I’m currently working at a public Elementary School in Eastern Seoul, South Korea. I teach grades 4-6, so my kids range from 10-13 years old. I returned to Korea this past August which was in the middle of the school year, I stepped into these kids’ lives at an unexpected time. Nevertheless, we all got along right from the start, I being the polar opposite from their last English foreign teacher who was petite, did not have a beard, was a woman, was from the UK, and from what I heard, was not overly vested in the students.
As a foreign man, getting past the children’s barriers can be hard. There is the obvious language barrier that they and I struggle with, meaning we can only have the most simple of conversations. Also, kids can really tell whether or not someone is sincere. If you are insincere, it’s obvious and you can ruin your fragile relationship with them.
I had taught in Korea for two years in 2009/10 and I had never overcome those barriers. I finished my time there feeling frustrated. I just didn’t know how to get past the language thing, and I wasn’t confident enough in my own ability as a teacher to show them any vulnerability that is required in an honest emotional exchange.
Something is different this time around.
The easiest demographic for me to reach are the girl students. First, on average girls are always better in the classroom in my experience, and that translates to not only a better English ability, but a better experience between student and teacher during class hours. This makes them more comfortable to approach me and interact between classes or in the street. Secondly, I am a foreigner and male – an interesting specimen that requires further study on their part.
As a relatively intuitive person, I sometimes can tell when some of my students have been having a bad day, or that something is going on. It had always bothered me that especially with the boys, I had never been able to talk to them about what was going on.
Halfway through my contract, all of my grade 6 students (about 500 of them) graduated to Middle School. Having a better command of the language and being more confident in my ability this time around meant that I had actually forged some “real” emotional connections with some of the students that were now leaving. It kind of got to me, having to say goodbye. Then they were gone and it was time to move on.
As is the way of humans, we often return back to places that we had fond memories of, as kind of touchstones. This was what happened last Wednesday:
I was walking home at the end of the day, through the schoolyard, under a long gabled walkway. One of my old grade 6 boys came to the end of it, wearing his new school uniform and he turned, seeing me. He yelled my name (in this case, Mr. B) at the top of his lungs and ran towards me, arms spread in a style any Hollywood “B” movie director would be proud of. He crashed into me enveloping me into a crushing bear hug that nearly knocked me over.
We talked for a few minutes about his life at his new school, and the changes that were going on. He was having a rough time. He was smart but not particularly popular which didn’t help. The teachers were hard, the classes harder.
His eyes struck me as different, the best way that I can describe them is to say that they were…searching. He looked like he had lost something.
It struck me then, this was a child who had absolutely no clue how to deal with his new surroundings. He was lost in the world, being challenged in new ways, with new people all around him. So he returned to a place that he knew where he could be safe and maybe find his bearings again. His emotional vulnerability as we were talking was palpable. I was at a loss for words. Being there, I was at the right place at the right time and he reached out to me.
It was an incredibly meaningful experience to me. When I look at how I think about art and creating, art provides a wonderful connection between the creator and the past. To be alive means that you have lived a life up until this point and the act of creating puts you in touch with that past you have come from. When I experience difficulty or lose my bearings, I go to places that I know to be safe. Physical spaces, mental spaces. Places I have been to before.
When I create something, I often times feel that connection to my past. It’s a very real thing and there is comfort in that.
I really like the idea of continuity in our lives and in all things. I enjoy the knowledge that I have been places, and done things, and that those experiences relate to my current situation and enhance it.
It is a lonely thought to think about moving into the unknown without understanding our connection to the past. I think that understanding our connection to the past helps us to have perspective and gain context on the present and that helps us to move forward into the unknown.
The creative process feels like the ebb and flow of a tidal pool. Sometimes you go there and you find it full, other times it seems to be empty. Digging in the sand you can find traces of water but the mass of substance that you are yearning for is lost to you.
I don’t know if you can force the creative process.
I take consolation in the fact that when I have to dig, it may take a while and the pit may be vast, but I eventually begin to find the shapes of what I think I am looking for.
This image is part of an ongoing portraiture project that I am working on.
Portrait of a child, 2013
Contemplations on alternate media.
10 (Detail), 2013
Over the past few months I have been getting everything in place for the beginning of what is shaping up to look like a multi-year portrait project. Getting all of the permission forms translated, signed, and “official” looking has been quite the process. It’s great though, because now I have all of my documentation in Korean as well as English which makes future model-searching that much easier.
문어 (Mun-Eo) - Seoul, Korea 2013
Working away from SPAO these past few months have been pretty interesting, especially away from the normal modes that I was used to working in. Since coming to Korea, between trying to make time for climbing in the short season that we had here and working, many nights I spent simply trying to figure out which labs did a good job developing film, where I could find a print house, getting a scanner, and most importantly, figuring out what to shoot.
Now that everything has fallen into place and the climbing season is over, it’s time to get into production mode. I’ve been experimenting with some mixed media for a small body of work that I am keen on producing, and a second stream for this upcoming few months is requiring a ton of access, which means documents translated, permissions given, and promises made.
It’s a bit different than what I am used to, but that’s just how it must be here I guess.
The lack of being able to photograph what I wanted to has been driving me a bit crazy and I am really enthusiastic to get under way.
Daedunsan, Daejeon, South Korea
This mountain is probably my favourite in the whole of South Korea, for nothing more than the sheer quality of the climbs and the nostalgic value. These used to be my old stomping grounds when I lived here from 2009-2011.
Daniel and I had met a few months ago at a KOTRI event and talked about doing a route out here. Friday night I bussed down to his little village and we hung out for most of the night drinking beer and practicing our multi-pitch systems, rappels, prussiks, etc…
The weather looked like it might be a bit of a pain in the butt, so we opted for an early start. My rule with climbing has become “If it’s not raining when you are leaving the house, just get out there”. That has served me really well in terms of getting quality climbing in.
