Copy that.

Something occurred to me this morning as I began my daily battle with the office photocopier. Why is it that in every single place I’ve ever worked, the photocopier has special needs?

Is it me? Do I have the copier curse upon me? Or is it just that no one, no one in this age of technological miracles including toilets that can practically exfoliate your arse and phones that can send messages independently of you, tell you the current weather on Mars, send flowers to your aunt Josephine, and remind you to pick up milk on the way home from work, no one has figured out how to make a photocopier that Just Works?

There was the one you had to tilt slightly so that it wouldn’t just print out blank pages. Another one would only print streaky lines unless you remembered to thump it hard with the heel of your hand prior to pressing COPY. Another refused to register that it had sufficient toner until you lifted the cartridge out and shook it until your hands (and, in my case, clothes, face, office furniture and carpet) were stained.

The old one at my current workplace was the worst I’ve encountered to date as it would jam somewhere around copy 11 each time, eat several pages in apparent fury at the world and its own feelings of inadequacy, and require a lengthy surgical operation to retrieve the shredded paper from its whirring innards. I protested pathetically for months on end and was delighted when a new machine finally appeared in the office – only to discover that this one’s own special little endearing personality trait is to stop printing mid-batch for no obvious reason and demand that you open all its various lids and trays and drawers and orifices. You have to do this in a particular order, too, and then close them all in sequence. No one knows why. My own personal theory is that it is just an attention-seeking fecker.

I fought it for months, and now I have reached a sort of weary acceptance of what our relationship is. I used to get angry and frustrated, mutter furiously, swear a little, slam lids and trays, give it the occasional slap. Once, my director came in to find me shaking it in a blind rage, yelling what do you want from me, you stupid, worthless piece of junk?! Which was a little embarrassing. Then I realised that none of that makes any difference whatsoever. It’s like trying to shut up a 5-year-old who is hellbent on getting the yellow pencil. You can raise your voice, you can glare, you can reason, you can explain, you can punish – but the child will not do his work until he has the fecking yellow pencil.

What are you doing? one of my colleagues asked me in fascinated curiosity as she watched me perform my well-practiced dance with the copier one morning. I had been carrying on a conversation with her all the while as I systematically opened and closed everything, on autopilot. You have to do this every now and again, I explained wearily, slamming the final tray closed and waiting for the beep of acknowledgement from my friend the existential photocopier.  Then it will finish making your copies. Honestly, I think it just likes to know you’re still there and you’re not going to leave it.

Beep-beep-beep! agreed the copier, springing back to life again in a flood of lights and whirring and self-validation. I pushed the COPY button and glanced at my colleague. You don’t do this?

No, she said, clearly torn between admiration of my ability to assess problems and devise a method for dealing with them, and concern at the realisation that I am apparently in a committed relationship with a piece of malfunctioning office equipment. I just switch it off and switch it on again. How on Earth did you ever figure out to do all that?

We all have our ways of dealing with these things, I said defensively.

I don’t get it, though. Why, when I can send a message to the other side of the planet in a second, and find information about absolutely anything with the click of a button, can’t I just press “36” and “COPY” and expect to get 36 copies, just like that? It doesn’t seem unreasonable… and yet, at the same time, I have never been involved with a photocopier that has not made me feel like I am being needy, demanding, and self-centered with my copying requests.

Such is the age we live in.

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To Becs, on your 30th birthday

You’re thirty!

So am I, and I assure you, it’s not that bad after all. Happy 30th birthday to my oldest (but not old!!) friend, and may this be the start of the best decade yet!

I’ve known you since we were the same age as the little ‘uns I now teach, and in over a quarter of a century of friendship (holy crap) I have trusted you with all my secrets, dreams, problems, and crazy ideas. You are the friend who has heard it all, been there through the heartbreaks, cheered me on when everyone thought I was mad, bluntly told me to wise up when I was being an idiot, and been able to finish my sentences.

With you, I have gone from singing Spice Girls songs into hairbrushes to drunk-singing at you over the phone from the other side of the world. With you, I have watched The Riddlers and Timmy Mallett, studied for exams (remember when we could recite all the US presidents… backwards?!), made giggly phone calls to boys, entertained classmates with debate speeches about The X Files. With you, I exchanged pages and pages of angst, humour, disturbing philosophy, and utter nonsense in the letters we wrote all through our teens. With you, I could always be myself.

