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A few years ago now, not long after my birthday, I wrote a blog post that I was pretty proud of. It was entitled, “The Annual Existential Crisis (Birthday)” and was essentially how every year my birthday forces me to become introspective about my life and how I  usually don’t like the results.

In the three years since that post, I have worked 4 different jobs in 3 different countries. I have had the happiest period of my life yet really nothing about my situation has changed.

I’ve now arrived in another country and I’m looking for another job and all those horrible thoughts and feelings are swarming back to me. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been sitting around house-sitting for a few weeks and for the first time in a few years I’ve finally had a chance to sit down and think about…stuff. That’s the worst thing to think about.

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Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune and do so whenever he can with impunity, but he is also himself rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have.
– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Envy. It takes us all at some point, usually when we’re at our weakest. Whenever I’m miserable or depressed, the sin rears it’s ugly head and poisons my mind. I have envied my friends, I have envied my family. It shames me to say it, yet it’s almost impossible to stop.

When we are children we are all envious creatures. We know little of the world or our own lives, we lack true empathy and are selfish beings. We look at the other children around us and see what they have and if we don’t have it, we want it. If another child has a new toy, we too need a new toy.

As children our envy stems somewhat from perceived injustices. Why should another child have something while we have nothing? How is that fair? Children can’t rationalise that another child getting a toy has very little to do with their own circumstances.

Growing into adulthood we don’t learn much, we are still prone to envy and jealousy and struggle with our feelings, we just find between ways to hide it from others. Read More

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The main aim of all travel is to have a good experience. Something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.

When we travel we go to great lengths to produce a memorable experience for ourselves. Spend bags of money trying to create the perfect moment or memory. The ironic thing is that years later the things we remember aren’t what we originally set out to see.

A few winters ago, my girlfriend and I visited New York City. If you ask me what I remember from that time then I’d have to be truthful and say not a lot. My memories are hazy, made up of small seemingly meaningless images or moments that seem unconnected by any theme. The only connecting factor is that they happened in New York.

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Almost five months ago now, I landed in Korea and started a new stage in my life as an English teacher. Time has gone by as it usually does, impossibly moving along slowly and quickly at the same time. February seems a lifetime ago but at the same time its almost like yesterday.

Five months should be a reasonable amount of time to get even the slightest of grips on anything, but in those five months I feel like I’ve learnt only the tiniest amount about Korean culture, how Korean society works and what its actually like to be a Korean.

In my time here, I’ve found many a blog from people in exactly the same position. Many of these blogs have provided some commentary on Korea – usually going for the option of comparing the differences and similarities between Korea and America (or England). As time goes by though, I’m starting to realise that any experience I have in Korea, is not a true Korean experience, but rather an experience shaped around who I am and where I’m from. As an expat, I am not actually living within Korean society, I live outside of it, in a bubble. I am an outsider. I do not experience Korea, I experience a warped version of Korea presented to me.

I don’t live like a Korean, I don’t eat like a Korean, I don’t speak like a Korean. I am not Korean. I do not live the Korean life. So really, I can’t comment on what it’s like to truly live in Korea. Naturally, my life shares many experiences with that of a Korean person, but all of these experiences happen to me through an English lens.

Going to a new country, we often see uncanny things, because we are experiencing a new place while imposing expectations from places we are used to. Really, these things we experience aren’t strange, just different. I’ve come to understand that what I see as strange, a Korean doesn’t see as anything, they have no opinion on it at all. My experience of Korea is nowhere near the same experience as a natives, due to my reaction to this new environment being completely different.

One thing I’d like to take as an example is the strange (to me) lack of public garbage cans in Korea. If you find yourself buying, and eating a Snickers bar you’ll soon find that there is nowhere on the street to dispose of it. Public garbage cans barely exist and they’re commonly only found in civic buildings or subway stations. The lack of garbage cans is almost immediately noticeable and even more immediately annoying. I’m sure I’m not the only foreigner to fall to my knees and scream “Where’s all the garbage cans!?! ARGH!!”

Now lets look at the other perspective. When living in your home country have you ever spared half, or even quarter of a thought to public garbage cans? It’s not something you would ever think about. How many times have you used a garbage can without conscious thinking? Be honest. You don’t think about throwing away garbage, you just do it, its part of life. You never feel any opinion towards it, because its so ingrained into your routine as to be invisible, subconscious, you never think about.

