Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Toastmasters Evaluation of Ottawa

"Happy to have been here, and happy to go home as well."
- what I was thinking in the departure lounge of Ottawa International Airport.

Ottawa's objectives for this particular project were to:
a) facilitate educational progress
b) build relationships between international collaborators and
c) provide a favourable first impression of Canada

I would have to say that all objectives were passed with flying colours and with light snow in the background. There were many things that I liked, one thing that confused me, and one suggested improvement for an even better experience.

Like all good openings, Ottawa started off with a strong hook. Everywhere I looked, up and down the streets, across the houses and flying through the air, I saw snow. Lots of snow.
This was a very effective way of getting a seasoned Australian audience wide-eyed and receptive to the body of the experience. For someone who grew up on the sandy beaches of South Australia, the snow in Korea at first seemed surreal.
But snow in Korea is nothing compared to Snow in Ottawa™.

I felt it in my fingers. I felt it in my toes. Snow was all around me...

Like the icing on some kind of massive suburban cake.

Love it or hate it, snow is just a fact of life for those living precariously close to the poles. Although I found myself bemoaning its arrival on occasion, overall it was a pleasant and reliable companion to have on my trip. As soon as I stepped out of the warmth of any well-insulated Canadian abode, I would find myself thinking "Hello snow, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again."

The conversation consisted of a crunching sound beneath my shoes.

Another area where Ottawa scores high marks, is in its high concentration of Canadian people. I've met the odd Canadian English teacher in Korea before, and have found them to be worthy drinking partners. Our shared Commonwealth roots allow us to chat about all sorts of things unintelligible to your average rest-of-the-worlder. Such topics include a searing affection or lukewarm disdain for cricket, lingering familiarity with the Queen (because she's on our coins), and the ability to speak the English language more correctly than our immediate neighbours.

But the famous Canadian way of saying 'out' did surpass novelty value after a couple weeks.

"Ooh, so you're goin' oot, eh?"

"Yeah, I am. Mate."

Another pivotal part of the Ottawa experience was going to Tim Horton's. Although not a regular coffee drinker in Seoul, I was converted to Tim's 'Large Double-Double,' which is the colloquial name for a coffee with two helpings of cream and sugar. You can get enough coffee to give you a cheshire cat grin and involuntary hand shudders for a mere $1.47.

The food in Ottawa was generally excellent. I managed to eat Italian food without pickles, sandwiches without coleslaw and pizza without sweetcorn.

Foodwise, everything in Ottawa is expensive except for eggs, which you can buy at an enormous tire store called Canadian Tire. You can buy a dozen eggs there for only $1.20.
Why do you need to go to an enormous tire store to purchase cheap eggs? It's one of those Canada things.

"F@$#ing cheap eggs!" as Bao would say, walking victoriously out of the tire shop. 

The research experience was very enlightening. I immediately felt more academically free than in Korea, where the barrier of hierarchy between professors and students remains a stalwart reminder of Confucianism's former glory. In Canada, as with Australia, students can refer to their professors by first name, or even by nickname if they like. They can also use the word 'whatever,' when replying to a criticism, without fear of physical harm.

One thing that could be good or bad, depending on how you like your cities, is Ottawa's size. Ottawa is around the same size as Adelaide, which is often teased by our eastern Australian counterparts as being an irrelevant destination that most holidaymakers plan to avoid. If you imagine Seoul's population to be a birthday cake, Ottawa's population would be a single slice.
I, however, like small cities and big cities alike. We spent some of our youth living in the town of Pt Augusta, a small village in outback South Australia with its own tribal chieftain (it was Mayor Joy Baluch at the time).

We had three supermarkets, two sets of traffic lights and a single toy shop in the whole town.

One thing that I thought was Korea-specific, was the rapid accumulation of jingling coins in one's pocket. I don't understand money at all, but I'm sure there's some kind of mathematical relationship going on between the values of coin denominations and the local prices specific to each country. In Australia, I'd hardly ever have to deal with coins, or would run out of them in front of the parking ticket machines. In Korea, I always seem to have too many, especially the pesky 10 won coins that are only useful for purchasing coffee from 100 won vending machines. 
In Canada, it was the same as Korea. After a long day out, I would often find myself with two pockets full of silver. Which I didn't mind much, but here's what confuses me: Have a look at the denominations above.
On the far left is the $1 coin, then the 25 cent, then the 5 cent and the copper coin is the 1 cent coin. What would you guess is the coin on the far right? Logic dictates that it would perhaps be a 2 cent coin. It's actually the Canadian ten cent coin, unintuitively smaller than the 5 cent and a cause for much ponderment.

