Monday, September 7, 2009

Korean Orphange

This weekend, Taylor, Namika, and I went to visit an orphanage near Oncheonjang subway station. Taylor used to be a regular volunteer but it's my first time as well as Namika's. I've been meaning to find something to give back to the community since my time off and this sounded like something definitely worth doing. I had expected to see something similar to what we see in one of those charitable program with the African orphans living in poor conditions...... just in an Asian twist. Boy was I wrong and naive!

We finally arrived to the orphanage after a 20-minute trek on a steep street. The place looks like your average pre-school with a playground and lots of children drawings on the wall. We spoke to a really nice lady, Chris, who is the supervisor and the daughter in-law of the orphanage owner. We found out that this orphanage houses over 70 children ranging from infants to children as old as 8. It is funded by the Korean government but it also receives charitable donations from the community. One major challenge is that they are deciding whether to send the children who are old enough to start school to another orphanage with children similar in age and life stage. On the one hand, it could be more beneficial for these kids to interact with children similar to their age. On the other hand, some argue that it is better to provide a constant living arrangement through a child's life until after adolescence. This is the dilemma Chris and the rest of the orphanage staff is struggling with as there are children reaching this stage next year.

Unfortunately, the orphanage is currently not accepting volunteers because of the recent flu outbreak. It was decided that this was safer for both the children and the volunteers. Understandably so. However, Chris still offered us to spend some time with the children because she didn't want our trip to go to waste. I'm really glad she did. So we went into a playroom filled with 20-25 four to five year-olds. They didn't notice us at first but within minutes we had the more curious children coming up to us saying "hello" or "an-nyeong" in Korean. A couple of them came and reached up to us indicating that they wanted to be held. (How cute) Our next 20 minutes was spent on playing fake sword fights, ball throwing, lego-building, etc. It was neat to just sit there and watch these 20 or so children interact. As Chris described it to us, they are brothers and sisters and the nurses are their moms. One big family! Can you imagine how much fun it would be if you had 20 brothers and sisters to play with growing up? All the kids in the room seemed very happy and healthy and it brought peace to a part of me to think that the children are actually in a pretty decent situation here. These children have a caring staff and other children to play and interact with, which is more than I can say for many other unfortunate kids with neglectful parents. I soon realized that one of the keys in helping these children is not to treat them like some poor kids without parents, but instead try to integrate them into our lives and our community like normal kids.

I hope to be able to spend more time there after the flu scare is over. Chris said to check back in a month or so. This short trip to the orphanage was insightful and rewarding.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Taking major time off.....

Without going into great details, I wasn't able to work out a suitable schedule that will allow me to continue to work from South Korea. As a result, after a few sleepless nights thining, I have decided to take a Leave of Absence (LOA) from work and return in January 2010. Hence, I officially go on my LOA staring July 1.

I think this is the right decision for a number of reasons. First, I've been feeling really burnt out from everything. My physical and mental health have taken a nose-drive ever since I started my part-time MBA 2 years ago. Juggling between work, school, and keeping a modest social life will take a toll on you. This LOA will really recharge clear my mind to help me take my next step both professionally and personally.

Second, Namika and I are in a unique position to live abroad, which is what I always wanted, in a beautiful city like Busan. Given that I don't have any fixed constraints (mortgage payments, family, kids, etc.), this is probably the last chance in my life that I can take time off to explore.

Third, I've been contemplating on 'augmenting' my career and it has been difficult to get a perspective on things between all the daily grind. I'm going to take this time to what I really want without the pressure of achieving a 95% billable utilization and A's in my classes. I've been seriously thinking about taking the CFA (Charted Financial Analyst) Level 1 exam lately. I find the curriculum interesting and is a lot more in depth than what I'm exposed to in the MBA. I think with the CFA, I can carve a niche in a Consulting/Finance role. The goal is to write Level 1 in December.... we'll see how that goes. *fingers crossed*

There are a number of concerns with taking the LOA. Of course, money is the single biggest issue. I will be without income for the next 6 months and it will be very difficult to find a decent part-time job while in Korea. I'm looking into getting a teaching gig in town. I think it would help me develop skills that I'm lacking and make enough spare change to get by. In addition to the money issue, I was also worried about putting my career on hold for 6 months. I've worked really hard the past 6 years and the results are just showing.... but sometimes you gotta take a step back to go forward again.... hopefully at a faster pace. Overall, I have this really empowering and liberating feeling knowing that I'm actually willing to sacrifice a significant amount of money to do what I want to do. I recommend it.... if done responsibly. :)

