Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

It’s been over a month now since I turned 37. Life is going well in many respects – but it’s also pretty tiring.

I think it’s fair to say that my birthday celebrations were a great success. About twenty people came to the meal at a British-style fish and chips place in Sinchon in Seoul called Battered Soul. The menu wasn’t very diverse – the was little choice outside fish and chips – but they had plenty of beer and most people were satisfied with what they got (one American friend was somewhat disappointed by the fish cakes – she had never had them before). I got Guinness-battered cod and chips – along with a pint of Guinness.

After that, we headed off to Hongdae, where we went for drinks at a hookah bar (my sister had been rather confused when I told her this via Skype; my default pronunciation of ‘hookah’ is the same as ‘hooker’); after that, we went to Luxury Noraebang – a fancy karaoke place; and after that, those remaining went to a bar/club for another drink or two and dancing.

It was a long and tiring but very satisfying night. I’m very grateful to all those who came out with me – most of whom were friends that I’ve made since I returned to Korea in November. I think it’s a mark of how much I’ve developed as a person, even in just the last seven months, that so many people chose to celebrate with me.

And, although I’m not going on as many tour group trips as I did in my first few months back in the country, I’m continuing to meet new people. There have been several birthdays in the last six or seven weeks, and I’ve met new people at all of them – even my own; and there are more birthdays in the coming few weeks. I’m also continuing with my coffee mornings – I met several new people just yesterday – and I’ve attended a local language exchange group a couple of times. In Seoul, the meetings of the Tolkien discussion group are going well, and we’ll be talking about The Hobbit soon (stayed up far too late last night reading it – the hot weather is not conducive to sleep).

Finally, I’m organising little events of my own to try to bring some of my acquaintances together and develop those tentative relationships into more solid friendships. I got a few people together recently to see the new Star Trek film – an action-packed disappointment, by the way – and I will be getting some people together to go to a rose festival and modern art exhibition at Seoul Grand Park on Saturday.

I’ve been stepping up my efforts to learn Korean and, to this end, I’ve started attending classes twice a week. My teacher is a Korean woman who takes various lessons in the living room of her apartment near to where I live. She is very sweet and very patient – which latter quality is essential for teaching me, as my brain hates being forced to communicate in an alien tongue. I’m slowly getting there, though. I feel more comfortable speaking Korean with my Seoul-based language exchange partner – but she’s always off travelling the world, so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like.

My cat, Acalia, is really starting to act like a real pet – as is her duty, of course. It’s been a slow process, but she has continually built up her confidence and her liking for me has grown and grown. Whereas previously, I’d come home and not see her, and she hardly ever made a sound, these days, she is generally keen to get attention. I always find her lying on the bed when I come back home. When I enter the living room, she hurriedly gets off the bed – she’s still quite skittish – but then she follows me around and meows continuously, though not annoyingly, until I spend some time petting her.

She still doesn’t like being picked up for more than a couple of seconds and, when I move to pet her, she will sometimes either avoid me or duck her head as if she’s afraid of being struck. But she purrs very readily once I start stroking her and she enjoys the attention. She also like to chase stringy things. I made a toy out of a pizza box ribbon and the handle of a spatula (the rubber head of which I use as a cat fur-remover) and it never fails to rouse her interest.

If I offer her a finger to sniff, she always bites it – which I have mixed feelings about. It’s cute, but it’s also a bad habit that I should maybe try to wean her off. She also has very watery eyes – a feature of her breed (exotic shorthair), apparently. It wouldn’t be too bad if her eyes were merely watery, but the liquid that gathers around her eyes is pretty gunky. She leaves spots of dried, brown fluid all over the place. I clean her eyes with damp kitchen towel, which, naturally, she doesn’t like, but she doesn’t fight against it too much.

I also made her a bed out of a big cardboard box that contained my new fan. The bed has an open compartment and a closed compartment. I cut my old bathmat in half to carpet each side of it, and I made an arch strut for the covered side so it doesn’t collapse when she sits on the top – or jumps on to it, as it’s right under the window.

Work is going well. I’m taking advantage of the relaxed regime to do some more creative but English-related things with my classes. For instance, in the past week or so, I’ve had many of my kids making wordsearches and crosswords. Now that I’m more than halfway through my contract and near halfway through the calendar year, I’m starting to think about what I will do in the next six months or so. Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a good while, and I pretty much know what my plan is; I’m just starting to worry more about what exactly to do. The downside of keeping busy at weekends is that I don’t have much time to dedicate to the thought and research needed for this planning. That’s something I should schedule for the coming weeks – before it’s too late.

Read Full Post »

A couple of weekends ago, Habiba and I went on one of the Korea Foundation Volunteer Network’s ‘Culture Classes’. November’s event was making kimchi. Kimchi is fermented Chinese cabbage heavily seasoned with spices and red pepper and it’s supposed to take a long time to make – it’s left outside in pots for weeks.

This kimchi-making experience was at a kimchi museum near Insadong. The kimchi we made involved pre-fermented cabbage – a quarter of a head each. Wearing long, plastic gloves, we smeared spicy red paste between the leaves, put the kimchi in a plastic bottle and that was it. We also fried up some ddeokbokki – a cheap street food snack of rubbery rice flour sticks (not a great description; not an especially great food, either).

