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Where have I been? Reading in a wood, mostly.

23 Jan

Ah, London. How many more ways can I find to spend my time in you?

Between attending some beautiful weddings of good friends (very fun) , working away at my day job (also pretty fun), and you know, having a social life, I spent the last year or so trying to read more, and write more fiction, and spend less time watching TV and knitting. I love TV and knitting too, but I did a lot of that in Korea.

I realised my first year back in the UK that I only read 12 books that entire year. About four of those I read over two months in the summer. There were huge periods of time where I wasn’t currently reading ANYTHING. That was so unlike me, and I felt like I’d missed out. So to encourage myself to watch less forgettable TV and read more things, I set myself a Goodreads Challenge.

People seem to be torn on reading challenges like this, but I say if it works for you, fuck it. Yeah, I tried to hit that target (I set myself the challenge of doubling my total, and reading 24 books in 2014). Yeah I put down books I wasn’t into, and I picked short books up instead of epics sometimes, and I read them faster than I might have. But all that didn’t stop me highlighting, discussing, absorbing and enjoying them. In striving to reach that target I found a way to motivate myself to put down the remote, turn off Netflix, and take on the more active task of engaging with a book.

I didn’t hit my target. I read 20 books last year (including graphic novels/collected comic paperbacks). For the curious, you can see them here: https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/1141045. Not bad I reckon. 9/20 women (poor, not even 50%). 18/20 white (very poor, must try harder). I think The Goldfinch was my favourite this year, but True Grit was a close second, with Wool in third. Worst book I read? A tie between the frustrating The Fault in Our Stars or the self-mythologising Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I’m setting myself the same target for 2015. 24 books in 12 months. This time I also want to read more female authors than male, and more non-white authors. I would say ONLY female authors, but I have a couple of comics lined up that I really want to read. This new rule might mean 2015 is another year I don’t re-read the Lord of the Rings. Maybe I’ll re-read Harry Potter instead. That’ll bump the books-by-female-authors quota up.

I’m currently reading Moby Dick, which is kind of a terrible start. Although I’ve never read it before and I’m kind of enjoying it a lot so far.

What about you? Do you set yourself reading goals? What do you want to read more of this year? And what was your favourite book of 2014?

Hello, 2014.

6 Jan

Wow, 2014. I feel like the last year went whizzing by in the blink of an eye. My 2013 was split into distinct little chunks, which helped it go faster. Until the end of March I was in South Korea and Japan. Between April and September I was living in a tiny village near Oxford. From September until today I’ve been living with friends in St Albans and commuting into London. I’ve also had three different jobs, been in four different countries, and dealt with a lot of firsts – first time living in a village, first time buying a car, and first time watching a grown man eat a watermelon without using his hands (don’t ask) to name just a few.

I bleached my hair and rocked a fringe in 2013. Like you cared.

It was an unsettled year, I suppose. I haven’t felt quite like myself for a lot of it. It made me quite nostalgic for my time in South Korea, where I knew how I fit in. That might seem odd, but getting back the huge number of choices and possibilities I’d missed when I was away actually turned out to be a bit overwhelming.

Still, it’s gone now and 2014 is here and looking more settled already. I have a new full time job, and soon I’ll be moving into London (and saying goodbye to suburban commuter trains! Thank God!). I also have a few aspirations for the new year. I’m a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I know they get a bad rap but I have no clue why – why should people setting goals for a new year be a thing worthy of derision, even if they don’t keep them? Goals should be reassessed, anyway, in my opinion. I tend to look at them again in the summer around my birthday and adjust them. Self-improvement is always a good thing!

Last year’s resolutions were 1) to see more live music and 2) to learn a new skill. I saw four or five bands live this year, some of which were bands I really love and wanted to see. I also went to Download Festival again and rocked out to some great metal legends. Success! I also started taking ukulele lessons – my repertoire at present includes Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again and, er, Moon River. Oh, and Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone. Second resolution down!

See – you CAN keep resolutions! Admittedly there were definitely more of them that I don’t remember because I didn’t keep them. Shh. Let’s move on to this year’s:

1) Read more books. I use Goodreads to log my reading, and the site revealed to me that I had only read 12 books last year. That seems quite pathetic, especially since I know I read most of those in the summer when I was reading on my lunch break, after work in the garden, and for hours at weekends. I like to read in the sunshine (I’m quite cold-blooded and I don’t do well in winter in general) but that’s really no excuse. My aim for this year then is modest – 24 books. I’ll aim to double last year’s total, and read more before bed and instead of watching TV.

2) Knit more and learn to crochet. This one kind of contradicts the first resolution since I can’t read and knit at the same time. I love TV – I think that good TV is an art form that’s as worthy of my time as reading. Plus I can knit whilst I watch TV. I aim to try to incorporate some audio books which I can knit to, and not allow myself to watch TV idly – without performing another task at the same time. I also want to learn to crochet which will count as this year’s new skill!

3) Write more. I struggle with this because it feels like work sometimes to sit at the computer and create. I used to love it, so I don’t know where this lack of motivation has come from. When I was a teenager I wrote with every spare minute. That was probably before the advent of all the TV streaming sites – perhaps I need to be limited my TV intake to achieve this one. But then that contradicts my other resolution! I think I’m going to be a bit more realistic and try to write for one full hour a week and see if I can wean myself back on to it. I might also try varying projects – a novel seems like a mamoth task, but if I intersperse that with shorter fiction projects and blog posts then I might be in with a chance of keeping this one!

4) Run a 10k. I plan to run the Bupa 10k this May. As someone who is not a born mover (I’m a world class sitter though) this will take the most will power. However I have done some regular running before and started to enjoy it. I also noticed how good it was for my general well being too, so I really need to get back into it. I figured that committing to a race would be a good way to motivate myself – I’ll be so ashamed if I can’t do it!

Sadly "hang out with cute dogs and eat cake" is not one of my resolutions. Maybe it should be?

Sadly “hang out with cute dogs and eat cake” is not one of my resolutions. Maybe it should be?

That’s plenty I think. Two “do more things” and two “achieve new things”! On top of that I want to keep up my ukulele playing which is turning out to be really fun and relatively easy compared to other instruments I’ve tried to learn. Although I suppose there is some danger that with knitting and the ukulele I may become so twee I explode.

So how about you? Any resolutions or goals for the new year?

A less than triumphant homecoming.

7 May

It turns out that reverse culture shock is a very real thing.

This will probably come as no surprise to many seasoned travellers, but it was a surprise to me. I didn’t really feel culture shock hit me when I moved to Korea. Things were obviously very different and I was constantly dealing with that, but I was expecting that to be the case, so I didn’t really worry when I experienced the frustration that sometimes comes along with trying to settle into a new country. I assumed, however, that returning to the UK would be easy. Everything would be familiar. Everything would work for me. I would understand it all.

Picture the scene: I’ve been back in the UK for a few days, a few days of chronic jet lag adding a layer of fog over everything. I can’t function. I’m lethargic. I can’t concentrate. I decide to go to the supermarket. Morrisons is full of people shopping, people who aren’t Korean, who are all speaking English, but aren’t talking to me. I can understand everything being said around me, I can read every sign, I recognise every product. I stand in the biscuit aisle staring down five or six shelves of biscuit options. There’s so much choice. It’s completely overwhelming. My brain is not only jet lagged, it’s forgotten how to filter information. For a year I learned to hone in like a hawk on English signage, on English words on products, on English being spoken around me. Now my brain is trying to consume EVERYTHING.

Yes, I basically had a breakdown in Morrisons. Over biscuits. Never fear though, dear reader; I eventually managed to buy Jaffa Cakes and booze and went home to hide and recover.

I’ve now been in the UK for just over a month. I’ve mostly stopped bowing and handing over my debit card with both hands instead of shoving it in the chip and pin reader. I’ve almost purged all the Americanisms from my vocabulary. I still look around when I hear people speaking English until I remember they really aren’t talking to me.

6 Trivial Ways Korea Has Changed Me

1 Mar

1- I talk to myself all the time.

I’ve always done this to a certain extent because I really am that nutter you cross the street to avoid. In Korea a combination of living alone and not speaking the same language as 99% of people on the street has resulted in a rapid escalation where I have even separated my personality into “sensible” and “impulsive” so as to have better conversations with myself. I vary from running commentary: “oh so THAT was the bus I wanted! Oh no, it’s okay small child, you just hang onto my leg, that’s not inconvenient..” to arguments: “we should cross the road here and take the bus. Oooh, no, if we take the subway we can get a coffee on the way! Yeah, but coffee is expensive, do we need it?” I am a crazy person.

 

Hodduk!

Hodduk!

 

2- I got fatter, and I’m obsessed with food.

I was running three times a week before I came to Korea. This may shock some people who know me, because I hate to exercise, but I was. I have run zero times in Korea. In my defence, the pavements in my neighbourhood are very uneven and often being driven on by cars and scooters. The local running track opens at 6pm, and I get home from work at 5pm, so that’s just enough time for me to sit down and lose all motivation.

Dak Galbi

Dak Galbi

I also LOVE Korean food. And the Korean attitude to food and eating (it’s a huge obsession and a massive part of Korean culture) has rubbed off on me, so that I’ve become kind of fixated on food in a way I never was at home. This combined with a lack of exercise means I’ve put on half a stone. Which isn’t too bad, but it’s all in an unhealthy, bulgy tummy, getting tired when I run up stairs kind of way. 

My favourite Korean restaurant.

My favourite Korean restaurant.

3- My attitude to modesty is warped.

I have become so used to Korean standards of modesty that tiny shorts or skirts that probably don’t cover your vagina when you sit down don’t seem obscene, but collarbone or cleavage is horrifying. I saw an old photo of myself wearing a strap top and was appalled at the amount of chest – not boob, but chest and shoulder – I was exposing.

 

Check out those guinea pigs.

Check out those guinea pigs.

4- I shout at waiters in restaurants.

This one is going to be hard to shake when I get home. In Korea, most tables in bars or restaurants have bells to summon the staff. If they don’t, it’s perfectly acceptable to shout at them to get their attention. How will I ever readjust to the British way of subtly catching someone’s eye and wiggling your eyebrows, or perhaps raising a finger if you’re really in a hurry?

 

5- I speak with a weird semi-American accent.

Most Koreans learn American English and speak it with American accents. To help Koreans (especially my younger students) understand what I’m saying, and also to help them learn the pronunciation that they will need to speak American English in the future, I often speak with a slight accent. Unfortunately over time this has begun to erase my natural Southern British accent and replace my British vocabulary. I regularly say “soda”, “trash”, “eraser”, “sidewalk”, “apartment” and “store”. I pronounce the number 4 with two syllables.

I must be stopped. 

Even my students noticed my British accent slipping!

Even my students noticed my British accent slipping!

6- I love posing for photographs

Koreans do seem to love taking selfies, or otherwise posing using a bunch of stock “I’m so cute” hand gestures. It’s sort of rubbed off… although sometimes the photo opportunities provided by Korea are just amazing. The Trick Eye museum was basically the Take Cute Photos Museum, but boy was it fun.

I've always wanted to kick someone off a cliff face. Ever since I saw "Cliffhanger".

I’ve always wanted to kick someone off a cliff face. Ever since I saw “Cliffhanger”.

How to relax like a Korean.

27 Feb

It’s been a year since my contract in Korea started, and I’m currently surrounded by half-packed suitcases in my friend’s apartment waiting to leave for my trip to Japan (just a two week holiday before I return to the UK). Packing is horrible – stressful and emotionally traumatic (or it is for me anyway – I had to throw away clothes) so I’ve been trying to counter those effects and relax a little. And Korea is good for relaxing.

Does that surprise you? This is a major city in a country famous for “bali bali” (hurry hurry), that my visiting brother compared to Blade Runner (he needs to see Hong Kong before he truly appreciates that comparison, in my opinion).

Like this, but with less replicants. Probably.

Like this, but with less replicants. Probably.

As any foreigner working in Korea can tell you (and probably will, at length) this is also a country famous for last minute changes of plan and general disorganisation. Nothing will FORCE you to relax and go with the flow like a year of being told “oh, you are teaching this class twice today. You must teach next week’s lesson. Did you know?” on a semi-regular basis. You learn that your co-workers don’t have it in for you, nor do they have crazy expectations – this is just how things are done here, and a willingness to accept these changes will show you are a good worker far better than, you know, actually teaching a decent lesson at the drop of a hat.

Like Britta’s advice to Annie when she moves in with Troy and Abed (go watch Community. I’ll wait.) my advice to new teachers would be to go limp. Just limp enough so that a fall from a building wouldn’t kill you, and that the seemingly-deranged behaviour of everyone around you doesn’t drive you insane.

Loosey-goosey. Or is it goosey-loosey? Is it hyphenated? Nevermind - I don't need to know.

Loosey-goosey. Or is it goosey-loosey? Is it hyphenated? Nevermind – I don’t need to know.

A major tool in the relaxation arsenal of the average Korean are the jimjilbangs, or spas that cover the country. A weekly visit to a bathhouse is standard for most families (according to my students). As a foreigner, and a teacher, I opted not to visit any of my local jimjilbangs and suffer the embarrassment of having students say hi whilst we’re all naked in a big bath. Instead I hit Spaland – a haven of natural hot spring water piped up from 1000m underground to the third floor of the largest department store in the world. Oh, Korea.

spa2

Spaland is a magical place. For only 12k won (around £7) you can enjoy a plethora of baths. Personally I like to heat myself to near death in a bubbling sodium chloride bath and then drop into the cool one until my teeth start to chatter, then repeat until I’m hungry. By far the best baths are the outdoor ones. Dressed up in rocks with a fake waterfall for a back massage, you can sit watching the steam rise off into the cold air and imagine that you’re hanging out in the hot pools of Winterfell’s godswood (or you can if you are a massive geek like me).

spaland2

All the baths are naked baths. Being naked in a room full of naked Koreans is a weird experience, but on the whole I didn’t get stared at even with my foreign-ness and tattoos. The lack of kids probably helps here – youngsters will point at me on the street and shout “Omma! Waegukin!” (“Mum! Foreigner!”). At Spaland, under 12s are forbidden. It’s a veritable haven of grown-ups being sedate and returning polite and friendly smiles. The baths are all split by gender, so if you don’t fit a gender binary you might struggle, which is a bit of a shame.

The rest of Spaland is made up of steam rooms and saunas where everyone wears their standard issue pyjamas and pays for snacks using their locker key wrist bands. It’s like a futuristic Norwegian prison colony with fake bamboo. I really enjoy the warm steam room with folding beds, and spent a couple of hours in there yesterday with my book. It’s the only way to survive a cold, dry Korean winter – steamed and warmed to perfection.

b_supaland

I also like to pop into the various hot (and cold) rooms and sample the colour change walls, or pan pipes, or electrons or whatever other weird health things are supposedly going on in there. I pass out easily though, so I try to remember to stay hydrated, and not stay too long in any of the saunas.

My body’s inability to efficiently pump blood to my brain might also be why I prefer the outdoor baths – the juxtaposition of cold air and warm water in the winter helps prevent me from overheating. In the mixed section of Spaland there are some outdoor footbaths, with little padded jackets provided for the winter, so you can enjoy some mixed sex OMG-I’m-totally-a-Stark funtimes.

I would also recommend reading my friend Caroline’s blog post on her trip to Spaland which is far funnier and more thorough that mine.

Yesterday the combined powers of Spaland, a massive steak lunch, and an evening watching Casablanca relaxed me to a near comatose state. Today I’ve undone all my good work by getting wound-up by some confusion (again) over my final paycheck. I must remember to take my own advice – stay limp. 

What should I pack for Korea?

31 Jan

When I arrived in Korea I was nervous, but excited. The EPIK program tends to starve you of information – you don’t find out until the last minute where you will be placed. You don’t know the area, you don’t know the age of students you will be teaching, you essentially know nothing. For someone who likes to research and plan, that’s pretty daunting. I was lucky then, to have a lot of support waiting for me when I arrived in the form of the previous NET at my school, who left me tonnes of notes and information, maps and activities, and even met me to show me around a little and answer my questions.

I hope in a month’s time to have the opportunity to pay-it-forward, but for now it has got me thinking about one of my most burning questions when I was planning my trip – what should I bring? It’s a very subjective thing, but since most of the lists I read were written by Americans, or men, I thought I’d add my own suggestions so you can learn from my mistakes. In three parts…

1) Things I wish I’d brought to Korea:

– Toothpaste

I read this on so many blogs and every time I went “psssht! Like I’m THAT attached to my Western toothpaste!” How wrong I was. Colgate is a fiercely guarded and much valued commodity amongst expats in Korea. Korean toothpaste is… weird. A lot of it isn’t even mint flavoured and the consistency is strange. The closest thing to Western toothpaste I was able to buy here was some Arm & Hammer (which is gross in its own special way). To illustrate how much I missed toothpaste – I asked my mum to send me some for my birthday. Seriously. Pack it.

– Deodorant

This is another one of those things I didn’t believe, and indeed I bought a small roll-on deodorant here and wondered what everyone was banging on about. However, it’s rubbish. I smell way more here than I did at home, and I can’t wait to get back to my fearsome Mitchum deodorant when I return home.

– Blu-Tack

An actual conversation before I left the UK:

Me: I need to get some Blu-Tack before I leave.

My friend: Oh, come on! They’ll have Blu-Tack in Korea!

They do not have Blu-Tack in Korea.

It’s invaluable for both household decoration and as a teaching aid. BRING BLU-TACK.

– Sunscreen

Sunscreen here is expensive and mostly comes in small bottles. I stocked up when I found Nivea spray in HomePlus, but it isn’t easy to come by.

– Personal bug spray

Spray for the home was easy to find, but for the body not so much. The mosquitoes are killer in the summer here (especially for the Brits, it seemed) so bring a bottle of deet with you.

 2) Things I was glad I’d brought to Korea:

– Beach towel

Korean beach towels are hard to track down, and then when you do they’re often really small. If you’re moving to a coastal area like Busan, throw in a beach towel. If you can’t survive without large bath towels, then I’d suggest bringing one of those too. I got one from EPIK when I arrived at orientation, but most of my Korean towels are hand towel sized.

– Chocolate

Specifically Cadburys. Korean chocolate bars are pretty good if you like nuts and nougat (I do) but the solid stuff is not so good. Lots of it is Hersheys which is also pretty poor. The only chocolate bars I recognise from the UK available in Korea are Twix and Snickers, and the odd bar of Galaxy (branded here as Dove). Care packages of my favourites (Crunchies and After Eights mostly – hey, I’m dairy intolerant so I have weird tastes) kept me going.

– Silicone earplugs

I slept with earplugs in when I lived in London because otherwise the constant bustle from outside (and yelling from my neighbours) would affect my sleep. I use them sporadically in Korea to block out loud traffic noise, snoring roommates in hostels, and yelling from my neighbours (different city, same problems). In Korea you can find the orange foam earplugs in stationers as study aids (in small quantities usually), but for a good night’s sleep I find these can hurt my ears. I stocked up on silicone earplugs before I left.

– Marmite

I’m British. I love it. I brought two massive jars (and still ran out). I also made Marmite sandwiches for my kids for summer camp and they were really excited to try this British food. Most of them absolutely hated it, but they were still excited to try! The same went for American friends I made in Korea.

– Clothes and shoes

I’m taller than the average Korean woman and with bigger feet. Feet so big, in fact, that I cannot buy shoes here (unless they’re unisex or mens). I also struggle to buy trousers outside of Western stores like H&M and Uniqlo (I’m luckily thin enough to shop at Uniqlo here which have a smaller size range in Korea than they do at home – size 12 and over may struggle). I also stocked up on tights, and high-neck long sleeved t-shirts to help me conform to Korea’s standards for female modesty.

 

 

 

 

3) Things I wish I hadn’t bothered bringing to Korea:

– Tampons

Information about tampons in Korea was vague – the first rule of Menstrual Club, of course, being “don’t talk about Menstrual Club” (the second rule is “no smoking”, and if you got that reference we can officially be friends) and suggested that since Korean women seemed to prefer sanitary towels (pads), finding tampons would be difficult and they’d be expensive. I don’t use tampons that often, but have managed to find them in most places that sell pads, and if buying off-brand in a shop like Olive Young or Watsons, found them to be reasonably priced. There isn’t however a lot of choice (usually two types in most stores, both applicator and “normal” flow, usually one is the Playtex brand) and so I suspect if you prefer to use tampons and you like non-applicator ones, or need ones for heavier flow, you’d be better to bring them with you. If any of my expat readers have contradictory evidence, please let me know in the comments.

– Smart clothes

My school is not that dressy, and I looked out of place in my shirts and dress trousers. My trousers were wide-legged (as is the most common office fashion in the UK) and in the land of the skinny trouser I was roundly mocked by my students. I would have done better to bring some smart-ish skirts instead – indeed I bought some jersey skirts in Korea and wore those with smart-ish tops and jumpers to school most of the time. I’ve lately resorted to smart jeans and chinos. I suggest dressing smarter at first, but fairly feminine for women to make the best first impression. I hate to admit it, but I think a pencil skirt, blouse and a cardigan would have won me more instant brownie points than my shirt and trousers did.

– Cosmetics

Generally speaking, Korea is amazing for cosmetics. I love trawling the different shops for skin products and make-up and nail varnish and all sorts of things. I didn’t need most of the stuff I brought, for the most part. The exception is perhaps foundation as some people will find it hard to match their skin colour to the products available here. If you have something you can’t live without, bring it. Otherwise have fun experimenting with the cheap and plentiful cosmetics available here (my favourites include Etude House nail varnish and Tony Moly lip stains – totally addictive).

There you go – it’s by no means exhaustive and is completely subjective, but hopefully will give you a few pointers when it comes to the daunting task of packing for a year in South Korea!

Another Year Over

31 Dec

January 2011 I decided I wanted to spend a year working abroad before I had too many commitments in the UK to want to leave. In February 2012I left for South Korea. Now 2013 is arriving and it will be the year I return home. How can 2013 measure up to the year I decided to leave, or the year I actually left? I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get home, not really. A lot of things have changed whilst I’ve been away, but the one thing I really have learned from spending this year living and working on the other side of the world is that who you are doesn’t change. I haven’t changed. I’ve probably learned a lot (a smattering of Korean, how to swim rather than sink in a classroom of teenagers, to smile in the face of confusion, to drink through culture clashes, to correctly identify stealth tentacles at least 80% of the time) but I am not going to be fundamentally altered by a change of scenery.

What did I want when I came to Korea? I wanted to experience another culture in the way you really only can when you make your living as part of it. Teaching has been the perfect way to do that, I think, and I have had a great time doing so. I don’t have the intrepid backpacker mentality (the very idea exhausts me) so the teacher’s lifestyle has also allowed for me to take my exploring as slow as I like. My generous and inquisitive students have also given me a wonderful inroad into the culture and mindset of South Koreans, and in turn given me a chance to reflect on my own culture and how it has affected my thinking.

Some aspects of living abroad for a year (and it will be nearly 13 months since I left, when I finally return in March) have been difficult. I’ve experienced homesickness, and more recently the strange feeling that my home as I left it no longer exists – things that changed whilst I was away feel unreal to some extent, and I imagine confronting those changes on my return is going to, ultimately, be quite upsetting.

I am looking forward to going home though, and seeing all the people I have sorely missed in the last year. I’m also looking forward to eating all the food I’ve missed – it’s amazing how prominent things like roast potatoes, pies, and cider have become in my dreams.

During the next year I’m hoping to move into a new home with wonderful new housemates (and, it seems, a inevitable menagerie of pets), start my own business, and find some kind of gainful employment (fingers crossed). Before that I’ll also teach winter camp, show my brother the wonders of South Korea when he arrives in a couple of weeks, and visit Japan.

Who knows what will happen after that?

Happy new year, everyone. x

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