adventures in Chungbuk

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The Trouble With Girls

As I sit, relegated to the back of the class, while my co-teacher helms the hour I am being paid to teach, I have nothing to do but stifle my yawns and observe the behaviours of teenagers.

This relegation, for reasons I’m not certain of, apart from a knowledge that my co-teacher lives in constant fear that without that one extra hour the students will fail at their tests and lives, only happens in my first grade classes, at my main school. It bothers me a huge amount, not least because it has introduced me to the first-grade student as a non-entity who inexplicably sits at the back being foreign, and doesn’t allow me to get into the business of putting the frighteners on them that I will so clearly need when they come around to second grade and become my responsibility.

I resent the fact that my co-teacher has not given me this opportunity. I know all too well how important first impressions are. I would prefer they didn’t see me as a benign lump, void of a point.

While I sit and watch the classes, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a documentary, I half expect Attenborough to turn up and do his thing. I am also disappointed that this is the human race in growth and action: we are literally shaved monkeys slinging poo and clammering to get to the top.

The boys, whose behavioural patterns I used to find squeamish, are at least entertaining. The other day I entered a classroom that sounded like it was full of a marauding herd of antelope, to witness a boy backing another into a corner with a chair, held aloft like a ringmaster. It’s this kind of slapstick idiocy that I don’t think ever leaves the male of the species. Not a fuck is given that one might impale their friend in over zealous chair-jabbing. Stanley knives, kept in pencil cases are tossed jovially around, sharpened, for a laugh, on friends’ legs. Fingers are poked experimentally into crusty eyes of those with conjunctivitis. It’s a loving, sharing, exhausting exercise in expressing camaraderie through physical danger.

The girls are something different altogether and it saddens me to my core.

In the girls’ classes, you can immediately identify the top dogs. They are the white-skinned slender ones, usually sporting freakish eye-enlarging contact lenses; faces thick with ghostly pale BB cream. They are the loudest; shrieking at everything whether it’s amusing or not, particularly if it’s at the expense of another girl. these are the girls who rush up to you and tell you how pretty you are, and poke at your mascara and and tell you ‘Teacher! MinJi is ugly! har har har!’

Then there is the second tier. These girls have to try very hard to avoid the cataclysmic event of incurring the top dogs’ hyena laugh. They have a desk covered in hello kitty Propoganda, or some other sickly cute brand-name stationary. Their books are never open because they spend the entire lesson gazing fretfully into the long-handled mirrors they are mouth-gapingly allowed to have on their desks, compulsively combing their identikit straight black fringes and peering sycophantically at the girls they aspire to be.

Next down the food-chain, what I like to call the Defiant Geeks. Righteous in the knowledge they are smart and devil-may-care as to who knows it. They spend the whole hour battling against the hyena girls for air-time, their eyes blazing with pride when you acknowledge them, fiercely disappointed when you pretend to overlook them in an attempt to offer the less skilled a chance to answer. They zealously refute allegiance to any K-Pop star and attempt to engage you before, during and after class in dull, American accented conversations in ways that seem suspiciously controlled by parental demand.

Then there are the meek or feeble. It’s hard to tell at first whether they are silent because their English skills are weak or because they are threatened by the potential humiliation their peers might wreak upon them should they dare to breathe. They gaze downwards, blushing uncomfortably if asked to do anything remotely interactive, and attempt to hide their numerous self-perceived flaws.

Then there are sleepers. You never see anything of them except their flung-out limbs and mop of black hair. A prod will return you a scowl from a hint of acne ridden jaw followed by a flurry of guilt on your part; they must have been up at all hours in the after school academy.

I don’t hate any of these girls, but I do despair of them. Barely a single one of them, regardless of the heierarchy, posesses, or outwardly flaunts, a sense of humour. Unless you count mocking each other for skirt-length.

Teenage boys might be unhygenic and bolshy, but you can reach them on common ground by laughing about something together. These girls seem almost conditioned out of having a capacity for humour. They are tense; even the ones at the top of the pecking order, anxious underneath it all that someone will laugh at them. The ‘funny ones’ are the bitchy ones. Let the boys choose a video at the end of term for a fun class and they will happily watch Mr Bean, or the Simpsons. The girls resolutely choose horrible movies about horrible high school girls being disgustingly vapid and self obsessed. Their favourite movie is a stinker called ‘Wild Child’ about a spoilt American brat who gets sent to a school in England with lots of English spoilt brats, who get drunk and attempt to win the affection of some mop-haired fop of indistinguishable gender.

So that’s their idea of entertainment. The cinematic equivalent of having a bucket of hot excrement rubbed violently into their faces.

When I have shown my girls The Simpsons as a treat at the end of the semester they have sat there in stony silence as if I’m making them watch Schindler’s List.

And I don’t accept that it’s a cultural difference. You have to be made of stone not to find something amusing in the Greatest TV Show Ever Made. And that’s not just because I’m a SuperFan, it’s just plain science. They blink, uncertain. Was that a joke? Hard to tell. Harder than looking in this mirror for the thirtieth time.

