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Memoirs of a Geisha February 1, 2006

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Although it has all the trappings that usually guarantee a sure-fire hit (period piece, costume drama, “exotic” culture), Memoirs of a Geisha has been both a critical and box office disappointment.

Now it seems it has been banned in China. Why? The Chinese government is concerned that the sight of Chinese actresses portraying Japanese geishas would stir a public backlash and cause civil unrest.

The issue at hand is Japan’s lack of formal acknowledgment of atrocities committed during years of Japanese occupation.

Public sentiment is equally vociferous here in Korea. Korean actress Kim Yoon-jin (best known for playing Sun on Lost) famously rejected an offer of a starring role in Memoirs of a Geisha because she did not want her feature film debut to be as a Japanese character.

For more on the casting controversy, read this interesting article on Wikipedia.

Jello fun! January 19, 2006

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One of my student’s favourite songs from Beeline Plus (the English book we are currently using) is a celebratory ode to the joys of lemon Jell-O. I was shocked to find out that Jell-O is an unknown commodity here in Korea. After trying to explain what Jell-O was, I made an off-handed comment that I would have to bring some back from my trip to Canada at Christmas. Well, they never let me forget that commitment, and reminded me at least twice each day leading up to my Christmas vacation.

Following the recipe for Jell-O Jigglers, I whipped up a few batches of Jell-O which were enthusiastically received!


It is a good thing I know Jell-O is so delicious, because after reading the following Wikipedia description of where it comes from, I’m not sure I would be willing to try it:

Animal rendering is a key step in the manufacture of gelatin desserts. The production of gelatin starts with the boiling of bones, skins, and hides of cows and pigs, in 70-foot vats to remove collagen, which is then soaked and filtered. The extract is then dried and ground to form a powder, and is mixed with sugar, adipic acid, fumaric acid, sodium citrate, and artificial flavorings and food colors.

What some more interesting Jell-O trivia? Did you know that Jell-O is reportedly the favourite snack of Mormons? In fact, Jell-O is the official state snack food of Utah, which is reported to have the highest per capita sales of green gelatin dessert of any U.S. state. This has earned Utah and the surrounding areas the label “Jello Belt”.

Never-ending winter January 10, 2006

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As a born and bred Vancouverite, I’m accustomed to winter being a minor inconvenience that comes around for a couple weeks each year. Unfortunately, winter is serious business here in Seoul. I awoke this morning to yet another light dusting of fresh snow and bone-chillingly cold winds. The weather seems all the more unbearable when you consider the cruel irony that only a few short months ago I was complaining bitterly about how sweltering hot it was!

Back in the ROK January 9, 2006

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Regular readers (believe it or not, there actually are a few!) will have noticed that my posting has dropped off the last month or so. One of the main reasons for that is I was busy during the lead up to Christmas getting ready to fly home for the holidays. The two weeks I enjoyed back in the Western hemisphere were blissful, and confirmed for me (as if there was any doubt) that Vancouver is indeed the best place on earth.

To be fair, a Seoul/Vancouver comparison is a little unbalanced. With 10 million less people roaming the streets, it is no wonder Vancouver seems so much more livable! While there is definitely no place like home, landing at Incheon International this time felt very familiar, and it has been very easy to settle back into my daily routine. With only three months remaining in my teaching contract, my time in Korea is quickly coming to an end. I plan on blogging more regularly during the next few months as I try to get to all the items on my “Seoul to-do” list. Stay tuned…

O Christmas Tree December 22, 2005

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This is not a great picture, but it demonstrates the complete randomness that I find so endearing about Korea. This tree is literally in the middle of a busy six lane thoroughfare near my school where I catch the bus. It’s not big or flashy like the official city Christmas displays, and it is not clear who set it up, or who it belongs to — it’s just there for those passing by to enjoy. Nice.

Christmas in Korea December 21, 2005

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As I make way around Seoul during the lead-up to Christmas I can’t help but feel full of the holiday spirit. This is partly because I’m counting down the days till I fly home to be with my family, but also because the city is just so downright festive. Energy costs be damned, Seoul has been set ablaze with lights. In fact, some buildings downtown are covered with so many white lights that the result is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The light display at Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall can be seen from ten blocks away, and the ice rink that has sprouted up on the lawn rings with the happy sounds of people skating under the stars (yes, you can actually see stars — I guess the smog free skies are one consolation of the bone-chillingly cold clear nights!).

On of the most spectacular displays can be found at the Millennium Seoul Hilton. When you consider that this tree is supposedly worth C$3600, then I can only imagine the price tag for the four-story behemoth that graces the Hilton’s lobby. It was also nice to see that the reason for the season was so prominently commemorated.

Last night Jessica and I had a great time seeing The Nutcracker at the Sejong Center. This was my first time seeing a ballet, and I was awestruck by what the dancers could do with their bodies. Say what you want about ballet, but the athleticism displayed and the obvious punishment the dancers endure to their bodies is undeniable. I was impressed.

To get a small taste of Christmas in Korea, click here to see a slideshow of my recent Christmas-theme pictures.

South Korea stem cell success ‘faked’ December 15, 2005

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The stem cell research scandal continues to brew here with the BBC now reporting that much of the research of stem cell pioneer Dr. Hwang Woo-suk appears to have been faked.

Click here to view the BBC News report.

This is explosive stuff. Dr. Hwang had been elevated to the level of national hero, and success in the stem cell/cloning field has become a matter of national pride. Some are already calling these developments a “national humiliation”. It is hard to overestimate the impact this story has here—even my grade four students know who Dr. Hwang is, and have talked proudly of his accomplishments. The shock of recent news is palpable.

Update: Dr. Hwang has been removed by the editors of Scientific American from his honored position as Research Leader of the Year on the 2005 Scientific American 50 list.

More news links:
The Cloning Crisis Clouding Korea
Hwang Crucial for Korea’s Image
SNU Sets Up Panel to Check Hwang Research
Hwang Shock Sends Stocks Into Freefall
U.S. Scientist Withdraws Name From Hwang Paper

South Korean families are driven to achieve, but at what cost? December 10, 2005

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There is an interesting article in today’s Seattle Times that raises the question of whether or not children’s identity as individuals is being compromised or even lost by Korean society’s obsessive pursuit of academic achievement. From my perspective there is something just plain wrong with a third-grader being in class until 11 p.m., especially since I am skeptical about just how much learning is taking place versus rote memorization. As the article says, “Korean schools produce good bureaucrats but no creativity.”

The Supercloners of South Korea December 9, 2005

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There is a very interesting piece in the New York Times (free registration required) today that raises some doubt about the widely acknowledged lead South Korea has in the field of human stem cell research.

This comes hot on the heels of the recent cloning scandal over ethics lapses that led to the doctor in charge resigning, and reportedly being hospitalized for extreme stress and fatigue.

For some interesting background on how South Korea rose to such prominence in the cloning and stem cell field, I recommend giving the Slate magazine podcast “The Supercloners of South Korea” a listen. The conversation includes some interesting tidbits about how the explosive growth of Korean Christianity squares with the seemingly amoral approach to this field of research, and the role that metal chopsticks has played in Korea’s success.

Listen to the “The Supercloners of South Korea”.

Knitting craze strikes Yang Hwa December 1, 2005

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My students have become preoccupied with knitting. An assignment from home economics class, every student has to complete a scarf—an appropriate project considering the chilly weather!