"What are you talking aboot, eh?"

Now it's time for a suggested improvement. The photo above is from the frozen Dow's Lake, which we skated along until dusk. Nearby was a large restaurant selling Mexican food, where we entered with Professor Tsang who wanted to do some work on a laptop. This was how the conversation went:

Prof Tsang: "Is there a wireless internet connection here?"
Waiter: (mild frown) "We are a restaurant."

Here's me at a hairdresser:

Me: "Can I get a haircut?"
Man behind the counter: (without looking up from his magazine) "You're going to have to wait."

Some places in Ottawa had very good service, but there were many instances that made my other favourite cities look sparkling in comparison. I'm no whinger and take what I can get, but hey, man, how about a smile and a bit of cheer when you're selling something?

Let's turn those frowns upside-down!

Overall though, Ottawa was a memorable experience and I had a great time. I brought home a plethora of gifts and goodies, including Fisherman's Friend.
The snow was good, the research was interesting and the food was excellent. 

I even enjoyed the flights on Air Canada. Northern Canada looks a bit like the moon. My eager efforts at spotting muskoxen from these heights proved fruitless.

As I sat on the plane though, I realised that the highlight of the trip was the people who I met along the way. The lab members were all friendly and welcoming, Bao's family members were warmly hospitable and I made great friends with Ji-Young nuna, who I'm convinced is a scientific genius. I look forward to going back someday.

Now that I've arrived home in Korea, things are starting to heat up. The new term is starting, my wonder-woman of a wife is 7 months pregnant and the pressure is on to produce some results in my research. I once asked Professor Tsang what advice he had for being a successful PhD student.

He said "Work hard. And think hard."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


"À Rome, fais comme les Romains."

- A certain quote in French.

In some of the great beehives of humanity around the world, one can be chased by raging bulls down city streets. In others, one can find oneself wondering in wonderment in front of one of the most wonderful Wonders of the World.

And in Ottawa, you can skate along the largest skating rink on the planet. Mike told me that it's actually the second largest.

The first is called Antarctica.

Adhering to the age-old addage of "When in Ottawa, do as the Chinese students do," I once again headed out to this spectacle of winter. In the picture above are Cheng and Kai, two zhung-guk saram from the Tsang Lab.

Council workers drill test holes all along the Rideau Canal, to ensure that the ice is thick enough for the masses to skate on. So it's perfectly safe.

Apart from the danger of falling down a test hole.

I found out from Alaa and Nadeen that there aren't many skating opportunities in Saudi Arabia. One interesting thing that they both do is always put ice in their drinks, despite it being unnecessary in the Land of Polar Bears.

Nuna on ice is a fun thing to watch. Arguably more entertaining than Disney on Ice.

But as with all things that Ji-Young nuna encounters, she learned extremely quickly. It wasn't long before she was propelling herself along the Rideau with skills reminiscent of Kim Yuna.

Alaa treated us to Maple Taffy. It's maple syrup, boiled down to a thick glue-like paste and dipped in clean snow. Well at least, I hope it was clean. I washed it down with my cup of hot apple cider.

The taste was "interesting," as my Dad would say.

It's been many years since I made a snowman. The Kong family and I ventured out into his backyard one morning to attempt what is normally impossible for those dwelling between the tropics.

Making a snowman is no easy feat. For a start, the snow needs to be compacted and it tends to fall apart. And creating the head is a sculpturist's nightmare. After a multitude of inadequate approaches, I used a square bucket as a mold and simply placed it on top. It was fine, but made my snowman look more like a robot.

I named it Snowbot.

Here's Ethan with Wei-Wei's snow creation, reminiscent of the seal pups currently in the midst of a clubbing controversy.

Here's my finished Snowbot, complete with infrared vision and ready to blast any competing snowman to smithereens.

In a rare instance of superior political correctness for the Korean language, I recently realised that unlike its English counterpart, the word 'snowman' in Korean (nun-saram) is not gender biased. I was enthralled.

Snowpersons, firepersons, watchpersons... you can never be too politically correct these days.

If you were observant enough in the last photo to recognise that Snowbot was on a table, you may realise where in this photo Snowbot ought to be. 

I guess you could say it was 'enrobed' in snow.

And that little lump in the centre was all that remained of Wei-Wei's snowpup the next day. I'm guessing though, that as the snow melts, both of our creations will re-emerge from their enrobement with victorious expressions on their faces.

Snow is a little bit like mess. It continues piling up over time, which makes you wonder why you bother dealing with it. 

My answer is because I like to. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Enrobed Manotick Faerie Duck

"Tis not the ice nor frosty winds, 
but shadows in the winter gloom, 
That thicks man's blood with cold."

- My Canadian respin of an ancient mariner's rime

Yet another Canadian dawn draws forth a minor agitation: What manner of arctic illusion doth beset mine eyes, this time?

Faerie fire, perhaps.

Or maybe steam from somebody's shower vent.

Look, it's another Toastmasters club. Lucille Bouthillier, who I met at the Above and Beyond Advanced TM Club was kind enough to invite me to the Manotick Toastmasters, home club of Chris Ford.

I had no idea who Chris Ford was, but by the way I was told that information it felt as though it was something I should have known.

Manotick is a quaint little town just outside of Ottawa. The club was formed in 1996 and meets in an 18th century building. That night, the local Pathfinders Girl Guides joined in the meeting as observers. Back when I was in the Australian Scouts, our patrol set the state time record for pitching a 6-person tent.

One minute and forty one seconds, to be precise.

I liked a lot about the Manotick Toastmasters. They had a good variety of speakers, tea and biscuits, as well as an early portrait of Queen Elizabeth II mounted on the wall. During the table topics session, I was a reporter interviewing Albert Einstein.

Once upon a time in my life, snow was fun and frolic-worthy. Not long after that, it became a nuisance. The Canadians have all manner of methods for its removal, including local neighbourhood patrols of modified trucks that meander through the sidestreets.

These would also be useful to collect up all the cash when a Lotto truck tips over on the highway.

During our ritual weekly visit to the supermarket, I extended my camera out with my hand and said "Hey Ethan, look at this."

Above is what a three year old boy looks like, observing the click of a camera shutter.

Going anywhere in the Ottawan winter requires careful risk assessment of the pros and cons.

You could find something new and amazing, or you could end up being found by a search party, frozen in a large block of ice holding a map in your hand.

Little Italy is worth the hassle though. Simply for the quality of their antipasto seafood dishes.

King Neptune himself wouldn't mind his minions being relished so tastily.

I bought a packet of SKOR chocolate from the local supermarket, just because they used the word 'enrobed' in their description. It seems like a word that we need to use more often.

Such enrapturing vocabulary enthralls me as I sit enthroned upon my chair.

I like museums as much as any other amateur childhood palaeontologist, but one country's heavily lacquered dinosaur skeleton often seems as good as the next's.

Hmm... 'next's'...  now there's a funny word.

The Canadian Museum of Nature was fairly good, but nothing out of the ordinary except for an unusually large collection of fluorescent rocks. I heard that the Museum of Civilisation is more impressive, but it was north of the river and thus beyond the borders of my bus route knowledge. 

We had some good times at Alaa's place eating pizza, inhaling shisha and playing cards. I learned a new card game called Con Carne. The aim is to get rid of your cards by producing certain sets. And out of about 100 rounds, I failed to win a single game.

In retrospect, I think I played a little too conservatively.

We spent the Chinese New Year at Bao's house, with Wei-Wei making a traditional dumpling recipe from their hometown of Shandong. 

Shandong dumplings have pork and chives as stuffing and are a nice alternative to Korean mandu. We had a good time exchanging international dumpling technology.

In Australia, we have really large ones called pasties.

It was a nice and cosy night with some good food and a little wine. I contributed the plate of roast duck, sourced from the Green Fresh Chinese Grocery. There were many firsts  that night as well: First New Year in North America, First Time Eating Shandong Dumplings and First Time I've Spent a New Year Thinking a Lot About Firsts.

The Year of the Rabbit hopped in quietly without much further ado. Here's hoping that it will be a good one for us all.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Ice Hockey

Commentator #1: "For the Senators to make the play-offs, they'll have to win 24 of the next 32 matches. Yes, that could happen. Just like the next time my phone rings, it could be Scarlett Johansson."

*cell phone rings in the background*

Commentator #2: "I think that's Scarlett calling."

Most sports involve chasing something around, passing it to teammates and placing it in a predesignated place, upon which time a point is scored. This task is made considerably more difficult by the presence of an opposing team who are trying to do the same thing in the opposite direction. All else equal, the superior team should prevail, the anticipated satisfaction of which is the motivating factor to compete.
Ice hockey has all of these identifying features and involves a vulcanized rubber puck, with skaters using special paddles in an ice rink that is disproportionately small for the speeds involved. The result is a beautiful orgy of precise collisions.

I had seen a couple of games on television here, but had various motivations for seeing a game in real life. Those motivations included the fact that I could then claim to have seen a game in real life, and so that my Canadian friends would feel more at ease with me in future engagements. If you want to make friends with a Korean, you compose and dedicate a song to the unending deliciousness of Korean food, and for Canadians you talk about hockey.

Fortunately, the University of Ottawa student union sent out a coupon password to everyone associated with the university. Bao got the email and sent it to me, and we all got tickets for $20 each. The password was 'Union.'

I would have preferred a secret handshake myself.

The Canadians love their ice hockey as much as fat men love beer. Not all fat men love beer, and not all Canadians love ice hockey, so I think the analogy is accurate. But I guess a more accurate one would be that ice hockey-loving Canadians love ice hockey as much as fat, beer-loving men love beer.

One of the biggest things I like about going to sports events is to consume junk food under the convenient excuse that it's the only thing for sale.

And packing your own cucumber sandwiches or couscous salad to see an ice hockey game just wouldn't be right.

I'm now a big fan of ice hockey and my favourite team is the Ottawa Senators, even though they've lost 13 of the past 14 games this season. There's only one team lower than them on the ladder now, and that's the most despised team in the NHL, the Islanders. And I'm not just saying they're despised to make the Senators look better.

There was actually a poll on TV, asking viewers which team they like the least.
The rules for violence in ice hockey are somewhat bewildering. Players are allowed to bump, prod and decapitate each other, while the referee's job is to make it seem like everything is under control. Knocking a stationary player off their feet is called 'checking.'
As in, "I was just checking to see if you could keep your balance."

But going on a rampage using your stick as a baton is generally frowned upon, and will land you in the naughty box for 120 whole seconds.

The match commentators will use all manner of superlatives to describe a testosterone-charged confrontation between two players from opposing teams. They'll say things like "Seems like those two are having a chat."
I'm no lip reader, but the zoomed-in camera views appear to reveal the use of expletives.

One thing I find fascinating is that the Ottawa team have named themselves The Senators. Judging from their behaviour while resolving disputes within the rink, that would be akin to a professional WWF wrestler calling himself The Diplomat.

But then again, the psychology behind sports team names in general is quite interesting. Certain animals are more preferred than others, but it isn't clearly logical. Names like The Sharks, The Wolves or The Tigers are just fine. We would assume it's because of the attributes that they'd like to be renowned for. But there are plenty of other fine animals that have important distinctions.

For example, one could name their team as The Chimpanzees (for intelligence), The Armadillos (impenetrable defense) or The Barnacles (proportionally large gonads).

The game itself is composed of three - twenty minute quarters, affirming my perception that some North Americans are bad at maths. Or math.
During the breaktimes, one can tour the outer area of the stands, which are coincidentally stockpiled with merchandise and overpriced junk food. I was about to purchase a 100g packet of peanut M&Ms, with approximately 20 pieces in it, before being shocked and politely rejecting the requested price of seven Canadian dollars.

A zoomed-in view of the thoughts in my mind would reveal the use of expletives.

While professional ice hockey players travel at speeds of around 40 kilometres per hour, Ji-Young asks an impressive 20 questions about the game per minute.

"Where is the puck?"
"What is the score?"
"How much time is left?"

I thoroughly enjoyed the match, even though we lost 3:2. And on Youtube I've recently discovered a goldmine of various ice hockey clips.

While I have no doubt that ice hockey has great sportsmanship involved, I think that it perhaps isn't the best sport for exemplary behaviour. Therefore, I suggest the creation of a new and alternative game.
We can call it 'Nice Hockey.'

It would be similar to ice hockey, but with only three players on each team. The ball would be made of polystyrene or papier-mâché. Whenever two players on opposing teams come within 2 metres of each other and the ball, the game is paused. The two players then do a Rock, Scissors, Paper, to determine who gets possession of the ball. We'll call that Entrustment. So the newly Entrusted player is then given three seconds to leave the area and score a goal. Of course, there is no goalie, but the lightness of the polystyrene ball would make it difficult to go very far. To slow things down even more, it's played on a grassy soccer field in spring and all players have to hop on one leg.

Sounds like a fine game to me. There would also be less physical injuries.

So, who's up for a game of Nice Hockey?