After that we took to the streets in teams and headed to a market to hunt down various items – the most Korean thing in the market, the cheapest thing and so on. One of the things was a stall that sold 마약 김밥 – drug kimbap, so-called for its addictiveness; which turned out to be the blandest kimbap ever, with no filling other than rice. This was followed by a brief meal at a pajeon (savoury pancake) restaurant. The whole event was quite nice.

The following day, we, along with one of Habiba’s colleagues, went to see the Body Worlds exhibition at the Korean War Memorial (which is actually a museum). Body Worlds is a display of plastinated human bodies and body parts – which means that they are real human bodies – taken from donors – that are treated to remove all the fluids and to prevent them from decomposing. This process was invented by Gunther von Hagens and has become quite famous in the last decade or so – I saw the TV programme where he autopsied bodies when I was at university.

The exhibition was divided into areas relating to certain parts of the body or bodily processes. The first part was the pre-natal body. There were various plastinated embryos – starting at a tiny, few-week-old thing smaller than a grain of rice – and foetuses, including a couple of well developed babies with hydrocephalus and anencephaly (the latter having an ugly  little lump of a head with no brain).

Thereafter, there were plastinated lungs and hearts and venous networks, and, of course, full bodies – except not full because they had been stripped of their skin and often a lot of their muscles, too. There were also salami slices of bodies affected with various conditions illustrating how, for instance, tumours can fragment, enter the bloodstream and take root in other parts of the body; there was a cross section of a pelvic area showing a presumably fatal case of constipation.

The bodies were gruesomely fascinating, but hard to take as real – even though I knew that they were: the dryness of the cadavers made them seem, appropriately enough, I suppose, made of plastic. They were often posed in playful positions.  A male and female couple posed as Leo and Kate in Titanic; one man had been divided in two and his left and right halves were playing chess with each other; another couple were having sex – the woman had also been split in two lengthwise, so you could see the position of the man’s penis inside her.

It was an interesting show and I’d recommend it if you’re not squeamish.

The weekend after that I did some gift-shopping for my family; at some point I’ll wrap and post the presents, too. Last weekend, I went down to visit my friend Peter, who lives in Daegu, a city in the south-east of South Korea.

Because he lives down south, I haven’t seen as much of Peter as I’d have liked since he returned to Korea with his Korean wife and daughter (who has now multiplied to become two daughters (that may not have been the exact process)).

It was good to see him and to have a long conversation without the distractions of gaming or other people. We went up a tower in Daegu that is much like the N-Seoul Tower at Namsan; it gave a good view of the city and its lights. Daegu is much smaller than Seoul and seems much like any other provincial city in Korea. We had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. There are many Vietnamese noodle soup places in Korea; this place was cheap and dingy by comparison, but it was staffed by real Vietnamese people. Later we played a Space Hulk card game called Death Angel – it was fun and neither too complex nor too simple; we ended up beating the game fairly handily.

The following day, Peter made us breakfast and later drove me to the bus terminal to catch the coach home. We made plans for him to come over to dinner in the new year – which I’m looking forward to.

Last night, I met Josh and Zach and Matthew and we all went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. We went to the newly re-opened CineCity cinema close to where Habiba and I live; the whole building is pretty fancy now and sports a Tous les Jours (a Korean chain of bakeries) that has a range of bread and other stuff that look very classy and tasty (whereas you usually find little more than some halfway decent baguettes).

We saw the film in the ‘Beats by Dr Dre’ auditorium; the USP of this screening room was that you listened to the sound on headphones. This was initially a little strange, but you get used to it. It creates a kind of sonic cocoon that isolates you from random extraneous noises. It also highlights some bits of dialogue that seem to have been overdubbed after the scene was shot.

The film itself was an enjoyable action blockbuster crammed with great sequences like Tom Cruise climbing up the outside of the Burj Khalifa and the climactic scene in an automated car park tower. Afterwards we got some tofu kimchi and makgeolli at a restaurant/bar place and talked until about 3 am or later.

As I write this, we have plans to meet Zach and Josh for dinner and watching 50/50.

Next weekend is some sort of religious holiday, so we’re going to a couple of pot luck dinner/secret Santa things. Then I have week’s holiday – Habiba’s starts in the middle of this week and goes on until the new year.

Read Full Post »

My last post about life was pretty depressing, but there was at least a hint of hope towards the end. I’ve now been taking steroids for my ulcerative colitis flare-up for a little over two weeks, and the improvement, while it’s been slow, is also marked. I’m still getting the bowel pains, but much less frequently and at a much lower intensity. Bathroom trips are required only about four times a day.

Most importantly, perhaps, I’m eating again and have the energy to pretty much function normally. I’m still a bit weak, though: walking up steps is harder than it used to be, my knees feel ancient if I squat or kneel and my voice is quiet(er than usual).

I have steroid pills for another four weeks, slowly tapering off in quantity; the previous fortnight I was taking eight a day, this week it’s seven, next week, six, and so on. The doctor recommended not having a colonoscopy at the moment, as sticking a camera up your guts can aggravate symptoms (I’m paraphrasing).

