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Free at last

25 October 2010 2 comments

My last day at work was Friday. I had thought it was going to be today, which is the day I agreed to finish working, but I was told that I didn’t need to work on the Monday – which I forgot and had to be retold on Friday. Min-seon, the office manager, who I used to give lessons to, took me out for lunch and said that she’d miss me – not sure I believe that.

The previous night was supposed to be a leaving meal for me and Andrew, the Korean guy who also taught at EducaKorea and managed the Learning Center. Having very little work to do I was ready to go at the official finishing time of 6 o’clock, but Andrew told me people would be leaving at 7. So I left anyway and went to roleplaying. Probably not a very nice gesture to my colleagues, but the prospect didn’t fill me with much joy. Besides which, the night’s roleplaying session was an important one and it overran by an hour.

It was also my last roleplaying session for a while, as I’m heading to China on Thursday for a couple of weeks.

I haven’t blogged about my life recently, so here’s an update of the last few weeks.

Korean drivers aren’t held in high esteem by foreigners. I think Koreans just take them for granted. In some ways, though, Korean drivers are very tolerant of pedestrians. If there’s a small road joining a main road and there are no traffic lights, I’ve found that drivers, while they will certainly try to squeeze between people crossing the small road, they will also wait patiently if there are no gaps in the flow of pedestrians.

A while ago, walking back to the office from my Starbucks writing lunch, while crossing one such road an Audi saloon came towards me too fast. Already halfway across the road, I was confident that it was stop, but it came close to hitting me. I was holding my travel cup at my side, so I accidentally on purpose let it clunk against the car’s bonnet. The man inside honked his horn and shouted something at me as I walked away. I took no notice. From the amount of time it too the car to drive past me up the road, I’m sure he got out to check his paintwork. I wonder what would have happened if he’d seen some damage.

I’ve been wanting to get into hiking again – especially since I bought a new pair of hiking boots over the summer – they cost 150,000 won – about £75. A few weeks ago I went to Namhansanseong by myself on Sunday – it was a location that had been suggested by my friend and avid hiker, Botond.

There was a scary moment on the subway train. I was sitting there reading and there was a loud cry – pretty much a scream – from somewhere on my right. A young chubby guy ran down the carriage shouting wordlessly, holding something in his hand, apparently nothing wrong with him. When he got to the next car he stopped. Completely random and very unnerving. I had felt the adrenaline fountain inside me in a split second, and it took a while for my system to settle down.

The hike was pretty pleasant. After a bit of trek through the town, past all the hiking gear shops, you get to the foot of the hills and trudge up the hillside past a few small temples and plots of short towers made of piled rocks – many of them improbably slender. Then you reach the South Gate of the fortress.

It started raining pretty heavily while I was having a break there, so I put on my newly purchased rain jacket and headed off into the downpour while Koreans huddled under the gate’s roof. Not too long afterwards the rain stopped and the clouds cleared away leaving bright sunshine and good visibility. This latter was important because from some parts of the walls you can see all of Seoul to the northwest.

As I got to the west side of the fortress, having gone anti-clockwise around the perimiter (apart from one shortcut), it got more crowded with non-hikers – people there just for a short jaunt out to some historic buildings and who lack all the expensive clothing and gear that marks the serious hiker (and there are lots of these in Korea). As I headed wearily back to the South Gate, going downhill much of the way, my boots began to feel uncomfortable, my toes pressing againt the fronts.

Two weeks later I went back with Habiba and her colleagues June and Aiden.

In between these two hikes (if memory serves) Habiba, her friend Jessica and I went to the Busan International Film Festival (known as PIFF because it was established back when people used the older McCune-Reischauer system of transliterating Hangul into Roman letters). We saw three films on the Saturday but none on the Sunday.

The three we saw were all interesting in various ways – Honey was an understated Turkish film about a boy whose father has an accident while out collecting honey from his hives up in trees in the forest; Portraits in a Sea of Lies – the best of the three – was a moving Colombian film about a withdrawn young woman who goes on a roadtrip with her cocky cousin to find the deeds to a plot of land; and Viridiana was a strange 1950s drama by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, about a young woman whose uncle tries to seduce and then commits suicide, apparently forcing her to live on in his mansion and take in a load of troubled homeless people.

