knew next to nothing of what to expect. I turned my back on the cold, dimly lit streets of Banghwa and went to sleep.


15 07 2009

Sharp readers will have figured out by now that on most weekdays, my mornings and early afternoons are as vacant as space (it’s okay…you can’t all be sharp readers *snicker*), which I try to fill with a variety of activities, trying to stave-off couch-potato syndrome.

Poor potato. Wherever did that moniker come from? Is it because potatoes just sit there? Well so do tomatoes…and pineapples…and durian fruit. Hmm…couch durian…

Anyway, when I am unable to go swimming (like these past few days, due to heavy rain), I often find myself imbibing unhealthy amounts of coffee while trying to go through my Suzuki Violin Method books. They’re all I’ve got in the form of pieces, so they will have to do. I’ve worked through the first three books and I’m now 1/3 of the way through the fourth. Those irritating double-stopped triplets in the 3rd movement of the 5th Violin Concerto by Seitz are so demotivating, though – not because they’re particularly hard, but because they just sound so illogical – dissonance for no reason at all. I’ll have to play through it a few more times, I suppose.

When the internet is down (as is wont to happen at least once a day) and I’ve fulfilled my daily practice quota, I do try to read through the Korean language textbooks I’ve downloaded – I have the alphabet more or less down and can read Korean words with a modicum (a very small modicum, to be sure) of literacy, but there are two obstacles that currently impede my progression from reading to understanding, which is absolutely crucial if I want to get around to speaking:

  1. Korean grammar (from my perspective, as a native speaker of English – we can argue that point some other time) brings to mind very high-end programming languages, with impossibly powerful compilers that can make sense of very loose syntax. To illustrate, using an example in English:

    “Andrew home-at lunch eats.”
    “Andrew lunch home-at eats.”
    “Home-at Andrew lunch eats.”
    “Home-at lunch Andrew eats.”
    “Lunch Andrew home-at eats.”
    “Lunch home-at Andrew eats.”

    all mean the same thing (figure it out!). If I am ever going to learn Korean, I need a serious upgrade to the firmware in my head.

  2. Korean is a context-oriented language. This means that what we English speakers understand as a phrase (an incomplete sentence fragment, so to speak) can actually be a complete sentence, given a certain context. This isn’t completely unusual, since we have sentences like that (“Run!” for example, is considered complete, and the subject – you, us, etc. – depends on the context) – what is unusual is that most of us are not used to perceiving contexts on the same scope as Koreans are. This leads to some truly mind-boggling omissions that are a part of day-to-day speech in Korean. For example, the Korean equivalent for “How do you do?” or “How are you?” (Annyeong hashipnida?) is literally translated as “Are peaceful?”. Imagine somebody greeting you like that in English, and watch the eyebrows go through the roof.I’m considering ignoring the literal translation altogether and just concentrating on direct equivalencies.

So is this report on my mornings geeky enough for you? Hehe. I think I’ll go and look for whatever it is I need to download so that this computer can display (and allow me to type in) Korean.

Hwaiting! – Oh, figure it out yourself.

Thoughts Underwater

8 07 2009

I was going to write something about the current wave of fanboy-ism that has swept over me these past few weeks – to my great chagrin, of course – but it seems that every time I have the opportunity to write, I’m not in fanboy mode, and when I am, well…there’s no opportunity to write.

So I guess, for the time being, I shall write about…swimming.

Yes, I’ve recently taken up swimming as my exercise of choice; the public pools are only a short ride away and they give discounts to us “swimmers”, since we come early (before 7AM) and leave early (before 9AM).

No, I will not bore you with my best times, or a detailed analysis of my stroke, or how many laps I can do before calling it quits (500m). Instead, I wish to write of two things: one, the Deep Pool, and two, the High Platform.

The Deep Pool is the diving pool: 16ft deep and 10ft square. Very few people actually use it, and since I’m one of the earliest, I usually have it all to myself after my “demanding” regimen.

Diving into the Deep Pool is an almost spiritual experience: its quiet underwater – peaceful. I can’t say it’s quiet enough to hear oneself think – it’s so quiet, thinking itself seems like an intrusion on the peacefulness. I forget about the technicalities of my stroke and just enjoy the slow swim across. Some people find the depth unnerving – my nerves come when I imagine other things sharing the pool with me. No, the depth is fine – beautiful, even, like watching a thunderstorm. Welcome, the deep says, I have been waiting for you. Dive into me; swim across; take your time; forget oneself for awhile.

The High Platform is a diving platform over the Deep Pool – about 9 or 10ft high, built of solid concrete. Only the brave dare leap over its edge, for no matter how manageable it looks from pool level, the height is dizzying when you’re up on it.

Many times, the height has turned me back…with good reason: A drop from that height plunges you some eight feet down into the pool. Flawed technique (yes, there is a method to safely jumping off a platform into water) usually means a painful belly or back-flop (and public humiliation as your friends tell everyone how you flattened yourself like a pancake) or ruptured ear canals and/or sinuses. Get it right, however, and something inside of you wants to do it again.

Yesterday, I jumped off for the first time in oh, a decade. No crowds, no jeering friends – just me and what seemed like an eternal drop into the deep.

There’s something weird about stepping-off into thin air – the adrenalin rush of seeing the water rush closer and closer, the heart (and stomach)-in-your-throat sensation as you fall for what seems like forever…


…and then the roar of the bubbles created by your plunge into the cool, quiet water and you are borne slowly up, up, back to the surface. If you did everything right, that’s the moment you wish would last forever…

…nothing but the warm, inner glow of accomplishment…and the sound of your own beating heart.

I Remember

3 07 2009

The other week I asked one of my students (Kyu-Yeon, henceforth to be known as The Q – that’s awsomeness right there) to track down an old (5+ years) KPOP tune for me. The tune was Lee Soo Young’s LaLaLa.

Well, The Q and her sidekick Minji (or is it the other way around?) are quite efficient when it comes to anything Korean (duh!), and so she found me a link, I loaded it up into my mp3 player, and had a listen to a song I havn’t heard in a looong time – right in the college library (I’m a student again, remember?).

And I remembered Nari, singing it in her pale yellow top and white skirt. I also remember the time she came to my classroom fighting back tears: she had accidentaly (who would do such a thing on purpose?) bashed her head on a fire extinguisher outside and was rather stunned by the sudden rush of pain usually associated with bashing one’s head on blunt, immovable objects with great force (and vice versa).

It was only my second year of teaching, and well, since I don’t get high school students with blunt force trauma in my class everyday, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. Rather innocently, I held-up two fingers and asked her to count them. She laughed (as best as one can when one’s head is ringing like a church bell).

As one memory leads to another, I then remembered Yoojin – one of the gentlest souls to ever grace my classroom. I think whoever composed her writeup in their batch yearbook was onto something when she called her a “Choi-doll” – she was always very soft-spoken and self-effacing, gently bopping her head when she found herself slow on the uptake. She helped me start The Orchestra, along with Abbie and Kristine and Yona and Yookyung – she was our first concertmaster.

She gave me kimchi – a whole bucketload of it (my attempts to store it on campus made me an instant celebrity). She called her violin kking-kkang because of the sound she made on it.

I remember Abbie, who is in Japan now. She had just about given-up on playing the violin, since she had been through a string of sub-par teachers (excellent players, but really bad teachers) before me. She was one of my tallest students, around 5’5″ or 5’6″, with nicely-tanned skin (a color we call moreno/morena) and wise-looking eyes.

During The Orchestra’s very first concert, she came onstage for her solo part in this gold and scarlet gown, all prettied-up (there goes good grammar) and beautiful, and I still remember the collective gasp from the audience.

I could actually go on and on with this, but I’m long on memories and short on time. All I want to say is that if your name is on this list, then know that today, I speak it in rememberance. If not, its probably because either you were never a student of mine to begin with, or you still are 😉

  • Nari Yim
  • Tanya Aritao
  • Kristine Borja
  • Seoyun Park
  • Taerang Park
  • Yookyung Lee
  • Yoojin Choi
  • Eric Wong
  • Benjamin Tolentino
  • Eunice Oquialda
  • Fahad Al-Khaldi
  • Kenzo Teves
  • She Ha Nul Hong
  • Monserrat Gonzales
  • Katrina Gonzales
  • Jonty Domingo
  • Katlyn de Mesa
  • Abiel Balon
  • Abigail Balon
  • Jen Miguel
  • Anna Calcetas
  • Charisse Cruz
  • Kathleen Hyun Kwak
  • James Oquialda
  • David Vidad
  • Juwon Park

I have this hankering feeling I’ve forgotten a few people, as is wont when it comes to this sort of thing. I apologize – frankly, I’m amazed I remember this many.