If, after this current prescription runs out, things are still abnormal, he suggested a sigmoidoscopy (which is a colonoscopy of only the last part of the large intestine). He also gave the names of a probiotic treatment – VSL#3 – and an immune suppressant – infliximab – to look into as promising additional UC treatments.

Habiba and I passed our two-year milestone a week ago. Celebrations were muted because of my health – and hers, for that matter; she’s been sick with a bad cold – but we had a nice day, buying a shelving unit for our kitchen area, walking along the Han River Park and disagreeing fundamentally about philosophy and the nature of the world.

However, this latter interlude concluded with the exchange: me: ‘Would you still love me if I stayed a rationalist atheist for the rest of my life?’ she: ‘It’ll be tiring, but, yes, I suppose so.’ That was possibly the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me and it made me feel a swell of happiness and love for Habiba.

Last week – having started it a couple of months earlier – I felt able to resume running my roleplaying game using the 2d6-based system I’ve designed. Although the system is a little on the complex side, it’s been working fairly well so far – better than one might expect for the inaugural run of a homebrew system.

I’m constantly changing it as we go along, though. I’m particularly proud of the magic system – but at first it turned out to be overly powerful as well as uneven. In about the third session, one character, with the aid of a couple of other casters, managed to resurrect three dead villagers. That’s no longer possible – at least until the character gains the very expensive Healing Magic Perfection feat.

The world and story are also of my own making, and things are progressing well – although I have only the vaguest idea where things are headed as yet.

I’ve started work on finding a new job, probably for September, which means going through the whole rigmarole of getting a subject access check from the police, getting it notarised and apostilled – possibly getting a copy of my degree similarly authenticated (I already have some copies from 2006 that I never used) – getting more sealed transcripts of my degree results, transferring money to my sister so she can coordinate all that, getting it all sent back to me in Korea, actually finding a job and finally making a visa run to another country to pick up my visa. Tedious. I also need to get out of the country briefly by the 7th of May when my current tourist visa runs out.

In the meantime, I need to get back on track with my writing. I’ve had some Critters feedback, recently, on the last story I finished – I’ve been so lacking in energy that for a long time I didn’t even read or respond to the e-mails. Most of the comments have been constructive, and even positive; the problems that have been highlighted make sense, and there are some I need to think hard about how to fix, but I don’t think they’re irremediable.

And then there’s my novel. I feel that there’s still a lot of work to be done before I can even begin on the actual text. Before I got sick, I was coming up with ideas for characters, plot points and world-building; none of which has solidified into something I’m 100% satisfied with.

I started going to a free Korean class provided by the Korean Foundation Cultural Center near City Hall in February. It was hard work. The teacher didn’t make too many concessions to the students’ lack of ability, practice or confidence (there were about half a dozen of us). However, I was able to pick what was being taught and passed the test at the end of the month easily. Then I was sick for a month.

Last week I went back for the next level and found my self part of a much larger class (maybe twelve or more people); the teacher this time went much more slowly – too slowly, even – and, by the end of two hours, we’d covered a fair amount of material. I even learnt a Korean idiom – dwaeji ggumeul gguda – to dream a pig dream. If Koreans have a pig dream, they should go out and buy a lottery ticket because it’s considered good luck financially.

The other day, I permitted Habiba to give me a haircut. I’d already shaved ealier in the day, removing a couple of months’ worth of bushy, homeless-person beard growth. My hair was getting a bit floppy, a bit mulletty in the back – and, with spring here and my health returning, I thought it was time for a change. Habiba had been pestering me to either get it cut or to let her do it for a while. She literally rolled on the floor in joy when I gave her the news.

She set to with her scissors for about an hour, periodically stepping back to look at my shrinking barnet in worry. Apparently, she hadn’t been doing a very good job. When I suggested she try using a comb, she said, Oh, yeah – that’s what they do. It got better after that, but in order to even things up she needed to take off a lot more hair. The result is pretty much a crewcut – perhaps the shortest haircut I’ve ever had. I’m quite happy with it, actually – it makes me look younger and it’s totally practical.

A week before we moved into our new place in Cheongdam-dong, we received a cat from one of Habiba’s colleagues who was leaving the country. Billie is a brown tabby with white paws and breast. After lots of changes in her life – moving to our old place, moving to our new place, putting up with lots of furniture rearrangement – she’s settled into her new life and seems happy.

Unfortunately, Habiba is convinced that Billie doesn’t like her. The cat, on the other hand, is quite attached to me – she’ll curl up in my lap and sleep at my feet at night. She also likes to dash about randomly and leap up the bathroom doorpost. We finally have a use for the fish-and-feathers-on-a-string-on-a-stick cat toy we bought in Thailand over a year ago.

In short, then, normal service is resuming. About time, too.

Read Full Post »

Today was quite a pleasant day. I found out where the hostel was were Habiba stayed when she was in the country. I think I hadn’t understood a critical part of the directions right at the beginning, causing me to start off going one way, when I should have been going the other. It’s quite a nice little place – Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel – and is a short walk from Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Mao’s Mausoleum and so on.