The blurb about this last film promised cannibalism, so we were all disappointed when it didn’t materialise – blame Korean translators. Actually, no – blame Korean managers: some PIFF bigwig probably just went to someone in their office and said, ‘Here, you speak English: translate all this by next week.’

Some time ago I went had some problems with my shoulder. I first went to what I think was a Korean acupuncture clinic and when this didn’t do much I went to an orthopaedic hospital that seemed to do the job. I went back there more recently with pain in my left hip. It’s a feeling I get from time to time, especially after playing guitar. This time, however, it was completely random and about the sharpest it’s ever been.

I had more physiotherapy of the heat, ultrasound and electric kind, plus some medication, and that helped a lot. I also had a few X-rays (you can’t go to the doctor in Korea without getting a handful of X-rays done), which showed that there’s a slight problem with my L4 vertebra, near the base of my spine. There’s a little extra space where the disc is, implying, I think, some inflammation. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious, just a sign of getting older, and he recommended that I strengthen my back muscles and don’t sit at a desk too much. I should get on that – at least the first part: you can’t be a writer without applying the seat of the trousers to the seat of a chair.

I’ve been working on my writing and trying to set things up to help my writing goals. I started a new blog, for instance – this one to be a ‘public’ one, while I think Infinite Probability should be a private record of my personal life. To this end, I think I’m going to transfer some things from here to there – namely my book reviews and Lexicon. I also rejoined Critters – and have found that it’s recently been renovated and looks like a fairly contemporary web site (the old one was very basic). I’ve already had some feedback on one of my stories (‘The Green Marble’) that all makes good sense and that I want to incorporate into the next version of the piece. I just need to get down to the hard work of rewriting. I’m also intending to take part in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) in November and see if I can’t write 50,000 in 30 days.

I’ve also been putting a lot of work into a roleplaying game system. It’s very hard work, though. Every decision you make for how things should work have repercussions pretty much throughout the system. Even my goals in creating the game are difficult to balance – part of me wants simplicity, part of me wants realism. Still a fair way to go with this project, but I think a lot of the fundamentals are in place now.

Now that I’m not working, I should have more time to work on the things that are important to me. Sightseeing in China might get in the way for a bit. Natural laziness might get in the way full stop.

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Visiting, vanishing Vakil

30 September 2010 Leave a comment

Habiba’s brother, Vakil, flew into Korea just over a week ago and stayed with us until he left first thing on Monday morning. His visit coincided with Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving holiday when Koreans travel to their hometowns to spend time with family and pay their respects at the graves of their ancestors. We were lucky this year in that the three national holiday days fell on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (if they’d been on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there would only have been one day off work). My employer gave everyone the Monday and Friday that week off, as well.

Habiba picked her brother up from the airport on Saturday afternoon, and, after having not been able to sleep on the flight, he unfortunately found himself unable to sleep that night, despite exhaustion. With nothing better to do, he went out in the early hours – and had an encounter with an old, drunk man who gave him makgeolli (rice wine) and ice cream at five in the morning. On the following nights he was generally able to sleep better, and he spent a few nights in a seedy but comfortable hotel next to our building (despite the fact that the hotel looked abandoned from the outside).

Over the following days, we endeavoured to show Vakil the sights, sounds and flavours of South Korea. We visited Insadong, Itaewon, Namsan Tower, Namsangol Folk Village, Deoksu Palace, Gyeongbok Palace, Bukchon and various places in and around Chungju. We ate Chicken galbi, beef galbi, spicy chicken soup (dalkdoritang), lots of gimbap, divers soups and stews, rice porridge (juk), savoury Korean pancake (pajeon) and a meal consisting of about a hundred side dishes. We pounded rice, saw a musical based on a traditional Korean tale, walked around an exhibition of with the theme of realism in Asian art, took part in an RPG session (sans Habiba), spent a couple of hours singing in a noraebang and spent a couple of days with Habiba’s friend Cybele in what is apparently the geographic centre of South Korea.

Last Monday, Vakil went into Habiba’s work with her to meet her students and see what she does for a living (Habiba’s very proud of her kids and she gets all her visitors to come in with her). I’d been there once before, but this time I was there on business. Zach had taken the Monday and Friday off in order to go to Tokyo and I filled in for him.

