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New Barbie is a Douche

When The Boss Man started looking for a new foreign teacher to replace me, I advised him that he really ought to let me speak to them. I promised that I'd say only nice things about Barbie Hawgon, that I'd had a fabulous experience, and I'd be happy to do what I could to encourage the new recruit that Barbie Hagwon was the place to be. I am worried that The Boss Man started recruiting a month too

A Brother-and-Sister Sixsome

Found on a restaurant sign near Pusan National University:Because fucking your cousin is so passé.I ... just don't understand. How do these things happen? I refuse to put any further thought into this. I'm happy that they do happen (absurd slogans, that is. I refuse to even consider how to properly emote in response to true family orgies), and will leave it at that.

Kingdom O'Sullivain

I recently got my medical card from the Korean authorities and was surprised/amused to see this inventive mis-spelling of my name. While it would most likely be prudent to sort this out as soon as possible so as not to delay any organ or blood transfusions in the event that i get hit by a taxi, Kingdom O. Sullivain is just so much cooler than my real name.

Woe is the Won

Fuck this noise.The Korean won has decided to die a horrible death just prior to my receiving my final pay checks and severance. In the end, I will probably "lose" close to a grand. Technically, I can't lose on something that hasn't been paid out yet. But, had I been scheduled to get out of here two months ago I would have had an extra grand. Happiness does not ensue. Much anger ensues.Today, I

Drama Festival

Sarah and I have just enjoyed our Korean TV debut thanks to our participation in the school’s annual drama festival, the self-proclaimed jewel in the crown of the Kids Club Calendar and, for some, the reason behind weeks of hard work and stress.

Held every September, The Kids Club Drama Festival is as much an opportunity for the students to sing and dance in front of their parents as it is for the school to show off their foreign teachers. This year, the presence of a TV crew meant the stakes were particularly high, and the whole month of September was given over to ensuring everything ran smoothly.

The set up is simple; each student must perform a solo song and participate in a class play, as well as take part in a number of other performances designed to demonstrate their firm and improving grasp of the English Language. The fact that they have just spent a month not learning any new English whatsoever doesn’t really come in to it and is pretty indicative of the Hagwon system, where the appearance of learning is almost as important as the learning itself.

Anyway, due to the vagarities of casting or a low estimation of my abilities, I was put in three minor roles, with a total of approximately 8 lines. Sarah on the other hand was given four pretty hefty roles with lots of lines, including Snow White to my Prince – the source of a lot of amusement amongst old and young Koreans alike. Every morning for four weeks we would attend play practice and dutifully chip in our lines, while the Korean Kindegarten teachers slowly exploded with the stress of making 4 – 10 year olds act out a foreign language play with, if not coherence, at least some semblance of continuity.

As the day approached tensions ran high, particularly with regards to some uncertainty over whether we would actually get paid (to inquire about such things in Korea, as we found out, is tantamount to treason) for our efforts. Rehearsals weren’t going well, thanks in no small part to some pretty incoherent scripts, and I was starting to doubt whether it would be pulled off. Thanks to my pretty inconsequential role in things I was able to observe this maelstrom from an emotional distance, but others weren’t quite so lucky. With a huge amount of lines to learn, not to mention a number of song and dance routines, I think it’s fair to say that Sarah was feeling the pressure. After only two bungled rehearsals in the Stalinist Auditorium the stage was set – it was showtime! (sorry.)

The day itself was a bit of a mixed bag. Pissed off as we were about spending our precious Saturday working, the kids excitement was undeniably infectious and the backstage area had a good atmosphere as the teachers paraded their costumes and trundled out onto the stage. Sarah and I were in the first play of the day (Snow White) and I’m not ashamed to admit that it was with trembling legs that I stood in the wings awaiting my cue. When it came (a princely fanfare) I galloped onto the stage to rouse the poisoned Snow White with a concealed, though scandalous, kiss (the kids are still talking about it.) Contrary to my predictions, the day seemed to pass with relatively few hitches and everything appearing to come together, in typical Korean style, at the very last minute.

I’d taken the whole Drama Festival period with a heavy dose of scepticism, but as we were ushered onto stage to mime the final song with the kids (one which we had been given the words to the night before and had never even heard) I began to realise its importance. The mothers were all lined up at the front of the stage throwing their kids flowers, some of them weeping with the emotion of it all (drawing the attention away from the fact that none of us knew the song.). It struck me that this is something that both parents and children (and I) were likely to remember for years to come, and I felt pk to be a part of it.

