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Given that I had some time off before I started work, I decided to fly back to Britain for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t particularly a Christmas visit – it was just a coincidence that that event fell during my work hiatus, and it seemed like the perfect time to be back with my family.

I flew with Finnair (yes – boarding my flights, I disappeared into Finnair) via Helsinki airport. Both ways, I was a little anxious about my baggage. On the way there, I hid my small backpack in my carry-on suitcase, taking it out once I’d passed through security. On the way back, I was a little concerned about the weight of my big backpack, containing, as it did, several books in addition to clothing and suchlike, but it only weighed 17kg – well under the 23 kg limit (but still a bugger to swing on to and off my back).

I also paid extra to bring my guitar (a Mexican Fender Stratocaster) in its flight case back with me to Korea; even though it was well wrapped in plastic the case suffered a little damage – the guitar is OK, though. It’s been fun playing it in the past few days, although a) I do regret not getting over to my late grandparents’ home to pick up my Metallica music books and b) it’s given me a flare-up of sciatica, for which I will try to resume my back exercises.

At Helsinki, it was rather charming to see the airport staff getting around on adult-sized push scooters.

I barely had chance to unload my backpack and share the wealth of Korean snacks I’d brought back with my family, and to have an early Christmas dinner with – amazingly – my whole family, before I headed down to Bath to spend a couple of days with my friend Alex, and then to Bristol to do likewise with my friend Lawrence and his girlfriend Yi Vei. I got them all Korean snacks, too – including the ever-popular Pepero.

Alex and I, accompanied much of the time by his friend Jason, spent pretty much all our waking hours playing Magic: The Gathering with a little Munchkin and Islands of the Azure Sea on the side. My Magic decks didn’t do very well, as Alex has recently got back into the game and has much more of the recent powerful stuff than I do – and Jason is an adept newcomer to the game.

Before catching my train to Bristol, Alex and I visited Waterstone’s, where he bought me a bunch of Magic cards and card sleeves and I bought him Star Munchkin.

Lawrence and Yi Vei took me to a burger restaurant, Atomic Burger, that was decked out in old toys and where all the burgers had the names of American icons – I got a Johnny Cash. The following day, I was supposed to take part in Lawrence’s workshop at a Buddhist centre, but I had a terrible headache from not drinking enough before bed and sleeping too long. I felt bad about dropping out, but I was far too grumpy to join in the spirit of it.

Once back in Whaley Bridge at my sister’s place I spent much of the time playing board games with her, her kids, her boyfriend, her kids’ aunt. They enjoyed my Islands of the Azure Sea game; as usual, I’d modified the rules since playing it previously, which helped to balance the gameplay. I got them Forbidden Island and Catan Junior as gifts and we enjoyed them, too. I bought Munchkin Cthulhu along with its Call of Cowthulhu expansion for myself and got to try that out.

Other plans – like blogging, working my new game idea The Hell War, reading a friend’s novel, researching MA courses in Seoul – were pretty much forgotten. As Alex and Lawrence are two of my oldest and best friends I prioritised visiting them, and that, along with Christmas, limited my ability to see other friends. Another time.

In addition to my guitar and Munchkin Cthulhu, I also brought back my Monopoly and Scrabble as well as Civilization, a board game (which predates Sid Meier’s Civilization computer game) my parents got me about ten years ago and which I’ve only ever played once (and I cut that game short when my friends decided to change the rules as we were playing). I also got Stephen R Donaldson’s recent last book in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Last Dark, Iain (M) Banks’s last book before his death last year, The Quarry, Robert Rankin’s latest, The Chickens of Atlantis and Other Foul and Filthy Fiends, Philip Pullman’s Grim Tales, Swords & Dark Magic and Strange Dreams – both anthologies, the latter edited by Stephen Donaldson. Finally, I ordered and received a small pile of unusual dice and brought them back along with all my other dice.

Since then, I’ve played Civilization with my friend Peter and Munchkin Cthulhu with some other friends – Matthew, Erica and Jihyena – celebrated the New Year with meat, uninspiring fireworks, drink and card games and paid my rent for January, leaving me with precious little money until I get paid some time later in the month. I’ll be living on my credit card until then.

I start work on Monday and I feel pretty ambivalent about it. I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I want to get the initial period over with and settle in as fast as possible, and also get used to getting up early every day. It seems like there are lots of documents to get used to dealing with and probably not much time during normal working hours to fill them all out. And the kids’ mums are apparently the kind that love to complain about everything. I should just try and keep my head and enjoy teaching the kids as much as possible.

I’m sure I’ll be back in a month or two to report on my progress.

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As any reader of my blog knows, I like to play games. I’ve played a few recently.

The Player of Games

The Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition) campaign I’m in here in Cheonan reached a major milestone last night with the killing of a big evil dragon (although this happened in a cave rather than a dungeon). The campaign has been fun – surprisingly so given the large group of people taking part: seven players plus the gamemaster. My previous experience with such a large group is the session becomes noisy and unfocused, but no one in our group has an especially dominating personality, so everyone gets a chance to say and do what they want. Which isn’t to say, of course, that the group is relentlessly focused on the game – there’s a lot of joking and chat, too – which is an essential part of the fun.

The Fight with Ice and Fire Elementals

After a summer break, it looks like a couple of our players won’t be coming back to the game and our characters are all jumping up a few levels. Having already killed a dragon at quite a low level, I wonder what challenges lie ahead for the party.

In the last couple of months or so I’ve been working on a couple of games – one is a board game, one a card game. The card game has an urban fantasy setting and a range of characters including vampires, sorcerers, hackers, drug dealers, corporate lawyers and so on. It’s still a work in progress, though; the games I’ve played with it so far show that my intended win condition is not at all easy to achieve.

The board game is much more polished. I’ve called it Islands of the Azure Sea and it’s a fantasy piracy game where you move a ship around a sea filled with islands, gathering treasure and items, fighting other ships (including those of the other players), native islanders and monsters. I’ve put a fair amount of work into making the board, the ships, writing out all the cards and changing them several times to balance out the gameplay. I’m pretty proud of it.

Islands of the Azure Sea

I’ve played it a few times with friends and students and it’s always been quite fun, but the treasure maps – which are essential to the mechanics and flavour of the game – have generally proved difficult to come by. Introducing a few cards to facilitate treasure-finding seems to have help, though. I played the game on Saturday with some friends down in Daegu, and they really got into the game, making characters for themselves and concocting narratives. Peter, for instance, kept avoiding taking potentially dangerous Sea Cards and adopted the personality No Risk Pete. When he lost a crewman due to a madness card, he said the man had abandoned ship due to boredom; when he subsequently gained a crewman due to a castaway card, he said the man had changed his mind.

The game on Saturday was part of Peter’s Daegu Gamefest. A pretty modest event, really, but a good opportunity to meet a few new people and play lots of games. When I arrived at the café, Peter and a few others were already playing Munchkin. I joined in for a few turns and then we turned to Dungeon Crawl Classics, a simplified roleplaying game where we each had three very weak villager characters – many of whom died. After lunch, a few of us played Islands of the Azure Sea and the rest played Smallworld – which I’d played and really enjoyed the last time or two I was in Daegu. While the other were finishing that, three of us played Space Hulk: Death Angel. Then we all played Betrayal at House on the Hill – in which we were eaten by tentacles. Later in the evening, we played Dogs in the Vineyard, a game about Mormon gunslingers fighting the supernatural. The following day, Peter and I tested my card game.

It was a fun, action-packed weekend; I had to hurry from Daegu back to Cheonan in time for the climactic D&D session – and mini-party beforehand.

A few weeks earlier, Peter had joined me and a few others for my own gaming day in Cheonan. Peter and I played Magic: The Gathering. One of the guys from roleplaying and his wife came and we played Islands of the Azure Sea and Settlers of Catan. Peter left and was replaced by Eve from roleplaying and we played an interesting card game called Dominion. Slightly embarrassingly but undeniably pleasingly, I won all the games (although we decided to cut Islands short).

Blue-Red Versus Green-Red-Black

Dominion, Settlers of Catan and Smallworld are all games I would like to play more. The two roleplaying game systems we tried out both seemed interesting and worth trying again – but with RPGs, you really need a lot of time to get to know them.

