Team Bonding

I left off last time by saying that I would be welcoming the new English teacher to our school on the evening of the Sunday on which I returned from my adventures in Busan. Sure enough he did arrive, but a little later than I was expecting, and thus I was flagging a little by the time I went to meet Mr. Lee, Christine and the new guy, Ben. Thankfully they'd chosen to eat at a restaurant just a couple of doors down from my place, so I didn't have too far to go. 

I made small talk with Ben about how he came out here to Korea and things like that while we ate, but since it was already fairly late, nobody was eating much. Mr. Lee had made sure that there was a good supply of beer though, and I jokingly asked him and Christine why we weren't having any soju for Ben's welcome. They knew I was joking, but at the same time they promised that we would introduce Ben to soju soon enough.

Once dinner was complete we took Ben to his dwelling, made sure that he knew how everything worked, and promptly left, allowing him to get some much needed sleep. 

The next morning Christine and I called on Ben to make sure that he got to work alright. Once there it was my task to explain to him how his classes, the textbooks, the admin and everything else associated with the job works. I was a little nervous about this since I'm still relatively new to it myself, but once I started explaining I realised that it was all quite simple when you boiled it all down. In fact, I worried that I may have made it a little too simple. I need not have worried though, Ben is taking the job extremely seriously, and if I had told him that he need do nothing at all but show up in class and make it up as he went along I'm sure he would have entirely disregarded it and taken plenty of time in preparing lesson plans. He missed lunch on his first day to ensure that he was entirely prepared, and went on malnourishing himself through his first week just to make sure that he knew he was on top of his classes. This wasn't just to make a good impression, in fact Christine got rather worried about his lack of eating and probably would have preferred that he took an overly long lunch than none at all! 

Nevertheless, Ben is determined to be prepared for his classes, and through his first week I helped him with little bits that I could, but for the most part he seemed to get to grips with things in his own way rather quickly. Unfortunately, due to this new work load, strange work hours, lack of eating and leftover jet lag, Ben was utterly knackered at the end of each day during his first week, and went straight home to crash out each evening, so I didn't get a chance to know him in any real social capacity. 

My first chance came on Friday night, when as promised, we went out for soju. Mr. Lee took the whole staff out for a meal to welcome Ben to Korea. 

The whole staff of Jong Chul, totalling 11, plus Mr. Lee went to a Korean barbecue restaurant just a short distance from the school that I hadn't been to before. There we ate samgyeopsal, one of my favourite cuts of pork, and indulged in their various side dishes, which were quite different from those I've had at other restaurants. One favourite was bunches of long and thin mushrooms that you fry briefly, then munch all in one mouthful (or at least that's what I did). 

I was much more comfortable around the staff this time than the last time we had all gone out together in the early weeks of my employment, so I happily stuffed myself full of meat and drank several shots of soju. We also introduced Ben to soju as promised, and he seemed to find it alright, but didn't want to drink too much because he wanted to go into school the next day (SATURDAY) to get a jump on preparing his lessons for the forthcoming week. I joked that he was making me look bad, but I was probably doing that myself with the amounts I was eating and drinking! 

No, in actual fact I think that the staff enjoyed seeing my enjoyment of their culture and they actually encouraged me to eat more and more. By the time the meal was over I was completely stuffed and feeling good from the soju. I mentioned that I still hadn't tried makkoli - another traditional Korean alcoholic drink - and suggested that we should go get some. The others were sceptical at first, but most seemed to be having a good time, and after a little debate it was agreed that we would go and give it a try. 

A few of the party had to leave after the main meal, but the majority of us continued on just down the street to a traditional Korean pub type bar where they served makkoli. After having ordered the drinks, Mr. Lee popped out to a convenience store just across the road and came back with a pack of apple flavoured Yakult-type yoghurt drinks, which were apparently for mixing in with the alcohol. I didn't know what to expect from makkoli really; all I knew was that it was a rice wine like sake, but unrefined so it maintained a milky white colour. Everyone that I had spoken to about it also warned me that it gives the worst hangovers imaginable.

Ben, Monica, me and Celine in the makkoli place

When the drinks arrived they were served in small metal teapots, and we had two to share between the nine of us that remained. Our vessels were not like normal glasses either, but more like small rice bowls. Two pots of the apple-flavoured yoghurt drink were stirred into each pot and then it was served. When I tasted it, all I could really taste was the apple flavoured drink, but with a slight icky-sour aftertaste as if it were on the verge of going bad. It wasn't the most pleasant drink, but it was still easy to imbibe so I happily did so. I quickly found out that along with ordering drinks, some food had also been bought, which is another Korean tradition. Brought to the table was a large pizza/pancake type thing with spring onions and a spicy vegetable soup. I was still stuffed from the main meal, but I had a little of each and they were both delicious, although the mixture of these dishes with the yoghurty makkoli was incongruous to say the least. I think in the past my stomach would have been complaining heartily at this point, but in my couple of months here my level of drinking has greatly increased, and my stomach has hardened somewhat too. 

