Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

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.


First Amendment undermined

US anchorman Keith Olbermann presents an essay on the controversy over the planned ‘mosque’ (it isn’t a mosque) ‘on’ (it’s a few blocks away from) the site World Trade Center in New York. His words are incredibly potent and percipient, and highlight the danger of the world’s most powerful nation turning into the kind of state it has taken up a crusade against.

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.

R Scott Bakker’s No-Dogma Dogma

Skimming Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist today, I found some information on R Scott Bakker’s next book, The White-Luck Warrior, which I eagerly await. Said information was in a post on the author’s own WordPress blog, Three Pound Brain (beloved of zombies everywhere). His post concludes with a list of principles he regards as self-evident, and which resonate strongly with my own opinions. Bakker’s ‘No-Dogma Dogma‘ is:

1) Not all claims are equal.

2) The world is ambiguous because it is supercomplex.

3) Humans are cognitive egoists. We are hardwired to unconsciously game ambiguities to our own advantage – to make scripture out of habit and self-interest.

4) Humans are theoretical morons. We are hardwired for groundless belief in invisible things.

5) The feeling of certainty is a bloody pathological liar.

6) Science is a social cognitive prosthetic, an institution that, when functioning properly, lets us see past our manifold cognitive shortcomings, and produce theoretical knowledge.

7) Contemporary culture, by and large, is bent on concealing the fact of 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Numismatics. Oldmismatics

3 April 2008 3 comments

While I’m a bit of a news junky, it’s not often that something in the news surprises me. Today saw the unveiling of the new designs for UK coins (except the £2 coin). Despite the fact that the competition to find the new designs was launched in 2005 I had no idea that such moves were afoot (or a-hand or a-any other body part).

I like these new reverses, though. The penny through 50p piece show details from the Shield Royal of Arms, while the pound coin shows the Shield in its entirety. They look like this:


as opposed to the previous Emblems of Britain designs which look like this:

Emblems of Britain Coins

The concept of the new design is an interesting and pretty groovy idea, but individually they’re likely to seem rather odd. The old designs – like every other coin in the history of coinage – were self-contained; each of the new coins refers to and can only be appreciated in relation to the others. You might even say these are post-modern coins.

According to the Royal Mint website for the new coins, the reason for the change is simply that there hasn’t been a change of design recently – since decimalisation in 1971, in fact. This seems a rather weak excuse for such a radical overhaul – and isn’t entirely true, as our coins have been evolving continuously throughout the subsequent period.

For my non-British listeners, there now follows a synopsis of modern UK coins (and the Brits among you might learn a thing or two, as well).

1966 Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, announces the end of Imperial currency.

1968 5p and 10p pieces are released to circulate as shilling and two-shilling coins, whose dimensions they mirror.

1969 50p piece – the world’s first equilateral curved heptagonal coin – is issued.

1971 ½p, 1p and 2p coins are issued on 15 February, marking the advent of decimalisation.

1982 20p piece – another equilateral curved heptagon – is introduced. The word ‘NEW’ on coin designs is replaced with the value of the coin (ie, ‘NEW PENNY’ becomes ‘ONE PENNY’).

1983 £1 coin is issued; the pound note is withdrawn the following year.

1984 ½p is withdrawn.

1990 New 5p piece, smaller than its predecessor, is introduced.

1992 New, smaller 10p coin enters circulation.

1997 New, smaller 50p piece replaces its older incarnation. The bi-metallic £2 coin is minted, but does not enter circulation until the following year.

2008 New designs, based on the Shield of Royal Arms enter circulation.

As I said, I like the new designs, but I also like the old ones (apart from having the face of a hereditary head of state on it – but that isn’t changing, and is a different issue, besides). I’m a little torn between the instinct for change and the instinct for conservation, but at least it’ll give me new things to collect.

Categories: Miscellaneous, Thoughts

So long and thank you, India

26 January 2008 Leave a comment

India, Day 46 – Delhi

As I noted yesterday, a taxi to the airport ought to cost 225 rupees (according to Lonely Planet, anyway). This morning, the Indian currency I had left came to 325 rupees in paper money, and 6 rs in coinage. A driver accosted me at the end of Pahar Ganj Main Bazaar and offered to take me for 300; I said OK. I sat in front of his shop while he went off to presumably get his taxi. After a minute or so, I though, Bugger this, and walked over to the taxi stand at the railway station.

