Farewells and See You Laters

Every year, roughly twice a year, there are waves of new teachers arriving in Korea. Paired with these arrivals is an exodus, as teachers leave to teach elsewhere, return home, study, or pursue other careers. As the school semesters end in March and September, many contracts end at the same time. Each time this happens, Kris and have friends that we have garnered, through Ultimate or otherwise, say farewell to Korea. Each leaving season has had its share of painful goodbyes, but this particular one has been especially severe, with a number of our close friends choking up and promising to see us again and stay in contact.

With the regularity at which this happens, you’d think that it might get easier over time. The more people we see go, the more we get used to the idea that friendships forged in Korea will most likely have their nature change as people inevitably leave. For some, this is the case. We know of a good deal of people who are used to the cycle of new people arriving and old friends leaving. We even thought that we were beginning to become accustomed to its flow until this March arrived.

With every exodus, some claim that ‘Oh, this one was much worse than the other ones.’ This March, it was our turn to utter that oft-heard phrase. A number of our close friends decided to move on and move out. A couple that we’ve grown close to in Seoul over board games and gushing about our pets elected to see some of the world before looking for new teaching work. Luckily for us, that new teaching work happened to be in Korea again, so they will only be out of the country for a couple of months before returning. Another couple who we bonded with deeply despite only seeing a handful of times outside the Ultimate setting. A man who never ceased being the tallest or kindest person in any room decided to go back to the US and make it a better place (he hasn’t quite left yet, but he will soon, and definitely warrants a mention here). A fellow South African we met on our first ROK-U team, who we grew to know and love through playing far too many games of Dota and drinking too much red wine moved back to South Africa to pursue a new career path.

Some people steel themselves against the ever-present reality of people exiting Korea by avoiding new friendships to prevent getting hurt more regularly by exits. Kris and I cannot face that possibility. Some leaving seasons, we only lose touch with a couple of acquaintances and count ourselves lucky. Other times, like this March, we see a large portion of our core friend group get on planes elsewhere.

Leaving Korea doesn’t mean the end of these friendships, but it does instill a sense of longing for a return to the previous status quo. No longer can we simply pop down for a chat or meet for dinner. Now, there is online video chat and instant messaging, and perhaps meeting up if we land up being in the same country for some reason. Some friendships adapt to this change and survive, whereas others fade and dull over time.

The constant flow of expats through Korea (or, I’d imagine, any other country where foreign workers are hired) is a reality that is not mentioned when you are job hunting. There is no warning that people you grow attached to will bid you farewell on a semi-regular basis. It is a phenomenon that you learn of only through experiencing it. It hurts. Sometimes it hurts a little. Sometimes it leaves you on the verge of tears writing a string of words into the black void of the Internet to try and ease the pain.

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Waiting for the End to Come

Every year, around this time, Kris and I become far less concerned about our current school year. With our contracts always ending at the end of February, we are always more worried about what is to come in March. While we initially thought that we might stay at our current job, a changing climate in education in Korea and the job itself has resulted in us once again looking for a new job to start in March. Kris has already successfully landed a position that she believes is far better suited to her, but I am still wading through the mire of job hunting to try and find that one job that is ideally-suited to me.

When we first started our current job, we were happy with the short hours and, for me, the short commute. However, as time has gone by, little problems have grown into larger issues. This is particularly true for Kris, who has more consistently had problems from the upper management of our company, and whose job situation was less ideal to begin with. She had to do a lot more commuting and deal with greater levels of bureaucracy than I did. Towards the end of last year, she decided that she would not be re-signing the contract, and began looking for a new job. In a stroke of luck, one of our close friends is leaving Korea, and her position would be vacant. Kris interviewed for the job and was accepted. Her new job may have longer hours, but it is 10 minutes from our house and will allow her more freedom to experiment with her teaching techniques.

For myself, I was content to continue in my current position. Unfortunately, the Korean government decided to discontinue English classes for first- and second-grade students at public elementary schools, effective from March. These students currently form more than half of my student base. As a result in the massive drop in potential students, the company has decided to not re-hire any teachers with my type of visa, and fill the gaps with part-time employees to save money. This decision makes economic sense for them, but it left me in the unfortunate position of looking for a job after the ordinary job season is mostly over. I am now scraping the bottom of the barrel for a position that is better than the average academy job, similar to the positions that Kris and I held in Dongtan in our first year of teaching. I am currently still being picky, and I hope to find something before I have to settle for a mediocre job.

We may be more settled in Seoul than we have ever been in Korea, but the cycle of going from job to job every year has not changed. Maybe this next job is one we stay at for more than a year. Maybe this next job will be our last year in Korea. Only the next twelve months will reveal what Korea has in store for us. I look forward to the new adventures, and, for now, look for a decent job to sustain us while we go on those adventures.

2017: The Year of Shifts

2017 was certainly one of the more eventful and significant years of my 27 years on the planet so far. I moved to Seoul, got more into Ultimate, helped spread the cult of board games, and started reading for enjoyment again. Oh yeah, I got married as well. That was a thing that happened. Let’s look back at these major nilestones just before 2017 comes to an end.

The Old Ball and Chain 

I’m a lucky goof who married a beautiful lady.

The first, and most influential, event of the year was my marriage to Kris. Despite my nervousness before the day, which you can read about here, it was the happiest day of my life up until this point. While the old cliche may not be true for everyone, it certainly is for me. I spent a day with my family and South African friends, celebrating the love that I have for the woman I now am lucky enough to call my wife. 2017 got off to a strong start.

Seoulward Bound

Kris and my cousin Catherine posing with Seoul’s motto. Yes, it is a mediocre motto.

The next change brought about by 2017 was our move to Seoul. Our third new city in three years in Korea, we have been interested in moving to Seoul ever since our first year. This year we finally landed up in the largest city in Korea, and it has quickly won our hearts as our favorite city in the country. The sheer scale of Seoul means that there’s always something new to see, somewhere else to explore. Our new apartment is wonderful and it makes a huge difference in our daily lives. Seoul also brings with it a larger foreigner community than our previous towns. This has made it easier to meet up with Ultinate friends. While not good for our bank accounts due to eating out more often, it has left us feeling more at home than ever in Korea.

Disc-loving Gent

Smile!

Ultimate has always been a big part of my life in Korea, but this year I felt like I took my love of the game to the next level. I trained more regularly, took more interest in self-improvement, and generally put more time into my game than I had before. While I have slacked off in the current off-season, enjoying the festive food and sloth a little more than I should, I am proud of how far I’ve come as an Ultimate player in 2017.

Gathering over Games

Kris and a friend playing Terra Mystica, one of our more in-depth games of the year.

When a friend dressed up as me for a casual Halloween costume party, they merely wore their ordinary clothes. Onto their shirt, they pinned a note saying: 

“I love board games  (and my wife’s cat).”

That was all. And it was perfectly accurate. An increasing number of gatherings at our house involve bonding over some board game or another. This is reflected by the fact that I’ve had 77 plays of 29 different board games since April this year. And also by the fact that I am concerned enough about games to record each play. I adore board games. They allow for unique social experiences, and create memories that have stayed with me for years. This year was no different, and I have had a number of special moments thanks to board games this year.

New Stories, New Worlds

Ghüs, my favourite character from my favourite comic, Saga.

Before this year, I had spent very little time reading. Between work, the aforementioned Ultimate, and playing video games (another source of great stories, but not quite the same), I didn’t think to pick up a book much at all. However, during 2017, I longed for the escape that comics brought me throughout university. I slowly began to grow my collection of digital comics, starting by picking up ny old favorite series before spreading to new discoveries. I have also read a small number of novels, a number I hope to improve on in 2018. I had forgotten how enjoyable reading is, but I shan’t forget again any time soon.
2017 may not have been the game-changer year like 2015 was, but it was close. Getting married, playing Ultimate, spreading the good word of board games, and growing in my reading habits were only pieces of what made 2017 special. There were certainly dark times as well, and there will be more ahead. But, as the year fades into the past, it’s more worthwhile to look back on the happiness. Happy New Year, everyone!