You are that friend who has always been there, is always there, and will always be there, wherever we end up and whatever we do. You are a sister to me, and you have been a part of every chapter of my life and every major decision I’ve made. In my head, I still see us as those little girls eating jam sandwiches in front of the TV or playing in the paddling pool during the summer holidays… or the teenagers who laughed, cried, argued, and thought thirty was, like, really, really OLD.

But alas, now we are grown-ups, and as the one who reached 30 first the only advice I can offer is a reminder that being a grown-up does not mean you have to grow up. :)Always keep living life to the max and having fun. You truly lived your twenties, and I can’t wait to see what you do with your thirties. You are one of the most genuinely thoughtful, kind-hearted, funny, popular, and generally fantastic people I know, and I will always be thankful that we became best friends all the way back in the 1980s in that wee classroom with the tiny red chairs.

So, my friend, from all the way over here in Korea, I send you my love, my hugs, my best wishes, my party vibes, and a huge HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Enjoy your holiday, drink that champagne, and I will raise a glass to you over here.

Love you, my friend. Here’s to 30. Here’s to you. And here’s to you being 30 and ROCKING IT!

Living with Gangnam Style

I really don’t know just how huge the Gangnam Style phenomenon is in other parts of the world. I’ve read that Psy (pronounced “sigh”) has been making appearances on TV shows across the US, and that the song has become the first ever K-pop tune to reach number one on the iTunes chart. I’m guessing you’ve heard of it, then, maybe?

If you’re in Korea, on the other hand, my question would be something more along the lines of, “hey, can you think back to what life was like before Gangnam Style? Can you remember the last time you went an entire day without hearing it or seeing someone post yet another parody of it on Facebook?”. Seriously. Korea – already slightly on the nutty side – has gone absolutely bonkers over this song.

First, the story. Gangnam is a somewhat swanky district in Seoul, where clothes are even shinier and hair is even more coiffed than usual. Psy is a decidedly non-Gangnam style character who is using the normally cutesy and fluffy medium of K-pop to take the piss out of Korea’s obsession with appearance, and the high level of conspicuous consumption that exists here as a result. They even have a name for the girls who cut their spending on basic essentials (like, y’know, food) in order to spend a small fortune on luxury items or vanity products. Such a woman is called a 된장녀 (Doenjangnyeo), “Doenjang Girl/Woman” – Doenjang jjigae being one of the cheapest meals you can buy in Korea. The idea is that she will survive on this, or cheap ramen, but buy the most expensive coffee drinks at Starbucks. That kind of thing. Image is important here – apparently even more so in Gangnam.

So anyway, enter Psy with his satirical take on the issue, hilarious music video, ridiculous dance, and far-too-catchy tune, and you’ve got an international superstar. He’s saying that he is, in fact, “Gangnam style” – his refrain is “Oppan Gangnam Style!”. “Oppa” is what females call older male friends (names aren’t used very often), and literally means “big brother”. Psy is referring to himself as he sings about how he is the guy for these Gangnam Style girls: Oppan Gangnam Style! = “Big Brother is Gangnam Style!”.   The video shows him in a number of the places associated with wealth and luxury in Korea, only to then reveal that it’s an illusion and he’s really somewhere unexciting and plain. We see him lazing decadently on a fancy beach, for example, only for the camera to pan out and show that he’s actually in a sandpit in a playground.

I admit, I totally dismissed this song as catchy but annoying K-pop cheese when it first started assaulting my eardrums wherever I went. Only when I started actually paying attention to the video and reading up on the meaning behind the weirdness did I start to appreciate how clever it is. And it is pretty damn funny even without the background knowledge!

Over the past few weeks, the craze has become… well, crazier. I literally hear this song at least 5 times a day, whether blasting from shops, or being sung by a student or colleague, or in another video posted on Facebook, or in pubs and restaurants. I have stopped trying to fight it. I have to confess that I’ve gone from finding it intensely annoying to actually rather liking it. And everyone, love it or hate it, is in its power. There’s absolutely nothing you can do but join in when he pauses and then announces “Oppan Gangnam Style!” – it’s like we’re all under a spell. I was in a convenience store with a friend the other day while the song was playing (probably on a loop, I don’t know how else it’s possible that I hear it everywhere I go), and we actually paused our conversation to declare “Oppan Gangnam Style!” and promptly launch into the instantly recognisable dance that follows. No one even batted an eyelid. In fact, a couple of Korean guys joined in.

An existence without Gangnam Style as the constant background track is now pretty much unfathomable to me. It is just Always There. So, in case you haven’t been exposed to it, allow me to share. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Psy.

Heyyyyyy… sexy lady! Oh, oh, oh, oh – oppan Gangnam Style!

Raring to go

It was a busy week, my week of trying new things.

I watched American football (not a clue), I went to a baseball game as part of a staff group with the workers from The Local (“no, she doesn’t work with us… but she’s part of the furniture”), I tried green enchiladas (yum!!) and raspberry mojitos (not so yum – don’t mess with perfection). I went on a date with a guy I don’t really know. This is a pretty huge deal for me, as I have never actually been on a proper first date before (only friendships that became relationships) – I was a nervous wreck, but it was kinda fun! I went to the first meeting of my new French conversation club, where I sat in a wine bar with a group of mostly strangers and spoke in French the entire time. I partied all night on a Thursday just because I unexpectedly had the next morning off work, and I spent Friday night both in deep conversation with Wednesday’s date, and letting Frankie from The Local fling me around the dance floor to teach me some flamboyant Mexican-style dance.

Yes, it was a good week.

Of course, come Saturday, having barely been in the house since the previous week, I was exhausted and feeling elderly, so reluctantly cancelled my dinner plans and opted to spend the day in bed with season 2 of Breaking Bad. Now, this next part is one of the things about life in Korea that is so ridiculous and yet so fabulous. After spending the day alternating between watching the show and sleeping, now wide awake and refreshed, I got a text from a friend at 3am. The Local isn’t the same without you. :( Come out for an hour?

It’s 3am! I texted back, amused.

My phone rang – a different person this time. Just pull on some sweats and let’s go hang out at the GS for a little bit.

It’s 3am!! I responded, laughing.

The first friend texted again. Just one drink… you know you want to. 

Who goes out at 3 in the feckin’ morning?! I replied, as I was getting up and walking to the shower. I think we all know the answer to that.

30 minutes later, I was sitting with the two satisfied persuaders and several random strangers, playing card games around a table outside the GS25 as the party people swarmed through the buzzing streets. There was a lot of laughter, silly conversation, soju. I couldn’t have had a more fitting end to my fun week – nicely rounded off by a Sunday evening of hearty Korean food and then board games and ice cream in a coffee shop with my newest friends as the rain pounded against the windows.

It was a week of trying new things, and honestly, it was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had. There’s something to be said for keeping busy, expanding your circle of friends, letting people (try to) teach you about their favourite sport, exercising till it hurts, dancing till you have to stop for breath, having that little tub of ice cream just because you want it, and knowing that it won’t undo all your hard work, getting over your nerves and letting a nice fella take you out for dinner, talking to strangers, socialising in another language without worrying about all your mistakes, going out at 3.30 in the morning just because you can, playing board games for hours on end, and treating yourself to a day of lazing in bed watching back to back episodes of a TV show.

I might aim to fit just as much into this week, as for once, it is Monday morning and I am full of energy and raring to go! It truly beats going home from work, slumping down on the bed, and remaining there until it’s time for work the next morning. Carpe diem! 

A week of trying new things…

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am feeling pretty good about life right now.

This is true even today, when I sit here in a whole new world of pain thanks to my cheerful, chirpy, fitness freak friend and our latest training session after work yesterday. Do 300+ squats and then try to run around a track. I dare you. The only other time in my whole life that I can remember my knees ever buckling like that was when Take That came on to the stage in Belfast when I was 12. I genuinely nearly fell down the steps as I tried to stagger out of the park towards the subway, and had to stumble towards a taxi instead. I can’t feckin walk, I texted him a few hours later from where I lay groaning dolefully on a sofa at The Local. Haha, he replied sympathetically. 

Still, it’s all for the greater good. I may not be able to walk, and my muscles may be screaming out for mercy, but it’s worth it. As my earlier post said, I have so much energy and enthusiasm lately, and am feeling full of unprecedented confidence in – and happiness with – who I am. I am doing things I’ve never done before! The other night I sauntered up to a group of almost-strangers (you know… the ones you’ve seen around and maybe said hello to, but whose names you don’t know) at the GS and introduced myself. I ended up having a lot of fun and waking up to several new friend requests on Facebook. This may sound like quite a normal occurrence, to you; however, to me, it’s a groundbreaking event! A milestone in my life, if you will.

It just hit me that I am, for the first time in a long time, fully booked every night this week.

This is a far cry from how I was spending my time up until recently. I’d work, go home, eat rubbish, watch TV, go to sleep, repeat – mainly because I was tired and fed up. Now that I have energy, I am amazed at how much can actually fit into a day! A quick exercise session and shower after work, and I’m energised and ready to head back out the door instead of settle down for the night in my pajamas.

And so begins my week of trying new things. It wasn’t planned to be such a thing, but it’s just sort of panned out like that. I was in such a rut for such a long time that I convinced myself that there was nothing new or fun for me to do in Korea. Nonsense! There’s always something new to try, no matter where you are. It could be as drastic as a skydive (no, not yet, but I am in discussions with a friend who is trying to persuade me that it’s worth the money it would cost to accompany him when he does it!) or as simple as saying hello to a bunch of strangers, or mastering a new exercise move, or ordering something utterly bizarre for dinner (OK, that one was accidental, thanks to two very similarly-spelled Korean words, but still).

This week, I am doing things that I wouldn’t usually do – some insignificant, some that I confess scare me a little bit.

Life is short. Time to start packing it full of fun again!

Today is Yellow.

Teacher, what colour is today?

I pause in my post-class tidying to look at the 6-year-old girl asking me the question with a thoughtful look on her face.

What day is today? I repeat her question back to her with the correct wording before answering. Today is Thursday. 

She looks blankly at me. No, I know. Today is Thursday. But what colour is Thursday?

Surprised, I straighten up to look at her waiting patiently for my answer. Well, um… I think Thursday is orange. But… well, what colour was yesterday?

Green, she replies without hesitation. Wednesday is green. Tomorrow is Friday. Friday is yellow. 

I cannot conceal my amazement. Yes!! I exclaim excitedly. It so is!! 

The child wanders off, her question answered to her satisfaction, unaware that she has just blown my mind.

Other people see days as colours, too? Granted, it’s a 6-year-old child, but still – another human being shares this odd trait of mine! Friday is even the same colour! Her question made perfect sense to me, but I know that if I went up to one of my friends and asked them what colour Thursday is, I’d get a baffled look.

I can’t even explain exactly what I mean by “seeing” the days as colours. If it helps, I have this weird approach to language, in that I see the words written down in my head as I’m saying or hearing them. It’s like an autocue on a TV camera. As I’m speaking, the words are scrolling in front of my mind’s eye as if I’m reading them from a printed page. If you’re speaking to me, they’re being typed there as I listen. If you say a word I don’t know, I will stop you and ask you to spell it for me so that I can see it in my head – this is particularly important with names and foreign language words. If I don’t know how to spell someone’s name, I will not be able to remember it even a few seconds later. Recently this has been problematic for me as I meet more and more people with Afrikaans names, which are foreign to me and often pronounced differently from how they’re written. It took me several weeks to master the name of a new girl in our group of friends, despite spending significant amounts of time in her company, simply because the ‘j’ is a ‘y’ and the ‘o’ is a ‘u’. I still cannot remember my new colleague’s name from one conversation to the next because the ‘w’ is a ‘v’ and there’s an ‘o’ that’s not even there… and he’s been here since I got back from Ireland.

It’s all very strange. It’s also part of the reason why I failed so miserably at learning Korean. When I hear an unfamiliar word in French, for example, I either instinctively know (from my existing knowledge of the language) how it’s spelled, or I ask the speaker to spell it. Then it’s there in my mental dictionary, saved and ready to be recalled when needed. But when I hear a new word in Korean, it’s only sounds. I know the Korean alphabet, I can read it and write it and pronounce all the sounds, but it’s not the alphabet of my autocue. So, when I hear a new Korean word, it doesn’t scroll across the screen. Even when I ask for it to be spelled, it doesn’t appear in my head. I have to hear it over and over and over again, and see it written down on paper, and often even write it out phonetically in my autocue’s alphabet, before it will stick.

Anyway, the point of telling you all this (I’m sure you’re absolutely riveted) is to say that in general, the words that continuously scroll through my mind are in black print on a beige-y coloured background. Some words, however, are in colour. I do not know why. The coloured ones are seemingly random – apart from the days of the week. Days have always been in colour, and they’ve always been the same colour, my whole life, as far back as I can remember. The teacher in me made this little illustration for you.

Just another little insight into my mind, to further convince the general public that I am not entirely normal!

Shrinking and growing

So anyway, I lost a lot of weight.

It was far from easy, and at times I thought I was going to die as I lay there scarlet and gasping on the floor, with Jillian Michaels yelling at me to get up and do static lunges with hand weights, but I did it. I did it! The first month was the hardest, but then as I was about to give up, people started to notice. The comments and compliments spurred me on. Every time I went out, more than one person asked if I’d lost more weight, told me I was looking good, asked me how I was doing it. If someone hadn’t seen me for a few months, they did a double take. It was a massive self-confidence booster, and my main incentive for keeping at it even on those evenings when the thought of exercising after a rough day at work made me want to hide under the table with a family pack of Doritos and a bottle of soju. I don’t want to stop hearing nice things about myself – who would?! So here I am… working for it.

To my great amazement, despite not exercising throughout my almost month-long holiday, and despite eating half the crisps and sausage rolls in all of Northern Ireland, I did not gain weight while I was there. In fact, astonishingly, I seem to have shrunk further! I do not know how this is possible, but I’m not complaining. Maybe it’s just that I bought smaller clothes while I was home (TWO WHOLE SIZES smaller – I confess I wept a little with sheer joy in the fitting room). Or that the food there just did not agree with me after my super-healthy and mainly Korean diet, so my main meals were mostly left half-eaten. Or that my body was grateful for the break from Jillian and decided to reward me. Whatever. I didn’t suddenly get fatter again, as I had feared I would.

Now, however, with some reluctance, I’ve had to choose not to chance it any more, and get back into my routine. I have a long way still to go before I can say I’m at my ideal weight! And so I am once again flinging myself around my room with a great deal of sweat and gasping… cooking healthy meals… thanking the school cooking lady, who is now on board with the whole thing and serving me a very small portion of rice each day without looking offended

In the midst of all this, I hit a bump in the road in my personal life, which would at one time have sent me to the shops for a weekend’s supply of vodka, crisps, pasta, hotdogs, cheese, etc. A wee touch of heartbreak, and food was my immediate go-to, consumed while drinking myself into a stupor in a darkened, locked room.

This time, I spent only a few hours crying on a friend’s shoulder, then put on some nice new clothes and make-up, and went out dancing with my friends and had fun. Instead of locking myself away and feeling sorry for myself, I’ve kept busy, gone out for lunches and dinners, exercised, played board games in coffee shops, chatted for hours on Kakao. Personal growth, I feel. As my body has been shrinking, I have apparently been growing. And honestly, it’s made a huge difference to my attitude and mood. I haven’t even fallen back into the bitter “men are bastards” camp, since one of the friends, who has proved to be my biggest encourager through the afore-mentioned bumpy section, is indeed a man. There are some good ones… just not the ones I fall for. ;)

After the initial sobbing and hugs, followed by several pep talks, “hold-your-head-high-and-dance-with-me” waltzing at the Local, and admittedly quite a lot of vodka, he brought me to the park last night for a workout session to give me variety in my exercise regime – and company in my week. Having expected a brutal, boot camp-style drill sergeant approach with yelling and screaming and insults, I was pleasantly surprised to find him patient and as encouraging as ever. I ran carrying a small barrel of water, I did squats and jumps and twists, I hung from and pushed up on exercise bars, I jogged while he subtly dropped his pace so we stayed level.

I won’t say I enjoy this whole exercise caper. I would so much rather be eating crisps and watching TV. But I do love the buzz I feel when it’s over – and of course the results when I keep at it. I am no longer the self-conscious, comfort-eating girl who hides at the back of the room or bases her self-worth on one man’s view. Changing my lifestyle has not been easy, but it’s been worth it… because now, at last, I feel I’m worth it. Worth taking care of myself. Worth talking to. Worth spending time with. I don’t see myself as some dull, ugly, stupid, fat girl any more. Even though I’m far from slim and glamorous, I have enough confidence to hold my head up and see, for the first time, that that’s not important, and that I’m somebody worth knowing. If someone else doesn’t see it, or disagrees, well, screw him.

Shrinking… but more importantly, growing. :)