Back to the books

In what would appear to be an exercise in empathy, I’m undertaking another scholastic quest: attempting to learn a foreign language (again).

Despite Hungary being a European country, Hungarian is not part of the Indo-European family tree. It’s actually part of the Ugrian subgroup of Uralic languages, and it’s nearest ‘relatives’ are Finnish and Estonian. It is considered to be one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to master, which isn’t surprising really considering Hungarian uses the Latin alphabet and nouns can have up to 238 possible forms.

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In light of my complete mathematical incompetence it’s difficult to say whether learning Hungarian is a more or less realistic aspiration than achieving a C grade at Maths GCSE. But nevertheless I am undeterred! In my quest I’m employing a nifty little app called Memrise that uses flashcards and mnemonics, and I’ll take up classes once I get to Hungary.

I realise this may sound all too familiar to some of you. Last year, after a promising start (I managed to learn the Korean alphabet and half a dozen key phrases before I left the UK) my dream of learning an ultimately useless foreign language floundered somewhat , and in the end I never got any further than the basics.

But I vow that this year will be different! I will master a language spoken by a single community of people if it’s the last thing I do.

Got any tools or tips for conquering Hungarian? 

Saying seeyah soybean

***This is a brief for all of my friends and family who I’m too lazy to update individually : P So consider yourself up to date!

It’s safe to say that I’m not the most discerning eater; I have been known to observe the little-acknowledged 60 second rule, and will generally eat any old thing put in front of me with no complaints (barring last weekend’s cow intestines horror). However, after 10 months of living in a country that considers fermented cabbage and acorn jelly (yes, seriously) the height of fine dining, my tastebuds hate me.

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I’m sorry Korea, but I just can’t get excited about red pepper, soybean or azuki bean (the Korean Holy Taste Trinity) anymore

Fortunately for my tastebuds, I’m outta here in less than two months time! My gastronomic recuperation will begin in earnest in Australia, where I’ll be making a three week pit-stop (accompanied by Hannah!!! <3<3<3) before heading back to blighty. After which I will gorge myself on beautiful British stodge for a few months (it will be my main occupation while I’m back). I’ll then be treating my deprived palate to the delights of mainland Europe as I meander to Budapest, where I plan to set up camp for six months to teach some more unfortunate souls with a foolish fella I picked up here in Korea.

In the mean time I will do my best to smile when the school lunch lady unveils the umpteenth vat of unidentifiable steaming fish broth (because otherwise I will cry), and I will eat ddok (rice cakes) until they’re streaming out of my nose so that I don’t crave them when I’m gone.

Down the aisle Korean style

Recently I was able to strike another entry from my Korea bucket list – attend a Korean wedding. As with many Korean invitations, this one was extended seemingly out of nowhere and at the very last possible moment – in this case the night before the wedding.

It’s become common practice for Korean couples to have two weddings – a traditional low-key Korean one and a big, brash imitation ‘western’ one. The father of the bride must foot the bill for BOTH sets of nuptials and so for dear dad’s convenience the Koreans have invented ‘wedding centers’ – sprawling, shiny buildings that can be identified by low flying planes from the inflated portrait of a glossy wedded couple plastered across the front. Here you can hit two birds with one big, tacky wedding stone.

Walking in is like stepping onto the set of a Mariah Carey music video. So much diamante and glaring white faux marble. Plastic chandeliers and plastic plants everywhere. Suited men with ear pieces and dark shades striding around would-be-purposefully. Piped chamber music. Waitress uniforms inspired by Britney Spears circa Toxic. Many elaborate water displays involving cupids in improbable poses.

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Because wedding centers are roughly the size of the London O2 it is possible for 244598943 weddings to take place at once. Our wedding was happening on the third floor in the ‘Fantasy Fairy Bride Suite’, which was as fantastically tacky as the title suggests.

We arrived just in time for Wedding Part I and elbowed our way into the wedding ‘chamber’, plonking ourselves down on some gaudy golden chairs by a pair of asjoshes making an early start on the soju.

In my experience wedding services can drag on so with a double feature in store I had envisioned a long day. The first service was over in no more than 15 minutes. The priest said approximately five words. The rest of the time was filled with a serenade delivered by the couple’s friends, from a kneeling position at the couple’s feet, accompanied by a women wearing white feathers playing a white grand piano, with water cascading down the wall behind her. Then the couple kissed and everyone clapped and the couple strutted down an elevated catwalk and posed at the end for the bank of waiting well-wishers. All while a montage of photos of the couple posing with cupcakes and harps played on a loop on the widescreen tvs in the background.

