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RE: Visiting The Doghouse & Island Hopping

10 points to anyone who gets the RE: pun.

From left: Aaron (mid-grunt), Lori, Hailey & Meg

So, consistency isn’t going to be the word of the year. As a wholly self-motivated project, this blog will suffer greatly at the hands of procrastination and distraction until somebody pays me for it and, as I have yet to wake up as Stephen Fry, I suspect this is a vain hope.

By golly, winter comes with gusto in Namyangju. While we’ve yet to see any snow per se, I have had my inaugural public appearance in the RAF coat this week, and am now the proud owner of yet another pair of murderer’s leather gloves. Until I see Winter with a capital W (ie. with more white stuff blocking the way anywhere), I remain under the conviction that I am meteorologically cursed to never see snow, regardless of my location. For the time being, nadger-shrinking temperatures will suffice.

The Koreans gave us a wide berth.

Last weekend (he said, realising the heinous delay in his autobiographing) was a cultural and environmental Experience in many ways, both Korean and American; along with fellow foreigners Lori, Hailey and Aaron, we embarked on an adventure to Namiseom (Nami Island), an inland island of spectacular autumnal foliage and antisocial ostriches. More on that later.

Firstly, a revelation: when you’re on the other side of Those Loud Bloody Americans, ie. in their company, it’s actually very, very fun. That is to say, it’s fun to act like a twat with absolutely no social inhibitions. Aaron, stationed in a US Air Force base on the North/South Korea DMZ line, is a veritable artist of explosive noises, and both Meg and I found ourselves grunting along with Aaron and the girls before we’d reached Nami’s shore. The ferry took approximately five minutes.

Lori WAS going to eat that chestnut.

Nami is a paradise arboretum and cultural heritage and, as such, is clogged with the inescapable crowd found anywhere in the country. Of particular interest were the ostrich pens, whereupon one could watch well-meaning individuals trying to feed them skittles and crisp wrappers. The birds, it appeared, were keener on savaging any reachable leather items.

Aaron helped me when in need.

I can’t explain this statue, and won’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love the Korean Beatles.

Regardless of the disgusting amount of soju imbibed that evening, we kept our promise for the following day by returning to the Yangju dog shelter, despite the perpetual rain throughout the day. Major karma points, we felt. The main result of the Sunday? We now have up to three dogs we want to foster.

Happy the Parkour Dog greets us with enthusiasm

This week has brought little in the way of experiences, other than I’ve sent my beloved camera off to the shop for a spring clean (the rubber is all but gone from the grips, and I needed some lens focus tweaking); as a result, I am bereft of imagination and inconsolable at best. Cactus juice helps.

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People & P(a)laces

One cannot claim to have lived in a country until one encounters and, if possible, embraces as many aspects of its culture as possible. In much the same way, airport stopovers and holidays spent on Facebook behind curtains don’t really count. This coming from the man who is currently battling to stop Star Wars: Force Unleashed from crashing on his laptop may seem a tad hypocritical, but at least I can say this food looks delicious in Korean.

I am fairly sure that I am becoming a slightly more socially tolerant person in public – which is to say that, rather than resorting to passive-aggression, I only think nasty thoughts. You can’t live in Korea and expect to maintain your ideals of ‘crowd logic’ (oxymoronic as the term is). Now, whenever somebody blocks the way on/off a train because they’re busy playing Angry Birds or staring at the English couple, or hocks noisily in the street – we go to our Happy Places and imagine hurling gimchi at them.

In terms of more enjoyable cultural experiences, we finally managed to breach Gyeonbukgung Palace, after previously being locked out by sturdy doors. We unconsciously managed to time it so that we arrived during the changing of the guards; a vibrant display of silk, pointy shoes and enough Oriental weaponry to make the Wachowski brothers salivate.

This was sadly marred by the intervention of another person under the misled assumption that we really, really wanted to let Jesus into our trousers. Chruggers (Christianity Muggers) are like the chuggers (Charity Muggers) of Korea – they can’t be avoided, and can’t be deterred by any claims of Judaism – as it turned out. I should have gone with Hinduism or Islam and hopefully been spared the whites of his eyes as he prayed/foamed for Meg and I to turn from Abraham and accept Jesus into our orifices.

The palace, however, is beautiful; never have I been so jealous of royalty as when I pictured wandering regally about the grounds, admiring the distant palace gates and dispatching servants on errands. I have since decided that my life goal is to own a house which requires a workout to traverse.

Meg is in full Twilight mode in preparation for the final movie next week, and it’s starting to influence my lessons. As it turns out, significantly more boys are fascinated with the series than girls – but they still haven’t memorised werewolf, so ‘Hangman’ clues remain a surprise.

Where The Consumers Go Hungry

Holy cow, two posts in as many days! Don’t worry, I don’t think I have nearly as much to say. Rather, I feel I should maintain at least a vaguely consistent writing schedule (my Facebook history shows I can happily go for months on end without even attempting to communicate with the world). Not to say that I don’t check my sites every single day anyway, and/or moan when nobody has contacted me. Logic, fairness and a basic awareness of socio-interactive relationships matter not.

I suppose this entry is inspired mostly from the sad realisation that, while an amazing and blind-mowingly big place, the rumours of Seoul being a Golden Fleece in terms of cheap shopping are mostly justrumours. This is in no way an issue I take with the city; rather, one I take with the Western optimistic fixation on exploiting slightly less-developed countries.

Standard ancient/techno architectural schizophrenia in Seoul.

Take, for example: upturn all the things in your immediate surroundings (finish your ramen first, or you’ll ruin your computer) and the majority will have MADE IN CHINA scribbled on the underside. This is not a little-known fact to anybody who, as a child, demanded such China-made treasures as Power Ranger Mega Zord sets or Natural History Museum dinosaur figurines. EVERYTHING comes from China, and in response it is hailed as a Mecca for anybody wanting a cheap suit/camera/human being for general household chores/mobile phone. (to clarify: we fully intend to hop over to China sometime for some light Western exploitation in the form of cheap suits and cameras. Just so you know where we stand.)

It transpired in a recent conversation with my adult class at school that Samsung and LG, both South Korean companies (this in itself being largely news to me) make no grand statement about their origins – not because of shame or anything so silly, but because the companies are worried that being attached to South Korea will lower international respect for them and raise issues of product quality, etc. . I know for a fact that, if I could have any phone right now, it would be a Samsung Galaxy S3, and I have at least two LG computer accessories I have used on a regular basis. These are not ‘third-party’ companies; they make up about 80% of domestic and corporate appliances in South Korea (phones, air con, computers, kitchen devices etc. etc. etc.), and I’ll bet most of you own something made by either/both of them.

The sheer level of mirrored chrome is as confusing to the eye as it is in the photo, I assure you.

What other kind of douches are there?

As a result, it is both reassuring and, on an immature/spendthrift level, disappointing that most fashion and electronics  cost pretty much the same as anywhere in the developed world – which is to say, entirely out of my reach. Head hung low, I return home and try to fool Korean sites into believing I’m Korean so I don’t get ripped off by sellers. This is difficult when my level of Hangul is easily surpassed by your average household pet.

Having said that, I just got a fabulous haircut for £5 which included a head massage and a complimentary bottle of conditioner. It felt like having my head batted by an enthusiastic and highly trained kitten.

Crowds, Chaos and Recreational Rage

For better or worse, Seoul knows how to collect and transport human beings. Such an enormous space is nonetheless chocka with at least two people per square centimetre or so, and it appears that public gatherings are a true testament to such statistics.

I will apologise in advance, and draw particular attention to the latter part of the title; at present, Meg and I are merrily cursing and castigating the majority of the populace after a particularly intimate day with Personal Space Invaders.

There’s no escaping them, apparently.

I know that, as English natives, we are accustomed to a culture of social aversion to one another, never allowing ourselves to be in the same breathing space as another human. This has its upsides and downsides; while we are free to shuffle and scratch at our leisure, we lose something in human interaction (and are incapacitated when presented with a bus full of half-occupied seats). In Korea, however, space is a luxury, and personal space is relatively mythological.

This was particularly driven home as we embarked across Seoul to a fireworks show this evening. Being the well-prepared things we are, we aimed to be there an hour before the show itself, in order to get a good spot. As we reached the station, however, it became apparent that this was not to be: see photos for reference of the sheer scale of the similarly-minded crowds.

Getting on the train felt like the horizontal equivalent of crushing cardboard boxes with one’s own body weight, or – possibly more literally – like a rugby scrum. We tethered ourselves to a pole in the carriage and made ourselves as small as possible alongside hundreds of others who, quite contrasting with ourselves, seemed surprisingly content with their present lot in life. The heat was equivalent to the metropolitan pit of Hell, yet no shouting/swearing/complaining was to be heard from anyone but ourselves.

On a more positive note, we witnessed an amazing reenaction of the ‘safety guide’ videos otherwise ignored by commuters: a girl who, after failing to rugby-tackle her way into the carriage’s enormous brick of humans, trapped the handles of her bag in the closed doors as the train was about to depart. Two men on either side of her (in the five-second window before the secondary ‘safety doors’ shut on the entire bag/her arm) pulled emergency levers by the door simultaneously, then yanked the bag free before silently retaking their places waiting for the train. No words of exclamation or thanks were exchanged, they just did it. On the Tube in London you’d get laughed at before becoming a YouTube sensation.

Meg, enthused by the train journey.

However.

Arriving at the riverside park, it was obvious that we were not early. The park was swarming, miles across, with locals setting up for the fireworks show. We found a spot roughly 3ft x 4ft on the grass and claimed it for ourselves (ie. Meg passed out and slept on me while I tried to reach my Soju on her other side). An hour later – 35 minutes later than planned – the fireworks start…and we are instantly overrun by a mass of families who seemingly erupt from the earth behind us, kicking my camera out of the way and standing on our food and drink as they completely block our view of the fireworks display in a human Great Wall of Korea. The three minutes of pyrotechnics we saw before giving up and leaving were spectacular, though.

Despite the rabid love of air-con here, there’s a limit to its effectiveness underground…

The last laugh’s on us, though – they had to get home at the same time as two-thirds of Seoul.

There are photos here of our day in Insadong as well, but I’ve spent my energy and creativity ranting again, so am running out of adjectives. It was good. I saw a small dog, and a wooden sword which Meg wouldn’t let me get.

Brief as it was, we LIKED our patch.