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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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In the teeth of adversity

17 September 2010 Leave a comment

Several years ago, when I lived in St Helens shortly after finishing university and just before moving to London (where I started this blog and made the decision to come to Korea for the first time), I saw a dentist who told me that I’d been brushing in such a way as to abrade the softer enamel at the gumline. He gave me a few fillings, some at the juncture of some of my teeth and the gum and a couple of cavity fillings. Shortly afterwards, while eating a Tesco bakery cookie, a couple of those fillings between tooth and gum came out; I’m pretty sure I ate some of the filling material. I still had two lower fillings.

That was my last dentist visit until 2008, when I had one of the fillings that previous dentist had given me in the crown of a molar refilled at a dentist in Nowon. A couple of weeks ago I went to another dentist close to where I work for a check-up and to see about getting my abrasions filled again.

Two weeks ago I had a head X-ray and a heavy-duty cleaning. A few nights ago I returned for the abrasion fillings. The having the fillings done was a lot less intense than the cleaning.

The dentist I’ve been seeing is not the cheapest, I think – her clinic is in the wealthy Gangnam district, and I think she specialises in cosmetic dentistry. For instance, she offered to take out one of my lower incisors and re-align the rest. They are pretty crooked and a little too wide to fit the space between the canines, but they have never caused me any problems. I’m sure it would also be very expensive – and who wants three incisors? That would be weird.

Anyway, I had six fillings at 80,000 won a pop – that’s a total of 480,000 KRW (about £260). Although they felt pretty rough and out of place at first, they’ve started to feel a natural part of my mouth. Unlike the ones I got five years ago, it’s hard to even tell they’re there. The older ones aren’t completely flush with the surface of the tooth so they’ve gained a little outline stain over time. The new ones seem much more expertly done, and, although they were expensive, I think they’ll be better value in the long run. Bloody NHS dentist.

One of the nurses at the clinic instructed me on cleaning my teeth. Over the last few days I’ve been implementing a new tooth-brushing technique: rolling the bristles of the brush from gum to tooth, doing each jaw separately. It’s tricky and can be a strain on the forearm muscles, but it does the trick. Actually, my rear-most molars feel cleaner than they did previously after brushing with a simple up-and-down motion.

Shortly after I had my check-up and cleaning, Habiba also saw a dentist – one close to her work. She’s now got an extra filling and two gold crowns on her molars. Last week, the drilling and fitting of temporary crowns was very stressful for her, but this week, after some teething problems with one of the crowns, things have been much easier on her. She has her last appointment first thing tomorrow morning to have her second crown permanently cemented in place.

Shouldering the burden

5 September 2010 Leave a comment

Several weeks ago I started having some pain in my right shoulder. It didn’t seem to have been caused by anything. It’s been coming and going to various degrees since then; one of the worst times was on a weekend hiking trip a few weeks ago when I didn’t have much alternative but aggravate it by wearing my backpack.

Shortly after that trip I went to see a doctor about it. The doctor very painfully probed and squeezed my shoulder with his strong fingers. Then he used a couple styluses with needles in the tips, pressing them a short distance apart on various parts of my shoulder and upper arm. When I asked him what he was doing he replied with difficulty (and some help from one of the other clinic staff members) that it was something to do with an electrical current. He said I’d torn a ligament and prescribed me some pills.

In the short term, the treatment reduced the pain, but it came back.

A couple of weeks ago I went to an orthopaedic hospital near where I work. Again, English was a problem, and I couldn’t communicate much more than the fact that I’d had this shoulder pain for a couple of months. I had a series of X-rays, was diagnosed with a sprain and then was prescribed five days of pills (Korean doctors always prescribe handfuls of pills) and physiotherapy.

Habiba has been doing physiotherapy for some time. Her regime consists of lots of physical exercises – stretching, weights and so on. My physiotherapy involves lying on my back doing nothing for 40 minutes. The last four weekdays I went to one particular clinic at the hospital which consists of about ten beds separated into individual booths. I lie for 20 minutes with an electric blanket thing heating my shoulder. Then I have some ultrasound – a nurse daubs the top of my shoulder with jelly and rubs the ultrasound device on the muscle there. Then I have fifteen minutes of electrotherapy. About three little paddles are placed under my shoulder and send pulses of electricity into my muscles, causing them to tense up.