The driver who intercepted me there wanted 450 rupees. I started to haggle, and he said something about a new toll. He seemed to accept my offer of 325, laughing when I showed him my remaining cash. He made a point of mentioning the toll, implying that it was incredibly expensive, once we were underway. The taxi went on to an elevated highway – evidently new. The toll point at the other end had a sign displaying the prices for various types of vehicle; I think cars were 7 rupees.

At the entrance to Terminal 2 of Indira Gandhi International Airport, it looked very much like I’d have to queue to even get into the building. There just happened to be a lot of people going into one entrance; I entered elsewhere (a guard looked at my flight details first). The interior here wasn’t terribly impressive – partially under construction and generally a bit aged and grotty; the long ceiling panels were warped.

I found the Emirates counter, then had to backtrack a little and have my backpack scanned and tagged. Then I checked in. I had a bout a litre of water with me, so I hung around drinking that before going through security. There was a bit of a wait here, but the process was reasonably painless – I’d transferred the contents of my pockets to my laptop case. The guard who scanned me told me, ‘It will be better for you if you take off your shoes.’ So I did.

Currently there are about twenty minutes until boarding starts at 10:35 – but I’m sure that won’t start on time. Feeling a little hungry, but I’ll survive.

I’m happy to be heading back to Britain (for however long), but has my trip to India been a success? There’s no Yes or No answer to that – in fact, even Yes and No probably isn’t accurate. While my original plan of three months in the country hasn’t come to pass, a) I’ve been here for a month and a half and that’s not bad, and b) I always had an inkling that I might change my plans partway through – at least, I was always aware that it was a possibility.

The pivotal moment was just after New Year’s. I’d had a really good time with the two American chaps at the New Year’s party – better, really, than I’d expected. Consequently, all the shitty aspects of travelling in India were thrown into (the now legendary) stark relief. I got depressed – too depressed than I ought to have. By the time I got to Delhi I was feeling pretty positive again. The whole sequence of up-down-up was almost bi-polar in its intensity. I think I made about the right decision to come home now; I could have borne a little longer, but three months would have been pushing it.

I’ve visited Delhi, Agra (and Fatehpur Sikri), Lucknow, Varanasi (and Sarnath), Goa (including Margao, Colva and Old Goa), Trivandrum and Mumbai. I probably should have at least gone to Jaipur as well, but I’ve seen a fair old slice of India. I’ve started writing (thank you, Drew). I didn’t do any yoga (my apologies, Savasana) – but I may well look into that in the future. I’ve taken a shit-load of photographs. I’ve kept my blog. I’ve seen one of the world’s most famous buildings (the Taj Mahal) and been on one of its most famous rivers (the Ganges). I’ve learnt more about the world, and, more importantly, about myself (about things I can and can’t tolerate, and how to deal with them … or not, as the case may be).

So, actually, I’m going to spin this as a successful journey. Just not amazing. But then, nothing I do is ever amazing.


Boarding was a slow process. When the queue finally got moving (no section by section announcements here), my hand baggage tag was checked by someone, then a guard looked at my boarding pass and bag tag, then an attendant took the pass and gave me back the stub, then someone else checked the stub and my passport. The plane took off about fifty minutes after it was scheduled to. It was all very Indian.

Categories: Thoughts, Travel


Why is freedom so confusing?

Now I’m safely in Delhi – and I have the prospect of an easy exit – I’m feeling a whole lot more positive. So much so that I can consider staying on longer. Not for another two months, but long enough to go down south and see how it differs from the north (I’ve heard and read that it’s an awful lot more relaxed than the tourist hotspots here). So at the moment I’m not sure. I don’t want to keep flogging a dead horse, subjecting myself to something I don’t enjoy, but I also don’t want to cave in when the going gets tough.

If you’ll allow me to be self-analytical, I’ll say that it may all be to do with me being a fantasist – in more ways than one. Imaginary reality is so much better than real reality. Putting it another way, while I have a lot of negative tendencies, I am, deep down, an optimist – strange as that may seem. Or maybe I’m just naive. Who knows? Self analysis is like a fingertip trying to touch itself, like an eye trying to look at itself.

I’ve been in India a month (nearly) – and that’s not a bad stint in such a challenging country. A reasonable compromise may be to change my flight to the end of January and book all my train travel for southerly areas in advance (worry and procrastination about travel has been perhaps the major headache).

I never got round to mentioning (until now) that I’ve had a cold. I’m still a little bit snotty, but it’s mostly done with now. As well as being inevitable when you travel abroad for any length of time, it seems such a trivial matter compared with everything else.

Categories: Life, Thoughts, Travel