Now my question for you is what would YOU if you had 6 months off to do anything you want?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Living in Busan

It has been exactly 2 months since I left India and arrived in Busan. I have grown to really enjoy and love this city. Busan is like a hybrid of San Diego and New York with its laid back beach-like atmosphere mixed with a surge of energy from its residence. We live by this beach called Gwangali, a stretch of beach about one kilometer long with lots of hofs (bars/pubs), restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels on the boardwalk. The strip even has an amusement park on one end! (I hope to check it out this weekend). A typical week night would be playing Shithead (This really fun card game) and Gin on the beach with light ocean breezes. Not only does Busan has natrual beauty (oceans and mountains), it also has pockets of lively neighborhoods like Seomyeong with its norebongs (kareoke) and street eats. We usually hang out at these places with other foreign English teachers on the weekend.

One major challenge I'm facing is the language barrier with the locals. Koreans, at least in Busan, for the large part still don't speak English. This is very debilitating as normal social interactions we take for granted become extremely difficult. I've had to endure a similar situation when I immigrated from Taiwan to Canada almost 20 years ago. The only difference this time is that my brain has less capacity to absorb another language... boo :( However, I'm trying, perhaps not hard enough, to learn Korean. I can read basic Korean and understand simple phrases like "hello" and "thank you" (I know, it's not very much). Also, some Korean words resemble Chinese words so sometimes I try to comprehend that way too.

I forsee a couple of road blocks in my continuing stay in Korea and it will take some creativity and maybe sacrifices to keep this going but I will try my best. I will keep you posted as I find out more.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sarah MacDonald Summarizes My Thoughts on India

As I read Holy Cow, by Sarah MacDonald, I came across this paragraph that really resonate with my feelings towards India. Here it is:

"India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true. It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all the extremes. India defied understanding, and for once, for me, that's okay. ..... I kind of like being confused, wrestling with contradictions, and not having to wrap up issues in a minute before a newsbreak."

I definitely felt like I was no longer in as much control in India as I did back home but I got used to it. Being out of control was mainly due to being in a foreign place. But I think the culture is inherently filled with inconsistent information. However, I suppose knowing the local language would help reduce some of this inconsistent information I was bombarded with on a daily basis. The rule of thumb is to not believe it until you see it. This was not all bad.... it really kept me on my toes and made into a more adaptable person. I'm really glad I got to experience this part of India.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sick of Having to Fight to Get Anything

I'm beginning to get really fed up with having to haggle for some of the very basic things one would need living in this country. I can recall an incident recently about getting a cab when I was in Delhi. So we were traveling from Dharmasala, which is at the very northern (west) tip of India, to Delhi and the trip took 5 hours on the bus followed by 14 hours (overnight) on the train. Needless to say, we were all very very grumpy when we arrived at the Delhi Train Station. We get out of the station, right away there were about 5 rickshaw/cab drivers offering up their services. We had to get to the airport to catch our flight to Hyderabad (back to ISB!) and since we had spent 5 days in Delhi the week previously, we knew the ride would not cost anymore than 300 Rs. (~$8 cdn) for a 15 km ride. So the first cab driver says "750 rupees"...... I didn't even look at him and I just kept walking. Next guy goes "500 rupees"..... so I kept walking. As we were walking to the pre-paid taxi booth, which was about 100 m away, we came across this one guy who was very serious about getting our business but he was offering 350 Rs so we continue walking to the pre-paid booth thinking we could do better. As we fish for better deals among the sea of rickshaw drivers and I noticed all of them were hesitatant to even negotiate with us. Then I noticed the same dude was shouting something in Hindi everytime we would try to talk to a driver. It hit me that this guy has been calling everyone else off because apparently we were "his". We finally get to the pre-paid booth and my friend Bram asked for a taxi to the airport. For some reason, the man behind the booth told us "no taxi, no taxi"... and this was about 10 o'clock on a busy Sunday morning. We looked at the price list posted just above the counter and it clearly said "10-20 km.... 98 Rs." So we were like what's the deal? After a few more minutes of communication with broken English and no results, we gave up. So with no other options, we turn to the same punk who has been calling the other drivers off and finally settled on a ride for 250 Rs.

It was especially frustrating because EVERYONE, including the "official" Delhi Station pre-paid taxi, around the station was in on ripping us foreigners off. It's not unusual to go through something like this 4-5 times a day, especially when you travel through India like we did. This is just the reality when you're a foreigner in a country like India. Maybe I'm a little burnt out from all the traveling in the past two weeks but I'm pretty fed up with it. Talking to a few of my exchange friends, I found out many of them feel the same way.

~ Hoping to have more patience for this nonsense,


Sunday, March 1, 2009

More Delhi!

On the second day of Delhi we visited Old Delhi. We took our first ride in the Delhi Metro to Chandi Chowk. The Metro is new and fairly well kept. The city is overhauling its public transportation system for, I suppose, the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Most of the city should be connected by then.

Above: Axel studying the Delhi Metro.

The first monument we visited is the Red Fort (Lal Qila). Completed in 1648, this massive fort extend for 2 km and vary in height from 18m on the river ride to 33 m on the city side. The Red Fort dates back during the peak of Mughal power. However, the Mughal reign did not last very long as Aurangzeb was the first and last Mughal emperor to rule from here.

Above: Lahore Gate is the entryway into the fort.

Above: Joeri (newly arrived from Netherland) and I being silly.

Next we visited the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque and the final architectural piece of Shah Jahan. The mosque is so large that it can hold 25,000 prayers! The square has three entrances and 2 towers standing 40m high. We went during a less busy time and it was about 2 hours away from the next prayer, which is too bad because it would've been quite the sight. There were countless pigeons feeding in the square and with a loud bang, they all flew away.... I managed to caught a decent picture of it.

We decided to take a manual rick-shaw and I have to tell you, I'm impressed with our driver. He was able to pull 4 good-size guys up the street for about 1-2 km. He starts off slow but once he kicks into 4th or 5th gear.... we actually at a decent speed. But you know... red light is a b**** :) Check out the video below.

The Lotus Temple is probably the most simple, yet pure, monument I've seen so far in India. As the name suggests, this temple, in a shape of a lotus flower, invites people of all religions to pray. Similar to its exterior, the temple's white marbles inside gives a sense of peacefulness and purity. This is a really nice and quiet sanctuary in a busy city like Delhi.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Halfway Around the World and Back

Wow... What a week it has been!

First, call me crazy but I decided to fly back from India to Canada to surprise Namika. I had to orchestrate the whole thing with her sister, Shikha, and one of her best friends, Flavia (Thanks, guys). In the end, I think we executed it perfectly.... Namika had no idea. :)

Namika surprise caught on tape.

I miss being at home where you can get to places without cabs/rick-shaws. After spending 5 days back home (much needed), I flew into Delhi where I took another flight to Udaipur to meet Bram and Axel (my India travel buddies) to begin my North India mini-tour. At this point, I had flown over 50 hours in just 5 days..... severely jetlagged to say the least. But I continue to press on anyways.

Udaipur is a 400+ year told city with some of the most unique views I've ever seen. The center piece of the city is the floating Lake Palace (part of the Bond film Octopussy was filmed here) in Lake Pichola .

The Lake Palace during the day.

Fatech Prakash Palace Hotel by Lake Pichola.

Lake Palace at night. What a view!

From Udaipur, we headed to this town about 100km away called Chittorgarh to attend a Rajasthani wedding. We didn't have anything proper to wear so we spent a day in Udaipur shopping for kurtas (Indian night suit). The highlight of the night must be when we were dragged onto the stage at the sangeet to dance in front of everyone! Sangeet is a Hindu/Sikh event typically held 2-3 days before the wedding where ladies will sing and dance to celebrate the newly weds. It was particularly embarrassing because we were preceded by many beautiful Rajasthani dances. Nonetheless, we all had a good time.

Boys in our kurtas (Left to Right: Axel, Wally, Bram)

All the female relatives waiting for the groom to "bring" home the bride.

One of the performances at the Sangeet. Notice the flashing dance floor, very 80's.

The next morning, Granlent, Shirley, and I flew to Delhi (a 1.5 hour flight). Axel and Bram took the overnight (14 hours) train to Delhi as well. We spent the day site-seeing the city. I find Delhi much more crowded and busy than Mumbai. We are scheduled to be here for the weekend so I will write more about Delhi once I have a chance to explore it a bit more.

Gate of India (India Gate)

Delhi National Museum. I learnt a lot about some of the more famous Hindu Gods/Goddesses (Krishna, Shiva, Ganoush, Ganga, etc.).

Humayun's Tomb. Built in mid 16th century. Those Mughals sure like their tombs.

Hopefully you enjoyed a sliver of what's been happening to me in the past few days. In the next 5-7 days, we plan to visit Agra (Taj Mahal), Amritsar (Golden Temple), and maybe Dharamsala (where the Dalai Lama resides). I'll keep you posted!