I finished my five-day course of medication and my shoulder is better than it was, but there’s still a tiny bit of discomfort there. I consciously and subconsciously avoid doing things that agravate it – like putting my right hand up behind my back to clean or scratch it, opening doors with my left hand, trying not to carry my computer around too much, doing push-ups.

So far my shoulder hasn’t been a problem, but I’m a little worried that it might get worse again. I suppose I’ll have to continue to avoid aggravating it.

Habiba’s father

Habiba’s parents recently bought some land at the Abode (a Sufi community in New York State) and sold their house. They moved into a room at the Abode and began preparing to build a new home. Last week, Habiba’s father was cutting down trees and three trees fell at the same time. One of them hit him before he could get clear. Habiba’s mum was there and called for an ambulance. Sydney, or Ramana, to use his Sufi name, had broken two vertebrae and a few other bones.

We were told about this on Tuesday morning by Habiba’s brother, Vakil. We were preparing for work and Habiba had had a message to get in touch overnight. Habiba was in tears as Vakil explained what had happened and what was happening. I held her as she listened. I’m sure the sorrow and helplessness I felt was just a fraction of what Habiba was feeling. Although what had happened was terrible, I think, for a moment, Habiba was expecting Vakil to deliver the worst news.

Fortunately, the worst news didn’t, and hasn’t come. Ramana was taken to a hospital in Albany where he was operated on and kept unconscious for a couple of days to help his body start to recover. It’s been a week now and he remains in a critical state, but he is slowly starting to show signs of improvement. He is often conscious now, but he has been unresponsive and uncooperative – probably because of the drugs he’s on causing disorientation, but also, we think, because of anger and depression.

Ramana’s prognosis is that he will probably recover, but be paralysed from the chest down. It’s very difficult to say with any certainty, though; things could get a lot better or a lot worse.

The past week has been emotional and stressful for Habiba (and this hasn’t been helped by the fact that we both have bad colds – and I have conjunctivitis again). If there’s one thing Habiba dislikes about living in Korea it’s feeling isolated from her family and friends. Last week’s accident has emphasised that in a pretty horrible way. She has been spending a lot of time on Skype with not just her immediate family, but with many of her friends as well. Everyone’s been very supportive.

Of course, everyone’s efforts at support have been aimed at Habiba’s dad, and there seems to have been a lot of support there for him. Habiba’s brother and sister both flew in from different parts of the US to spend time with him. The Sufi community has set up a committee to help Anne-Louise, or Noorunisa, sort out care, insurance, accommodation and so on. Some of Habiba’s friends are talking about putting on a benefit concert. Someone set up a web page to coordinate information and messages of support.

At first, Habiba didn’t want to make plans to return home. It just wasn’t a clear cut decision. He had been terribly, nearly fatally, injured, but he had survived and was being cared for. He was (and is still) in the hands of the health professionals, and will be for some time. She and I would have had to pay an awful lot to fly over there, and then it would only be for a short time – any longer and we’d lose our jobs (in some respects, that’s something I wouldn’t mind too much). Then we decided, Habiba reluctantly, to cancel our Mongolia trip and go for that week in mid-August.

Then on Sunday night, as Habiba was talking to her mother, she decided that she wanted to go as soon as possible. I’d already thought she would, but I didn’t want to push her. So, yesterday, my colleague Andrew helped me book a couple of tickets for us. We leave tomorrow, Wednesday the 9th of June and fly back on Saturday the 19th (really Friday night) and arrive back in the early hours of Sunday morning. Our flight out to JFK airport takes 14 hours, but we arrive only an hour after we leave – because time zones and all that stuff. The two tickets cost over $3,600 – money that Habiba doesn’t have, but I still have most of my savings from my last two years in Korea.

Habiba has talked a lot about her family, her friends and the Abode a lot in the past – now I’m finally going to see many of them. It’s terribly sad that it’s in such circumstances.

