Trash talk

For me, rubbish piled high on the streets was not to be expected in a First World country.

In truth, I must confess that Korea’s garbage disposal system is much more in keeping with the original ill-informed, vague, preconceived notion I had of SK as a still-developing country – one where people pulled carts down streets instead of driving fancy cars, and lived in quaint ramshackle houses instead of high-rise apartment buildings.

My expectations were embarrassingly wrong, as I discovered when I stepped off the airport bus in Daejeon and found myself surrounded by tall buildings, neon lights, bustling crowds of the most well-groomed and elegant people you will ever see, and 6 lanes of roaring traffic (mostly Hyundais!).

However, one area of daily life does seem strangely at odds with the otherwise hi-tech and service-oriented Korean lifestyle: rubbish. There are no binmen (as we call them in the UK) with loud and beeping lorries here. Nor, for that matter, are there any bins. Now, I don’t just mean that there are no bins for us to leave out with our household waste for a weekly collection – no, I mean there are NO BINS WHATSOEVER. I still get agitated when I’m walking through the streets drinking from a bottle or eating lunch on the go, and find myself carrying the empty container/packaging around with me like I can’t bear to part with it. I really don’t know what you’re supposed to do in this sort of situation. If I have a bag, I’ll pop the rubbish in there and take it home, but very often I’ll just sneakily add it to one of the piles of rubbish along my way.

Ah yes, the piles of rubbish. I am being completely serious about this. I was just looking on Google for some photos to illustrate it, and then thought “Nah, I’ll just nip outside and take a couple of quick pictures.” You really don’t have to look very far to see this kind of sight:

Rubbish area at my building's front door. On a tidy day!

I’m guessing it’s partly a space issue, since everything is so tightly packed here that you’d fill an entire parking lot with the bins from one apartment complex. Instead, we leave bottles, paper, and other recyclable materials in old shopping bags outside our building. Some buildings, like mine, have a specific little square area for this, while others just make do with the street/doorway/steps. Food waste gets put into the little red buckets you see in the picture. And everything else – the actual rubbish, the stuff that can’t be recycled or used – must be put in the green trash bags you can buy at all shops. This is the only part that costs you any money – probably aimed at encouraging people to recycle everything they can, since recycling is free. The more you throw away as rubbish, the more you pay.

And where does this rubbish go? To be fair, it does seem to get picked up very quickly, as I leave mine out on the way to work on random days of the week and find it gone by the time I get home. The recyclables get picked up by the elderly folk. No such thing as a relaxing retirement here! If you can still walk (and some of them can just about, almost bent double), you can serve the community. Every morning I meet a crowd of ajummas departing from the community centre to pick up litter from the local streets. And you can’t go far without seeing a very old man or woman pulling a rickety cart piled high with cardboard or bottles.

It does seem very out of place – especially when you step out of the quieter neighbourhoods like mine, and take a walk through the crazily busy city streets. Stepping around piles of stinking rubbish just doesn’t fit with the rest of the experience. And let’s not even mention the advertisers, who spend their evenings driving through the streets throwing piles of fliers out of car windows and business cards off motorbikes.

Strange, eh?

In my head.

I had this dream last night that my scalp was really itchy, and when I scratched it this big flaky piece came off in my hand. I was quite dismayed, but imagine my surprise when I went to a mirror and started to pull out these big pieces of what I thought was skin, only to discover that they were in fact some very old and fragile pages from a poetry book. Some fell apart as soon as I touched them, but the ones that remained intact were full of beautiful classic poems (the only one I can recall is one by Yeats).

So I started to get quite concerned about what else could be lurking in the curly depths of my scalp, and started rooting around in there with the help of a mirror and a flashlight. And there, buried far beneath the tangled hair, munching quite happily on a small piece of leaf, was a little red snail.

I just dare you to try to interpret this.

Keeping track

It only occurred to me to ask the school secretary yesterday about the ritual of the children when they arrive at school each day.

Korea is so cool at times. From the number-coded lock on my apartment door, to simply offering customers a spritz of Febreeze when leaving a smoky grill-your-own-meat restaurant, they have a lot of little twists and ideas that appeal to me.

I was idling away a few free minutes after kindergarten and before elementary classes, chatting to the secretary at her desk as the elementary students started to arrive in their buses from various schools. They poured in as usual, shouting hello and pulling off their shoes, sterilizing their hands on the machine, and doing something at a little electronic thingimajig.

Here, what are they actually doing with that thing? I suddenly thought to ask for the first time, actually paying attention for once as a little girl came in and pressed her thumb on to the scanner. It flashed red and beeped, and she ran off to her classroom. Some kind of fancy roll-call? I wondered aloud.

Allie nodded. Sort of. It scans their thumb print and sends their mother a text message to let her know they got here safely.

OK, seriously, how cool is that?!!

The world has come a long way since I was the age of my students (over 20 years ago, erk), when the roll call consisted of a list of names in a folder, which would be checked off each day and collected by a senior pupil, who’d deliver them to the office. Unless a child skipped school regularly, the parents would probably never find out that he hadn’t shown up on a particular day. This way, they just wait for the text message – if it doesn’t arrive, they know there’s a problem. I love it. Peace of mind re: safety and anti-truancy. And so simple!

Grumpy in the morning.

I’m not a big fan of being talked to/at in the morning.

Leave me alone until I’ve had my first cup of coffee, and then we can be the best of friends. Expect me to be communicative when I’m still fighting off the sleep monsters, and it will probably do some damage to our relationship.

I wish I was a morning person, I really do. I could be so much more productive, active, and healthy! But no. I come awake in the evenings, which is why I idle away my time on the internet and reading books half the night when I should be getting a good night’s sleep to avoid feeling like crap in the morning again.

And then of course everything bad seems to happen in the mornings. 90% of my many, many everyday accidents, incidents, and minor injuries occur in that hellish post-sleep, pre-coffee interval. From a stubbed toe to spilled milk, to forgetting the same item 3 times in a row, to things out of my control generally going wrong… mornings are hateful like that.

Yesterday, even coffee didn’t drastically change the situation, because I was more than usually sleep-deprived and also getting gradually sicker from the long-expected allergies. So I stumbled blearily through the day, knocking out 5-year-olds and suchlike, until it was time to go home. I slept for an hour until my alarm reminded me that it was time for my guitar class, and when I practically crawled into my seat I found myself being plunged into a very intensive music theory lesson… in Korean. My poor, poor head. Apparently I have made satisfactory progress in the art of strumming songs and changing chords, and now it’s time to stop playing games, and get down to some serious hard work. I barely got to touch the guitar throughout the whole, twice-as-long-as usual, completely-in-a-foreign-language lesson (as my teacher’s English is hesitant at best, and he decided he couldn’t face presenting a more complex topic in it). It was all key of this and key of that, and flats and sharps and half-tones and a bunch of words I don’t even know how to translate into English (I am going to have a very interesting vocabulary when it comes to talking about music).

Anyway, I’m lost now as I don’t think I actually intended to write about that. Oh yes, well, after a poor night’s sleep I woke up (loosely speaking) with bags under my eyes and yellow dust pouring from my mouth (feels like it). Got to work (late) and spent half a sodding hour trying to get the computer to start. I moved to Alex’s old classroom when he left, as it gets less of the sun’s heat than my old one, but the downside to this is that the computer is fecked. Roars like a depressed hippopotamus and freezes before I’ve even asked it to do anything. So I couldn’t even relax and browse Facebook prepare my lesson materials before I had to go downstairs and be mobbed by a crowd of squealing, waist-high creatures.

Fortunately, I seem to have good karma from generally being in much better form than this of late, and being a smiling, bright and cheerful, shining example of a kindergarten teacher to the lovely, adorable children. It is for this reason that when things get to the stage where I want to crawl under my desk and hide from the horrible little monsters, there will always, always be a small ray of sunshine to soothe my weary mind and body. Today, it came in the form of a colleague carrying a pot of freshly brewed coffee. Until you come here to this land of instant sweet coffee mix and green tea, you have no idea how rare a sight that is. And yet there it was. Real coffee, like a beacon in the night.

Hayley, would you like some coffee? said this beautiful angel at my classroom door, and lo, I cast aside my mug of instant coffee and held out a paper cup left over from an art class.

Coffee helps.

Don’t mess with Teacher.

I gave a child a black eye today.

I haven’t exactly been the world’s best teacher this week. I’m going to blame the yellow dust, which has started drifting in again and making us all cough and sneeze. I’m tired and a little under the weather, a combination which maketh not a good teacher.

Teacher, look! Teacher, here! Teacher, finished! Teacher, me! Teacher, help! Teacher, teacher, teacher!

It’s constant, all of a sudden. It’s probably always that way but I only really notice it when I’m too tired and cranky to deal with it. Shut up, shut up, shut up! I want to respond, but settle instead for pleading with them to just raise their hands. Not that they do.

Go to your chairs and sit down! I instruct them as we finish an action activity and I bend down to tidy away some materials. Perhaps it is silly of me to expect them all to follow this instruction, and so I should not whirl around and stand up at the speed I now do. Because of COURSE there will be a small child standing right behind me, sticking out his tongue to show me some invisible mark or mouth ulcer or something.

CRACK! Our foreheads meet with horrendous-sounding force, and I stagger back clutching my head while the boy practically flies through the air in slow motion. He picks himself up quickly, looking dazed and wondering whether or not to cry. Instead, he chooses to gaze at me with melting brown eyes that stare reproachfully into my soul. How could you hurt me like this? ask The Eyes, one of which is now surrounded by an increasingly red patch of skin.

[If there is any worse feeling, it can only be the one you get when you stand on a puppy’s paw and he makes that pitiful little squealing, whimpering noise. ]

I keep a close watch on him throughout the remainder of class, noting with mounting horror that the skin around his eye is now going purple. He seems as right as rain, but occasionally he rubs his eye in that dazed manner and fixes me with the guilt-inducing gaze again. After class, I make my way to the office to report the incident to the director. She meets me at the door. Who gave Ben the black eye? she asks sternly, in a “woe betide them” sort of voice. Oh, help.

I did, I confess.

I think I might have detention.

I wonder how…

It is the middle of the night, and my delightful neighbours have returned home to have a fight.

They’ve been so happy for the past few weeks, too. I’ve hardly heard a peep from them, other than the occasional civil conversation and the odd peal of laughter, and sure who could complain about that? But alas! – the ceasefire has expired and the slamming of the door simultaneously wakes me up and plunges me into deep despair.

AwwwwwawwwwwAWWWWWWW! goes Yer One. AwwwwWAHHHHHHawwwwww.

Muttermuttermutter, responds Himself. Grunt.

AwwwwwEHHHHHHwahhhhhAWWWWWWWW! adds Yer One.

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrghhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I contribute mildly from underneath my pillow.

The “conversation” proceeds in this manner until I actually lose my mind. This is when it becomes clear to me that the only possible response is to complain to them in the only language that they seem capable of understanding: noise.

Which is why, at 2 o’clock on a Monday morning, and with deep feelings of regret towards the other residents of the building, I stumble blearily from my warm bed, pick up my guitar, and begin playing Lemon Tree as loudly as I can strum without making my fingers bleed.

I have the disturbing feeling of floating up out of my body and watching like an interested  and curious spectator as a crazy woman with mad hair sits in the darkness, thumping at guitar strings with something amounting to fury, and singing “I wonder how, I wonder why…”.

Silence suddenly descends on the apartment next door.

“…yesterday you told me ’bout the blue, blue sky….”, belts out the Crazy Woman.

The girl next door screams something that doesn’t sound as if she is entirely pleased with this turn of events. I don’t understand it all, but I gather that she would prefer it if the impromptu concert were to cease.

“…but all that I can see…”, I continue regardless.

The man next door thumps on the wall, clearly unhappy about his no longer being the noisiest apartment in the building. He, too, shouts something uncomplimentary about my guitar-playing skills, or my singing, I’m not sure which.

“…is just ANOTHER LEMON TREE!!!!” I howl nonsensically.

There is utter silence. I sit there in adrenaline-and-rage-fueled tension, squinting crazily at the wall. There is some muttering. And then, ladies and gentlemen, the neighbours leave their apartment, slamming their door behind them, and go outside to continue their argument in an environment free of insane guitar-playing foreigners who react really strangely to being woken up by a bit of harmless howling in the middle of the night.

I have won.

And it feels fabulous, darlings.

*No one* deserves that (except maybe you, asshole).

I don’t get angry very often, but occasionally something will happen in one of a few categories, and then my blood boils. Topics capable of sending me into a seething rage where I’m willing to set aside my fear of confrontation and get into an argument do not include such things as being right, not getting my way, being insulted, or getting bad service in a restaurant. They are generally limited to the following:

– Someone I care about being seriously wronged

– Bullying

– Racism and other bigotry

And the reason I’ve spent tonight stewing in a rage falls under the third heading.

Honest to God, I cannot for the life of me fathom how racism can seem OK to anyone. How, HOW can a person’s ethnicity make the slightest difference to their worth as a human being? How can the colour of their skin make them a bad person? How does this notion even enter someone’s head, let alone become a deeply-rooted belief? I genuinely have no understanding of this; I Just Do Not Get It.

Tonight, I unfriended someone on Facebook – a girl I’ve known since primary school, and with whom I’ve never had an argument. A nice girl. She didn’t make a racist comment, but one of her friends did, on a sympathetic status update she posted about the current disaster in Japan. The guy wrote like a halfwit, making more grammatical errors than you would imagine to be possible in a “sentence”. I can’t bring myself to quote his delightful sentiments, but the gist of it was that they [insert tired and pathetic slurs about the physical features of Asian people here] didn’t matter in the slightest and deserved whatever they got – that’s what you get for being Japanese, basically. Oh, and you look funny, too. (‘Cause, y’know, you look different from us.)

I am just waiting for the day that I hear a remark like this in person, because whoever says it will see a whole different side of me. As it was, all I could do was “like” a comment from someone pulling the guy up over his remark, and then unfriend the girl whose original status it was. True, she didn’t say anything wrong – in fact, she was expressing shock and sadness. But she didn’t delete the comment. Nor did she get rid of her friend. And several others noted what the bigot wrote, and said words to the effect of “ohhh you’re so badyou heartless pig lol xxx“, for CRYING OUT LOUD!! If someone has friends like that, and thinks that those sort of comments are perfectly acceptable, then I cannot call them a friend of mine – not even on Facebook.

There are some utter, utter bastards out there, seriously.

But here’s the twist. Shortly afterwards, having stayed behind late at work to prepare some materials for next week, I was sitting in a classroom mixing paints and cutting out shapes with Jennifer, who’d come in to help me. Have you heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? I asked her as we worked. She shook her head, and I filled her in on what I’d just read on my news feed.

You know, Japan has always been very bad to Korea, she said, many attacks and cruelty.

Yes, I nodded, since I know this to be true from all my studies of Korean history. I looked expectantly at her, not sure what this had to do with what I’d just said, other than being another random piece of information about the same country. She looked back at me, seeming equally expectant, as if I was meant to infer something from her remark. Then just as it began to dawn on me from her expression that she meant something along the lines of “they deserve whatever they get, it’s punishment”, it began to dawn on her that I would be unlikely to take the same position on the matter, and she gave an embarrassed laugh and moved on quickly, asking me if there had been many deaths, where the epicenter was, and all the appropriate questions like that.

And I quickly moved on with her, only too happy to pretend that she hadn’t just implied what I was fairly certain she had.

Why am I still seething with rage at that imbecile I don’t even know, and disbelieving at my ex Facebook friend for letting him be a nasty, evil little worm on her page, when I was happy to just let my boss get away with a remark with implications just as nonsensical and racist? Because she’s my boss? Because she’s also Asian and therefore somehow entitled to be bigoted towards other Asians? Because I really like her, and don’t want to lose the respect I have for her, so am choosing to give her the benefit of the doubt and see her comment as a thoughtless joke rather than a genuine belief?

Ach, the inner conflict.

I think that sometimes there are just so many pillocks to be furious with, all I can do is find a way to get mad at myself, instead.