A weekend in America

I still don’t know how it happened. One minute I’m sitting at the bar in The Local having a few Friday night cocktails with a friend after my happy decision to stay in the next night and avoid all the Halloween madness, and the next thing I know I’m on a bus to some obscure little town to go partying on a US Air Force base.

I grumbled a bit, accusing my kidnappers of being manipulative and taking advantage of me when I was all tequila sunrised, but secretly I was quite excited to be going off for an unexpected adventure instead of staying at home like a sensible adult. And at least I still avoid the Halloween parties, I said in satisfaction as the bus sped along towards Gunsan. Erm, yes, about that… said a guilty-looking kidnapper.

And so it was that I ended up going out for Halloween after all. Still, I had a legitimate excuse for not having a costume (“I was tricked into being here” worked just fine), and the Air Force guys had apparently had their big Halloween party the night before, so I wasn’t the only one dressed like a sane person.

It was my first time on a military base, so it was all quite exciting. For those who are not aware, the United States has something like 30,000 (I think) troops stationed in  South Korea, for ‘protection’ against the north. Roughly a third of these are Air Force, in two different locations: Osan Air Base (near Seoul) and Gunsan Air Base (on the west coast). Although I was aware of the US military presence, I’d never met many of them, being from a militarily insignificant city, myself. However, as one of my friends has been dating an Air Force guy, I found myself suddenly launched into a sort of Little America. With soliders. Lots of soldiers. In uniforms.

The base – although on the Korean Peninsula – is technically American territory. You can only get in by surrendering your passport at the guarded gate, and even then only if you have someone who is willing to sign you in and accompany you. Once you’re in, you’re in America. Like, really!! The currency changes to US dollars, you can wear your shoes indoors, you can’t just smoke anywhere you like, and even the electrical power sockets on the walls are American, so you’ll need an adapter for your Korean iPhone charger. I found all this pretty cool. It’s quite a novelty to take a bus ride to America for the weekend!

What was very intimidating to me, though, was the fact that everyone around me was American. It’s weird – you’d think I’d be used to feeling like a foreigner, but for some reason it really threw me. I no longer even notice my foreignness when I’m the only non-Korean in a packed subway carriage… but sitting in the smoking area outside our friend’s apartment, surrounded by Americans, I felt extremely out of place. They were speaking English, yet I somehow felt even more different from them than I do from the Koreans. Maybe it’s because we should be more alike, yet there are actually a huge number of cultural and linguistic differences. The accents sound really strong and confident to me; the people seem cooler and more sure of themselves. They make jokes and references that go over my head, and use slang I don’t understand. They have a bond and background that I don’t share.

And of course, all that was on top of the fact that sightings of women on the base are fairly infrequent, so our group was already drawing a lot of attention! I definitely felt very conspicuous.

However, I kept my head down for a while, hid behind my friends, had a few drinks, and ended up having a great night. My foreignness turned out to be a good thing, as my accent was an instant talking-point. One of my friends said she overheard someone at one point telling his friend about the girl with the Irish accent in their midst. I felt sort of important! ;)

We went hooch hopping. Until this weekend, the only hooches I knew about were the alcopop drinks and the big dog from that Tom Hanks movie, but these hooches were bars. There are no ‘real’ pubs on the base, so they seem to have set up their own. Some of them are little more than garages with a bar and a pool table and a few patio chairs, while others are a lot more elaborate. There’s no set price for the drinks, either – in a couple of the hooches, they just asked for “a donation” for each drink. In another one, they took 10 dollars, gave us a stamp on the hand, and let us order as many drinks as we liked.

Our Air Force friend marched us in an increasingly merry band from one hooch to the next, until I eventually found myself sitting under a tree in the early hours of the morning with a group of uniformed guys, Jesus, and some sort of robot. Not my usual weekend… but it was definitely a nice change!

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I don’t like Halloween

OK, I’m just going to say it.

I don’t like Halloween.

There, it’s out in the open now. I feel nervous but exhilarated. My secret is out. I don’t like Halloween.

I am not opposed to it, I have no moral or religious objections to it, it doesn’t bother me to see others decorating for it or dressing up for it… but I don’t like Halloween.

I did when I was a child. Children like dressing up in scary costumes and making ghostly noises in exchange for sweets. Children like dunking for apples and searching for a silver coin in an apple pie. Children like spooky decorations and toy spiders. I very much enjoyed the whole thing when I was wee. But as an adult? No. I don’t like Halloween.

I don’t remember Halloween being a huge event when I was a child. I remember wearing a mask (we called them “false faces”) and a witch’s hat or a joker teeth grill (we used to call them “false teeth”) and I remember my mum throwing a small Halloween party each year, either just for my sister and me, or with a couple of our closest friends. When I was a little older, I enjoyed watching scary movies at pajama parties with my mates. But I don’t remember all the hype that I see nowadays. We never decorated our houses or streets, for example. We never went trick-or-treating. We wouldn’t have gone to school dressed in our costumes. For me, Halloween felt almost like a little filler activity to keep us going between the summer and Christmas holidays.

And also, didn’t we spell it “Hallowe’en”, back then?!

Not only has Halloween never been particularly important to me, but lately I find myself somewhat confused about what the heck it’s actually about. When I was a youngling, I learned about its origins. Irish folklore, Celtic Samhain, All Hallows’ Eve, harvest festivals, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, the souls of the dead, evil spirits. I suppose you wouldn’t be allowed to teach much of that to kids nowadays, for fear of offending someone’s religion or scaring the poor, fragile little children. Pffft. Don’t get me started.

Anyway, my point is, can people actually explain what Halloween is, any more, or are we just all dressing up and getting candy/drunk (depending on age)? You know, just because that’s what we do in October? No one knows why. My major issue (for yes, I do have one) is that most of the costumes these days have absolutely nothing to do with Halloween as I thought I understood it. We always dressed up as witches, monsters, zombies, mummies, ghosts, vampires and the like. Halloween was about being scary and getting scared. Nowadays, it is apparently acceptable to dress up like a fairy-tale princess, or a character from current events, or a movie star. Anything goes. What the hell does a sexy nurse or Superman have to do with Halloween?! I don’t get it.

Let me just repeat that I have no objection to Halloween. I don’t understand all the excitement and build-up I’ve been witnessing over the past few weeks, and I could live without this particular ‘holiday’ (it isn’t a holiday, by the way), but hey, I’m happy if the people around me are happy, so have fun! Something occurred to me today, though, as I sat despairingly at my desk wondering how I was going to put together a decent costume by tomorrow night. It was a revelation; almost an epiphany, I believe! And it was this: I don’t actually have to dress up and go to a Halloween party if I don’t want to.

I’ve done it for the past few years out of a desire to please everyone else. You must wear a costume! It’s Halloween! You must come to the party! It’s Halloween! So I did. I groaned and sighed over costumes, I went out looking and feeling ridiculous, I tried to show enthusiasm over sparkly wigs and men with fake boobs and grown women wearing tiaras and fairy wings. But damn it all, I don’t like it! I don’t understand why I’m dressing up. I don’t want to feel self-conscious about looking ridiculous, or slutty, or both. I don’t want to spend ages looking for inspiration and materials for a costume I don’t actually want to wear. I don’t want to pose for numerous pictures ‘in character’. I don’t want to have to explain who/what I am, over and over again. I don’t want to have to say “Ohhhh, I love your bunny ears / tiara / fake blood” a million times, while pretending I mean it.

It’s not my idea of fun. I’m perfectly fine with it being your idea of fun, but I’m just sayin’ – it’s not for me. And suddenly realising, today, that I don’t actually have to do it, was honestly the biggest weight off my shoulders. It just sucks that I have to miss a Saturday night out because I don’t want to wear a costume (and I don’t want to be THAT person), but one Saturday night isn’t much, in the grand scheme of things. And on Wednesday night, we’re going to curl up on sofas, have a few drinks and watch Rocky Horror. That’s my idea of fun!

Happy Halloween… if you like that kind of thing.

Kindness with a little strange

In Korea, the second you come down with so much as a runny nose or, I dunno, a grazed knee, the unprompted advice from the nearest Korean will be automatic: Go to the hospital.

It took me – and most other foreigners I know – quite a while to work out that ‘hospital’ really meant ‘doctor’. Konglish, I suppose. I just thought everyone was being terribly melodramatic the first few times, when I complained of a mild headache, or sneezed a couple of times. The hospital? I asked in alarm, panicking that they could see something I couldn’t, and I was in urgent need of medical treatment. Even when I realised that they meant ‘doctor’, I still found (and find) it kind of absurd. Mind you, I come from a country where there have been national advertising campaigns urging us not to go to the doctor for trivial aches and pains. Talk to your pharmacist! Get some over-the-counter medicine! Better yet, stay home and have someone get it for you so you’re not out in public spreading the germs! If you walked into a doctor’s waiting room coughing and sneezing all over the place, you’d be eyeballed and tutted at like a condemned criminal.

Here, on the other hand, it’s expected. Required, even. You can go to the pharmacy, of course, but if you’re looking for anything stronger or more complicated than headache pills or hangover remedies, you’ll probably be disappointed. I have yet to find anything decent for sinus problems and allergies, and miming period pain was certainly an interesting experience but largely unsuccessful.

Back home, I would just call into Boots or the pharmacy at Sainsbury’s and browse by myself for whatever it was I needed. I would only visit the doctor in an emergency, or when I didn’t know what was wrong. Here, because I can’t just browse in the pharmacy and don’t like going to the doctor, I tend to put it off and suffer on in the hope that whatever’s wrong will just go away by itself… which is how a simple cold once again developed into a full-blown chest infection that saw me finally sitting in the doctor’s waiting room on Sunday evening, wishing for blissful unconsciousness.

I started to cough just as an ajumma was sitting down next to me, and she promptly got straight back up and went to sit at the other side of the room instead. As I continued coughing – the windows and doors rattling wildly in response – two other people rose from their nearby chairs and moved away. I really don’t blame them; I sound like I have TB. I tried to stop coughing, which, as anyone who’s ever tried to stop coughing in a quiet public place knows, is like trying not to laugh at an inappropriate moment, or trying not to think about kebabs and cheeseburgers when you’re drunk. Cough – cough – gasp – hack – cough.

Drink this, said a little old woman, appearing as if by magic at my side and sitting down next to me with a cup of green tea. She was a patient, like me, not a member of staff, but she had apparently taken pity on the poor foreign girl, shunned and struggling to breathe in the corner. I gratefully accepted the tea and took a few sips, my cough subsiding enough for me to register the frail arm that was now around me, and the hand that was gently stroking my hair. Slightly bemused, I chose to ignore it, as is so often the easiest solution here. Thank you, I said croakily but sincerely, taking another sip of tea and coughing a little less dramatically. The hand continued to stroke my hair, and the old lady began murmuring things I could not even make out, let alone understand. It was soothing, in a strange sort of way. No one else was paying us the slightest bit of attention, as if this kind of thing was perfectly normal.

Awma awdi-ay? she asked suddenly, the first words I could distinguish in an otherwise somewhat witchy-spell babble. Where is your mother?

This, too, was a little odd, given that I’m in my thirties and have been living fairly independently since the age of 18. Did I look like a lost child, all of a sudden?! Um… Ireland, I replied in some confusion. The poor woman looked heartbroken, and I suddenly wished I’d lied and said my mum was waiting outside in the car. She went off into a torrent of heartfelt words of comfort and pity. Of course, I am just assuming that that’s what they were, since I understood none of it. But the hand was still gently stroking my hair the way I sometimes do to calm a crying 6-year-old, so it seemed like a fair assumption.

I was called in to see the doctor, and got up with a smile and a thank you to my new friend, whose eyes were filled with concern and sadness. I really must present quite a pathetic figure at times. As I turned to go, she suddenly flung her arms around me and hugged me – a little awkwardly, since her head only came up to my chest – before grabbing my face between her hands and giving me one of those ‘great aunt’ kisses. Then she let me go, and I staggered away in total bewilderment – but with a smile on my face.

As a friend commented on my Facebook status when I shared the tale: That’s a wonderful moment to show the kindness that is everywhere here – always comes with a little strange!

Guilty pleasures

Peanut butter on a spoon, straight from the jar. Girly TV shows like Ugly Betty and Gilmore Girls. Seeing the name of someone I have a crush on followed by “likes your status/link/photo”. Gingerbread Lattes.

Smoking. Playing the same song over and over again and singing along until I know all the words.  Reading fiction by Danielle Steele, Virginia Andrews, Stephanie Meyer, and similar. Skinny dipping.

Diet Coke. Facebook stalking. Spending the whole day in bed, watching TV (and cuddling, if not alone). Combining bathroom cleaning and showering. Going back to sleep after the alarm goes off. Erasure, especially this song. Very expensive coffee.  Driving too fast with the music up loud.

Stripping naked under the aircon as soon as I get home on summer evenings. Listening to my neighbour singing in the shower. McDonald’s. Repeatedly daydreaming about what may happen or mentally reliving something that already has. Gangnam Style. Drinking cocktails on a Monday night.

Occasionally going back to an article I had published online, to see the current total number of readers and feel a bit giddy. Still cuddling Eeyore when I go to sleep, even though I’m in my thirties. Eavesdropping on strangers having hilarious arguments. Crisps.

Writing corny poetry I’ll never show anyone. Eating leftovers from the saucepan. Driving while playing a meaningful song full blast and pretending I’m in a movie and this is my soundtrack at the emotional climax. Karaoke.

Temper, temper!

Do you know what I hate more than anything in the world?

Well, probably prejudice, bigotry, and evil, to be honest, but sometimes you need a dramatic opening question, and “Do you know what I really strongly dislike, a lot more than weak coffee but considerably less than murder and crying babies?” just doesn’t cut it.

Anyway: being told what to do. I hate being told what to do. Now, if you happen to be my boss, my doctor, my teacher/instructor/trainer, or a police officer catching me in the act of committing a misdemeanor, by all means, tell me what to do, when necessary. You have the right, you have the authority, and I will be meek and obedient. I was the best-behaved child you could ever imagine when I was at school, so respectful (and/or terrified) was I of rules and authority figures. I am afraid of my dentist, and I panic when I see a police car behind me on the road, even if I know for certain that I haven’t broken any traffic laws. I don’t want you thinking I am some headstrong, fiery, TO HELL WITH AUTHORITY, I WILL DO AS I PLEASE sort of character. I’m really rather obliging and submissive.

Unless, that is, you have absolutely no right to tell me what to do. That makes my blood boil. If done continually, on a regular basis, this becomes a rolling boil to the extent where steam begins to spew from my ears and nose, and you can see my hands becoming trembling fists as the internal pressure builds. The angry explosion is imminent.

It very nearly happened today. One of my newest colleagues, who started only a few months ago, has managed to give me orders at least once a day since she got there. The thing is, however, that I can’t really say anything because she’s not doing it in a bad way. It’s like she’s trying to give me friendly help and advice, or even just make casual suggestions… but because she phrases it as an instruction each time, she is unknowingly turning up the heat in my internal pressure cooker of irritated fury.

“Wear a jacket outside from now on, it’s not summer any more,” she told me, seeing me leave work in a t-shirt one sunny evening. (“I will, when it gets cold,” I told her politely).

“Go downstairs, we will eat lunch now,” she has said on more than one occasion as she passes my room and sees me cleaning up after art class or finishing something on my computer. (“Yes, I’m just finishing this,” I point out. It’s as if she thinks I don’t know where to go at lunch time, despite having been here every working day for the past three years.)

And then, at lunch, it’s like she watches everything I eat and gets agitated if I don’t seem to be touching one particular food. “Eat this one,” she tells me suddenly. (“I don’t like it,” or “I’m watching my calorie intake,” or “just fecking leave me alone and let me choose what I want to eat!” I reply through gritted teeth.)

“Stop slouching at your desk.”

“Don’t drink coffee, drink this tea.”

“Take an umbrella.”

“Go home now, you aren’t supposed to be working this late.”

Every. Fecking. Day. I just know she’s going to do it at the worst possible moment soon, when I’m having a bad day or when something’s bothering me, and then I am just going to explode all over the place, and it’ll be in response to the most innocent and sweet suggestion imaginable, like “Eat this chocolate” or “Cuddle this puppy”. It won’t matter: I am getting more and more irritated by her daily orders, and now I can’t hear her use the imperative without clenching my fists. Today, another colleague was saying that she switched the heating on in her house the other night. I was obviously incredulous, and laughed, saying “I’m still using my fan!”.

I regretted it as soon as it was out of my mouth, as my instructor instantly jumped on my casual remark. “Don’t you have a cold?” she asked sharply. I actually sighed, this time, bracing myself. “Yes,” I said wearily and warily. She looked sternly at me. “Then don’t use a fan,” she ordered.

I nearly lost it at that, that’s how mad she’s making me.

“But if I’m going out, and I’ve used the shower and the hairdryer, and I’m too warm, and I don’t want my make-up to run or my hair to go all damp and frizzy, I need to cool the place down.” I told her fiercely, noting other colleagues’ somewhat surprised glances at my disproportionately passionate response, and yet unable to stop myself. I paused to take a deep, calming breath, at which point she shook her head and said “No. If you are too hot it is good, you will get better. Don’t cool down. No fan.”

Ohhhhhhhh. Emmmmmm. Geeeeeeee.

I nearly threw the remainder of my seaweed soup in her face, but settled for staring intently into it (the soup, not her face) for a few seconds, and counting to ten in my head before rising to return my bowls to the kitchen.

I must not get angry at friendly advice. I must not get angry at friendly advice. I must not get angry at friendly advice.

But arrrrrrghhhhhhh…. STOP TELLING ME WHAT TO DO!!!!

I’m in love with a disembodied voice.

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I’ve had a few unfortunate experiences with neighbours here in the past.

There was the passionate yet clearly mentally unstable girl next door, whose daily 3am fights with her boyfriend – complete with screaming, crying, throwing things, and slamming doors – were inevitably followed by mind-blowingly expressive make-up sex. There’s nothing worse than being kept awake half the night by yelling and tantrums, except for being forced to listen to someone have noisy sex about 30cm from your ear with only a wall that might as well be a piece of cardboard in between you and them.

Then there was the girl who was generally an ideal neighbour apart from the fact that she had the most irritating alarm clock in the entire world.

She was eventually replaced by an older couple, who were great neighbours until the point when they either adopted a newborn baby or started babysitting regularly. Oh dear lord, I actually wanted to kill someone. I had a similar experience on my recent flight back to Korea, when I was trying to sleep – already pretty much impossible when you’re upright and cramped with your knees somewhere around your ears, air conditioning sucking the moisture out of your sinuses, and an engine roaring beneath you. Throw in a baby that WON’T STOP SCREAMING, and you’ve got my very own personal living hell. Honestly, I swear, if people must have babies for whatever incomprehensible reason I will never get, there should be rules about where you can and can’t bring them until they’re… trained, or whatever. At the very least, they should have a special soundproofed section for shrieking infants at the back of the plane, so that the people who chose this life can enjoy the screaming while those of us who chose a child-free existence can enjoy the benefits of our decision.

I am a fairly laid-back and tolerant person, I really am. It’s just that noises get to me, and there are few noises that can get right into my brain and under my skin and drive me totally insane quite like a screaming child. As I sat/lay there in my uncomfortable plane seat, gripping the armrests with such fury and irritation that my fingertips went numb, sheer exhaustion giving way to blind rage, it seemed that the screaming was the only thing that existed and would ever exist in my whole world. I actually screamed, myself, at one point. Not a big loud scary scream that would’ve caused mass panic, of course, because only fecking babies are allowed to do that. I had a little airline pillow pressed over my face at the time, anyway, so all anyone would’ve heard was an agonised, tortured little howl, muffled by the pillow and drowned out by the devil child 3 rows in front. Then I cried.

It occurred to me that it’s extremely unfair that smokers aren’t allowed to smoke on planes any more even if they’re using the best vape pen available on the market, for the sake of non-smoking passengers who are obviously entitled to have made their choice not to inhale smoke into their lungs, and should not be put in a situation where they have no way of avoiding it… and yet screaming babies are entirely permissible, and to hell with you, person who chose a peaceful, scream-free existence, ’cause babies are cute and innocent, and you should just smile politely and endure the torture. Not only that, but you can’t have a feckin’ cigarette to help you cope with it, so just kindly sit there quietly going out of your mind for 12 hours.

Wait, hang on. I got sidetracked – I wasn’t actually talking about the plane thing, I was talking about the neighbour baby that made me a sleep-deprived zombie at work for two weeks before it mysteriously disappeared. I think my eventual demented yells of “ARRRRRRRGHHHHHH!!!! Will you shut that f***in’ thing up, I am LOSING MY MIND!!!!”, while probably not understood word for word, may have had some effect. I presume they moved. Don’t judge me. This building is not an appropriate place to keep noisy animals, sound systems, or babies. It is inconsiderate and unfair.

Anyway, life here in apartment 303 has been ridiculously quiet and peaceful since then. I can hear the crickets chirping outside at night, and the birds singing in the morning. When I go to sleep, the world is silent, and I am not dragged brutally from my slumber by fighting, sex, or manic shrieking of any description. It is as the life of a quiet single person should be.

Last week, then, a new guy moved in next door.

He does not scream. He does not slam doors. He does not seem to have a girlfriend either for yelling or passionate love-making purposes. And I think I love him.

Because he’s so quiet? Oh, no, not at all. In fact, he has woken me up on a couple of mornings. But this is noise pollution I can get on board with.

I implore you to click here and listen.

Yes, my new neighbour likes to sing in the shower. But he doesn’t just sing, he SINGS. I occasionally sing along to some upbeat music when I’m showering before going out for the night. But it’s nothing compared to the boy next door. He puts on a full-scale performance in there, with the radio and the shower as his backing vocals. Sometimes he’s fabulous, and I have to fight the urge to break into spontaneous applause. He did a lil’ blues number on Friday night when we were apparently both getting ready for our respective nights out at the same time, and his voice went so husky and passionate and wild that I found myself abandoning my washing in favour of playing air-bass and thrashing my head around, completely caught up in the moment. I so nearly cheered when the song ended.

Oh yes, the boy likes to sing. His performance can be hit-and-miss, but his enthusiasm more than compensates for the weaker vocal moments. I don’t even care when I wake up at 7am because he’s belting out a tune in the shower. He is possibly the first man to ever wake me up in the morning and have me smiling before I’ve even had a sip of coffee or a cigarette. Oh good grief, I am falling for The Disembodied Voice In The Shower.  In my head, he is about 35-40 years old, somewhere over 6′ tall, with messy hair and the body of a rugby player. He is fluent in French, enjoys poetry and board games, knows how to cook, and lists his favourite pastime as cuddling together under a blanket on a deserted beach at night, while sharing Irish coffee from a flask and gazing at the stars.

I live in fear of accidentally meeting him in the hallway. For once, I am enjoying having a noisy neighbour. Reality had better not come and rob me of my fantasy.