Categories: Health & Exercise, Life

Stuff

As of right now, I’ve been to four taekwondo classes since I started again. After having a lot of pain in my legs, from overstretched hamstrings and bruised shins, I’m feeling OK now. The classes are pretty good. After warming up, there’s a good and varied amount of training – of the kind I mentioned last time.

I’m having a few minor doubts, though. There’s only one teacher – and for the Koreans this is no problem because the class isn’t that big. But for me it means that the sabeomnim can’t take time out to help me without neglecting the others. At my previous dojang there were often as many as four sabeomnims training the students. My pre-taekwondo writing didn’t go well too well on Thursday (Friday was a national holiday – Buddha’s birthday). I was too tired to concentrate – I was falling asleep. I got a little bit of work done on my current story before I knocked it on the head. Then I went home and shared a private moment with Habiba. If you know what I mean. And I’m sure that you do.

The story I mentioned is now up to about 3,500 words and is shaping up to be pretty much what I wanted it to be (which doesn’t always happen). It will take a lot more work before it’s finished, though. I might have a first draft done in two or three weeks.

Yesterday, as I mentioned, was a public holiday, so Habiba and I along with Ksan went to a beach near Incheon Airport – Eulwangni Beach. The airport is on an island to the west of Seoul. I went to a similar place about a year and half ago with Botond. It was nice. The weather was hot, although hazy and gradually increasingly overcast; the breeze off the Yellow Sea (which Koreans call the West Sea) was cool. We just sat on sheets on the sand along with hundreds of other people and picnicked on cucumber, nuts and chocolate. We played some Uno, read, chatted. At one point Habiba and I took a walk to the receding waterline where we found that the water was surprisingly chilly. Only a few kids braved the gentle waves.

As Bo and I had done in 2008, we caught a bus to the airport, had a coffee there and took the airport railroad home. It’s a bit slower than taking an express bus, but only about half the price.

In political news, the new Con-Lib government is bedding down. Nick Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister – which is regarded as something of a joke position. If I remember rightly, the post was created for John Prescott, himself one of the most severely satirised politicians of the New Labour era. But Nick Clegg has some big tasks on his plate, especially from a Liberal Democrat point of view – reform of the whole political system. If the coalition government survives, he’s going to bring in legislation for a referendum on changing the voting system, reducing the number of MPs, having fixed term parliaments, introducing a wholly or partly elected House of Lords.

It’s an exciting time to be a Liberal Democrat, but also a very dangerous one. If the coalition breaks down, forcing a new election – perhaps because Lib Dems can’t support certain Conservative policies – Lib Dems may well be punished. We might not even see any progress at all towards that totem of Lib Dem ideology, proportional representation. Lots of Tories and Labour MPs don’t want any change, and the only new system that is on offer is one that Lib Dems don’t like.

That said, the signs seem pretty good so far. David Cameron are the same age and have the same background. A lot has been said about how the two parties share the same economically liberal ideas. Cameron has been talking about bringing in a new style of politics. It certainly seems like the leadership of both parties are in earnest about making the deal work. There will be problems, I’m sure, some of them big ones – but hopefully not dealbreakers. The next few years should be interesting. I’ll have to make more effort to get my vote in next time round, especially for any referendum on electoral change.

Taekwondo it again

After a few weeks of thinking about it, I finally started going to taekwondo classes again last week. I stopped going to taekwondo last year when I lost my job and moved in with Habiba. In the ten months or so that I’d attended up in Nowon I got up to blue belt. It was good exercise, but I never really felt that I was becoming proficient in self-defence (if I really wanted to do that I should have done hapkido instead).

Early last week, I promised to look round our area here in Sangwangshimni to look for a dojang, but it was Habiba’s friend Jade who found me a place to train – a choice of places to train, in fact. On Wednesday, I went along to Dongmyeong Cheyukgwan to sign up for classes. They run five days a week, but I’m only going to do three – from 9:30 to 10:30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

The Gwanjangnim – master – doesn’t speak any English (to speak of), but I talked to him in my limited, halting Korean and managed to tell him a bit about myself and my experience.

The following day, I packed my dobok – uniform – before I left for work. When I finished work, I went to a restaurant near EducaKorea for dinner, then to Starbucks to do some writing (I have a new short story I’m working on and I’m trying to put in a fair bit of work on it – with my taekwondo classes starting at 9:30, I have a good excuse to put in an hour or so at least three times a week), then headed towards home for taekwondo.

