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Tag: Guri

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.

Discerning Dinner and Strange Plaices

Octopus. ‘Yum’, I hear you cry.

I’ve had 24 hours to digest now, so I’m fairly sure I’ve escaped the grasping clutches of Tempting Fate.

The grisly remains: the mollusc-like things in the middle were apparently as ‘living’ as the undulating things in the shell.

Last night was an Educational Experience in many ways. Firstly, it is entirely the norm for the director to take out the whole staff (at great expense, I guiltily suspect) to a local restaurant after work. Secondly, it is also entirely normal for the entire group to drink merrily and continuously; I’m still not entirely sure who was meant to be driving, but everyone turned up hale to work today. Thirdly, such merry drinking is rarely, if ever, a good idea the night before teaching, especially when one is expected to live up to one’s energetic expectations in the classroom.

Fourthly and finally, it is apparently customary to ingest food which, over the course of the meal, appears to gradually require less actual heat to prepare in the kitchen. By this, I mean that the last thing I ate actually wriggled in its beautifully-prepared little grave – leaving me with a mixture of guilt, intrigue and hedonistic gluttony. I never even knew its name.

Relatively few worries about the mortality of this fish, at least.

Despite our phobia of consuming anything intestinal, tentacled or still-respiring, I took childish joy in slurrrrping several octopi limbs while Meg eyed me with disgust and rage, clearly having doubts about this man she was stuck with in Tentacleville. Nonetheless, I persisted in my carnivorous endeavours, gleefully downing shellfish with varying levels of consciousness and mobility. We were proudly presented with an enormous, somewhat belligerent plaice which made a heart-wrenching bid for freedom, flapping about the tiles at our feet, before being wrestled to the kitchens by its unsmiling executioner. When next we met, it was on a bed of (as it transpired, artificial and therefore inedible) noodle-like strands, raw and beautifully prepared. I can only hope to have a similar experience when I go.

A pot of, for pathetic English tongues, Unbelievably Hot Stuff.

Dining in Korea, especially with Koreans, is particularly poignant to observe – even if one observes in hindsight, with gochujang still smeared about the mouth. As Westerners, we are particularly prone to the defensive this is MY food attitude towards dining, regularly resorting to wielding utensils as a deterrent to reaching fingers. I know of one particular incident whereby a (otherwise peaceful and lovely) friend of mine defended her pizza from opportunism by burying her fork in her assailant’s tendons, thereby disarming said poacher and saving her dinner. I know that my chopsticks are a barely-discernible blur to spectators when presented with a group-size pan of dak galbi, but this is a result of both my own greed, and my culture’s encouragement of said greed.

(사진= Photo, I believe) – taken by Amy’s phone, featuring (left → right): Eric, myself, Amy, Jun, Meg & Sunny. The pictured beers show that this was the START of dinner.

When eating with others, I realise that is must be a relatively violent scene for them to behold: a smear of sauce across the table, a mumbling and smacking of lips and three people’s dinners are gone. And yet, I found myself defeated by two-thirds of the way through the meal, while the rest of the school hadn’t broken stride in their conversation. Apparently patience is not only a virtue here, it’s a recommended dietary technique. I’m taking notes.

Also, an entirely unrelated but nonetheless bizarre story to end on: yesterday morning, shortly before school started, the staff room was filled with the heartwarming sound of tweeting infant birds. This in itself was not entirely unusual – plenty of trees around – but for the fact that it was coming from a bag in the very confused Sunny’s hands. As it turns out, a young student had decided (without her parent’s knowledge, I gather) to purchase two chicks from just outside the school, casually bringing them in with her. We placed the entirely confused birds under a colander in the kitchen for their stay.

Terrified beyond reason, I believe.

I am duly informed that they were intended as pets, and choose to believe this to be the case.

* A note, for credit/information: the majority of photos in this particular post are mobile-phone pictures taken by either myself or colleagues. Had I actually brought my camera to the seafood slaughter, I would have taken more.