I taught his kindergarten class in the mornings and early afternoons and one of his elementary classes later in the afternoon after an hour and a half break. On the Monday I was nervous about following or not following the currculum at the correct times and asked Zach’s teaching assistant, Jasmine, for lots of help. I was more comfortable on the Friday. Both classes were down to about half because of people going away for the holiday, so it wasn’t too demanding in terms of crowd management.

The kids, by and large were very nice and accepted me and co-operated with me. One of the kindergarten activities involved making ‘Thanksgiving food’ out of clay, and one particularly small girl who looks like an old man who looks like a turtle made an extremely detailed sculpture of a table with mounds of rice cakes and a little chair and a person. On Friday, while doing a page from the elementary studetns’ science book on the subject of ‘What is Life?’ I had the opportunity to pose conundrums like, Are cars alive? What about viruses? And computer viruses? I’m sure the philosophical ramifications were somewhat over their heads, but they seemed to enjoy answering Yes! or No!

One of the most memorable parts of the week was going to Insadong on an extremely rainy Tuesday. The rainy season is usually more or less over by the start of September and fine weather is often assured for Chuseok. Not this year. We headed out early-ish and when we got there the rain was such that we decided to go to a café that also does fancy chocolates to wait it out. An hour or so later, still bucketing down outside, we decided on an early lunch and attempted to wait it out in the restaurant. An hour later there was still respite so we decided on travelling across town on the subway to go to COEX, a huge mall. After maybe a couple of hours there the heavens were still in full spate and we headed home.

I’ve never known such extensive and heavy rain and we felt like Vakil’s visit was doomed to be overshadowed by bad weather. The following day was grey and it spat occasionally, but it was mostly dry. From Thursday on, though the weather was exactly what one would have hoped for: sunny and not too hot.

Another downer was the fact that when we went for galbi for dinner on the Wednesday – the actual Chuseok day – they had no lettuce – an integral part of the meal – so we basically had to consume all that red meat with a bit of rice and jjigae.

After the urban jungle of Seoul it was extremely pleasant to get away this last weekend to visit Cybele in Chungju. Chungju is a small city, the limits of which are clearly demarcated by the main road encircling it: on one side of the road are high rise apartment buildings, on the other, apple orchards and tree-clothed mountains.

Cybele drove us to Jungangtap, a stone pagoda whose name means ‘central tower’. It is supposed to be the centre of the country and is set in a sculpture park some distance from the city and on the bank of a river. We saw lots of big black and yellow-orange spiders in the trees, some busily devouring unlucky dragonflies. We also went to the site of an old temple with a large buddha statue and to Seokjongsa, a large, exquistely decorated temple complex whose buildings were in mint condition – and some of them brand new. There were lots of dragonflies around, as well as plenty of praying mantises and scarily coloured spiders. We saw one big black spider (not tarantula-size, but big enough) spinning a web between two widely spaced trees.

Walking through the countryside near the old, ruined temple, we saw some Koreans doing something in a stream. They got back up on to the lane as we passed by and they stopped us and gave us freshly picked mushrooms and soju.

Cybele very kindly put us up in her new apartment, the ground floor of a house in the city (she used to live in the surrounding countryside) as well as being our chauffeuse. Over the weekend, Vakil started taking a deeper interest in the Korean alphabet, Hangul. By Sunday he was about as fluent as Habiba is after two years in the country.

I personally quite enjoyed the noraebang session. It’s not often that I get to do it, and especially with someone who shares my taste in songs. Vakil and I did a fair amount of Metallica together, as well as some Sex Pistols and Iron Maiden. Jessica even did ‘How You Remind Me’ with me – and here I thought all the trendy kids despised Nickleback.

After another sleepless night, Vakil left us at six o’clock on Monday morning. Habiba cried a little after he went and I held her for a while in the dawn light. She’s very close to her family and being away from them is hard for her. Most of the time she copes well enough, but moments like that, leavetakings, bring home how much she misses them.

Vakil’s visit, despite the best efforts of the dying rainy season, was a great success. Vakil is a very nice gentleman and I enjoyed getting to know him better; we both enjoyed tormenting Habiba with our sense of humour. Apart from that rain – and the fact that our original plans didn’t come to pass – there were no big problems. We spent lots of time together, did lots of fun activities, and all three of us got to see more of the Land of Morning Calm.

Resigned to my fate

6 September 2010 Leave a comment

I resigned from my job the week before last. My last day is scheduled to be Monday the 25th of October.

About time, too. I haven’t been happy there for some time. One of the things that attracted me to coming to Korea in the first place back in 2006 was the hours. Before Korea, I’d worked in offices doing administration work, and even with flexible working hours – getting out of bed and to the office on time was a hell of a struggle. Plus, sitting in front of a desk all day when you haven’t had enough sleep is one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done.

A normal hagwon job sees you working something like 2pm to 9pm and on your feet talking to your students much of the time – it requires more energy, but is somehow less tiring.

My current job is not a normal hagwon job. While I’ve made a good fist of getting up at 7:30 to 8 every morning, I can’t go on with it any more. Especially since my non-teaching workload has dropped off to practically zero the past couple of weeks. Even when I did have other work to do – mostly proofreading – it proved utterly infuriating. While the women who work on the Contents team writing the workbooks my company sells speak good English, their written English leaves a lot to be desired.

Their work is full of basic mistakes like using ‘the’ in front of proper nouns, or missing articles where they’re required (for example ‘The Sean bought cup of tea.’) – errors that one would expect of an elementary school student. Even more enraging is when they pick out a vocabulary word and give it the wrong definition (such as where the vocabulary word is ‘bright’, the example sentence is ‘John was a very bright boy’ and the definition is ‘having a strong light or colour’). And then there are those instances when I just don’t understand what they’re trying to say.

The one thing I like about my job is the teaching. I have very small classes – I also have a lot of control over the curriculum. Although we’re supposed to do a certain number of books per term, effectively, if I want to spend two months on one book because that way I know the students will be reading it all and getting the most out of it (and I’ll be able to read the whole thing, too), I pretty much can.

My colleague Andrew, the Korean guy whose role is to manage the Learning Center as well as teach, has also not been enjoying his job, so, while I don’t think there’s any real problem between us, we end up not communicating much with each other.

I’d be happy to continue working part-time just teaching, but our bosses don’t want that. Partly, I believe, because of Korean business culture of screwing every last bit of usefulness out of every single employee; partly because the management don’t really believe in the Learning Center and would happily close it. Which is probably what’s going to happen when I leave.

My plan is to find a few private classes to keep my finances in the black and, once my E-2 visa expires to leave the country briefly and come back on a tourist visa. If my employer doesn’t say anything to Immigration, then I’ll need to do this a couple of time before Habiba and I are ready to say goodbye to Korea – according to our current plans, anyway. This is not strictly by the book, but not an uncommon practice.

I’ve been trying to up my writing game over recent months and there is a work-shaped ceiling beyond which I can’t reach at the moment. Although I still find writing extremely hard work, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I want to write about, about what I want to achieve. Recently, I’ve written more than I’ve ever done before; I’ve rewritten more than I’ve ever done before. Although, naturally, I am inclined to give myself as easy a life as possible, what I’m proposing is not that I exchange my current job for a life of loafing, but that I exchange it for another job – writing. Once I leave Korea for good, I may not have another opportunity to dedicate myself whole-heartedly to my vocation – until I actually start to get paid for it.

I only wonder why I didn’t resign before now – or why I even took this job in the first place. Money, I suppose.

Company rafting trip

On Friday I and most of the people I work with left work at about midday to set off on a rafting trip. As well as most of the people who work at the Gangnam office/bookshop/hagwon, there were people from the warehouse/financial and logistics office outside Seoul. The location for the away day was near Cheorwon, an area of Gangwon-do close to the border with North Korea – an area I’ve now visited three times (it’s where I met Habiba). Our accommodation was a one of a set of pensions near some rice fields and next to the Hantan river – the venue for the rafting.

The first part of the trip there was OK. I went with my friend Ji-hyeon and our boss Min-seon in the latter’s car to the Ilpye-dong offices. We had to wait a while for some orders to be despatched and it was moderately interesting to see the how the other half lives. There are two warehouses containing the bulk of our products, which are sold to schools and hagwons. The premises there are old and crappy – the Seoul site is far, far nicer.

After that everyone piled on a bus. We had been divided into four teams, black, white, red and blue, and had to wear appropriately coloured clothing. In the bus, we had to sit in our teams. We were given some gimbap and drinks. Then it was noraebang time. The men, evidently already giddy on their free can of beer, got very excited about the singing, yelling along with the singer and chanting people’s names, encouraging them to get up and sing. I heard my name a few times, but I was already feigning sleep and regretting coming.

Once at the pension, we had a few spare minutes before the games began. The games weren’t optional. The four teams competed to collect little green rubber apples, which were awarded for winning games, lining up speedily and so on. At first, the competition wasn’t too bad. There were games like Korean-style keepie uppie (with a little puck-like object with short, tinselly streamers attached), tug-o’-war and a race carrying a balloon wedged between two people’s backs.

Then, after dinner, it became seriously annoying, and not a little sinister. The noraebang was also a competition, not of talent, but of enthusiasm. Teams were awarded rubber apples for cheering and dancing. Earlier, after about an hour of resistance, I’d finally caved in to Min-seon’s request (ie, demand) that I perform a song for the team. As Ji-hyeon explained, it wasn’t about skill – nor evidently about personal choice – but about showing that one is a team player. I eventually sang ‘I Want to Break Free’ – badly, hating myself and everyone and everything. Somehow, I won the team ten points – a victory that felt utterly fraudulent.

Eventually, I felt able to leave the noise and activity and go to bed. The night was perhaps the worst part of the two days. There was not a time when there weren’t people up and talking – loudly – in the next room. And, of course, I had to share a room with a bunch of the other men – some of the snoring was terrible. Worst of all, a guy who was sleeping near me periodically ground his teeth. I’ve experienced this once before – at a hostel in Ottawa – and it’s far worse than the loudest snoring. Snoring is annoying, but ultimately natural and understandable, but grinding one’s teeth is just wrong. It doesn’t even sound like hard objects like teeth grinding together; it sounds like hard, wet rubber being firmly squeezed and rubbed.

Throughout the night I gave this guy – one of the salesmen – sharp nudges to jar him out of it. Later on, he even moved his futon so he was lying right next to me. He rolled on to mine a few times so I firmly pushed him back.

At around seven o’clock I went for a walk along the concrete lanes through the rice paddies. The air was thick with mist – which burnt off gradually through the morning. There were hundreds of dragonflies around, buzzing through the air singly or, occasionally, coupled with mates, or perching on plants or twigs, heads cocking. I found a little frog on a leaf; it was light green, the colour of the rice in the mist. Closer to the pensions there were grasshoppers in the grass – green ones and brown ones – and dark frogs that hopped away so quickly that I could barely make them out. As I was reading in the food tents before breakfast I saw a family of cats – three adults, two toms and a bitch with an unusual pale grey and white marbled patterning, and three or four active kittens whose coats didn’t match the adults at all.

There was a little free time after breakfast when the men who had been up all night were given some time to sleep – some of them were still talking, though. Strangely, I didn’t feel all that tired in the morning. The games started up again. This time they included dodgeball – in the rain. Clearly, the idea of taking a break and going indoors to wait for the weather to improve is beyond Koreans. Instead, everyone has to do what is expected of them. The first game of dodgeball I played with my umbrella up, standing pretty much stationary in a corner – and was completely ignored. Unfortunately, the weather did improve and I was able to put my umbrella away and take part.

Eventually, the competition came to a close. My team, the white team (I wore my white Ask Enquired top with the Union Jack and my England shirt), came second with 34 rubber apples. For this we won 170,000 Korean won. Except we didn’t – Ji-hyeon told me later we’d be bought a meal the following Monday evening. The red team – the owner’s team (not so coincidentally, I assume) – came first with 46 points and received 460,000 – or didn’t receive it.

There was a little shop on the site. I bought three two-litre bottles of water there. The first two times from a lad who spoke English well and charged me 2,000 won. The last time, as we were leaving, from a woman who charged me 1,500. I told her that a boy the previous day had charged me more.

Finally, we were able to leave to go rafting. We arrived at the rafting company’s site and got kitted out with paddles, helmets, life jackets and dayglo rubber slippers. The rafting company’s bus took us to the river. The activity is clearly a popular one – there were hundreds of people there all doing the same thing. On the little stretch of beach as we launched there were four or five other rafts, each with eight or ten (but not nine) passengers launching at the same time.

The rafting was good fun – it made the misery of the previous twenty-four hours just about worthwhile. I’d been rafting once before, also in Korea, though at a different location, with Habiba. Then, the water had been calm and low. This time, in the middle of the rainy season, the river was fuller. There were parts where the current cascaded over hidden rocks where the boat rose and fell alarmingly. The sense of danger was palpable – without a firm grip on the foot loops on the raft’s floor, people would certainly have fallen in.

The river gorge was pretty interesting. There was a water-eroded rock that, from one angle, looked very much like a huge skull with a gaping mouth. Other parts had sheer walls that showed no signs of erosion; instead they were all jagged chunks and blades of rock. These parts had bats’ nests in caves – we could just about hear the chirping of the bats, but we couldn’t see any signs of them.

Throughout the ride, whenever there was a rough bit, Ji-hyeon, who was sitting next to me, translating the guide’s words, would grab my sleeve in a way that was very pleasing to my manly ego (don’t tell Habiba). Later, she counteracted this by pushing me into the water. (In a part of the river near the end of the ride where the guide encouraged/tricked people into taking a dip.) She earlier told me that you weren’t supposed to drink the water because of all the fertilisers in the runoff from the fields that entered the river via numerous waterfalls down the walls of the gorge. I didn’t drink any, I think, but I did inhale a little.

After that, we headed back to the rafting HQ, to drop off our equipment, shower and change. Then we were finally off home. The ride back was quieter than the ride out. Also longer. At the warehouse, everyone got off the bus and into various employee’s cars. I shared the financial director’s car with Ji-hyeon and one other person.

As I said, the rafting was good enough that it made the rest of the trip worth putting up with – just about. In some ways, the idea of a company trip like this is a very good one – it lets people who don’t normally work closely get to know each other, it shows that the owner wants to promote relations with and among his staff. However, the way they implemented it, it felt like a cross between a kindergarten and a prison camp. You must play games. You must sing. You must drink. You must show what a good sport you are. Doing your own thing is not an option.

The Koreans seemed to enjoy it – at least the men. The men’s enthusiasm seemed slightly manic – drink as much as possible, shout as loudly as possible. I think the women were more ambivalent – some of the looks I saw from them were of tiredness and toleration. I don’t think I made a good impression – I probably came across like a sulky teenager – at the age of thirty-four, that’s not terribly becoming. I gather that people made allowances for my lack of enthusiasm because I don’t speak the language, because I’m a foreigner. I wonder if my lack of enthusiasm might signal the beginning of the end of my employment at EducaKorea.

I kind of hope it does. I’ve been thinking lately that I can’t continue with things the way they are. I get up between 7:30 and 8 every weekday morning and sit at a desk from 9, often doing little more than browsing the internet and feeling exhausted. One of the main reasons I came to Korea in the first place was to get away from that. I hate it. It doesn’t seem to suit my biological rhythms. I got up today at 7:45 feeling headachey and a little nauseous from dehydration. I couldn’t face going into work, especially not feeling like that, so I’ve taken a sick day. After another couple of hours sleep I feel fine.

When I broached the subject of quitting or reducing my hours to just my afternoon teaching to Ji-hyeon on Saturday night she was very concerned about my breaking my contract and being penalised. Overly concerned – especially given that Koreans generally don’t regard contracts as little more than the printed version of an verbal, mutable agreement. I find it hard to care.

How to shag

In one of my classes at the moment, I’m doing a book called Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. It’s very good, actually, and it’s full of American slang and colloquialisms. One of the characters is an old baseball player, so there’s mention of ‘shagging fungoes’. A fungo is a ball hit high in the air to give fielders catching practice. To shag means to run and catch or fetch the ball.

I have to make vocabulary lists for my classes, and my definition for shag was ‘to chase and fetch’. I should have been specific about the nature of the thing that is chased and fetched because my student for that class wrote, as her practice sentence, ‘The police officer shagged the buglar [sic].’

Categories: Employment

Legality and other matters

A couple of weeks ago I returned to the Immigration office in western Seoul to pick up my passport and Alien Registration Card. Everything was in order. My registration number is the same as my previous one, which makes me think it might be the same one I got the first time I came to Korea all the way back in 2006.

I’ve been kept busy at work, but I finally managed to clear the backlog of proofreading that had built up in my absence. This allowed me to finish the first draft of the workbook I’d been writing. I’ve now got another pile of proofreading to do.

I don’t mind working while I’m at work, but, with effectively nine to seven working hours plus up to an hour and a half travel time every day, I do yearn for a bit of downtime.

My colleagues in the Learning Center at work had a meeting with our boss at the end of last week that left them feeling shitty. The boss told them that we shouldn’t ask for any more support for the Learning Center. The way my colleagues told me about it made it seem that the boss had just denigrated everything we were working for. In disgust at this attitude, they cancelled Friday’s classes, making up an excuse about the electrics being tested.

I don’t know what to think about this, really. I just want to do my job. The problem is that I have two jobs – one teaching, one on the Contents team, writing and editing. I don’t have enough time to do both fully, and the boss’s message seemed to make it clear that my primary concern should be the Contents work – and to hell with the teaching.

In other news, now that spring has sprung Habiba and I have been keeping ourselves busy at weekends with stuff. We went on a hike to Cheonggyesan with a couple of other people. Cheonggyesan is just south of Seoul near Seoul Grand Park. It was OK, but the mountain isn’t as interesting as others. The highlight was stopping at Cheonggyesa, the Buddhist temple, on the way down. There’s a massive sculpture of a sleeping Buddha made of smooth, head-sized rocks set into cement.

The next day we went to Yeouido, the ‘island’ where the National Assembly and the 63 Building are located (I say ‘island’ because its separated from the mainland only by a narrow stream). The road surrounding the Assembly building on the Han River side is lined with cherry trees, and they were in full bloom. The weather was grey, but it was still nice – apart from the huge crowds that were also there to take in the sight.

Yesterday, Habiba, I and Habiba’s friend Jessica went on a Korea Foundation Volunteer Network monthly culture class. We went to Bukchon, an area near the main palace – Gyeongbokgung – and the presidential residence – the Blue House, or Cheongwadae. This neighbourhood is full of traditional Korean houses called hanok, coffee and tea shops, fashion boutiques and a handful of museums.

Our first port of call was a small hanok compound preserved as a museum-cum-culture centre. There, we tie-dyed handkerchiefs in indigo dye. This was a lot of fun. We were each given a white handkerchief and a bunch of elastic bands. We bound the former with the latter and, wearing rubber gloves, dunked them into large bowls of fermented indigo. This dye was warm, green and stinky, although not too obnoxious. Once exposed to the air, the handkerchiefs started to turn blue. I screwed mine into a ball for a cloudy, marbley effect; Habiba made a check pattern; and Jessica’s was something else entirely.

After that we were separated into teams and we had lunch with the two Korean guys who we were grouped with. After that, we walked around Bukchon for a while. I imagine we’ll be heading there again so Habiba can drool over clothes and jewellery. Not literally. Probably.

Today, we have plans to go and see Kick Ass. Again. We saw it on Friday night with a bunch of Habiba’s colleagues. It was – well, it was kick ass. So good, in fact, that we made plans to see it again with a different group of friends.

Down and out in Osaka

On my first Saturday in Japan, I didn’t do a whole lot. Walked around for a few hours (again), heading up to Namba Station and not finding much there apart from a big golden concert hall or something. The weather was also crappy – overcast and spitting on and off.

On Sunday, the weather was extremely pleasant, so I took advantage of the bicycles for hire at the hotel and rode to Osaka Castle. The central keep is a ridiculously beautiful building sitting in the middle of two concentric moats. Except for the keep, the whole area is open to the public free of charge and constitutes a very nice park.

The keep is a museum and costs ¥600 to get in (that’s about £5). The museum isn’t terribly interesting – nor does it seem at all like the inside of a castle, apart from the cramped, square layout – but the top floor has a balcony all the way around which gives some good views of the city.

On Monday, I went to see Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which – apart from being ridiculously expensive (about £15) – was entertaining and an interesting update of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Robert Downey, Jr doesn’t look at all like Sherlock Holmes, but still he did a decent job. The Holmes on display here was very childish in some ways; he also like to spend time bare-knuckle fighting between cases. Both facts are, if you think about it, realistic elaborations on the character.