Dangers and Annoyances

As much as I like Korea there are aspects of this place that make me want to throw myself off suicide rock. One such annoyance is the inability to communicate or handle my own affairs, which makes me not only deaf and dumb but also almost entirely dependent on the kindness of colleagues and strangers.

Take for example last Thursday night, when instead of going to my weekly Korean lesson (I assure you, the irony is not lost) I was forced by prior arrangement with my manager to wait for the cable guy to come and connect our cable TV at 6pm. After waiting for the best part of an hour, imagine my excitement when the intercom unexpectedly rang just before 7.

I danced to the door excitedly but upon opening it was greeted with nothing but an empty hall. With time breathing down my neck, and fear beginning to creep its way into my bones, I ran to the intercom and braced myself for the usual struggle. As expected, the caller didn’t speak a word of English so it was with more frustration than Korean that I tried to intimate that he should come right up and connect my cable. Without any sign of comprehension however, the conversation somehow ended and the line went dead.

“Fuck” I said loudly. I could feel 30 cable TV channels slipping through my fingers and had by now broken into a desperate sweat. I ran out the door and jumped into to the lift in the vain hope that I could catch him outside. Finding no signs of anyone that looked like a cable TV man downstairs, however I ran to the building ajoshi’s hut to see if he could shed a light.

“Ca-be-le Tee-Vee?” I wheezed.

“Anniyo” he replied, and then, producing a large sack, “lice”

I tried to explain that no-one would be sending me a large sack of rice, but it seemed a lot easier to take the sack than to leave it. As such, heavily burdened and sweating even more, I ran back to the apartment lest the cable TV man had shown up in the interval (I am convinced most of my life’s mishaps are the result of the smallest and most unlikely margins of error.)

Needless to say the Cable man never showed. “Oh well,” I thought later that night nevertheless. “Ha ha, I may not have cable but at least I’ve got a new anecdote and a year’s supply of rice, oh Ko-re-a!”

The next day people came and took my rice from me. It’s been a week and I still don’t have cable. I wanted to ask my manager to chase it up but some money I was transferring didn’t end up in the right place and we had to sort that instead. Now the internet’s buggered and I need to get that fixed first. Oh Korea.

Bullets over Busan

This post is really just an excuse to publish the adjoining picture of “Crack Shot” Hogg but as I’m here I may as well give a little back story and imply a few points about Korean health and safety while I’m at it.

Last Saturday, while trying to think of a way to pass a rainy day and blow away the cobwebs of a hangover, The Duchess, our visiting friends Laura and Ross and I settled on the idea of shooting some guns. We had it on good authority that this was both a fun and accessible pursuit in Busan, so it was with itchy fingers and a sense of intrepidation that we made our way to one of city’s indoor firing ranges.

The firing range was located on the second floor of a medium sized tower block just off Haeundae Beach, and after shaking off our brollies we immediately got down to business. A menu of sorts was quickly produced listing both prices and guns (50,000 for a Magnum with 10 bullets and 40, 000 for everything else) and after some careful consideration I decided to go Gangster-style with a Glock, while Ross chose a similar Automatic and the girls opted for a pair of beautiful silver Smith and Wesson Revolvers.

Within minutes we were led into the firing range and the guns were brought out. After one trial run and with the words “Are they really going to let me do this?” rolling about in my head, I then found myself raising the loaded gun and squeezing the trigger. The weapon jolted to one side like a kicking mule, sending a shockwave through my right arm and a spent shell pinging into the ceiling. I looked at the unblemished paper target and then at my guide, who winced a little, before raising the gun and firing again.

I missed the next shot, hit the one after that, missed, then hit the rest. All in all I did ok but I think I can safely assume I’m no marksman. Meanwhile however, unbeknownst to me, a few booths over a deadly talent was being born. The Duch, displaying the steadiness of hand and cold-hearted nerve I always suspected lurked beneath that warm and sunny exterior, was blasting seven shades of shit out of her own paper nemesis. When the smoke cleared she’d bagged an 83% accuracy rate, towering over my paltry 63% and a good 10% higher than the next best shot.

I can see why people like this kind of thing, there is definitely a sense of power involved with having a mini-explosive go off in your hand and the aesthetics are great. However, contrary to the predictions of some, I don’t think I’ll be turning into a gun nut. An Automatic once in a while and a 44 Magnum on my birthday should suffice. The Duchess I fear, may be a different story…

Street Food

There are aspects of Korea that often make it appear to occupy a “third place” between the developed and developing world, and one of these is the prevalence of street food. While such food in the West is largely limited to a few after-hours burger vans or greasy hot-dogs stands, here it often seems like every intersection has something temptingly sizzling away for a couple of chun (1000 won) a piece.