I thought for sure that after that everyone would want to head home, but it seemed that a really good time was being had by all so it was suggested that we move on to one more bar not too far from our current location. I followed as the Koreans led us around a corner into a building and up some steps that I never would have ventured into in a million years and we came into a dim bar decked out with plush sofas amd comfy chairs, and with a man singing and playing guitar to a nearly empty room. We took a large table in the middle of the room in front of the stage and continued to drink beer and talk. Monica dared me to go up and sing, and I said I would if I could do an English song. Monica requested The Beatles' "Yesterday," and I wasn't sure if it was actually going to happen, but sure enough minutes later I was on stage next to the unsuspecting guitar player, destroying The Beatles' ballad. I think I just about pulled it off thanks to the support from the crowd (mostly laughter) and a few stomping type dance moves. (There is a short video of part of the performance that I have been tagged in on Facebook if you want to search it out and subject yourself to it.)

The other occupied table in the bar enjoyed my performance enough to send over a couple of plates of sausages. But at this point there was no way I was going to be eating any more. Mr. Lee proposed a drinking game between the three men in attendance (me, him and Ben), in which in one gulp you had to get the level of your beer down to a certain specified point on the glass, and whoever got closest would win 500 Won from the other two. We played three times, doubling the bet on each occasion, and Mr. Lee won all three times, meaning that I was out 3000 Won by the end. But since he is the one who pays our salary, and paid for all the food and drink that evening, I can't really complain.  

By the time we left the bar it was about 1.30am and everyone was heading in their separate directions. I was more drunk than I had realised as I started walking down the street, but thankfully we were only a five minute walk from home, so I made it there without a hitch, collapsed into my armchair and watched some television.

 


On Sunday Celine had invited me to join her and her friend in visiting Daegu's Art Museum. It was due to rain and we almost cancelled, but it looked like it was going to hold off.

However, by the time she pulled up at 3pm in a taxi to pick me up and go on to the museum it was raining pretty heavily. Although it meant that our shoes and the cuffs of my jeans were sopping wet, we hoped that it meant that it would keep people away from the museum.  

The museum is up in a picturesque location in the hills and Celine told me that on a good day you can usually get a good view from up there, but the clouds obscured them on our visit. This wasn't too bad though, as it gave the place a mystical aura. 

Our hopes of a small crowd didn't seem to have come to pass when we saw the masses of umbrellas left in buckets outside and then joined the end of the long queue for tickets. We didn't panic though and the line moved quickly. We met Celine's friend Hong who arrived just as we got to the desk and went inside the exhibit. 

The spaciousness of the building meant that what had seemed like a large crowd in the foyer was actually extremely manageable once dispersed amongst the various rooms. 

The main attraction at the moment is an exhibition by Japanese artist Kusama Yayoi called A Dream I Dreamed.  She has been working for many years while also dealing with OCD, which plays a big part in her pieces. She works in many formats including drawings, paintings, installations and sculptures. My favourite parts of her work were an array of black and white paintings that featured many outlines of faces, dots, and wavy lines, strewn about in such a way that seems like there's a pattern where there's really none; it was engaging and magnetic in an undefinable way. They were the kinds of paintings that you could never visualise until you see them in person and left me questioning how she ever came up with them, how she knew where to even begin, and again how she knew where to finish. I wish I were able to actually show you what I'm trying to describe but pictures of the paintings were not allowed and a google search yields none of the collection. The closest thing I can think of, and something that I was continuously reminded of in many of them way the album art of Youth Lagoon's Wondrous Bughouse (but black and white and more elegant).

Me and Celine in one of the dot-obsessed installations

They did allow pictures of her sculptures and installations though, which seemed to be the most popular with most of the attendees. Her OCD seems to have left her with an obsession with spots, and almost all of her objects or installations included round dots or orbs. In the main hall there were humongous blow up red balls with white dots, elsewhere there were models of multi-coloured cartoon spotted dogs, there was a living room lit with UV lights that had dots covering the walls, giant yellow and black-spotted pumpkins and the most popular installation a room made entirely of mirrors filled with dangling glowing orbs that made you feel as if you were floating in the middle of an infinite glowing universe. You can see pictures of all this below. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit. The paintings that I tried to describe were my favourite part, but I found all of her other pieces to be a delight to. I found it fascinating that she would turn her obsessions with spots and circles onto so many different objects and media and make them all seem different but at the same time of a piece. I really enjoyed the gallery itself too, which was nice and modern and spacious. I definitely want to visit it again when the next collection comes in.