On Thursday, I spent a bit of time in a shopping mall near Namba Station (when I explored that area on Saturday I completely failed to find the main shopping area – basically because there are two Namba Stations) called Namba Parks. It’s a very modern building consisting of two parallel wings and not a single straight line in sight. As shopping malls go, it’s very pleasant. There are several bridges from one side to the other of the eight storey structure, most with a few seats. People seem to use them to take it easy for a while, read and so on. So that’s what I did, The Gathering Storm on my lap.

Also on Thursday I heard from my colleagues that I might get my visa issuance number on Friday. We were hoping for it on Thursday, which would have meant I could have been home on Saturday, but, in the event, it came on Friday and this meant that with one day’s processing time, I could make it back to Korea until Tuesday. Saturday the 20th of March was the vernal equinox, so the Japanese had a day off on Monday in lieu of that.

I needed to get some more money and book a few extra days at my hotel. The place I’d been staying at, Hotel Raizan South had no rooms free on the Saturday, so I asked in some of the neighbouring hotels and ended up at the Shinbashi in a slightly more expensive room (¥2500 a night). I tried both my Korean bank card and my Lloyds TSB credit card in a few cash machines I found in the nearby Tennoji area, but with no joy. On Friday morning, after I’d moved to the new hotel, I set out to find a Post Office, which I’d discovered accepted MasterCard cards. I was helped by a greeter at a bank called MUFG (which doesn’t stand for Manchester United Football Glub – but which does stand for Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group).

For the rest of my time in Japan I concentrated on finishing The Gathering Storm, uploading photos to my Flickr page and not spending too much money … no more Starbucks for me (until Tuesday, when I found I had a yen to burn). I dined regularly at a place called Yoshinoya, which serves simple rice and beef dishes, with side dishes if you pay extra; I also ate a lot of ramen and a fair number of bananas (which I found at a cheap little greengrocer, and which Habiba doesn’t let me eat at home).

On Tuesday, I checked out of the Shinbashi at half nine and headed up to Namba. I was expecting to collect my newly envisaed passport from the consulate at one thirty and then to have to hurry to the airport to catch a flight at three fifty-five. That wouldn’t leave a lot of time to get from the city centre to Osaka Kansai.

However, I got messages from my colleagues in the morning saying that they’d spoken to the consulate staff and asked them to hurry my application. I was told I could pick up my passport at eleven and that I should ‘thank’ the woman who was dealing with my application (the inverted commas are mine). Andrew explained helpfully that I didn’t need to tip her or anything, just make sure I thanked her because she was doing us a favour. I texted back to say, So I don’t need to have sex with her, then. Andrew replied, Well, you’ve got some extra time to kill now. …

Anyway, I ‘thanked’ the visa woman right there in the consulate front office (I’m using the literal meaning of ‘thank’ … meaning I said, Thank you. … Just in case there was any confusion). And my new visa, the third I’ve had for Korea, was there in my passport all present and correct. I wandered around for a bit, bought a couple of things for Habiba (a pair of jars of Thai food paste, a dark Toblerone and some random Japanese snacks). At the airport I bought myself some presents – four tiny, nearly spherical waving cat figures.

And then I flew home to Korea.

All in all, it was a pretty tedious trip. I was minutely worried about the success of my visa application, but mostly I was just concerned about spending oodles of money. However, you can’t complain too much about having nearly two weeks off work. (Although I now have a pile of proofreading to do.) I still need to go to the Immigration office and pick up my Alien Registration Card and my workplace has to register me as a teacher. I also need to get my health insurance up and running – that will be, perhaps, the major benefit of getting my visa sorted out.

Everybody at work made a point of welcoming me back. One of the team leaders – a guy who has very little English but is friendly and likes to try to talk to me – introduced himself to me, as if we were meeting for the first time. I feel that I’ve been a bit distant or grump at work. This is largely due to still being tired from the trip disrupting my circadian rhythm, but I think there’s also an element of being emotionally drained by the whole affair.

Hopefully, everything will be back to normal (or better) in the very near future.


Categories: Employment, Life