A letter to my mother.

Dear Mum,

Sometimes – well, a lot of the time – I feel sort of guilty that you got me as a daughter. I hardly ever call, I’m not someone who often sends cards and presents, I’m not very thoughtful. I’m scatterbrained and forgetful. I never remember to ask about the little details in others’ lives. I don’t like “visiting”, and hate talking on the phone. I travel around and live on the other side of the planet instead of settling down like a normal person and being a good daughter.

I’m sorry!

But I never want you to think that me being the way I am means I don’t care. I think about you every day, even if you haven’t heard from me in weeks. I have a picture of you on my wall, and I often see or hear something that makes me think immediately of you.

And more than all that, I love you! I might be terrible at showing it, but I am really, truly thankful to have a mother like you.

Thank you for staying home and devoting all your time to raising us when we were small. I don’t think I ever realised how uncommon that was becoming, or how fortunate we were to have a mum who was always there to look after us.

Thank you for cooking good food that was varied, healthy, and tasty. I find it hard to make the time to plan meals for myself for the week, never mind a family of 4 for all those years!

Thank you for writing me a note from Santa getting Santa to write me a note on the typewriter “he” brought me for Christmas one year. I was so excited – I told everyone about it! It still makes me smile now when I remember how I felt when I saw it.

Thank you for never pushing me to get high grades, yet always being proud of me if I did. I never felt under pressure from you. I always felt trusted to do my best.

Thank you for always knowing what I wanted for my birthday.

Thank you for never fighting with Dad – or at least, for never fighting with him in front of us. ;) It never dawned on me, as a child, what a wonderful thing it was to grow up in a peaceful, loving household. I just took it for granted.

Thank you for giving me such a wide taste in music!

Thank you for being a mother who planned fun activities to do with her children, instead of just sitting us in front of the TV all day every day.

Thank you for encouraging me to go where I want and to follow my dreams, even when they probably seem a bit crazy.

Thank you for being my friend.

Thank you for teaching me by example: respect, kindness, politeness, truthfulness, love, and humour – lessons that can be learned from a good mother much more effectively than from a textbook.

Thank you for being the sort of mother that I could never, ever be, and for giving me a true, proper role model to try and live up to.

Thank you, Mum, for being my mother. I am grateful for you every day of my life.

Yet again, I am not there with you to celebrate your birthday. I can’t take you out for dinner, or clink glasses with you in a birthday toast. I’ll be there in a couple of weeks to personally deliver belated birthday hugs… and until then, I hope these words from the heart will make up for my not being with you.

I love you, Mum. Happy birthday!




Mum and me, 1982

Mum and me, 1982

Mum and me - more recently!

Mum and me – more recently!

Oh, the humiliation.

To avoid the embarrassing and frankly quite disgusting details in the information needed to set the scene for this tale, I will just say this: I made kimchi bokkeumbap the other night using some questionable rice left over from several days earlier, and I have been paying the unfortunate price ever since. Capiche? Then let’s begin.

Having said goodbye to my friends after brunch at a nice little cafe in town, I decided to walk home – the sun was shining, the flowers were pretty, I needed the exercise. And anyway, the brunch place is only about a 15 minute walk from my apartment – getting a taxi would be a tad on the lazy side when the weather is neither cripplingly cold nor meltingly humid.

Sadly, I had only been walking for a few minutes when I felt the ominous volcanic rumbling in my stomach. Obviously, getting home was no longer my primary objective. From that moment, my entire goal in life was simply to find a bathroom.

One of the handy things about Korea is that there are public toilets just about everywhere. Any building containing shops, bars, or other businesses generally has a toilet on every floor – you can just walk right in and find one. So I paused and looked around frantically, but my poor heart sank when I realised that the stretch of road towards my home was completely devoid of any such buildings. This never happens, so obviously it would happen to me at this precise moment of emergency.

There was no way I could make it home. In sheer desperate panic, I veered off the main road and headed down a side street, where I could see shops and buildings that could plausibly contain public toilets. The first one I went into turned out to be an apartment building, which was of no use to me. I tried the next door, and found myself in an English hagwon being stared at by a confused receptionist and a bunch of screaming children – I was much too mortified to ask if I could use the bathroom, so I quickly backed out and continued down the street.


