Monday, 7 December 2009

Korea - The first trip to hospital

Hello everyone!

The title of this blog is not as bad as it sounds. I was always supposed to go to hospital for my medical checks. The fact that one of my glands decided to swell up on Thursday is irrelevant really. We opted to go in the morning on Friday as I don't have any student classes on that day. I have two teacher classes, where I help the teachers with their English. The since-departed Brad told me that half the time the teachers won't turn up, and if they do then all they wish to do is to talk to you as a means of practicing their English. We had to go to the hospital between 10am and midday, so Mr. Kim to leave at 10.30 to try to avoid me missing one of these classes.

It turns out that my co-teacher is quite the comedian. Late in the school day on Thursday he whisked me off to the weekly teacher's meeting, where he said he would introduce me. On the way, he also said that I would have to say a few words, and that he would translate them for me. That's fine, it would be good for all of the teachers to know who I am, and though obviously a little bit nervous I knew I didn't have anything to worry about. The room where the meeting was being held was new to me, and similar to a small lecture theatre, with a medium-sized Korean flag attached high to the wall the seats were facing towards. I was ushered to the second row, next to Mr. Kim and behind all of the bigwigs I had met two days previously. After standing to salute the flag (I didn't salute, but felt I had to at least do something) and a brief monologue from the principal, a microphone was held out in my direction. True rock star, I grab the mic, and stare at my adoring fans. Well, maybe not yet adoring. And maybe not yet fans. But you never know.

I introduce myself, where I am from etc, and then go all PR-friendly, saying how nice everyone has been and how I hope to uphold their traditions and do my best, yadda yadda. It was only for about 30 seconds. Mr. Kim takes the mic to translate, and talks for almost 2 minutes, within which there is a collective 'oooooh' and also a roar of laughter from everyone. There are not many things that can unnerve a human being quite like the sound of laughter, obviously relating to me, when you don't know what has been said. Especially as, for once, I didn't say anything remotely funny. I let it slide during the remaining half hour of the meeting, of which I understood approximately zero words; but once we had left, I had to ask him. My mum's sense of paranoia kicking in there, I think. And he had indeed added some information that I hadn't divulged in my speech. The 'oooohs'? Painting a wonderful picture of me, he told the teachers that I had been lying to the students about my age, saying I was 26 instead of 21 as a means of gaining respect. This is 100% true, but the reaction suggests that maybe, just maybe, he could have worded it better? And the laughter? Well, let's just say that my gochu experience with the head of department might be becoming the stuff of legend here.

But back to Friday. Turns out that the hospital checks take longer than either myself or funnyman Mr. Kim expected. It is similar to a medical check at home - height, weight, eyesight, hearing, blood sample, urine sample and chest x-ray. Of course in a different language it becomes a bit more difficult to do simple tasks: reading letters which you have no clue what sound like off a board to check eyesight, for example. There were ways around this; I was asked to read the numbers rather than Korean characters. Everyone seemed impressed by my eyesight as I got down to the last line before not being able to work out the number. Mr Kim had a look of amazement on his face. The hearing was made easier as well; put on some headphones and raise the hand corresponding with which ear had noise in it.

I had heard bad things about the urine sample - that they watch you pee being the main one - but I had loaded up on water throughout the morning, so was a wee bit (sorry) desperate by the time this came round. Also what I had been told wasn't true in my case - into the toilet, nice and simple.

You hear a lot of crazy things out here, whether to believe them is another question entirely. One thing I have heard from Westerners is that Koreans are afraid of 'fan death'. I had no clue when I heard this, thinking it was to do with sports fans or something. Oh no. An actual fan, as in what you put on in summer to cool you down. The notion suggests that if you leave a fan on long enough in a shut room then your core body temperature will drop to the point where you die. No lie. So what they do out here is they install all electric fans with timers, and they shut off at a certain time. To prevent death. I would have thought the ridiculous science may have been that the certain amount of oxygen in the room would be used up and the fan would be recycling non-useful gas, but no. You become cold, have a system failure and die. I wasn't sure of this, so asked Mr. Kim about this 'superstition'. "It's not a superstition", was the blunt reply. OK. Remind me never to put a fan on ever again. And surely then if we have the heater on all the time then my body temperature will become too hot and I'll die? But I digress.

Medical checks done, assuming they went well, Mr. Kim took me to lunch. To McDonald's. A meal without chopsticks, HOW WILL I COPE?!?! It's pretty similar to the ones at home, though I have to say that I would be seriously worried if they adopt the McDelivery service - available here in the form of a moped, like a pizza delivery guy - in Britain or the US. Obesity levels would never be the same again. As would be expected, they have different burgers out here, such as the bulgogi burger and the spicy chicken crispy burger, which was what I had. No dog burger, though, sorry folks. That might prove to be another myth in itself, am yet to see a dog twirling on a spit roast. One thing i was surprised at was that there was no kimchi burger. It's a vegetarian option, but also I have seen fast food outlets stock kimchi products out here. Dunkin' Donuts do a kimchi donut - that wasn't a typo, they sell a donut with kimchi as the filling. I saw it last weekend, and even more amazingly it had almost sold out, whereas the chocolate donuts were close to fully stocked. I will get a kimchi donut and report back to you, I promise.