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After such a long, draining service the guests were in desperate need of sustenance so we followed the crowd downstairs for eats. Instead of trawling John Lewis for a cutlery set that will sit in a cupboard the Koreans cut to the chase and hand over a (small) wad of cold hard cash on arrival at the wedding. This entitles them to a food coupon which gives them entry to the biggest buffet in the galaxy. I only wish it had been a little later in the day so that I could have been as shamelessly piggy as I wanted to be, but as it was I wasn’t prepared to tackle cooked meats and seafood at 11am.

Refueled we headed back upstairs for Wedding Part II. The next western ceremony was already in full swing in the Fairy Suite we’d vacated literally 20 minutes before, which also happened to be attached to the broom cupboard where Part II was about to begin.

While we were chowing down the bride had switched from her western gown to her traditional Korean dress (Hanbok). She looked pretty spectacular and super uncomfortable. It took a couple of people to maneuver her into the correct position to begin the ceremony.

At the heart of the ceremony is bowing. The couple bow to each other. The couple bow to his parents. The couple bow to her parents. I think the parents might have bowed to the couple at one point. It all looked very tiring for the bride. But they did get to eat some tasty looking snacks that represented a long, harmonious marriage, and after that one of the fathers tossed some small objects into a blanket to see how many grandkids he could expect (six). And then it was all over.

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I was looking forward to abusing the buffet again at the after-party but sadly there was none – perhaps because abeoji bankrupt himself shelling out for two weddings. So with that we got our complimentary Decoration Cake Box Sets and hit the road.

 

 

 

Sweat and the city

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to talk about how hot it is. On the chance that a future NET happens to stumble across this blog I feel kind of duty-bound.

Coming from probably the mildest place on the planet my experience is perhaps a little more extreme than others’, but here is an idea of what you can expect if you come to teach in the city of Daegu…

– You will start the day as you mean to go on, soaked in sweat. Likely as not you may also find yourself suffering from temporary amnesia and a headache due to severe dehydration

– Over the course of the day you will drink enough fluids to see a camel across the Sahara and back again, and yet your thirst will never be quenched

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– You will apply your makeup halfheartedly, knowing that in all probability it will be swimming in your belly-button by mid-morning

– You will not leave your apartment a minute before you absolutely have to because you know that as unthinkable as it is, it really is 30 degrees out there at 7:45am

– You will finally understand and appreciate why everyone around you has been walking at a snail-pace and taking the escalators, and you will follow suit

– You will forget your cynicism regarding the efficiency of handheld fans. Your fan will become an extension of your person and you will genuinely panic if you find yourself without it. You will put serious consideration into the idea of buying in bulk so that you are never without one

– You will arrive at school resembling something dredged out of a bog. You will eventually accept the futility of blotting paper and roll with it. But you will avoid mirrors all day

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– If you have the misfortune of experiencing broken ac or a school that unexpectedly chooses to withhold the ac then the moment that you step into your office anticipating that beautiful icy blast that usually welcomes you into your refuge will be the most heart-stoppingly terrible moment of realisation you have ever experienced

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– Most of your conversations will be weather-related. The answer to the question “How are you?/How have you been?” is always ‘hot’

– Your students will look like comatose slugs

– When you come across an inexplicably lively class at the end of a long day you will panic because you have sweated out all of your your energy reserves and there is a distinct chance you will pass out mid-lesson

– You will shower twice a day, regardless of your previous hygiene standards. It won’t be enough

– When you arrive home you will get naked as fast as humanly possible and lie beneath your ac panting for around half an hour

Lost in Hong Kong

Well I’m back, and  after 10 days of heavily humidified walking, climbing, boating, biking, sightseeing, family-bonding and over-indulging I feel more ragged than when I left. But it was well worth it! Here are some photos and random observations from my time in Hong Kong:

The first thing to note is that Hong Kong loves plazas. I can’t stress this enough. There are almost more plazas than people. They are literally everywhere. If you were to fall from an airplane and land somewhere in Hong Kong, odds are you would land in a plaza. They are magnificent places with the most elaborate bathrooms you will ever use, but it is highly likely that you will lose several hours of your life trying to find an exit.

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Random giant robots (probably jaeger prototypes) guarding the entrance to a plaza

The next thing to note is that HK is distinctly less cutesy than Korea. And the more surprising revelation is that I was disappointed about that fact. Having spent the past 6 months in the Kingdom of Cute I’ve become accustomed to every object, surface and person being laminated in a glaze of hearts, kittens and kisses. During my trip I found myself questioning why the manufacturers of my various purchases hadn’t thought to include a cute poo or a baby panda on any part of their product.

HK kids aren’t as cute either. I’m not being biased. They just aren’t. Korean kids are the most adorable in the world.

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Children’s heads made from porcelain at the Museum of Art. Not so cute

Like the cute paraphernalia, I’ve grown to love the Konglish that abounds in Korea. The original interpretations of English spelling and grammar I see on signs and stationery on a daily basis are always entertaining and often inadvertently profound. Presumably because of its colonial history HK has far less misspelled/misplaced English about. A win for navigation but a loss for laughs.

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No Konglish here, sadly

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The food and drinks are more expensive in HK than in Korea (drinks in particular) but much tastier, tortoise jelly aside.

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Aydan surveys a hard-won view
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Hannah at Chi Lin Nunnery
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Blossoming tea at traditional tea ceremony
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Tai O, traditional fishing village on stilts
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Tian Tan Buddha
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Singing bird at Yuen Po Bird Garden
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Don’t be fooled by the seemingly tranquil and picturesque setting, it belies the herculean effort that it took for us to return our little boat to shore before the end of the rental period. It turns out that there is a, previously undiscovered, family disposition to suck at rowing a boat – a shortcoming that the welts on my hands and twinge in my side are attesting to several days later
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Our journey across Plover Cove Reservoir in a 4-person cycle-cart was moderately more successful than the boating expedition, however, we did still career into several posts while singing Disney ballads, almost ran over a couple of teens taking selfies and I personally sweated half of my body weight out of my forehead

 

 

Swimming Korean style

I began going to the local swimming pool a couple of weeks ago, around the time the humidity jumped from an agonizing 50% to a sadistic 80%.

I’d had my reservations about using the local pool because of its proximity to my school – going by my track record I knew it was incredibly likely that I’d have a supremely awkward encounter with one of my students poolside that would leave us both scarred for life. But in the end my need to exercise was too obvious to be ignored, and knowing swimming was the only form of exercise I would realistically maintain in this evil weather I finally bit the bullet.

There are a couple of things that distinguish a British swimming experience from a Korean one. The first is that the changing room is a no-clothes zone. Four months ago this might have deterred me but nowadays as a jimjilbang devotee I can’t get nude fast enough so this posed no problem.

The second distinction is that as a woman it is mandatory for you to don a ridiculous swimming cap – even if like me you have less hair to speak of than many men and find Hello Kitty deeply creepy.

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Koreans like to keep it cute poolside

The final and ultimate difference is what I’ve called ‘Korean time-out’. This is what happens – at 30 minutes past the hour a jingle is played over the speaker followed by a maddening chorus of whistle-blowing curtesy of the half dozen or so life-guards lining the pool.

This signals a mass-exodus from the water. Every person dutifully clambers out and takes a seat poolside to wait…wait for what? Until yesterday it was a mystery that I could only speculate about, because up until yesterday I’d been taking ‘time-out’ as my cue to leave. But yesterday I got to the pool late and so had only managed a couple of lengths before the jingle kicked in. So, mildly intrigued I clambered out of the pool with the rest and claimed my place on the closest plastic bench to wait.

For the next 5 minutes nothing at all happened other than time passed, I became dry and the old man next to me performed a number of painful-looking stretches – little did I know that he was limbering up.

Suddenly there was music blaring out of the speakers calling every Korean man, woman and child to their feet. For a split alarming second I thought it was the national anthem and I looked around desperately for the nearest exit. But in fact it was something even more mind-boggling.

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I recognized the music as traditional Korean trot music, which as any expat in Korea knows is a very special kind of auditory torture. This was interspersed with what I gathered quickly were exercise commands  because instantly and in perfect synchronization all of the Koreans began hopping around and stretching furiously in scenes not dissimilar to this

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It was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most surreal things I’ve seen with my own eyes. I think my mouth was actually ajar throughout the whole routine, which went on for about 3 minutes. The end was signaled by the jingle and without further ado the Koreans plopped back into the pool. As far as I can understand this happens every half hour.

Oh Korea.