A small part of Daegu Stadium, up in the clouds

Once finished with the gallery Celine, Hong and I found that the rain had ceased outside so we took a stroll in the cool early evening. We walked down through the paths of the gallery's front garden which eventually led down to the main road. From there it was just a short walk to the Daegu football stadium, where Daegu FC play their home games. The stadium is very large and modern, since it was built for the 2002 World Cup and from the outside it looks impressive. I hope to go and see a game there soon. The capacity is over 50,000 and I'm sure they don't fill that up. In fact Celine told me that the tickets range from 13,000-30,000 Won, which is pretty cheap, especially compared to Arsenal. 

Right next to the stadium is a partly underground complex with a supermarket, some restaurants and coffee shops. The three of us got some food followed by some coffee and had some interesting conversations, getting to know more about each other and our hopes and desires for the future. I found out that Celine and Hong met each other at university, and in fact he is still a student coming up to his final term in administration.

After we had spent a couple of hours eating and drinking we decided to catch a taxi back home and then part ways. It was an extremely enjoyable day and I'm glad to have made another new Korean friend, who I'll hopefully see again in the not too distant future. 


Christine and her cake (Monica in the background)

In the following week there were a couple of birthdays to celebrate. The first of which was Christine's on the Tuesday and a cake was bought from Paris Baguette downstairs. We shared the creamy and fruity cake between the lot of us, but Monica made me eat much more than anyone else so that it didn't go to waste, which only meant that I ended up typically dropping several bites on myself and on the floor and getting whipped cream everywhere. What I did manage to eat, while delicious, was also extremely rich, and I sat at my desk feeling a little groggy for the next hour or so before lessons began.

Later on in the week it was the birthday of Korea itself, known as Gaecheonjeol, which literally translates to "Heaven-opened day." I didn't know this early on in the week, but I knew that were having a day off on Thursday and I asked the staff why. They told me that it was the anniversary of the day Korea was founded, but they wanted to tell me the full legend of how it came to pass. Unfortunately none of them could quite remember the story entirely, and bit by bit this is the story that I was told, or at least this is what I understood:

Thousands of years ago there was a bear that desperately wanted to become human. He prayed to the gods, who told him to go and hide in a cave for 100 days. There she was joined by a tiger, and all they had to eat for that time was wild garlic, and all they could do was have sex. At the end of the 100 days the bear emerged a pregnant woman and she gave birth to Korea.

I found this story to completely insane and I asked questions about whether it was possible to go visit the cave where this supposedly happened, and I also joked and asked whether North Korea and South Korea came out of the bear as conjoined twins. They just laughed at this and called me crazy, and I thought this was a little rich coming from some people whose country was supposedly given birth to by a bear! 

I've now looked up the story on Wikipedia, and it is actually quite different from that, and makes (slightly) more sense. In a nutshell the legend is this: 

A bear and a tiger desperately wanted to become humans so they prayed to the gods who told them that they should stay out of the sunlight for 100 days and eat nothing but garlic. They hid together in a cave with 20  cloves of garlic.The tiger gave up after 20 days but the bear remained and when it emerged it was a human woman. She was then desperately lonely and wanted a husband and child. She prayed to the god Hwanung who was so moved that he wed her himself and soon she bore him a son. This son was Dangun, who became king and founded Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom. His rule is believed to have begun in 2333 BC.

Whatever the story, it's still crazy, but all I know is that we all got to have a public holiday on Thursday because of it.

This meant that on Wednesday night Craig, Ben and I decided to go out drinking. A party for Westerners had been organised downtown and after work we picked up a beer each, hopped on the subway and headed there.

The party was held at Rock'n'Tacos, a new Mexican place that had a nice open air patio area with a light-up floor. The tables had all been moved out of the way so that this could be the dancefloor for the evening. There was also a special deal on for partygoers: 20,000 Won all-you-can-drink beer. The three of us all decided to take up this offer. Over the course of the night it was nice to be able to speak to other people whose native language is English for a change and to exchange stories about teaching in Daegu.  When I noticed that one girl did not have the all-you-can-drink wristband on I asked why and she pronounced it to be a bad deal, saying that you had to drink at least 7 or 8 beers to make it worthwhile. I realised that she was right, and all three of us made sure that we were going to get our money's worth.

