Monthly Archives: August 2008

Over 5,000 clicks!

I’m very chuffed about the fact that over the last week this site has passed the 5,000 clicks milestone. What this means is that since I started the site at the end of 2007 people have clicked on various pages on the site more than 5,000 times in total.

I think this isn’t too shabby, considering how specialised my intended readership is (that being South Africans teaching (or intending to teach) English in Korea). I haven’t been able to track down any decent stats on the numbers of South Africans in Korea, but I estimate it can’t be more than 1,000 in all. GEPIK, a prolific recruiter of South Africans, only has about 100 of us working in the programme. But if anyone out there has any reliable stats, please let me know.

Anyway, I hope that this site has helped at least a few people avoid dodgy recruiters and negotiate the ever-changing visa requirements. I’d like to see the site grow quite a bit more. I can always do with some suggestions for content, and if you are keen to write something, please let me know.

Tonight I’m going to get some cake and a glass of wine and celebrate. Who knows, maybe we’ll see 10,000 hits by the end of the year.

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Apple MacProblems

Last year my wife and I splurged and we each bought an Apple MacBook. These are beautiful machines, and a hell of a lot more user friendly than the PCs that I’ve been fighting with over the last few years. Everything has gone swimmingly with our Macs – until we came to Korea.

The first inkling that there might be problems was when I had to connect my MacBook to my school’s network. The school called in a technician to sort out some problems with the network, and they promised that the guy would set my computer up at the same time. The guy walked in, sat down at my desk, and then didn’t move for about 3 minutes. I think he didn’t realise it was a Mac until he sat down, and now he had to somehow extricate himself without losing face. He waited until no-one except yours truly was watching, and then he scooted over to the desk alongside mine, without once actually touching my Macbook. He was very smooth, I have to say, since no-one else noticed.

You see, Korea is the land of PCs, not Macs. The computer guys here have no idea how to work with Macs, and will do anything to avoid them. So this technician, for example, worked on ALL the computers in the office, except mine. I assume he told the powers that be that there was something wrong with my MacBook, or that it won’t work on the school network. Something along those lines. This is the acceptable answer for any situation that involves a Mac.

A similar thing happened when we arranged an internet connection at home. The technician set everything up, but when it came to connecting our computers to the internet he almost bolted for the door when he saw our Macs. Instead of sorting the problem out, he said that our Macs won’t work with the connection and then he left. Just like that.

The funny thing is that Macs work on the same principles as PCs, but the computer guys here assume that they don’t know how to work with them. So I’ve had to take a crash course in basic networking to sort my internet problems out. And you know what? My MacBook connects just fine to the internet at home, and to the network at my school. And it was as simple as finding out some network codes and typing these into my MacBook’s network settings. Easy-peasy.

I don’t blame the Korean technicians for avoiding Macs – especially ones with English settings. Macs look unfamiliar, and they aren’t used to working with them. But this does make it really hard to get fix any problems, since they assume they can’t work wit Macs.

Generally we have been ok, but the latest problem is going to cost us a bundle. After we returned from China, my wife’s MacBook refused to start. We tried all sorts of fixes, but nothing worked. So we had to take it into a service centre. Of course, the nearest service centre is in Seoul, a good two-hour trip away. I ended up having to take a whole afternoon off to take the MacBook to UBase, an AppleMac service centre near Coex Mall.

After much misunderstanding and translation, they said the problem was a failed hard drive. But, to replace the hard drive, WE had to purchase one and take it to them. This was just plain weird. So we had to make a two-hour trip to Seoul just to purchase a hard drive in Coex Mall, and then walk across the street to give it to the technician at UBase to install it. He quickly put it in, and then reinstalled OSX, and we took the MacBook home. It worked fine that night, and the next morning, and then it conked out again. Same problem as before. So this meant another trip to Seoul to take it back. This time, the problem seemed to be the logic board, which would cost us 900,000 won to replace. For some perspective, a brand new MacBook costs 1,390,000. Almost as much. Great. This is after we already spent 115,000 won on a new hard drive, and over 50,000 won in travel costs to get to Seoul and back home. And at the end of the day, we still don’t have a laptop that works.

We now have to decide whether to buy a new MacBook or not, since it will cost too much to fix the old one. Sigh.

If we had a Windows laptop, we probably wouldn’t have had so many problems trying to fix it. PC stores are a dime a dozen here. So even though I’m a fan of MacBooks, these are a problem in Korea. Trying to sort out even the smallest problems keeps on becoming a major hassle, just because no-one knows how to work with them. And if you don’t live in a major city, then trying to get a MacBook fixed can become a financial and logistical nightmare.