After checking in to this hostel, I checked out of the previous one, handed over a bag of clothes to be cleaned – 39 yuan – and headed off for a walk. I walked around Tiananmen Square and around a nearby area of pretty shops aimed at tourists.

After that I walked back to the area near both the hostels that is full of gleaming malls – even a Lotte Department Store (Lotte is one of Korea’s biggest brands) – for a bit of writing. Yes, I started my National Novel Writing Month project. To complete 50,000 words in one month you need to write 1800 words a day, on average. I didn’t write that much – maybe 450 words at most. I had to stop to go and meet Charlie and her Chinese boyfriend, Mark, for dinner.

Charlie’s time in Korea was pretty stressful, especially her work, and – although she told me some stories about her work that didn’t sound exactly pleasant – when I saw her tonight she seemed happier. Mark seemed like a nice chap, too. We went to a street full of little trendy shops and ate at a restaurant that sold western Chinese food – Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs are from – the staff there wore Muslim caps. We talked about work and life and they – Charlie, actually – provided me with some useful phrases to try to memorise and use.

We talked about the Chinese language, and I learned the Chinese character for ‘peacful’, which consists of two elements – ‘woman’ and ‘house’ – because a woman at home is peaceful, apparently. The character combining ‘pig’ and ‘house’ means ‘home’, because the Chinese are pig farmers. Interesting.

Mark translated the dice that I bought. One of them, the one with single characters, had things like ‘kiss’, ‘French kiss’, ‘pinch’ and ‘bite’; the other, the one with three characters to a side, had ‘up to the man’, ‘up to the woman’, ‘watch a movie’ and ‘go shopping’. Someone in China has clearly read Dice Man.

It was a very nice evening, and a nice enough day. I feel like I’m becoming a little more at ease at being in the country. I’ll try to be more adventurous tomorrow.

Read Full Post »

Or, in English, Sean’s Korean Diary, which is the name of a new blog I recently set up. I haven’t posted on it much – nor have I worked all that hard on learning Korean, but it’s better than nothing. About a year ago I added a Korean Vocabulary page to this blog, but then deleted it as I hadn’t used it. Well, that lexicon now has a home and a little substance.

My next task, assigned by my language exchange partner, Ji-hyeon, is to write some instructions for something. I am considering writing how to make a cup of tea (what else, really?), but I can see myself relying almost entirely on Google Translate. My next language exchange session is in a couple of weeks – plenty of time to forget everything I learnt last week.

Read Full Post »

Paintballing and stuff

The past week or so has been very tiring and challenging. There is the simple fact that I haven’t been getting my usual eight hours a night, because when I’m at Habiba’s we stay up late indulging in bed-based activities, and Habiba has to get up early to go to work. Actually, last week must have been stressful for her, too. I’ve only just realised that.

And that leads me on to the challenging part. I’m used to being essentially self-centred – both by habit and by nature. Now I have a responsibility to Habiba and our relationship. This is something I want to live up to – but I’m not entirely sure how. On the other hand I don’t want to pressure myself – or her.

Anyway. On Saturday we went paintballing on another Adventure Korea trip. Also with us were Habiba’s colleagues, JP (South African) and Rose (Korean), and her friends Ksan (Canadian) and Jun (Korean) – a very entertaining couple. And a load of assorted oeguks.

The paintballing site was just outside Seoul, somewhere to the north, I think. We met at Gupabal Station, then we had to take buses to the place (they were free on the way there (or, at least, included in the price of the day), but we had to pay on the way back). The place was in the typically Korean countryside – all hills and dry forest and flat, developed land.

We were split into two groups – a yellow team and a green team. Each team had appropriately coloured tops like goalies’ shirts. Our gang was on the yellow team. The guns weren’t all that impressive – each was a simple airgun with a gas canister at the butt and a black plastic pod at the top that held the paint pellets. The other piece of equipment we were provided was the face mask. This was a large affair, covering pretty much all of the face, and gave people a slightly Master Chief-ish aspect.

The paintballing arena was a smallish area of hillside consisting mostly of dry earth, with lots of trees, several bunkers and a number of oil drums at the bottom end. The teams generally alternated between taking the uphill and downhill areas. Although the site wasn’t that big, it had more than enough cover for the 30 or so people playing.

The first couple of games were simple team versus team affairs. In the first match, I didn’t do much shooting, but I did get shot in the leg. I understood that this didn’t mean I was dead – only shots to the body or gun were ‘fatal’. Now that I think about it, ‘body’ can be interpreted more than one way. Anyway, a short time after that I received a bona fide head shot, above my mask, at the front of my scalp. It stung. It was also a talking point for random people who saw it. Later, Habiba got splats of orange and green paint on her mask.

Teamplay got a little stronger as the games went on, but each person was mostly left to their own devices. Not being an aggressive person, I liked to stay more or less safe in one spot and attempt to take people out. Occasionally, I’d run forward to another position. I managed to get three people, I think, in the four or five games I played. The most impressive being when a big green team player vaulted over some oil drums just in front of me. I got him point blank in the chest – which was dangerous play, actually, but I didn’t stop to think about it.

Afterwards, Habiba and I went back to her place to shower and spend some time in bed before going out to Itaewon with JP, Rose and a couple of their other colleagues, and Irish couple, Brian and Nicola. We went to a gay bar. I didn’t even know such things existed, even in the seamy recesses of Itaewon – but they do: there’s about three clustered together in a back street. It was OK, I suppose. I tried to dance with Habiba.

I suffered a soju hangover the next day. Not the worst I’ve ever had, but not nice. I headed home to change and to try to make myself feel better by listening to some loud Metallica. Consequently, I was very late to meet Ji-hyeon for our first earnest language exchange – although I kept her informed by text message. My punishment was to buy her a coffee and some cheesecake. I felt a bit self-conscious of my hungover state and my five days of stubble.

Ji-hyeon had sent me a link to a song she wanted me to learn: ‘Keopi Han Jan’ – ‘One Cup of Coffee’. It’s a cheery pop song – surprisingly catchy. In our meeting I learnt how to say ‘How about …?’ In exchange, I looked at some of her work, and felt inadequate to the task. Her stuff had plenty of correctable mistakes, but I felt it would be boring just to go through point by point and pick holes – plus, I don’t like criticising. My next task once I’ve finished this post is to work on a more detailed critique for her. I think I’ll also take her lead and have her look at a piece of writing – which I’ll have to find.

I was planning to hook up with Habiba afterwards, but I felt that I needed to go to bed. When I phoned her it turned out she wasn’t too good either. And the poor girl got worse on Monday. I wasn’t much better either. I met one of the teachers from taekwondo on Monday evening just as I was heading over to Habiba’s. When I explained the situation (in Korean, no less), he put it appositely: ‘Kachi apayo?’ ‘You’re sick together?’ Ne.

Read Full Post »

Lovely Girls Contest

The title of this post is, of course, a reference to an episode of Father Ted – ‘Rock a Hula Ted’ – that I’ve recently re-watched (‘Of course – they all have lovely bottoms.’).

On Friday night, straight after work, I went to taekwondo for my half lesson with I Sabeomnim. By the time we’d finished our short training session the dojang was pretty much deserted. I tried once again to persuade her to let me give her English classes. Once again, she professed her interest, but said she was very busy. She also told me, however, that she was studying by herself. I asked her what exactly she was looking at and she said, ‘Bulbs.’ ‘Bulbs?’ ‘Yes, uh, vulbs.’ She meant ‘verbs’. She also said she was planning to maybe go to America in a couple of years’ time.

She also invited me to go to a camp for the taekwondo students next weekend and be a ghost with her. I agreed, of course, but I have my doubts about the latter part of the deal.

On Saturday, I went to meet Lucy, or Lucia, or Ji-hyeon – I prefer the latter, although she was introduced to me as the former – a friend of our colleague Ally or Yu-jeong. I’d asked a few of my Korean colleagues about finding someone for a language exchange – someone to teach me Korean while I taught them English. I was bracing myself for failure in this enterprise, but Yu-jeong – the flame-haired Valkyrie – came through with Lucy’s phone number.

I gave Yu-jeong a small present. It was pretty paltry, I suppose, but I’d been collecting cards from Starbucks offering free drinks. Most of them were extra shots, but I had one for a tall Americano. Last week, distributed them amongst the Korean teachers, and I gave Ally my sole ‘second prize’ card.

Anywho, I met Ji-hyeon at Sinchon (pronounced ‘Shin-chon’) for lunch on Saturday. I thought I might be late, but it turned out that she was. She offered to cover lunch because of this, but I didn’t let that happen. I’d been to the area once before – although it’s right next to Hongdae, which I’ve been to a few times – when I went out with the foreign teacher from Ansan shortly before I finished my previous job; I remember visiting a Burger King in the early hours of the morning. Lucy and I went to an Italian restaurant, where she had some seafood pasta that she didn’t like much; I had a rice croquette in a rich tomato sauce – mine was really good.

We talked for a while about what we wanted from this language exchange. Lucy tried speaking Korean to me, but it was aju eoryeowoyo (very difficult). She took my level two textbook to study to come up with excercises for me. I suggested she write essays for me. Her English is very good – better than your average Korean English teacher – so I’m apprehensive of how to go about ‘teaching’ her. She’s currently in Italy at a book fair, buying books for education publisher she works for. We’re meeting again next weekend – although I’ve just realised there might be a clash in my schedule (see below).

She’s 30 years old, I think, which is about 32 in Korean terms (for instance, I’m both 32 and 34). She’s also very good-looking – as many Korean women are. We went for a walk after lunch, to Ewha Women’s University. The campus is pretty interesting. It’s completely open to the public, and seems just like a normal park. There’s a kind of manmade gorge running through a shallow hill; this is all paved, and there are steps at the uphill end. The sides of the gorge are all fronted with glass and house various university faculties. As this is a women’s university, I couldn’t help thinking that the overall design is rather vaginal.

On the following day, Sunday (just in case you didn’t know that Sunday follows Saturday), I went down to an area called Ttukseom to ride bicycles with Habiba, the woman I met on the DMZ trip, and some of her colleagues.

I thought I was going to be just about on time, but I was late. The reason being that there’s a Ttukseom Station and a Ttukseom Resort Station; I’m familiar with the latter because it’s on the subway line I use for going to Gangnam and roleplaying – I just assumed that it was that stop we were meeting at when I was given my instructions. I rang Habiba to inform her there wasn’t an exit 8 at this station – but, of course, I was at the wrong stop.

Anyway, once I arrived I met Habiba and one of her colleagues, an American chap, the Korean girlfriend of another of her colleagues, and her school director, a Korean woman of about 40. We walked to Seoul Sup – Seoul Forest – which didn’t really seem to be a forest, just a big park. Once there, we met the director’s husband, their two daughters and their two friends.

Bike hire turned out to be ₩3,000 per hour – about £1.50. The bikes themselves were nothing special – bog standard 21-speed mountain bikes with several gears not working (my bike only went up to 14th gear). There were also ladies’ bikes for the ladies; Habiba got one of these and then had to swap it for something more manly because it didn’t handle so well.

We rode round the park for a bit, then paid for more time and took our cycles down to the river (which was possibly against the rules). The Han River – or Hangang – is a lot broader than the Thames (in central London, anyway) and much of both banks is lined with parkland and cycle paths. It’s a very pleasant place to go for a walk or, in last Saturday’s case, a ride.

I stuck with Habiba most of the time, but I chatted a little with the others. Habiba and I got separated from the others for a time and we rode our bikes to a rubble-strewn dead end and got off to look over the water for a while.

When we got back to the cycle hire place in the park there was some waiting around as other members of the party made their way back. The director’s family left us and there was talk about going for a meal. When we returned to Ttukseom Station (not Ttukseom Resort Station) I took my leave and headed back up to Nowon, having run out of things to say for the time being. Later in the evening I went to see Gran Torino, which was very good.

I like Habiba a lot, and I guess she likes me. I have to reason these things out as my insecurities regarding women are little short of crippling. She must like me – she invited me to go paintballing with her next weekend, and I invited her to come and see a film with me tonight. Both invitations were accepted. By the time I post this, that date will already have happened; I’ll try and write it up tomorrow.

Read Full Post »

Racing snails

Well, life moves on at its own pace. It seems like not much has happened lately, but actually there’s a few things worth noting here.

I spoke to the hagwon director’s brother (who’s one of our teachers) the other day. He said I’d get three days holiday in April or May, but they couldn’t tell an exact date yet. We’ve already had two days off this year (not including national holidays), so the fact that it’s three days doesn’t bother me. The vagueness regarding the date should do, but I’m not cynical enough to suspect the hagwon of lying to me about it.

I’d also asked about the renewal of my contract, and he said that they likewise couldn’t tell me because they would have to know how many students they’d have. The term starting on Monday will last until the end of May, and my contract runs until June. It’s annoying that I don’t have any certainty about this – if only because I know that I ought to be looking for other jobs just in case. I want to do two consecutive years in Korea, and I think I’d be happy staying at E-Castle. I suppose I should start doing more to prove myself a useful member of the team.

Botond had his last day at our hagwon on Thursday (Friday was one of our days off), as did at least two of the Korean teachers – the widely disliked senior teacher (by foreigners, anyway), Sunny, and the much nicer Eun-yeong. From Monday we’ll have at least one new Korean teacher and a new foreign teacher – an American called Sandy.

Last night (at the time of writing – who knows when I’ll actually upload this) I had my test for blue belt at taekwondo. This was a strangely depressing experience – but then last time was, too. On the previous Wednesday I tried to ask my sabeomnim about one of the moves (or combination thereof) that I was supposed to do. I texted her about it and she didn’t reply. On Thursday I tried calling her – also no reply.

The move I was trying to get her to describe more specifically wasn’t really that complex, but with an exact definition to practice to before I would have performed it better than I did. I did carry off the two pumsae that I was required to do pretty well. On the other hand there was another movement that I feel I haven’t had enough instruction in for me to do it well.

As with my previous test I was required to break some flimsy boards – which, again, hadn’t been covered at all in class. I did a left and right roundhouse kick and made pieces of board fly off to the side. Two right side kicks proved easy enough, but I needed three attempts on a left side kick.

Unlike last time, there was no audience whatsoever, and my sabeomnim tested me herself, taking notes as she did so. She gave me some feedback, too. My side kicks were too low, although, at 32 and having been doing taekwondo for only a few months, I don’t think there’s much I can do about my lack of flexibility. She also said my gihap (‘spirit shout’) was late, but I’m sure the students and masters also often perform the gihap just after the kick, punch or block.

I’m to be given a result on Wednesday. I left in a dark mood, ignoring one of the expert students when she said goodbye to me.

I resolved to go for a long walk. Shortly in to this I remembered that we hadn’t talked about meeting the master who’d left the other week, so I called I Sabeomnim to suggest we all go out for drinks some time. Strangely enough, she answered and she responded positively, although she said she and the old master were busy giving tests. This made me feel a bit happier. On reflection, though, it seems like her response to anything I suggest is that she wants to but she’s busy, and maybe next month.