As D&D in Cheonan is on hiatus until September, I think I’ll try to organise another gaming afternoon here – and probably in Seoul, too.

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The twenty-third of January was New Year’s Day in the lunar calendar – known to most people in the West as Chinese New Year. Well: Chinese, Korean – same thing, right? In Korea the holiday is called Seollal and consists of the day itself, the day before and the day after. While Christmas and solar New Year’s (aka Real New Year’s) are also public holidays in Korea, they’re not really special events. Seollal and the late summer harvest festival of Chuseok are the times when Koreans return to their families for food, ancestor worship, games and gifts.

This year’s Seollal fell on a Monday, which resulted in a four-day weekend (no worker-friendly days off in lieu in Korea). The day before – Sunday (in case you don’t know the order of days in a week) Habiba and I met our friend Graeme and his friend Dylan. We went to a tourist information centre near City Hall where we played some of the traditional games that always crop up at the two big holidays.

One of these was yutnori, a game that involves throwing up four stick that are flat on one side and rounded on the other; depending on the number of flat sides up (or down, depending on your point of view) you can move one of two counters around a board a certain number of spaces; if you land on the opposing team’s counter you can send it back to the start. Habiba and Graeme won.

We threw arrow-like sticks into urns and Korean hacksack was also there. Then we dressed up in traditional dress – they just went over our normal clothes. The usual hanbok was available, but we boys all chose royal and noble costumes.

After that we walked past the entrance to the Gyeongbok Palace and walked around Bukchon, an area with lots of coffee shops and shops selling crafts, nicknacks and jewellery, as well as old-fashioned, single-storey Korean houses (hanok). We had coffee and played cards.

While walking around this area, we saw a cat lying on its side on someone’s doorstep. We realised that the cat was sick. It was breathing with difficulty, foaming at the mouth a bit and it periodically spasmed. It wasn’t blinking at all and obviously had no strength to get up. A couple of young Korean guys had also stopped and they got on the phone and got in touch with some sort of animal centre. One of them found a bit of newspaper and plastic sacking to cover the cat with to try to keep it warm. We waited there for maybe forty-five minutes in total.

We didn’t know what had happened to it. We speculated that maybe it had eaten some poison or that it had been hit by a car and was suffering from shock or even that it had rabies. Habiba was quite emotional and my voice caught when I talked about some of my family’s cats that had been affected by poison. The van that took the cat away belonged to an organisation called Karma.

After that, we headed to Insadong, where the street of souvenir and craft shops is. It also has lots of restaurants and we met another couple of people, Jacky and Chris, for dinner. We shared two big pots of soup – heated at the table on portable burners – one of dalkdoritang or spicy chicken soup, another of beef, mushroom and Korean dumplings. And we got drunk on lots of bottles of makkeolli.

It wasn’t a late night, though, and we took the bus home. Habiba cried a bit again and wondered out loud why the innocent should suffer. I didn’t really say anything, as the honest answer to that is, basically, that shit happens. Nature is full of danger and disease and death, but we humans tend to forget this because of the comfortable world we’ve built for ourselves. I had appendicitis last year, a condition that, if I’d lived in an early time, probably would have killed me and that would have been perfectly in keeping with the natural order. In simple biological terms, humans become fertile in their early teens, so a lifespan of thirty-odd years gives people enough time to raise a couple of children (the lucky ones that survive) to maturity before dying – their evolutionary purpose fulfilled.

Still, it’s not pleasant to see a fellow mammal suffering (yes, mammal – remember that just a couple of weeks ago we were happy to hook fish out of a river and let them suffocate in the air). One of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals is not our empathy or compassion – it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to say that other animals possess these things – but the breadth of our empathy and compassion. Animals (cute, furry ones, at any rate) seem to occupy a place in our minds that is evolutionarily reserved for children.

But enough of such pretentious and, indeed, portentous rambling. Overall, this Lunar New Year’s Eve was pleasant – and if not pleasant, then at least it stimulated the emotions and the mind.

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On Friday I and most of the people I work with left work at about midday to set off on a rafting trip. As well as most of the people who work at the Gangnam office/bookshop/hagwon, there were people from the warehouse/financial and logistics office outside Seoul. The location for the away day was near Cheorwon, an area of Gangwon-do close to the border with North Korea – an area I’ve now visited three times (it’s where I met Habiba). Our accommodation was a one of a set of pensions near some rice fields and next to the Hantan river – the venue for the rafting.

The first part of the trip there was OK. I went with my friend Ji-hyeon and our boss Min-seon in the latter’s car to the Ilpye-dong offices. We had to wait a while for some orders to be despatched and it was moderately interesting to see the how the other half lives. There are two warehouses containing the bulk of our products, which are sold to schools and hagwons. The premises there are old and crappy – the Seoul site is far, far nicer.

After that everyone piled on a bus. We had been divided into four teams, black, white, red and blue, and had to wear appropriately coloured clothing. In the bus, we had to sit in our teams. We were given some gimbap and drinks. Then it was noraebang time. The men, evidently already giddy on their free can of beer, got very excited about the singing, yelling along with the singer and chanting people’s names, encouraging them to get up and sing. I heard my name a few times, but I was already feigning sleep and regretting coming.

Once at the pension, we had a few spare minutes before the games began. The games weren’t optional. The four teams competed to collect little green rubber apples, which were awarded for winning games, lining up speedily and so on. At first, the competition wasn’t too bad. There were games like Korean-style keepie uppie (with a little puck-like object with short, tinselly streamers attached), tug-o’-war and a race carrying a balloon wedged between two people’s backs.

Then, after dinner, it became seriously annoying, and not a little sinister. The noraebang was also a competition, not of talent, but of enthusiasm. Teams were awarded rubber apples for cheering and dancing. Earlier, after about an hour of resistance, I’d finally caved in to Min-seon’s request (ie, demand) that I perform a song for the team. As Ji-hyeon explained, it wasn’t about skill – nor evidently about personal choice – but about showing that one is a team player. I eventually sang ‘I Want to Break Free’ – badly, hating myself and everyone and everything. Somehow, I won the team ten points – a victory that felt utterly fraudulent.

Eventually, I felt able to leave the noise and activity and go to bed. The night was perhaps the worst part of the two days. There was not a time when there weren’t people up and talking – loudly – in the next room. And, of course, I had to share a room with a bunch of the other men – some of the snoring was terrible. Worst of all, a guy who was sleeping near me periodically ground his teeth. I’ve experienced this once before – at a hostel in Ottawa – and it’s far worse than the loudest snoring. Snoring is annoying, but ultimately natural and understandable, but grinding one’s teeth is just wrong. It doesn’t even sound like hard objects like teeth grinding together; it sounds like hard, wet rubber being firmly squeezed and rubbed.

Throughout the night I gave this guy – one of the salesmen – sharp nudges to jar him out of it. Later on, he even moved his futon so he was lying right next to me. He rolled on to mine a few times so I firmly pushed him back.

At around seven o’clock I went for a walk along the concrete lanes through the rice paddies. The air was thick with mist – which burnt off gradually through the morning. There were hundreds of dragonflies around, buzzing through the air singly or, occasionally, coupled with mates, or perching on plants or twigs, heads cocking. I found a little frog on a leaf; it was light green, the colour of the rice in the mist. Closer to the pensions there were grasshoppers in the grass – green ones and brown ones – and dark frogs that hopped away so quickly that I could barely make them out. As I was reading in the food tents before breakfast I saw a family of cats – three adults, two toms and a bitch with an unusual pale grey and white marbled patterning, and three or four active kittens whose coats didn’t match the adults at all.

There was a little free time after breakfast when the men who had been up all night were given some time to sleep – some of them were still talking, though. Strangely, I didn’t feel all that tired in the morning. The games started up again. This time they included dodgeball – in the rain. Clearly, the idea of taking a break and going indoors to wait for the weather to improve is beyond Koreans. Instead, everyone has to do what is expected of them. The first game of dodgeball I played with my umbrella up, standing pretty much stationary in a corner – and was completely ignored. Unfortunately, the weather did improve and I was able to put my umbrella away and take part.