I hurriedly chose another winding street and went into the first building there. Result! Oh sweet manna from heaven, there was a toilet at the top of the first staircase! I ran up the stairs, grabbed the door handle… and discovered that it was well and truly locked. As were the toilets in the next two buildings I tried. Why? WHY?!!!!

Cursing the universe and its continued hatred of me, I stood in the street turning in frantic circles before taking off at a run down another street. Finally I found a building containing some kind of fancy photography studio, and (in total despair at this point) poked my head around the door. There was the restroom! Clearly marked “private”, but it was a restroom and the chances were high that it wouldn’t be locked, if it was for the use of customers. I didn’t care about the things I wold normally care about, such as the “private” sign and the swankiness of the building and the security camera in the corridor watching my every move. I made a run for the bathroom, barely able to refrain from letting out a whoop of joy when the door opened and I saw the blissful sight of two toilet cubicles.

Of course they had to be squat toilets.

I will just say this: no matter how many times I encounter these crimes against humanity, I am firm in my belief that there is no dignified way to use them. Particularly in the throes of predicament I was experiencing. I didn’t have much time for contemplation, however, so I made the perhaps slightly bizarre decision to hurriedly remove my jeans and underwear altogether before I attempted it.

You would think, really, that that is as embarrassing and undignified as this tale could get. Hello, have you met me?! There I was, semi-naked in a grotty squat toilet cubicle, jeans and underwear draped around my shoulders due to the impossibility of setting them down on the extremely unsanitary floor, when I heard the restroom door open and a man’s voice call out in Korean. “Who are you? This bathroom is for customers only!” (or something to that effect), he was telling me. Oh, for the love of all that is holy. Deciding to play dumb and hope that he was one of those people who freak out and run away when someone tries to speak to them in English, I called back “Ummmm, I don’t understand! I’m sorry!”.

He hesitated briefly, and then yelled something I didn’t understand. Then he actually rattled the door of my stall. I repeated my babbling in English, suddenly stricken with the fear that he would climb up and look over the partition at me. Being seen in that particular position, naked from the waist down and with my jeans and underwear around my neck would surely be the most mortifying thing that has ever happened to anyone in the history of all time. With renewed panic, I struggled to my feet.

Well. If there is no dignified way to use a squat toilet, then there is absolutely, positively no dignified way of getting up from one. In my haste, I fell back against the wall and dropped my underwear on the floor next to the door, making it now clearly visible to Angry Dude on the other side. Oh, the humiliation. He fell suddenly and understandably silent as I clattered around trying to stand up and get dressed at the same time, in a very limited space with a water-filled hole in the middle of the floor.

When I finally opened the door and slunk out, my face burning with shame, he could do nothing more than simply gape at me in astonishment and confusion while I hastily washed my hands.

“Ummm…. sorry. Thank you.” I mumbled as I pushed past him and took to my heels, leaving him rooted to the spot and staring after me in amazement.

And the icing on the cake? When I paused to catch my breath on the street outside, I realised that I had absolutely no idea where I was. I couldn’t even find myself using the GPS on my phone, but as I knew I couldn’t possibly be far from home, I couldn’t hail a taxi for fear that I was about 30 seconds away and the driver would yell at me for wasting his time. All I could do was wander cluelessly for an hour around the area I’ve lived in for nearly 4 years, until, finally, by some happy accident, I recognised a building and sheepishly realised that I was right across the road from my apartment.

All in a day’s work for me, kids.

All my bafflement at Korea, summed up in one short anecdote.

This, right here, is really all I need to say to explain to you the general state of bewilderment I’ve been living in since I moved here in 2009.

So, I go into a shop for a bottle of water. I have been walking briskly around for over an hour (having gotten completely, hopelessly lost in my own neighbourhood, which is a very embarrassing tale for a separate post) in the warmth of this pleasant afternoon in springtime.

The sun is shining brightly. My face is bright red; I may even have a touch of sunburn. I’m carrying my light jacket, having taken it off a long time ago. I’m fanning myself. I literally have beads of sweat running down my forehead. Now, this is important. I am clearly, visibly, obviously overheated. I swear to you, if you saw me, you’d remark to your companions, “Goodness! That girl looks awfully warm, doesn’t she?!”. If I were a laptop, I’d be making that whirring noise that happens when it’s been on too long and is trying to cool down.

The two women behind the counter look stricken, and say a lot of shocked-sounding things to each other before one of them can’t contain herself any longer and asks me in a genuinely disbelieving and horrified tone…

(wait for it)

(seriously, this actually happened)

(are you ready?)

… “Aren’t you cold?!”

With the exception of someone actually sitting in a sauna, sweating from every pore in their body, nobody could possibly look less cold than I do at this moment.

I am beyond trying to hide my utter stupefaction in this country any more. I just look at her in total disbelief and give the only response I know how to in Korean. “I’m hot!” I tell her in the way that one might speak to a particularly slow learner in the classroom, wiping some perspiration from my forehead for added emphasis.

Korea, you have been wonderful to me in so many ways, but I will never, ever understand you. The majority of the time, I feel like I’m living in some weird Douglas Adams style alternative version of reality, where absolutely nothing makes any sense whatsoever.

In one of my first Korea blog posts, I wrote in frustration: “I don’t get it. I. Do. Not. Get. It.”. A fellow expat in Asia commented: “Welcome to Asia. “I do not get it” will become your catch-phrase.”

How right she was!

*For further commentary on this inexplicable “aren’t you cold?!” phenomenon, please refer to this post from last year.

Sloth Life

I had a really lazy day today.

It was only the lack of food and water in my apartment that finally forced me out of bed to go to the shop, but the thought of showering, dressing, drying my hair, and generally making myself look presentable enough to be acceptable in the outside world just seemed like a huge, impossible amount of effort. Sod it, I thought to myself, I’ve lived in this area for years, and it’s not like I ever run into anyone I know on these quiet little back streets. I’m leaving in a few weeks – I can cope with the judgmental looks of the ajummas in the corner shop.

And so I pulled on a pair of sweatpants I normally use as pajama bottoms, and scavenged a worn Beatles t-shirt from the top of the overflowing laundry basket. It had a stain on it, but sure you could hardly see it amongst all the wrinkles and creases anyway. I scraped back my tangled hair into a ponytail and threw on a baseball cap to complete the full-blown Waynetta Slob look. Adding to the overall effect was the fact that I hadn’t even taken off last night’s make-up, but I decided to ignore the smudgy mascara around my eyes and the inevitable zit on my chin. One quick excursion, just 2 minutes down the street, and I would have supplies to sustain me to the end of my day of Utter Sloth.

I pulled on a pair of flip-flops and scurried downstairs, where I ran smack into my landlord. He looked mildly concerned, but I think he is of the “foreigners are weird creatures whose ways we shall never understand” persuasion, so after a few curious glances he decided to let me pass without comment.

I jogged to the shop and was beyond horrified to hear someone calling my name. Horror turned to complete mortification when I identified the caller as the guy I had a bit of a crush on when I first got here. Haven’t seen him since 2009, but there he was now, of course, larger than life and looking like the sort of ruggedly beautiful creature they use in commercials for Gillette razors and Lynx body spray for men. I didn’t even have my phone with me so that I could hurriedly pretend to be receiving a Very Important Call and thus avoid speaking to him. With a forced smile, I responded to his greeting, did the awkward small talk, and cringed at the thinly-disguised pity in the gaze he gave me. You could almost hear the “Wow, you really let yourself go, huh?”.

A few minutes-that-felt-like-hours later, I was in the safety of the shop. Filled my basket full of veggies for my soup, picked up some bottled water, and then, on impulse, grabbed a bag of very unhealthy potato snack things. Obviously that was the moment that three – count ’em – THREE of my former students came in with one of their mothers, and promptly started shrieking my name, running to me for hugs, and bringing the entire shop to a standstill as everyone turned to see what all the commotion was about. The mother tried some polite chit-chat with me in Korean after I’d made a fuss over the kids (while quietly dying inside), and finished with a hesitant question in English. Are you OK? Oh, dear lord.

Finally, finally, my groceries were in bags and I was leaving the shop, hanging my head in shame by this stage and swearing never again to leave the house unless wearing a sparkly evening gown, and that’s when I met one of my ex-colleagues. For Pete’s sake. She had just finished a full day’s work and looked all sensible and healthy and grown-up and productive, and meanwhile my biggest achievement of the day was squinting at daylight with my bleary eyes framed by streaks of yesterday’s make-up. Had another awkward conversation while wishing the earth would open up and not just swallow me but preferably give me an instant makeover and spit me back out to do the last 20 minutes differently.

I was just saying goodbye to her when a car honked its horn behind me. I jumped and spun around to see my old director rolling down the window to reveal an entire carload of my former colleagues, looking as dainty and pretty and Koreanly perfect as ever. They were smiling and waving and saying hello, but I swear I saw them exchange Looks. Um, yeah, I’ll come over and see you next week, OK? I said desperately to the director, practically backing away towards my house at this point. When she drove off, I sprinted for my building and did not stop running until I was in my safe little kitchen, slamming the door shut behind me.

I have decided that the Universe hates me, and I am going back to bed.

Ma’am, please to pull up the pants.

So here I am, partially naked and more than a little concerned about all the weird groaning noises around me and the fact that I can no longer feel my left leg, when suddenly the curtain is swept back and I find myself looking at possibly the most attractive man in all of Korea – or rather, he finds himself looking at my bare backside. He seems a little startled.

It has been a strange afternoon, to be honest.

As my battered ankle and foot were failing to get any better, I reluctantly decided to go to the hospital for x-rays. I had been putting this off because of the following reasons:

(a) I hate hospitals. I know, I know, doesn’t everyone, but I really, really, REALLY hate hospitals. They freak me out. The weird clinic-y smell, the spaced-out people shuffling around in robes and dragging their IV bags along for the ride, the weird noises and occasionally moans of pain or cries of children, the echo-filled corridors, the general stench of sickness and fear… I hate them. HATE them.

(b) I have grown to detest and avoid pretty much everything in Korea that involves me having to communicate and explain what I need. Going to the hairdresser, buying movie tickets, visiting the dentist or doctor, buying anything at the market. Please understand that as a traveller, I once thrived upon having these sorts of experiences in new and foreign lands, and would write about them with great enjoyment and enthusiasm. Korea, however, is no longer a new and foreign land. It is a very familiar place, but one where I still cannot speak the language, and am still incapable of getting the most trivial of tasks done without a whole ridiculous pantomime, or help from a Korean friend. The total clash of cultural norms and impossibility of real communication is no longer funny or fascinating; it makes me want to tear my hair out and force feed it to the next person who asks me “Aren’t you cold?” or answers “Yes!” to questions like “Where is the bathroom?”. (In short, Hails needs to get the hell out of Dodge.)

(c) I was convinced that it was just a sprain, and I have never been one to go running to the doctor for something that will heal by itself eventually. Particularly when it’s a sprained ankle and I can barely walk, never mind go running to the doctor.

But people started to scare me with their horror at my purple foot and their urging to go to the hospital lest it fall off, so off I went, having been assured by several friends that there was most definitely an English translator person there whose entire purpose in life was to assist clueless foreigners at the hospital. Look, I swear to you, she is RIGHT THERE when you go in the door, they promised. Look to the left, and she’ll be sitting at a desk with a sign that says “foreigner”. You cannot miss her. She will even stay by your side throughout your entire visit, and go wherever you need to go, and translate for you with all the doctors and nurses. 

Thusly reassured, I limped timidly through the ER doors. I looked left and saw a wall. I looked right – just in case I had misremembered the direction – and saw another wall. I was, in fact, in more of a corridor than a big hospital reception area with desks and assistants and the like. In retrospect, I suppose it is possible that the taxi driver did not drop me off at the correct entrance, having been a little bit disgruntled since the moment I got into his cab and insisted that he take me to the capital of North Korea (Pyongyang) as opposed to the hospital (pyeongwon). These things happen. In any case, there was no friendly translator person to be seen, nor indeed any desk of any description where I might realistically ask for help. And so I limped nervously along a hospitally-smelling corridor (oh how I hate that smell!!!) until I found myself – to my great alarm – actually inside an ER ward, hobbling past beds containing horrors that I had only seen on medical TV dramas until that moment.

Finally, I saw some desks, and approached them. A surly admin man took my details, and then I was passed on to a group of giggling male med students and the Korean version of Miranda Bailey, who wanted to know everything from the details of my menstrual cycle, diet, and sex life, to the specific time (to the nearest minute) of my “accident” – all in Korean, with some mime and English words thrown in. The med students, who appeared to have an average age of about 19, asked perfunctory questions about my ankle and made me wiggle my toes. One of them experimentally poked the swollen area where the ankle bone would normally be seen. Ouchee? he asked. YeeeeeAAAAAAAAessssss! I hissed in reply, resisting the urge to kick him in the head with my good foot. All of this was while I was still sitting at a reception desk, with an old man howling “aaaaaaa eeeeeee aaaaaa eeeeeeee aaaaaaaa!” wandering around like a crazy hospital ghost and being completely ignored by all the staff.

So then they sent me to the X-ray department.

At no point did a single member of staff even pause to consider the nature of my injury in relation to my limited ability to cover great distances in short periods of time. I wanted to scream “HELLO?! Suspected broken ankle, anyone?!!!” so many times as I was led around from one department to the next by nurses who were practically running. They would pause to look back at me impatiently as I desperately hobbled along in a vain attempt to not lose sight of them. I mean, I didn’t expect to be stretchered off, but they could either have walked slowly and understandingly by my side given that I was actually there to see whether or not my fecking foot was broken, or just turfed me into a wheelchair if it was that important to go fast. The man doing the X-rays was even worse. I understand that he had to move my foot into different positions because I couldn’t understand everything he was telling me to do, but he, too, appeared completely unaware of the fact that an ankle and foot injured enough to require X-rays might actually be rather excruciatingly painful. He grabbed it on the bruises, twisted it from one side to the other, appeared not to hear the whimpers I couldn’t help emitting as he held it tightly in a position that made me think I was going to pass out, and then stood impatiently at the door as I struggled to put my shoe back on over the foot that was now infinitely more painful than it had been when I arrived.

I was taken to a ward full of patients that looked like a scene from Breaking Bad of meth addicts in a squat house. An old woman was staring blankly at the ceiling and murmuring a word over and over again under her breath. A middle-aged businessman in a suit was laughing hysterically as whatever pain medication he was on kicked in. As I was shown to my bed, a team of paramedics ran through wheeling a screaming man with (the remains of) his leg covered in huge swathes of blood-soaked material. Traumatised by this point, I meekly lay down on a bed as instructed, and the nurse pulled the curtain around me and held up a large needle. Two large needles, in fact. I just looked at her in confusion, with no idea of why she would want to stick needles into me for an injured ankle, but what can you do when you can’t speak the same language as the uniformed professional holding needles and indicating that you should pull down your pants and lay on your side? I obeyed – with some difficulty due to the fact that my ankle was now practically screaming with pain every time it touched anything – and she pulled down my underwear and cheerfully injected me with unknown drugs. Then she indicated that I was to hold the alcohol-soaked gauze on the needle puncture, and she promptly disappeared.

I lay there, on my side, feeling extremely vulnerable with my bare backside exposed to whosoever would next appear around the curtain on this delightful mystery medical conveyor belt, listening to all the groaning patients around me who now sounded more like zombies now that I couldn’t actually see them. No one told me to stop holding the gauze, so I kept holding it, even though it eventually became very uncomfortable reaching around at that angle, and then my leg went dead. Dead. It seriously occurred to me at one point that perhaps they were drugging in order to kidnap me for medical experiments, and I would never be seen again.

And that brings us to the point where I started this story, with the sexiest doctor in the history of all time (unless we count fake doctors, in which case he was the third sexiest, behind George Clooney and Patrick Dempsey) coming in to find himself face-to-arse with a confused, drugged, somewhat frightened foreign girl who was regretting the whole thing and just wanted to go home.

Ma’am, he said sweetly, your ankle is not broken bone. 

Ma’am?!!! I thought in a sort of drug-hazy horror.

There is a very bad sprain, and ligaments damaged. Possibly there is a very small fracture, too small for X-ray. But I will give you pain medication and muscle relaxants, and I advise just to rest and – he paused, looking sympathetically at me as I tried to appear even vaguely dignified in my current position.

Ma’am, he said gently, please to pull up the pants.

Never again.