One such culprit is paejon, a potato-based pancake laced with green onions and red chilli that can be found in the old shopping district of Nampodong, next to the “world famous” Jagalchi Fish Market. These start life as a thin doughy batter ladled onto a hotplate where they bubble away for a few minutes before being sliced up and served on a plastic covered plate. Eaten straight off the cart dipped in some of that wonderous dark soy sauce with sesame seeds and chilli, paegon is the perfect way to split up an afternoon spent scouring the markets for bargains without blowing your appetite.

Often found sharing a hotplate with paejon is fried mandu, a light dumpling filled with shredded pork and bean sprouts. These little beauties are a Korean staple and more or less annihilate any negative connotations the word dumpling might conjure up – substantial enough to feel like you’ve eaten but light enough to stop four of five from turning into an ordeal. Mandu can also be found bobbing around in a bowl of Ramyon (noodle soup) in any Korean diner, but I personally prefer them the street way – lip searingly hot and shoulder to shoulder with the proles.

Elsewhere, cups of dried octopus tentacles make an interesting but as yet untried option, while tubular rice cakes in a colon bypassing hot sauce are a Duchess favourite and the type of thing people say puts hairs on your chest. The same hot sauce also comes smeared all over pieces of skewered barbecued chicken (see picture) that are undisputedly good but impossible to eat without getting all over your face.

On the less appetising end of the spectrum, Bondegi (boiled silkworm larvae) make an exotic if gut-wrenching alternative. A hangover from poorer times, these slater–like critters smell and taste pretty much as shitty as you’d expect but seem to enjoy steady business along the beachfronts of the city. Also on the rather-not-rosta is battered sausage on a stick, which has the consistency of spam and wet cardboard and is a singularly greasy and unpleasant experience.
Silkworm and sausage aside, Korean street food has so far been an eye-opening experience.

Standing at a food cart on a busy Busan street enjoying a good, cheap plate of paegon or mandu I feel divorced from my former attitude towards food. I used to imagine one day visiting restaurants with price-tags higher than my council tax, but that isn’t food, its status, and I’d now much rather risk six months of diarrohea eating the backstreets of Asia than spend an hour getting fleeced in one of those gentrified hovels.

All good in the hood

We’ve been in our new apartment for about two weeks now and I thought I’d share some of its mod cons:
We live on the tenth floor of an 18 storey block in Dong-bu Hyundai, Sajik-dong in an apartment - paid for and allocated by our school - which is thankfully somewhat more spacious than the typical studio deal dished out to most foreign teachers. We have been told that before us a family lived here, meaning it’s just about large enough to house our space hungry western asses, consisting of three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room/kitchen and a balcony.
Our building is a pretty cheek to jowl living space. In Glasgow we’d go for weeks without knowing anyone else shared our tenement, but here we have constant reminders of the lives stacked above, below and either side of us. Cooking smells waft in and out like an over-familiar visitor, while the triumphs and torments of nightly recorder practice seep through the walls like rising damp. Last Wednesday evening, as Korea was soundly defeating America in Olympic Baseball, I muted the TV and to my surprise heard a loud cheer all around me. Baffled at first, it soon struck me that the cheers were coming from individual apartments.
Straddling a long, sweaty climb, the area itself is pretty much as far into the hills as you can go without living in a temple, meaning our location can be problematic. Only one bus comes up here, a little number 5 that powers up and down all day like an ajuma workhorse. The bus takes about 10 minutes to get to the subway, but to get to school we must take a taxi – an inexpensive mode of transport but one that landed us in some inconvenient places until our Korean improved. Dong-bu also boasts a few shops, a bakery, an expensive looking restaurant and what I think is a brothel; not exactly Seomyeon but enough to cater for the day-to-day needs of most residents.
Even further up the hill a path winds into the mountain, past a Buddhist temple – a striking but not unfamiliar sight in Busan – and up in amongst the trees. From here there are some pretty sweeping views of the city. Far to the south a suspension cable from the huge Gwangali bridge is just about visible behind one of the green topped mounds that poke above the surface of the city like islands, while farther away still the black line of the horizon marks the Sea of Japan from the sky. From here the city slowly tapers inland, wrapping its way around the bluffs and hills before hazily meandering out of sight to the north.
Despite the accessibility problems I’m growing found of our little neighbourhood. It’s nice to back on to the mountain, and be able to see both green and city from our modest balcony, and I’m pretty sure we’ll soon start to recognise some of our Korean neighbours who smile politely at the Waygooks in their midst. Although if given the choice, I’d definitely live somewhere more central, for now at least, Dong-bu will do.


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