 

 

Tourism and Voyeurism

It is a common psychological trait among blog-writers and Internet authors to assume that, not only are you unbelievably witty and insightful, but that everybody is interested and/or/in paying attention to you. There is a theory about people on the Internet which goes something like this:

THE INTERNET: ANONYMITY + FREE SPEECH = AWFUL PEOPLE

Unbelievably clean. It doesn’t even smell like the Tube.

Just like it’s easier to sound more intelligent in a text than it is when confronted with actual, spontaneous human interaction, it’s easy to come across as quick-witted when you have time to Think Before You Say. Perhaps the egotism of online geeks (myself enthusiastically and unashamedly included) is rooted in the comparative glory of ‘viewer counts’ compared to being largely overlooked by other people in the street; I don’t know. My greatest claim to fame on the ‘Net is a photo of me punching myself in the face.

Not so for a Westerner in Namyangju, it appears.

Being stared at is something we have become accustomed to, as Namyangju is  outside the metropolitan multilingual hub of Seoul and, while there are a damn sight more Koreans who speak English than vice versa in London, the language/cultural barrier is akin to the Berlin Wall. We can mumble hello, thank you, goodbye, where is the toilet but that’s about it in terms of social interaction. Being 6’2 (as my doctor tells me I apparently am, he said smugly despite not knowing it at the age of 23), Caucasian and somewhat bearded is enough to warrant people actually turning on the spot to stare at the back of my unkempt head; in Meg’s case we are told that having naturally wavy hair and sluttishly displaying one’s shoulders to the sun results in envious/outraged stares.

We’re lucky, apparently – while waiting to be called to our table at a restaurant in Itaewon we got talking with an African-American couple, the Williams, who have been living in the same area of Seoul for over a year but are still stared at every single day by the same neighbours, whereas we only receive passing glances for the most part. To quote Mr. Williams: ‘I mean, come on guys – we saw you yesterday, and the day before, and the day before – you know us by now!’

On Chuseok, pretty much the whole undercity is deserted – cue waving arms and running.

Not to say this even slightly prevents our flagrant and disgusting displays of Englishness wherever we go. I suspect I blind people in direct sunlight with my translucent skin.

Note the Cath Kidston-esque treasures.

 

 

 

 

 

I realise that the last few posts have become less a recounting of my experiences and more attempts at profound introspection, and I apologise to family members for this filial transgression. To summarise: we have gone for dinner at aforementioned furniture dealer family’s house and been subjected to smartphone photoshoots avec Chuseok fireworks; we have explored a (real) consumer heart of Seoul, Myeongdong; I have been subjected to round 2 of Boot Camp on the otherwise scenic lake and returned at night tonight for photos and carnivorous insects; we have raided the ‘sample electronics’ sale at Emart and wandered off with an otherwise pristine Canon photo printer for £15 with no small amount of pride.

Still ‘sploring at every opportunity, and picking up around 1 word a week. Slow progress, but on the bright side I now know the words for ‘(restaurant)bill’ – kyesanso – and ‘delicious’ – mashisseyo! Almost as helpful as the oft-used French expression je suis un papillon.

Tomorrow holds another venture into Seoul to try our hands at Namdaemun Market, which may or may not still be entirely closed for Chuseok. If not, I fully intend to smear the windows of as many camera shops as is physically possible, despite the fact that, were I even remotely able to afford said equipment, it would be ethically(/legally/medically) better-spent on repaying the queue of financial favours which got me to this point. One way or another, it should be an exercise in cultural wonderment and disappointment.

How British.

Courtesy of Mr. Ryu’s phone. Just to prove that we are capable of socialising.

 

– On Bigotry and Confucianism.

They guard those cellos with their lives.

Happy Chuseok, everyone! I know you’re all partying already: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuseok

You can feel Meg’s enthusiasm for yet another bloody photo.

