Archive for October, 2008

Evil evilness

Just found a humorous video on Facebook, starring my friends Drew (as the ‘Necro-Dancer’) and Colin (as a bit-zombie). It’s quite wonderful.

I can’t embed it, so click here – you won’t regret it.

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Dog's new best friend

see more puppies

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Toe the lion

I got up relatively early today and headed out to Eulji Medical Center, the hospital where I had my Immigration tests a couple of months ago, with the intention of seeing a dermatologist about my warts. The 1224 bus is the one I took to Peter’s place, so there was a soupçon of nostalgia involved in the short journey. I remembered that it passed the hospital; I hadn’t picked up on the fact that the relevant stop was actually Hagye Station.

Once at the hospital I asked at Information for some directions. I assume the middle-aged man didn’t understand my English enquiry, but I added, ‘Pibugwa?’ ie, ‘Dermatology?’ and he said, ‘I-cheung,’ ie, ‘second floor’ (ie, ‘first floor’). Once at the Dermatology department I had to wait a few minutes for a nurse to come and man the desk – and then, of course, she barely spoke any English.

After some good-natured confusion, she kindly accompanied me to a central Reception/Payment station where neither of the clerks spoke English either. She made a couple of phone calls, but still couldn’t find an Anglophone. (I didn’t plan that rather tenuous pun; it just happened.) Then she went away for a bit, then came back with another nurse just as an admin person came along from the other direction – both with the intention of translating for me. It was the latter who helped me with the process, which was a little more complicated than attending a clinic.

Janssen Sporanox

Back at Dermatology, I waited for a while for a consultation. The dermatologist spoke good English, and I showed him my warts and athlete’s foot. For the latter, he prescribed some pills (incredibly colourful ones); and for the former, he recommended cryosurgery, which Wikipedia describes thusly:

Cryosurgery, which involves freezing the wart (generally with liquid nitrogen), creating a blister between the wart and epidermal layer, after which the wart and surrounding dead skin falls off by itself

After paying for the treatment (₩40,000-odd, on top of ₩12,000-odd for the initial appointment), I had to wait another while to be seen for my liquid nitrogen ‘surgery’ … but not before I was given a hospital card with my name (in Hangul) and a cutesy baby angel professor on it. Ah, Korea.

Eulji Medical Center Card

For the procedure, I sat on a bed with my bare foot directed toward the doctor. A nurse brought the liquid nitrogen in some paper cups nested together; she tripped and nearly spilt the lot over the doctor sitting at the end of the bed. The doctor explained that the procedure would be very painful. I don’t think I’m particularly squeamish when it comes to pain, but I wondered exactly how painful it would be.

Along with the paper cups of liquid nitrogen, the doctor had a box with some swabs of various sizes made of bits of wood with cotton wool wrapped around one end. It was all very high-tech. She dabbed the swabs in the steaming frosty brew and then pressed them against the warts, which are all either on my left big toe or nearby on the ball of the foot (on the ball of the toe, there’s actually a patch of mosaic wart – lots of warts crowded together). On the instant of contact, there wasn’t any pain, just cold; however, the doctor pressed the firmly and after a few seconds there was an increasing burning sensation. Not pleasant, but not screaming agony, either.

I went away treading tenderly and with an appointment for a second treatment in a fortnight.

Initially, the pain wasn’t too bad, and I could walk fairly normally. Later on, though, maybe as a result of increasing tenderness, maybe because I deliberately avoided putting any weight on my left toes, it seemed to get worse. Some of the warts have developed sizable blisters; on others the ‘cyst’ (as the doctor who performed the treatment called it) is hardly noticeable. Apparently, I can expect a couple of days of pain. I wonder what I’m going to do at taekwondo tomorrow.

For now, enjoy this photograph (you can also see the bruise on my fourth toe from taekwondo on Monday).

Blisters, warts and a bruise

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I did something painful to the fourth toe on my left foot in taekwondo last night. I also damaged the nail of my left big toe. I’ve had cause to show my left foot to a couple of doctors here in Korea before today – the hallux (big toe) is studded with warts that have been slowly spreading for a year or so; plus, my index toe has, in the last few months, reacquired an athlete’s foot infection. Previous attempts to get the warts seen to resulted in diagnoses of excema and something to do with pressure.

When I looked at my foot this morning, the damaged toe sported a large black bruise; it was somewhat painful to move it. I went to a dermatologist (one of many specialists with clinics around Eunhaeng Sagori; the preponderance of such clinics makes me think there isn’t much in the way of general practice in Korea) today with the principal motive of getting a third, more useful opinion on my warts. When he saw the bruise he told me to go to an orthopaedic clinic across the road, and when I showed him the warts he said, ‘Yes! Warts!’ and directed me to see a dermatologist at a general hospital (I suppose that’s where the general practice is, then).

I’d gotten up a bit later than I’d intended, so I was in Starbucks time. Anyway, I went to the other clinic and waited while other patients went in for consultations and X-rays. Eventually, I saw the doctor. I had one of those awkward but amusing moments where I was trying to use a word in his language and he was trying to interpret in English. ‘Taekwondo,’ I repeated. ‘Take one …?’ He asked me to write it down; when I started to write it in Hangul, he said, ‘No, use English – ah, taekwondo!’

Then I went out and had an X-ray. I’m sure this was just because Koreans like their technology – the doctor barely examined my toe, he certainly didn’t touch it. Anyway, the X-ray (for the side-on shot I’d had to hold my first three toes back and the little toe down myself) didn’t show anything untoward, so the diagnosis was a sprained toe. I’m supposed to rest it. I’ll see what my masters at taekwondo say tomorrow.

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On Inwangsan

Yesterday I went on a hike organised by the Korean Volunteer Foundation Network with Botond and his wife, So-young. After meeting at Changdong Station we took the subway to Gyeonbokbung where we met the Korean volunteers and the people taking part in the event. Those taking part seemed to mostly be Koreans, although there were at least two or three Chinese, a similar number of Japanese, ditto North Americans and Europeans, a New Zealander girl who appeared to speak pitch-perfect Korean, and Bo’s two Hungarian friends who came to his birthday meal.

We were led to Sajik Park near Inwang Mountain, which is a small mountain west of the Gyeongbok Palace and the Blue House (the President’s abode). Therein we were put into teams of five or six apiece, told what to expect from the day, and taken through some warm-up exercises (very familiar to me from taekwondo). Our agenda included memorising our teammates’ names and giving them nicknames (our team was Yesunim (Jesus) – me; Gulliver – Botond; Ice Cream – So-young; Chaekbeolle (Bookworm) – Aoying, a Chinese woman; and Baegopeun (Hungry) – Su-Gyung, our team-leader, distinguished by the green KVFN scarf tied around her wrist). Once at the summit we were to create a picture with bits of random natural detritus; afterwards we would have a meal.

The actual hiking part of the hike was fairly brief. I chatted a little with one or two people on the way up. Towards the summit our team became somewhat extenuated with So-young and myself walking ahead separately. I got to the summit ahead of the main body of the outing and spent some time taking photos. Then one of the volunteers came along and told me to return to a spot about fity yards away where everyone was busy making pictures.

KFVN trip to Inwangsan

I was told to draw a tiger. I’m no artist, so I felt unable to do anything except hesitate while people looked at me expectantly and told me to get started. Someone had already drawn a cartoon rabbit, and I eventually sketched a tiger that was supposed to be Rousseauian – I suppose it wasn’t too bad in the end, but certainly not what I would call good. Once I’d finished everyone else could get on with sticking twigs and leaves to the sketchpad. I contributed further by sticking some double-sided sellotape along the bottom and then smearing some dirt on to it. In the subsequent vote we got six or seven votes, while the winning artwork received nine – and a sixpack of beer.

We descended the hill the opposite way we’d come, passing a few guard posts – presidential security. After a while we reached a small park where young boys were being tutored in what I’m increasingly coming to think of as ‘soccer’, and we were given some very mediocre meals of bulgogi and rice in polystyrene trays. The water had been left in a fountain; you had to retrieve a bottle at your own risk.

And that was the end of the programmed event. We walked down to a nearby bus stop where everyone waited for a while, although various groups set off to walk in the direction of Gyeongbokgung – Botond, So-young, the Hungarian couple and I were one such group. A moment later our jojangnim (team-leader) caught up to us and joined us on our new expedition to the palace.

When we arrived at the northern entrance opposite the blue house we found that it was closed. Thereafter the two Hungarians and another Korean we’d picked up decided to go their own way. The remaining foursome – Bo and So-young, Su-Gyung, me – headed towards another entrance into the palace grounds with the ultimate intention of going to see the new Keira Knightley film, The Duchess. Su-Gyung was a typical example of Korean young-womanhood – a sylph-like beauty, in other words. It was a little surprising that she’d want to throw her lot in with us for the rest of the day – but a pleasant one.

I’d brought a spare top and bodyspray in my newly purchased backpack – the second in two weeks (this one is the smaller of the two – a day bag) – and was now even more conscious of such matters. I finally managed to change in the toilets at Lotte Cinema in Myeongdong.

We all enjoyed the movie. A Georgian period drama starring Keira Knightley could just be an exercise in eye-candy – and to a fairly large extent, that’s no bad thing. We were sitting in the front row, so we were really too close to appreciate that kind of thing – the imperfections in the picture were more apparent. Despite being a little turgid and sentimental at times it was a decent film, especially Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire, a very dignified kind of monster.

After that we had dinner at a mandu (dumpling) restaurant, then went for a walk along the Cheonggyecheon. Su-Gyung and I talked for about an hour – mostly about teaching (she teaches Korean to Chinese students at a university) and language.

Eventually we all went home. In fact, I went to So-young and Botond’s home – to allow Bo access to my harddrive. I managed to press on him the first two series of The IT Crowd, which I’d just rewatched (except for the few episodes I’d never seen), the first series of QI, which I haven’t yet rewatched, and a few films, including the wonderful About Schmidt that I’d recently watched.

Then I went to my own home and slept for twelve hours.

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Sheldon, The Big Bang Theory.

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Norwegian WoodThis is a slightly odd book to characterise – on the one hand it’s a sappy romance, on the other it’s a melancholy study of loneliness and suicide.

It begins in its future, with the narrator, Toru, hearing the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ on a plane and then looking back to his teenage years at the end of the sixties and his strange, desperate relationship with Naoko a girl damaged by the suicide of her boyfriend, Toru’s best – indeed only – friend. The two of them form a gentle, distant companionship. Naoko seems almost angelic in her beauty and unreachableness.

Along the way he meets Reiko, another woman damaged by a relationship, and Midori, a profane counterpart of the unearthly Naoko, who tells him about her sexual fantasies and persuades him to take her to a porn film – the dirtiest they can find. The honesty of the latter is thrown into some doubt in the reader’s mind by the unconnected revelations of the former.

The writing has the same open simplicity of the other Murakami book I’ve read, Kafka on the Shore, but Norwegian Wood‘s text isn’t quite so bland (not that that was a bad thing in Kafka), and perhaps slightly more American (the two books have different translators). It also has no fantasy elements (except perhaps one brief interlude), which is apparently a Murakami hallmark. According to translator Jay Rubin’s afterword, this novel is the author’s attempt to write the kind of fiction he’d previously shunned.

The end of the novel is ambiguous, and doesn’t return to the narrative timeframe established at the outset, so it’s difficult to tell whether Toru lived happily ever after with … well, with someone, or whether the solitary nature of his youth hardens into something more permanent.

I found the opening section of the book a little on the sappy, tedious side, but as it progressed the story become more engrossing. In some respects it was quite a simple story, but it touched on some pretty deep issues and never offered any simplistic theses. The plot arc had a certain inevitability and circularity to it, and I think this gave it its increasing readability. A pleasure to read, even if I’ve never heard this ‘Norwegian Wood’ song.

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So I’ve now completed my first week – three lessons – of taekwondo … and my hamstrings hurt. The Wednesday and Friday classes followed pretty much the same pattern: the young male sabeomnim did warm-up exercises for the first part of the class – stretches, running etc. I took part with the rest of the students – the oldest of which must be little more than half my age. Then in the latter part of the class, the female sabeomnim took me through more basic moves.

I’ve started doing punches, kicks and blocks – each of which brings its own problems, although I suppose the punches are the easiest. The problem with the kicks is my lack of flexibility, or limberness, or whatever. I can’t really lift my leg very high and fully extend it. The blocks are tricky to get the hang of, too: each requires you to move each fist and rotate it silmultaneously – and shout out ‘Ah!’ (this is called 기합 – gihap). It’s quite a challenge of co-ordination. For me, anyway.