I spoke to some of my friends who teach younger kids at Elementary School and they agree, in fact they say they can see the transition period, as girls go from running about like loons and giggling along with the boys, to starting to cover their mouths carefully when they laugh, turning their backs on silliness, losing their joie de vivre. Appearance, once meaning having cute ankle socks and hair clips, takes on a serious importance; carrying a mirror eeverywhere. The ever-present comb. The only English some of my girls ever speak to me is ‘Teacher, don’t I look pretty??’ Their time is consumed by the soul-destroying cultivation of attempting to appeal to the opposite sex, or survive the scrutiny of their peers.

VOM. And I speak as someone who likes to ‘practice’ doing makeup when I’m bored.

Just as bad for the Defiant Geeks; the role of laughter in their life becomes diminished by the quest for always being bloody right about everything. The average Korean middle school girl of 14 spends 12 hours a day on school and academy work. How much of that time is spent laughing at a fart joke, or something Roald Dahl wrote, or even a cat getting stuck in a jar on youtube? Fuck all time indeed.

The boys have basically the same study schedules but they’re encouraged to engage in activities which require the jokey companionship of larking around. In PE classes at my school the boys have a hoot playing football while the girls sit on the sidelines cheering on the ones they fancy and dissecting Girls Issues. The PE teacher’s only encouragement to them to disband and do some exercise is that they might get fat if they don’t.

I know there are just some biological differences, but lets not make a sense of humour one of them.

The East Sea

In May we had a long weekend which I had scoured my calendar for, etching it in blood upon discovery, determined to do something rather than sit about in my pants watching The Apprentice all day.

In my many months here I kept hearing about something called The East Sea; a mystical sounding place, like the shores of Inisfree. Excitedly I imagined a blue vista with elfen fish-folk wandering about and booked a silly expensive hotel on the coast-line. I badgered and badgered Minho about renting a car until he finally convinced his sister into lending us her convertible. Here’s how it was.

The East Sea is the coast of Korea on the Japanese sea. Koreans do not call it The Japanese Sea. See Dokdo Island for details.

I rootled out a beach called Gyungpodae, a pleasant sounding place; with a lake and a beach cheek by jowel, and a smattering of cultural points close by.

The Friday we left, I was jittery like a crack-fiend. I sailed through my classes on a cloud of disinterest and sat painting my nails; wafting a gentle old-biscuit smell around my office (a rigorous fake-tanning had gone on the night before). Students complained that there were no sweets that day. I had forsaken my trip to the shop to read about Beach Beauty instead. Not a fuck was given. they should try harder to win me over.

I planned on bowling out of school, sunglasses atop my beak, passing my agog kiddiwinks who gasped as I stepped into the shiny silver car revving it’s engine outside, waiting for me. the first part went well. After sitting at the bus stop for 5 minutes I got a call from Minho. ‘My navi doesn’t work.’ I wanted to yell, ‘don’t you know how awesome and brown I am? All the teachers and students will be gone soon and they haven’t seen me get into a open top car and go zooming off into my fabulous lifestyle!’

Eventually he found the school having ever so coolly asked everyone at Lotte Mart. He arrived just in time for some of my girls to come skittering across the road to watch. I quickly realised with sadness how embarrassing things really are, no matter how brilliant you think they will be in your head.

Gyungpo is about 2.5 hours from Chungju so we set off; picnic made by myself, with beer in the icebox; to be drunk by myself, and all was good until Minho’s phone ran out of battery and we could no longer listen to music. I provided the rest of the entertainment, singing on request Bruno Mars (too high) Mika (too stirring) and the them from Titanic (too everything).

When we arrived I wished I hadn’t booked the pricey hotel. It was nice enough and only a road away from the beach but we didn’t have a sea view and there were some noisy buildingworks going on right opposite our window, giving credence to the belief that I am incapable of having a perfect holiday.

The beach itself was long and clean. Not like my trip to the West coast with Hayley and Taryn last year; where it looked like a womble was building a house.

We wandered about along the strip which was populated with fresh fish restaurants. Something was going on with the shrimps. They were all standing to attention, in every tank we passed. Something sinister and Hitchcockian about it.

Eventually settled on a place and had a shellfish barbequeue, complete with lots of soju. It was just wonderful to be able to eat outside, with the darkened beach before us and the scent of the sea. There is nothing like the ocean.

The first day we drove out with the top down to make the most of the glorious weather and found a Nengmyung restaurant. Nengmyung is cold noodles in ice water. Yes when i first arrived in Korea I thought them disgusting too. But when it’s hot, and when well-seasoned, they are delicious. We spent the rest of the day on the beach watching Koreans ‘sunbathing’ in their tracksuits, zipped up to the neck. There was a small girl chasing and feeding pigeons. I wanted to tell them they were in the wrong place. She kept shouting ‘kalmegi-ah!’ at them, which means, ‘hey! sea gulls!’ Shame, bless her.

The water was too cold to swim but clear and blue and wonderful. I put my feet in and Minho hunted for crabs. We were there for about three hours until he got bored. I never get bored at the beach. I really, really, really want to live on one.

That night we bought fireworks and let them off on the beach. I love this about Korea, it’s an expected thing. Even when I told my co-workers I was going to the beach they smiled approvingly and said, ‘oh, you must be have some fireworks!’

I bossily made Minho take pictures of me wielding a Roman Candle, and shouting ‘avada kedavra!’

Later we had cocktails on a roof terrace in a bar where there was a terrier with her new born puppies sleeping in a cardboard box. Minho had his martini and I ate the olive. That is our routine.

The next day we drove out to a famous house which belonged to Sin Saimdang’s son. (She was a famous calligraphist. He was a poet and a benefactor of the poor. Their faces appear on the 50,000 won bill. We had our photo taken in one of those sea-side style stick-your-head-through-the-hole type things.)

The house and gardens were very beautiful, and we saw some traditional wedding and scholarly Hanbok. However, I will probably get it in the neck for this, but I couldn’t help thinking how Korean history is told and remembered in a very legendary, mythical way. In a script about the son regarding his mother’s death it said ‘He mourned at her grave for three years ceaselessly,’ before something about going off to the mountain and coming back with this epic poem. I struck me how these portrayals are so void of blood and sex and realism. Perhaps it’s merely British hubris, but give me Henry VIII cutting off his bride’s head, or the oily, sweaty, gangrenous art of the Black Death any day.

Afterwards we drove to the lake and rented what can only be described as a bike/rickshaw. 20,000 won for an hour round the lake with a honky horn to boot. It took me 20 minutes of turning it madly to discover that despite having a wheel of my own, I couldn’t actually steer. This made me panic as Minho is an impatient, impetuous driver without the health and safety stick up his bum that I clearly have. We had some perilous scrapes where we teetered on the edge of the lake, and were told off my an ajumma for going to fast. I flashed my knickers at everyone because I was peddling in a skirt. Three quarters of the way through we heard the crackle of thunder overhead and the steamy air converted itself into a state of pissing it down. Hard. Not at all alarmed that we would be struck by lightening in our all-metal vehicle we went on merrily splashing passers by with the puddles in our wake.

By the time we got back to the beach the weather had converted back to tranquil beauty. As it was our last evening we decided to go all out and chose to have an expensive feast of raw fish, on the condition that there were no innards or sea penises.

Unfortunately to our right was a table of obnoxious, rowdy (I would say young, but some of them were grey-haired and should have known better) men. Mostly american with a stereotypical English guy who kept trying to assert his ‘Britishness’, mistakenly believing it to be of any interest to anybody. One of the Americans was attempting to classify how Irish he was compared to his friend. Americans always think people will like them better if they say they are Irish. They kept bellowing loudly and rudely at the waiters, catcalling at Korean girls walking past, a particular fave was ‘come here you sexy bitches’. And at one point someone said the word ‘ni**er’.

To our left was a Korean couple who kept shooting them filthy looks. I wanted to stand up and apologize on behalf of foreigners everywhere in Korea. As I’m a massive coward all I could do was roll my eyes and frown every time they looked in my direction. Eventually they fucked off into the night to find the ‘pussy’ they so vocally hoped to find. I wisheed them good luck; with their sun-burnt beer-guts, and badly bleached hair. When they left everyone audibly relaxed and could finally enjoy their dinner.

And thank god they did. Because I was having the best time on our little holiday. I get obsessed with things like this. I scratch days off my calendar, counting down to the event. I make endless lists of things I need to buy, things to wear, processes I need to endure; all in preparation for a few days doing something different for a change. And it’s worth it. because those precious, golden few days make all the difference here.

We feasted on many kinds of fish I don’t know the name of and drank lots of icey cold soju, which goes very well with it. It was 2am by the time we left the restaurant and the beach was dead and disappearing into the sea. We walked along the strip and joked, after all the succulent and fresh seafood we’d enjoyed all weekend, that we’d have to get a lotteria (korean macdonalds) the next day to make up for it.

The next day we did.

Shame.

Look Update

Having grown complacent and finding little to write about I thought I’d revisit the blog and give it a bit of a makeover, hoping that would kickstart some creativity. The back ground shot is a picture I took of Chungju Dam, not far from my house, in the cherry blossom season. Doesn’t it look like something out of Lord of The Rings?? I can imagine a boatful of hobbits passing through those waters. If only chungju were that fantastical.

Here is a roundup for anyone still following the saga.

After brief head scratching I have decided to remain in Korea for another year. It’s likely that I won’t get the Uni jobs I’ve hoped for, as technically I’m underqualified, despite having a CELTA, plus teaching experience in both England and Korea. However, this is not the shitstorm of woe you might think, given my previous track record of breast-beating and slagging off my schools, in particular my Main School, Tangeum. I refer you to the skinny-trousered youths who I have often wished ill upon. 

