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Archive for December, 2012

The first official day of my holiday, Wednesday the 26th, passed uneventfully. I did a bit of writing, picked up the rest of my medicine, discovered I somehow wasn’t covered by national health insurance, contacted my boss then heard from her that someone at the government had made a mistake and it should be sorted out by the next day. Later, I dropped some shirts at a dry cleaners for ironing, got a haircut, went to a kimbap place for dinner – where I met Namy, my other colleague; she’s off to America for a month soon, so she was with her replacement, a young Korean guy who used to be a student at the hagwon. They were both on their dinner break – the guy is evidently replacing me, too, while I’m off.

Afterwards, I watched Sucker Punch – which was better than I thought it was going to be. A little, anyway. It was completely silly – a mish-mash of computer game cut-scenes linked by a non-sensical escape plot framed within a deceptive melodrama. It worked, though; it was visually spectacular and perfectly well acted. I particularly liked the fantasy-within-a-fantasy structure and the denouement was pretty bold. I could have done without the pretentious voiceovers at the beginning and end.

I had a fairly early start the next day. I packed my suitcase for five days in Seoul, picked up my shirts, packed one, and headed off to the railway station.

I got off at Yeongdeungpo in western Seoul, where I met Helena, a very sweet woman I worked with when I worked in Gangnam. She drove us to a Homeplus, where we had shabu-shabu for lunch (shabu-shabu is a kind of soup that cooks on a hob on your table; this particular place was buffet-style, so you picked your own ingredients to go in the watery stock: bean sprouts, bak choi, spring onions, beef, baby octopuses, prawns etc; the man on the till when we left told us it was a Mongolian dish, though Helena said it’s common all over east Asia and Wikipedia says it’s Japanese but originally from China). We talked about our lives in the past few years; she told me what she knew of the other people we worked with. She seems very happy and know has her own cottage industry making leather wallets, passport cases and suchlike.

Afterwards, I headed to Sinsa and to Zach’s place. Zach’s out of the country, visiting friends and family in the States, but he very kindly agreed to let me stay there while I was up in Seoul. I retrieved the key from its super secret hiding place and let myself in. I got on the internet and signed up for a New Year’s Eve party; then I went to the KEB handily located just across the main road to transfer funds pay for it.

As I was thinking of what to do next, I remembered my friend Ji-hyeon. I’d sent her a couple of e-mails telling her I was due back in the country, but had had no reply. I searched my mails for a phone number for her and texted a message to it. A minute later she called and we arranged to meet an hour later. Fortuitously enough, she has recently started working in Sinsa, so she came straight from work to meet me for a coffee (well, she had hot chocolate).

The last time I saw her was at her wedding. She sent me an e-mail earlier in the year telling me she was pregnant; she now has a four-month-old baby boy. She showed me a video, and he’s a happy, bonny baby – they usually are. We caught up on each other’s lives, but we had barely an hour together as she wanted to get home to her son and husband.

I ate dinner then headed to Hongdae to meet Mary. I don’t know Mary so well, having only really met her a few times, but she’s a lovely person, so when she texted me in response to my Facebook message about my new phone number I was glad to arrange to meet her. We had a quite serious and occasionally gruesome conversation over a couple of drinks in a couple of bars. And we made arrangements to meet again today with Matthew for a Mary-led tour of Ewha Women’s University, where she’s a student.

And that’s what I’ll be doing very soon. This holiday is turning out to be extremely packed with social events and socialsing: seeing my three friends yesterday, meeting Mary and Matthew today, gaming tomorrow, hiking with a group on Sunday, New Year’s Eve party on Monday, dinner with some Cheonan people on Wednesday (I’ll finally get to meet some Cheonanites! (besides those I work with)). So much social interaction is quite unlike me, but, being stuck down in Cheonan and working the hours that I work, I feel that I have to take advantage of all such opportunities I can.

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The last couple of weekends have been pretty busy and fun.

The weekend before last, I came up to Seoul, my small backpack heavy with my box of Magic cards and a few bits of clothing and toiletries – and my computer, which I probably didn’t really need. I’ve recently joined a bunch of groups on Meetup and my first order of business was to attend my first event with one of them. It was a beginners’ life drawing class at a studio in Itaewon. The instructor had us practise a few different drawing techniques – initially with one of the attendees with whom he was evidently familiar because the model was late, and then with a model once she arrived.

Three Life-drawing Sketches

It was interesting work, quite challenging – especially having not had much practice at sketching for a long time, other than the occasional map for a game or story. I think I did reasonably well, though. The model was a white, North American woman – she resembled a blond Natalie Portman. Most of the attendees were women too; I chatted to a few on the way out and back to the subway station, but the atmosphere in the class was quiet so I felt pretty self-conscious about talking to anyone in there. The one woman I did talk to in the class seemed quite uncomfortable.

Afterwards, I met those sterling gentlemen, Matthew and Zach. We had dinner together and I dropped my things at Zach’s place (which is conveniently nextdoor to Matt’s place; I knocked on their doors simultaneously) where I stayed the night. Later in the evening, Zach and I went to Hongdae where he had a gig to play with Damnear David, a David Bowie cover singer. Also on the bill was a Queen cover band, Queen Machine – which I really quite enjoyed.

The following day, the three of us went to Wangsimni to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which we all agreed was very good, although it did have some silly bits like the hero not leaving home for the first hour of the film and Galadriel teleporting to avoid scuffing or tripping up over her long skirts.

We also played lots of Magic: The Gathering. Zach and I did, at any rate – Matthew had other duties that called him away.

During the week, I made a bunch of paper snowflakes with my students to decorate my class a little. There has been quite a bit of real snow of late and the weather has been very cold occasionally – making my classroom unpleasantly chilly; the single heater is not really up to the task of heating the whole room.

Paper Snowflakes

I also got my Alien Registration Card and set up a bank account with KEB – Korea Exchange Bank. Actually, I set up two accounts (no, I didn’t – the bank clerk did it for me); one is a regular current account, into which I’ll be paid, and the other automatically transfers any money put into it to my UK bank account. Once I got paid, I transferred some money into the second account; I’ve just checked and it has arrived in my British account. Now I can pay off the credit card debt I’ve built up in my first month back in Korea. Unfortunately, the advances on my salary that I’ve been given mean that I probably won’t have enough cash to see out this next month, so I’m going to have to withdraw more money on my credit card.

I had to go back to the hospital where I got my health check done. I went initially to an internal medicine clinic I’d noticed in order to get a week’s worth of my colitis medication. The doctor – a rather uninspiringly nervous and boyish middle-aged man – told me he couldn’t prescribe it but gave me a note to take to the hospital. Having seen one of the specialists at the hospital, I made my way down one of the staircases and passed this very pretty nurse who’d tested my sight and given me my sealed envelope with the results a couple of weeks afterwards. She had been very nice, trying to speak English and (kind of) remembering my name. She stopped to say hello and prove that she remembered my name again (with only a little prompting from me). I asked her hers.

I had to return once more to the hospital to get another copy of the health check statement – the last one had been for the Immigration Office; this one was for the police, with whom I was supposed to be registered. I was able to ask for Ji-yeong by name and she prepared another envelope for me.

There was a weird episode towards the end of the week when Julie, my boss, put it to me that she didn’t want to sign me up for the (legally required) national health insurance and pension schemes and instead wanted to get something private. Or maybe that wasn’t exactly what she was saying, but because of something the recruiter had told her she didn’t seem keen.

I’m very aware that Americans and Canadians can get the pension contributions back when they leave the country, but Britons can’t. This is because of differing reciprocal arrangements between governments; Koreans working in the UK also can’t get a refund of National Insurance contributions. Apparently, the recruiter had told her that she wouldn’t need to pay into the national system for a British employee and that had been a factor in her choosing me over someone else. After asking various people and reading about it, I told her I wanted to pay into the national systems – so that’s apparently what I’m now doing.

I say apparently because after getting confirmation that I was signed up from Julie, I went back to internal medicine clinic, the hospital and the pharmacy and got partial refunds on my payments because I was now retroactively covered. I’ve since been back to the hospital and pharmacy and my consultation and medication were a lot more expensive than I was expecting.

This past weekend was one of Magic and Burning Wheel gaming. Zach, Matthew and I played MTG on Saturday. That other sterling gentleman, Peter, met me on Sunday and we played more Magic, then Zach joined us and we got started on a roleplaying game run by Peter. I played a fisherman exiled from his village and Zach played a cleric with the character trait Overbearing Loony; we were united by a desire to stop colonists interfering with local culture – or at least with an old temple. It was a very promising game and seemed to go off on a tangent quite quickly – or maybe it was all planned. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue the story soon.

The first thing I did on Saturday was head up to Itaewon to see a man about a phone. I was expecting a North American, but it turned out to be an Indian or Pakistani guy. I started to feel a bit suspicious, but checked the instinct. The phone he offered me was white instead of the black one shown in the photo on Craigslist. I bought it anyway – I’m far too polite to have refused. I came to the conclusion later that the phone was almost certainly stolen. The man didn’t have any idea how to change a setting I e-mailed him about later; the phone is a little bit scuffed on the back, while this chap provided brand new recharging and data cables; he spoke near-perfect English, but he changed the phone from Korean to English right in front of me.

Anyway, it works and I’ve been to the SK Telecom centre to get a new USIM card for it – thus registering an account with SK as well as getting an actual phone number. The clerk opened it up and typed some numbers from inside the phone into her computer. I can only assume that if someone had reported it stolen, some alert would have come up at this point. Maybe it was second-hand after all.

The really disappointing thing about the phone was that it was white and not black. Nevertheless, I’ve got a pretty fancy 4G smart phone with a big screen and I’m starting to get used to how it works and alter things to my taste.

Monday was the last day of teaching for me this year. I had one class with a four-year-old boy, then the next class was an amalgam of many of the elementary school kids and we watched Brave on my laptop. A couple of hours later, the middle- and high- schoolers did the same, but I had to leave halfway through to take a class with one of the girls; then I had one more class with one of the older boys and I was done. The kids will be back on Wednesday, but I have my contractual five days of holiday.

Today, Tuesday, I spent doing not very much – washing clothes, walking around the city, blogging. I had pepperoni pizza for dinner with chocolates and beer and Misfits and the Simpsons.

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Prince of AyodhyaPrince of Ayodhya is the first volume of a modern retelling of the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic about the ideal hero, Rama. I was quite looking forwards to reading it (even though I’ve owned this book for a good few years) – Indian or Hindu mythology seems to be very colourful and obviously part of a tradition just as august as the Graeco-Roman and Germanic mythoi (which is the plural of mythos) that inform our European outlook. In practice, though, reading it was a big disappointment.

The novel is set mostly during a single day in which Rama is declared the crown prince of Ayodhya by his father Maharaja Dasaratha and is taken on a journey by a millennia-old seer, Guru Vishwamitra, to kill a demon (or Asura) and protect a ritual the seer wants to conduct. This latter double task actually takes a week or more, but is squeezed into the last hundred or so pages of the 500-odd page novel. Much of the rest of the story is concerned with palace intrigue involving the maharaja’s three wives.

The story is colourful – with larger than life characters like the preternaturally mature Rama and his half brothers, the evil governess Manthara, the weary king Dasaratha – it has lots of Brahmanic magic going on and some big fight scenes at the end. But it’s also very shallow. The all the good characters are pure in thought a deed, while the bad ones are ugly or corpulent and simplistically single-minded. There is one minor demoness who has a conflict of motivations, but only because she has a crush on the fifteen-year-old protagonist. Rama, his brother Lakshman and Vishwamitra conquer their foes without any real danger to themselves. Well, Lakshman does get killed, but is resurrected at the cost of a soul … conveniently enough, that of the Asura they’re supposed to get rid of.

Ashok K Banker

Worse than all of this, is the language and quality of the writing. It’s weak. It’s laden with lots of Hindu or Sanskrit terms – which isn’t a big problem, as it does lend a lot of authenticity to the text and there’s a moderately helpful glossary at the end. However, these words are used a little too liberally, especially when, for instance, you read a new word – ‘astra’, clearly a weapon of some sort from the context – towards the end of the book and turn to the glossary for an explanation and it just says ‘a weapon’.

The worst flaw of the book, though, is the use of modern idioms in a story set in ancient India. When magical beings transform from one shape to another, they ‘morph’. Rama, right on the very first page of the book, is described as a having ‘tight abs’. On more than one occasion the Vedic unit of measurement, the yojana, is compared to ‘Western’ miles. Perhaps such anachronisms were used to try to appeal to a global mass audience, but they end up making a mockery of the dignity of this ancient tale.

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The Secret AgentThe Secret Agent (1907) is the story of Mr and Mrs Verloc (along with the latter’s simple young brother). The former is ostensibly an anarachist in London, but he is also in the pay of the embassy of a European power (it’s never specified which). On being called in to see the new ambassador, he is given an ultimatum: provoke the anarchists into some act of terrorism or lose his income. The consequences of this are, without giving too much away, tragic and somewhat farcical.

The novel is subtitled ‘A Simple Tale’, and so it is. The book is centred on the terrorist action and takes a long time to really work up to it. Once it happens, indeed, the narrative takes a step back to work through the sequence of events from other characters’ points of view. Besides the Verlocs, there are Ossipon, an anarchist and ladies man, the Professor, an intensely dour little purveyor of explosives, Chief Inspector Heat, who is aware of all of London’s anarchists but takes quite a laissez faire aproach to them, and Heat’s superior, the Assistant Commissioner, who takes the investigation into his own hands for his own ends.

The storytelling is pretty inconsistent, moving from one character to another, perhaps in an attempt to give equal thought and prominence to each. The technique leaves the novel with no real focal character; the story is almost a baton passed from one protagonist to the next.

Joseph Conrad

There is lots of time given to the minutiae of each character’s personality and motivation, but none of them really comes to life before they’re forgotten by the narrative. In effect, the plot is less a story (in the literary sense) and more a series of consequences, a toppling chain of dominoes that leaves you with nothing but a mess of fallen dominoes. The two policemen are quite interesting characters, but their rôle in the outcome of the story is so slight as to call into question why so much time is spent in their heads; ditto the Professor.

Actually, all the characters were quite interesting and I would happily have read a longer book if there had been more story to go around. As the introduction points out, it’s a very dark tale; perhaps the narrative style was a way of diluting the impact of that darkness, to make it more palatable to Edwardian sensibilities. Having read and enjoyed Lord Jim earlier this year, I was disappointed by this book, although it contained lots that was worthy of reading (such as the descriptions of London as a wet and dismal place, the streets and buildings forming slimy chasms like the bottom of a drained ocean).

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VALISPhilip K Dick is, of course, one of the greatest science fiction writers of the twentieth century and most of his novels (those I’ve read, anyway) are set in the future or in an alternate reality. VALIS is rather different, though. It’s fundamentally an autobiographical account of a period of Dick’s own life – a period that saw him suffer a breakdown and come to believe in some pretty strange stuff.

The book is written in a strange combination of first and third person perspective. The first person is Philip K Dick himself and he refers to himself as being a science fiction writer and so on, although not until well into the novel. The third person is ‘Horselover Fat’ – a kind of split personality of Dick’s. (The name is a translation of ‘Philip Dick’ (from the Greek ‘Philippos’ and the German ‘dicke’ (presumably related to ‘thick’).) This device works very well, because Horselover is the one who has the breakdown and the delusions (for want of a better word) that are the core of the story.

Dick’s authorial voice has a strange relationship to his troubled alter ego. He is a patient, but slightly despairing companion to Horselover, and most of the time you can visualise him as a voice in his head (which you could interpret either way). But he is also, simultaneously, a character in the story along with Horselover. So, when meeting friends, both Horselover and the narratorial Dick are contribute to the conversation. They are even able to spend time apart; towards the end of the book, Horselover goes off travelling the world while Dick and his friends stay at home and wait for news of his exploits.

As to the actual story, it’s a kind of hippy, trippy, mystical conspiracy theory. Quite fascinating in a way, but it took a while to get into – perhaps because I was expecting something more overtly science fictional. Horselover believes that he has had divine knowledge zapped into his head; this knowledge prompts him to take his apparently healthy son to the doctor, which saves the boy’s life. He begins to write an ‘exegesis’ in which he develops his ideas about the true nature of the universe, largely based on Gnosticism, but incorporating other mystical traditions and scientific ideas of the time (1981), such as holography. Here’s an excerpt:

49. Two realms there are, upper and lower. The upper, derived from hyperuniverse I or Yang, Form I of Parmenides, is sentient and volitional. The lower realm, or Yin, Form II of Parmenides, is mechanical, driven by blind, efficient cause, deterministic and without intelligence, since it emanates from a dead source. In ancient times it was termed “astral determinism.” We are trapped, by and large, in the lower realm, but are through the sacraments, by means of the plasmate, extricated. Until astral determinism is broken, we are not even aware of it, so occluded are we. “The Empire never ended.”

Philip K Dick

Much of the first part of the book is introspective and repetitive, dealing with these ideas and the death of a pair of women in Horselover/Dick’s life. In the latter part the book, they hook up with some people who have made a film about VALIS – Vast Active Living Intelligence System – an ancient alien satellite that has changed the course of history by discrediting Nixon and has now brought about the rebirth of Elijah/Jesus/Buddha (as a girl).

This latter part is actually a little less interesting than the convolutions of delusion that are revealed in carefully judged stages. The characters that are introduced later are pretty pathetic, and, in fact, even Dick and his friends (Horselover gets temporarily subsumed back into his parent personality by the two-year-old female messiah) think they’re a bunch of crazies.

The writing is generally very direct and accessible – even when talking about mystical experiences, it does so with a cool, scientific tone. There are quite a few passages where it becomes a little bogged down with long words and abstruse descriptions, but they tend to add to the quietly deranged quality of the novel. The fact that it is pretty much a true story (from the author’s point of view) is disconcerting, but the honesty and irony of the Dick voice makes it palatable and ultimately likeable.

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Yesterday, I returned to Seoul for a day with friends. I had been planning to get up early and arrive early; at seven o’clock, I reset my alarm to 8:30, having not slept well or long enough. I got the slow bus up to Shinsegae and bought a ticket from the nearby Intercity Bus Station (for ₩5,000).

With some free time, I looked around for somewhere to buy hodugwaja – a walnut cake snack thing for which Cheonan is famous – and found a little shop inside the Shinsegae building at the Express Bus Terminal. The extremely close proximity of these two bus stations is a bit confusing; I’ll have to try getting a bus to Seoul from the express terminal next time.

My bus from the intercity terminal left on time and arrived at the Express Bus Terminal in Seoul an hour and five minutes later. Through the magic of Facebook, while phoneless, I was able contact Jeff, the gaming host, from a café in Noksapyeong and got directions to his place.

There, with Jeff, his friend John, Matthew and Zach, I played Magic: The Gathering with the decks I’d brought. I beat Matthew – the only other person with Magic experience – in a demonstration game; then John, the gaming newbie, held on to the end of a four-handed multiplayer game, using an Izzet Guildmage to burn Matthew and Zach (I’d already fallen). Then we played Zach’s Munchkin with all five people; I almost won at one point, but was thwarted. I lost concentration towards the end because I was in danger of being late for my dinner date, but it was great to be back amongst friends and gaming again.

Matthew and I shared a taxi to Sinsa, where I met Gemma, my old colleague from my last job in Korea. We had Mexican food and later sake and later still coffee and/or hot chocolate. It was really nice to see her again and we talked about life and stuff and things.

I got a five to midnight bus back to Cheonan. When I arrived back, seemingly everyone else on the bus had headed to the main street to get a taxi – of which there were few around. I decided to walk some or all of the way home. There was a frozen drizzle falling and the ground was pretty slippery – I fell once. I got a taxi home from Cheonan Station, where there were several taxis waiting and few people around.

I slept late today. Did some laundry after breakfast and found that no water poured into the top-loader machine as usual. After examining the piping, I realised that the tap was frozen. I boiled a pan of water and poured it over said tap and the water eventually started flowing.

Ssangyong-sa

Later, I went for a walk up a mountain just to the north of where I live. I say ‘mountain’, but really it’s just a forested hilly area. With all the recent snow, it was a pleasant walk – the snow had prettified the landscape and the trees. Without it, it would have been a very easy trek, but the paths were covered in more or less compacted snow, so you had to take care. I fell on my arse at one point, just behind a pair of women – who exclaimed and looked around, but, of course, didn’t stop to help or ask if I was OK. No damage done, though.

Traditional Grave

So far, I’ve made contact with old friends in Seoul and Daegu, but have made no new friends (outside work) in Cheonan. I’m thinking about doing something about that.

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A couple of weeks ago – on my first weekend back in Korea – I went up to Seoul on the subway. Quite impressively, Line 1 of the Seoul subway system comes all the way down to Cheonan and beyond. My journey up to central/north-eastern Seoul took two and a half hours.

I met a couple of friends for a few, too-brief minutes to pick up a box of things I’d left with them. I packed all the stuff into my small suitcase and left the box behind. I realised I’d forgotten to bring with me a box of chocolates I’d bought in the UK for them.

Afterwards, I headed to Apgujeong and to the HSBC bank (which stands, I’ve recently learnt, for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation; I never knew that, but it explains the Chinese imagery in their adverts) to use my credit card to get some money; Korean banks don’t generally work with foreign cards, in my experience.

Back in Cheonan, I did more shopping for household items – especially kitchenware. On Sunday, I cooked my first meal in my new home – spaghetti bolognese … actually, specifically vegetable bolognese with fusilli tricolore. I’ve been cooking a fair amount since then – mostly vegetable curry and vegetable bolognese.

Yesterday, I got my first bread, cheese and eggs and had a lunch of fried egg on toast with Philadelphia, green olives and extra hot sauce. It was so good, I had the same again today. Need more bread, now.

Last weekend, I travelled to Daegu on the train and spent the weekend with Peter. On the Saturday, he was having a get-together, for which he made lentil soup and a Chinese aubergine dish. One of his other guests made chocolate cookies – in front of an audience. Later we watched a film (Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that I became certain that I’d seen at the cinema when I lived in London; I didn’t recognise any specific scenes or actors, but it was nevertheless strikingly familiar.

Later, the cookie-maker led us in a joyfully politically incorrect game called Cards Against Humanity. Later still, that same gentleman took us to a bar in Daegu. The following day, Peter and I played Magic: The Gathering and, in the evening, he rushed me back to the station, where I was just in time to catch the 20:01 train.

I’ve been writing every weekday morning/lunchtime. I haven’t found a perfect place to write yet, though. The two branches of Starbucks in/near Shinsegae are too far away (I could go by bus, but it’s money I don’t need to spend); Ssangyong Library was far too quiet when I went there (it didn’t help that a man came and sat too close to me when he had practically a whole, quite large room full of empty seats to choose from); the Tom N Toms had lame coffee and loud music and overlooked a main street that filled up with students (by which I mean that young, Korean women are distractingly attractive); I thought the Caffe Pascucci at Ssangyong Station was pretty good on my first day, but, subsequently, the music got louder and more intrusive (even when I had my earplugs in and my headphones on to block out sound); I was excited to find a Starbucks in the E-Mart in Ssangyong yesterday, but today I found that the only power points appear to be built into a table in the middle of the café, and it was also extremely cold.

I hope to find the least worst place to write soon.

The only weekday I haven’t spent my pre-work hours writing recently was last Friday, when my boss met me at the hospital, where I picked up my medical report, and took me to the immigration office to apply for my Alien Registration Card. She paid for the taxi trip, but I had to pay for the immigration stamp (₩10,000). I can return to pick it up on or after the 14th of December – next Friday. Hopefully, very shortly after that, I’ll have a bank account and health insurance.

Work is going quite well; pretty chilly, though.

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