Wherever you are, whatever you might be doing, whatever you might have become, I remember, and thank God for you.

In recent events…

27 06 2009

Yesterday, our Educ110 class met for the first time. Entitled The Teaching Profession, the teacher had us watch a teacher movie – Freedom Writers featuring a shockingly-thin Hillary Swank and, if I’m not mistaken, a pre-Gray’s Anatomy Patrick Dempsey (who I better remember from the late-90’s film With Honors) – but not before making us give answers to a few questions:

  1. Why do you want to be a teacher?
  2. What do you think the average citizen thinks of our school today?
  3. How important do you believe teachers are to our society? Why?
  4. What are the characteristics of the best teachers you’ve ever had?
  5. How would you rate Filipino secondary teachers as a group?

The first question is asked endlessly in the College of Education, regardless of the subject. It’s cliché, I admit, and the answer is often cliché-er (“it’s a noble profession”, “to help the country”, blah-blah-blah”), unfortunately. Not wishing to become a statistical cliché myself, yet wanting to be honest, I opted for this answer: “I derive a great deal of personal pleasure and professional satisfaction from teaching – I cannot, for the life of me, imagine myself doing anything else.”

And I mean that, in case any of you are wondering.

After the movie, she gave us another set of questions to answer:

  1. Do you still want to be a teacher?
  2. Do you think you have the talent necessary to become a good teacher?
  3. Are you willing to learn the necessary skills required of a good teacher?

In a fit of what some people here might call “suffocating hubris”  (I prefer to call it “overwhelming passion”), I just wrote down “yes” to every question (my handwriting got bigger with every “yes”), turned in my paper, and went home.

Teaching: it’s what I do.


I auditioned for the university band this morning – the bulk of their ranks were graduating, so they needed “fresh meat”. I was probably past my expiration date, since I was the only fellow who showed up who was…well…old (I graduated from college five years ago. All the other auditionees were still within their first three years of college.)

I’ve done quite a bit of reading about auditions, since the orchestral life (in the States, at least) is rife with them, and they are taken very, very seriously (if you fail to win one, at some point, you will likely have to trade in your instrument – which you’ve been studying for more than a decade – for something else…like an office cubicle).

Well, there I was, surrounded by (for lack of a better term) kids who, if they were not showing-off to one another how well they could cop the latest tune from Paramore (AAUUGGHHH! EMO!!! RUN!!!), were busy worrying about how the next arrival would ruin their chances of winning a slot. Funny – I was in the exact same position some six years ago when I auditioned for conservatory.

The outgoing members of the band lined the well-equipped room and watched as their “leader” made me play the violin, then the bongos and the congas, then the bass guitar.

At this point, kindly postpone judgement and just let me be honest instead of PC: while the guy plays a mean guitar, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a college washout. I can’t explain it, but it was just there. Like ROTC officer-alumni who show-up on training days because that’s the only place where they could get a modicum of respect, this guy seemed to be there because…well…it was the only place where he could get a modicum of respect.

I could be wrong about the fellow, but that’s how it felt at the time. If I’m wrong, I would like to apologize in advance. If I’m right, well…it doesn’t matter anyway.

I bring this up because (and my students can attest to this) while I love music, and making music, and teaching music, I can’t see sacrificing one’s future for the apparent glamor of the stage (which is never as glamorous as MTV would like you to believe) as a profitable exchange. Get that college degree, make sure you’re qualified to take on a job that provides a steady, albeit modest, income, and then go, be a rockstar…if you can. Beware: few people make it…and most of them fizzle out after their first album.

I say this having witnessed numerous examples of skilled musicians who have grown old in “the business”, yet lead lives that border on pathetic. I just don’t believe music was meant for that.

But anyway. That’s my rant. Before I find myself eating my own words, I shall find something more productive to do.