Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 5

Yes, I have had an amazing time at the Winter Olympics. It has been a lot of fun and it is something I will never forget, but there is an ugly side to the Winter Olympics that I have not addressed yet. Large crowds descend on an area of the world that was not meant to have these large crowds, and after everything is said and done the community that hosted the Olympics is left with a bunch of stadiums, and features that the small community will never be able to support financially. I would go as far as to say that in the long run, it is bad for the community economically and leads to destroying the landscape for the chance to host the world for a couple of weeks. This goes for both of the Winter and Summer Olympics. I saw a report the other day that said the fabled Bird’s Nest in Beijing is now being used as a place where people can take tours around the track on a Segway. But I think it is even worse for places hosting the Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang is a series of towns with the largest one being about 200,000 people. It is situated in the mountainous area of South Korea, and there are not a lot of roads going between the locations where events are taking place. This means that there are insane traffic jams taking place as people try to make it to their events on time. The last event I saw took me just over three hours to get to and I only traveled 30 miles. These places cannot handle the crowds that come there. I am looking to you Colorado, because if you think I-70 is a mess now, imagine what it would be like if you added another million cars to the road.

This means that sometimes at the start of events the crowds are not up to capacity because it is just too hard to get there or people are still trying to make their way through the traffic. If you take an event like the ski jump that only takes a little over an hour to complete then people wonder why they should even bother with it.

And this goes back to the costs of hosting the Winter Olympics. This beautiful structure was not here a couple of years ago. It was built specifically for the Winter Olympics. What is going to happen to this thing after the crowds go away? Are there going to be enough people who want to come out here to try their hand at ski jumping? Or will Koreans start to take up the sport and during the next couple of Winter Olympics will we start to see them being a huge impact in this sport? Think about the five stadiums clustered together back in the Olympic Village. Is a town of 200,000 people ever going to have a use for one large stadium, let alone five, one of which was designed to house curling? Now I have been told that Pyeongchang took this into account, and they designed all of the structures so they could be torn down and transported anyplace that might have a need for such structures, like the next Winter Olympics, but it still comes at quite the cost that there is no way that they will ever see a profit with this event.

And think about the impact that the crowds and traffic has on the environment. Korea already has a problem with air quality. Do you think it is going to help things to have a bunch of idling cars spitting out exhaust? Where does all the trash and garbage go in a country that is not that large to begin with? What are they going to do with those large parking lots that they had to construct just to handle the amount of people that arrived? The Winter Olympics are definitely going to leave their footprint on Pyeongchang that is a lot bigger than a few memorials left behind that showed what life was like for the two weeks when the games were here.

But on the other hand, there is some positive that comes from all of this. For a couple of weeks, all eyes turn to see what a great place South Korea is. It is all about the people and the optimism that they put out due to their resolve and hard work. It shows the world a place that is usually associated with bad news can be about. It is not about some cartoon character to the north trading insults with another cartoon character across the sea. It is about the world coming together in harmony to show that they can be competitive and still get along with each.

It is about marveling at the athleticism of those that have a passion for the sport because this is the only time that they will be able to shine. It is about every country finding their hero, whether it is some insane mane who wants to see how far he can fly on a pair of skis or if it is a group of bobsledders showing a country in Africa that they too can compete in the Olympic games. It is not necessarily about winning. It is about just being there for that moment in time.

I have enjoyed my time at the Winter Olympics, and even though I have traveled to over thirty different countries in the world, it has showed me more about this rock I live on more so than all the travel I have ever done. Should the Winter Olympics continue? Definitely, but they need to figure out a way where it does not destroy the community it goes to while maintaining the spirit it had created.


Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 4

I will admit that I had booked for my fourth day at the Winter Olympics was the one I was looking the least forward to, figure skating. It is not that I do not think of these people as athletes. I am amazed at what they are able to accomplish on the ice, and I can see that they is a lot of preparation that they have to go through to make sure it goes off flawlessly. My problem with it has always been that it is way too subjective. Instead of having set goals that prove that one team has scored more than the other, there are a set of judges sitting on the sidelines voting for who they thought was the best and using some crazy rubric that decides how they came to that decision. It is almost like being an English teacher.

The one thing I did like about it was that it was during the day this time. I didn’t have to wait around until the late hours of the night to watch the event start, and afterwards I would be able to wander around the town at my own pace seeing the sights that have been put up to celebrate the fact that the games were here. What I was not expecting was the influx of crowds that came in this day as well. What was a ghost town of Monday had turned into a thriving community. Lines became long, food ran out again, and there was even traffic coming in from my pension. It was as if Korea started to wake up and take notice that the games were going on in their backyard. It could also be because Lunar New Year was the next day, and a lot of people had the time off to go and watch the games, so this might have been the busiest time of the whole games.

It could also have been the extra attraction of the North Korean cheerleading squad was also going to be in the area. They have been the golden goose that everybody has wanted to catch a glimpse of. I was hoping to see them to see if the reports that I have heard about how repressed the people of North Korea are is true. But the mere fact that they are so hard to see made me think that it might be true. They get shuttled around the area, and they are always separated from the crowd by a handler. They were even given their own section at the ice skating arena to watch the performance of the only two truly North Korean competitors, Ju Sik Kim and Tae Ok Ryom. They were almost as much fun to watch as the ice skaters were. They sat quietly through everybody else’s performances, and when their team was announced they got up and did a synchronized dance to show their support. Kim and Ryom gave a good performance, and after the judges scored them, they were in third place with eight more teams left to compete. This is when the North Korean got up and left. I wonder if they went back to their hotels thinking that North Korea had earned a bronze medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. A friend of mine who was also at the event happened to be in the bathroom when they all came in to use it. She told me that a guard sectioned off the bathroom from the rest of the cheerleaders and would not let them mingle with anybody else. It is this kind of display that makes me realize that all the news reports I have heard about North Korea are true.

Besides the North Korean circus, I also got to witness figure skating. I have to say that my trepidation going into the event was unfounded. Figure skating is really amazing to watch live. I hated it growing up because that is all they seemed to show when they aired the Winter Olympics, and I wanted to see things like hockey, ski jumping, and the bobsled. But after I have been to one of these competitions, I start to understand the power of it. These people are spectacular athletes and they can do things that I would never imagine possible in my mind. The loud music just adds to the experience making it such an amazing thing to see. I would highly recommend that if you ever get a chance to go see figure skating live you should do it because it is worth the experience. After every performance people throw stuffed animals and flowers out to the competitors to show their appreciation for what they had just witnessed, and it was fun to watch the young Korean girls skate out on the ice to collect all the accolades. It is also great to see such a huge representation of all the cultures of the world present at this even that it makes it the real sport that represents the Winter Olympic games.

And as for it being subjective, I can say with confidence that the way it panned out for who was first, second and third would have been exactly how I picked it. The Germans who won the gold medal put on a powerful performance that will stick with me for the rest of my life. They were graceful, yet they showed enough strength that they would be able to compete with the brute force of a hockey player. It was fun to even see the award ceremony at the end of the competition. It wasn’t the official medal ceremony, but each competitor that made it up to the stands received a stuffed version of Soohorang that they could hold up as it is was a medal.

I can also say that the team we are supposed to pretend isn’t from Russia also did not medal again. I think I am their bad luck charm because I keep on seeing a huge amount of Russians coming to the events in the hopes that they win, and they keep going away empty handed. And it wasn’t because they deserved to win, but the judges had something against them. They were ranked number one going into the competition, but because they fell twice it put them in fourth place.

All in all, as the crowds get bigger, the events get greater and it seems as each day beats the previous one out here. The Winter Olympics are a great event, and I wish I had more than just one more day to enjoy them.

Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 3

Welcome back from Pyeongchang, and my third day out here at the Winter Olympics. Things have started to pick up. The cluster, which was completely empty on my first day, has really seen in influx of traffic. There are more people running around, taking pictures of the sights, and getting ready for various events.

South Korea has taken advantage of the opportunity too to show the world what it is capable of. There are a lot of little corners all over the place that show off the culture of this proud nation. I have started to feel the spirit of the games grow as well. There is more excitement in the air. At first I couldn’t figure out why it took a few days for this excitement to get built up, but I believe it has to do with the level of competition. On the first days of competition, there is not a lot of medals handed out because most events are in the preliminary stage. Now that things have been going on for a few days, things have started to be figured out, and the bigger medals are being decided. This is what the people came for, and this is the real reason why the crowds have started to grow. There is still not a ton of people, but I suspect by the end of the games, the place will be packed.

I had another hockey game to attend, and this time it was at the hockey rink in the cluster. I wasn’t as excited about it even though there would be hits in this one because it was a men’s game. This match-up was billed as more of a blowout though. Slovakia was playing the team we are not supposed to call Russia, and that juggernaut would surely take over this small nation that was still trying to find its identity now that it was no longer under the shadow of the iron curtain. Even though, I was not excited about the match-up, I was excited for the event. I didn’t have a choice when I put in for the tickets because who was playing had not been decided yet, and if I had a choice I would have watched the other blowout planned for the night, U.S. versus Slovenia.

Despite the disappointment, I went into the game holding on to the small belief that Slovakia could somehow pull out the upset. It was only five minutes into the game before I realized that this was probably not going to happen. Slovakia was down 2 to nothing with only one shot one goal. This looked like it was going to be a bigger blowout than the women’s matchup I witnessed the night before. But the Slovakian did not give up, despite the crowd’s support for the opposite team.

It didn’t take long before the whole feel of the game changed. Slovakia patiently waited until the right moment, and ended up with two breakaways where they scored two goals, tying up the game before the end of the first period. This is when the Slovakian started to show their faces. There were pockets of them all around the stadium screaming in support of their team. The fans from the other side still cheered for the team, but you could feel their trepidation that things were not going well for them.

The rest of the game played out as a tense tie until the middle of the third period where Slovakia was able to squeak out another goal. You could feel that it was going to happen too, because they had three strong chances during power play opportunities from the team who likes to say they are from Russia. Slovakia was able to hold on to end up winning the game. It was one of the more exciting hockey games that I have ever seen, and I am glad that I was able to see it. By the way, the other game that I wished I had gone to also had an upset as well as Slovenia took down the mighty U.S., so it looks like I had the tickets to the better event after all. It makes me excited to know that each event has the potential to be great and makes me excited about the next two days out in Pyeongchang.

Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 2

Welcome back from Pyeongchang, not Pyeongyang, which I am finding out is a completely different place without so many happy cartoon characters walking around. From what I understand, it still has cartoon characters; they just aren’t that happy. And I need to start off this day by apologizing about the name of the cartoon characters around here. Yesterday, I called the white tiger by the name, Bandabi, and this is not correct. His name is Soohorang, which comes from the word, Sooho, which means protection. He is the official mascot of the 2018 Winter Games as I have been told due to my mistake yesterday. Bandabi is the name of the bear, and he is the official mascot of the 2018 Para-Olympic Games which will take place in two weeks at the same locations. I don’t know what his name means, but I am sure that as I am posting this, somebody will explain it to me tomorrow.

For those who don’t know, the tiger is a very important symbol in Korea. Its image is all over the place, much like Soohorang is all over Pyeongchang. Many Koreans believe that Korea started from a tiger, and if you look closely at the shape of Korea, you can see the shape of a tiger. I can imagine a lot of you googling the map of Korea right now to see if this is the case, and it might be hard to see. I have actually had to have my students draw it out for me before I was able to see it.

When I wasn’t thinking about tigers during my second day out at the Winter Olympics, I was going to a different location than where I was on the first day to attend a women’s hockey game, and this time, one of the teams was the team I was the most excited to see, the U.S.A. They were playing the team that we are supposed to pretend is not Russia, and I was super excited about this moment. I had watched¬†Miracle a couple of weeks ago and this was reminding me of that historic game, except for the fact that it was women playing this time, and that it wasn’t really much of a competition. In fact, the U.S.A. killed those people without a country from Russia. The final ended up being 5 to 0, and the really indication how lopsided this game was happened when I looked at the shots on goal. The U.S. had over 51 shots on goal, compared to that other team who was wearing red and usually lived in the country known as Russia who only had 11. In fact the puck was hardly ever over on the United States side of the ice.

