I grew up in suburban Vancouver, in southern British Columbia, but it was always my dream to drive the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. I had the chance to finally achieve my dream when did the trip from July 10 to July 22, 2011 with my wife and daughter. We rented a Ford Escape which is a small SUV with a four-cylinder engine which we used to carry us and our camping equipment. We stayed at campsites when the weather was sunny and motels is the weather was rainy. A highlight of the trip was observing wildlife such as bears, moose and bison. (For some background, the Alaska Highway was built during World War 2 to connect Anchorage, Alaska, USA with the city of Dawson Creek in northern BC.) Here are some photos from the trip:
While I lived in the Emirates one of the most popular nearby vacation destinations was Petra, Jordan one of the so-called New Seven Wonders of the World. I have a strong interest in ancient history and I thought that it would a mistake to pass up the opportunity to visit this site which was only a short flight from Dubai. I bought the Lonely Planet guidebook to Jordan, studied it carefully and devised an itinerary which would include Petra, the ruined Greco-Roman city of Jerash and the fortress of Ajloun.
My daughter Rachel and I departed Dubai International Airport on an Emirates Airlines flight at 8 am (0755) on Dec 26, 2013 and arrived at Queen Alia International Airport (Amman) at 10:35 am. Many people opt to hire driver/guide for their trip to Jordan, but I chose to have total control over our movements and planned to do my own driving and navigating. I had become a regular customer of Avis, the car rental company, after having unsatisfactory experiences with other firms. Additionally, the year before I had rented a car from Avis in Paris, France and had had no problems. Little did I know that in Jordan it is common to rent cars with an empty fuel tank. So, when I picked up my car from the Amman Airport Avis I was surprised that the fuel gauge was at “Empty.” I would have felt a lot better if there had been 1/4 of a tank or even 1/8, but seeing the needle at the bottom of the gauge was terrible. When I complained about it to a staff member he said I had nothing to worry about as there was a petrol station just a few kilometers down to the highway to Amman and that the car had enough fuel to reach it (but not much farther). I had made my reservation and had no choice but to do as the man said. During that short drive I felt extremely stressed out, imagining what I would do if the car stalled, but I did manage to reach the petrol station and fill the tank. Incidentally, the Avis staff had not bothered to remove the empty potato chip bags and chocolate bar wrappers from the back seat. Furthermore, the driver’s floor mat was muddy and one rear taillight was broken. However, it has to said that the car, a new Renault Clio (2006 European Car of the Year) performed perfectly over the six-day trip. (After the trip I wrote an email of complaint to Avis about renting cars with empty fuel tanks, but it appears that is just the accepted practice in Jordan. I still think it is an example of terrible customer service.)
After filling the fuel tank my task was to drive into Jordan’s capital and check into the Amman International Hotel across from the University of Jordan. This was on the far side of the city and meant I had to navigate through Amman. I felt that driving in Jordan was a little wilder than in the UAE or Canada and it was disconcerting that a lot of the cars seemed to have big dents in them. We finally reached our hotel and left the car in a parking lot that had stray cats sitting on cars and soaking up the rays of the sun on a cold clear winter day.
The Amman International Hotel was quite nice and decorated for Christmas. After a meal Rachel and I went for a walk around the neighborhood and saw patches of snow on the ground which we had not expected.
The morning of Day 2 (27/12/2013), after a big hotel breakfast, we began the long three-hour drive south along highway 15 through the desert to Wadi Musa, next to the Petra archaeological site. At one of the towns along the way where we stopped for fuel and snacks the checkout person asked if Rachel was my wife, to which I replied she was my 13-year-old daughter! In Wadi Musa we found La Maison Hotel where we had made reservations for two nights.
For those who don’t know, Petra was built 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans, an Arab tribe who became wealthy by controlling the trade routes through their territory. They used their wealth to create massive carved stone structures such as tombs and temples. Their power declined due to the rise of ocean shipping which caused them to be bypassed. Petra was “rediscovered” by a Swiss explorer in 1812.
Next, we bought tickets (55 Jordanian Dinars each) for Petra at the Visitor Center and bought a few souvenirs. We followed the path into Petra and the first sight we encountered was the Djinn (Ghost) Blocks dating to AD0 to AD100, which are carved from sandstone and six to eight meters high with detailed carvings on them. Then, passing the Obelisk Tomb we reached the Siq which is the east entrance to Petra and is a natural canyon eroded through sandstone and about three to five meters wide and a few hundred meters long. Emerging from the Siq we faced Petra’s most impressive structure which the Al Khazneh (The Treasury) which is carved into a sandstone wall and is about four stories high.
After that we clambered around the Theater, which is a Greek-style amphitheater carved into the side of a hill. We looked at many tombs cared into the sides of the sandstone cliffs and climbed a hill called Jabal Madbah which had the Sacrificial Place and the Lion Monument. It is impossible to see all of Petra properly in a day, so we decided to see the rest of the Petra the following day and returned to our hotel.
On Day 3 (28/12/2013) we returned to Petra and saw the Great temple and the Qasr Al Bint (Temple of Dushares). In this area we watched a small group of Jordanian men dressed as ancient Nabateans perform military drill. Some even posed for us. For tourists who don’t want to walk around Petra it is possible to ride a donkey, camel or even a horse-drawn carriage, and we saw many of these. One thing that surprised me was riderless donkeys walking unescorted down steps back to their starting point. There is a museum where we saw artifacts such as a carved stone head from a sculpture. There were also tents selling souvenirs. We entered and poked around many tombs but the highlight was seeing the imposing Ad Deir (Monastery) carved into the side of a hill at a higher elevation than the rest of Petra.
On Day 4 (29/12/2013) it was time to stick to our itinerary and leave Petra in spite of feeling that we could have spent a few more days exploring that wonderful site. We drove back north to near the town of Jerash, which is another of Jordan’s archaeological sites. Jerash is an entire Greco-Roman city with amazing ruins that was covered in sand and forgotten. We entered by Hadrian’s Arch built in honor of the Roman Emperor. What struck me about Jerash was its huge size. Inside it contained a long street with columns, temples to Hercules and Artemis and many other features. That night we stayed at the Olive Branch Hotel which was a simpler budget hotel a few kilometers west of Jerash. This hotel was very airy and not well insulated, and as it was winter, quite cold. Fortunately we had brought coats, wool hats and gloves and wore those to stay warm. For supper we had a simple Arabic meal which included soup, Arabic bread, hummus and olives.
On Day 5 (30/12/2013) we set out for Ajloun Castle, near the city of Ajloun. This was a fascinating place. It was built by one of Saladin’s generals on a mountain top over the ruins of a monastery in the 12th Century. It was interesting to learn that in 1260 a Mongol army besieged the castle and destroyed parts of it. There was a table top model showing what the castle would have looked like at its peak. Inside the castle there were lots of passageways with high arches and stairs. On the ground floor there was a pile of soccer-ball sized stones which were ammunition for catapults. One thing that seemed strange was that next to the road to Ajloun there was a full-sized MiG fighter jet on a pedestal. It looked like it could have used a fresh coat of paint. Near the castle there was a large sign with the portrait of Jordan’s King Abdullah. Leaving Ajloun we spent three hours driving back to the International Hotel in Amman and walked from our hotel to the Amnan Citadel, but since it was late we had only a quick look and planned to see more the next day.
On Day 6 (31/12/2013) we spent the morning exploring the Amman Citadel on a hill which has Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins. We were very interested in a 1/2 meter hand which is all that it left of a giant statue of Hercules. In my opinion the people of Amman are very fortunate to have such an impressive historical site in the center of their city. That afternoon we drove back to the airport, returned the Renault Clio and departed for Dubai at 6 pm (1755). It was a fantastic trip but we did not manage to see the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum, Aqaba or Kerak Castle, so I will have to go back to see them one day.
For many years I have felt that my knowledge of Canadian authors was not as strong as I felt it should be. Margaret Atwood is one of my country’s most highly regarded writers and someone whose books I wanted to read. Going on a friend’s recommendation I read “Oryx and Crake” which is an amazing dystopian novel, but that was the only book of hers that I had read. This year, however, I was lucky enough to spot a used copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in a Vancouver store and immediately snatched it off the shelf.
I realize that a lot of people may be familiar with the story due to the 2017 Netflix series based on the book, but I still have not watched it and was therefore able to read the book without any preconceptions. The Handmaid’s Tale has received a lot of awards and recognition, and now that I have read it I can understand why. Considering that the book was written in 1985, Atwood showed a lot of foresight to write about issues that are particularly relevant today: the threat of totalitarianism, the rise of Christian evangelical fundamentalism, omnipresent surveillance, religious fanaticism and brainwashing, subjugation of women, environmental collapse, and nuclear war.
Atwood does not provide readers with much context at first but makes them understand the overall situation as it revealed little by little. The protagonist is a married woman called “Offred”, whose true name from before the totalitarian takeover is not given, who serves as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the USA. In Gilead there is a serious problem with lack of fertility and population decline due, presumably, to pollution and radiation sickness. Handmaids, therefore, perform the vital role of childbearing for the regime’s rulers who are known as Commanders. Offred is required to have intercourse regularly with her Commander until she becomes pregnant, which is performed, perversely, in the company of the Commander’s wife (to ensure that there is no pleasure). After a while no baby seems to be on the way, so the Commander’s barren wife, Serena Joy, arranges for a younger member of the Commander’s entourage, Nick, to meet with Offred regularly until she can become pregnant and thus avoid the fate of unsuccessful Handmaids which is to be sent to the dumping ground for outcasts known as the Colonies. In Gilead society women are subjugated and are not allowed to read or write or even speak publicly. Atwood brilliantly visualized a complete society with different castes such as “the Wives”, “the Marthas” who are female enforcers of the regime, “the Aunts” who are high status women, “Econowives,” and “the Eyes” who are a secret police force. In this twisted Christian society women are required to cover their heads and bodies and the sexes are generally kept apart. Basically no form of fun is allowed and people are expected to simply work or pray.
Like so many members of elite groups throughout history, the Commander hypocritically breaks the regime’s own rules by enjoying contraband products and forcing Offred to visit him in secret, where he bizarrely makes her play Scrabble with him in the hope they can build a true loving relationship, which of course is impossible because Offred has zero freedom of choice in the relationship and realizes her best option is to go along with the impotent Commander’s quirky behavior. He procures a kind of cocktail waitress’s angel outfit with wings and forces her to wear it to a decadent party where high level officials like the Commander drink alcohol and enjoy their prostitutes and concubines.
Some other clever features that Atwood devises for Gilead society are “Prayvaganzas” which are government sanctioned religious rallies, the uses of “Identipasses” which are essential ID cards, “Compucards” which allow cashless shopping and provided a record of all purchases.
Throughout the book there are flashbacks to the time in Offred’s life before the totalitarian takeover in which she had an outrageous feminist mother, a loving husband called Luke, and a young daughter. When she and her family tried to escape to Canada they were arrested and separated, and now she does not even know whether her husband is alive or dead. Her daughter presumably is in a state orphanage and being brainwashed.
One of the most gruesome aspects of the book is the Wall where the bodies of executed people hang on hooks as a warning to everyone about the penalties for violating the laws of Gilead. The victims are criminals, political dissidents and even Jews who escaped deportation. In one scene a male so-called criminal, but actually a political dissident, is literally torn apart by a mob of puritanical female believers at a public execution/rally.
One of the main themes of the book is trust. Offred often does not know which of her fellow Handmaids are brainwashed true believers or sceptics like her who are just trying to survive until they can escape. Offred takes a huge risk in revealing her scepticism, which is punishable by death, to a new roommate who appears to be a straight-laced, brainwashed fanatic, but turns out to be a resister like her. In spite of this gloomy state of affairs the book offers hope for an end to this brutal regime. It becomes apparent that there is a resistance movement which has even infiltrated the government. At the end of the story it turns out that Nick is not really a lowly servant but in fact a member of the Eyes, and most interestingly, a double-agent who risks his life to help Offred escape, although the ending is somewhat ambiguous.
The final chapter was supposedly written 150 years after the events recounted in the Handmaid’s Tale and makes it clear that the Gilead regime did not last long and was supplanted my more reasonable forms of government.
I hope that by now you will understand why I view the book as a classic. There is so much more about the book that I have not gone into such as Atwood’s writing style which is one that plays with words, and the theme of the celebration of female sexuality.
It’s quite a few years ago now -in 2001 – and I was on vacation in Paris, France when I had an experience that soured my view of that city.
It took place when I was riding the metro near the Eiffel Tower with my wife, and my baby daughter was in a child-carrier on my back. Suddenly a short young man stood very close to me, which I felt was quite strange since the train car was only half full. You’re not going to believe this, but just before we reached our next stop, the man quickly unzipped the pouch on my waist, took out my wallet and ran out, disappearing down some stairs.
It took me a few seconds to realize what had just happened. I stood there feeling like an idiot and wished I had kept my wallet more safely. I felt that the whole train car must have seen what had happened but everyone acted normally. At the next metro station a kind middle aged French woman who spoke English helped us locate a “gendarme” (police officer) and I told him that a pickpocket had stolen my wallet. The officer was very relaxed and almost amused about the situation and we all trekked to a nearby police station where I had to fill out a report. In good English he said robberies like this were a daily occurrence, which was not much consolation for me.
The officer gave me a number to call which I could use to cancel my credit cards, and I did that within an hour. Besides cancelling my credit cards I had to replace my UAE driver’s license and ID card which was a real nuisance as it meant more hassles. The thief was either too slow to use my credit cards before I cancelled them because I didn’t find any unexpected purchases on them, or perhaps he was simply interested in taking the cash in my wallet – about $100.
The strangest thing was that about a month later a French friend mailed my wallet to me in the UAE as the police had recovered my wallet. It had all my credit cards, driver’s license and ID but they were useless because I had replaced them all. The thief could have been mean and scattered my credit and ID cards but, to his credit, he left them in the wallet.
It is fortunate that my passport was safely back at our accommodation. Replacing that would have been a huge headache.
What I learned from this was to be very careful about my valuables and be more aware of my surroundings. Needless to say I never used the waist pouch again. Finally, if you’re ever in Paris be on your guard.
Ask your partner:
1. Tell me what happened (summarize the story).
2. How would you feel if you were in this situation?
3. Are pickpockets a problem where you live? Explain.
4. How can we stop pickpockets?
Honeymoon in Thailand, A Tragedy, Modelling, Manila Visa Run, University Lecturing, Cycling around Ansan
One of the great things about living in Korea was the close proximity to other Asian countries. A lot of the English teachers I knew had travelled to Thailand, so that is where my wife and I decided to spend our honeymoon. We flew to Bangkok in January 1996 in the height of the cold Korean winter and were immediately struck by the heat and humidity of the place. We explored the most famous attractions of the city such as the great temples along the river. We also spent some time in the western backpacker’s ghetto of Khaosan Road where there are a lot of cheap hotels, shops and bars. One bizarre experience we had was when we were walking on the street and were approached by a Thai man dressed in a suit who targeted us and wanted to start up a conversation. I thought this was odd because normally the Thais show no interest in talking to foreigners on the street and have better things to do. In addition, in one of my travel guidebooks I had read about men such as this who would befriend gullible foreigners and cheat them out of their money. With this in mind, I politely stated that I wasn’t interested, and then the Thai man got angry and shouted saying “You are a bad man!” etc. No doubt he was repeating the words that his victims had used towards him. About four days in Bangkok was enough for us and we took a bus to Rayong, a coastal city in the north east of the country. Our goal was to visit the Island of Koh Samet and to get there we took a fishing boat with some other western backpackers. There were different levels of accommodation on the island so the first night we stayed at a place that was $2 per night, but since it was a little too basic for us we upgraded to a $6 per night “hotel”. We enjoyed snorkeling in the sea and dining in the little restaurants on the beach. It was strange that there were plenty of families but also many foreign men with Thai prostitutes. The Thai people were gentle and the cuisine was awesome. When it was time to return to Korea we really didn’t want to leave this undeveloped paradise, but the need to make a living forced us back.
One of my colleagues at ELS was an Englishman in his late 20s named B. who came across as one of the “coolest” people I’ve worked with. To me he seemed like a rock musician with a very sharp tongue. However, he was obviously from the upper middle class and was clearly well educated. B. was a bit of a rebel and got into trouble after a student complained about him wearing slippers to class which the student felt was disrespectful. I remember him telling me to stop working so hard because it made him and all the teachers look bad. This chap had also managed to find a very pretty young Korean woman to be his girlfriend. The tragedy was that B. went to Thailand and was found dead of a drug overdose, presumably heroin, in his hotel room. The entire school staff was devastated and we all signed a large condolences card to send to his parents. To me it all seemed such a senseless loss. His girlfriend must have been heartbroken, but at least she was only about 19 years old and could move on with her life.
Before he died, B. had been teaching the “Phrasal Verbs Club” at ELS Kangnam, taking advantage of the school’s desire to offer more options to students. One of the benefits of teaching a club was that one could replace a standard course, which required following the school’s curriculum, with one’s own material. Following B.’s lead I started the “Idioms Club” where I taught expressions such as “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” and so on. Teaching a club was a win-win situation for the school, the teacher and the students. What I liked that, first, I had total control over the course content and, second, the course only attracted students who were genuinely interested in learning about advanced English expressions.
One of the strangest experiences I had in Korea was when I was a model. It began when I was having a drink in a coffee shop near the school when a pretty young lady started a conversation with me. She said she was a representative for a modelling agency and invited me to come to their office and talk about working as a model in my free time. I ended up working for the modelling agency for a few months, making a nice addition to my teaching salary, and probably making a lot of money for the modelling agency. I did different types of modelling assignments: sometimes for men’s wear like suits and twice as a hand model – they liked the hair on the back of my hands! I even worked as an extra in a TV commercial featuring a famous Korean actor. My job was to act like a patron in a lounge and make small talk. Unfortunately, it all came to an end when my school director saw my picture in a newspaper advertisement. He said that such work was in violation of my work visa and that it had to stop immediately, and naturally I complied. I had no regrets as I had earned a few extra thousand tax-free dollars and had an interesting experience. I am not vain enough to assume that I could obtain such work in my home country, but in Korea there was a very limited supply of Westerners to act as models and I benefitted from that. Actually, I think most, if not all, teachers were often compared to famous Hollywood actors. Students have said that I looked like Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen, etc. which is certainly good for the ego.
Manila Visa Run
I spent the period from July 1996 to July 1997 in Canada then in Brattleboro, Vermont, studying for my Master’s degree in Teaching at the School for International Training. I was fortunate that I had a job offer with Hanyang University in Korea as an instructor in their Practical English Education Center (PEEC), however, when I went to the South Korean Consulate in Vancouver to obtain a work visa they stated that due to the number of complaints from Canadian English teachers about their jobs in Korea, the South Korean Consulate no longer issued such visas. Instead I would have to obtain a work visa from another country. This was extremely frustrating because by that time my wife and I had used up all of our savings and did not know how I would travel to another country to obtain my work visa. Fortunately, a family member lent me enough money to travel to Ansan, Korea and then fly to Manila, the Philippines. The idea was to combine business – obtaining a work visa – with sightseeing in an Asian country. The original plan was to travel to the tropical island of Boracay for snorkeling, but before we could take the flight there Manila was hit by a cyclone. There was serious flooding and a few people even died. In order to get around the city we had to walk through filthy knee-deep water. In Manila we saw real poverty and some very unhygienic practices. We also felt that the people were not very friendly and even sometimes hostile. As example of this was that when we went into a Philipino restaurant a young man deliberately jostled my arm trying to provoke me into a fight. Fortunately, no harm was done and I was able to keep calm. I realized that I was in a vulnerable position being the only white man in restaurant full of Philipinos. The man didn’t say anything but just glared at me. This is what I could term a case of reverse racism. Obviously, I don’t know what specific experiences made this guy so hostile to a white person like me, but, ironically for him, I am pretty sympathetic to the Philipino people in general. Sure enough, I was able to obtain a work visa from the South Korean Embassy in Manila, and felt quite relieved to get back on the plane to Seoul.
Back in Korea, Hanyang University provided us with a two-bedroom apartment in Ansan, within walking distance of the university. I joined a team made up of about 16 foreign teachers, all Americans or Canadians. The basic teaching load was only 16 hours per week, which seemed extremely light after teaching 30 hours in my previous job. Most, but not all, teachers took on extra work with the university’s Continuing Education Department. It was a fantastic job in many ways because there was a four-month summer holiday and about one month of vacation time during the year. The downside was that it was not practical to spend the full four months on vacation, so most instructors found other short-term teaching work. Hanyang University was the first place where I taught large classes with up to 35 students, and I had to adjust to his quickly. When I first arrived I was eager to use some of the more progressive teaching techniques that I had learned at SIT but I realized that students expected more traditional classroom activities, and that “modern” methods would have to be introduced gradually. There was a textbook that almost all instructors disliked and did not use, but as I was now trained in TESOL I realized that it had a lot of good content and, since the students had the book, I might as well use it. I supplemented it with material that I wrote myself and got photocopied. Strangely, the rest of the staff at the university wanted nothing to do with us foreign instructors. It could have been due to insecurity about their English, but I feel we could have contributed to other departments and were under-utilized. The departmental meetings with pizza were fun! During my time at Hanyang University I made friendships with some other teachers that I maintain today.
Like campuses everywhere in the world, Korea’s university campuses were the sites of political protests. Once there was a large group of women wearing facemasks with a black X taped on front who were protesting against sexual harassment. I wanted to take a picture but they wouldn’t allow me to. In addition, at that time Koreans were upset about US policies towards Korea, and in fact, since the Korean War, at Korean universities many students have been anti-American I and other teachers were approached by agitated students and harangued in Korean about US policies. Saying I was Canadian didn’t help. One student even slapped me in the chest with a rolled up newspaper while he lectured me. Fortunately there were no beatings or lynchings. As you can see, the life of an English teacher in Korea is “not all beer and skittles.”
Although I did a little running in Ansan (where a teenager shouted “psycho!” at me), my main hobby there was cycling. I bought a used mountain bike and used to go for rides on the weekend with Todd, an American that I worked with, and Peter, a German who was with the Physics Department of the university. I wish we had had a Korean with us but cycling was not popular in Korea in those days. It was great to explore the countryside around Ansan. One of our favorite destinations was a lake northeast of the city where Koreans used to fish. One of my best experiences was when we met a farmer on a quiet road and started a conversation with him. He had never spoken with a foreigner but by then my Korean was good enough to greet him, explain what we were doing, answer some questions, and wish him good luck. The old farmer was really happy to speak to us and I was glad we made his day. Incidentally, one annoying thing that my German friend often experienced was to be called “Miguk saram” which means American. In the eyes of most Koreans any white people they met were assumed to be Americans due to the decades of US military presence. A Frenchman I knew there also faced this problem a lot. Once, when I was getting my hair cut the barber said he disliked Americans but that I was okay since I was Canadian. I replied that there are good and bad everywhere. (2,000 words)
A New Government, Disasters, Tourist Attractions, A Promotion
1993 was an exciting time to be in Korea as a few months before I arrived the military dictatorship ended with the inauguration of President Kim Young-sam of the New Democratic Party. In the years just previous Korea had been wracked by pro-democracy protests where students and workers used to battle riot police in the streets of the major cities. It had been quite ugly with lots of arrests and cases of torture, and even a massacre at the city of Gwangju where an estimated 2,000 people were killed in an uprising in 1980. There people had looted an armoury and obtained rifles to use against the army. Pictures and film footage taken at that time were disturbing to see. Many Koreans blamed the USA for supporting the military government rather than the pro-democracy activists, so I learned to avoid this sensitive topic. Among young people there was a tradition of holding violent street protests, and often when I went to downtown Seoul the police used to order everyone to clear the streets. A number of times I was close to where tear gas had been fired and could smell it. There were also squads of riot police dressed in special protective gear. From my point of view the military government was over and thus activists should have been using democratic channels rather than violent protests to achieve their aims. As a side note, I taught a young man who said he had been drafted in the riot police, and, in one demonstration he received a direct hit by a Molotov cocktail. He was badly burned and needed to undergo plastic surgery a number of times.
A shocking event that I remember watching on TV just after my arrival was the infamous sinking of a large Korean ferry known as the MV Seohae on October 10, 1993. News reports reports stated that many teenagers could have got off the ship to safety, but instead, were told to stay in their cabins, thus drowning. A total of 292 people died in this incident. Bad weather and overloading were factors in the sinking. Afterwards the families of the victims were understandably furious at the shipping company’s failure to put safety ahead of profits. As you shall see in the next section, the issue of greed resulting in tragedy was to rise again.
Another major even that occurred while I worked at ELS was the death of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung on July 8, 1994. Of course it was the leading story in the news for a while and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen. I wondered whether the so-called People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (the North) and the Republic of Korea (with US backing) would go back to war. In later years I learned that this period was one of the times when the USA most seriously considered using nuclear weapons. Rather than bring about a change to democracy in the north, the deceased ruler’s son, Kim Jong-il took the reigns and basically kept the north on its unique isolationist path.
After living in the Chamshil district for a year, ELS moved my room-mate, Ken, and me to an apartment in Songpa district, which was closer to the school. One of the benefits of the new location was that it was within walking distance of the Sampoong Department Store. On June 24, 1995 I did some shopping at this multi-level building, then a day later the building collapsed killing 502 people. A few people were trapped in the ruins and survived by drinking rainwater. The last one was pulled out 17 days after the collapse. At first the authorities suspected terrorism, but the way the building collapsed inward proved it was a structural failure. Apparently, the building owner had maximized the amount of area to be used for sales, restaurants, etc. by removing many support pillars. In addition, in the construction many short-cuts were taken such as building columns with less reinforcing steel in them and making floors thinner – and weaker – than specified in the blueprints. Construction companies that had objected to the dangerous changes were fired and replaced. This disaster was a very emotional issue for the people of Seoul and there were demonstrations with riot police present. In the fallout, the building owner and some other executives and government officials were sentenced to jail. As for me, I thought about how fortunate I was that I had not been in the building when it collapsed. It saddens me to think of all the customers and staff that got crushed that day.
In my free time in Korea I visited most of the attractions in and around the capital. In Seoul I visited the beautiful palaces such as Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, Namsan Park and Tower, the great gates left over from when Seoul was walled, the markets and shopping streets. Outside of Seoul I went to water parks, and one of my favorites was the Korean Folk Village at Yongin. There they had recreated a traditional village and conducted mock weddings every day. One of the highlights was the Nong-ak or farmers’ dance where a small group played lively music with traditional instruments such as drums and gongs and performed acrobatic dances.
Halfway through my time at ELS one of my brothers followed me to Korea and joined me at ELS. Some students were amazed when they learned that two brothers had travelled to Korea to teach English at ELS. My mother also came out to Korea to visit her two sons and really enjoyed learning about the culture and seeing how we lived.
I had been dating a Korean woman and we spent a vacation visiting one of Korea’s most famous tourist sites, the city of Gyeongju in the southeast. The city is the former capital of the ancient Shilla Kingdom and has a national park that contains many ancient attractions such as the Pulguk-sa temple, royal burial mounds, an ancient astronomical observatory and lots of other interesting places.
In January 1996 I got married at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul. I recall being questioned very strongly about my plans by a female embassy official, but I remained firm and stated that I was determined to go ahead with the marriage. We did not have a ceremony but simply signed documents; however, later, in August, we had a proper wedding in Victoria, British Columbia.
The last home that I lived in was an apartment in the Hannam-dong neighborhood that I shared with my wife. This neighborhood contained Dangook University and the embassies of various minor African and Arab countries. It was next to the notorious Itaewon district which contained a US Army base and lots of bars and shops. I got a custom-made suit at a tailor shop there because they were experienced with serving foreigners.
In the stairwell of our apartment we found a puppy which our neighbors had abandoned. We adopted this little dog and even took it with us to Canada when we left Korea. We had to take it to a veterinarian to get it vaccinated and to complete the paper work necessary for exporting it. At Vancouver airport I paid $30 to have the dog admitted to Canada, and fortunately it did nothave to be quarantined.
During my time at ELS, overall management of the school was conducted by a Korean school director, but for teaching-related issues there was a Head Teacher named Tom from Maryland. He was a rather serious person who had been in the US Peace Corps in Nepal before going to Korea. Like me he had married a Korean. He informed me that he was planning to pursue a doctorate in Education at Harvard University and invited me to take his place as Head Teacher. Naturally, I considered this a great honor and accepted. I was to oversee and train the teachers, ensure teaching materials were in place and hire part-time instructors as needed, and so on. I conducted a number of interviews and one of the interviewees struck me a very strange person. Afterwards, Tom asked me what I thought of the fellow I had just interviewed. I replied that I thought he was a bit odd and that I would not recommend hiring him. Tom laughed and said that he had played a trick on me by getting me to interview that person. Tom said he had interviewed him previously and that he was not right in the head. He had allowed me to interview the fellow as a learning experience for me. The fact that this fellow had been rejected by both of us proved the fellow was not suitable.
I have previously mentioned that I had become interested in obtaining a Master’s degree in Teaching TESOL from the School for International Training (SIT) in Vermont, USA, so after two and a half years with ELS I decided that I wanted to obtain a graduate level qualification from SIT to further my career. The application process required that I get letters of recommendation so I asked a number of respected colleagues to write them for me. I received enough recommendations and sent them with my letter of application. I was thrilled when I learned that I had been accepted to SIT in 1996. The story of the wonderful time I spent studying in Vermont is worthy of a separate chapter.
Preparing to go to Korea
I returned to Vancouver after completing my two-year contract with GEOS in Tokyo in October 1992. A month before leaving I caught a bad cold and sleeping on a futon on the floor had made my back muscles go into spasm so that I couldn’t stand up straight. I saw a chiropractor in Japan who got me a brace but it didn’t help. So, by the time I returned to Canada I was in pretty bad shape and stayed with my parents in the town of Sidney, BC for a few months to recover. During this time I spent half of the money I had saved on a used Ford Tempo car with all-wheel drive and four doors. Looking back, I think I was acting extravagantly and should have got something cheaper and more basic. There weren’t many opportunities in Sidney so I took the ferry across the Strait of Georgia and applied for and was accepted as a resident of a co-op house near Main Street in East Vancouver. There I learned about vegan cooking and am still in contact with the house owners. I found work and also enrolled in a Certificate in TESOL program at Vancouver Community College. Once I had completed the three-month course I had a basic qualification in the profession and responded to a recruiter’s advertisement for a teaching position with ELS in Seoul, Korea. I was elated to be informed that my application was accepted an I would be going to Seoul in short order.
Arrival in Korea
By September 1992 I had arrived in Seoul to start a contract with the Kangnam branch of ELS, and was assigned a roommate, Ken from Los Angeles. Our living quarters were an apartment in the Chamshil district of Seoul south of the Han River and near Seoul’s Olympic Village that had been built for the 1988 games. The popular Lotte World Theme Park was nearby and I visited it with colleagues. The location required taking the subway a few kilometers to the school. The apartment was old and furnished with heavily used furniture, but it was adequate. The school was labelled ELS, but actually a franchise owned by Sisa Yongo Sa, a Korean corporation. There were ELS branches throughout the country, with at least two in Seoul: my school, in Kangnam and another branch in Chongno, the old downtown part of Seoul. I feel fortunate to have worked at ELS because the conditions were significantly better than at the many small private English language institutes known as “hogwans” that existed in every city. There were many horror stories about the terrible working and housing conditions and even non-payment that occurred in many hogwans. ELS, in contrast was a step above these schools with a proper curriculum and with high standards for treatment of teachers. I’m glad to say I was never paid less than was owed to me and I was treated fairly over my three years with ELS. The school was in a four-story building with many classrooms as well as a large teachers’ office and a kitchen. There were about 20 teachers, some of whom had graduate degrees in teaching or other subjects such as international relations. In addition to these professional teachers the school employed a number of part-timers because around the time I arrived in Korea a boom in English study began and there were not enough experienced teachers to meet the demand. Consequently, ELS hired any foreigner they could find such as Dutch and French Canadian backpackers as well as a number of ethnic Koreans who had grown up in the USA but come back to Korea to work. These ethnic Koreanas were known as “kyopos.” It made a lot of sense to hire kyopos to teach the lowest level classes, just as how in my school in Tokyo they had employed Japanese ladies to teach the beginners.
One factor that made ELS a great place to teach is that there was a “library” with a number of book shelves with good quality teaching resources for instructors to make use of. Now, since the school taught mainly conversational English, I found the library materials useful for creating my own supplementary activities, my so-called “bag of tricks.” ELS had its own in-house textbooks, but these weren’t very good at the time, so ELS hired some of my colleagues as materials developers and eventually the textbooks improved.
It was only after I left ELS that I realized that my students were from the elite of Seoul, and that, in fact, most Koreans were not like them. For example ELS students were very fashionable and had often travelled. One of the pleasant benefits was that the students sometimes gave teachers gifts, and I received my share of them including a Burberry tie which I was fond of. Later I realized that it is part of Korean culture to give gifts to one’s teachers – a tradition I certainly approve of! In a way, gift giving could be viewed as a form of bribery, but since the courses were not academic but for the purpose of strengthening students’ English conversation skills, I don’t think any harm was done. In most cases the students had taken many years of academic English lesson and knew the fundamentals of English grammar quite well; and once in fact, a student corrected me about the use of “whose” by pointing out that it could be used to refer to non-human subjects, which is something I wasn’t aware of. I bought an English grammar reference book to refer to in class.
When I was in Japan and had taken part in the Asia Pacific Orienteering Championships I had met some of the South Korean participants; therefore, not long after going to Seoul I contacted them. Pretty quickly I was invited to go with them to an Orienteering competition (cross-country running with the aid of map an compass). My main contact, a Mr Lee, assured me that I didn’t need any camping equipment and that I only needed to show up at the meeting point and that camping gear would be provided. As it turned out, there was a tent but no sleeping mat or sleeping bag. At this time I began to get an appreciation for how hardy Korean men of that generation were. They built a campfire and sat around it getting drunk on “soju” a vodka-like drink while talking and langhing at jokes. In all my interactions with the “Pukguk Song” (North Star) Orienteering Club of Seoul the members treated me with a lot of kindness and I believe I attended about six competitions, but I have lost the maps so I can’t recall exactly where I went.
North Star Orienteering Club
After I had been in Korea only a few months two of the members of the North Star Orienteering Club invited me to join them for what they said would be an easy hike at Pukhan San Mountain just north of Seoul. I realized they had not exactly been truthful when they said it would be an easy hike as they took us to parts of the mountain where we needed a rope and could easily have fallen to our deaths. My room-mate Ken went along with me and was particularly unnerved at the rock climbing we had to do, with his body shaking slightly with nervousness at times.
At ELS I normally worked the afternoon-evening shift, ending at 9 pm. The teaching load was heavy with 30 contact hours per week. Sometimes, especially in the early days, the students would urge me to go to a bar or nightclub with them after class. A few times I went with them to a “norebang” (singing room) which was a private karaoke room. I was amazed at how well some of the students could sing in English when they could hardly say anything in class, such as one student who sang Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” very convincingly. I have not done much singing and used to tell them that Canadian men leave singing for specialists. A girlfriend said that I could be a good singer if I practiced – I’m doubtful about that. Another time I met my students at one of the famous discotheques in Kangnam, but once was enough because they were amused at my simple dance moves while they danced like little John Travoltas. Going out with students after class was okay in the first year and a good way to learn about Seoul, but eventually I started to refuse to go out since I valued my free time and had a personal private life by then.
In my first year I enrolled in Korean language classes at the ELS in Chongno and they boosted my ability. Interestingly, the instructor, a Korean woman, used the total immersion method whereby she didn’t use any English whatsoever. One lesson was incredibly frustrating because I just couldn’t understand what the point of the lesson was. Later, a classmate explained that she was trying to teach “whatever, wherever, whenever” etc. I felt that if she had just said those English words I would have saved myself a lot of demoralizing confusion. My take-away from this is that when teaching total beginners it can be useful to use the native language in certain instances. The total immersion method should be used after students have mastered the basics. From this course I learned how to use the verb tenses and a lot of basic useful expressions and vocabulary. I took lessons for only a couple of months and after that I taught myself the way I had in Japan. By the way, I learned to read Korean pretty quickly because it is very logical and it is not necessary to memorize Chinese characters. I found knowing Korean to be very useful, especially when I travelled outside of Seoul. I found that usually I got a very positive reaction from Koreans when I spoke their language. It was obvious that they did not expect a foreigner to take the trouble to learn their language. A few times I was criticized for my accent, but the main point is that I was not dependent on a translator or helpless. Due to my lack of vocabulary I was not able to carry on a deep conversation, but I knew enough to introduce myself, shop and travel, etc. Many Westerners in Korea don’t learn much Korean for various reasons, but for me, having studied Japanese was a big help in the sense that I had a system and believed it was possible if I just worked at it steadily.
Cheju Island Trip
In December 1993 the school closed for a week so I, Ken and Dan from Chicago flew to Cheju Island which is south of the Korean mainland. Cheju was unindustrialized and depended mainly on tourism, fishing and agriculture. It has a milder climate than mainland Korea. We took buses to the sightseeing attractions around the island and stayed in inexpensive Korean-style hotels called “yogwans.” South Korea’s highest mountain Halla San at 1,957 meters is on Cheju and we were determined to climb to the peak. However, when we reached the start of the trail up the mountain there was a barrier across the trail and a sign saying it was closed due to the cold weather. The three of us were not deterred by this and backtracked out of sight then bushwhacked around the park ranger post and then got back on the trail. Our footwear was only running shoes rather than boots and at the peak there was snow, but we were lucky with the weather and had a beautiful blue sky and the mountaintop all to ourselves. Looking back on it, it was a risky thing to do as if we had got into an emergency no one would have known about us. We could have got lost, slipped and broken an ankle, got hypothermia, etc. The park rangers could possibly have fined us or worse. Still, the view from the peak was incredible and made it worth the risk.
To be continued
My friend Gordon had been in Japan longer than I had and was making good progress with the language by taking lessons at a Japanese language school in the nearby town of Kokubunji. Therefore I enrolled at the school as well. My teacher was a Japanese lady who was very kind and enthusiastic at first. Since I was working full time I could only find time to attend class once a week; consequently, my progress was slow. After three months my teacher was visibly annoyed that I was learning so slowly and scolded me. Now, as a grown adult and a fee-paying customer I was not willing to accept being scolded and quit the school. In my opinion she should have shown more patience and understanding. As a teacher myself, the only time I have scolded students is on rare occasions when they have been willfully disruptive, and never for their slow learning. Overall, it was a case of a lose-lose situation because the Japanese school lost a source of revenue and I lost a teacher. I hope she learned something from this, but I doubt it.
In any case, it was not a huge setback because I had a Japanese girlfriend who could help me with the language, some teach-yourself-Japanese books, as well as a TV that was given to me by a student. But, all I had to do to practice was go shopping and speak to the shop keepers, usually old ladies, who were generally tolerant of my broken Japanese. By the end of my two years in Japan I could read the two syllable-based alphabets hiragana and katakana and had learned a few dozen kanji (Chinese ideogram characters), and I knew enough of the language including verb tenses to greet people, introduce myself, go shopping, ask for directions and carryout a simple conversation. Occasionally, while I was in Japan I met young foreigners who had learned fluent Japanese, and I was envious of them, but I also met many foreigners who had learned almost nothing in spite of being there many years. I assume that the ones who learned the language fluently were students who had the freedom to immerse themselves into the culture and shun using English; however, I know of a few dedicated and self-disciplined English teachers who got very good at the language. I believe that if I had stayed longer I would have eventually reached an advanced level of Japanese speaking, although becoming literate is a different story as reading and writing Japanese is extremely difficult due to the kanji (Chinese characters).
Occasionally I met westerners who were martial arts enthusiasts, and my friend Gordon used to train regularly at an Aikido dojo. I would liked to have learned Aikido or karate too, but I already had enough on my plate.
Brutal Feedback in Training Session
After a being in Japan a few weeks I underwent teacher training at the GEOS head office in Tokyo. I was part of a small group that had to develop lesson plans. Afterwards we had to critique each other’s plans, and when I gave feedback about my colleagues’ work I tried to keep it mostly positive with a bit of constructive criticism. However, when it was their turn to critique my plan they pulled out the daggers and were completely ruthless, upsetting me quite a bit. I think these people have poor social skills and lack common sense. By doing that they made me an enemy for life. After the workshop the facilitator apologized to me for the devastating criticism but it wasn’t much consolation.
During my time in Japan I made a number of friends who I am still in contact with 30 years later. One of them, Toshinobu, was an amazing student. He was a materials developer for a Japanese optical company and was my student for my entire time in Japan. To give examples of some of the extraordinary things he did, first, before class he used to write an essay about topics that interested him. I would correct them and they would be the starting point for that day’s lesson. Second, he once brought in his classical guitar and performed for the class.
Toshinobu and I were both runners of similar ability. Therefore, he invited me to join him on a number of cross-country running races which we went to by train. One was to the Izu Peninsula where, after the race, we visited the famous “Daibutsu” a large 700-year-old bronze statue of Buddha. Another time he took me to Niigata Prefecture north of Tokyo where we ran up a mountain under ski lifts, then down again. At that race two foreign friends joined us, Roger from Sweden and Allen from USA. Another time he invited me to visit his parents, and his mother enjoyed dressing me up in the traditional men’s robe called the “hakama.” His mother also performed the Japanese tea ceremony for me, which was something special to see. A few years later when I was working in Korea Toshinobu visited Seoul on his honeymoon and I showed him and his bride around central Seoul and took them up the Namsan Tower.
Another student, Hiroshi, was an engineer, but also extremely artistic. Once when we played Pictionary in class he was able to draw amazingly detailed pictures to convey the meaning of his words. Hiroshi has published a book which aims to teach English through the use of drawings. Apparently it is a best-seller in Japan. I visited Hiroshi and we also went on day trips to sights around Tokyo.
At least two North American women came to teach at Tachikawa. One of them was Suhaila from Ontario. We got along very well and did a number of activities together with students in our free time. As an example of the expression, “It’s a small world,” when working in the UAE 25 years later I realized that she was married to the brother of one of my Indian friends. We have since reconnected and communicate via social media.
There was a US military base nearby and some of my Japanese colleagues had American soldier boyfriends. I even attended the wedding of one of these ladies to a US army medical soldier. Once, in a hamburger restaurant I got talking with some US soldiers from the base. They were discussing what they were going to do after leaving the army. I don’t blame them for wanting to leave because an enlisted man is basically a slave. I know this from personal experience in the Canadian army.
Tachikawa had once had a military airbase and had a large business district. It also had an entertainment district full of nightclubs and bars. I used to frequent a few izakayas with my friends and never had any trouble despite there invariably being a few gangster “yakuza” types around. Once one of these guys said “gaijin” (foreigner) in an insulting tone but I just ignored it. Another time I sat down in a coffee shop by the owner in a way that I felt was rude. Supposedly it hadn’t opened yet. In Japan I can say that I occasionally felt as though I was being looked down on, but these were rare events and committed by ignorant people. Overall, I would say Japan is the safest country I’ve been in.
I had a number of friends come and visit me while I was in Japan. One was Charles, a South African physician who visited me in the winter of 1991 after trekking to the Everest base camp in Nepal. With him I rode a “shinkansen” or so-called bullet train to visit Kyoto and Mie Prefecture in central Japan. In Kyoto we visited all the famous sights including the iconic “Kinkakuji” or Golden Temple. In Mie we went to Ago Bay to see the pearl industry and watch a demonstration of pearl divers. We stayed at a lovely traditional Japanese inn or “ryokan” there. While we were there we dined on seafood but the next day we both got food poisoning, with Charles suffering particularly badly. Still, I’m glad I went to Mie.
Later I was visited by my high school friend Mark and his wife Jennifer who were backpacking around Southeast Asia. They timed their visit to coincide with the Asia Pacific Orienteering Championships of 1992 and I joined them in this competition. The event was held in Shizuoka and involved a few days of races. One of the competitions was held next to Mount Fuji and had the mountain as a backdrop to the finish area. For those not in the know, Orienteering is competitive cross-country running in which the competitor has to navigate using a map and compass to complete a course that is typically ten kilometers long and take 60-90 minutes. There were many different nationalities present besides the host Japanese, including South Koreans, Canadians, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders, and others. Mark and Jennifer used my apartment as a base for trips to different sights around Tokyo. At this event I got to know a fellow from Finland who was about my age and working in Tokyo as an engineer. We hung out a bit in my second year and it was my loss when his job ended and he had to go back to Helsinki.
My final visitor was Martin, a friend from Vancouver who came to Japan to teach English. Whereas I had secured employment before going to Japan, he went to Japan planning to find a job, which of course he succeeded in doing. I was glad to help him out until he could settle down. I believe he lived in Japan for many years and still might be there, but I’m not sure because I haven’t been able to track him down online.
Trip to Singapore
During one winter break my Japanese girlfriend and I joined a tour group on a four-day trip to Singapore. I was the only non-Japanese in the group. The heat and humidity were remarkable. In Singapore the tour group was taken to the Cartier jewelry factory, where we were encouraged to shop. Then we visited a Hindu temple and I took pictures of the amazing sculpture of the Hindu gods on it. However, I didn’t actually see much of Singapore because I got food poisoning on the first day and spent the rest of the trip recovering in our hotel room. I suspect that the milk in the coffee I ordered is what made me sick. Still, I have no regrets about going to Singapore and would gladly return.
I got to know many other teachers for GEOS, other language institutes and even some universities. Speaking to them implanted the idea of becoming properly trained and qualified in order to improve my skills and qualify for a coveted university English teaching job. One institution that came up often was the School for International Training (SIT) in Vermont, USA. As it turned out, four years later after teaching in Korea I attended SIT and earned my Masters in TESOL, but that’s a story for another day. (1,765 words)
From 1988 to 1990 I worked as a reporter/editor/photographer for Sterling Newspapers, in two small towns in rural British Columbia, first in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island, then in Creston, near the Rocky Mountains. In many ways this job was the most interesting one I ever had because of the interesting people and diversity of issues I got to cover, e.g. local politics, environmental issues, sports and entertainment, etc. In these towns I became an important person, knowing the mayors and other community leaders. By 1990, however, I was dissatisfied, being unhappy about the low pay, having to work evenings and weekends sometimes, and feeling that I was in a dead-end job. Then, around this time a friend who had been teaching English in Japan told me about it, and I decided that I would seek employment in that field. I considered myself an ideal candidate as I had strong English communications skills gained through a BA in Classical studies and a certificate in journalism. I addition I loved travel and learning new languages.
I attended a job interview with GEOS Language Systems which was conducted by a charming, pretty young Japanese woman who was the manager of the Vancouver office. At the interview I was successful and offered a position which I accepted. At the time I asked if she could recommend any materials related to language teaching that I could use to prepare myself for the job, but she said that the school to which I would be assigned would have a large collection of teaching materials and that I would receive training upon arrival in Japan. In truth, this was not the case.
I caught a flight to Narita Airport and was met by Yuka one of the young GEOS employees who took me to the city of Tachikawa in western Tokyo. I was surprised that she took me there by train and subway rather than by taxi or van because I had a large backpack and at least one carry-on bag which was a lot to take onto the crowded public transportation.
After being briefly taken to the school building the manager took me to a hotel room for my first night. This room must have been one of the cheapest in Tachikawa because it was directly below a Pachinko parlour, which is basically a casino with slot machines. I lay in bed unable to sleep due to the noise and wondering how long the noise would go. Eventually it stopped at about 2:00 am and I was able to get some sleep.
First Day on the job
The Tachikawa branch of GEOS was surprisingly small and consisted of only one floor with an office/reception area and about five cramped classrooms. Fortunately a lot of the lessons were either one-to-one or in small groups. For the first week I sat in on lessons taught by Mike H. of Victoria, BC, whom I was replacing. Immediately I realized that the recruiter was wrong when she said there would be a large collection of teaching materials to make use of. In reality there were only a handful of EFL textbooks and cassette tapes. One of the books that were used extensively was “American Streamline Connections” which was a great resource if you knew how to use it. Each lesson was one page long so teachers had to develop extension activities using the teacher’s manual.
On my second day I was taken to the accommodation that was to be my home for the next two years. It was located in a different city, Kunitachi, which was quiet place one train stop on the Chuo (Main) Line closer to Tokyo. One of Japan’s best universities, Hitotsubashi, was located there. My apartment building was two stories high with four units on each floor. My unit was on the ground floor and consisted of an entrance/kitchen with a one room which served as a combined living room and bedroom. There was also a loft area accessed by a ladder which could be used for sleeping, but I mainly used it for storage or for guests. There was a small bathroom, of course. There were a few strange things about the building. First, the walls were very thin so one could hear one’s neighbors quite easily. Second, the building was located next to the railway which had four sets of tracks. Each time a train passed it was noisy and when a train in the tracks closest to the building went past the building actually shook.
On the positive side, the building was new and the units were each equipped with an air conditioner (necessary in the hot humid summers) and electrically controlled metal shutters. Since the walls were so thin and there was no central heating with thermostat, in winter I had to use a kerosene heater. I was also provided with a low table with an electric heater and a blanket over the edges called a “kotatsu” which was quite cozy. It did not have a bed but was provided with a futon which was rolled up and put in a corner when not being used.
High beginner students and above
After Mike left I was the only native speaker instructor at the school but there were five young Japanese ladies, some full-time and some part-time workers who taught the majority of students. I was spared the low level beginners and assigned high beginners and above. The purpose of the school was to provide Japanese learners the opportunity to engage in genuine conversation with English native-speakers. Many of the students had taken English courses in school and university but had no real interaction with an English speaking person, so it was our job to provide this. I should say that GEOS marketed itself very aggressively and made claims to students such as being a good English speaker after a few months with the school, which of course was totally unrealistic and unethical. GEOS also made it appear that learning would always be fun and easy, when anyone who knows about language learning understands that learning a language takes a lot of motivation and hard work, and although a skilled instructor can make the process involve less discomfort, it is still an arduous process. As a result some students were disappointed with their progress.
I was very fortunate that I was assigned the best students in the school, mainly adult men, including a scientist, Chitose, and others such as business people, engineers, medical doctors, and army officers. I also taught lots of university students and young workers, and even high school students. One of the perks of the job was that instructors were free to spend time outside of class with students and I was taken to many bars and restaurants as well as hiking trips. In my first week a class took me to a bowling alley, which was wonderful except that I mistakenly used the ladies’ toilet because the men’s and women’s entrances were only marked with Japanese “kanji” ideogram characters that I hadn’t learned yet. Fortunately I didn’t encounter any women inside! This is an example of the kind of mistake that is hard to avoid making when one is a newcomer in an entirely new and different culture. Early on in my time with GEOS the female teachers took me sightseeing in downtown Tokyo where we visited the famous Ginza area, the Emperor’s palace and many shopping markets where I bought a few souvenirs. I still appreciate that they did this for me.
One of the great things about learning Japanese in Japan is that, in spite of all the effort they put into learning English, very few people feel comfortable speaking it, and consequently, they are relieved if they can speak to you in their language. Speaking with ordinary people gives you a lot of confidence. I bought a book about learning Japanese and began to study the language and practice using it.
Pretty quickly I met Gordon V. a Canadian who taught at another branch of GEOS that was nearby. He introduced me to Japanese bars which are known as “izakayas.” The main difference between bars in western countries and Japanese izakayas is that the Japanese always eat while they drink. I learned some expressions like “dai nama biru futatsu kudasi” which means “two large draft beers please.” A Japanese friend took me to see a Kabuki performance in downtown Tokyo. Kabuki is one of Japan’s traditional performing arts that goes back hundreds of years. In the performances female roles are acted by men in drag (like in Shakespearean England). The actors wear dramatic face paint and the shows are accompanied by traditional Japanese stringed instruments such as the shamisen and koto as well as drums and flutes, etc. I’m glad that I went to see one of these uniquely Japanese performances.
I never became involved in martial arts, but Gordon used to go to an aikido dojo and train regularly. I regret not learning any kind of martial art. At Hitotsubashi University I sometimes saw members of the karate club practicing outdoors and admired their self-discipline.
To be continued
Since I was a child I have admired Canadian native Indian art and their culture in general; however, it disappoints me that I have never had a conversation with a Canadian native Indian, let alone been friends with one. This is in spite of regularly passing through so-called Indian reserves on my travels all over the province of British Columbia. In fact, in home district, the Lower Mainland region (Greater Vancouver) the proportion of native Indians in the population is miniscule, whereas in some smaller towns their numbers are greater. Sadly, the one area where it is possible to see large numbers of natives is in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside which is the poorest and most miserable district in all of Canada where drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, unemployment and prostitution are widespread. Almost all of the natives in this district did not grow up there but made their way to the Downtown Eastside from their reserves far away on the coast or deep in the interior. I have to admit that I did not really know very much about First Nations history both pre- and post-contact with Europeans.
Therefore, my recent reading of Robin Fisher’s book, “Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890,” vastly expanded my knowledge of the subject. I will not try to explain every chapter in the book, but rather will inform you about what struck me most about it.
Maritime and Land-based Fur Trade
In the early stages, the maritime fur trade and the land-based fur trade, from 1774 to the 1850s, relations between the natives and the fur traders including the Hudson’s Bay Company were mutually beneficial. The fur traders were simply interested in obtaining as many sea ottter, beaver, etc. furs as possible and were not interesting in settling and changing the native’s way of life. A key factor, as well, was that the first governor of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia (New Caledonia), James Douglas, was incredibly tolerant and fair towards the natives. For example, he set aside huge areas as so-called Indian reserves, basically giving the natives as much land as they wanted. Fisher argues that the native civilization actually reached its peak at that time due to the income from the fur trade. Their new wealth allowed the natives to devote more time and effort to their amazing art which can be seen in carved objects such as totem poles, masks, canoes, and so on.
Gold Miners, Settlers and Government Officials
The situation took a dramatic turn for the worse with the beginning of the Cariboo Gold Rush and the arrival of land-hungry settlers, especially ranchers. According to Fisher, after Douglas retired government officials took an unsympathetic view of the natives, wanting to eradicate their culture and leave only the most unproductive land for the native reservations. One of the most notorious officials in charge of “Indian” affairs was a Mr Trutch who viewed the natives as savages and did everything in his power to suppress native rights. In fact, after British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the federal government was at odds with the BC provincial government over many native issues. Apparently, the natives of BC made far fewer treaties giving up their land to the government compared to the rest of Canada – it was simply expropriated in most cases. It appears that there was a lot of corruption and conflict of interest exhibited by the BC officials. The result of this was that the population of natives in BC declined steadily and only began to recover in about 1930.
Another key aspect was the impact of Christian missionaries on the native population. They considered the native lifestyle, beliefs and traditions as evil and barbaric and worthy of elimination. I was particularly interested to learn about the activities of William Duncan of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) who began preaching to the Tsimshian tribe on the northern coast of BC. He was a hard-liner who believed than none of the tribe’s beliefs and traditions should be retained and that alcohol should be banned. He gained control of every aspect of his followers’ lives and convinced hundreds of the Tsimshian to follow him and begin a new Victorian Christian village called Metlakatla. They built an impressive wooden church with buttresses and a steeple and many western-style buildings.
Eventually, the CMS in London objected to Duncan’s dictatorial behavior which led to Duncan leaving the missionary society and relocating his little Christian utopia to United States territory in Alaska. As a result there are two Metlataklas, the original near Prince Rupert and the second in the Alaska panhandle. In fairness to Duncan, he ensured that his community was economically self-sufficient through fishing and logging (they had a cannery and a sawmill) and the natives were healthier (there were hardly any smallpox victims during an epidemic and no alcoholism), albeit at the cost of their culture. According to Fisher, even today Duncan has supporters and detractors among the Tsimshian. In later decades native children all over BC and Canada were separated from their families to live in the infamous residential Christian schools where the children were forced to forget their language and traditions, and in many cases sexually abused and even killed from neglect.
There is so much in this book that is new to me such as the fact that the Spanish were the first Europeans in BC and built a settlement on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the 1790s, or that many natives worked as miners in the Cariboo Gold Rush. Fisher does not hide unpleasant truths about the natives such as the existence of slavery, superstitions, tribal warfare and intra-tribal violence. After reading this book I feel that my knowledge of the natives of British Columbia has increased vastly and would recommend anyone interested in the subject to read it too. In fact, I believe that this material should be taught in the schools; it was not when I was a high school student in the 1970s. I would like to eventually patronize native-owned businesses and get to know some personally. (1,000 words)