So my birthday was indeed on the 16th. I am now 22 - at least I would be if I was in the UK. Works slightly different out here, and I still haven't got my head around how it works. You are 1 when you are born, which is easy enough. But if you are born in a certain period and then Lunar New Year falls within one or two months of birth then you get another year tagged on. It is feasible for a baby to be born, and then a day later have a Korean age of 2, if Lunar New Year is the next day. So all of this means that I am either 23 or 24 in Korean age. I'm gunning for 23, myself. Though as I did lie to my students and said I was originally 26, I guess I'm now 27 in their eyes.
The exam period ended the day before, on the Tuesday, so I was under the impression that I would be teaching on my birthday. Not quite. The school's exam period, where they get graded and whatnot, ended on the Tuesday. But today was even bigger for the third graders - University entrance exams. I was told that I would definitely be teaching the next day. I had mentioned to Mr. Kim the day before about my birthday, and the two of us, and Ms. Woo, went out for lunch. More would have come but for the panic that was setting in over their students' futures. We went to a Japanese restaurant for sushi.
I may have had sushi before, but not like this. It was amazing. The amount of food alone was jaw-dropping. Plate after plate after bowl after bowl of food came flying onto the table. It could have fed 8 people and they wouldn't have complained of hunger afterwards - instead it was left to 3 of us to be struggling to move after finishing up. There were some really cool elements to the meal, one of my favourites being what looked like funky edible insects. There was slithers of raw fish, such as lobster, placed carefully on top of sticky rice, which you had to pick up with your sticks, dip in sauce and then eat in one go, without dropping any of it. A good test of my skills, that, and one I passed with flying colours. Those things were delicious.
One test I didn't pass was the soup. Now I do like spicy food. I do like hot food. More to the point, I have thus far coped pretty well with the 'spice' that Korean cuisine has hurled in my direction. But this was different. This was off-the-wall spicy. Mr. Kim did say as I was putting my spoon into the shared bowl in the middle that it may be pretty spicy, and he was not lying. The searing heat scorched my mouth as soon as the liquid molten set foot on my taste buds. The spice irritated like nothing before. I gulped, quickly, to get it out of my mouth without it ending up on the table, and in correlation with my previous gochu experience, did the wafting-of-the-hands-over-the-mouth gesture. But more frantically. They both got a kick out of it, which was good. For them.
Not surprisngly, the soup remained intact for the rest of the meal. The rest of the food did not. Even the side dishes were insane, with one, sweetcorn in melted butter, being the outstanding accoutrement. Whilst we were eating, Mr. Kim pulled out some birthday presents for me. There were three, but all were essentially the same - ground coffee. The stuff is an essential component of my teaching day. The energy and enthusiasm (say would say mindless idiocy) I put into each lesson means that I need to constantly top myself up at every available break between lessons. It tastes better than instant, and all three bags were from the Tesco's Finest range. Obviously it is so good that they opted not to change it to the Home Plus 'Plus' range. It was gratefully accepted by myself, and I stashed the carrier bag of caffeine gifts under the table to keep them safe.
I may have kept them a bit too safe. We were on our way out of the restaurant when I slapped my pockets to check I had my valuables, and realised that I was missing something. As I did that, the waitress duly shouted something in Korean. I had forgotten...my camera. Whoops! I had realised though, so was in the process of turning when the waitress alerted us. I took the camera, bowed and said thanks, and left the restaurant, putting both hands in my pocket to keep them warm. Hang on. I had been given a carrier bag. AARGH! I motored back into the restaurant, met with gazes of bemusement from all, and headed for the table. Sure enough, the bag was there, and disaster had been averted.
As I did touch upon, it was pretty cold. Everyone was stunned when I actually took off my coat in the restaurant, and then concerned for my state of mind when I took off my light jacket and just had a shirt on. But as in many places out here, the cushions we were sat on are electronically heated, which is a very good feeling. Outside, however, it was cold. Anyone moaning about the snow and how cold the UK has been recently gets no sympathy from me. The high temperatures throughout the week never seemed to be able to break -5'C. It was so cold that Ms. Woo's car wouldn't start upon leaving our lunch. Normal, you may think. Maybe not when you consider that it wouldn't start because the ignition seemed to be frozen in place, and the key would not turn. It took a considerable effort from me to manage to twist the key to start the thing.