Even though the game was a blowout, it didn’t mean that I still couldn’t have fun at it. First off, it is always nice when your team wins. But there was enough entertainment going on to make the game just as fun. A band from the Netherlands showed up to play a few tunes. Apparently this same band has played at the Winter Olympics for the past thirty years, and they really got the audience pumped up before the action.

Also being at a sporting event in Korea means that there has to be cheerleaders. They also worked hard at pumping up the crowd while remaining neutral to the events taking place on the ice. I know there are a couple of teams in the NHL that also employ cheerleaders, but it is just weird to see them at a hockey game. But then again while I have been living in Korea, I have seen them at baseball games which is even weirder.

And it is not like if they weren’t there that I still wouldn’t have seen strange people wandering the crowd. This is probably the best part of the Olympics. People from all over the world come together to watch sporting events decked out in gear that shows what country they are from. I have never seen so many people wearing the American flag, and they weren’t the only ones here like it. I saw people dressed in Swiss gear, Canadian gear, and waving the unification flag for Korea out here. I even saw people wearing the Russian flag which I don’t understand why because they aren’t even at these Olympics.

Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 1

Welcome from Pyeongchang, and the Winter Olympics, and I can report with full confidence the weather is perfect for these games to take place. In fact it is right down cold. Last night when we were coming back from the games the weather outside register 11 below zero Fahrenheit. I don’t know what that is in Celsius, but any way you look at it, is cold. The nice thing about it is I have finally gotten to see that snow that I have been looking for the last couple of months. While I was driving back from the bus station, it was starting to spit, and by the time I got back to the pension, it was dumping big fluffy flakes that would turn the landscape to the Winter playground that is perfect for the Winter Olympic games.

And it was in this icy landscape that I got to go and experience the Olympics, Korean style. My first night was spent in what was called the cluster. This is where most of the media is housed, and where all the big stadiums are. I have tickets to three of the different stadiums here, and another one on the Kwanhong campus which is the only building that was here before Pyeongchang was selected as the place to house the Olympics. But before then I got to wander around the cluster checking out the sights.

All of the sponsors have booths along the way and NBC’s Today show broadcasts live from the plaza. I was able to watch them set up for the next show even though I did not get to see any of the stars of the show. In fact, it was oddly quiet among the buildings that were set up in this little corner of Korea. I was expecting to see a lot more people moving off to various events and participating in all of the fun the Olympics had to offer. I did see a lot of security. The Police wander all over this place in packs to make sure nobody is doing anything dangerous, but I saw them spend more time posing with Bandabi, the tiger mascot of these games. And of course, there were a lot of people hanging outside of the McDonalds, but that was probably because this was the only place serving food with any substance in the cluster. In fact, that is probably the one serious complaint I have about this event. I went into the stadium for my first event thinking I would find some food, but I was told that they were out at every spot I stopped at. It just showed me that the Korean Olympic committee was not prepared for what was going to happen. I hope that they can correct this before the end of the week because I do like to eat from time to time.

It was perfectly fine though because I got to spend the bulk of the night inside watching the semi-finals of the mixed doubles curling between the Swiss and the O.A.R. For those of you who don’t know, the Russians were disqualified from the Olympics this year due to some questionable practices during the last Winter Olympics. Because of this, they were allowed to send some athletes who did not engage in this behavior, but they could not come under the Russian flag, so they are designated as the O.A.R. At first I couldn’t imagine what this meant. My thought was “Officially Ain’t Russian” but I soon discovered while watching the match that they were consider “Olympic Athlete from Russia”. In retrospect, it is a more respectable distinction.