So, it’s been another week of blood, sweat and tears in literal amounts; the school has intervened in three otherwise uncommon altercations between students (tears), I have managed to survive the first of my year’s exercise in blistering heat (sweat) – and one of my students absent-mindedly scratched his leg until it bled, prompting all of the other boys in the class to daub their fingers in it and paint themselves tribally (blood). The surreal scene felt a bit Lord Of The Flies, and no – I don’t understand it.

This has also been a week for quiet and completely unjustified rage at the state of the English language and holy s**t I sound like an English teacher. As a foreigner in another land, I would suffer greatly if I harboured any feelings of ‘superiority’ or pretentiousness concerning my own nationality. I do, however, feel my eyebrow pulsing slightly every time the teacher’s book tells us to make the students pronounce ‘fog’ faahg, ‘dog’ darg or ‘bob’ baahb. It’s a dichotomy of whether to teach them English English or American English, which wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the fact that I don’t sound like that when I teach them.

A particularly cropped/fuzzy pic of same heron.

What I believe is a Korean heron zooming about the waterways.

I’m not going to launch into some prehistoric, spittle-fuelled rant about the ‘origins’ of the English language or if anybody in the world speaks it ‘well’ or ‘badly’ – but I had to choke down the pedantic arsehole within me when I held up three different pictures of turtles, tortoises and terrapins and ensured that the Korean students would spend the rest of their lives lazily conglomerating all under the name turtle. It’s a tiny point, but as a tortoise owner it’s one close to my heart. This wrath was not abated by Meg’s discovery of a particularly repulsive article concerning the ‘eventual and inevitable conquering of the flawed English language by the superior American dialect’. Grant Barrett can go headbutt a moving train, in my personal opinion:

[…]The point that Americans are ruining English is enough to puff a Yank up with pride.

Soon we’ll have Sainsbury’s to ourselves! Our victory over English and the English is almost complete.

(-seethe seethe seethe.)

Doesn’t that mean ‘sorrow’?

Hence, bigotry (myself included). I would like to emphasise that I in no way generalise anybody as having such views – merely that I am slightly disappointed in the human race after reading that. The sheer number of (I hope) incorrect red lines under words in this post saddens me; all because I don’t have a fetish for the letter ‘z’ in ’emphasize/generalize…

Aha- there’s ‘joy’.

On a more relevant, less ranting note, last night we had the surprise and privilege of coinciding with Sunny and Amy at a local dak galbi restaurant (oh my god, it was good), which (in true English fashion) promptly led to hours of drinking and bad language skills – on our part, anyway. Sunny, Amy – I’m so sorry for your 3:15am departure. Our colleagues will be very disappointed in us.

Meg has gleefully discovered a Korean variation of rosemary growing with abandon in the area.

To clarify the latter part of the title, my adult morning class (all wonderful beyond a teacher’s dreams, as they basically teach themselves) eventually spiralled into a discussion on Korean/Asian culture, heritage and spiritualism, culminating with a unanimous apology for their ‘bad’ English skills. At this point, we had been discussing Confucian doctrine, ancestral spirits and less-than-positive relationships with in-laws. I remain convinced of their English ability.

A particularly bad shot-from-the-hip photo, but I had to. It’s got pink ears, for god’s sake.

To finish, I would like to apologise for the sheer length of this, and to anybody ‘cross the pond for my rants. I don’t give a hoot about accents, expressions, colloquialisms etc. (for God’s sake, we have Ireland, Wales, Scotland AND England to contend with) – but, as with all aspects of life, I can’t tolerate somebody inflating their opinions to prohibit another life, culture or experience. I don’t want to use the ‘Nazi’ cliché, but I did anyway.

Also, there’s no ‘z’ in ‘apologise’.

It’s Working Out So Far

The running route. Hideous, isn’t it?

Before I begin, I would like to establish that this title is in no way any of the following:

A) a proclamation of my Herculean metabolism and/or proactive outlook on life,

B) an exercise of self-guilt by informing the world of my routine, thereby forcing myself to keep to it, or

C) even remotely indicative of my chemical inclinations or lifestyle choices.

It is, however, a desperate attempt to ingeniously focus on the ‘working’ of ‘working out’. Specifically, the narcolepsy-inducing combination of exercise and working with children.

This happens literally every time we attempt to wash clothes. Judging by the waterproof paint five inches up the wall, this particular water-feature is intentional…

To summarise the pre-shift morning today: wake up, swear, attempt to return to dream. Conscience overrides craving. Highly supportive Meg mentally preps me for first run in Korea/months, to which I respond with grunts and negativity (standard).

Run itself feels like I’m approximately two-thirds of a mile from the surface of the Sun, and climaxes spectacularly with me tripping on the pavement and crashing slow-motion into a vegetable stall, sending bags of garlic flying. Choe soong hamnida, choe soong hamnida, choe soong hamnida, I mutter as I restock the table and run with a hitherto unseen haste and athleticism.

However, I know as well/better than any the tedium of reading about another’s exercise habits; either I’m doing far less than you and it’s amateur (likely), or I’m doing far more than you (unlikely) and I sound Full Of It. I assure you, I do not work out with anything approaching willingness.

One of many neon crosses dotted around the area. I gather it’s not so much a ‘Church Here’ sign as a personal expression of faith…?

To refer to previous social experiences, we are now official friends with the Ryu family, which we know to be true as they told us so. When we dropped in to see them yesterday, they gave us (refusing payment) a glass surface, chopping board, packets of bizarre-yet-delicious blueberry energy drink (…?) and, while leaving, casually picked a pot of yellow daisies from the shop for our house. We’ve given up working out exactly how many favours we need to return, but are intent on taking them out to dinner, finances permitting…

Meg, admiring more antiques.

There’s something wonderful and strange about having lived in a country for two weeks and already being able to greet a familiar shopkeeper, be invited to sit in the corner and be offered tea while they run the shop. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I give in to braces, chain-smoking and leering at women and weyguks(foreigners) from a plastic table outside. I can base my persona on a particularly wicked character in a restaurant yesterday who continued to grin, gesticulate and cackle at us in Korean as we ate his recommended (justifiably so) Korean stew. His gestures seemed to indicate our ‘couple’ status repeatedly and energetically; we’re still unsure if he was offering advice on wholesome nutrition or enthusiastically telling us it was an aphrodisiac.

Meg and myself cross the pond to Jess Neale, in all her wonderful Englishness. It means a lot.

 

 

 

Chance Encounters of the Third Kind

Seoul is big. To quote Douglas Adams on the subject of space, ‘Space Seoul is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space Seoul.’

Part of the constant construction work around Seoul – like Lego meets Minecraft meets Sim City.

It is a megacity (a title I had only previously been aware of courtesy of the dystopian Judge Dredd comics), and the world’s 4th biggest city – yet, in true fashion for foreign travellers, you still seem to manage to bump into people you actually recognise. (see also: fellow photography geek Chris Brown and Swedish/Chinese couple Kris and June, who told us where H&M is much, much earlier in the day).

Well, I’m enticed.

Perhaps more poignantly, it is a megacity which Meg & I are, on some basic and culturally-disabled level, able to traverse without getting lost or suffering loss of life nor limb nor wallet. As a child born in London I feel this is something I should have adjusted to by now, but what do I get instead? Verdant, lush countryside for the last decade+ of my life. ‘Thanks, Mum & Dad.’ (expressed sarcastically, but in fact meant with conviction)

We have survived the expedition to Itaewon, but are left craving a little more in the way of actual Korea; Itaewon is the most culturally diverse area of Seoul, and as such everybody rips/is ripped off. Or indoctrinated into a ‘real’ American Baptist Church for ‘real’ Bible preachers. Tempting as such a proposition was, I refer to the ‘religion/penis’ dichotomy (don’t whip it out in public, don’t force down people’s throats unless in the appropriate registered building) for my unspoken, imagined retaliation. On the bright side, Meg got a poncho.

