Archive for September, 2010

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.

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Kristen Lamb posted a link on her latest blog post to what she described as the ‘formula to great writing’. It’s from another blog about writing, this one called Adventures in Children’s Publishing.

It advises making charts of the goals, motivation, conflict and tension relating to your characters. It explains that good characters have conflicting goals – internal and external ones, for example. Characters should also have conflicting goals – this leads to the greatest level of tension, which is what keeps people reading.

Read the full article here.

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Writing Diary

Last week I didn’t get much writing done. Well – I didn’t get any work done, really. My girlfriend’s brother came over to visit and we spent a very pleasant week sightseeing and travelling with him.

Yesterday, however, I finished the first draft of my story ‘Waking Up’; it’s around 9,000 words in total. I also submitted a critique to Critters. I have to choose another story and critique it before the end of Wednesday next week to keep my critiquing ratio at 100%. Then my own story, ‘The Green Marble’, will be up for review. I hope to have a good few critiques back by the following Wednesday.

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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.

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funny puns - Clearly, NOT a Sign from God
see more So Much Pun

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Today I didn’t do as much writing as I would have liked at lunchtime – a measly 127 words (as opposed to over 500 words on Monday and Tuesday). But I have been setting up various accounts with my name on them – Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, this blog. Actually, this blog was set up a while ago, but now I might just get into the habit of using it.

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I’ve never been into comics – strange, I know, but true. I read The Beano when I was a child, and, more recently, I discovered the wonderful What’s Michael? books (‘the Japanese Garfield‘). The recent Watchmen film with it striking visual style, bleakness and political content made me contemplate buying the graphic novel – but I never got round to it.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books are highly regarded and were possibly first recommended to me by someone I knew at university. She also bought me a copy of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which I didn’t like for its paint-by-numbers imaginary world and its simplistic thesis of rich people = bad, poor people = good. On the other hand, I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Stardust.

More recently, Habiba, enthused by visiting the new What the Book? store in Itaewon, bought Preludes & Nocturnes, the first of the Sandman omnibuses, and recommended that I read it. So, as I always say, her wish is my command, and I complied.

In short, I didn’t really get much out of it. I’m not really sure if that’s because of its inherent merit (or lack thereof) or because I’m just not au fait with the medium.

The Sandman, aka Dream, is one of a group of immortal beings, personifications of aspects of human life, called the Endless. Others include Desire, Despair and Death. In the first chapter, the Sandman is trapped by an Aleister Crowley-type wizard in the early 20th century. After better part of a hundred years of patiently waiting silently in his cell, the Sandman finally has a chance to break free. The story of the graphic novel concerns his retrieval of his possessions and return to power.

As the introduction and afterword both suggest, as a whole, the graphic novel is a somewhat uneven. One subplot concerns a pre-existing character, Doctor Destiny; another sees Dream descend to Hell to challenge Hell’s triumvirate rulers; another has the Sandman team up with John Constantine. From what I’ve read, in later editions Gaiman follows his own inspiration more, without trying to shoehorn the Sandman into others’ worlds and mythoses. The graphical style also changes a lot throughout – the Sandman himself getting more good-looking towards the end.

I’d say I never particularly enjoyed any of the stories in Preludes & Nocturnes, the surprises didn’t surprise me, the horrors didn’t horrify me. This may be due to a prejudice against comics as a medium worthy of adults. It may also be that, after years of reading prose, my brain is simply wired to understand and appreciate that particular form. I can’t help think that, just like radio, the pictures are better in prose stories – one’s imagination isn’t limited by an artist’s interpretation of the story.

However, Habiba has already bought book two in the series, and it doesn’t take much effort to read, so I’m willing to give it another chance and see what develops in the next book.

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