Not that this means we’ll be going back to PC. Never! But I do wish Apple was more widespread in Korea. I can keep dreaming, can’t I?

Working all the live long vacation

dmz_barbed_wire

I think I’ve become institutionalised. Most days I struggle to remember what life is like outside my school buildings. Do the birds still sing? Does the rice still grow in the paddies? Do the bus drivers still play chicken on the bridge near my home? Does the the sun still hide behind a haze of pollution? I wonder if I’ll ever be able to see these wonders again with these old eyes of mine. My trip to China is starting to feel like some vague dream I once had.

Today is the first day of the last week of summer vacation at my school. It is also the eleventh day of summer camp for me, all of which has been spent behind the barbed wire walls of my school. While my co-teachers have been visiting Jeju Island and Canada, I’ve been trying to keep a bunch of teenage girls busy with school work during their summer break. As you can imagine, it has been super-easy.

Actually, it hasn’t been that bad. The only tough part has been keeping up my energy levels and holding the kids’ attention for four hours at a time. This has been incredibly tiring, and I’m almost looking forward to the start of the new school semester next week so that I don’t have to teach for four hours straight anymore.

The reason that I’ve been teaching for four hours a day for most of the summer vacation is a simple one. It’s the result of a razor sharp interpretation of my contract. According to this handy piece of toilet paper…ummm I mean this legal document… during the vacation I “may be asked to participate in special classes or English camps, up to 20 hours per week” (2008 GEPIK contract, Article 12, para 2). The key phrase here is “up to”. What my school interpreted it to mean is the following: “During school vacations , Employee will be ordered to independently plan and organise special classes or English camps, at least 20 hours per week. Mwahahahahaha!” These are subtle differences, I know, but important ones.

This is a razor sharp interpretation because clearly a razor has been used to excise any superflous language from the version read by my principal and co-teachers. This superflous language included words like “may”, “overtime pay”, “leave”, “liberty”, “freedom” and “the pursuit of happiness”. At times like this I wonder if perhaps I live in a parallel universe, one where my contract magically changes between the time I read it and the few seconds it takes to reach my co-teachers’ hands. I’m damn sure of it. Either that or I need to give my co-teachers a thorough and detailed lesson on the differences between “may” and “must”. Modal verbs are a lot more important than people think!

For now I’ll daydream about what life must to be like beyond these dreary walls. Oh how I long for just one more taste of kimchi…

Back from China

Coca-Cola with Chinese characteristics

As you might have guessed from the title, I’m back from a fantastic trip to China. My wife and I spent about nine days there – six days in Beijing and three days in Xi’an. Beijing was buzzing with pre-Olympics high-spirits, and it was wonderful to experience it. Everyone was wearing “I love China” t-shirts (including some not-to-be-named South African tourists), and Olympic flags, posters and souvenirs were EVERYWHERE! I got a good idea of what South Africa will be like before the 2010 Soccer World Cup. I think we might want to make a plan and be there for the atmosphere.

There were some downsides to the pre-Olympics buzz. Prices were definitely higher than I remember from my last trip in late-2005 (though this was offset a bit with my highly improved bargaining skills). The number of tourists definitely increased while we were there, so some of the friendliness of the locals seemed to dampen as the week went on. But there weren’t anywhere near as many foreign tourists as we were expecting to see, and we had to deal more with Chinese tourists than with people from other countries.

We got to do all the touristy stuff I missed last time I was in Beijing. We spent most of a day in the Forbidden City, we checked out Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum, and I finally got to hike the Great Wall. Fantastic! Amazing! I’d do it again tomorrow! I also had a blast bargaining with people for souvenirs, handbags, t-shirts and all sorts of trinkets. I used to be all shy about this, but now it’s loads of fun!

We took an overnight train to Xi’an, which was very comfortable and I think way better than flying. It only cost +- RMB410 for a softsleeper ticket, and we saved on accommodation. Xi’an was definitely worth the visit, though the only thing I wanted to see was the Terracotta Army. I’ve been interested in seeing that for years. The rest of Xi’an was a bit of an aside for me, though there is plenty to see and do. My wife and I ended up checking out the city walls, which were pretty interesting (though a bit of a letdown after seeing the Great Wall), and we unfortunately missed seeing a Tang Dynasty dinner show. Our timing was all wrong. Oh well.. Maybe next time.

All in all a great trip. Now, however, it’s all back to business for the last stretch of our time in Korea. We have about four and half months of teaching time left, and we’re already planning our next trip. Hmmm… Japan or Southeast Asia? Choices, choices, choices…