We got back to school just before lunch break, and just at the end of what was due to be my second teacher's class. As we walked up the slight incline to the main building, four teachers came up to us and said hello, and asked where we had been. Turns out they had been waiting for us in my office for almost the whole period. While we were getting a McDonald's. Woops! Shame, as one of them, Ms. Yang, who I had as a cover teacher on Thursday, is quite pretty. She said she would come another time. As a result, I had no other lessons that day. An afternoon of Korean alphabet and StickCricket was to follow.

There was one very funny interruption. Three boys, from second grade so were probably 17, came into our office to see Mr. Kim, who then left to get them something. So they were left with me. I engaged them in conversation - well one of them, the other two's English wanted me to stop playing games and give them a lesson - to try to make them feel more comfortable. The more proficient speaker, on the right of the three musketeers, talked to me about music. I played him his favourite Iron Maiden song, Run to the Hills, off my ipod, which he liked. In return, I made him try to play the office guitar, with less success. More success than I would have playing it, mind. The one on the left looked as if he wanted the whole experience to be over, and quivered when I asked him his name. After that, I let him be. But the middle one, complete with puffer jacket (they love them over here, almost as much as kimchi, and if I had a choice I would take the fermented stuff every time), kept looking at me and smiling. Even when his friends were talking to him in Korean, he was looking at me. I thought it was what I am dubbing the 'New Foreigner Effect' - the mysterious foreigner, all of whom must be taken in by the eye even if it makes him feel slightly confused. Alas, not this time. He turns to his friend on the right and whispers something. Student on the right, fresh from bobbing his head to Iron Maiden, says to me...

"He thinks that you are very handsome".

"Erm, come again?"

Strange 'I don't have a clue what you just said' look


"Yes teacher, he thinks you are very handsome"

Riiiiiiiight. Either it was a joke, and the speaker has a fantastic deadpan face, or he was being serious. I'm not bad looking, I guess. Nice to get recognition for it, so I said thanks. But from a seventeen-year-old boy? Homosexuality is still frowned upon here, so good luck to him, that's all I can say. Was not expecting that.

So, the Korean alphabet. It looks daunting to the untrained eye, but is actually quite simple. Each block of characters is a syllable, and usually has one, two or three characters which make the sound. Right now I am trying to learn the singular vowels, of which there are 10. On Thursday and Friday I learnt my first four:
ㅕ - this sounds like 'yaw'
ㅛ - this sounds like 'yo'
ㅠ - this sounds like'yoo'
ㅜ - this sounds like 'oo'
Once I learn all of these I will be able to read signs and words, and then all I have to do is translate them. Get the feeling that might be the hard bit, but considering a week ago I knew next to nothing and couldn't use a pair of metal choppers to save my life, I think I have progressed well in a week.

Yes folks, I have been here a week. It's been pretty awesome, to be fair. Everyone has been so nice and welcoming, be they Korean or otherwise. I doubt they take people out to dinner quite as frequently as I have been this last week, but if they do then I don't think I will ever return! OK, slight exaggeration, of course I will be back. But right now I don't miss too much about home. I feel I have settled in well, and that once I make some friends in this particular district then I will be set for the whole year.

There are a few issues, of course. The fact that I can't access my British bank accounts means that I am pretty much broke, to the point where Mr. Kim had to pay for my medical fees. He offered, but there may have been issues if he hadn't. I can't get a Korean bank to transfer that money into until I am issued a 'foreigner card', and the same applies to getting a mobile phone. That particular problem was brought squarely into focus on Friday. Trying to arrange something with people in Bucheon is difficult anyway, but without a phone it's pretty much impossible. We had tentative plans to go out, but as no one knew what was going on I ended up having to miss out. Possibly for the best, as I don't exactly have money to throw at bars, but still pretty frustrating. The fact that I seem to be the only foreigner in this district is also frustrating, but at the same time encourages me to get out more to try to spot one and befriend them. Wow, that almost sounds sinister. Walk around with the sole intention of going up to someone and asking them if they want to hang out.

But right now these are all minor issues which are easily ironed out. If I hated the school, the food, the people, then there would be a problem. But I love all of these facets of Korean life, and right now I love and am very happy with the decision I made to come here.

One thing I will have to get used to is the driving. I've already mentioned that it's eccentric at best. It got taken to a new level on Friday when I was walking around after school. I was on the pavement. I almost got hit by a motorbike. ON THE PAVEMENT. It's not as if he was going slowly, either. A step to the left instead of the right and I would have been catapaulted into the air. I have seen it since, as well. The pavement is occasionally used as an extra lane by bikes and cars if they are on the wrong side of the road or traffic is a bit heavy for their liking. Madness!

As my initial Bucheon plans had fallen through, and the fact that tiredness struck me from being awake at 7am for most of the week, I took an early night after watching Battle Royal. A few people, upon hearing that I was heading east, told me to watch this film. It is essentially a Japanese prodcution about a class of students who become a bit too rowdy, so they are taken to an island and have to kill each other, last student standing. For a reality TV show. The sickle to the groin region was a particularly rough kill, but it's very funny. They do still hit their students here, but I can't see myself taking any tips from that film anytime soon.

After school on Friday I had allowed myself to get a bit lost for the purpose of exploration. Until it got too cold, at least. I found the Siheung Pizza Hut, where Brad told me to direct a taxi to should I ever need one. They are quite cheap, the taxis, and, judging from how complicated the buses are, might become more frequently used by me. I also walked by a stall that was playing Christmas songs. In my efforts to adapt I had almost forgotten that it is December. They do celebrate Christmas here, but I've been told the enthusiasm is lower than in Britain. That might be a nice change.

I decided early on on Saturday that I would once again allow myself to get lost. I saw a road sign for gymnasium, written in English, so followed it. And then ended up on a dual carriageway. Not quite as bad as when I went running in Boston a few years ago and ran onto the freeway, but still a bit special. I had created a list of things I needed and wanted. One key need is string, to make myself a washing line. I didn't bring many clothes out with me, and really could do with washing some before having to go inside-out with my boxers, as in Europe when I didn't have the means of washing them. A plug adaptor for my computer would also be nice, as would a kettle, so I popped into an electronics store to have a look.

Now, I know how it works in shops like these. The salesman will ask you if you need anything, if you are OK, blah blah. I expected a bow and hello when I walked in, which I gave back in kind. I did not expect then to be followed around the shop, about two paces behind me, by an obviously very keen salesman. Maybe he also thought I was handsome, I don't know. So I walk around, past the phones, past the TV's, and then stop. He stops. I half turn. He pretends to be reading some product information. Maybe we were just on the same route, I think to myself, and carry on. But then, as I get to the kettles, I realise that he is again two steps behind. I stop, half-genuinely this time as I wanted to see how much a kettle costs, but also to see his next move. A game of chess in an electronic store, how very odd. He stops, says nothing, but smiles at me. I note the price of the cheapest kettle, about 19,000W, and move on, only to be intercepted by another salesman. Checkmate! This one, however, is not strange, and asks me if I need any help. Well I'm telling myself that's what he said, I don't have a clue. I say no thanks and, browsing complete, head for the exit. Neither salesman follows me out of the door. Strange experience.

I won't be back there anytime soon, simply because I found a cheaper kettle. But I opted not to buy one on Saturday, thinking that food was more of a priority. I went into a fruit store, and eventually got the woman to understand that I wanted two apples. Apples here are massive, they could be a meal in themselves. She tills it up as 2,000. I give her 2,000. She then goes over to the tangerines and, before I can do anything, drops three in my bag. Incredible, what a lovely person. I will be back!

Alas, I couldn't find any string, so opted to take my fruit home and have a cuppa before heading out again. Finding my way to the building of my flat was easy enough. Getting up the stairs was an altogether more challenging experience. Strange, you may think. Personally I found it strange that, whilst I had been out for about 2 hours, they had fitted a door on the first flight of stairs, complete with combintation lock on the front. Do we not get told about these things? I tried the simple method of turning the handle, but that didn't work. I tried the simpler 'run through the door' shoulder charge method, to no avail. Strong door, this. Not to worry, though, I thought, the code is probably linked to one of the two I already need to put in. I put in my floor combination. No luck, complete with beep from the door. I try my room number. No luck, and another beep. I try both together. This time the refusal was accompanied by a shrill alarm from the top and bottom of the building. Uh oh. That quickly stops, but still, I had an issue. I couldn't get to my flat.

I stood in front of the door for a minute or two, before deciding that there might be a lock on the other side. I stand on the edge of the stairs and try to reach around, but to no avail. This attempt had, however, given me an idea. I'm quite skinny in nature, and had noticed a small gap inbetween the two bannisters and the concrete of the above flight of stairs (top left of the picture). I put my fruit on a higher step, and pushed myself up so that my weight was held on the bannister. I then grabbed the upper ledge from behind, and fitted my body through the gap. It was a tight fit, but being a twig can have its advantages. Some people would say I had broken into my own building; I prefer to think of it as being inventive to avoid a troublesome situation.

I deserved my cup of Tetley's after that. There weren't many 'home' things I brought with me - a bag of haribo, a Wales flag - but I had to bring tea with me. I do not trust any other country to be able to do tea properly. It is NOT Earl Grey, like all the Americans think, it is NOT drunk without milk or with lemon or some stupid substitute, and it not left to brew for 10 seconds and then the teabag removed. Do it properly.

Rant over, I headed back out into the brisk daytime of Siheung, withthe thought of having to clamber through a small gap ever-present in my mind. There was a phone number on the door - great help as the rest was in Korean and I don't have a phone. Even if I did, I doubt they would have been able to help me due to the language barrier. I went away from the areas of Siheung I had been to, and started following signs for Siheung City Hall. On my way I walked past a shop, which was playing a song I recognised. Recognised, but didn't like. What was it? I'd heard the lyrics before: "It's all about you, it's all about you, bay-beh". The voices, so annoying, who was it? And then, like in a horror movie when the victim realises that their friend, stood in front of them and blocking every exit, is the ghastly murderer, did the shocking truth unleash itself upon me. McFly have made it in Asia. Good Lord.

That took some digesting, but I snapped back into focus further down the road when (on a dry day) I almost got soaked by an old lady throwing the remains of her FAKE tea (sorry, still a bit worked up) out of a doorway. I carried on walking, hoping to find some inspiration. Alas, this town is not an inspiration-filled place. Seoul might be, but Seoul this is not. This is merely where people who work in Seoul commute from. Once again I ended up on a dual carriageway, and had ran out of pavement, so after a long trek decided to head back in a slightly different direction. I walked past lots of schoolchildren - yes, Korean children also have to go to school on a Saturday. Sucks for them.

I didn't really do too much on the weekend. Saturday, at least during the daytime, I had gone hunting for people and activities, but found nothing, so Sunday I did absolutely nothing. It gave me time to relax and recharge for the next week in school, but I didn't even leave my flat - proper lazy day. I contented myself with the thought that very few weekends will be like this once i had a) a phone and b) money.

What Sunday did do was allow me to digest the World Cup draw for South Africa next year. One of my original plans had been to go to South Africa, either leaving here after 6 months or using up my vacation time. Neither is really feasible, and besides, I'm not paying $400 for a room for the night. If you don't like football, I'd skip down quite far. If you do, here are some of my views on the draw:
- Group A - Uruguay are not getting out of this group. France are, but will have to cope without Thierry Henry for the last game, due to a harsh red card for supposed handball in their second match. A toss-up between South Africa and Mexico for the other spot.
- Group B - I will be supporting South Korea in this World Cup. It won't be for long, however, as they have no chance of getting out of this group. Argentina to top, and I'm hoping Nigeria over Greece, but think the Greeks may nick second.
- Group C - Arth told me the other day about the Sun's headline in the aftermath of the draw: EASY. While it's easier than it could have been, it won't be a walk in the park (Trinidad and Tobago at '06, anyone?). They should qualify, and I'm backing the United States to edge Slovenia.
- Group D - A lot of people seem to be writing off Germany. Don't. Ozil looks a class act. They will top this with ease. A lot of people seem to be writing off Serbia. Again, don't. I think they will take second and give England a tough game. Shame for Ghana that they are again in a tricky group, and as for the Aussies? Stick to cricket, eh chaps. No hope here.
- Group E - This is a real shame. If Holland had to face any other quarter-finalist, I would back them. But Brazil?? Damn, that is rotten luck. I expect them to cruise through this group. Denmark are solid but I think that one African team has a real chance to make waves, and that Cameroon are that team. Japan...well good luck to them. They'll need it.
- Group F - Anyone who thinks England got the easy group should direct their attention to this group. Italy may as well send a youth team, they would still romp this group. I'll take Slovakia over Paraguay here as well, but it will be tight. New for Australia, but replace cricket with rugby union. Good lads.
- Group G - Group of death? A group of death should not become reliant on who can put the most goals past a country whose most successful club team is named after the birthday of one of their leaders!! I think Brazil will top this, and as for the other's a toughie, but this group will have two quarter-finalists.
- Group H - That previous line is my radical prediction, and of course means that I think Spain will not progress past the second round. They will top this group, but I think they will be taken out by Portugal or the Ivory Coast. The other three sides seem very equal: Chile have an excellent creative front 4 or 5; Switzerland are obdurate and can nullify and grind down teams; and Honduras have the unknown element, but what is known is that their better players, such as Figueroa and Palacios, would walk into the other two teams. I'm tempted to say Honduras, and really tempted to say Chile, but I think the Swiss will get the chance to lose to Brazil in Round 2.

I'm not going to predict further than this, so my QF line-up is this:
France vs England
Holland vs Brazil
Argentina vs Germany
Italy vs Portugal/Ivory Coast

So Sunday didn't really exist for me, and as a result a new week has begun. I'll post next time with the latest.

Love you all


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