Curling is a strange sport to watch, and I was surprised at the crowd that had gathered for the event. I have no idea where they came from because it was empty when I first got there, but as soon as the event started, people started piling into the Curling Center. Some people even really get into this. Some people from Minnesota that I met on the bus down to cluster were out here specifically for these events. They had watched the Americans in their earlier events, and had tickets to not only the finals, but the game between the third place and fourth place teams. And even though it is like watching a big game of shuffle board played out on the ice, it does have some cool aspects about it. The participants wear these really cool shoes that allow them to glide over the ice. I would love to get a pair of them for my classroom, but then I would spend a lot of my time waving my hands up in the air and telling my kids to “look at what I can do.” It is probably a good idea that I stick to the traditional way of walking around the classroom.

The game itself looks like something that would be really fun to try if I ever got an opportunity to get on to one of the courts. Of course, it would be more fun if there was beer waiting for me in between each throw, but I could see myself wasting away an afternoon playing this with a couple of friends. As a spectator sport, it does not hold the same appeal. You need to be quiet to not distract the thrower, and then you patiently wait as you watch the stone slide slowly across the ice, guided by the helping hand of a sweeper. At least, I was entertained by the not-Russian team as they yelled at each other to sweep at the right time and the right place. I am not quite sure what they were yelling at each other, but it made me suspect that they were not really good friends. Or it could have been Russian for you are doing a really good job and I am glad to have you as a partner. It didn’t seem that way though.

All in all, it was the perfect way to spend my first day at the Olympics and I can’t wait to see what the next couple of days have to offer as I get to experience the events with more of audience participation with them. Hopefully, I can find a place to eat, and place to stay warm in the meantime.

Research and Development

I know that I have posted about the Experiential Education trips many times on this blog, and this is another entry on that discussion. But there is going to be a huge difference between this one, and the ones that I posted previously. The trip I took this time was not accompanied by the students. It was just a small select group of teachers that went with me this time to tweak the trip we take every year.

Don’t get me wrong but I really like the trip that we have designed for the tenth graders at my school, but there has always been a couple of things that seemed lacking, and I was looking for ways that we could improve the trip. This caused me to look beyond the borders of the Boramwon camp to find what the neighborhoods in the area has to offer. It allowed me to see more of the country of South Korea and experience some more of the ways Koreans experience adventure. This took me to the town of Mungyeong and the national park that is close by with the same name. Even though I did not get the opportunity to explore the park, there were enough other great activities in the area that would make for the perfect retreat for those who are planning to stick around a little after the Olympics. Some of the highlights include a museum that highlights traditional Korean pottery, and will teach you how to make it, the longest zip line in Korea, and some amazing Korean bar-b-q restaurants.

But the highlights of the area are not what I really want to talk about. There was something more important going on then looking at other features that the camp we take our students to does not offer. It was about never settling. This is something that I consider a lot especially in my teaching and my writing. I know as a writer there needs to be a time when I need to let things go and introduce my new project to the world. But that does not mean that I settle as being at the level of writer that I find myself at when I release that new project. Instead, it is about working towards my next project and figuring out how I can make it the best book possible. My goal is to make each proceeding book better than the last one, and that is what I mean by never settling.

Teachers need to adopt this attitude as well. Too often, teachers will present the same curriculum that they have for many years, believing that they do not need to change what they have done in the past They become complacent and just let what stands stand. They do not look for ways that they can make their curriculum better, and they do not look for ways that they can become better teachers. I am not saying that all teachers do this, or even the majority of teachers, but there does exist a group of teachers that do. I do not ever wish to be one of these teachers or writers.

This where this research and development trip I just took comes into play. It takes this trip that I’m really proud of, and it allows me the opportunity to make it better. There are a couple of areas with the trip that bug me about how things are not going as well as they could, and this gave me an opportunity to find way to make them work better. I believe I have found them on this trip and it makes me proud to know that next year when my sophomore students go off on their experiential education trip that they will get even more out of it then the group that went the previous year. This makes me feel that I have earned the respect that I get as a teacher because I am always looking for ways that I can improve.

It makes me want to give the same challenge to everybody else out there. What is it in your life that you feel does not live up to the standard that you demand of yourself? Is it because you have not tried to improve it in a long time, and have become complacent? What research and development can you do to take that aspect of your life to the next level? How will you feel about it when you do take it to that next level? And what will you have to do to take it to the next one later?

I believe if we all strive to be better than we will constantly be amazed at what we have been able to achieve.

The Other Side of Korea

I have now spent over two years living in Korea, and during that time, I have spent most of it in Seoul. In fact, I have rarely voyaged out of the main city to see what other things that this country has to offer. I have often thought of Korea as just Seoul,  the capital city filled with intense people that push and shove their way through life to get everything they want. After living here for that long, I have gotten into the groove of this hustle and bustle. I even started to wonder if there were any people in this country that wanted to slow down to experience life at a different pace. That was until I made my way down to Busan.

First of all, let’s get the big question out of the way. Yes, that Busan, the one made famous by the zombie movie released a couple of years ago. And yes, I did take the train to get down there, but I did not witness any zombies during the long voyage, unless you count the people who could barely keep their eyes open as they were gently rocked to sleep in a train car that had the heat up way too high. But it was a great symbol of the change in attitude that happened as we traveled through the rocky landscape of South Korea. The intensity of Seoul start to shed away with each kilometer we ticked away on the tracks until we arrived in the more laid back atmosphere of Busan.

Busan did not feel the pain and destruction caused by the north during the 1950s war. Because of this, there is more of a sense of history about the place. It has been able to hold on to the Korean culture a little more, and is more willing to share it with the world. It might have just been the fact that we stuck to more of the touristy locations while we were down there, and I live more in the suburb of Seoul, but I felt like I saw a bigger blend of cultures in this town than what I experience in Seoul. I think because of this more tolerant climate it has created a community that does not care as much about their appearance and the pursuit of success. People tend to enjoy themselves more because of this. I found myself not stressing out about the worries I had in life and was able to partake in the culture there.

Some of this might have to do with the many expansive beaches hugging the edge of the city. We spent our first day strolling along these. I have been told that Korean people will not visit the beaches after a certain day in the summer, but I found this not to be the case. Even though, they were not overcrowded with people looking for a spot to sunbathe, there were still many people enjoying the views. They just were not getting in the water, but I couldn’t blame them because it was only in the 50s.

The beaches are not the only feature in Busan worth checking out. Many people flock to the outskirts to see the impressive Haedong Yonggungsa temple. This is one of the more ancient structures still standing in Korea. It was built in 1376 and still serves many Buddhists that live in the area. The temple sits on a cliff looking out to the sea. We needed to cross over a bridge to see the massive Buddha built in the trees just above the temple. If you do visit, you need to stop on the bridge and look down to see two stone bowls place in nice pools next to a couple of intricate statues. If you can toss a coin into one of the bowls, you will be granted good luck. Many people gather at the edge of the bridge to try to get that luck granted from this experience.

Even though the temple was a great experience, it was the Gancheon Cultural village I enjoyed the most. The village was originally built during the Korean War as a place where refugees from the north could find safety and get a respite from the troubles they were experiencing. When you wander through its steep steps and narrow alleys, you can see this. It remained an eyesore in the middle of town until 2009 when students decided to spruce it up with a paint job. In Korea, this usually means grey, white or black, but these art students took a different route by supplying it with bright pastel colors, and hiding little interesting pieces of artwork throughout its windy paths. It is a fun part of any trip to Busan, and one that I would highly recommend. We waited until late afternoon to go and visit, but I would recommend spending the better part of a day down here because it doesn’t matter where you go around the place, you’ll find something interesting to see.

I am glad that I finally made it out of the big city to go and see another of Korea’s big cities. Even though Busan still packs over 3 million people in its borders, it definitely has a smaller town feel to it, and I was able to find a heart to Korea that goes beyond the Kpop and fashion world of Seoul. It quickly became my favorite place in Korea, and if you make a voyage out to this part of the world, it is worth the stay.