Eventually, the competition came to a close. My team, the white team (I wore my white Ask Enquired top with the Union Jack and my England shirt), came second with 34 rubber apples. For this we won 170,000 Korean won. Except we didn’t – Ji-hyeon told me later we’d be bought a meal the following Monday evening. The red team – the owner’s team (not so coincidentally, I assume) – came first with 46 points and received 460,000 – or didn’t receive it.

There was a little shop on the site. I bought three two-litre bottles of water there. The first two times from a lad who spoke English well and charged me 2,000 won. The last time, as we were leaving, from a woman who charged me 1,500. I told her that a boy the previous day had charged me more.

Finally, we were able to leave to go rafting. We arrived at the rafting company’s site and got kitted out with paddles, helmets, life jackets and dayglo rubber slippers. The rafting company’s bus took us to the river. The activity is clearly a popular one – there were hundreds of people there all doing the same thing. On the little stretch of beach as we launched there were four or five other rafts, each with eight or ten (but not nine) passengers launching at the same time.

The rafting was good fun – it made the misery of the previous twenty-four hours just about worthwhile. I’d been rafting once before, also in Korea, though at a different location, with Habiba. Then, the water had been calm and low. This time, in the middle of the rainy season, the river was fuller. There were parts where the current cascaded over hidden rocks where the boat rose and fell alarmingly. The sense of danger was palpable – without a firm grip on the foot loops on the raft’s floor, people would certainly have fallen in.

The river gorge was pretty interesting. There was a water-eroded rock that, from one angle, looked very much like a huge skull with a gaping mouth. Other parts had sheer walls that showed no signs of erosion; instead they were all jagged chunks and blades of rock. These parts had bats’ nests in caves – we could just about hear the chirping of the bats, but we couldn’t see any signs of them.

Throughout the ride, whenever there was a rough bit, Ji-hyeon, who was sitting next to me, translating the guide’s words, would grab my sleeve in a way that was very pleasing to my manly ego (don’t tell Habiba). Later, she counteracted this by pushing me into the water. (In a part of the river near the end of the ride where the guide encouraged/tricked people into taking a dip.) She earlier told me that you weren’t supposed to drink the water because of all the fertilisers in the runoff from the fields that entered the river via numerous waterfalls down the walls of the gorge. I didn’t drink any, I think, but I did inhale a little.

After that, we headed back to the rafting HQ, to drop off our equipment, shower and change. Then we were finally off home. The ride back was quieter than the ride out. Also longer. At the warehouse, everyone got off the bus and into various employee’s cars. I shared the financial director’s car with Ji-hyeon and one other person.

As I said, the rafting was good enough that it made the rest of the trip worth putting up with – just about. In some ways, the idea of a company trip like this is a very good one – it lets people who don’t normally work closely get to know each other, it shows that the owner wants to promote relations with and among his staff. However, the way they implemented it, it felt like a cross between a kindergarten and a prison camp. You must play games. You must sing. You must drink. You must show what a good sport you are. Doing your own thing is not an option.

The Koreans seemed to enjoy it – at least the men. The men’s enthusiasm seemed slightly manic – drink as much as possible, shout as loudly as possible. I think the women were more ambivalent – some of the looks I saw from them were of tiredness and toleration. I don’t think I made a good impression – I probably came across like a sulky teenager – at the age of thirty-four, that’s not terribly becoming. I gather that people made allowances for my lack of enthusiasm because I don’t speak the language, because I’m a foreigner. I wonder if my lack of enthusiasm might signal the beginning of the end of my employment at EducaKorea.

I kind of hope it does. I’ve been thinking lately that I can’t continue with things the way they are. I get up between 7:30 and 8 every weekday morning and sit at a desk from 9, often doing little more than browsing the internet and feeling exhausted. One of the main reasons I came to Korea in the first place was to get away from that. I hate it. It doesn’t seem to suit my biological rhythms. I got up today at 7:45 feeling headachey and a little nauseous from dehydration. I couldn’t face going into work, especially not feeling like that, so I’ve taken a sick day. After another couple of hours sleep I feel fine.

When I broached the subject of quitting or reducing my hours to just my afternoon teaching to Ji-hyeon on Saturday night she was very concerned about my breaking my contract and being penalised. Overly concerned – especially given that Koreans generally don’t regard contracts as little more than the printed version of an verbal, mutable agreement. I find it hard to care.

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