By the time the party came to a close at 3am I'm fairly sure that I had managed to get my money's worth, but to be honest I completely lost track of how many I drank in the midst of slipping and sliding around the dance floor and talking to quite a few new people in the preceding hours. Unfortunately I'd also lost track of Ben, and I panicked a little bit since I felt a little responsible for him since this was his first time in downtown Daegu, and his first time drinking in Korea. Craig and I looked all over for him, and went into a few nearby bars to see if we could find him there, but there was no sign. 

The new group of friends that he'd made at the party also seemed to be missing too, so we took it on faith that he'd gone with them and that he was in good hands. By this time the beer had truly caught up with is, we were sloppily drunk and tired and decided to dive in a taxi and get home. 

Once I was in my room I left a message on Ben's Facebook wall apologising for losing him and hoping that he was OK before I fell asleep.  That afternoon when I awoke and scrambled for my phone to check for a reply, I was becalmed to find later that he had written to say that he had made it home safe and sound, which alleviated my guilt and allowed me to go back to sleep again for a couple more hours.


Craig petting a cat

The rest of the week went by as normal and the weekend that's just passed was also fairly lacking in anything of significant interest. The only small thing to mention is that on Saturday Craig and I decided to visit the Pet Cafe in downtown Daegu, which we had spotted while wandering around on a previous occasion. Having gotten a taste of it while we were in Busan we definitely wanted to know where we could go any time we felt like we needed some animal companionship. 

The one in Daegu turned out to be quite a bit larger than the one we had visited in Busan, and had two floors: one for cats and one for dogs. The cat floor was very similar to the cafe we had previously visited, with pastel-coloured walls, wooden shelves and cubby holes for the cats to explore and stuff themselves into. Overall a fairly peaceful place. 

A few of the dogs and a cute little kitty

Upstairs on the dog level was a completely different story. The room was much plainer with a tiled floor and more open space for the dogs to run around in. We were expecting them to have just small dogs, but they had a wide range from a tiny chihuahua to a massive dog - possibly an Australian shepherd (I'm not an expert). Most people sat on the floor to pet the dogs, since, unlike the cats, they didn't really like jumping up on chairs and tables for affection. This was quite a hazardous place to be though because when the dogs start playing it gets fairly rowdy, a closer look at the dogs reveals several chunks of hair missing from most of them, and they pay no mind to any humans who might be sitting in their way, and they'll trample all over people to get in on the action. Even worse, the dogs will freely urinate in the middle of the floor - hence the tiles. I saw at least three large puddles get mopped up in the time I stayed there.  Nevertheless, they're all cute or fascinating creatures, and entertaining to watch for a little while at least. I can definitely see the dog floor as a good place to go if you want to have a smile put on your face since there are so many characters there, but if I want to relax with a drink the cat floor is much more suited.

And that just about brings you up to date on my life in Korea from the last couple of weeks. As always, thanks for reading!

 

- Rob

 

Currently reading: Ulysses by James Joyce - A serious undertaking. I'm 50 pages in the 700+ and it's pretty darn challenging. There are so many references to Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and simply artfully-crafted language that I'm fairly certain that 20 or more little details are going straight over my head on every page. But, I have a version that has extensive notes on the text in the back, which have proven helpful in understanding many things (although at times the notes are just as difficult to parse as the main text). I've finished Part I about James Joyce's literary alter ego Stephen Dedalus, and looking ahead it seems the text becomes less hyper-stuffed with detail, so I'll hopefully be more engrossed soon. 

Note: In the interim between blogs I read Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski, which I loved. Can't wait to read more of his work.

 

Currently listening to: 

Danny Brown - Old - This has probably gone straight in as my favourite hip hop release of the year. Brown twists his rhymes to brilliantly express his twisted experiences. For every reference to getting fucked up on drugs there's a harrowing or down-to-Earth one about serious shit that's happened in his life. And the production is fantastic too. 

 

HAIM - Days Are Gone - Based on their winning BBC's sound of 2013 and the rabid popularity of their early singles, which I thought were just alright, I was ready to hate or "meh" this album, but I absolutely love it. Stuffed with hooks, harmonies and character, it's a seriously enjoyable Fleetwood Mac-y affair and I now understand why everyone's making a big deal about them.

 

The Field - Cupid's Head  - Admittedly I didn't listen to this until it got a glowing review from Pitchfork, and I'm not really sure why since I've really enjoyed all of Axel Willner's seriously consistent output as The Field. I'm glad I didn't listen to it until I did though, because I had my first listen on my big headphones while wandering around downtown Daegu by myself, and the flashing lights and swathes of people passing me by melded beautifully into the icily perfect electronic soundscapes. I've loved this album so much that I've been binging on it and all of The Field's discography - the fact that it's ambient makes it great for listening while reading.

 

 A song for this blog post: