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Archive for June, 2008

Maybe's big box o' books

As I mentioned some time ago, I spent £75 back in February (the 29th, actually) sending a parcel of books to Peter in Korea. Of course, when I met him a couple of weeks ago I asked him whether he’d had it yet. The answer was, No. As it was getting on for four months since I’d sent it, I started getting a bit worried – the ParcelForce website said it should take around two months.

I posted about it on Dave’s ESL Café, wondering if anyone had any advice. The best advice that came back was, Give it a couple more months, thing have turned up after six months. People also posted that things just go missing quite often. I also sent a message via an on-line form to ParcelForce; their reply was, You sent it Internation Economy, you cheapskate, we don’t track that. I’m paraphrasing.

A day or two after that (was it yesterday?) Peter e-mailed to say it had arrived along with a package of his own. He suggested the postal service was just waiting for more than one parcel to arrive before they bothered delivering. I wonder if someone had read my post …

So on Saturday, along with roleplaying, I have the additional excitement of finding out what I sent myself.

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A(nother) part o' me

On Tuesday I was told to pack my things before I came to work on Wednesday so that someone from the hagwon could take my things to a new apartment. And that’s what happened.

I was expecting the new place to have air condintioning. It didn’t. It’s a little smaller than the other place – which is a good thing: it feels more comfortable. It’s two or three buildings down the road, away from the school. Like the other place it has shops on the ground floor and ‘officetel’ studio flats on the six other aboveground floors. My previous place was at the back of the building and received some traffic noise at night, presumably from vehicles coming to stock the shops. It also looked down on the occasional late-night ruckus. The new place is at the front of the building and it just has traffic going past all night.

The lack of air conditioning in this apartment is ridiculous, and I think Jon, the head foreign teacher who showed me there last night was a bit embarrassed about that. Clearly this place is cheaper than the other – and that’s the main reason for them wanting me to move again.

An example of it’s relative cheapness is the shower head in the bathroom. It’s the same connected-to-the-faucet type of shower, but the little bracket for holding it is facing you on the wall next to the mirror at face height. You have to either crouch next to the wall or hold the shower head to shower. Annoying, and in typical Korean fashion, the hose is long enough for the bracket to be located in a much more sensible place on the wall on the right. Also, the basin slowly drains when you fill it. And the gas burners seem to be missing the flat, round bit that sits on top, and don’t work.

Overall, not a great place to live – but I’m not alone: almost all the English teachers hereabouts seem to live in these buildings looking over the main road. I went to Lotte Mart last night and when I came back I shared the elevator with a very pleasant North American girl with a bicycle. I asked her if she was an English teacher (yes), she asked if I was new (also yes – kind of). She got out one floor up so the conversation didn’t go much further.

I’ve been promised an AC unit in the next couple of weeks. I can’t help thinking I’ll end up getting it just as the weather starts cooling down. Did I mention my hagwon lost 100 hundred students last month? The future’s bright, the future’s Korean.

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Von BekVon Bek was one of the half a dozen or so books I took with me to Korea last time. And this time, too. I held off reading it originally because for some mysterious reason I had an idea that it would rather dry and earnest and less than entertaining. I could have been less wrong, but not much.

This volume is the first of a 14 book series collecting tales of the Eternal Warrior – as far as I can gather, these various stories constitute the bulk of Moorcock’s body of work, but they possess thematic consonances. The Tale of the Eternal Champion, Volume 1 is made up of The Warhound and the World’s Pain, The City in the Autumn Stars and ‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’. The first is a short novel from 1981, the second a rather longer novel from 1986, and the third a short story from 1965.

The Warhound and the World’s Pain is the story of Graf Ulrich von Bek and his quest to find the cure to the world’ pain in the 1630s. The City in the Autumn Stars concerns the Graf’s descendent, Ritter Manfred von Bek, and his convoluted journey across Europe away from his persecutors and towards an ambiguous destiny at the end of the 18th century. ‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’, having been written much earlier is a very different piece of work – it’s a strange alternate reality story narrated by Minos von Bek, Metatemporal Investigator. This latter story doesn’t really sit well with the other two tales (as Moorcock’s introduction implies).

The two novels (about 98% of the whole book) are impressively well-written and very entertaining. Each is written as a first person narrative, the respective von Beks dictating or setting down later in life the strange adventures of their early manhood. The writing has just enough hints of an old-fashioned style to seem reasonably authentic, but without going overboard. Each von Bek is an experienced, world-weary, educated man with a somewhat sardonic view of the world. Each never quite takes seriously the supernatural, mystical nature of the events he witnesses. Each has done his fair share of killing, but each is fundamentally a good man.

In the first story, Ulrich von Bek finds himself in a mysterious castle and is there tasked by Lucifer to find the Holy Grail. The Devil portrayed here is not a monster – far from it. Lucifer is a fallen angel looking to rectify his past mistakes, to restore himself and all damned souls to Heaven (or so he says). Von Bek, reluctantly, knowing that Lucifer is the Father of Lies, takes on the Quest. What follows is a long journey weaving in and out of the real world and the Mittelmarch, a fantastical realm somewhere between Earth and Heaven or Hell. Von Bek is assailed by denizens of Hell who think that Satan is, frankly, losing it.

The first novel is straightforward in that we know from near the beginning what Ulrich von Bek’s purpose is. In the second, Manfred von Bek begins his tale fleeing from the bloodthirsty nouveau regime in post-Revolutionary France. He travels east towards Mirenburg (a fictional city somewhere beyond Prague) meeting a number of charismatic individuals – including the Duchess of Crete, with whom he falls completely in love. The narrative builds with a series of hints and revelations, twists and turns towards a mystical Concordance.

The slow build-up of the second novel mitigates against it a little, and much of the book is taken up with von Bek and his friend’s scheme to make money out of a flying ship they never intend to build. As you get towards the end, though, the story becomes layered with alchemical, religious and mythological imagery. There are plenty of magical goings-on, but the truth, within the story, of the supernatural ambitions of just about everybody except von Bek is skillfully made ambiguous.

The short story that concludes this volume was an anticlimax – it struck me as something of a piece of juvenilia. Minos von Bek is investigating a death. Specifically the death of a man called Djugashvili (Stalin) in the garden of Bismarck. The latter’s assistant, Hitler, seems to be involved with a singer (Eva Braun) who works in the bar of Kurt Weill (which is also patronised by Einstein). The story also features murderous plants and a giant four-legged, gun-toting robot, and is set in the ruins of Berlin. It’s not as good as the two novels.

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Seoul perambulation

I took the subway into central Seoul yesterday. Probably due to a combination of a loss of familiarity with the subway map and my slight colour-blindness I stayed on a train overlong, thinking I was going towards Insadong, but instead the train went south over the river near what I’m pretty sure is the parliament building. The weather was very good yesterday, the air much clearer than usual, the sky bearing patches of blue between various cloud formations; it would have been good weather to take photos but I didn’t have my camera with me. It was a bit too warm for comfort.

Once I finally left the subway at City Hall I walked to the Starbucks that’s between there and the Cheonggyecheon for my customary grande latte and croque monsieur. After that I spent a good couple of hours walking round, reacquainting myself with the area. It was Sunday, so there weren’t too many people around – although there was some sort of rally at the head of the Cheonggyecheon and at City Hall, probably something to do with American beef (so ironic from a British perspective).

I attempted to walk from City Hall to Namdaemun to see what state the gate there was in (it was burnt down in January by some madman). I took a wrong turning somewhere and ended up approaching from the direction of Seoul Station. The gate was completely enclosed by boards displaying almost life-sized pictures of the gate as it used to be. Above, you could see some scaffolding and roof over the structure.