The first class went pretty well. We did some warming up first – not as much as I used to do in Nowon – then some more formal exercises where you kick, kick, kick your way across the training hall and then back, then more kicking practice – this time with the teacher – sabeomnim – holding these kind of tennis racquet-shaped pads for you to strike. One of the more interesting of these latter exercises was running at a padded section of wall, jumping on to it, kicking off with one foot and then kicking the pad held by the sabeomnim, who is standing to one side.

Towards the end of the class, I was given instruction in how to straighten my dobok. I didn’t really understand what was going on at first, but it was evidently just a bit of humour. First you pull up your collar, then tug the bottom of your dobok top in various ways; the procedure ends with pulling your belt tight.

The sabeomnim has a very deep, raspy voice; he sounds like he’s been up screaming all night. He doesn’t speak any English, either, but I have a translator – a young guy whose English name is Gabriel (pronounced with a short a sound). He speaks near-perfect English and told me that he’d studied golf in the Philippines for a year and was planning to study taekwondo at university in Australia. For the moment, he doesn’t do anything so he has lots of time to practise. The dojang isn’t nearly as big as the one in Nowon – probably less than half the size – so there are much fewer students – sixteen, tops.

The day after my first class, my hamstrings were very uncomfortable – I had a small stab of pain every step I took. In Friday’s class, we started off with some football as our warm-up exercise and later did quite a lot of sparring.

This was a bit intimidating – with one exception besides myself, all the other students are black belts, and I’m sure I’ve regressed a lot since attaining blue belt – but it was also not too difficult. The other students were a little bit scared by me, I think (they’re mostly children with only one or two others as old as Gabriel (18 or 20)) so they certainly weren’t laying into me or anything. We were wearing chest pads, so there was little risk of injury in that area.

However, the next day, I felt some fierce aftereffects. In addition to my stiff hamstrings, I now had some painful bruises on my shins. Walking was really quite difficult. It’s now Sunday and I’m still feeling creaky and uncomfortable. Hopefully, things will be a little better when I return on Tuesday. On the other hand, I seem to remember that my hamstrings hurt for a couple of weeks when I first started doing taekwondo.

I’m sure it’s all for the best.

Categories: Health & Exercise

An up and down weekend

28 October 2009 Leave a comment

And I mean that in a literal way. (Perhaps also a figurative way – who knows?)

On Saturday I joined my friend Botond on an excursion with a mountain biking club. We went to a mountain near Bundang, south of Seoul. The group consisted of around twenty foreigners, mostly from North America, but including a Kiwi and a Malaysian (who sounded like Arnold Schwartzenegger, bizarrely). Almost everyone was wearing lycra or fleece with short cargo pants.

I felt out of place in my jeans and sweater – but I don’t really have any even vaguely sporty clothing. I also don’t have a bike, so I was loaned one for the day – a blue mountain bike known as the ‘loaner’. Or possibly ‘loner’ – who knows?

The ride involved a lot of going uphill – either riding or walking – and it was very tiring; especially once we hit the second part of the ride. I’ve ridden bikes on three occasions so far this year, which brings the total number of times I’ve ridden a bike since I was a teenager up to … about three.

In addition to my relative lack of skill, the bike was hard to get the hang of. The seat started off very high, and the gears were unusual. There was a ring around the bar just inside each handle, which you twisted to change gears. It took me a long while to remember which way was up and which down. Plus it was fairly easy to turn them accidentally while trying to simply grasp the handles.

Towards the end of the long, tiring ride, I started to get the hang of things, and to build confidence when it came to going down fairly steep, narrow, uneven forest tracks, and going fast. And, where you get a nice, relatively level stretch of path, it can be quite fun to whizz along, not pedalling (if possible).

At the end, there was a small barbecue held in the middle of the large car park for the nearby lake and spa (in the water at the edge of the lake was a large bungee-jumping tower). I was drained, so I didn’t feel up to much socialising. But I think it (mountain biking) may be something I’ll try again sometime.

 

Categories: Health & Exercise, Travel