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Home and away – and home again

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

I finished watching Prison Break on the ferry over to Korea. It got silly towards the end, in the sense that the writers seemed to have added so many plot threads that it became impossible for them to resolve them in a sensible, self-contained fashion. So (warning – spoilers follow), with Lincoln now trying to retrieve Scylla for the Company, working against Michael, and Michael recovering from brain cancer and working against his mother, a greedy, calculating Company operative who wants to sell Scylla for big money and is willing to kill to bump up the price, with Don Self gone renegade for no good reason other than it ups the drama quotient, with T-Bag toadying up to whoever holds the whip hand, with the FBI finally appearing to do something about all the mayhem, with agents for buyers for Scylla wandering in from the cast of Lost and being rapidly killed off, the hand of the writers intervenes to resurrect Paul Kellerman (killed off in season two) to solve everyone’s problems and hand the magic hard drive over to the UN. The denouement worked nicely, though.

Then (warning – spoilers continue) episodes 23 and 24 saw Sara imprisoned for the murder of Michael’s mother (she shot her in the back as the older woman shot Michael in the shoulder) and the series returned to its original theme – breaking out of prison. And we see how Michael dies. These last two episodes were probably meant to be a whole fifth season and the speed at which the plot flies by and the lack of tension (we already know from episode 22 how everything turns out) make them a damp squib compared to what went before.

I didn’t sleep well on the ferry – lots of rocking and rolling in the literal sense. I did a fair amount of reading. The ferry got in a few hours late, but I had my phone on and charged and Habiba called often for updates. I disembarked and passed through the Quarantine, Immigration and Customs with little problem, walked from the ferry terminal to Dong-Incheon Station and took the subway bakc home.

At home I was finally able to relax a bit in a familiar environment. I laid out everything I’d brought back from China on the table for Habiba’s perusal. She seemed very pleased with her gift – a pair of shiny, colourful bracelets – which I was fearing wouldn’t be quite to her taste. We had a leaving party to go to, but later in the evening we had a chance to (very successfully) try out the sexual position die I’d brought back.

The very next day we had an early start as we were taking a free bus down to Gyeongju a capital of one of the three kingdoms of medieval Korea and site of many tumuli – burial mounds – and other historical structures. We went with Jessica and shared a room at the motel, Nokwonjang, I’d stayed at a year and a half ago. (We had tried to check into a place a little closer to the bus station, but the old ladies working at the ‘Romance Hotel’, wouldn’t allow the three of us to share a room.)

We had a look round one park containing several tumuli – Daereungwon – and the pretty, pavilion-lined pond – Anapji – and east Asia’s oldest observatory – Cheomseongdae – on the Saturday evening. On the Sunday, after breakfasting and checking out and storin our bags at the railway station, we took a bus over to Bulguksa, one of Korea’s most important temples and saw the Dabotap and Seokgatap. The first of which (a pagoda that appears on the 10 won coin) was covered up with scaffolding and screens when I visited Gyeongju in 2009 – so it was satisfying to go and see it in the stony flesh.

Then we had lunch and took a bus up a mountain to Seokguram Grotto, a man-made cave that houses a beautiful statue of Buddha. We paid our four thousand won to enter the site knowing that we would have to be quick to catch the two o’clock bus back to get the free four o’clock bus back to Seoul. After a short walk, we arrived at the entrance to the grotto, but there was a huge queue of people, so we decided we didn’t have time and walked back to the car park. Shame – especially as Habiba and Jessica probably won’t return to this important site. I’d been there before, so I wasn’t heartbroken about it.

After two more bus rides and a taxi ride we were back at the Concorde Hotel in the big hotel area (by which I mean the area of big hotels) a little outside Gyeongju on the shores of a lake, which was our pick-up point for the bus to Seoul. The reason this bus was free was that it’s Visit Korea Year (2010 to 2012 … somehow). And, of course, we weren’t the only ones who wanted to take advantage of the freeness. In Seoul, at least one person had to be turned away; and in Gyeongju, several people were turned away – possibly because they hadn’t obtained tickets – the guide, while he spoke reasonable English, just didn’t express himself very clearly when trying to explain to the people on the bus. This delayed our departure a little, but, by the time we got back into Seoul and off the bus, it was nearly 11:30 – two and a half hours later than advertised. This meant Jessica couldn’t return to her home in Osan, a city south of Seoul, and had to stay at ours and go home in the pre-dawn darkness.

It was a nice enough visit, but the weekend crowds were large and annoying. It’s definitely worth visiting Gyeongju, and it’s also worth going during the week.

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Word of the Day: riparian

ri·par·i·an /rɪˈpɛəriən, raɪ-/

–adjective
1. of, pertaining to, or situated or dwelling on the bank of a river or other body of water: riparian villas.

–noun
2. Law . a person who owns land on the bank of a natural watercourse or body of water.

Origin:
1840–50; < L
rīpāri ( us ) that frequents riverbanks ( rīp ( a ) bank of a river + –ārius -ary) + -an

—Related forms
non·ri·par·i·an,
adjective, noun

Source: Dictionary.com.

The northern border between Korea and China formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers has been recognized by the world for centuries, much longer than comparable borders in Europe, and so one might think these rivers always constituted Korea’s northern limits. In fact, Koreans ranged far beyond these rivers, well into northeastern China and Siberia, and neither Koreans nor the ancient tribes that occupied the plains of Manchuria considered these riparian borders to be sacrosanct.

Source: Korea’s Place in the Sun by Bruce Cumings.

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.

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.

Two goodbyes and one hello

7 September 2010 Leave a comment

It was a socially busy weekend.

On Friday night, Habiba and I went out with Mike, his sister Michelle, Eric and later Demond and Jairius – meeting the latter or the first time. The occasion was Michelle’s last night in the country having visited for a couple of weeks with the intention of finding work here; Seoul turned out not to be for her. We did a little drinking in Hongdae, then went to a noraebang – the big fancy one (whatever it’s called). We were singing for two and a half hours. It had been nearly ten by the time we met up after eating dinner at home and we ended up leaving Hongdae at about four in the morning; it was nearly five by the time we got to bed.

That was the latest either had been out for a long time. We didn’t actually do much drinking, either (I had one cocktail – at a redesigned BricxX – a ‘Naked Canadian’, and one beer), so there were no hangover problems.

On Saturday night, Demond had a leaving dinner and drinks – again at Hongdae. Demond is off to China to teachere for six months before coming back to go to university in Seoul. Habiba and I met him along with Eric, Buzz and a bunch of other people at an Indian restaurant called Agra. Beeb and I shared a tasty chicken vindaloo and a mediocre vegetable curry. Later, we walked to the small park that is a feature of many nights out in Hongdae.

The park is a strange place. It’s mostly paved, with one small area cordoned off by trees and bushes. It’s pretty dirty – it has to put up with hundreds of drunk Koreans and foreigners every night. It has some strange characters – like the makgeolli seller who joyfully gave everyone in our group a free paper cup of the white alcoholic drink beloved of middle-aged Korean hikers – even though we were all like, ‘No, I’m OK, thanks, no … oh, um, OK, then.’

It has a nice atmosphere, though. Especially on Saturday. There were a number of people – maybe twenty – drumming in the secluded side area. The noise made by the djembe drums was impressive and hypnotic. Demond joined in. We listened for maybe an hour. Shortly before, in the main part of the park, Habiba and a couple of the other women our group – including Mary, a South African we met paragliding last year (and who I completely didn’t remember) – danced to accompaniment by Demond and a Korean drummer.

On Sunday, we met Ksan for the first time in a few months, along with her boyfriend Jun-hong. Ksan was studying in Britain – in Durham, to be precise. And also travelling all over the place. Habiba and I went with them to an Uzbek restaurant near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. The meal was very good – we had borscht and shish kebabs (the first lamb I’ve eaten in a very long time – Koreans don’t eat it) and sesame bread, among other things.

Then we went to a couple of exhibitions at the still unfinished History and Culture Park. Firstly – and accidentally, as Jun-hong led us to the wrong place in the pouring rain – a retrospective of world magazines from the last fifty years. Secondly, an exhibition of Korean posters of the last hundred years. Both displays were moderately interesting.

Which reminds me – the previous weekend, we went, with Jessica and June, to an exhibition of work by pop artist Keith Haring. That was a much more fulfilling experience, although waiting to watch the 15-minute documentary with terrible sound wasn’t much fun.

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.

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.