Nay, for three things have happened which have entirely changed my situation. Firstly, that enitre swath of rude and spotty teenagers moved up a grade. Henceforth they were no longer my problem. An entire eighteen months of trying and failing to Reach These Kids while they obnoxiously pubesced through my stressful classes, and suddenly, joyfully, they were gone. They are still there, in the school. Some come to visit me sometimes, and tell me they miss me now I don’t teach them any more. Little shits.

The second thing that happened  I was moved out of the main office at Tangeum School, and placed in a farflung turret labelled the ‘GLOBAL EDU-MARKET’ with my co-teacher. This is our office but it also doubles as a kind of shop stocked with bottled water, erasers, pens and all that guff. Students can come and buy what they need, as long as they only use English. Had thought it a heinous idea and imagined my peace wrecked by marauding teenagers. Not so. I get a nice quiet office with just co-teach for company, which means I no longer have that awkward daily trek through the main office where everyone pointedly ignores my attempts to say good morning. Also my desk isn’t used as a general dumping ground by everyone passing by and I can read my kindle when I have nothing to do and no one says anything.

The third thing is my new main co-teacher. She is the single-most organised person I have ever worked with in Korea. Having spent eighteen months asking desperately for information that was always denied me, including things ranging from, what the dates of school exams were, to school vacation days, and even as simple yet vital as my timetable, I now have a co-teacher who informs me of EVERYTHING. The day she sat down beside me and went through my calender letting me put in all the important dates, I nearly cried with relief. Gone is the Last Minute Anxiety, and stress of not knowing what the eff is going on. At least, at my main school. Country school still writes my timetable on a post-it note and rearranges everything so Mr Does Bugger-All can go ‘On Tour’ at the last minute. (No one knows what that means.) (STILL.)

The pleasing harvest of these fine seeds of improvement is that I no longer  I feel I must leave for fear that one day I will attack somebody. And has lead me to reconsider my options for the future. And the big news is, I suppose is that Minho and I have decided to go to Australia. It would take another year, as Minho has to graduate and I have to save a lot of money as well as find a job out there. Now I have this focus on Australia, I feel completely galvanized. It occurred to me just before Britain hit double-dip recession which feels like a sign. Not to mention that when I last looked at the British news it showed a grey and grim scene of endless rain and flood warnings. Oh England I love you but you really are being a total gimp.

SO saving like a mentalist and basically looking forward very much to the future will be mainly what I do. Stay tuned for some SUPER exciting updates, with that in mind.

P.S – lived the dream and saw GaGa in Seoul at the Olympic Park Stadium last week. Apparently it was the largest audience the’ve had there since Michael Jackson played. It can only be described a a pastiche of 70’s horror with a large dose of glamrock and uglified Madonna with a sense of humour. The set was a big black castle and the costumes were rubber space-wear inspired. At one point she came out literally as a motorcycle. It would be hard not to be impressed, and minho and I were right up front on the ground and saw everything. I’m happy that in many years I will be able to say of that show, the very first night of world tour,  that I Was There.

 

 

epiphany

My school is prone to random acts of weirdness. Sometimes they enforce inane and often pointless rituals on me. Sometimes they let me have a day off for no reason. Friday was a good day. I went to Seoul instead of school, and celebrated by chopping off my hair and having it dyed blonde. Basically, I looked at a picture of Blondie and realized that that is how I have always wanted to look. Audrey Hepburn is fine if you can get away with piling your hair up and wearing evening gowns as daywear, but she was very twinset and pearls even at her raciest, and deep down I think I have always wanted to be a punk. I always wanted bleachy blonde hair, I always wanted to wear red lipstick, I always wished I was outrageous and unconventional, I always wanted to wear edgy clothes, no matter how unflattering on my lumpen self. But it’s a sort of sad childish dream that was never realized, like knowing I’d never be a pony when I was five, even though I badly wanted to be.

At school I used to gravitate towards the people who had more guts to be these things. My lovely friend Alfrun is sort a cartoon of everything mentioned above, and I hero-worshipped her in that weird teenage way that you do, at least if you are a person like me. It took me to reach the age of 18 to feel like I could start to be what I wanted to be. I never admitted the best parts of myself to anyone, from the age of about 5 I used to write stories in secret and if anyone asked me what my hobbies were I would have been mortified to say that I liked writing because it seemed such a geeky thing to like doing. Equally now it’s come full circle and you feel like such a creep if you say you like to write because people immediately think that you think you’re Sylvia Plath and write a terrible self-serving blog. I love Sylvia Plath unashamedly and I do write a self-serving blog. So I suppose I am the person I always worried I’d be outed as.

So it has taken me 23 years to have the haircut I have always wanted. and 7 of those years I had total control over it. prior to that my mum was a bit of an extremist who took an odd line of ‘no highlights before your GCSEs’. As if the dye might seep into ones brain and kill off the maths brain cells.

Of course now it’s been done I don’t look like Blondie at all, but I am happy. And it made me think of all the things we don’t do that if we did do might make us so much happier.

I read a fairly depressing article the other day about the top ten regrets of the dying. And the number 1 thing that people regret as they approach death is simply not allowing themselves to live a life true to themselves, and instead living the life that others expected of them. Perhaps your haircut seems like a startlingly unimportant life choice. But there are so many things I have never pursued because I was worried about what other people would think. I never had the guts or the internal drive to push myself forward because I knew that there were other expectations people had, and it seemed so important to meet these, rather than my own. And I’m only 23. Imagine what others have put aside, what potential, what talent, what interests and joys have been shunted away, pressed down. It’s almost Freudian, it’s delectable it’s like the DaVinci code but not as shit, once you realize it. It makes me think of something I heard Ricky Gervais say once. He’s a man who I really admire but fairly dislike. But if his achievements are great, then surely it is because as he put it ‘I’ve always thought I could do anything.’ I wish I had felt like that when I was young and forming myself in that harsh climate of school and hormones and anxiety. Sorry if this all sounds obvious. If it does then you are probably one of the ones who did feel like you could always do anything, and you’re lucky.

Murphy and Hong take London

I have become like a sack since going to England. I remember feeling ‘full’ all day every day, like a tight balloon. It was sort of novel to enjoy everything put on my plate so I told Minho to shut up when he complained that he had already gained three kilograms. It’s hardly my fault, he ate chips every single day that we were away. I kept it lean with steak and kidney pies and mash.

But there’s more than a few good dinners to regale about our trip to the UK, so here’s an unapologetically sprawling account of how I got to invent British history, and how my grandparents overcame a lifetime of good-natured racism.

Every time I fly I want to punch someone in the face. Usually the person sitting in front of me or next to me. Sometimes myself in the hope that it will knock me out for a few hours and I can actually obtain some of the sleep I am being deprived of. Korea to England is 12.5 gory hours. This time I had a rude pregnant lady in front of reclining her chair full tilt and noisy people exercising and chatting almost on top of me, with a dribbly and snore-y Minho to my right.

It’s probably always a bad trip home because I am so fucking delighted to be going home, that I regress to my childhood years of fourteen hour long car-trips to the South of France where I was driven insane by a persistent need to wee, always ignored by my father, and a sharp desire to arrive at our exciting destination.

And arriving home was wonderful, particularly as my Dad had lovingly maintained last year’s Christmas tree in our garden and covered it in lights so that I could have Christmas part 2. It looked genuinely beautiful and my mum had found a few Chinese Dragons for the conservatory to add to it’s general grotto glamour. Minho pointed out to me that he is not Chinese. I pointed out to him that I am not from Canada but my students still ask me what it’s like in Vancouver, so he began to understand the British concept of multiculturalism; ie: No one really knows where anybody comes from so enthusiasm is chucked at all possibilities.

Minho presented my mum with his gifts of ginseng. I had told her beforehand that this would be expected and she should make a big fuss of it. Little did I know until shortly before leaving Korea the many varieties of ginseng that would be presented- ginseng candy, ginseng tea, ginseng honey, pouches of ginseng juice, actual raw ginseng – Minho, his mother and I had a long debate about what to do with all the ginseng as I had stupidly packed my bag full of clothes. What was I thinking. It was vaulable ginseng space that my underwear was rudely inhabiting. I subtly tried to tell his Mum that we couldn’t take all of it, while she brandished packets at me insisting in korean that this was really good stuff and wedging it in between my bras. Result: I was a few kilos over and the ginseng in Minho’s case was so tightly packed a pouch exploded and made him smell like an ajumma for most of the trip.

Our first Big Adventure was a trip to watch a genuine English Football Match. A wonderful girlfriend like me knows that Koreans are crazy about English football. But I didn’t want to show Minho any old shit that he could watch on Korean Cable TV. And after all, he already knows what the likes of John Terry and Wayne Rooney look like, while it would just be perverse to come all the way to England to watch Park Ji Sung running about. So I treated him the match of his life, a clash of titans; between, wait for it, Charlton Athletic and Sheffield United. You BET he was excited. As I watched the players lumbering about knocking their heads together I realized that football fans are sorely undervalued as part of the institution of Great British Wit. They make up some terribly funny songs.

Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed it. And so did Minho. I was relieved, as I had lied to him a hell of a lot about how good Charlton Atheltic were, and by some miracle they won and he seemed genuinely impressed.
That evening I invited a few friends round for an Early Korean Lunar New Year party. It was lovely to see people, and Minho and my dad let off some distressingly loud fireworks in the garden.

The next day, hungover and jetlagged, we had Christmas part 2, with my Granddad, and I ate Christmas goose for the first time, fulfilling my Dickensian dream. It was delicious, and watching Minho’s dawning appreciation of gravy was like watching that movie Smilla’s Feeling For Snow.

The weekend done and dusted my parents had to go back to work and Minho and I had to get on with the business of doing London. I got myself into a kerfuffle by, in my bleary state, panic buying London deals with a trigger happy finger on the internet and had to request a refund on 375 pounds-worth of trips on the London Eye (a huge ferris wheel on the river Thames.)

We ended up doing a London Hop-on, Hop-off bus tour. It was a bit more confusing than I had anticipated. There were two kinds of bus, one with English commentary and one without, and every time we hopped off, we managed to hop back onto the one without any English. So as we rode atop the double decker, cheeks flapping in the freezing wind, I regaled Minho with entirely fictional accounts of all the statues and buildings whizzing past us, making up important stories about things which were probably no more than hotels, and dreading the moment he looked at me expectantly, as all the foreigners on the bus paused to take pictures of things I was clueless about.

Things he was most impressed with: Tower Bridge. I must have walked across that bloody bridge about 5 times, each time taking 30 minutes due the frequency of moments I was forced to stop and take pictures. I apologize for the millions of photographs on Facebook, all looking identical. They are his and not mine.

The Tower of London. An ancient building on the river where traitors to the King were imprisoned and sometimes executed. Luckily there was a Korean guide so I didn’t have to get creative with the history, and Minho was by turns amused and appalled at Henry VIII, for his casual beheading, and his gross overestimation of his own genitals. (His suit of armour had a comically large cod piece.)

The Houses of Parliament + Big Ben. As an architecture student, this must look even more impressive to him than it does to me, an ordinary pleb. At night, lit up so it looks gold and sharp as a dagger, it looks even more beautiful, thus the million pictures on Facebook. It was absolutely freezing, which is why I’m not smiling in any of them, and was probably midway through saying ‘hurry the fuck up’.

Things I was most impressed with:
Tower of London – for much the same reasons.
The London Eye. This big ferris wheel is a huge attraction and I had never been on it. It takes thirty minutes to go round and gives you a great view of London. We went up at sunset, and our turn was only marred by the Eastern European girls who took pictures of themselves in front of Big Ben so often it was 23 minutes before we got our turn.

We also did a stint at the British Museum which is full of world relics which we’ve pinched off other countries over the years. I tried to be sombre and scientific as we viewed the mummies and their huge sarcophagi, but Minho kept urging me to stand in front of the cases, cross my arms over my chest and ‘pretend to be dead.’

Minho was bored by the chinese stuff, which I really liked, and proud of the fact that there was a Korean pottery exhibit on the top floor. He kept nudging me in a paranoid way and telling me all the other Asian museum guests were Japanese.

After the museum we walked down through Seven Dials to Covent Garden to watch the street performers, including unicyclists, jugglers and a pair of senegalese acrobats. We had dinner on the piazza next to a heat lamp and ate sausage and mash with red wine. Minho declared that the sausages were good, but such were available at E-mart. I wonder about his tastebuds.

As it drew darker we trundled up to Chinatown and found it wreathed in red lanterns for the Lunar New Year. I do think he was genuinely surprised by the amount of foreign people in London and seemed galvanized by it, asking me how much I thought it would cost to open a Korean restaurant there. I could see his mind working over-time, imagining himself as the proprietor of a fashionable samgyeopsal restaurant on the river, full of English people drinking chic soju. I have to say, I do think it’s a gap in the market. English people would love it, as I do. Especially the BBQ at your own table novelty.

The thing that struck me about watching Minho, was that he found London beautiful. He wanted to take pictures of every building. He thought every thing was a museum or place of interest, even if it was just converted flats. I think London is beautiful too, but not more, say, than Paris.

Paris was a wonderful highlight of our trip. My dad, out of the blue, booked us a little family trip for the weekened. I had never been before and salivated at the opportunity. But continually while we were there Minho told me that he didn’t think it was beautiful like London. cynics might believe this is because I come from London and he wanted to please me. But knowing Koreans in a broad sense, they like clean sharp lines. Shabby-chic is not in their own vocabulary of style. And while London has hundreds of old buildings they are mostly kept immaculately, while Paris seems to gently sag into itself, like an elegant old dame after too much wine. Plus, there is dog shit on the streets everywhere.

We ticked off the Eiffel Tower which was brown and not green like I always imagined, lumbered comically about at the foot of Notre Dame doing out best Quasimodo impersonations to my mum’s distaste, and Minho had chips for lunch. And again for dinner. I honestly think that I enjoyed the French trip in different ways to Minho. he tends to enjoy most things at the same level of enthusiastic happy-go-luckiness, while I often talk myself out of liking things. But Paris, was lovely and struck me more perhaps because I understand it more than he does.

My highlights were seeing Notre Dame, eating mussels in roqueforte sauce near the cafe where Amelie works in the movie, and watching Minho gamely order drinks in a mixture of Korean, French and English. We stopped by the Moulin Rouge. I wish they made more of it. My favourite film of all time made it all look so much more glamorous.

In between of course I saw my wonderful friends and got to meet a brand new baby who I traumatised and Minho amused by bouncing up and down. It was such a pleasure to see my friends trying hard to talk to Minho and equally Minho making such a huge effort with my friends and family. It made me coldly aware that I need to make more of an effort with his friends and family. it is not enough to smile and trot out your tried and tested lightweight Korean with shouts of ‘Jincha??’ knowing it will be well-recieved. Koreans are far too easily pleased with the little effort that foreigners like me put in. I’m going to try a lot harder to improve my skills.

Because, the thing that I was dreading most, the meetings with the elder generation, were far from the awkward catastrophes I imagined in my nightmares. Seeing my Granddad again was lovely, after losing my Grandma, and it was nice to see Minho chatting to him and offering him tea. Whilst my Nana, a matriarch in her nineties, hard of hearing and seeing, declared Minho a lovely boy full of politeness and a willingness to entertain children. Which is true. He engaged with me in about an hour of watching my cousin’s baby go through an Argos catalogue and pointing and laughing at all the pictures of vacuum cleaners.

When the time came to go home, I felt very sad and unready. This was not like my leaving in the Summer where I had been happy to go back. The sad events of the Winter and probably the time constraints left me feeling as if there was an unfinishedness to it. But I was happy to have Minho to come with me so I didn’t have to be alone.

We came back, laden with Hollister clothing; unavailable in Korea thus highly coveted by Minho. I resented every minute we spent in that badly lit, overpriced shop, and felt like such an old lady waiting for Minho to choose t-shirts that I felt compelled to order one of the supermodels working there to turn the lights up and the music down. I didn’t though.

I brought back much better supplies, like marmite, haribo and gravy powder.

And there are so many other things I didn’t really have the brain-power to weave into this that I found brilliant and funny, like Minho’s relationship with my obese cat, and the fact that on many occasions when he had disappeared up stairs for long bouts of time I found my boyfriend lounging with the cat in the dark and asking him in a deep Korean accent ‘Do you like me, Milo?’

And the way my Granddad tried out his one Chinese phrase on Minho which I drunkenly lied to both meant ‘go fuck your mother’. As if either Minho OR Granddad genuinely believe I know any Chinese…

All in all a wonderful trip, far too brief, and full of the extended joy of witnessing my beautiful home, in all aspects of the word, through the eyes of an outsider. Now I’m back in Korea, I miss it.

MEAT

Gunther Hagen’s BodyWorld exhibit has been in Seoul for a couple of months so at the weekend Minho and I went to see it.

I remember the exhibition making headlines about ten years ago, for it’s macabre statues of bone and muscle and sinew, bent and twisted and coated in a plasticising fluid which renders them in these weird contortions forever. Like a kind of extreme rigour mortis. It seemed such a Eurotrash, enfant terrible thing to do, and I expected it to be a bit more Damien Hirst than it actually was.

Beforehand Minho and I ate Shabu shabu, a vegetable broth with strips of thin raw beef. It looked exactly like the flesh on the bodies at the exhibition, red and seamed with thin lines of fat. I imagine it will take a while for that gory link to fade.

The exhibition itself was less arty farty than I had anticipated, laid out in a life cycle from tiny embryo in a pickle jar to copulating couples right at the end. Each perfectly preserved part was presented alongside it’s own serious defects- I saw foetuses with swollen skulls, the result of water on the brain, and newborn conjoined twins, their little bodies twisting into eachother. Some of the babies had hair on their heads and their toes were small and perfect. A plump, normal looking healthy liver, sat next to a swollen and spotted liver with psorroscis. There was an enlarged human heart that looked like it belonged to a huge beast. And the verticle slice of an obese person’s head and torso, pressed thin between sheets of plate glass looked like a hideous table cloth trimmed with fat. We spent about 45 minutes walking round and reading and looking. It was really interesting, but the truth is once you’ve seen one of those bodies you feel like you’ve seen them all; they all look exactly the same without their skin on. And while it’s an amazing experiment, and people gave their bodies and children’s bodies freely to it, I couldn’t really shake the feeling that eventually, one day, they will be disposed of, because eventually, nobody will be interested in seeing them any more. And that felt quite sad.

After the Bodies we went to a DVD Bang which for the uninformed is a seedy sort of place where you can watch a DVD in a private booth similar to a karaoke room. Ours looked like a prison cell, but it was freezing cold outside and we’d seen the only two English movies at the cinema, Mission Impossible and Sherlock Holmes.

We watched Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes which I wanted to see for ages and Minho was highly sceptical of because, well, it’s a film about how apes take over the earth… But it was brilliant, and it made me cry because it showed people being horrible to chimpanzees, and even though I know it’s science fiction, it makes you realize that it’s not far off what happens to animals every day in research labs.

I strongly considered being a vegetarian for the hundredth time.

This has been increasingly at the forefront of my mind ever since Minho gave me a mink scarf and I had to give it straight back to him because I couldn’t ever wear something made of Mink. He couldn’t understand the difference between using leather and wrapping yourself in fur. Perhaps it is highly hypocritical. But these days every time I see a beautiful Korean girl draped in solid layers of dark, beautiful fur I find myself doing a body count.

Ten days until we go to England.

Christmas Tyrant.

Have been on some mad Christmas drive for several weeks. About a fortnight ago I started panicking that after last year’s lovely, warm and cosy Christmas tucked up in bed beside Hannah Katsis and wolfing down a makeshift Christmas dinner at Hayley’s house, that this year’s plans looked horribly bare and undefined. After all, last year we had it all but the turkey. And if I’m honest I’d take chicken over turkey any day. We all gathered in the flat, each bringing pots and pans full of all sorts of dishes and borrowed traditions with gaudy Christmas tunes playing in the background, knocking back wine and pulling home-made crackers.

This year is marked by an absence of Hayley and Taryn, and it occurred to me startlingly that no matter how I sliced it, this year would just not be the same without them.

A moment of hysterical reaction resulted in me scouring the net for an extravagant hotel and the most divine Christmas dinners in Seoul you could shake a Christmas pudding at. Aborted the hysteria after realizing that Korea is a coldly capitalistic place at the Seasonal time of year and all the flash hotels ranged between several million won for a measly 2 nights. (In Korea, Christmas falls before the Winter vacation, and this year on a Sunday, which means I get no extra days off than I would any other weekend. This is the suckiest part of living in Korea, in my book.)

Decided to consider what I really wanted, come Christmas day, to be surrounded by. Number 1. Minho. The idea of spending christmas without him seemed really sad. I had asked him before, what he was doing and he told me that he usually stays home and his parents go out for a meal together. It’s really more of a couples holiday in Korea, thanks to films like Love Actually. I considered this, and thought how terrible it sounded. So I sent him a very long message saying that Christmas is the most important time of year for me and that I wanted to spend it with all the people I loved and it would make me really happy to spend it with him. He sent me a message back asking me if I’d like to spend it at his house, with his family.

Now, you can think this is Grinchy of me, and maybe it is, to deprive his parents of their only son on a day that they are culturally indifferent to. But when he mentioned it I felt my heart truly sink, awash with ideas of having that sense of the alien, surrounded by people doing your things all the wrong way, and the saddening prospect of kimchi and rice for a measly Christmas dinner.

Won’t lie, shot him down. And got drunk and booked a hotel in Seoul. Moderately priced, and close to an Austrian restaurant which I have been slavering at the chops with anticipation for ever since I came across it. Everybody knows that Austrians and Germans are pretty much made of gingerbread, with gluhwein running through their veins. They DO Christmas, it’s like their speciality. that brings me to number 2. on Things I would Like to Be Surrounded By Come Christmas. Decent food. This is probably the most research I’ve ever done in my life, and I have an English degree. Ne’er was a subject so scoured for, than the problem of where I would stuff my face this December 24th and 25th.

Number 3. Family. Won’t happen though. But it makes Minho’s presence even more imperative as he has an iphone with the power of Skype.

Number 4. Good friends. This was easiest. Lots of people are still knocking about in Korea for Christmas, many perked up when I proposed the Austrian feast.

Number 5. Champagne. We’ll see what E-mart has to offer.

So the foundations for a fairly decent knees-up are in place. Minho has accepted my manic compulsion to do Christmas Totally My Way, which is very sporting of him. I’ve tentative plans with friends to go and look at the lights and try out the ice skating in front of city hall too.

But the power-drive I get from organizing my 2 day Winter Wonderland is so intense that I can’t stop. I get an incredible energy from planning the Happy Event, and am now obsessively combing the internet for my Christmas shopping, and panic-ordering luxury wine hampers. A day not spent thinking about Christmas has become a day wasted. Scenes from the classroom last Friday resembled an Asian Sweatshop as I cracked the whip while my students made Advent Calendars in devoted silence. (Devoted to the promise of chocolate, coming from a blurred understanding of what an Advent Calendar is. )

I suppose, far from realizing the true clarity and beauty of Christmas whilst being far from home; such as ideas of peace and love and the importance of family and giving selflessly to others, it has awoken the capitalist beast of the holiday in me. I spend large amounts and demand lavishness at every turn. I don’t even want to see a tree for the next whole month unless it’s covered in fucking twinkling lights and baubles. I won’t buy a thing unless it’s got a thick coating of glitter and chocolate on it, with a couple of plastic snowmen for good measure. Meanwhile bad students are dreamily dealt with by imagining making gravy out of them and the blandly pretty-androgynous faces leering from every advertising board take on the sinister grin of Mariah Carey in a Father Christmas hat. Because when it comes down to it, those are the things I want. I have become a Christmas tyrant. And it’s better than anything in the whole world.