Autumn Ultimate Wrap-Up

While the past few weeks haven’t been filled with many posts on here, which is entirely a result of my sloth, they have been filled with, amongst other things, a great deal of Ultimate of all levels, from the casual Halloween Hat, to the last few weekends of ROK-U league and finals play, and finally the Ulsan and K-Cup tournaments at club level. These Ultimate events have certainly kept me busy, and made sure that there were many Mondays where I went to work with aching muscles and a smile on my face. Let’s briefly look back at each of them in turn.

Ulsan Team Tournament

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In mid-October, I was fortunate enough to make the DnD roster for the Ulsan team tournament. I had missed out on the previous tournament, as I simply was not up to scratch for the team, but a combination of working on my skills during ROK-U and other players being injured or unavailable meant that I had the chance to prove myself at a club level again. For two days, teams tested their skills against each other to see who had the best line-up in Korea. DnD was seeded 4th from the results of the previous tournament, so we had a tough pool right out of the gate.

On Saturday, we fought hard against both Baekho and LGW (two teams seeded higher than DnD), but ultimately came up short. We won one game against the lower-seeded Flickachu, so the first day was not entirely doom and gloom. Personally, I felt like I had a highly positive day, particularly on defense. Even though that is typically my strong suit, I felt like I had an especially good day.

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One of my lesser defensive efforts.

The second day was the playoffs. Our team came out strong, defeating Maxima, a visiting Japanese team, before falling to the star-studded UFO. From both a team and a personal standpoint, our performances weren’t quite as stellar as the day before. We left Ulsan satisfied, but with room to grow as a team.

Halloween Hat

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The week following the Ulsan tournament brought Ultimate of a far different nature. For the unaware, a hat tournament involves all players being placed on random teams (controlled for skill level as best as possible). Oh, and everyone is encouraged to play in whatever costume you can manage to pull together for the weekend. Pieces of toast played against Minions. Larry Bird took on a ghost pirate. Thing 1 and Thing 2 confused everyone with their similar costumes when they had to face off against each other.

Halloween Hat was a high-spirited, fun weekend that seemed to be enjoyed by all. While smaller than previous iterations of the tournament, those who attended all looked like they were having a welcome break from the seriousness of ROK-U and the Ulsan team tournament. It didn’t really matter who won. The main goal was to have fun, and it was met many times over.

ROK-U Fall League

Interspersed before, between, and after the two tournaments above was the Fall 2017 season of ROK-U, the largest Ultimate league in Korea. Although for the past few seasons, Kris and I had played for the Wonju Knights (a team Kris created), this year brought change. Since we had moved to Seoul, we were no longer eligible to play for our old team. We were instead placed on Seoul Hammers, a team who had won the league the previous season.

On the team with us were a number of players that we had seen around and befriended in the scene, but hadn’t had the opportunity to play with. Kris and I were both excited for the season, as after the initial practices, our teammates were highly spirited and had the right balance between a drive to succeed and the desire to play for fun and growth.

We started the season strong, finishing at the top of the league standings. We only lost one game during league play up until the weekend before finals. Then, our strongest player had to leave Korea, and that left our team with a major gap to fill, which we struggled to do. We came together in the end, only dropping one more game, but the team dynamic was clearly different, and roles were still uncertain.

Come finals weekend, and we once again struggled to find our rhythm. Our opponents, on the other hand, came out firing. We fell behind early in the first game, and while we did gather ourselves towards the end, we didn’t have enough to overcome the early loss of points. We were knocked out in the first round. We played a couple more games in the consolation bracket, which was more of the same.

Overall, our first season on a Seoul team was a fun one. The team was a great group of people, and both Kris and I learned a lot from the experienced players on the team.

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K-Cup

The final event of the Korean Ultimate calendar for the year was K-Cup – one of the premier club tournaments of the year. I was once again fortunate enough to play for DnD. Like with the Ulsan tournament, some key players on the roster were injured, and our squad was smaller than it usually is, particularly in the male department. This meant that the men would have to step up and play more than they usually would at a club tournament. I was nervous about this, but secretly also excited , as it would give me extra time to hone my skills in a highly competitive environment.

The smaller roster certainly taxed the players on our team. Having to play over five hours of Ultimate on Saturday left many bodies hurting by the end. We had to play LGW, Baekho, and Boom (the three top seeds for the tournament) and Flickachu (seeded below us). The roster was different to that of Ulsan, and we had not had time to practice before the tournament. As a result, our chemistry took a while to get flowing optimally. Our games against the three higher seeds ended with us going down, b meshing together better with every game. This left us in a good position to face off against Flickachu. We ended up taking the hard-fought game. On a personal note, I sadly had to sit out the last half of the game to prevent injury to my calf muscles. I was frustrated by this, but happy with my performance on Saturday overall.

The story of DnD’s K-Cup Sunday was similar to that of our finals performance on Seoul Hammers – our opponents came out firing before we could mesh together, and we couldn’t recover from the early pressure. That dropped us down to the consolation bracket, where we didn’t quite come together again.

I was happy with my own personal performance at K-Cup. My defense was strong again, and I even snuck in a few scores here and there. I also know what I need to work on – mostly fitness – and I have months during the winter to hit the gym and get faster and build my endurance.

Whew! So much Ultimate! I enjoyed every moment that I spent on the field, with all of the teams and people I was lucky enough to do to share it with. I am, however, also looking forward to the off-season. Not having to get up at six in the morning every Saturday to travel to the not-terrible Gumi or sometimes other places will be welcome. As will the extra free time to engage in my other hobbies. Still, at the back of my mind during winter break will be the countdown clock to the start of the new season. I’m sure it will be here before I know it.

A Month of Morning Pages

Every day, I am frustrated that I have lost momentum on this blog. I look at the number of articles I publish every month and I hang my head when I compare my output to that of when I first arrived in Korea. However, I have actually been writing more than ever, just not on this blog.
A few weeks back, in one of my favourite digital newsletters written by comics writers Kelly-Sue deConnick and Matt Fraction (which you should definitely subscribe to here), I was introduced to morning pages.
What are morning pages? The concept could not be simpler. Sit down soon after you wake up, while your body is still rousing itself, and write three A4-sized pages of stream-of-consciousness writing by hand. No more, no less. You never have to look at them again after you’re done. They are intended to be impermanent, fleeting glimpses into what you are really thinking and feeling, etched down before your mind has put up its defenses. Kelly-Sue deConnick praised how the simple act of writing three pages every day calmed her and gave her a grounded beginning to each day. I thought that it was something worth exploring.
I thought that such writing would spout forth ideas for future creative projects. As it turns out, I have used this morning ritual to clean out my mental cobwebs, almost like a journal. I rant about what happened the previous day. I set out my plans for the current day. I generally muse about whatever I’m thinking about in the bleary-eyed hours of the day. In my first full month of habitually doing morning pages, I have only had one creative session. It was a reflection on the beauty of Seoul and people in the early hours of the morning. Apart from that, the chicken-scratch-etched pages like those in the featured image above have largely been filled with mundanities.
I too have found them to be immensely calming. They allow me to get my bearings for the day, vent any residual frustrations, make more concrete any ideas I might have had in the night. On the days when I do them when I am more awake, I find that they are harder to write and less effective at guiding me.
All in all, I am excited to continue spewing my morning self onto paper. The process can take between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on how well my mind and pen are flowing, but it is time well-spent. I highly recommend trying it out, even if only for a couple of days. Buy an A4 notebook from your local stationery store. Get up when your alarm sounds in the morning, and spill your soul onto the blank pages. You might be surprised at what comes out.