I walked for a couple of hours hoping to get lost. I found myself in some unfamiliar territory beyond the bus routes to Hagye Station, but I semi-purposely wandered in a long loop and ended up returning to the vicinity of Hagye. It was a little before midnight so I decided to investigate the Hagye branch of Homeplus (you’ll remember that Homeplus is co-owned by Samsung and Tesco and was my number one choice for shopping when I lived in Ansan). I bought two large boxes of Tesco cornflakes (yay!) and had a short conversation in Korean with a boy who stopped next to me on the long, sloping escalator.

Homeplus turns out to be about twenty minutes walk away – about twice the distance to Lotte Mart, and in the same direction. I’ve resolved never to shop at Lotte Mart again. At home, having skipped breakfast by virtue of not having run out of both cornflakes and milk, I ate a couple of enormous servings of Great British cereal from a cooking bowl.

I missed my Korean class last week and was late to today’s class (I skipped breakfast again so I wasn’t too late). I haven’t been enjoying as much as I had before; there are a couple new American students in the class that I feel slightly intimidated by for no good reason. But anyway, today we finished the level one textbook, next week we start a new book with a new teacher.

I’ve been thinking today (prompted by the fact that in the previous month I saved a grand total of ₩300,000 – about £150) that I might stop going to the classes and instead find someone to teach me Korean in exchange for me teaching them English. I could ask one or two of the Korean teachers at work if they know anyone. I haven’t asked any of them about getting someone for a private class (for money) because it’s illegal (though many foreigners do it) and I don’t want them having something to hold over me. This is rather more innocent, though.

I’d noticed recently that the clip attachment bit on the strap of my new laptop case was starting to resemble the the one that came apart minutes after I bought it. This morning I took a few minutes to loop one of my black hairbands through the attachment and clip. And whaddaya know, shortly after my Korean class, the attachment popped out of the hole in which it’s supposed to pivot. My hairband saved the day.

Read Full Post »

Taking the skis

I went skiing for the first time on Sunday, with Botond and So-young and their friend Seol-Hee, who drove us to the resort.

On Friday night I didn’t get much sleep, partly because of the new late schedule at work and partly because I had to get up early to go to Korean class. The class itself wasn’t too hot – mostly review stuff; I only noted down two or three new vocabulary or grammar items on my notepad.

(By the way, the title of this post refers to the Korean for the verb to ski: there is no Korean word for this verb, instead you have to say ‘스키를 타다’ (‘seukireul tada’) – ‘to take skis’. ‘타다’ (‘tada’) – ‘to take’ – is the verb used for any form of transportation – car, subway, aeroplane, horse, skis etc.)

Later in the day I met Bo and Travis to play pool in Nowon and then go drinking in Itaewon. This night out was supposed to be an E-Castle thing, but the Korean teachers weren’t interested – to my non-surprise and slight relief. We visited several places: first, dinner at a Mexican restaurant, then Gecko’s, the Wolfhound, then there was a pause as we tried to find somewhere that either had a football table or was a ‘meat market’. We finished the night in Woodstock – which was my favourite place as it was almost empty – and therefore quiet – and played some decent music.

After about an hour’s sleep once I got home it was time to get up to meet Bo and So-young to go and meet Seol-Hee. I was feeling a tiny bit hungover, but nothing serious: I hadn’t been able to quite finish my bowl of cereal that morning, for instance. We met Seol-Hee outside her building and proceeded out of the city. The drive was about an hour or so, but with a heavy mist shrouding the landscape there wasn’t much to see out of the window.

You could tell when you were approaching the ski resort – Jisan – because of the number of skiing and snowboarding equipment shops along the road. We rented our own stuff from one of these places.

After a meal at the resort’s food court Bo took me outside to start my training. I’d snowboarded once before, two years ago, with other English teachers from Ansan – and I wasn’t very good at it – but had never skied (although I have a dim memory of a day at a ski slope in Runcorn when I was in the Scouts – but it could be imaginary). I was hoping that skiing would be easier than snowboarding.

First Time Skiing
And it was. Bo’s tuition helped a lot – in fact he was very good in this role. After a frankly kind of scary first half an hour or so up on the slopes, where I felt completely out of my depth, I suddenly started getting the hang of it. After my first awkward couple of descents I was able to go down without going arse over tit once – although I was employing a cautious, snow-plough-heavy technique. Later, as I tried to overcome my natural cowardice and go fast, and as I was getting tired, I started falling down more.

Botond, Seol-Hee, So-young, Captain Maybe

The sense of control over direction and speed was quite pleasing – especially so bearing my snowboarding experience in mind, where I felt like I only had two choices: go, and fall over.

It was hard work, both physically and, if you like, psychically, but certainly rewarding. Afterward, with my minimal sleep during the previous two days, I was fairly knackered.

Read Full Post »

The second test

On Saturday morning I went to Korean class – the last one this year – as usual. One of our exercises, which the teacher told us about the previous week, was to read out a simple passage from the textbook. It begins: ‘I am Bak Jae-yeong. I’m a university student. My younger brother is also a university student. We are very different.’ Except in Korean. Obviously. In English it wouldn’t be much of an exercise. Although I memorised it during the week, we weren’t expected to have done so. I recited it from memory anyway – and, in a vote by the two Japanese students and myself, won a small box of Jejudo cactus chocolates (I’m not sure if they were really made from cactuses or that was just a brand name). It was a very small box, containing just four chocolates – each in its own vacuum-sealed wrapper – which was quite serendipitous, as I gave one each to the other two students and the teacher. Or rather, it was serendipitous that there were only three students including me this week.

Later that day I was due to have my second taekwondo test so I didn’t hang around in Starbucks as is my wont and headed straight back to Nowon. I would have liked to have gotten more practice in beforehand … but I didn’t.

Back at my apartment, did some stretches practised a few kicks, blocks and taegeuk il-jang (태극 1-장). This is the easiest of the taekwondo pumse, or forms (‘il’ being the number 1). Starting from the ready stance, junbi (준비), you do a low block and a punch to the left, then again to the right, and then again to the front in a different, longer stance. Then you body block and punch to the right, and again to the left, then low block and punch to the front. Then comes the tricky bit – for me, anyway. Face block, kick and punch to the left, then to the right, before finally going back with a low block and a punch and returning to junbi (ideally in exactly the same spot you started from. Actually, the three different stages of the form are supposed to sketch out three parallel lines – the symbol for heaven, as used in the I Ching and appearing on the Korean flag (aka Taegeuk)).

The problem I find with the face block (eolgul makki – 얼굴 막기) is the positioning of the fists at the start of the move: the blocking hand should be at the waist (on the opposite side) with the thumb side outward, the other hand starts the opposite shoulder with the thumb side against the clavicle. From there you bring the upper fist down to its own side of the waist whilst you move the lower, blocking hand up above the head with the forearm horizontal, twisting the wrist so that the thumb side of the fist is now pointing downwards. At best, when it comes to that part of the pumse I have to either pause a moment to make sure my fists are right or just fudge it.

Anyway. I went to the dojang for 4:30 and found that there was another bevy of littl’uns being tested in front of an audience of their parents. The older students – my classmates – were huddled in the small meeting room-cum-office, so when I’d changed I went in to join them. And nothing happened for quite a while.

Kim Sabeomnim (the male master who co-trains my class) took me out to say that I’d been going on ‘last’ at about 5:50. In hindsight, what he must have meant was either simply ‘first’ or directly after the youngsters. For a while I just stood or sat amonst the teenagers as they joked around with each other. Then I got talking with a boy called Jun-hui (pronounced ‘joon-hee’, more or less) (or Alex, as he told me his English name was). He was under the impression that the UK was a violent place and I tried to explain about the gang violence amongst teenagers. He told me that he wasn’t allowed to travel to Britain because Chinese youths get murdered. If this is a reference to a real news story, I haven’t heard of it. He and a girl started discussing what my Korean name should be. The disscussion was curtailed, though, as it was finally time to begin.

To my consternation, not only was I to go on first (by myself, in front of a load of Korean parents), I was also expected to do the sinche 3-deunggeup and taekwondo-ran? patterns (which, naturally, I hadn’t practiced for the two months since my yellow belt test) and they wanted me to break boards, which hasn’t come up at all in training. In the event, Lee Sabeomnim virtually held my hand throughout the entire test – and I still screwed up several times. Breaking the balsa wood (or something similar) boards was the easiest part of the test, actually – I did one about a centimetre thick with a front kick, and another much thinner one with a hand chop.

The whole thing was enthusiastically received by the audience, but when I’d finished and the teenagers took up their marks I felt rather down and quite annoyed. With myself for not performing or practising well enough – but also with Lee Sabeomnim for not letting me know ahead of time what was going to happen – especially as I’d asked her repeatedly about just that.

I sat down by the ranks of little kids as my class mates strutted their stuff. In fact, they weren’t being tested themselves, but were rather putting on a show. Music thundered out of the PA system – mostly dance or pop music, but also including the theme from The Lord of the Rings as the kids did a series of short pieces. One was all about breaking boards left, right and centre; another had one boy with a yellow belt being picked on by a gang of red-black and black belts – and kicking their arses; another had Jun-hui at the centre of a quincunx of students doing basically a dance routine to a highly annoying, highly popular pop song.

When they’d finished, they bundled back into the meeting room where Jun-hui told me I’d been great and asked me if he’d been good, too. I said he’d been very good, but I was preoccupied with my apparent failure. Soon the teenagers all bundled out again, so I followed only to find they were grabbing their coats in order to go to a church somewhere in the building. After that, Lee Sabeomnim congratulated me and gave me a – I’m sure there’s a name for it, but I don’t know what it might be – a matching coat and pants – the kind of thing athletes wear while they’re waiting to do their thing. The coat has a Taegeuk badge on the breast and the words ‘KOREA’ (at the top) and ‘TAEKWONDO’ (at the bottom) on the back; it’s also a size or two too big. Apparently they were from the owner of the dojang.

I explained that I felt I’d done badly, mentioning the eolgul makki thing. She recognised what I meant, but said it didn’t matter and I should receive my green belt on Monday. I wonder if I should tell her I’m annoyed at her for not preparing me adequately. I probably won’t – I’m hoping to start giving her English lessons for one thing. At least I’ll know to practise a lot more for my blue belt test – whenever that might be.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »