Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Christmas 2009 (December '09 Webzine blog)

On 16th December I boarded a flight from Incheon airport. Some 15 hours later I stepped off the plane and onto English soil. It was almost a year since I had last visited my home country and, after some worries about finances, my wife and I decided we could afford to go again. Christmas is of course a very special time in England and the traditional time of year for families and relatives to come together. For families like mine without young children and whose members are dispersed all over England (and Korea in my case!) it is probably the only time of year we will all be in the same place. Friends from my home town also come back for Christmas and the New Year, and so it is a great opportunity for me to meet all my family and old friends in a short period of time.

The first week of my trip was unusually cold – below zero for several days and with heavy snow fall in some places. One of my friends was without electricity for a few days because the snow had damaged power lines. Around this time of year English people get very excited about whether there will be a 'white Christmas' – snowfall on Christmas day. There's a very famous song, “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas”, sung by Bill Crosby and each year bookmakers take millions of pounds worth of bets on the question. This year looked a good chance for a white Christmas with the unusually cold weather (the last was in 2004) but unfortunately it didn't happen in our home town (though it did in other places).

On Christmas day many families have their own traditional way of spending the day. Christians will often go to a service through the night of Christmas Eve (a 'midnight mass'), or one on Christmas morning. Carol services are very popular, and carol singers go from door to door, although this seems to be dying out. My family usually takes a long walk together after Christmas lunch across the muddy fields nearby our house. We always meet several other families while we are out so that is obviously a popular tradition too. I can guess why – the traditional Christmas lunch is so filling that a walk may be the only way to stop your stomach exploding! The lunch consists of roast turkey, stuffing (a mixture of suet, breadcrumbs and herbs), roast potatoes, winter vegetables (carrots, parsnips and brussell sprouts) and gravy (made from the juices which run off the cooking turkey); followed by a dessert of Christmas pudding (a rich fruit cake soaked in brandy) with brandy-butter. Unsurprisingly people usually put on a few kilogrammes over the Christmas holidays, and the New Year comes just in time to make a resolution to lose weight.

It's amazing how quickly I have got back into the rhythm of my old life in England. After sleeping a few nights in my old room at my parents' house it feels almost as if I never left. Still, the meetings with my friends and family are tinged with sadness as I know I haven't got long to spend with them. It's strange – while I was in Korea I didn't miss them that much, but now I am with them it is heart-wrenching to have to leave again. Maybe if I stayed in England long enough I might start to develop cravings for kimchi, but for now I wish I could stay just a little longer.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

The Joy of Tea (January '10 Webzine Blog)

One forgotten joy I reconnected with on my recent trip to England is the traditional English tea break. The tradition dates back over three hundred years, to when tea was first introduced to England from India (via Portugal), at the end of the 17th century. The drink became increasingly popular under Queen Victoria, when England controlled the majority of the tea trade, and afternoon tea developed into an elaborate ceremony amongst the upper classes. These days Britain has the second highest tea consumption per person in the world (Turkey is first).

Although afternoon tea can be an elaborate ceremony, the every-day tea break is usually a simple affair – a 15 to 30 minute rest for a cup of tea and maybe a couple of biscuits or some cake, before going back to work. As well as giving your body and mind some time to recover from the day's toil, the tea break is also a social occasion, often taken together with colleagues or friends. I had been in Korea a few months when I started to notice I wasn't drinking as much tea as I used to (in England I averaged about 4 cups a day, and I had taken a large stash of teabags with me to Korea). Drinking tea just wasn't as refreshing as it used to be. I cast around for the answer – was it the milk, or was the water different in Korea? I eventually decided it was the social aspect of the tea break I was missing, in Korea I simply didn't have a regular group of friends to take it with me (sadly, while my wife picked up a few English habits from her time in England, tea-drinking isn't one of them). To make up for this I tried joining in with a few colleagues in their post-lunch coffee, but the effect just wasn't the same – within 5 minutes we had gone to the instant coffee machine, drank the coffee, and were back at work – hardly a break at all!

This story of the loss of my tea-breaks may sound light-hearted, but I have decided it is very serious indeed. My trip to England over Christmas gave me some time to reflect on the last year, and I realised that too many times I had been stressed and exhausted by the multiple responsibilities of work and home. Not that there was too much to do – I was busy, but not impossibly so – rather that having to hold on to many different tasks had tied my mind in tighter and tighter knots. I usually consider myself to be quite a relaxed and easy-going person so I was quite puzzled as to the cause of these new stresses. I am now sure that they were down to the lack of tea breaks – which meant I had no time to clear my mind of one task before starting the next. Rather as a cup which is reused repeatedly without cleaning, my mind became stained and mucky.

Luckily, while in England I rediscovered the tea-break as the perfect way to clean my mind. So, since January is the time for new year's resolutions (which usually last until about February), this year I resolved to restart my old habit and give myself at least a couple of tea breaks a day. In fact, maybe it's time for me to have one now...

Saturday, 29 November 2008

How to get married -- in ten easy steps

1. Find a girl(/boy)

I met Jin just over three years ago in October 2005, at a Warwick University Buddhist Society meditation session. My first impression was that she was a caring and friendly person -- in the chats we had before the meditation started I felt real warmth and interest in her conversation, rather than the polite non-commital offerings which I often engaged in with newcomers to the sessions. I found out later that she was also impressed by my friendliness, and also because I had a sexy back, which I guess I should be grateful for.

Jin soon became a regular, and while she inexplicably declined to join in with our famous 'meditation-on-ice' Buddhist Society ice-skating socials, she did invite some of us round to dinner at her house and occasionally joined us for outings to local restaurants, and slowly we got to know each other a little better.

Eight months later, in May 2006, a coincidence of an unfortunate biking accident for Jin and the purchase of my very first car just two weeks earlier provided the necessary spark to start a chain reaction leading to an unexpected and much more intimate relationship (I drove her to the hospital).

2. Meet the Parents

I introduced Jin to my parents the following December. Jin was very nervous (such a meeting is a big thing in Korea), but was slightly relaxed by the presence of my uncle at the house, whose loud jokes distracted some attention away from her. After lunch I was chatting to my brother when suddenly I realised Jin had disappeared. I went to look for her and was shocked to find her with my mum in the living room -- going through my baby photo album! (Apparently my mum had no idea this might be embarrasing.) Actually mum was doing a very good job of helping Jin feel welcome. At one point she offered Jin one of her geometrical wooden puzzles to have a go at -- Jin interpreted this as a test of intelligence she had to pass before she was admitted into the family. (Fortunately she completed the puzzle very quickly.)

My meeting with Jin's parents was a much more protracted affair. When they visited England in March 2007 I drove them with Jin to see the Forest Hermitage (Buddhist Temple), where I was staying at the time. Jin introduced me strictly as 'a friend', although later that day, when they were back at home and I was back at the Hermitage she decided to tell her mum the truth. Fortunately Jin's parents accepted me as her foriegn boyfriend ('anything is better than nothing'). The next time I saw them was when we arrived in Korea that September -- you can read all about that encounter on my first ever blog post...

3. Get some motivation

Jin's parents were keen for us to get married as soon as we arrived in Korea, although strangely the pressure decreased with time, perhaps because they realised I wasn't in a rush to leave. Soon after I started looking for work it became apparent that marriage also provided several practical benifits to international couples -- simplifications to visa and work permit regulations primary among them. After living together for a couple of years Jin and I both came to the conclusion that we could live together happily, and that living apart was likely to be worse. Finally we were getting older, marriage had started to become a not-so-uncommon phenomenon between our friends and colleagues, and if everyone else is doing it...

4. Do the paperwork

We legally tied the knot on the 12th of August. This involved a bit of running around between the British Embassy and the Seoul City Council office, some signatures -- Jin, I and two witnesses -- and some money. Getting married in Korea costs just £5, but to get an oath from the British Embassy proving I wasn't already married and to register the marriage in England cost £200 -- it's just not fair!

The next step was to transfer my visa to resident's status. Here I was rather pleased to find that as a British Citizen I was exempt from the £25 fee. Jin had to give a statement pledging to be my guarantor during my stay in Korea. When asked how long she wanted this pledge to last for she proudly replied 'forever' -- only to be told 'The maximum is four years. How can you be so sure?'. Love and bureaucracy do not mix.

5. Find a date

For this we had a little help from Jin's mother's fortune teller. In autumn the trees in Seoul put on a spectacular show of colours lasting for about two weeks, so we hoped to have our wedding during that time (in the end we got it just right). Our spiritual advisor told us that November 8th was a particularly auspicious day for weddings, and so that was the date she chose. According to the spirits (or stars, or something...) though, Jin had no luck to get married this year, so she was surprised the wedding was happening at all! Just put it down to the Westerner's fortune -- they are apparently very difficult to read...

6. Find a venue

We decided upon a traditional Korean ceremony -- more colourful and less cliched than the 'westernised' alternative available in Korea. After this we checked out three possible locations -- the Korean Folk village, Korea House -- a venue specialising in traditional Korean performances and ceremonies, and Unhyeon-Gung -- a palace formally used by Korean royalty, now open to the public. Jin ruled out the folk village because of the presence of too many noisy kids, and according to the fortune teller getting married at the palace was bad luck because so many people had met unpleasant deaths there. That left Korea House as our choice of wedding venue. Their staff were very professional and friendly in helping us organising our ceremony, and the venue was beautiful, so we ended up very happy with our choice.

After the wedding we decided to have an evening reception at a nearby Korean tea-house. We knew the event at Korea House was going to be a big rush and we wouldn't have much time to speak to our guests, and we had very little choice in the ceremony, so a second reception for our families and close friends which we were free to design in our own style seemed like a good idea. Jin's friends and students gave us a lot of help getting the room looking lovely and welcoming guests before we arrived from the ceremony.

7. Buy the outfits

For the ceremony we needed to get some 'Hanbok', traditional Korean clothes. Jin's sister's mother-in-law happens to run a hanbok shop, so she helped us getting what we needed. Here I am modelling some below.

For the reception afterwards we went for western dress. To buy these we went to a fashion outlet on Jin's Birthday (October 19th). I offered to buy dresses for Jin's sisters too, so they accompanied us. Jin's mother also came as she wanted to buy me a new suit as a wedding gift and Jin's Aunt, whom we had met that morning, decided to come along for the ride. Shopping for clothes with women from two generations of a Korean family is a bad idea. Jin got out quite easily, finding something that both she and her mother were happy with, but Jin's younger sister had a terrible time -- everything she chose was disapproved of by her aunt or mother for reasons of style or quality, and Jin's older sister was in a bad mood from the start. Luckily though Jin and I both got what we needed, and hopefully it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience...

8. Book the honeymoon

We decided on a trip to the semi-tropical Korean island of Jeju -- a traditional destination for Korea's newly-weds. Our honeymoon was rather unusual in that we took six guests with us -- my family and friends Ant and Hema. After they had flown all the way from England to see us we didn't think it was right just to abandon them in Seoul straight after the wedding. We'll have to have a more traditional honeymoon (sans guests) a little later on.

9. Welcome the overseas guests

My family (mother, father, sister, brother) arrived in Korea two days before the wedding. We accommodated them with us in the International House of the university where I work. I felt much better after seeing them again and their presence helped to silence some of the last-minute worries I was having before the wedding (not too many in any case -- don't get the wrong idea!). On the day before the wedding we were joined by my old school friend Adam, who had taken the opportunity to book a two week holiday in neighbouring Japan, and our (already married!) friends Peter and Wendy from Warwick. The final two travelling from abroad -- Ant and Hema -- left it till the last minute and arrived on the morning of the ceremony. They struggled bravely with their jet-lag, Ant doing his bit in the wedding ceremony (see the link to pictures later) without falling over or yawning too much, and Hema making it to the evening reception before she collapsed in a corner of the tea-house (after posing for some photos). They made up for their late arrival by accompanying us on the honeymoon.

10. Tie the knot!

After sorting out all the details, on the wedding day Jin and I were able to relax (somewhat) and enjoy the festivities. The spirits did indeed smile on us and the weather was perfect, bright and warm. It was great fun getting dressed up from the ceremony and we felt like celebrities at the centre of attention of our 224 guests. After the ceremony I nearly collapsed from lack of food, but I managed to ingest a few spoons of rice-porridge and get some strength back for the reception. It was a beautiful evening and Jin and I took advantage of the more relaxed setting to give some short speeches thanking everyone who had come or given us help, and included some romantic stuff too. After we had seen everyone off Jin and I managed to head back home just before midnight, happy and married.


Three weeks later I can happily report Jin and I are still happy and married. We are gradually going through writing out thank-you letters for everyone who sent us gifts or good wishes, and starting to organise the reception we will have for our friends in the UK. There is a picture walk-through of our wedding ceremony on my picture album (linked on the right of this page), as well as some snaps from the honeymoon. In under three weeks we will be travelling to England for Christmas with my family, the above mentioned reception, and Jin's graduation. After that we may have a chance to catch our breath!

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

See my vest, see my vest; Made from real gorilla chest

Just in case I have some friends out there who haven't given up hope of me ever updating this blog, I've put up some pictures of where I'm living and working now on the album linked through the panel on the right. Happy viewing :-).

Wow, that was easy. Maybe short blog posts are the way to go!

Monday, 24 March 2008

The next ten weeks: Part I

Time to drag this blog into the present...

13th -- 30th January: Two weeks (and a bit) in Thailand. We flew back to Bangkok from Phuket in the early morning of the 13th. Ant and I were met at the airport by Pie, even though we had expressly told him that he was to take some time off from his taxi-man role and not pick us up under any circumstances. A couple of hours before our arrival Pie had been at the airport to pick up his cousin Sandy and her mother, who live in America and had come over for his wedding. Sandy was to be one of our companions for the next week of adventures. In the afternoon Ant and I went to visit Luangpor and Tahn Manapo, who had just arrived from the UK. In the evening we met Sandy and Pie drove us all to the airport (for the 3rd time that day!) to pick up our old Warwick friend Peng, who had just arrived from Beijing. I remember Ant and I were in a bit of a strange mood -- possibly excited about seeing Peng -- and I'm not sure what Sandy could have made of us. She seemed nice enough about it later though. Another thing I remember about that trip was finding a rather amusing English phrase book for sale at the airport, with useful conversations such as (at the department store) "Sales Clerk, do you have any modern pajamas" and (at the beach) "Aren't you afraid of tsunamis John?". There was also a conversation about a petrol station attendant's skilled use of the pump which verged on the pornographic...

The next day a large group of us went for a trip up to Ayutthya, kindly arranged for us by Lyn. That is well documented on my photo-album so I won't say any more about it now. In the evening Ant, Peng, Sandy and I went out to Siam square for dinner. Somebody foolishly suggested som-tam (spicy Thai salad -- I think it was Peng), a decision which I regretted later that night and the next few days. It seemed my stomach didn't like the som-tam as much as my taste-buds had and around midnight it had started to feel as though my insides where burning. As I layed down and tried to get comfortable I felt the fire inside my belly slowly realign itself with the new direction of gravity, but with no diminuation of the pain. Needless to say there followed much vomiting and other forms of evacuation as my body tried to restore some order. The fact that the next morning was Pie's wedding and the festivities started at 3am did not help matters. My most vivid memory of the wedding day aside from those in the bathroom is of trying to escape from a downstairs room of Pie's house (to where Ant and I had been evicted following Sandy and Peng's arrival), through the central hall where celebrations were in full steam, and up to the safety of the bedroom -- all in my pajamas -- without being seen by the guests. If you actually want to know what happened in the wedding I suggest you read Ant's blog, unfortunately I don't have much of an idea...

However, by around 5pm my stomach pains were getting less severe, and the next morning I was well enough to make the flight up to Ubon Ratchathani in north east Thailand, for Ajahn Chah's memorial day. I went together with Ant, Peng and Sandy; Luangpor and Tahn Manapo had taken a flight the night before. We met Luangpor at his base at Wat Pah Nanachat before going to Wat Nong Pah Pong in the afternoon to join in the festival. There were an incredible number of people there -- thousands and thousands crammed into the temple grounds. It was a stunning sight, although I must admit I found the quieter tour of the temple I had a few days later more inspiring. I was still recovering from my illness the day before and was very easily tired, which might have had something to do with it.

In the next few days in Ubon we were given a guided tour of the area by Luangpor. On the 17th we went to Kao Phra Wihan on the border with Cambodia and Loas (actually just inside Cambodia, although separated from the rest of that country by a 200m cliff). On the 18th we visited Wat Keun, and on 19th Ant and I met up with Peter - one of Luangpor's supporters who lives in the area - and together we went to visit Ajahn Dang, one of Luangpor's old friends. Again, there are lots of photos of all this on Picasa. On the evening of the 18th the girls had flown back to Bangkok. Peng was heading to China on 20th so we were not to see here again :-(, Sandy was going for a few days in ChangMai. Ant and I went back to Bangkok on 20th.

Once back in Bangkok Ant embarked on the difficult task of seeing all the friends he has there before going back to England. Thus those few days were dominated by lunches, dinners and hectic rides through the centre of Bangkok between them. Ant flew back to the UK in the early morning of the 24th, less than 48 hours before his PhD viva (which he passed without correction, despite having not looked at his thesis for a second while in Thailand (what a scumbag)).

After Ant had left I had a few more relaxed days of not doing very much. The certification number I needed for my Korean visa had finally come through on 23rd, so I had a couple of visits to the Korean Embassy to apply for and pick up the visa. It turned out to be a very easy process -- I applied on Friday afternoon and received the visa on Monday morning. I did have a bit of a nasty scare when the official told me first of all that I had to return to England before I could apply for the visa... but I asked her to double-check and thankfully it turned out to be a mistake (based on new regulations brought in during December but which turned out only to apply to E2 type visas not the E3 type I was applying for, to give you an idea of how complicated the system is). In between embassy trips, at the weekend I went shopping for souvenirs, gifts and delicious dried mango in and around Jatujak market. On Sunday evening Luangpor and Tahn Manapo were heading back to England, and so I went with Pie to the airport to see them off.

Thus armed with visa, gifts and dried mango I was properly prepared for my return journey to South Korea. On my last day in Thailand I had the chance to meet up with Lyn and Noon one last time, and at 3am the next morning I said goodbye to Pie and Nun as they saw me off to the airport. By 6pm on 30th of January I was being greeted by Jin and her mother at Incheon Airport in Korea, and in a flash my five-weeks of travel around south-east Asia were over. Looking back on it now I'm very happy with how it all went. I was very lucky to see so many old Warwick friends (and some new ones) in such a short time, and with the help of Ant's fascism I certainly crammed a lot into those five weeks. A big thanks to all of my friends who helped give me somewhere to stay, guided tours, local information and above all good company. By the last week in Thailand I was looking forward to returning to Korea, reuniting with Jin, and starting my new work -- so I think five weeks was just the right length of time too. I hope I will have the chance to do it all again sometime, this time taking Jin with me!

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Fishy business in Krabi town

Right then. What day is it now? Ah yes, February 16th... My last post concerned events on January 4-9th, so the blog looks in danger of being consigned to history unless I do something. Hence, with courage and determination -- and in spite of the fact it's -2 outside, I can't get the heating to work, and I have a cold -- I have turned on the computer, put on a Mozart symphony to lubricate my thoughts, and began...

Much has happened since I returned to Korea just over two weeks ago, but I guess it's best to keep things in cronological order, so it's back to Thailand and the resort of Krabi on 10th January for some more holiday memories.

When we arrived in Krabi I quickly started noticing some of the techniques Ant uses to get around in Thailand. These can best be explained in a number of rules:
  1. If any commercial service (shop, restaurant, bus, etc.) only has farang as it's customers then it should be avoided.
  2. Conversely, if there are lots of Thais taking part in something then you know it's good.
  3. The first information you are told when enquiring about the cost/availability of a service is almost always negotiable, or just plain wrong -- especially if you ask in English.
  4. When you need to ask for directions or advice, girls are generally more knowledgable than guys, and the prettier the girl is the more she will know.

These are best understood by a story. When we arrived in Krabi we made our way to Ao Nang beach, a hotbed of western tourists and guesthouses. The local guidebook informed us that even basic accommodation started from 1200 Baht (20 pounds) and up -- rather more than we were hoping to pay. On the first day, when we had finished our lunch at a beachside restaurant, Ant asked the waitress (who was pretty of course - rule (4)) where she thought would be a good place to stay. She advised we visit the 'Sea-View guesthouse' a short walk up the road, where she said there were rooms for around only 500 Baht (see rule (3)). Once we arrived there we were told at first that rooms were 1500B with aircon, 1200B without ((3) again). At this point Ant lapsed into Thai and told the receptionist what 'their friends' from the local restaurant had told us. After some conversation suddenly from nowhere a young girl appeared and beckoned us to follow her to the next street, where we were introduced another resort manager (who had some connection with Sea View which I never understood). She then led us around the back of the guesthouses and cafes, where the alleyway suddenly opened into a large, mostly unused plot of land. In the far corner there stood a few wooden bungalows under the shade of some large trees. We were told we could indeed use one for 500B per night on the condition that we didn't tell the neighbouring residents, who were paying rather more. So, through Ant's 'skills' we ended up paying 500B for accommodation which, while basic, was probably more pleasant than we would have had crammed in a guesthouse for 1200B.

Another good example of rules (1) and (2) came when we took a trip to the 'Tiger Cave Temple' the next day (pictures on Picasa). At Ao Nang, Tourist taxis offered trips to the temple and back for 1200B (it seems a popular price!). Ant suggested we take the local bus instead ('bus' = pick-up truck with makeshift seats and a roof attached to the back), and we made the same journey for 240B each, even when we allowed ourselves a little luxury on the way back and negotiated with the bus driver to be taken straight back to our accommodation -- on our own private bus!

Most of our time in Krabi is well documented by the photos on picasa. One day which is not is the day we went kayaking in mangrove forests a little way along the coast (I didn't dare take Jin's parent's camera in a kayak!). It was very special and so deserves at least a little description. Mangroves are trees that grow in saline coastal habitats in the tropics and subtropics and the place we went was a wide river mouth where the freshwater mixed with the sea. The trees grow in a few feet of water between towering vertical cliffs of limestone. At high tide it is possible to kayak deep in to the mangrove forests. That day we went in a group of 8, including a guide (who was essential if we were not to get lost in the maze of narrow passageways between the mangroves). The landscape was utterly timeless. There was no sign of civilisation besides the occasional remains and cliff-paintings of a nomadic people who used to inhabit the mangroves but had disappeared over a century ago. There was no sound except the calls of the insects dwelling in the water and on the trees. The high cliffs enclosed the mangroves and lagoons into their own alien world. It was magical.

Two days later, it was an utter contrast back in Bangkok...