So we set off at 730-8 and drove out to the mountain. There is a second way up rather than the main trail and it takes you past this cave where a Buddhist woman has lived for 50 years. Drop a few notes in her box, refill your water from her stream, walk past the mountain of empty alcohol bottles she has half buried at her house, and you are 2 minutes from the beginning of the ridge route. Initially we wanted to do the New Millenium route, but with sketchy looking weather, and the markedly harder grades, we opted for the more relaxed Rescue Route. My memory not being what it was (I’m 27 now, you know) I had thought it was only 5 pitches, but in reality it was 11. Shit.
There was a team of 5 people in front of us and we made friends with them and they let us pass them on the first pitch, which was lucky as hell. We had to keep a bit of a pace up due to the weather, so I led all the pitches that day. It would have been nice to get Daniel on some leads and top belays to get his experience up, but wasn’t in the cards that day.
Felt good crushing leads that i had previously struggled on though. All that time working at VR in Ottawa has paid off!
We had a few small bit of downward and upward falling rain that day which made the climbing…exciting. The rock stayed great for us though. The last pitch was about 35m and when we started we were in a cloud. Pretty outrageous climbing. As I started belaying Daniel up, the skies opened up, but he completed the route despite the watery conditions. We rapped off the route with little incident…the little incident being that our rap was short. My bad. Luckily we could downclimb the approach which was really easy big blocks for 4-5 m.
We made it down the mountain with a few funny and one or two not so funny falls on the slick path and retreated to a warm apartment for pizza and beer. Awesome weekend all in all!
Yeonghwa San, Northern Chuncheon, South Korea
This mountain is named after Dragon’s Fire and being the fall time here, we could tell why. Relatively isolated in Northern Chuncheon, near-ish to the NK border, the trail that leads to the beginning of the MASSIVE granite climbing monoliths is literally at the end of the road. Driving along the road, through the mountain tunnels, you come across these military camouflaged boxes that are apparently filled with explosives, so that if North Korea advances south, they blow these out, and the mountain passes are blocked! Hold your breath as you drive through!
The climbing here is a bit of a mixed bag. I learned from a Korean at my climbing gym that there is a style of climbing in South Korea called “Picking up bolts” where climbers attach a sling to a bolt, and pull themselves up so that they can step on the bolt hangar and thereby reach the next bolt … and repeat. This kind of thing infuriates me, because people are training for a type of climbing that doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist, because it’s super dangerous. If you are going to aid climb, then use some eritriers, or ladders. That’s what they are designed for. Dont step on the hangars, you can damage them, and then the next person could get hurt.
All that aside, I had a great time on the wall. We repeated a climb that Stefan had done a week before. The first pitch is a huge corner crack about 25m tall with 3 bolts that you dont really need if you have trad gear. I wouldnt want to think about only using those three bolts with no cams or even nuts. Pretty massive runouts that way. Got to the top of that, and belayed them both up. Stefan had told me that the second pitch was really hard, but it was only graded 10c. We decided to go for it because the weather was perfect, the climb was 4 pitches in all, and well, why not!
I set off on lead and immediately the climb felt like a pretty stiff 10c. It was the highest angle slab that I have ever climbed, with the most exposure by far. The crag is at the top of the mountain, so when you look down, you are seeing about 600feet of exposure. Gorgeous, but mildly distracting when you are on half pads of your fingers and smearing the wall because there are no feet.
Eventually I came to a small roof I had to go over and was almost defeated by this gnarly flake that was super sharp, and had no feet, so pulling out on it with no feet and a 6 foot runout. I had some nice pucker time on that route.
After a while, I felt like I was getting just too mentally worked on this climb and was talking to the guys saying that it might have just been beyond me.
Stefan told me to take a break and then try again. So I did. Power of the peers. I started coming to these completely blank places and the bolts were pretty close, so we reckoned that there was an aid element in the climb. So I did. With a sling and a biner, I took a nice big step and clipped the next bolt. Pretty stupid - didnt feel like climbing at all.
The last move on the climb was a free move. Super bad ass. Two crimps to a big flat left handed ledge that as soon as you get your hand on it, your feet come off, you can match your hands on the ledge, and you are hanging with a great runout and your feet are in the air. What a feeling! Up on top of that, there’s the chains.
A few days later I talked to some people from my gym and they were pretty flabbergasted that we had tried to free climb the route. They said that the whole thing was an aid route. What a great day out!
Surisan, Southern Seoul, South Korea
This was my birthday weekend. Les and Josh came out as part of the original crew that used to party together before everyone got married! Now its such a hard time to get everyone together, this was a real treat!
Surisan is characterized by its hard and short sport routes. You can access the crag by subway in Seoul and either a short walk or a shorter cab ride. The rock quality reminded me a lot of some of the stuff I saw in the Ottawa region in Canada which was cool. Not gritty granite stuff like in Mureung, more smooth blocky stuff.
The crag was super busy, but we still managed to have a blast. We all got on an 11a and got up it, so for the last climb of the day we all tried to send this super gorgeous 11b on the upper left ledge. It starts off as this overhung crack-ish feature that you follow up until you reach a small rest plateau and then have to transfer onto the next section of the route which is over a small roof and a devastating hand knife jam that had me screaming, Josh mildly contemplative, and Les pulled a foot free superman move!
Saw a couple HORRENDOUS falls from the Korean camp where the catches sounded more like gunshots than nice soft pulls through the carabiners. One man was upside down when he had no business being that way, and one woman almost broke her back on her harness. A jumping belay style and not so much slack out would have been a very nice lesson for those folks.
Definitely earned our beers that day!