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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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There comes a time when every foreigner in Korea makes the pilgrimage to the DMZ: the most unlikely of tourist attractions.

At the end of the Korean War, both North and South Korea signed an armistice agreement, basically saying they would cease fighting.  Each side moved back 2 kilometers from the front line of the war, creating a 4 kilometer buffer zone between the countries. This area was quickly fortified by each side and became the Demilitarized Zone. A long strip of land which nobody can enter.

Years later, despite there still being tension between the two countries, the DMZ has become a major tourist destination. There are gift shops, restaurants. Places to take pictures.

Read More

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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!

Train arriving at Cairo's Sadat station

To visit a country is only to skim the surface.

You can never truly grasp a place in a few days. Sometimes understanding can take months, even years. When visiting a new country, the differences are something you appreciate, the differences are why you’re there, they’re part of the experience, you may even say they are the experience. Staring at the queer fruits and vegetables in a market you say, “Wow, we don’t get these back home!” It excites you. Everything excites you. The voices, the people, the food, the streets, the sky, the mountains. Everything.

Later, you leave, go back to the comfort of your own fruits and vegetables. Back to your own voices, your own people. Back home, to what you know and love. Back to comfort.

Culture shock happens when you try to change that home, even temporarily. When you try to make a transition between the new life you’ve started and the old life you’ve left behind. You can visit a country for a week and believe it’s the greatest place on earth. You can stay another week and the cracks might start to form. You can stay for a month and you’ll go crazy.

Those fruits and vegetables that were once so exciting fill you with resentment. Your mind struggles with the way things work in this new place. You don’t know the new systems. The magic has worn off. Nothing excites you. Everything around you is just a reminder of your old home, everything you are used to. You miss the way things were back. You miss your familiar life. You miss your fruits and vegetables. You’re homesick.

In the past I worked with the notion that culture shock didn’t exist when going to a country much like your own. I’ve been to America a few times. People spoke the same language, ate the same vegetables and acted in much the same way. Their culture is the same, I thought. But, I was naive.

A culture is more than what’s on the surface, a culture runs deep. Even when the language is the same, the systems are different.

Chances are you’ve never noticed there are systems at all. Everything around you has always been there, you’ve lived in a place so long that you subconsciously know how things work. You instinctively know what to do in any situation. You understand your world.

Culture shock is understanding nothing. It’s being blind in a world where everybody around you can see. Life becomes a challenge. Riding the bus becomes a scary experience. How do you pay the driver? How do you queue? How do you get off the bus? How do you stop the bus (do you put your hand out, or does it just stop?) Everyday situations, in a new country, become obstacles, something you must overcome.

When you are faced with hundreds of new challenges each day, when buying a pint of milk becomes a task which you must consciously think about, that’s when you get frustrated, and culture shock sets in. But you can learn.

Here’s a skill you probably take for granted. If you have coins in your pocket, you can look at them in your hand and within a moment you will know roughly how much money you have. It’s something you’ve learnt at one point or another, but you never think about it. It’s almost always been there. But you must learn it again. You have to learn it all again.

The easiest way to get from A to B, where to go if you need toothpaste, who to ring if your car breaks down, what brand of tea is best to drink, where to go if you break your tooth, how to haggle at the local market.

Guides can tell you where to go, maps can show you how to get there. But there is no map to use for living. The smallest details are the most important and those are the details people never mention, because they never seem noticeable. But you will learn.

Some things come quickly – learning how to cross the street, mastering the bus, finding out how much those coins are worth. Other things come slowly – learning to talk like the natives, mastering your routine, finding out how to cook with those crazy fruits and vegetables.

Eventually though, there’s nothing more to learn. Life is no longer a challenge. Every little skill you’ve mastered is pushed back into your subconscious. You can look at the money in your hand and know what you have. You can feel comfortable knowing where you are.

Home.

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Photo is “Train arriving at Cairo’s Sadat station” by modenadude. Published under the Creative Commons license.

Skydiving

My flights are booked. My visa approved. It was the easiest-tough decision of my life. In 9 weeks, 1 day and 14 hours, I will begin a journey, turning over a new page in my life.

At 25 years of age, I will move to Canada. For 8 months, maybe longer, I will move to Canada. Alone.

I have no real plan. Nowhere to stay. No job. No friends. Just a vague itinerary and the ability to put off thinking about most problems until they face me.

Yet, still, I am shitting myself.

It’s strange how our first reaction to freedom is to be scared. People are planners. We love to be comfortable with our tomorrows – we love to see around the next corner – we love to know.

A fear of the unknown is something most people share. We hate mystery, it pulls at our stomach and wont let go. If something is unknown to us, our imaginations can take over, and nothing can be more damaging than our brain on the loose. We can think up such terrible situations that could never possibly happen in real-life, yet we convince ourselves they could.

The best horror movies play on that fear – involving monsters that we never fully see, only glimpsing the features, making up the horror with our minds. When we do eventually see the monster, usually the movie stops being scary. Once you know what that great horror really is, once it can be understood, it’s no longer a threat. When we can compare the reality to what we imagine, we realise that our imagination was far scarier.

This fear of an unknown future is what stops most people from making drastic changes in their life, even when the changes will eventually be better for them.  When the future becomes a blank void, everything becomes scary. We look forward and all we can see is series of ‘what-ifs’ with no pre-determined path. Anything could go wrong. Anything could go right. We can see no reality, only the imagined. We never know what will happen. Scary.

Most people don’t take the leap. They just stay in a comfortable bubble, they know what will happen tomorrow, some know what will happen in 10 years, some have their whole lives planned til their death. There’s no problem with that, but to me there’s something boring in that inevitability.

A book is no longer fun to me when I can tell what’s going to happen. It feels like I’m just going through the motions, reading for the sake of reading. Life with a huge plan is like living for the sake of living. You already know what will happen, so why bother at all?

I’d rather live for the unknown plot-twist. But to do that I will have to conquer that fear. I will have to jump head first into the unknown, with nothing to protect me but the briefest of hopes that everything will turn out good. Knowing that the future is a blank canvas, that I can do anything with it.

Knowing that I am truly, completely free.

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Photo is titled Skydiving by Kaipullai(கைப்புள்ள)

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