From there I went to Myeongdong – Seoul’s equvalent of Oxford Street, a maze of alleys and up-market shops more confusing than Soho. It was much more crowded than everywhere else I’d wandered through. Eventually I started to make my way home, with a final detour to the Libro Books at one of the Euljiro subway stations.

Overall, the day wasn’t terribly productive, but it was nice to see some of the heart of Seoul again.

As opposed to my home base in Nowon, right on the edge of the city. The part of Nowon where I work and live is about 15-20 minutes’ walk from Nowon Station and has a cluster of shops and restaurants around a main road junction. Beyond this small commercial area there appear to be nothing but 10-15 storey apartment blocks. Clearly visible when you’re looking down the right street, even through the pollution and damp air, are the mountains bordering the city. They’re not all that tall, but these ones possess impressive rock faces (where most are completely tree-covered).

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‘Be afraid, don’t be afraid’.

Source: ‘Sonne’, Rammstein.

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Hot and cold

During my previous year in Korea I had about half a dozen colds – which is at least twice as many as I usually have in 12 months. And now I’ve got my first of what I’m sure will be many colds this time around. It’s come on fairly quickly – the night before last I had that slit-throat feeling whilst in bed; yesterday wasn’t too bad, but today I’m sore and snotty and Barry White-voiced.

I spoke to my hagwon’s president, Sharon, on Wednesday asking about if I could get an advance on my salary, when I would get a bank account and when I’d have the medical test. I think the answer to the first two points was 1 July … which is a few days after payday. Right. And as for the latter query, she didn’t know. But as long as I get it done within 30 days (or maybe 90 – the answer was vague) it’ll be OK.

I currently have about 35,000 won – about £17 – and I’m at Lotte Mart to do some shopping.

Coda: Rich and poor

Friday wasn’t the most pleasurable day. By the end of the day I was tired out by my cold and my teaching duties. The one positive note was that I got a form from Sunny Teacher to open a bank account. Hopefully, this’ll be processed in the coming week and I’ll get paid along with everyone else. Payday is the 28th, but I don’t expect any money to reach my account until several days later; at least, that’s how it was my previous hagwon.

I went to Peter’s yesterday for the first session of the Burning Wheel game – just the two of us. My health took some of the edge off the proceedings – I was blowing my nose every few minutes. The game has interesting takes on combat and negotiations – you have to plan what you’re going to do and say in sets of three actions and hope that your plans successfully counter what your opponent has planned.

On my way home Peter very kindly lent me some money so I won’t have to subsist on ramyeon and water for the next week.

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Master of puppies

On Sunday I went to see Peter. We agreed to meet at a Dunkin’ Donuts by his local subway station at three o’clock. On the way there I successfully topped up my T-Money Card (it’s like an Oyster Card) and went on the Seoul subway for the first time this year. I actually got there well in advance, bought myself a coffee and a doughnut and did some writing. At about 2:30 I left to use the toilets in the subway station, waited outside for a bit, then went back into the doughnut shop for another coffee. By twenty past three there was no sign of Peter, so I logged on to a passing wireless network and e-mailed him. He showed up shortly afterwards saying he’d fallen asleep. D’oh.

Peter had moved home about a month before I left Korea last year, and I had a vague idea of which way his place (the upper half of a two storey house) was, but I don’t think I’d have found it on my own. Last time I’d been there, his flat was a little sparse – he’d just moved out of a tiny apartment, so he didn’t have that much stuff. This time it felt much more like a home. A previously empty room was now a living room, with a couple of consoles and his massive Mac. And this time he also had a wife – Mi Young (who found me my job. I remembered to say thank you – just as I was leaving).

Peter had hosted our gaming group last time, and had run two of the games. Earlier this year he’d e-mailed me a little about the group he was then playing with. Unfortunately, this group had since ceased meeting because of some dramatic interpersonal disharmony. But we both want to play, so hopefully a new group will rise from the ashes of the old. The game he had been playing was called The Burning Wheel (it’s a d6-based game – and I just happen to have brought some of my favourite d6s with me to Korea) and I started (slowly) making a character for this system.

After an exhausting and somewhat lonely week it was really good to see Peter again and with his marriage and his upcoming PhD course it looks like his life is on the move (to good places – Boston, for one). If the roleplaying gets off the ground, when Peter leaves in August GM and hosting duties may just fall to me. Hmm.

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When I first came to the hagwon with my recruiter he told me that there were seven foreign teachers. Earlier, I’d understood that there were five (or maybe six). There were actually four, not including me.

Jon, the head teacher, is the friendliest of them, often making humorous comments and doing voices (he was a drama student, it seems). Todd and David are Americans, both seem OK, but they’re both standoffish and haven’t talked to me much. The other teacher is Hungarian. The only two requirements (disregarding all the criminal checks and so on you have to obtain these days) for getting a teaching visa is that you have a degree and come from one of seven main Anglophonic nations. Hungary isn’t on that list, but Bo is married to a Korean. He’s very quiet, keeping to himself mostly, but the other day I came in with my England shirt on and he started talking to me about football. He was surprised to learn England hadn’t qualified for Euro 2008. I had to admit I hadn’t been following the competition, but I was hoping to start getting into it.

The Korean teachers are pretty much what you’d expect – all female, mostly young (the oldest being in her thirties, I’d guess). The only one whose name I can remember is Sunny, one of the senior teachers, Jon’s soon-to-be wife, and the prettiest of the teachers by some margin (but in a smug, coquettish, oh-look-at-me-I’m-so-cute kind of way); she also looks quite a lot like my former colleague Gina (or like her younger, prettier sister).

One of the Korean teachers whose desk is near mine asked me where I was from in England. I explained, and she said she’d been there. Apparently, she’d lived in Frodsham (a large village (or small town) south of Runcorn across the River Weaver). Frodsham is typical Cheshire, while Runcorn and its borough, Halton, are more like Merseyside. Indeed, Runcorn was an overspill town for Liverpool and Halton is sometimes described as the sixth borough of Merseyside. It says a lot, I think, that Halton is a unitary authority; I can imagine that Cheshire County Council would like to get rid of it altogether. But I digress).

She said she didn’t like Runcorn. Which seems a fair response. When I asked her why she’d lived in Frodsham, she didn’t really answer. I told her that I had some photos of Halton Castle on my laptop, but when she saw the modest ruins she found other things to do.

My previous hagwon, Oedae Language Institute, used a smörgåsbord of different textbooks, some proprietary but the vast majority published language books. The books I’m using at English Castle are mostly English Castle books, with a few story books and one low-level volume. Each comes, or should come, with a syllabus prescribing what pages are taught each class and what homework given (and some of these are in Korean).

And then there’s the paperwork to be done for each class: attendance register, homework register, and detention register. The second of these is a recent innovation of Jon’s, and getting to grips with all these various bits of paper is a pain. I don’t see why some of them can’t be combined.

I have six 50-minute classes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between 4:30 and 10pm, but I’m supposed to be at the hagwon at 3pm to prepare for classes (which means reading the various pages of textbooks for that day and deciding how to teach them). On Wednesdays I have one class at 8:15; the five hours before that are dedicated to doing paperwork – which last week consisted of making vocabulary lists.

My students are generally older elementary school students and middle schoolers, but I also have a couple of classes with younger kids, seven or eight years old, something like that. Classes haven’t been going badly; the students have mostly been reasonably engaged with the work, and speak good English. The looks and noises of surprise as I walk into each new class have been consistently entertaining, although I’ve now done five days of teaching so there’ll be no more of that.

Last week was tiring and confusing, but I feel that I’m starting to get the hang of things. I still need to fully comprehend all the paperwork and the system, and I have to work out the best ways of teaching the materials, but I’m getting there. I think.

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A part o' me

When I arrived in Nowon in northern Seoul with the bloke from my recruitment agency on Monday it turned out that the teacher who was due to meet and greet us was in class. So we went to Starbucks and had coffee. David told me about his sideline in providing holidays for English teachers; he’d sent someone to Tokyo for a few days for $500, for instance.

We headed over to English Castle Academy (이캐슬, in Korean (‘i-kaeseul’)), where I was met by Jon, the Canadian head teacher who’d interviewed me, and Sunny, the Korean head teacher – who’s also his fiancée. I was asked if I wanted to leave my luggage in the office and come and observe some classes. I was feeling particularly tired, but I wasn’t really up for that – I just wanted to get to my accommodation and try to relax a bit.

But therein lay the rub. The teacher I was replacing (in some sense – he was only a temporary appointment while they found someone for a 12 month contract) was still here, teaching at the school and living in my flat. So they wanted to put me up in a hotel for a night. Or two nights. Accounts differed.

In the event, it was three nights. The other teacher didn’t move out of the apartment (which in Korean is abreviated to 아파트 – ‘apateu’) immediately – and when he did, the school didn’t want me to move in until they’d had time to clean it. They booked me into a ‘love motel’ (whose main purpose is exactly what it sounds like, but it was neither as seedy or as romantic as you might imagine; to all intents and purposes it was a modest hotel) for two nights on Monday, and told me to meet someone from the school on Wednesday.

When Wednesday came I duly checked out and trundled my suitcase to the meeting point outside the nearby Lotte Department Store. When I got to the school I found that I still couldn’t move in to my apartment and I’d have to spend another night in a hotel. The Korean teacher Sunny, probably ought to have come and booked me in again, but she was emabarrassed at going to a love motel, and so delegated the task to her conveniently-placed boyfriend.

When Thursday came I met the guy from the school outside Lotte again and this time was taken to an apartment. That’s ‘an apartment’. I suppose this must have been the place the other teacher was staying, but I was told that I’de be moved again in a couple of weeks to another flat – one with air conditioning – which this one lacks. It also lacks much of the basic furniture. I have a mattress on the upper part which you get via a kind of nautical ladder, and a coffee table. While there’s plenty of storage – wardrobes and chests of drawers – there are no tables or chairs. So I’m using my quilt folded up as a seat in front of the coffee table, where I’ve been eating cornflakes and ramyeon and listening to Radio 4 programmes.

First Nowon Apartment

I went to the very close-by Homeplus Express (I did once I found it anyway. The entrance is very obvious – a big arch over doorway leading off the pavement – but once you get inside it’s a small mall full of clothes and ornaments stands. You have to go down an escalator located a little to the right of the entrance to get to the supermarket) and bought a few essentials. A kettle and a mug, for instance.

I was exhausted on Thursday night, so having just had the energy to boil up some noodles and make a mug of coffee – and consume same – I flaked out fully dressed on the mattress. I woke up several times during the early morning, each time conscious that I was dehydrated and had a headache, but I couldn’t be bothered getting up. I slept much of the time with the small pillow balanced on the side of my head to block out some of the noise of the fan down on the main level.

When I eventually did get up I took a handful of tablets before heading into work. This past week I’ve noticed that first thing I have quite pronounced circles under my eyes, and that Friday – yesterday, in fact, they were still there when I got to the hagwon. Sunny said I looked tired; I said I was tired.

My second night at the ‘apateu’ wasn’t nearly as bad, but it’s still baking hot 24 hours a day. Having the fan on all night is a) not a great deal of use and b) probably worse than the heat because of the noise.

As I write this, I’m sitting in an Angel-in-Us coffee shop with a ticket for Inkeuredeobeul Heolkeu in my wallet (Prince Caspian was on earlier in the week, but I’ve missed it now. Darn). With any luck, tomorrow I’ll go to Peter’s place for his roleplaying group (with my mighty bag o’ dice). And I’ll write something about my work at my new hagwon.

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To Korea (again)

There was some sort of minor problem when I checked in at the BMI desk at Manchester Airport (my flight was with Asiana (pronounced ‘ah-shi-ah-nah’ in Korean), but evidently they don’t fly to Manchester. I’ve probably been on more BMI flights than any other airline, even though I’ve never made a booking with them). Two check-in staff took a few minutes to obtain my boarding passes for Manchester and Heathrow as I stood there patiently.

I said goodbye to my parents, then extracted some money from a cash machine. At the time, I had about £170 in my current account, £10 in each of two savings accounts and about £200 on my credit card. I think I took out £150, with the intention of sending money back as soon as I get paid this month and paying off my credit card bill. Surprisingly, not all of the money was to go towards buying cups of tea and food at the airports. Obviously I also wanted money for Korea, and also I kept a fiver, a tenner and a … twentier to show my students.

I had a pretty long wait at Manchester because all BMI flights were delayed, even though the weather seemed very good across the UK. As I went through the security control, the guard who patted me down asked me to take off my walking boots to be X-rayed. When I just pulled them off, he said, ‘Didn’t your mum teach you to untie your laces?’ I didn’t explain about going to Korea and the practice of taking your shoes off at home and in restaurants and so on.

I took my laptop out of my stuffed-to-capacity laptop bag (it also contained my book (Von Bek), the edition of New Scientist my sister had bought me (the chocolate she’d got me I’d already eaten, and the puzzle book I’d left for my mum), my umbrella, the power pack (including the two-pin lead I got in Korea last time) and speakers for my laptop, my camera, my documents and various collections of coinage (Korea and more examples of British money). When I booted it up, I could only spend an hour waiting for it to install updates (eopdeiteu guseonghaneun jung). Fortunately it finished before my flight started boarding.

The plane down to Heathrow was possibly the least empty I’ve been on. I had a whole row of six seats to myself (as did most of the other passengers). The pilot must have been making up time for the delay, as we landed very shortly after we’d taken off.

At Heathrow terminal 3 there was another longish wait for the flight to Incheon (Seoul’s main international airport). This terminal was a little nicer than whichever terminal it was that I stopped at on my way to Canada, and also less crowded. I spent my time there reading, wandering up and down,and drinking tea. When the gate number for OZ 0522 came up I headed that way and sat next to a TV showing the BBC News channel.

The waiting area gradually filled up with Koreans – lots of girls and women – and a few oeguks. The plane started boarding and a long cue formed – which I didn’t bother joining, preferring to take my last opportunity for half a day to walk around. A couple of minutes later I was called to the boarding desk. That’s never happened to me before and I wondered what the problem might be.

Once I got there, no one told me what was going on, but they took my boarding pass. A minute later they handed me back the stub and I wandered away. Momentarily, I realised I could jump the cue and board straight away – my recruiter must have requested this.

I was in a window seat near the front of economy class – and, once again, the flight looked rather under-populated. When our meal came along I went for the Korean option – the main part of which was bibimbap. I accidentally neglected to bibim (mix) the bap (boiled rice) part of this, as the rice’s packaging made it look like a dessert (it was pink). I’ve subsequently seen exactly this pack of rice in a convenience store. So I had the rice by itself.

We’d taken off sometime after 9pm, and, of course, we were flying east, so night fell quickly (although all the way over the Baltic and much of Russia, there was a strip of orange cloud parallel to the plane’s course visible out of the window). And then dawn came even more swiftly – though the lights were off and the shutters down. Quite a few of the passengers slept lying down on three seats.

At breakfast there was no Korean option available for me, so I had to make do with ham salad and beef bourguignonne. I dozed during the approach to Incheon and came awake just as we were landing. Once I’d been to the toilet, gone through immigration and collected my suitcase, I exchanged £125 for ₩240,000-odd. Then I went out into the public concourse.

Where, after a moment looking around, I spotted a Korean man with my name on a board. This was David Kang, from English Cruiser, my recuiter, and he drove me to Nowon and my new hagwon.

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