Not to say we didn’t explore thoroughly; there is an unbelievable range of antiques shops, country-specific restaurants, leather retailers and tailors, usually crammed into their purpose-specific streets around Itaewon.

I don’t know, either.

The most engaging/heart-wrenching point of the venture would be the battle of sense/longing we experienced when told by a RSPCA (or Korean equivalent) street petition group that we could adopt any of the wagging dogs milling around, as they needed new homes. I suspect that, if we’d had any idea that we’d actually be allowed a dog in any way, we’d be the joyful owners of a three-legged Pungsan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pungsan_Dog)  called Tripod by now.

On a shorter note, I have been the victim of polite paparazzi (could I photo you thankyou?), and an unashamed shopkeeper politely inquired of Meg, you with baby? Meg was not impressed. I was in hysterics.

So they tell us.

I type this as I wrap Meg’s birthday presents for the morning (she won’t see this until then), so do feel free to convey any love not transferrable via Facebook. If the cake’s in the same state I’ve been all day, it’ll have to be eaten with a straw.

Wildlives and Disappointed Retrospection

A surprisingly vain neon dragonfly – one of MANY.

I like titles with syllables.

Another two days, another single post. C’est mon vie en Corée, eh? (Bad Ben – I’m having enough trouble learning Korean without looking up the French name for the country.) To quote myself repeatedly this week, choe soong hamnida – yong-guk saram (‘sorry – I’m only British, ie. crap’).

We’re two weeks, four restaurants, ten schooldays and (nearly) one birthday into our expatriation, and slowly starting to acclimatise to the madness surrounding us. I now bow respectfully/sycophantically for wizened ladies and gentlemen in the street, cautiously eat gimchi and slur annyong-hi kaseyo whenever I say ‘goodbye’ in the vain hope that I’m getting it right.

If spiders have the capacity to be ‘endearing’, this is it: wee little thing. For size context, it’s on the same pillar as the above beastly dragonfly.

On the subject of local customs – never, or rarely in England would one’s colleagues collectively opt to go on a lakeside stroll in the hour before starting work for the day. One expects others to loathe any such suggestion, and to veer away from the notion like a hypochondriac from lepers.

In Korea, the headmaster gets the iced coffees ‘to go’ en route to the lake.

Juliet made me a little spoon out of a nutshell and a twig which I now love with all my heart (think ‘double-headed daisies/daisy dumbbells’ arboreal wizardry from your youth, and translate it to Korean).

Avec caramel mocchiatos.

Such is the way here; I’m only now starting to realise exactly how much Westerners fear and despise one another as a rule. One cynically expects anything of beauty or value in a public space to be defaced, stolen and/or set alight – and one is usually correct in such an expectation. In Korea, you can walk down the high street at 11pm, with closed shops having left rails of clothing, etc. outside the locked building. Crime just doesn’t seem to occur to the population in general – even littering doesn’t seem to be much of a pastime for local youths.

My nut-spoon. Thank you, Juliet.

The main, daunting crime central of Korea is claimed to be the Itaewon district of Seoul, and guess why? That’s where we live (and by we I mean the vast majority of expats, not ourselves per se). Westerners are the thieves here, preying on the generosity and resources of the natives, and taking their jobs and getting drunk and living illegally and where have I heard this before? (answer: any given English pub)

Also, we’re totally going to Itaewon tomorrow to ‘splore, browse and try desperately not to get mugged by a fellow British scrote. I paid for the privelage of escaping that fate when we got our plane tickets.

Kang’s Gang, from left: yours truly, Juliet, Amy, Meg, Sunny and Eric.