A Family-Filled Chuseok

For ESL teachers in Korea, Chuseok is a godsend. The variable-length break falls shortly after the start of the summer semester. It has allowed Kris and I to escape from child-induced madness for a few days every year. This year, Chuseok is even sweeter. Kris’ mother Dalene and her boyfriend Dave have visited us all the way from South Africa!

Dalene and Dave arrived last week, in the middle of our final week before Chuseok. Both Kris and I were strung out from the semester and looking forward to the visit and upcoming Chuseok break. Our batteries were drained, and we couldn’t wait to recharge. They arrived on a Saturday of an Ultimate weekend. Their first taste of Korea was the glorious insanity of a ROK-U weekend. While it wasn’t Dalene’s first time in Korea, Dave must have had a peculiar first picture of foreigners in the ROK.

In the following week, Dalene and Dave had to entertain themselves during the day. Kris and I still had five more days of child-wrangling before Chuseok. They took the Seoul city tour buses, zooting about between all the tourist attractions. In the evenings, we did our best to give Dave and Dalene a taste of Korean cuisine. We have eaten more different Korean dishes in the past few days than we had in the previous few months. By day, Dalene and Dave took in the sights. By night, we devoured our way across Seoul. There was a brief interlude in the Korean eating for a surprise birthday party for me. Kris and my friends in Seoul plotted behind my back. They gathered in secret to celebrate my birthday and that of Cam, another friend in the group. Dalene and Kris even managed to make and hide a birthday cake. I was surprised, and didn’t stop smiling the whole time at the party.

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Once we had served our last remaining time at school, we packed up and headed on a day hike of Manisan, on Ganghwa island. The tour was organised by Seoul Hiking. We stopped at various cultural points of interest before hiking the mountain itself. We saw a medieval fortress, neolithic rock structures, and a cultural market. Then it was time to lace up our shoes and tackle Manisan. It took us an hour or so to reach the top, slowed by Kris’ recovering leg and sightings of squirrels. At the top, there sat an ceremonial alter and various cultural implements. It was a meditative reward for our hour’s exercise. It was a delightful day trip.

Next, we set our sights on Busan. Kris and I have been to Busan many times, but most of our visits have been for Ultimate. We hadn’t visited Busan as tourists since our second month in Korea. We were excited to explore a place where we were far less familiar than Seoul.

Our first destination in Busan was BIFF square, a massive street market. Like Myeongdong in Seoul, we wandered between the food carts and storefronts. We took in the wares and eats on sale. The selection rivaled that of Myeongdong, particularly in the food department. We ate Turkish kebabs and rolled ice cream, and bought more than we probably should have.

Our next major highlight was Gamcheon Culture Village. A large suburb in the hills on the edge of Busan, Gamcheon is a hub of shops and artists. It is famous for being mostly comprised of small, single-storey houses. This is in contrast to other areas, where houses are rare but apartment complexes litter the land. We thoroughly enjoyed walking among the colourful houses. We read stories of the area’s history and marveled at the artwork displayed in the streets.

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Our last two days in Busan were mostly spent in the Haeundae area. The only major excursion not in this area was to Busan Tower, the beautiful building featured at the top of this piece. In Haeundae, we first visited Busan Aquarium, where we saw, amongst many other marvels, otters being fed. Kris squealed in delight at their cuteness. After leaving the aquarium, we walked the streets once more. We explored the hills on the edge of Haeundae’s famous beach. Then, we lazed about on the beach, reading books and taking in the beauty of the area. It was a good way to refresh our bodies after the running around that we had done in the previous few days.

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Dalene and Dave’s time in Korea is drawing to a close. They leave on Friday afternoon, leaving only one more full day to show them what Korea’s got. Kris and I adore having family visit, as showing them what we love about Korea reminds us as well. Our hearts will be heavy when we say goodbye to them, but we will treasure the memories of the things we saw when we were all together. We will go forward refreshed and ready to face the months ahead.

Supercharging Enjoyment: The effect of fast Internet on my gaming life

Growing up in South Africa, having a fast Internet connection meant you could watch videos on YouTube without having to pre-load them. When I moved to Korea over two years ago, my definition of what fast Internet meant changed. Now I could download entire games in under an hour, and watch live streams in high quality. This movement to fast Internet changed the way I game drastically.

South Korea boasts the fastest average Internet connection speed in the world at 20.5 megabytes per second (Mbps). It also has the highest percentage of broadband higher than 10, 15, and 25 Mbps per second. South Africa’s average internet speed is a paltry 3.7 Mpbs, more than 6 times slower. South Africa’s peak connection of 18.9 Mbps doesn’t even breach Korea’s average speed. I had one of the better connections in the country, and I was still astounded at the difference.

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Gotta go fast!

A faster, more reliable connection to the Internet has meant many things for me as a gamer. I can download games much more quickly. A beefy triple-A game that I would have had to leave downloading overnight in South Africa is ready to go in under an hour in South Korea. As a result, I am now much more willing to purchase a game on sale. I want to play it on a whim, I can start a download and be playing it within the hour – there is no pre-planning required. Because I can download and play new games so rapidly, I am now much more cognizant of how much time I spend playing any particular game. I no longer put hours into a game because it’s better than waiting for a new game to download. I don’t play games past the point at which I stop enjoying them.

The most prominent example of this to me was my experience with Sukeban GamesVA-11 Hall-A. I enjoyed the first couple of hours exploring the world of robotic cyberpunk bartending. The fact that it seemed to be a visual novel with a small bartending mini-game intrigued me. I spent a handful of hours happily serving a colourful host of robotic characters their desired alcoholic beverages. After a particularly long session of the game, I took stock in my head. I mentally assessed whether I had enjoyed that playing session. I decided I hadn’t. So I uninstalled it and browsed my embarrassingly large Steam library for a new fix. I was playing The Game BakersFuri within 20 minutes.

I now spend less time invested in games that are not right for me. This means that I have more time to dive wholeheartedly into games I enjoy. I quickly establish whether I am interested enough in a game to stick with a game until I have completed it. Then, I act on that decision. I have finished more single-player games recently than I had in my last few years back home, without letting up my love affair with Dota 2’s unmatched online multiplayer experience.

Higher-quality internet also means better connections to the online gaming world. This includes online games, streaming sites like Twitch.tv, and video sites like YouTube. I am no longer worried that my connection will drop in the middle of a game of Dota 2 or Hearthstone. In the past, this would mean agonizing defeat unrelated to my mediocre skill level in both games. I lose enough because I’m a scrub, I don’t need technology acting against me as well. With Korea’s superb Internet, all my online gaming grief is a result of my skills, not my game connection. I also consume a great deal more gaming-related video and stream content now than I did back home. My wife and I watch our favourite streamers while we eat dinner, and the quality is always set on the highest. I watch replays and guides for Dota 2 and Hearthstone. I also try to keep up to date on the latest news in the world of esports and gaming as a whole.

Looking back on these changes, I believe that they are largely positive. I only play what I am truly enjoying, and I play more often because of this. I have matured from a frothing-mouthed gaming cultist into a seasoned games enthusiast. I am now willing to opine maturely about the latest gaming scandal or development in the world of gaming. I do not feel the need to flash my gaming credentials nearly as much as I did back in South Africa. Now, gaming arguably plays a bigger role in my life now than it did then. Korea truly is a gamer’s paradise. When the time comes to leave its sheltered shores, I will miss many things. I suspect that the Internet speed might be up there with my newfound friends and life experiences.