Arirang

For the first time since I left Northern Ireland back in 2008, I am the owner of a guitar.

I’ve really missed my guitar. I never had any proper lessons – just taught myself chords from charts on the internet, and took the occasional nugget of wisdom from Jay next door. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to allow me to entertain myself by learning to strum simple songs. As I’m entirely fine with my own company, I spent many a pleasant evening alone at home with my guitar, learning to play Beatles songs (albeit badly).

American Friend Three is leaving Korea soon, so he had a moving sale, and I knew I had to have his guitar as soon as I saw it. I got it cheap, so it won’t matter when I have to get rid of it next time I change countries – and in the meantime, I have one of my favourite forms of entertainment back again!

Unfortunately, I’d forgotten the pain of starting to play guitar. Actual, physical pain, I mean.

I played on through the pain, as I was teaching myself to play More Than Words – one of my favourite songs, and quite difficult for a beginner, by the way! – and didn’t want to stop until I’d perfected it. Unfortunately, my fingers reached bleeding point before this happened, and I was forced to sit there looking in frustration at my silent guitar while my fingers throbbed and stung and bled. Hurry up, calluses!! I may have said aloud, which I admit is a rather strange thing to say. At one point I even bandaged them all up in band aids, which looked utterly ridiculous, and only really allowed me to practice the chords, as obviously my massive, monstrously deformed fingers were touching far more than one string each, making it impossible to play properly.

Come Saturday night, then, I found myself sitting with the fingers of my left hand soaking in a glass of egg white. As you do. I’d read on some guitar advice forum that soaking them in vinegar, methylated spirits, or egg whites before bed would help speed up the skin-toughening process, and eggs were all I had. Rock ‘n’ roll Saturday nights I have, let me tell you.

Still, matters seem to be improving, and I am practicing like mad, determined to fulfil the ambition I’ve had since I was a nipper – being able to whip out a guitar at a party, and start casually strumming along to a sing-song. I am years away from that, I suppose, but I’m determined! I’ve started real guitar lessons, too, with a charming Korean guy who also teaches Terri and Jennifer. I’ve only had one lesson so far, and he has me doing scales and all sorts of boring stuff like that, but I’m studiously doing as I’m told and practicing them until I can do them backwards and with my eyes closed.

He’s also given me a song to learn – one that requires me to pick out the notes instead of strum, reinforcing what I’m doing with the scales. It’s called Arirang: an ancient, traditional Korean folk song which is much beloved on both sides of the border.

According to some of my Korean colleagues, it’s a sad song about a woman who loved a man, and the man left her, walking out of her sight forever, over a mountain pass named Arirang. The tune is very sweet, and it all sounds so tragic and haunting until you learn that she was so pissed off with him that she put a curse on him as he left, in order to inflict great pain upon him until he came back to her.

나를 버리고 가시는 님은
십리도 못가서 발병난다.

Approximate translation: Dear man who abandoned me here will not walk even ten steps before going lame.

Apparently he never came back. Strange, that.



Manners

I’ve been reading my way through a lot of old “story papers” over the past few months. The Magnet was actually a paper for schoolboys for the first half of the 20th century, although I eagerly read my dad’s Billy Bunter books when I was young, despite being “only a girl”. The stories are no less entertaining for me now, although they are definitely sexist and racist in the eyes of modern society, and I do cringe when I read some of the now-horrifying and offensive words and phrases used. However, at the same time, it’s fascinating to see how attitudes have changed over the last hundred years. Language, too, I say, old chaps – my only silk topper and sainted aunt!

Anyway, as well as the stories, I love reading the Editor’s “chat with his chums” in every issue. It is truly refreshing to read a children’s paper from a time when the editors actually cared about educating, disciplining, and instructing their young readers. I have laughed out loud at some of his responses to readers’ letters, because they are so stern and haughty that it’s more like an old-fashioned school master chastising a disobedient pupil than anything else. If an editor today wrote anything of the sort, he’d be sued by angry parents of insulted children all over the country. The editor of The Magnet did not only reprimand boys who wrote ‘cheeky’ letters, but also gave very strict and serious advice to those who were polite yet somehow slightly misguided.

Don’t write “Mr.” or “esq.” with your name when enclosing a stamped, addressed envelope, he advised in one issue. It makes you seem pretentious.

Please stop sending in multiple notices concerning back issues you wish to obtain, he barked in another. Make up your mind what you want, and ask for everything in one notice.

Don’t start requests for notices to be placed by saying “Kindly insert…”, he complained on another occasion. It is extremely presumptuous of you, and ‘bad form’ entirely.

He devoted an entire column to “Manners” in one issue. I love it. No pandering, no simpering in order to boost sales – his readers were the naughty schoolboys, and he was an authority figure. He wasn’t going to take any nonsense for the sake of being the nice guy and not ruffling any feathers. He spoke up when he felt insulted, and he stood up for himself. In a way, his directness and honesty has inspired me.

It has occurred to me that it’s all very well being the nice girl, until you start getting walked over because of your natural tendency to say the following kinds of things:

  • “Oh, I don’t mind – whatever you want to do is fine!”
  • “Did I seem annoyed? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, please don’t be angry with me!”
  • “Ha ha, yes, you’re right, I’m stupid!”
  • “No, no, you’re right, I’m completely wrong – are we OK now?”
  • “I’m so sorry to bother you, it’s just that, well, there seems to be a dead rat in my fries. I hate to cause any trouble… but… oh, it’s OK, I know you’re very busy… well, just when you have the time… no, never mind, honestly, it’s fine!”

Seeing everyone happy and getting along with each other is generally much more important to me than winning an argument, getting my own way, or asserting my rights. I will follow everyone else’s choice of bar/restaurant/entertainment even if I would prefer to go somewhere else. Not because I’m a selfless martyr, you understand, but because it really doesn’t matter as much to me as it often seems to mean to others. As long as we’re together, and they’re happy, then I’m usually happy.

However, as I said, sometimes this easy-going compliance results in me becoming invisible, to a point where people can say what they like and do as they wish as if I’m not even there. They don’t need to worry about insulting me, because I will take it quietly and laugh with them even if their remarks really hurt. They don’t have to consider what I might want to do, because I’ve given the impression that I never really mind. I am a pushover of my own making, purely because I run from even the tiniest risk of conflict. If there’s something I really want, I will more than likely miss out on it because someone more confident and self-assured will push determinedly ahead of me and snatch it without a second thought. It’s not their problem – it’s mine.

No, said a wise friend today, as I fell victim once again to my own “never mind, it doesn’t matter” complex, this is not right!! You need to stand up for yourself. Get back in there, explain your side, don’t be pushed aside.

It was a fairly trivial matter, but one which had left me somewhat taken aback, and feeling as if I’d been walked over. My natural instinct was to drop it and walk away silently. It’s not that important… it’s better to say nothing and keep the peace than to speak up and risk causing bad feeling… My friend was indignant on my behalf, but knew that it was up to me to stand up for myself. With a little encouragement and assurance that I wasn’t being offensive, I did so. And although I do now feel a little uneasy, hoping that I haven’t rocked the boat or made myself into a Bad Guy by refusing to just step aside, I do believe that it’s something I need to start doing for myself. I find it hard, but at the same time it does feel good to know that I haven’t backed down or kept quiet like a wuss when I believe I’ve been wronged somehow.

Which, incidentally, is why the girl who left an unnecessarily rude, offensive, and arrogant comment on my last blog post found that I didn’t accept it and laugh politely at her insult as I did way back when some Australian guy called me fat, ugly, and talentless. Looking back, I can’t believe I let that nasty comment stay there, and that I took the insults with humour almost as if they were justified because he didn’t like my blog post. I rarely get offensive comments on my blog, and this time the immature, condescending one left by “Anna” was immediately deleted. Why should I be spoken to like that? Not a question I’ve ever asked before, as if I think people are entitled to talk down to me. Enough!

In the spirit of standing up for myself, I also fired off a polite(ish) email to “Anna”, which was basically a few remarks on basic courtesy and etiquette. Her comment was a correction of a mistake I’d made in my writing, which is perfectly fine and always appreciated. You probably know how much I hate to see errors in spelling, grammar, and suchlike! A comment to point it out helpfully, or even tease me about it, is welcome. A comment that is downright rude and insulting, on the other hand, is just immature. Or nasty, I’m not sure which. Probably immature.

I may use the email as my next post, as a warning: I expect decent manners, both on my blog and in Real Life. And why shouldn’t I, now I come to think of it?!

Do not adjust your screen.

I have officially just had the best working week of my life.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been away so long and it was quite exciting to come back, the way the first day of the new school year was always exciting back in the day.

Or maybe it was the warm, fuzzy feeling on Monday, when every child who saw me for the first time shrieked “HAYLEY TEACHER!!!” and flung themselves at me for a big hug. One little girl came running up to my classroom when she heard I was back, pushed between Terri and me as we had a catch-up conversation, and leapt into my arms, burst into tears, and refused to let go. She has continued to come up to my classroom every morning for a hug. Terri thinks she’s scared I’m going to go away again and is just checking that I’m still here.

Or maybe it’s that I’ve been relieved of the final extra class that was thrust upon me back in March,  giving me a break at last in the three days when I had back-to-back classes. That hour off makes a huge difference to my energy and enthusiasm in the afternoon!

Or maybe it’s having nice clothes to put on in the morning, and scarves and necklaces and bracelets to go with them.

Or maybe it’s my new coffee maker, which I bought for next to nothing from a friend who’s moving soon. It now sits on my bedside table. I filled it up before bed last night, and then pressed the button when my alarm went off this morning. I dozed on for a while, and was gradually awakened by the scent of coffee filling the room. Perfection!

Or maybe it’s the exercise I’ve been doing every morning, or the brisk walk to work in the fresh, cold weather, or the healthy breakfasts, or the delicious school lunches (with the cooking lady delighted to see her best eater again, and plying me with kimchi and gochujang), or my nice tidy apartment, or my plans to spend a relaxing weekend catching up with my friend, or the fact that my classes have been well-behaved and generally great fun all week.

Or maybe it’s a combination of all these things. Whatever it is, it’s made for a great week. I hope yours was as good! I apologise for the fact that this post isn’t very entertaining, but I find that my best writing is done when I’m in a bad mood and having a rant about something. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I haven’t got anything to rant about this week!

Don’t worry, I’m sure normal service will be restored shortly. :)

Boys are mine!!

This conversation amongst my 6-year-olds, a follow-on from a previous discussion on their various romances,  probably doesn’t sound as funny written down, but I was laughing my head off all the way through it. There’s something about their innocence, their enthusiasm, and the fact that they are freely speaking in a language that is not their native tongue, that just makes it very sweet and funny to talk to them when they’re randomly having conversations like this in art class.

Suji: I don’t love Gordon any more.

Me: Why not?

Suji: I like kiss Gordon but he is not nice boy. He doesn’t like girls.

Gordon: I do like girls! I love Irene.

Kevin: No, I love Irene!

Suji: I love you, Kevin.

Kevin: I love ten girls.

Me: TEN?!

Kevin: I most love Stephanie.

Suji: (Miffed) I love Alex.

Me: But doesn’t Alex love Wendy?

Suji: Yes. And Wendy loves Alex.

Me: So what will you do?

Suji: (thoughtfully) I like two boys. One is cute, and one is handsome.

Me: (delighted at sentence structure) OK. Who is cute, and who is handsome?

Suji: Kevin is cute, and Alex is handsome. But Alex is funny, too. (laughs suddenly) Very funny boy! I will marry Alex, not Kevin. Kevin loves all the girls.

Me: But don’t you love all the boys?

Alvin: (disapprovingly – he’s a little old man before his time) She does love all the boys. Kevin loves all the girls.

Me: And what about you, Alvin? Do you love any girls?

Alvin: (firmly shaking head) No! I don’t like girls.

Me: Good! You are a smart boy.

Alvin: Girls are silly. I like BOYS!!

Suji: (defensively) Boys are MINE, Alvin!

Ageing Ungracefully

I’m turning 30 this year.

For real, this time – in actual years spent breathing, as opposed to made-up length of time as per Korean age reckoning system. And, you know, sometimes I feel like it’s all a big joke, as I don’t feel any more grown up now than I did when I was a teenager.

At other times, however, the reality hits me. Like when I say “It wasn’t like that in my day!” and realise that I’m not even joking any more. Or when I get out of a particularly deep and comfy chair and make a loud groaning noise as I do so. Or when I say “I’d better not have any coffee this late, actually, it’ll stop me from sleeping”, or “No running in the corridors, please!”.  I’ve also spent on average 2-5 minutes every day for the past 4 months plucking grey hairs from where they shine smugly and brightly on the very top of my head for all the world to see – a considerable leap from the 2-3 times per month over the past few years. I seem to have put my back out by lifting a small child and swinging him around a bit. And last night, I was horrified to find myself getting up to pee three times during the night, something I was certain wouldn’t happen until I was collecting my pension.

I’ve also had to adopt Bridget Jones tactics to deal with the fact that my body is never, never going to be slim and svelte no matter how much weight I lose, thanks to years of comfort eating and general enjoyment of food, with the resulting stretch marks and cellulite and suchlike. And so, in order to be able to wear my new tight jeans without having a muffin-top of epic proportions, I felt obliged to purchase a pair of scary holdy-in pants – the ones that are more like shorts, going all the way from the middle of your thighs right up to below your chest.

I don’t know, I said dubiously to McBouncy as we inspected them in the shop, they look awfully tight.

That’s the whole point! she said impatiently, and so into the basket they went.

I put them on this morning. It was a long and rather elaborate performance that involved me hopping around the room getting increasingly out of breath, and eventually lying flat on my back and wriggling around like a frenzied, overweight earthworm, groaning every now and then as I got a twinge from my sore back. Despite having just had my post-workout shower, I ended up not much less sweaty and breathless than I had been before it. Still, I got the scary pants on, and was pleased to find that the jeans slid on smoothly after them, and that there were far fewer unsightly bulges than usual.

Which was all fine until I discovered, midway through my first class of the day, that my newly weak bladder required attention. Nipping quickly to the toilet is not an option when one is wearing one’s scary holdy-in pants, let me tell you. The whole process was exhausting, and to be honest, not worth it. I think I’ll give the jeans a miss for a while. Perhaps I am too old for them now.

If you’ll excuse me, I must go and tell some children to keep the noise down.

The Power of Jetlag

I’m using jetlag to my advantage, this time around, as fortunately it’s not too bad and is merely causing me to fall asleep early at night and wake up very early in the morning.

Let’s face it, being alert in the morning is something I have dreamed of since I was a teenager, so I’m trying my best to make a habit of morning productivity before the time zone confusion wears off and I’m back to hitting snooze 10 times and then stumbling around grumpily for a while trying to locate the bathroom door. This morning, when I found myself wide awake at 5.30am, I lay there for half an hour trying to get back to sleep. Then I asked myself why I needed to go back to sleep when I was no longer tired. I could not provide a reasonable answer, so up I got at 6am.

6AM!!!!

I spent 10 minutes searching for my Wii Fit disk, and another 5 looking for new batteries for the controller. And then, ladies and gentlemen, I did the following things:

– a full aerobic workout including stretches, hula hooping, boxing, step aerobics, and jogging

– showered and dressed

– walked 15 minutes to the nearest open shop

– returned and made healthy breakfast involving eggs and orange juice and yogurt

– completed 30 minute Korean lesson

– washed dishes

– went to work

This is some kind of record. It is mad. It is unheard of. It is, quite simply, marvellous!! Perhaps I will have collapsed in an exhausted heap by lunch time, but for now I feel great. And as superficial as this may sound, you can’t imagine how much better I feel about life in general now that I have a decent selection of clothes, now all neatly arranged in my wardrobe. It’s great to actually be able to pick out an outfit that’s not shapeless jeans and an old t-shirt, and feel good in it for the first time in years.

You look… um… stylish! said my boss when she greeted me excitedly on my first day back. No one is quite able to get over it. I’m not suddenly in fashion or anything, obviously, but apparently I look more presentable than they’re used to seeing me!

Exercise, healthy food, early rising, new clothes, and a crowd of children delighted to have me back: a good start to the week/year! :)

Bibimbap

Well, I could write a tale or two about the journey back to the ROK, but I’m much more in the mood to write something cheerful and positive!

Instead, let me tell you about airline food. Airline food is not the stuff of traumatic nightmares that the majority of people seem to believe it to be. Or perhaps I am a freak of nature… but whichever is true, I do actually really enjoy meals on planes. I’ve yet to have an inedible one, or even one that wasn’t tasty enough for me to finish it all.

Korean Air, who brought me here the first time around, are the absolute champions of airline cuisine, in my experience thus far. Those meals were amazing, of the quality I’d expect from a pretty pricey restaurant. But Asiana Airlines, for all their flaws, also manage to provide food that has me scraping the plate clean.

We have chicken or we have Korean bibimbap, said the flight attendant with the cart, looking slightly dubious when I immediately said “Ohhhh, bibimbap, please!” with a rapturous expression on my face. Bibimbap is very, uh… spicy, she informed me gently, as if trying to nudge me towards the Westerner Meal Choice. “Yes,” I agreed, not sure what else to say. She shrugged and presented me with my tray.

Bibimbap is one of those ultra-satisfying, simple, hearty comfort foods that manage to radiate healthy, good-for-you vibes at the same time. It’s a bowl of steamed, sticky rice which you mix into a selection of banchan, from herby leaves to chopped mushrooms to beansprouts to ground beef. (Ideally, you’ll get the kind that’s served in a hot stone bowl, as your food will continue to cook while you mix and eat. If you’re having this kind, you’ll be given a raw egg to throw in there as well, and the egg scrambles into the rice as you mix. You’ll be left with a delicious, crunchy layer of rice that you get to scrape off the bottom at the end, too. Mmmm.) As a finishing touch, you stir in some oil and gochujang (the ubiquitous hot pepper paste), and eat with a lot of “Mmmmm” noises.

Obviously the airline version doesn’t come with a hot stone pot or a raw egg, but it was still a big dish of deliciousness. And the best part of all: a little tub of kimchi to accompany it!!! Oh, kimchi, how I have missed thee. I crunched it with great joy and half-considered asking for a refill.

I have to get back to a half sensible diet now that my holidays are over, which is very sad, as I do enjoy eating. It is a great comfort to me, at this difficult time, to know that I can eat kimchi till it’s coming out of my ears and know that it’s more beneficial to my diet than destructive. Mmmm… kimchi…