I spent the afternoon trying to digest food, but also headed to Bucheon on a mission. For reasons I will divulge later, I needed a Santa hat. Saying 'Kris-mass-ee' and pointing to my hat didn't seem to work, but I spotted one in the shopping complex under Bucheon station. Complete with actual Santa face on the front. I felt I needed to get back to Siheung, so paid the 10,000W price for it. Expensive for a hat, I know. I'm still not entirely sure if you are supposed to barter out here or not.
Soon enough it was evening. I was meeting Siheung people at 10, when they had all finished work, so took the opportunity to be wished a happy birthday by my mum over Skype. Beer in hand (me, not her - bit early in the day for that in Britain), I set about opening the presents that I had been obliged to pack in my suitcase. I had had some of the presents at home, so it was left mainly to presents my siblings had got me. Laura had got me a really nice photo frame with two family pictures in it, which now sits snugly in my office. Richard and Jess, his girlfriend, had seemingly gone all out, getting me 4 birthday presents. Not knowing if there was an order to open them, I opened the first one. String with mini stars on it. Not quite long enough for a second washing line, I supped my Cass and opened another. A box of 18 gems, each with string attached in a loop. At this point I was confuzzled. Number three was a bit of a giveaway, however. Especially as Rich had written XMAS CAKE on top of it. I left the largest of the quad for last, and it was the one that wove all of these obscure gifts together - a mini Christmas tree!!!! How glad I was that I hadn't plumped to buy one in Bucheon earlier! The string was, of course, tinsel, and the gems were baubels. Quite special that I didn't work it out, really, but I'll survive.
I couldn't find my USB stick, on which was the lesson I was teaching for the next week, but had other priorities. We went to Bier Garten for drinks in the late evening. A lot of people, including several I had never met before, showed up, so I got to meet and socialise with a lot more people. Again, most of those were British, but there were also new people from South Africa and the United States. It was good fun. Beer and soju are standard fare on any alcohol night, but I was introduced to soju cocktails. Does exactly what it says on the tin, but tastes a lot lot better than what I imagine Ronseal tastes like. Some of the girls bought the strawberry one and indulged me in it. It tasted like a dacquiri, and was very easy to drink.
An innovative feature about this place was the cup holders built into the table. If you flick a switch on the side of the table, they become chilled, keeping your beer colder for longer. If it begins to ice at the bottom, as one of mine started to, it is a surefire sign to hurry up your drinking. A great idea all round! One reason we had gone to Bier Garten was the rumour that they provide free cake and beer if you prove it is your birthday. Inexplicably, we forgot about this until well past 1am, thus being the next day. However, Michelle arrived with a slice of chocolate cake which looked truly mind-blowing. I couldn't fit it in my stomach at that point, even though I hadn't eaten since lunch. I didn't need to eat until breakfast the next day.
Remembering I had to be actually teaching at 8.30am the next morning, we eventually took our leave, and I got back to my flat at about 3am, and drank some water after realising that I was going to be awake in less than 4 hours for school.
Well I was supposed to be. I got a knock at the door to wake me. That hadn't happened before. I opened my eyes, which was an almighty struggle, and glanced the clock. My first lesson was at 8.30am. It was 10am, and it was Mr. Kim at the door. Bugger. I opened the door, propping myself up against it to stop me from falling over. I may have still been drunk, but managed to hide it. Upon being asked if I would be ready quickly enough to get in to teach my 10.30 excuse, I was desperately thinking of ways to say no. Then it dawned on me. How could I teach without my USB? It was a genuine reason. I said I would keep looking, but wouldn't be able to find it quickly enough to be ready. I was told to be in by lunchtime, and Mr. Kim left me to ponder what punishment would be imposed upon me. Maybe a crack of one of Ms. Woo's eight caning sticks? I was actually hitting hangover stage, so wasn't particularly concerned either way.
I got myself in for lunch, and had to survive one lesson in the afternoon, which was fairly easy as they were a talkative bunch. That evening consisted of decorating the tree my brother had bought me, and monging in a hungover daze watching Scrubs, which I am progressing through at a frightening rate. The joys of having two laptops. Though I also hit that chocolate cake, and it hit every single spot. Michelle, thank you!
Friday I checked the temperature when I woke up. -13'C, before wind chill. Lovely. I don't have student classes anyway, but my two teacher classes were cancelled on the grounds that there were MORE exams. I wouldn't mind teaching every once in a while, and though it is partly my fault - I mean, of the three lessons I was supposed to teach over a 10 day period, I missed two of them - I expected to be worked significantly harder than I am right now. This gave me the opportunity to, amongst other things, polish off the majority of the Hangul alphabet. Numbers will be next, I think, but they have two types of numbers - pure Korean, and Sino-Korean. A bit more complicated to know when to use which number, but as long as I learn up to 10 either way then I think I'll survive.
I also made plans to meet Matt in Bucheon and go for food and a couple of drinks. I wasn't feeling the drinks, but didn't want to turn down a social opportunity. Have to make the most of every opportunity out here, you never know when things are going to happen, especially without a phone. We went to the galbi place we had been on my first full day in Korea. There were five of us - me, Matt, April, Sean (the Canadian) and an American called Matt. Yes, it was a Matt-majority table. Motions to make non-Matt's pay were quickly shot down, however.
Of course, me being the borderline alcoholic that I am, after a couple of little beers and a bit of soju during dinner I was up for carrying on. After a brief stop at a supermarket to buy a football and a basketball, we went to a place called R'n'B's, a bar on the third floor of a building. The balls were for a charity Christmas gift drive, which got you a raffle ticket in return. But back to the place. Proper bar this, none of that buying food first malarkee. And also, for the first time, it seemed that foreigners outweighed locals. By a big margin. Beers in, and I chatted to Matt and a few of his friends for a bit before I noticed Sean moving over to the pool table. Feeling I needed to avenge my pitiful display from the previous drunken Friday, I followed.
I waited a while for my turn, but then proceeded to win 6 in a row. Kid gets his swagger back. The beer then begins to hit me, and I lose to a nice elder gentleman from Florida. We chat for a bit, and he tells me that he has been out here for over 2 years. Outrageous. Even at this early stage, and as much as I like Korea, I can't envisage myself staying that long. Though 2 years ago there is no way that I would have considered living out here - we were only just getting our Eurotrip plans into gear. So swings and roundabouts, really. Nowadays I sometimes get the urge to do what the main character does on The Last King of Scotland - spin the globe, put my finger on it, and go to the country that I land on. As long as I don't hit the sea, of course.
Soon enough the raffle is drawn, Matt and April don't win, and we move on to a new place called The Park. Though I am very drunk at this point, the place instantly looks familiar to me. I look to the right and see a pool table, and memories of last Friday come to the forefront of my brain. So THIS is where I was last Friday. Matt introduces me to another American, who I think was called Ryan. Or Sean. Whoever he was, he was the cause of my drunkenness moving up a notch or two, as he immediately called for a beer bong. I had heard the term, but couldn't remember why. Then a funnel appeared in front of me. Brilliant. Last time a funnel was put in front of me I had to funnel a bottle of wine at a house party, and was removed from Oceana within half an hour of arriving for showing vomit-like symptoms.
No such problems this time. Beer poured down, throat sufficiently opened, job done. But damn did I feel dizzy. I then went about chatting to strangers for a while, talking to one English girl for a while before realising that she was quite ugly and moving on. I was quite impressed I got out of that potential venus flytrap in time. I tried to talk to what in my memory was a hot American girl, but she wasn't too hot on the talking and being sociable aspect of life. I noticed that the others had left, so I bolted when she did actually talk to me, saying 'I'm going to the restroom'. Great night.
Killer hangover. I had two options for Saturday - one of them was an invite from Ellen to go out in Seoul for a big night, as she has friends up there who she crashes with. I wasn't feeling that, for some reason. But the other Siheungers were going out for dinner and drinks for Lee's birthday, and were not venturing further than Bucheon. This suited me a lot more, so I dragged myself out of bed at 3 and got myself in gear to meet them all at Bucheon station at 6.
I didn't bank on the ridiculous volume of traffic. They don't really have a rush hour here, it's more a rush late-afternoon-and-evening. But it was still a lot worse than normal. My 15-20 minute bus ride took almost an hour, meaning that I got to Bucheon station at 6.15. This would have been fine, of course, if I had a phone. Oh dear. I hung around for a while, hoping they would randomly see me as I had with Kelly the week before, but no such luck. It's very frustrating when your social life is constantly curtailed by the lack of communication. People have since pointed out that I should have noted their numbers and used a payphone, but I'll blame tiredness and the hangover for not doing that.
All in all, my birthday activities were great fun. And Christmas is just around the corner!!!!! I'll tell you how that goes next time.
Love you all