Sep 23, 2012

How to Learn English - an ESL Infographic

I'm bringing copies of this infographic by Kaplan into my TEFL class this week. There's some interesting information here about what elements of western pop culture attract ESL learners.

Bob Marley? Star Wars? This survey was definitely not done in Korea.

How to learn English via Kaplan Blog

Sep 12, 2012

Inside my Korean Makeup Bag

Korea is a tempting place for the product-obsessed. In every neighbourhood, you will find literally dozens of makeup and beauty shops, all of them cheap, all of them with cute packaging and just enough English on the box to get those buzzwords across: mineral, satin, brightening, YOUTHFUL. It's like a Vegas for the skin-conscious.

Most western women that I've met in Korea have experimented gleefully with this country's beauty goodies. And yet, in all my online snooping, the only beauty blogs and product reviews of Korean cosmetics seem to be done by Asian women, speaking specifically to their skin tones and facial structure. So, I've gone in blind.

It's taken me a few years of trial and error to sample the gamut and figure out which products are best for my erratic western skin. My advice, for western women on the Korean beauty trail:

Skin Food: for the eyes

My first year in Korea, there was a Skin Food around the corner from my apartment. I hung around there a lot, reading the packages, telling myself I was practicing Korean phonics but actually just daydreaming about smooth, poreless Korean skin. Is that weird?

I became a big fan of their eye products. The Black Bean Eye Pencils are soft and gentle, and last a long time if you set them with powder. Now, I have a rocky history with eyeliner. I spent many a teenage morning scraping my poor eyelid skin with those leaden-feeling liners from the Wet n Wild counter, thinking that's just how eyeliner is supposed to feel. They're pencils, after all.

Pained from the experience, or perhaps too lazy to buy an eyeliner pencil sharpener, I stopped using liner for a good five years. Skin Food got me back on the wagon. It's creamy and pain-free, even when you apply it on a jolting city bus. Just saying.

I've tried hundreds of mascaras and will loyally go back to Skin Food's Banana Long Lash Curl Mascara in black. It doesn't smudge or flake, even in the drippy-humid Korean summers. Also, with the wealth of megawatt-volumizing-lengthening mascaras on the market, I like a product that's more daytime-appropriate, less Kardashian. The lashes look good, but no one would think I'm wearing falsies.

The Face Shop: for BB Cream

The ol' BB stuff is apparently making waves in the UK and North America, with brands like Clinique and Dior getting in on the act. I'm sure their formulas are lovely, albeit pricey, but I'll stick to the original East Asian stuff.

I have the cruel cosmetic dilemma of wanting a BB with SPF something and oil-control properties for my neurotic face-pores, which like to panic with any fluctuation of temperature, mood, or comfort. Some creams have SPF a million, but are designed for heavy duty moisturizing. Talc-y, powdery creams keep you desert-matte, but give no sun protection. Many claim to do both, but don't quite hit the mark..

The only one I found that lives up to its promises on my face is The Face Shop's Oil Cut BB Dual Emulsion SPF 20. The cream is liquidy enough to blend easily and not look too mask-like. I haven't been burnt once with it. And, AND, there's a little pot of concealer and a mirror built into the lid. Aww, Face Shop, you shouldn't have.

Innisfree: for powders

The first Korean girlfriend I made, Eun-Yong, got me into Innisfree when she gave me a red wine body scrub for Christmas. She told me it was her favourite brand because of its natural ingredients and minimal chemical additives and dyes. Boom, an Innisfree fan was born. With me, it doesn't take much.

In the morning, once my BB cream is set, I pat on the No Sebum Mineral Powder (I swear I'm otherwise quite low-maintenance).

It's light and untinted, and just mattifies my face for the day. It doesn't feel heavy or starchy as some powders do. Though initially it looks a bit kabuki, with layered BB cream and powder, the makeup oxidizes and settles down after a few minutes.

I carry a Mineral Powder Pact in my purse for a little colour and de-shining throughout the day.

It's not too dusty-looking and the colour offsets my natural slightly-too-red complexion. It has an SPF of 25 too.

Innisfree, you know exactly how to get me.

Tony Moly: for non-ridiculous colour

I usually wear Canadian drugstore eyeshadow, but when I ran out a few weeks ago, I hunted high and low through a dozen Korean beauty stores, getting frustrated.

All the eyeshadows were high-wattage sparkly, good for a big night out or the under-16 demographic, but not for me and my relatively mild routine of going to work, dinner, sometimes the pub.
I'd never set food in Tony Moly before, skeptical of their perpetual 70% off sales and particularly aggressive shopgirls standing outside in Sailor Moon outfits. But I was desperate, so I popped in, and did a little inner-cheer at the sight of simple matte Crystal Mono Eyeshadow. Don't be thrown by the name, it's mature, lady eyeshadow.

They also have a very pretty lip stain called Tony Tint, which comes in two colours and is a nice contrast to the other Korean beauty shops' pixie-shiny lip glosses. It's a close and credible knockoff of Benefit's Benetint, the lip product that holds my everlasting loyalty.

Aug 23, 2012

Travel Time Capsule: February 2005

Mark must have taken this photo.

I don't remember it, but I remember him on our walks through Lisbon, dropping away from the group. I'd see him from the corner of my eye, up a flight of stone steps or ten paces away in the plaza, his face behind a camera.

We travelled during reading week, Carolyn and I in our fourth year of university. Our peers were in Cancun and Fort Lauderdale. She had found the trip on a last minute booking site. This was before every person under 25 was an online booking pro, and our peers were skeptical. She'd camped outside my Literary Criticism class on a wet February afternoon. "It's for eight nights in the Algarve, flight, hotel, transit to the airport, right on the sea, do you want to do it?"

We'd cooked up a dozen travel dreams together, shared backpacking stories of Europe, eaten baguettes and cheese with wine on our shitty student balconies. Her boyfriend would come with us, and two friends of his. I met them for the first time at Pearson airport, boarding our charter flight with the other package tourists. Mark had a guitar case. Wilson had the same sunglasses as me. We were the youngest people on the plane.

We spent two nights in Lisbon, but I don't remember much.

Old men playing dominoes in the plazas. Cold wind. Carolyn's heels getting stuck in cobblestone. Expensive coffee. Drinking absinthe in the hostel common room with a pair of Americans and some quiet Spanish girls. Buying and losing cheap plastic umbrellas. One night on empty rain-slick streets, the city quiet as Portugal played Italy. The city solemn when Portugal lost.

I don't remember it, but in Mark's photos from Lisbon, I'm grinning wider than anyone else.

Aug 9, 2012

ESL students say the darndest things

What is a stove? What is a stove's job?

I know I know I know!


He is Steve Jobs' brother!

Jul 2, 2012

My Double Life

My job in Korea is generous with vacation. It's standard for university lecturing positions: 8 weeks off per year, at least. 

When we signed contracts, I thought it would be perfect. I could visit Canada frequently, maintaining ties with family and old friends, keep homesickness at bay with biannual pilgrimages home. I would have my exotic Korean job and keep one foot where my roots lie. I'd have my cake and eat it too, for a few years at least, until it got too taxing.

Before, I would come gratefully back "home" after a year or more abroad. Then, my senses would take in Canada thirstily, greedily. I had staked my adult self as a traveler, a seeker of adventure. It almost felt guilty, traitorous, taking such pleasure in the familiar. 

I would pause with gratitude a thousand times a day, for the smallest moments I didn't realize I missed. A full-sized oven, coffee with milk, big bookstores. I'd smile at shady oak trees, an overheard Gatineau accent, a pair of kids on bicycles, riding slowly up the wide, empty sidewalk. 

I'm in Canada now, the second visit in less than six months. The transition between cultures wasn't breathless or tiring or reflective. It was easy. I've met with friends, strolled my old neighbourhood, eaten family meals, barely thinking of Korea and my life there. I don't feel like a visitor here. I don't feel temporary or conditional. I certainly don't feel strange. Instead, I feel strange about how easy it's become to slip comfortably between my two lives, to immerse fully into one, barely thinking of the other at all, then switch, then back, then switch a few months later again. 

Here, I read newspapers in the late morning on a sun porch, round mugs of tea in hand.
There, I watch CNN at night, usually while painting my toenails or laying out tomorrow's clothes. 

Here, my meetings with friends start and end with strong, clapping hugs. 
There, I see friends daily, and our goodbyes are brief and, we know, short-lasting.

Here, I chat with shopkeepers and baristas. Ten times a day, I say "how are you?" to strangers, and hear it back in turn.
There, I nod my head reverentially to cashiers when they praise my clunky, timid Korean. 

Here, I eat Greek food, Italian food, maritime food, Mexican food; Montreal bagels and local berries, bought from French-speaking vendors at the market. 
There, we get Indian as a treat, maybe fries at the pub on Fridays. We know the ladies who do rice rolls and tofu soup across the street. We still haven't found good pizza.

Here, I'm a daughter and sister, childhood friend, old classmate, old neighbour, sharer of the past.
There, I'm not anonymous but not rooted either. There's always change in the students, colleagues, friends coming and leaving.

Now, it's easy. Now, also, I know it can't last forever.

May 12, 2012

How to Drink with your Students

Festival time is when campus goes from this... this.

For weeks, students talk about the festival.

Your assistant tells you at least three times not to cancel class.

"Students will ask," he says. "Probably, they will ask again and again."

For weeks, your coworkers tell you stories of past festivals. About all classes being cancelled on Friday after the big concert. About staying on campus all night, seeing the sky go from dark to blue to hazy dawn pink, beers in hand in plastic chairs. About trashed bathrooms, bonfires in the parking lot, deans downing shots with students, still wearing their pressed suits and silk ties.

Hand-painted banners line the main road through campus, slogans in careful Roman letters. "Go party then now!" "Fantastic, baby!" "Student nightclub building." The name of this year's festival, from what you can gather on posters and volunteer T-shirts, is "Feel Long Ketchup." You don't bother asking your English majors what it means.

On the first night, you will drink beer with the 60-year-old dean in the English Lit tent. Around you, your students wave hellos as they run the barbecue and wait tables. The dean grins hugely and takes your hand. "Thank you for showing solidarity to our department!" she says, as a deep-bowing student presents her a cocktail in a plastic cup.

You will walk around to other department booths, all serving the same canned beer, barbecued meat, and ramen bowls heated on campfire stoves. You will follow the sound of cheering to a gambling tent, where terrified mice race each other down a narrow wooden racetrack. You bet three times on #4, an unlucky number in Korea. No one else will.

You will be sold cheap glow sticks by a drunk kid in green lederhosen. He'll tell you with a nervous laugh that no, he's not a German major.

You will see the shy kid in your conversation class, tumbling out of a bush with a groggy girl on his arm.

You will see the other shy kid in your conversation class, walking around by himself, saying a meek hello to a table of students. They ignore him.

You will hear shrill, booze-watered "Hi Teacher!!" again and again from your students. They will invite you to join them, offer you shots of soju. They will introduce you to their girlfriends, holding hands tightly in the thick crowd.

You will meet other foreign teachers from other departments, all young and rakish, or else older and married to Korean women. You will meet about 40 foreign men, and two women. That's just how it is, you're told, in universities here. You'll meet old profs who now work at different universities. "I came down from Seoul for this," they tell you. "This place has the best school festival, hands down."

Later, when a K-Pop star takes the stage, everyone will scream with a volume you never thought possible, coming from Korean students. They'll bounce out of tents holding friends hands to worm closer to the stage. You'll hear nothing but thumping music and screaming, nodding to the art professor beside you who is still talking, pretending to understand because no matter how close you lean, you'll never hear him.

Around you, you'll see facepainted students slumped sleeping in computer chairs on the sidewalk. You'll see girls crying into cellphones, arms hugged around their stomachs. You'll see an ESL teacher in sunglasses and an unbuttoned shirt, staggering through a thick crowd, his arm tight around a giggling, teetering girl. She must be under 20. She must be his student.

You'll hug your new friends and return your students' giddy waves. And, with a belly full of barbecued pork and beer, ears ringing, slip quietly out the gates and head home.

Apr 13, 2012

Your First All-inclusive Resort

Four days in Havana, four at the beach. Sounds peachy, right? My father and I had packed a city guidebook and a stack of Martin Cruz Smith novels set in Havana. We'd culled tips from friends and acquaintances. We roamed that city, from the old town down the Malecon to the shells of American expat mansions.

We didn't plan much for the beach.

I mean, no restaurants to think about, no maps to decipher. We're a well-travelled father daughter team, if I may say so. Surely, four days of a package holiday wouldn't throw us any curveballs.

Not so.

Below, a few nuggets of info I wish I'd known.

Stake out pool chairs

You know that stereotype about German tourists getting up at dawn to claim beach chairs? It's a real thing. It's not just for Germans. Our resort was mostly Canadians, and yet each morning by 10:30, poolgoers were out of luck if they wanted to sit someplace. 

For two days, this pissed me right off. For two days, I daydreamed of hiding people's chairs, dropping their paperbacks into the kiddie pool, spilling beer on their towels. I thought about opening my own resort with a "no savesies" policy. I sat uncomfortably in aluminum bar chairs. 

On the third day, I sucked it up, staked a chair, and felt horrible about it. But oh, it was commmmfy in the midday heat! I guess you gotta play the game.

Bring a travel mug

Everybody does it! I imagine it feels gauche ordering delicate little cafes con leche in a Tim Horton's travel cup, but BYOM(ug) is part of resort culture.

Resorts don't seem to trust patrons with glass highballs under the unlimited drinks policy. Rightly so. Thus, booze is served in plastic cups, measuring about three modest ounces.

The resourceful drinker will bring a 1L travel mug to the bar, request his or her booze of choice, and migrate happily to the beach or pool, with enough liquid to last a good while. Package travel veterans seem to favour the 2L model the size of a small keg.

Forgetful travellers can hit the gift shop or tourist market for shabby bamboo mugs, often with portraits of Che painted crookedly on the side with nail polish.

Don't study frantic Spanish

I mean, if you're keen or restless, knock yourself out, but don't stress about being understood. I didn't meet a single member of staff who didn't speak basic English. Many were beautifully fluent. Of course, they were charmingly patient when I hit them with my bad Spanish, but it really wasn't needed to be understood.

One morning, at the crowded cafe, I ordered two cups of coffee in choppy Espanol. Beside me, a group of Nova Scotian women rolled their eyes so hugely, I could almost hear it. "Typical!" they spat. "Of course he serves the Spanish woman first."

(there is nothing remotely Hispanic or Mediterranean about my pink, pasty appearance)

I told them that I was Canadian. This seemed to make it worse. Could they sense my Ontario roots?

Tip with pesos

We met a few waiters and drivers with pockets full of foreign coins. British pound coins, Canadian loonies and twoonies, Euros in change. Useless to them. Change offices trade paper money only, no matter how high the coin's denomination.

They can ask customers to trade the coins for bills. We got this question several times, from guys with about $50 or $60 in Canadian change weighing down their pockets. It's a pain in the ass for them, I'm sure. We witnessed more than a few tourists shaking their heads suspiciously when asked to change money.

Conclusion? Tip with pesos. Or be generous and tip with bills.


Take a daytrip, or a half-day trip. Walk the beach until the resort fences disappear.

Go to the nearest town, even if it's tiny. Look around at local churches, at fruit vendors. Look at the roofing tiles and backyards of people's homes, and think about them. Look at what people wear when they don't wear resort uniforms.

I'm not against resorts. I think they're great for local economies. I get that not everyone is a backpacker and not everyone enjoys drinking mystery booze from a street vendor while eating fried scorpion. So be it, different strokes and all that.

Buuut, I do assert that resorts are artificial environments, and that beyond them lies a local culture that is worth exploring, even for just a few hours. The beach isn't going anywhere. Your staked out pool chair will wait. You're hydrated from the travel mug. Go.