It’s part of a routine, the garbage routine – you eat your food, you realise you have some garbage to get rid of, you find a nearby garbage can, then you throw away your trash. Once that routine is broken though – as it is in a foreign country – that’s when the whole activity of getting rid of your garbage becomes a conscious thing.

The routine for a Korean person is different, when they eat a Snickers in public they don’t immediately start to seek out a garbage can. They put the wrapper into their pocket and wait. Go on with life as normal. A garbage can will come eventually. As an English person though, this will not do. I am so used to the idea – the routine – of a garbage can being immediately accessible that when it isn’t I can’t snap out of that routine which quickly leads to anxiety or rage.

Essentially, what I’m talking about, as I have done a few times on my blog, is culture shock. This time about the disconnect between the routines I am used to in the West – that are subconscious – and the routines I now face in Korea – which I have to consciously think about. This disconnect becomes tiring as you need to think about every little thing which before wasn’t worth thinking about. Garbage. Taking a taxi. Shopping. Paying bills.

All of these things that were once ingrained in me, I have to learn again, and because these things are now more noticeable, they are the things that shape my opinion of Korea. If you ask me “what is Korea like?” my first thought will be “there is a complete lack of garbage cans” and really this shows I’ve learnt nothing about the actual country and that all I can make are comparisons to England which seems to only scratch the surface.

Eventually, I’m sure I’ll become completely immersed into Korean culture, I’ll no longer think about where to find a garbage can, I’ll just think much in the same way as a Korean person would, by not thinking at all. I will have learnt all of the routines. Day to day living will no longer be an issue.

So really, if you wonder “What’s it like to live in Korea?” you already know the answer. It’s the same way as living anywhere else.You know all the rules. You know all the routines. It’s comfortable. 

Note: I wrote this post 6 months or so ago and its been sitting in my drafts folder since then. My WordPress end of year report revealed that in 2013 I only published 3 blog posts. It was quite a surprise to me and slightly disappointing. I’ve grown to fear clicking publish, so I’m going to try to go through my drafts and publish a few.

The greatest upside to being English is that no matter where you go in the world, everybody knows the word “toilet”. Whether you find yourself in a large, sprawling city in the heat of Dubai or a remote, deserted village in the cold of Siberia. All you must do to seek relief is utter that magic word and find yourself whisked away to the nearest hole in the ground, porcelain potty or – if you’re lucky – heated Japanese seat.

At its peak the British Empire spread almost entirely over the four corners of the Earth, its language traveling to far away islands via its fearless Navy and to tribes deep in the jungle with its even more fearless explorers. While the British Empire later receded, its words and culture stayed behind and today, all around the world people speak, read and write English. That’s the upside.

The greatest downside to being English is that no matter where you go in the world, nobody knows the word “spelk”. Whether you find yourself in the middle of a large, sprawling bookstore in London or a remote, deserted pub in New York, the people look at you with a strange look and ask “what’s a spelk?”

A “spelk” for those not in the know, is the Geordie word for a splinter. A Geordie – for those who find themselves increasingly not being in the know – is a person born and bred in Newcastle Upon Tyne, a large city in North East England.

Whenever I meet a fellow Englishman abroad a question usually arrives quickly and predictably enough “Where abouts in England are you from?” Once answered the next comment is even more predictable. “You don’t sound like you’re from Newcastle.” England is a melting pot of accents and dialects. By simply traveling 20 miles you can find yourself in a place with a completely new set of words and speech. Some cities are well known around the country for their accents. Birmingham has the brummy accent, east London the cockney and one of the most famous of all is the Geordie.

Other Englishmen gasp in disbelief when they learn I’m a Geordie. My accent doesn’t meet their expectations of what a Geordie should sound like. Imagine you’re talking to a French person. Ow do zay zound? Do zay zound like zis? Probably. Our expectations of people from other places are based on stereotypes and when expectations aren’t met people often won’t reappraise their thoughts and disbelieve those stereotypes, but instead look for loopholes. In my case the loophole being “You’re not a proper Geordie…”

Sadly I’ve even heard this from other Geordies who seem to believe in their own stereotype. These are the people that if they were French would walk around wearing a beret and a string of garlic around their neck, pointing at those that don’t follow suit while snarling “Zoo iz not French.”

Upon arriving in Canada and meeting foreign English speakers people would hear my accent and quickly guess where I was from. Scotland, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Germany (?!). Rarely do people guess England. In England, people base their expectations on regional stereotypes. Abroad, people base their expectations on national stereotypes. I’m of the opinion that every foreigner expects an Englishman to sound like Hugh Grant or Keira Knightley. Upon learning I’m English, foreigners are usually shocked and there’s no way for them to argue with it, they can hardly say “You’re not a proper Englishman”. The truth of the matter is that we Englishmen come in so many varieties that there is no proper version of us, just the one version we have chosen to export to the world, the version that is the easiest to understand and makes the most sense. Because most English accents make little sense, even to other people in England!

In Canada even the most well traveled of people would find my accent hard to handle due to their being unaccustomed to the variety of British accents. After moving into a new house, my housemate had a few torturous weeks of asking me to repeat everything two or three times until suddenly it clicked and he could understand me. I was speaking English, just not an English he was used to.

When we listen, we don’t listen at all, we just sit back with our brain asleep and we lazily read between the lines based on the context of the conversation. “Would you like a cup of tea?” is simply shortened down by the brain into “Tea?”(Fuck, maybe I am a stereotypical Englishman after all…) “Would you like milk with that?” turns to “Milk?” The brain knows the context so only needs to listen for the important content. The main issue comes when either the context changes quickly or the content needs more focus to understand.

Have you ever been having a conversation with somebody and they’ve said something and you instantly say “Sorry?” But by the time they’ve started to repeat themselves you’ve already figured out what they’ve said? Your brain wasn’t focusing the first time it heard the words and since you weren’t really focusing on the conversation (not really thinking deeply about the topic) you’ve automatically continued the dialogue with a “what?” By the time that word has left your lips a red flag has gone up in your brain saying “ERROR – Didn’t hear” and your brain repeats the words in your head, listening to them carefully the second time and figuring out what has actually been said. A type of instant replay in the brain.

When we speak we build rapport with others, we talk at their volume, at their speed, we almost share the same emotions. Rapport is a key way for the brain to know how to listen (or not listen), it knows how the sound will come so it doesn’t need to focus on those things. This isn’t only shared between two people, but also in groups. We subconsciously build rapport to make communication easier. Ever been in a loud room where everybody is talking loudly having a variety of conversations, then all of a sudden every conversation has gone silent at the exact same moment. That’s a room full of rapport.

But when meeting a person with a strange new accent it can be nigh on impossible to build rapport. The brain wants to be lazy, trying again to work out what is said through context, but without focus the words aren’t words but simply sounds, and those sounds go in one ear and out of the other. It’s a problem I’ve encountered constantly while traveling in Canada and America. Often when a person doesn’t understand what I’m saying they will just smile and nod, we’ve all done it, after all its impolite to ask somebody to constantly repeat themselves.

And so I can find myself in a country where everybody is fluent in English but I am unable to communicate in English. I do everything I can to combat confusion. Speak slowly, try not to use slang, keep it simple. Unfortunately this also takes focus and I can often find myself falling back into my quick, mumbled Geordie accent. Often this can lead to misunderstandings if somebody mishears me. The incorrect order at a cafe or a completely different answer to the question I asked. Sometimes these possible misunderstandings fill me with anxiety, making me fear somebody has heard me say one thing when I’ve said the opposite.

In Vancouver you get on the bus at the front, then get off at the back – this helps to keep the passengers flowing at every stop. Since Canadians are so polite (stereotype?) they will often call a thank you from the back of the bus when they exit. This presents a problem for me. For a start, I’ve never learnt how to pronounced words with a “th” instead opting for “fff”. As an example I say “happy birfday”. Now the problem occurs when calling “Thank you” it becomes “Fank you.” Shout it out loud.

To the untrained ear it could very easily sound like “Fuck you!” Bus drivers across Vancouver would no doubt start to talk about the strange passenger that swears whenever he leaves the bus. I was so mortified about this possible misunderstanding that I decided to not bother with thanks at all, until I came up with a solution. Instead of saying “fanks”, I would say “hanks”. It was genius. The word “hanks” could only ever be mistaken for “thanks” and little else. If anything bus drivers would simply take pity on the young man with the speech impediment. Bless him and his “hanks”.

Now I find myself in Thailand where English is barely understood, but understood enough to be bearable. Problems only arise when you’re met with a situation that is more complex than simply pointing at a food menu. I recently found myself ordering a meal from a street food vendor and as the cook was making it another tourist came along “That looks good.” He pointed at the food “Same same!” I took a seat and watched as moments later the tourist walked away with my meal.

In this situation there was no way for me to find out what was going on. Was my meal coming later? Did the cook think the tourist was me and that was the only meal that was going to get made? How would I communicate all of this? Well I tell you what I did, the next time the waiter passed I tapped him on the shoulder and simply shouted the name of the meal at him, pointed at the cook, pointed at my table. “Pad Thai! Pad Thai! Pad Thai!” I hoped he somehow understood and realised he didn’t when a few minutes later a completely different meal arrived. Only now in retrospect do I realise the absurdity of the situation. How would the waiter have felt in an English restaurant if I had tapped him on the shoulder and shouted randomly over and over. “Beef burger! Beef burger! Beef burger!”

So it seems that the only place in the world I can ever fully be understood is in Newcastle. Where people know what the word “spelk” means and where I can happily stop listening and barely focus on conversations. With this in mind then, it makes no sense why I’ve decided to travel to South Korea to teach English to children. Good luck to those children. Even when you’re raised in England nobody can understand you!

The leaves started to change colour, the trees looking sad and tired after the long warm Summer. The air was growing cooler and the last rays of sunshine were touching the ground. Autumn was teasing its way into the air and we made a decision. One last adventure to celebrate the Summer and regret the oncoming Winter.

We awoke early, packed our bags, strapped our canoe to the van and by lunch time we were on the water, paddling slowly towards a campsite too far away to think about. Other things were on our minds.

After months of tough, uphill jaunts in dark woods, this was the outing I needed. I had become bored with the beauty around me. No longer amazed by the jagged mountain peaks towering above or the islands hazy in the afternoon sun below. Once you see those mountains every day, you just stop looking, you take them for granted. When beauty surrounds you it ceases to surprise you, you get bored – you even start to get a little sick.

I stopped taking photos and started complaining. My argument: every photo I take looks the same. People back home probably think I go on the same damn hike every week. Maybe I do but I just don’t know it? A photo of a mountain. A photo of water. A photo of trees. Mountains, water, trees. Endless trees. As far as the eye can see. Trees. All I ever look at is water, mountains and trees. What I wouldn’t give for a flat desert. No water, mountains or trees. Just nothing but the sand blowing in the wind. Something different, please.

Plunging my paddle into the water lazily, I looked around. Water, mountains, trees. I took a deep breath, feeling the cool fresh air flowing into me. Then I smiled and broke the silence “Man, this is pretty beautiful, isn’t it?” Murmurs of agreement. The water smooth as silk, the mountains sharp as broken glass, the trees tall as giants. All disappearing endlessly into the distance, seemingly infinite. How could this not be beautiful? Sure, I see it every day, but this was different. Moving along the water, actually being in the water was something new, something more natural.

Often while hiking I’m forced to consider my own impact on the environment and the downward spiral hikers often bring to the great outdoors. When we find a place of natural beauty the wheels seem to go into motion immediately. Suddenly we start milking the beauty for all its worth. We find these magical places and we’re so proud to have found them that we shout as loud as possible for others to join us. More people arrive, too many people and to preserve the beauty we build a trail, a line of dirt scraped into the trees. The trail encourages more to arrive, they bring their children, their dogs, their cars and their rubbish. Rich men see the beauty and build houses, poor men want to become rich men so build shops instead. The trail turns into a road, the road into a highway. The trail in the trees is ever expanding, the beauty always shrinking. Eventually development overtakes preservation and little of the old beauty remains. People only come now because other people are there.

It’s hard to see myself as anything other than one of those people sometimes. Part of the problem. But only the smallest part. Yet still a part. And really what can be done about it? Maybe the best solution for preserving natural beauty is to simply ignore it. The most beautiful of trees is a tree that nobody has seen. Once somebody sets eyes on it, realises the beauty in front of them, then the wheels are in motion. The tree is no longer a tree, it is a place. As soon as something becomes a place, it becomes something you can visit and then something that can be spoilt. Maybe it’s better to stay at home, ignore the beauty out there and take solace in the fact that at least it exists, unspoiled by human hands, somewhere, although you’ll never see it. Seeking it spoils it.

With canoeing such feelings are muted. Gliding silently through the water. Not moving along a path created for you, but along channels carved out over thousands of years by wind and water. The feeling is a natural one, built upon history and tradition. You’re not spoiling the world, but working with it together. With each breath the current takes you along, and you feel connected to that water, those mountains, the trees.

As the sun quickly fell in the late afternoon, and the air grew from cool to cold, we moored our boat and set up camp. The land around us silent aside from the rustle of some small animal in the trees. Sipping a warm tea, I wondered how I could ever have taken the beauty around me for granted. I did not make a pledge, or a promise. I merely decided I would try my best to prevent it happening again.

In my dreams I am whole, I am complete, and I run.

I run down unknown streets, feeling the cobbles on my feet. Feeling every touch of glorious pressure as my toes hit the ground. Feeling alive, feeling happy, feeling free.

But even in my dreams, I can’t forget. It sits in the back of my mind – waiting for that perfect moment to strike. Waiting -

(To hit?)

Running down those streets. Those silent, empty streets. Passing by the same grey houses, like a washed out cartoon background, always repeating. No people, no cats, no cars,

(No cars?)

no destination. Nothing. Just me.

And I run.

I run forever. Barely needing to breath, heart barely beating. I run. On and on, I run.

And although I am dreaming. Although part of me knows it’s not real – I taste the cool air as it rushes into me. Feeling alive, feeling happy, feeling free.

(Alive? Happy? Free?)

But even in dreams, I can’t forget. It claws inside my memory, like a lost word on the tip of my tongue – waiting for that perfect moment to strike. Waiting.

(To hit?!)

Running down those streets, those endless blurry streets, fading off long into the distance, no corners to break the flow, no stumbles to stop my movement. Nothing. Just me, the air, my legs,

(My legs?)

my freedom. No sweat on my brow, no tears in my eyes, no pain.

Alive. Happy. Free.

Never forgetting, trying to forget. Haunted, hunted.

Running. The joy within me building slowly, a stir in the stomach. Flowing through my body. Along my arms, up my throat into my head, down my legs

(My legs?!)

into my feet. I feel so alive, so happy, so free.

And just when it feels that joy will overtake me, when it all seems to finally be forgotten, when I almost, finally, thankfully, lose myself. I look up. I see it. Unexpected but at the same time so utterly obvious – the turn in the street.

Immediately the joy escapes me, the stir in my stomach turned to dread. I sense the power around the corner. Always there, always in my dreams.

Every part of me begs that I stop. Now I sweat, now I cry, now I feel the pain. I try to turn, try to escape. But still I run, as I did, as I always will. As it waits for me.

It growls. A pneumatic drill forced into my brain. The sound of a beast.

My eyes wont close, locked open. My legs wont stop, they drag me forward.

Turning the corner – I only have a brief moment to glimpse.

In that moment, if I’m lucky – I awake. My heart racing in sweat covered sheets. That slight glimpse stamped onto the back of my mind. Two giant, dead white eyes in the darkness, bearing down on me, coming to get me, coming to hit me.

Too often I’m not lucky – I continue to dream.

Those eyes. Rushing toward me, pouncing upon me. My heart explodes in my chest, but I am stuck. Paralysed by fear.

I know it will get me, I know it will take me. I know it will hit me.

(Hit me?)

Then it does.

The world is silent but for the snap of my bones. My body is smashed to the ground like a porcelain figurine.

My legs explode beneath me, no longer legs but a mass of pink flesh and rags.

The Beast’s growl disappears into the distance and soon enough is gone. I am left, on the ground, my body broken, a heap of blood and bone.  My legs battered and bloodied, no longer legs but snapped twigs.

I cry. Tears fall down my cheeks. I beg. Nobody helps, nobody hears.

I am alone. In the street. In my dreams. Dying. Slowly fading. Never again to fly down those streets. Never again to enjoy my dreams.

(my dreams?)

Finally I fade back to reality, lying on my bed,  no longer on the road, tears on my cheeks.

I can’t bring myself to look. I have not forgotten. I can never forget. Even in my dreams.

Where for a moment, I feel alive. Happy. Free.

_________________________

Illustration by Agnieszka Wielgorecka of Abnormal Newspaper

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