On Wednesday I had to undergo a bit of torture, as well. My sabeomnim had me sit against the wall and spread my legs; then she sat in front of me and used her legs to push mine further apart and, with her hands, pulled me forward. I don’t think I’ve ever been subjected to pain like that before. The following Friday, as part of the warm-up regimen, the other sabeomnim had everybody get into a kind of spreadeagled frog position – hips and knees at right-angles, inner thighs and faces to the floor. Then he went around standing on people’s lower backs. Well – some people’s, anyway; others he just pushed down.

The near-euphoria from the first class has worn off now, but I’m certainly still enjoying it. As I said, my thigh tendons aren’t happy about all this exercise, and during the week I had a sore foot, probably from nothing more than running and jumping. I think I need to practice the various moves a lot more, but at the same time I need to give my legs time to recover. And memorise the terminology.

It’s all a bit intimidating I suppose, but I’m sure that the first week is too early to really judge how difficult it’ll be in the future. I don’t feel that overwhelmed, but maybe I’m being a little complacent. Hopefully, there’ll be a good few months of training ahead of me to fret about – or not, as the case may be.

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Last week I finally went to the taekwondo dojang across the road from my building (its logo is a lion in the white taekwondo dobok) and enquired about starting classes. The only adult classes they had were at 9pm, which I knew conflicted to some degree with my work (I didn’t know what degree exactly – I don’t memorise things like that). After talking to the sabeomnim (master/teacher) – a round-faced woman of maybe 30 years who spoke some English – it seemed that they could arrange me a class at ten. So on the next class day – a Wednesday – I went along at about 9:45, to find that I was too late to start. When the sabeomnim had said starting at ten, she’d evidently meant ending at ten.

The following Friday was a national holiday and I went to Seoraksan National Park on the Sea of Japan coast with Botond – a story for another blog post.

That Thursday I’d asked one of the Korean teachers at work if I could swap classes so I could finish earlier on Mondays (in exchange for finishing later on Tuesdays – somewhat later than I do on Mondays, in fact). She agreed and said we should ask one of the ‘team leader’ teachers, who said we had to ask the head teacher … who said she had to ask the owner. The following Monday – yesterday – the head Korean teacher denied my request. I tried arguing my case for a few moments, but apparently it was unfair to the other teachers.

Anyway I went back to the dojang to try to explain the situation and they signed me up for three days a week as per their normal schedule, except for starting at 9:30 on Mondays. Their three-days-a-week course is ₩90,000; for another ‘manner’ (man won – ₩10,000) you can do five classes a week, but one of the other sabeomnim told me last that Tuesdays and Thursdays consisted of skipping.

So, after my last class I hurried back to the dojang and changed in to my new dobok – it was more plasticky than I’d been expecting. A third sabeomnim helped – well, no – tied my white belt for me. I forgot to put a hairband in my pocket, so I picked up one of the rubber bands from the belt to tie my hair back. And then I walked out into the main hall again.

Naturally, I felt rather silly in this strange oriental garb, but I guess I looked pretty good in the mirror – the same as everyone else, anyway. The female sabeomnim, Lee Un-ju (the ‘Lee’ of which is actually I (‘ee’), but for some bizarre reason it’s transliterated with an L at the beginning. ‘Un-ju’ might also be spelt ‘Oon-joo’ … or as two separate words…. Actually, it might be ‘Un-su’ – her handwriting isn’t totally clear. Anyway) Lee Un-ju Sabeomnim took me to one side to begin my training.

Which consisted of some exercises – running, jumping, star-jumps whilst moving sideways, this strange sideways jig for exercising the waist muscles – and learning the nomenclature. 소기 – sogi – (or it might be 서기 – seogi – the two vowels often seem interchangeable, like the southern and northern pronunciations of long O) means ‘stance’, of which there are various types.

After a while of me being hopeless at remembering things I was told a few seconds ago, I joined the main group for some stretches. I was partnered with the second sabeomnim; one stretch involved sitting with your legs straight and splayed – his legs were at angle of about 160°, while mine barely made 90°, and it was quite painful when he pulled me forward by the hands.

And, after some more bowing to the Korean flag and the masters, I was free to go. Despite the physical and emotional awkwardness of the class, I felt quite exhilarated as I left. It’s not often I embark on something so challenging and worthwhile. I just need to make sure I can remember the Korean terminology, and the movements, and the etiquette.

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