Leaving Bangkok

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On its surface Bangkok is a city that is defined by its roads and food. In Bangkok it is either rush hour or rushier hour, either breakfast time, lunch time, dinner time or supper time.

Everywhere you go food exists, in restaurants, bars, malls. The city is paved with food stalls. Eating is so intertwined with life that it’s hard to tell when one meal ends and the next begins. Life is like one long feast to Thais, all they seem to do is smile and eat. Smile and eat. And take taxis.

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Santa Teacher

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Christmas was approaching. Excitement building. At first the children spoke in hushed whispers, but as the day came closer their voices grew louder. Eventually they were shouting in hysterics “Santa is coming! Santa is coming!”

I wrote about lying to children in my last post. Well the biggest lie of all is Santa. And as Christmas approached it was my biggest problem.

Pity. That’s what I feel for any white male who works in a Korean hagwon at Christmas. Why? Because there’s a very definite possibility that you will find yourself tasked with being Santa. In a school filled with Korean women, the white guy becomes Santa by default.

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Daniel Teacher’s House on the Moon

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The best thing about working with kids is that they’ll believe anything you say. To children, anybody over 5 years older than them is an adult. Somebody to be trusted. Somebody who tells no lies.

I love a good lie. Something I can really sink my teeth into. Literally. The first time I lied to the children, I said I’d eaten another child.

One student had left the school to go to America. I explained that he wasn’t in America, he was in my belly. I’d eaten him.

At this point in the lie, the reaction is different based on the child. Some automatically believe it to be true. Some want more details (“What part of him did you eat first?”) Some shout out loud that I’m a liar. Then they say that they’re going to call the police and I’m going to go to prison for lying. Everybody laughs aloud.

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The Art of Bullshit

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Once a month, I look at the school calendar and sigh with annoyance. It can mean only one thing. The monthly kindergarten reports are due.

Each month, I hopelessly search my brain for something to say about how my students are doing. Rarely do I find something satisfactory to say. Instead, I bullshit.

Back when I was a young boy, I got a school report every six months, I never got a report when I was in pre-school though. Possibly because my parents wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Probably because the people at the pre-school realised there’s very little you can write about a child so young.
 
Still, each month I struggle through my reports for kids aged between 3 and 7. Writing a school report for a 4 year old is hard. Writing a different one every month is impossible. What can you actually say about a child that is so young he could probably still be breastfed?
 
The challenge of writing my reports is intensified due to my working for a private school. Parents spend their hard earned money to send their kids to my school, meaning the parents and children have to be kept happy. My reports can’t be negative. Or honest. Heaven forbid I say something bad about somebody’s little angel. If Mother gets a negative report, she’ll be unhappy. Maybe she’ll send her son or daughter to another school. We’ll lose money.
 
Better to have Mother living in blissful ignorance. She can believe her child is a perfect student who comes into every lesson with passion and enthusiam. We don’t have to lie, just bend the truth. That way we’ll be able to take her money each month. The reality of her child will never reach her. Her daughter spends every lesson picking her nose and eating the treasures she finds. There are parrots with a better grasp of English.

After all this time, I’ve started to perfect the art of bullshitting. The key is to be believable. Otherwise Mother might get suspicious. If I have a child who constantly throws temper tantrums, screaming and shouting to get what they want. I don’t write “Your daughter is a little shit and she’s scaring the other children with her constant noise.” I instead write “Your daughter has a lot of energy which she is using in class.” Sure, she’s using that energy to argue with the other children and throw chairs at me…but she is technically doing it in the classroom, so it’s believable bullshit.
 
If a child is lazy, they suddenly become “comfortable in the classroom”, if a child spends the entire lesson shouting rude words at me in Korean he “enjoys speaking activities”, if a boy can’t concentrate he becomes “imaginative”, if a girl draws all over the desk she’s “creative”. Whatever the situation, there’s some bullshit I can use to spin it. If a child pulled down his pants in class and pissed all over the desk, I’d probably just write that he really feels at home in the classroom.

I’m sure a lot of mothers read this bullshit and believe it. Nobody wants to believe their child is a monster. The truth is a horrible pill to swallow sometimes. We’d all much rather be told we’re an “energetic people person” than a “crazy psychopath”. Parents can easily become deluded about their children. “My child would never come into your classroom and fart in your face! My daughter is an angel who does nothing wrong.” It’s best to just let them keep believing it.

At the same time, no mother wants to believe their child is devoid of personality either – despite the fact that most young children are. You can’t exactly have a deep conversation with a person that can’t understand that 1 plus 1 equals 2. Yet every parent believes their child is special and gifted, so as to not disappoint, I must pretend they are.

“Since last month, Ben has managed to learn the entire alphabet, as well as the words for some colors. Afterwards he also learnt the theory of relativity and independently solved the problem of global warming. He tells me he’s working on a cure for cancer now which should be finished by next month.”

In reality I should be writing:

“Since last month, Ben has learnt absolutely nothing. Every time I ask him to sit down he crawls under the desk and laughs in my face. I tried to teach him the alphabet, but he decided he’d much rather take a box of Lego and pour it over the ground. One positive is we managed to make it through one full day this month where he didn’t poop in his pants!”

Really, I am confused as to why a child that still uses nappies has to have a report card. A report card is used to report on the progress of a child’s mind. How their intellect is progressing. Kind of ridiculous when a lot of my children are so young that they are closer to being vegetables than they are adult human beings!
 
The downside to my bullshit is that those children that do need improvement inevitably don’t get it because the school and parents would rather live a bubble of ignorance. Even worse, criticism may hurt the child or mother which would only hurt the schools profits as the parents would take their child to a “better” hagwon: a hagwon that is better at lying.
 
The expectations from parents are completely unrealistic. But over time I’ve started to fall in line with them. At first, I was of the opinion that my school was asking too much of the students. Expecting 5 year olds to memorise long passages of English, read long books and generally be advanced speakers of English. It all seemed too much. Now I get pissed if a 4 year old can’t sit still for 10 minutes to read a text book. Really, a child of that age should be praised for doing pretty much anything. “Hey, you scribbled on a piece of paper?! I’m putting that on the fridge!” Instead the kids are pressurised to the point of exhaustion.

So maybe in a way, my bullshit isn’t just for the mothers, it’s for the kids as well. It gives them a little break. Those kids that spend all day drawing all over their books, ignoring me, learning nothing. Well…good for them. Isn’t that what they should be doing when they’re kids anyway?

By giving them a good report, I allow them to be little kids for longer, rather than bringing the pressure to be perfect onto their shoulders straight away.

Sometimes it’s good to bullshit.

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 Photo by Jeffrey James Pacres

Pooping in Korea

Until I started to work with kids, I never realised how seriously I could take pooping. Sure, I used to keep a mental list of all the cleanest public bathrooms in Newcastle, just incase the need arose. And of course, I always made sure to go to the bathroom before seeing a movie, even if I didn’t feel the need. But going to the toilet was never an obsession that would be on my mind all day, every day.

I’m positive I’m not the only person in the world that enjoys using the toilet. It’s the perfect escape. A place that’s always quiet, where you can sit back and relax with a good book. You can take your time, forget all of life’s problems and just bask in the moment. Sometimes you can literally feel a weight being lifted from you. Best of all, the bathroom is a private place, where nobody can disturb you, where you can be alone with your own thoughts and feelings.

Until you get a job in a kindergarten.

When I was first given the tour of my kindergarten, the one thing to immediately jump out at me was the bathroom. It’s a tiny box room, with two cubicles, two urinals and not much space between them. One cubicle is so small that even our 4 year olds can peep over the door and look into it. That’s no problem though, it’s for children. It’s not an issue to them because they’re not old enough to appreciate privacy.

The second cubicle is adult sized. Four solid wooden walls with no room to peek over or under. There’s a nice, high wooden door with a lock. That’s important. I always hate going to a person’s house and finding out their bathroom has no lock. How can anybody live like this? I always wonder. You’re living in fear! Any time you’re in the bathroom somebody could walk in at any moment. That’s hardly a relaxing notion.

Fortunately my kindergarten’s cubicle has a lock. Unfortunately the bathroom itself doesn’t have a door. Upon first seeing this my mind couldn’t comprehend it. WHAT THE HELL?! WHAT TYPE OF BATHROOM HAS NO DOOR! Sure, the cubicle has a door, but the bathroom itself?! Hell no. In some places this may not be a problem…but in a Korean kindergarten it’s the biggest problem in the world.

You see Korea is almost 90% covered in mountains, meaning space is at a premium. Buildings use up every inch they can and the result is that my school is composed of lots of little rooms all clustered closely together. The bathroom doorway sits directly opposite a classroom doorway. This leads to an obvious anxiety – when you’re in the bathroom you get the impression everybody in the school can hear you. Gone are the days where I could go to the bathroom and enjoy listening to every little toot and splot. Over many months I’ve tried to develop techniques for a silent poop to no avail. No matter what I try a ninja poop is impossible. Even getting to the poop stage is hard sometimes.

I’ve spent the last year in psychological warfare with my children. The battleground is the bathroom. I’ll wait for a quiet moment during the day when the children are in their classrooms (snack time, just after lunch when the children are playing – each quiet moment of the day is memorised in my mind) and it’s then that the game begins.

I cannot simply walk into the bathroom. First I have to do a stakeout, ensure no children are in there. I slide by the door (or the lack of door) and if the bathroom isn’t empty, I walk by, pretend to be going elsewhere. Most often, I’ll look in to see a child at the urinal who I’ll make awkward eye contact with. Often they’ll wave and call “HELLO, DANIEL TEACHER!” adding to the discomfort.

Since young children lack social boundaries they are masters at creating awkward situations. By the time they’re teenagers they’ll (hopefully) feel so uncomfortable in public bathrooms that they’ll purposefully use a urinal as far away as they can from another human being. When they’re kids though they seem to take an amazing amount of pleasure in public urinating. My brain can’t handle it and I just feel awkward. It doesn’t help that the technique Korean children use for peeing is so exhibitionist. They pull down their trousers and underwear around their ankles. Lift up their t-shirt to show their belly. (At this point they might as well be nude!) They then stand in front of the urinal, thrusting their penis in its general direction. No aiming is involved, they simply lean towards the urinal and hope for the best.

When I’m not confronted by that sight and the bathroom is empty, I glance around me. No child can see me enter the bathroom. If they do, I may as well give up then and there. If they know I’m going to the bathroom, they’ll follow me in due to either their curiosity (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, how strange) or their complete sociopathy (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, let’s fuck with him.)

Once I’ve sneaked into the bathroom. I must be as quick as possible. I pounce into the cubicle, close the door behind me with one hand while undoing my belt with the other. Time is of the essence. There is only a 30 second window. Spend any more time in there and some child will wander in. So quickly, I’ll sit. Squeeze hard.

Nothing comes at first. The moment of elation I feel by sneaking into the bathroom has made me so excited that my whole body has tensed up. I squeeze my eyes, think of calm, flowing images. (A waterfall is my go to image, something about all that rushing out seems to tell my body to do the same.) Soon, I feel myself easing up, feel something start to move. Then I hear a noise. Footsteps.

I hold my breath. Whoever it is…maybe they’ll just turn around and leave. Right? RIGHT?! But then there’s a knock on the door and a small childish Korean voice. I knock back to let them know somebody is there. “Whatever you do, don’t speak…they’ll know its you.”

But they find out it’s me anyway. They kneel down…look through the tiny crack beneath the door. They see my shoes. “IT’S DANIEL TEACHER!”
Immediately it starts.

They yank on the door violently, pulling it again and again. I stare at the latch which once looked so sturdy, but now looks so flimsy. It seems to groan with every pull on the door. “DANIEL TEACHER! DANIEL TEACHER!” A second child arrives and screams with glee “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” Soon three children are hammering on the door shouting my name.

The crowd gets larger and larger. “Go away…” I mumble over the door, without a hint of conviction. All I can think about is how if the door snapped open they’d see me sitting on the toilet, pants around my ankles, my hairy white legs like two albino giraffe necks. I would never survive the humiliation. The children would joke about it every day for years to come – even when I’m long gone and dead of embarrassment. “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING AND HE HAD HAIR EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS SO FUNNY! RIGHT!? RIGHT!?”

By now, I know it’s no use. My butt cheeks have squeezed together so tightly that they could probably snap a piece of bamboo. Still – I reason – maybe all their noise will muffle the sound. So I try to relax. The children continue to yank on the door and with every pull I feel my sphincter tightening even more, becoming a black-hole, sucking up more and more of my butt cheeks.

Suddenly a new voice arrives. A Korean co-worker. She shouts at the kids to get out, but instead they just turn to her and shout “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” I groan. Daniel Teacher is most definitely not going to be pooping now.

I quickly pull up my pants. Flush. Open the door and push through the crowd of children. “DANIEL TEACHER! WERE YOU POOPING?!” Sheepishly I protest. “Er…no…” “DANIEL TEACHER! YOU WERE POOPING!” I’ve suddenly shrunk by a foot due to my butt sucking itself up in the absolute horror of the moment.

Washing my hands, I escape, but they follow me. Taunting me with their toilet talk. Eventually they get bored and disperse. I start to gain back my height. Relax a little. Anxiety seeps away. Soon it’s replaced with that feeling again. The feeling of needing to go. And that’s how I spend the rest of the day, in a state of psychological constipation. Always needing to go but never getting the opportunity due to the children. Those damn children!

From time to time, I manage to elude them, but even then the torture doesn’t end. After flushing away the spoils of war, I’ll wash my hands, whistling merrily to myself, whereupon a child will come running in. They’ll inspect the bathroom thoroughly and eventually catch a whiff. With all the energy they can muster they’ll run from the room screaming “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING! DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING!” and I’ll attempt the task of denying it for the rest of the day to the children that just wont shut up about it. Me? Pooping? Pfff. No way. Whoever smelt it dealt it.  Who ever denied it supplied it.
But denial in the end is useless, because one thing I’ve learnt is that although children are good at smelling shit, they are even better at smelling bullshit.

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Photo by Michel Filion.

Small Talk

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After long years spent living in the heart of Africa, I headed home. All those days spent in the equatorial sun had tanned my skin to a golden brown. Rays of light had penetrated deep into me, turning my dark hair blonde. With no inclination or motivation to learn the local language, I had become accustomed to being the outsider. I was happy at the corner of a room. Not talking. Allowing the strange voices to drift through me. I’d always hated small talk anyway. Endless hours of chatter pretending I cared about somebody who was a stranger to me. Deep in Africa, I never had to resort to such formalities.

Going back home meant going back to the tedium of socialising. Going back home meant questions. Endless questions. More infinite talk about the weather. More conversations about meaningless topics. What I did last night. Last weekend. Last month. An endless amount of judgment. Family thinking the worst of me, friends secretly discussing me. Long hours of bullshit awaited.

Dreading my return, I meandered back to England, taking as long as possible to reach my destination. Revelling in the feeling of anonymity. Being in places where nobody knew me, where I no longer had to be me anymore. I could be anybody. I enjoyed the feeling of hopelessness. Arriving in strange new places, not knowing how to order a meal. Relying on the kindness of many a middle aged waitress to bring me something edible. I listened in on unintelligible conversations that only I was privy to. Secret lovers whispered near me, ignoring me. I couldn’t understand their French, their German, their Flemish. I was invisible.

As I narrowed in on England, a strong sense of foreboding came over me. I was going back to an ordinary life. A life where I was him again. The me I didn’t like. I would be pulled back into dull interactions with my co-workers. I would be forced to endlessly repeat every tale of my absence. Every special experience that I’d had would be slowly taken from me as time passed on. I would cease to truly have anything to look back on. My entire life would be taken into the memories of others, no longer to be mine.

Crossing the sea, it dawned on me that it didn’t have to be that way. I could still be anybody. I didn’t have to go home. I could travel to another town. Far off. Far from familiar faces and catch up chats. But then I’d still be forced into the torture of sharing myself. Answering the questions. Where I’m from. How old I am. What I’ve been doing. Where I’ve been. I would still have to give myself away to others and fall back into the charade of living. Pretending I cared about people who were just pretending they cared about me. Escape was a fantasy.

However as I leaned on the rail of the ferry, watching the water stream away, an old French man came over to me. He scratched his chin lazily and spoke some unknown phrase. I simply shrugged and gave the reply “No Francais”. In a heartbeat he was gone, turning swiftly on his heels.

It dawned on me then, that the anybody I needed to be, was a foreigner. The easiest way to get out of a conversation was to feign no knowledge of language. From that moment on I decided that if anybody spoke to me, I would simply shrug and say “No English!”

With this ruse in mind, I headed far from home, to a new city and set about living as though I were an immigrant. Those years in the sun were helpful in that regard. Whenever entering a shop, or restaurant, I would affect a look of ignorance and confusion. I would stare hopelessly at words pretending not to understand. As it had been in my travels, often a kindly person would help me, guiding me along helpfully. I found a job in a factory preparing sandwiches, a task where little language was necessary. My co-workers attempted to talk to me, until it became apparent to them that it was impossible. They got some details from me. A name. A country. After that they paid me little mind. I was ignored. Becoming invisible again, excused from social graces. It was then that I became aware that these social graces were a sham as I had believed all along.

Co-workers who pretended to be the best of friends, secretly loathed each other. Men who bragged of their female conquests were secretly gay. One moment a person would be laughing at the jokes of another. The moment the person was gone they would be complaining in disgust. Conversations were layered with subterfuge. Even the secret conversations I was privy to had their layers. Nobody was ever honest with another. People spoke only words they believed others wanted to hear. Everybody’s life was a facade. A sequence of small lies wrapped up to trick others into believing they were better people than they actually were.

In that way, I was no different from them. My own life was a ruse, but at least it was an honest one that allowed me to be the person I was content being.

The hardest part was holding my tongue when my co-workers began to talk about me. Not behind my back, but in front of my face. They gave me the nickname Ham so as not to draw my suspicions. They complained about me whenever they needed to feel better about what they lacked. They attacked my appearance. They berated my lack of speech. They mocked me tirelessly, for no simple reason other than I was an easy target, unable to defend myself. 

At times I wanted to reveal my trick. To jump up and scream in their faces. To force them to confront their behaviour. But instead, I continued to feign ignorance. Responding to any chatter around me with a neutral smile.

Over time, I got bored of their secrets and conversations. They became trivial to me. I realised that although I had wanted to exclude myself from being an active participant in these social interactions, I had become an inactive participant instead. I was no longer talking about weather, but I was listening to people talk about it. Eventually my boredom got the better of me and I simply stopped listening. I had no more use for the English language, so I stopped reading too. Never bothering to bring my eyes up to read signs, menus or words. I would only have to pretend I didn’t understand them anyway.

Not speaking English, didn’t mean I couldn’t speak. I was not a mute. I had to speak some language, so at first I simply spoke gibberish in a manner that sounded vaguely Russian. It fooled people enough to believe I was actually saying something, in some unknown language.

Slowly, my gibberish started to form into a new language. Whenever somebody would wave hello to me, I would say “blicktonov”. My gibberish took on meaning. I added clicks and grunts to my tones. Grammar started to form. I began to process a vocabulary.

One day, I awoke and realised that I was no longer thinking in English. I was thinking in this new language. It was the catalyst that propelled my language to grow exponentially. It grew subconsciously, without reason or analysis. A clock was a “binckt” but I never decided on the word, it just came to me and fit into place perfectly. I could speak my own language fluently yet nobody could understand it.

Then, I stopped understanding them too. My new language slowly eroded away at my English. Each time I lifted a pen to write, I would find myself taking longer to find the words. The space in my brain where English once existed was turning blank. The new language was like a virus eating away at old words, replacing them with the new.

Soon I became the person that I was pretending to be. When I looked at a newspaper, all I saw were shapes with no meaning. I could no longer understand the world around me, but it didn’t matter, because all along I’d been pretending not to understand it anyway.

As a true outsider I was forgiven any social faux pas. Society no longer mattered to me, because I wasn’t really a part of it. I was not privy to connections with the culture around me, I was of a different culture. A culture created from inside of myself. And I was happy, I was truly the person I wanted to be. I never pretended to be somebody I wasn’t. I never pretended to love somebody who I hated. What I loved, I loved and I spoke of that love in my own language although nobody understood. I transcended the mundanity of the world around me because I was no longer part of that world. I created my own world, with my own meanings, with my own emotions. I realised that our language had just become another material thing, pushing us away from happiness, keeping us from ourselves.

Despite all this, I was not lonely. I had girlfriends when I felt the urge. We spoke through the language of our bodies. I became an expert at noticing the slightest gesture on the face of a person and what it meant. I could tell how a person was feeling from the strength of their gait or the shape of their lips. For the first time in my life, I truly felt connected to a person because I could see them for who they really were. Not the lies they were spinning through speech, but the real person. Before, I simply learnt about the needs of people and not the person themselves. Now I truly knew people. I fell in love with people, taking them in one by one.

For a time, I lost nothing of value and my life was one of sweetness. I loved. But soon my love turned to loss.

The freedom of my own language became a prison. I became trapped in myself. Without anybody to completely communicate with, I was as good as dead. Without being able to speak, I could not tell a secret. Without being able to write a message, I could never truly profess the love I felt for others. When I died, I would be forgotten as nobody could remember me. Anything I wrote would be lost, untranslatable. I had transcended the society around me but without that society, I was nothing. I was a mad man. An incomprehensible lunatic living on the fringes of the world.

An urge grew within me. To speak. To converse. To discuss. But without a person to listen, I was just talking to myself. The realisation came too late. I tried to gather back the language I had lost, but without a guide, it was impossible. I looked at English and saw a jumble of letters. Even the alphabet seemed strange to me. Shapes. I would stare for hours, peering into books, looking for some way to understand, but nothing ever hit me. I listened to conversations endlessly, hoping something would come back, but the words simply floated through me incomprehensibly.

Suddenly the world was filled with a scramble of words that I neither understood or had the means to understand. Before the words surrounding me had emboldened me, they were the foundation that my life was built on. Not knowing the words allowed me to create my own words, my own world, opposed from everything around me. That opposition eventually faltered. Not being a part of the world, not being a part of anything meant I was nothing. Every effort I took to achieve comprehension of English failed and increased my lust for conversation. I babbled to my co-workers in the hopes that one of them may understand anything I said. Even the simplest of things. How are you today? What’s your name? Did you watch anything good on TV last night? I blathered for hours to anybody about anything. Some tried to listen but nobody heard a thing.

In desperation, I ran back to my home. My friends shunned me. My family disowned me. I could not understand why, because I could not understand them. I heard their words, but the only meaning I got was from the look of fear in their eyes. My desperation swelled into panic. I searched for somebody that understood me. Anybody. But nobody could.

Then they took me away. Locked me up. They spoke to me. I spoke to them. A waste of breath. They looked at me with pity in their eyes, they ticked the boxes on their forms and they sighed.

Once a week, I met a man. A psychiatrist, I suppose. Somebody to figure out what was wrong with me. His words were just as incomprehensible as anybody elses. They took me nowhere. I was lost in a world I had willingly created.

Then one afternoon, lying in my bedroom, I heard a sound. A low murmur tickling my ears. The sound was familiar, the old whine of a trumpet, the deep hum of an old record. A sad woman’s voice rang out, filled with sorrow. As I lay there, the sound took me back. Lying in the backseat of a car as a boy, rain flicking off the window, the ping of droplets hitting the roof. That same sorrowful voice crying from the radio and the words. “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.”

At first the words were nothing but shadows in my mind, but the shadows made sense. They seemed to fit together, seemed to mean something. They repeated themselves, moved over my lips. “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.”

The song continued and for a few moments, I was no longer lying on a bed, but lying in the backseat of that old car. The damp smell of the rain coming in through a crack in the window and the worn leather sticking to my cheek. Those words flowing through my mind “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.”

As the song came to its end, I came back to my room. Jumping up, I grabbed for a pen and paper and scrawled the words. Moved my eyes over them, realised their meaning.

From that moment on, I became obsessed with the radio in the common room. I would sit beside it waiting for another song to awaken some lost memory. I would continue to repeat those words to myself over and over, praying I would never forget them. It’s easy to live when you’re in love. It’s easy to live when you’re in love. It’s easy to live when you’re in love.

That week, I said them to the psychiatrist. Hoping, praying it would give him an epitphany. But instead he was unphased. He wrote something onto a piece of paper and simply nodded. This only added fuel to my obsession. Each day, I would awaken and go to the radio. Some days, I would flick between the stations hoping for some glimpse of the past. As each day passed, I became more desperate. I slept a little less, stopped eating, stopped cleaning. Each moment not listening, was a moment when I may miss the next song. Vaguely, I started to notice the nurses changing their attitude towards me.

Then one day, I awoke and the radio was gone. Immediately, I was thrown into a rage. I screamed and shouted. But as always, nobody could hear me. They pinned me down, tied me up. All I could whimper were the words. “It’s easy to live when you’re in love.” They nodded with sympathy, fake understanding, but I knew they thought me mad.

Maybe I was mad. No way to communicate, a stranger in a world I had lived in all of my life. Isn’t that what mad is? Still, I was hungry to get back what I had lost,  deciding to be patient. More would come back to me, it would just take time. I waited and I listened and slowly the words did come back. From adverts on the ward TV. The hum of an old song on the lips of a nurse. The drum beat in the ringtone of a doctor’s phone.

Billie Holiday. A rainy car trip. The Beatles. My first kiss. AC/DC. A friend’s funeral.

The words came back to and they all made sense. 

The Spice Girls. Serge Gainsbourg. Leonard Bernstein.

My doctor’s expression slowly started to change.

Chuck Berry. Elton John. The Animals.

I started to communicate, started to be somewhat understood. The only words I remembered, the words from songs. The only meaning I could convey, the meaning from lyrics.

When I was feeling sad, I used Brian Wilson. When I felt happy, I used Michael Jackson.

My doctor’s scribbling got more incessant. We started to communicate, if only through lyrics.

Then I awoke, thinking in English again. It was as if a dark cloak had been removed from over my mind, like I could see after years of blindness. Quickly my language came back to me. I started to talk. To talk about everything with anyone. Every day more and more words came back. Every day I would go to sleep feeling invigorated. Finally, I could communicate again. I could write. I could read. I rarely stopped.

I travelled back home. I met my old friends. My family. They asked questions. Questions I was happy to answer. We talked about everything and anything. I gave away every part of myself to everyone. I spoke every memory I could remember, wrote every tale I knew until my mouth was dry and my fingers were blistered. I wrote my words wherever I could scrawl them. Spray painted on walls, carved into trees, penned onto bathroom doors. I would never be forgotten, I would live forever through my writing, my stories, my memories.

I talked, I keep talking. I will always talk. I’m a part of the world. No longer an outsider. I’m me and a me I’m happy to be. No longer trapped in madness. Enjoying other people.

Oh and just incase you’re wondering. It looks like its going to rain today. I had a great weekend. The Arsenal match was a classic on Saturday. I went to the cinema on Sunday. I think you’re hilarious, you’re oh so funny. How are your wife and kids? Doing well, I hope. What about your dog? Is it still fat and angry? Good good.

And me? Well, I’m fine.

Thanks for asking.

A Guide to Korean Fried Chicken (치킨)

If you find this guide informative, be sure to check out my Korean BBQ guide.

If there’s one thing Koreans love, it’s fried chicken. Fried chicken places can be found on almost every block, just look for the hanguel 치킨. This hanguel phonetically sounds like chee-keen and is only used to signify fried chicken, so if you find it in the name of a shop it’s almost definitely going to be selling fried chicken.

If you’re somehow unable to find a fried chicken place, type 치킨 into Google Maps or Naver Maps and it should bring up every chicken seller in your area. Many are independent businesses, but just as many are major franchises.

Walking into one of these places can be quite intimidating, as often they’re small, dark and empty. Most people ring up for delivery (which you can do too) so often you’ll just find a kitchen and a cook in a tiny room. But don’t be too intimidated, these guys want your money, so they’ll be patient while you attempt to explain what you want. Don’t know what you want, or can’t read the menu? Forget about it. Daniel is here to help with ㅁ handy list of common items. I would say this list is good for most chicken places (inc KyoChon (교촌치킨), Boor (부어치킨), BHC, Toreore (또래오래), Hosigi (호식이치킨)).

Often chicken places have little magnetic menus to put on your fridge. If you find a good chicken place nearby, take their menu home and translate it, that way you’ll definitely know what you want each time you go in. It’s a pathetic way of living your life, but it’s better than starving.

<한마리> hanmari – one portion / one whole chicken
<두마리> doomari – two portions / two whole chickens
<반> ban – half portion

<순살> soonsal – boneless chicken
<윙> weeng / <날개> nal-gae – wings
<봉> bong – drumlettes
<다리> da-lee – legs
<텐더> tehn-daw – tenders
<콤보> kom-boh – combo, usually a mixture of chicken cuts (wings and drumlettes usually)
<국내산> gook-nae-san – domestic chicken (from Korea)

Usually menus are split up in some way, either by amount (look for doo <두> (2) and han <한> (1)) or by type of chicken. Set menus <>  are common, which will often be two items separated by a plus symbol (+), so if you want two boxes of chicken go for one of these, usually a set menu also comes with a bottle of cola and a disgusting packet of pickled radish. The standard box of chicken is a whole chicken that has been cut into pieces and fried. If you’re not a fan of boney chicken, ensure you pick an item with <순살> in it.

Types of Chicken

<양념> yeung-nyam – fried chicken tossed in sweet sauce
<간장> ganjang / <소이> soh-ee – fried chicken in soy sauce
<후라이드> who-la-ee-duh – plain old fried chicken
<오리지날> oh-lee-jee-nal – original chicken (plain old fried chicken again)
<매운> mae-oon / <매콤한> mae-kom-han / <핫> hat – spicy chicken
<파닭> pa-dal – topped with raw onions
<마늘> ma-neul – garlicy
<크리스피> kuh-lee-suh-pee – crispy
<불닭> bool-dal – very spicy chicken

These are some common items found on fried chicken menus. Unfortunately it would be impossible to list every chicken item, as often chicken restaurants have their own names for their chicken which tell you nothing about the product itself. Think of it this way, if you’d never been to McDonalds before, would you even know what is in a Bigmac? When in doubt go for yeungnyam chicken, it’s the tastiest for sure.

Random Menu Terms

<소스> soh-suh – sauce
<맛> mat – flavor (eg. <매운맛> – mae-oon-mat – spicy flavor)
<콜라> koh-la – cola
<생맥> saeng-mak – draft beer
<맥주> mak-jew – beer
<세트> seh-tuh meh-nyoo – set menu
<시리즈> see-lee-juh – series (used to denote a category of chicken)
<만> man – only (eg. <다리만> – legs only)
<와> wah – with (eg. <날개와다리> – wings with legs)

How to Buy Korean Fried Chicken

Here’s a step by step run down of buying chicken in Korea directly from the chicken shop.

1. Walk into the shop. As I mentioned they’re usually tiny places, so you’ll be noticed immediately. Saying hello will be a great first step. Sometimes they’ll give you a little menu, sometimes they’ll point to a menu on the wall.

2. Decide what you want. The majority of the time, the menu will have pictures making this as easy as pointing. If it doesn’t you can do the classic travellers technique of picking something random. If you’re not that adventurous and know a little hanguel, you could use the food guide above to choose something. My suggestion is you just buy some <양념치킨> yeungnyam chicken (yeung-nyam chee-keen juseyo), it’s usually the tastiest and is available at pretty much every chicken place.

3. If you want to have your chicken delivered, hand your address over. I find its much easier to just write my address on a post-it and hand it over, that way there’s no miscommunication and it’s easy for them to know I want it delivered. If you choose a nearby chicken place, they’ll have no problems knowing where you live either.

4. Hand over your money and leave. If you don’t want your food delivered, take a seat and wait, it usually takes 15-20 minutes. Easy.

My level of Korean is pretty much 1/10, but I’ve managed to order Korean fried chicken multiple times. If in doubt, use the age old technique of shrugging while looking confused. You’ll look like a schmuck, but you’ll get your chicken eventually.

Good luck.

———–
Photo by hermitsmoores on Flickr.

Whole 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

Walking Through Vancouver

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Join me as we go for a walk. The walk I take every morning from my house to work.

We start in Strathcona. Historically the first suburb of Vancouver. Colourful, century-old houses stand tall on every block. Each house uniquely painted. Some red, some green. Blue, yellow, purple. The streets are awash with colour, cherry blossom trees standing tall on each corner. They hang over the paths like pink clouds in the sky. The air smells fresh, the sound of children sliding along with the breeze. When the sun shines, it seems to shine a little brighter here.

Next Chinatown.

Old Chinese families open the shutters of their shops. Some placing red lanterns outside their doorways, some assembling tables covered with exotic delicacies looking strange and foreign. The smell of spices fills the air. My nose tingles with pleasure.

But soon, we find ourselves there. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The change isn’t gradual – it’s sudden. One moment an old Chinese shopkeeper is smiling at us, welcoming us to her store. The next moment a dishevelled man with dirty clothes and long greasy hair whispers in our ear “Marijuana? Cocaine?”

As we plunge deeper, those cherry blossoms seem so far away. The sky grows darker, the streets dirtier. Barely a thing is living here. No trees. No plants. No people. These people aren’t living, they’re surviving, some barely existing. On a street corner a man stands twitching, possessions at his feet waiting to be sold – for food, somewhere to sleep, more often than not drugs.

Dozens of sweaty bodies push together to form a line, waiting for a small cup of soup and a stale bread roll. Just another day in the endless struggle. A routine so far from my own:

Wake up. Survive.

Passing by alleys, I see people huddled in doorways, some selling drugs, some buying. Some using. In one alley, a man lies on the floor, screaming wildly into the air, two police officers stand over him, trying to calm him down. He mumbles at them, incomprehensible. His face is an old weathered ball of flesh, distorted by a long grey beard.

In the alley mouth, a man with a torn sweater and spit running down his cheek shakes an empty cup. He speaks so low that he’s barely audible, his old voice worn and defeated. I don’t hear his words, but I don’t need to. I know what he wants. My reply is a shake of the head and an apology, by this point an automatic reflex, my answer to all of the pan-handlers. Shake and apologise. Shake and apologise. Like I’m sorry.

But I’m not sorry, not really.

As I walk away the man mutters under his breath “fucking asshole.” I walk a little faster.

When I reach the end of the street I turn back to glance at the man, only to find myself walking into another. He wears a business suit and talks into his iPhone. He glares at me, continuing his own walk, muttering those same words “fucking asshole.”

Just as suddenly as we found ourselves in the Downtown Eastside, we have escaped. Skyscrapers shoot upwards piercing the clouds. Men and women hurry along, talking into their phones, sipping their Starbucks coffees, eating their croissants. Everybody has a place to be, some cubicle, on some floor, in some building. They jump off their buses and trains, scurrying like ants towards their buildings. More routines. More lives. So different from those lives a few streets away.

Eventually I find myself in my own cubicle, on my own floor.  I wish I could say my journey ends there, but it doesn’t. I sit, staring out of my window at the street below where another man, almost dressed in rags, holds a cup. He waves it at the business people passing by. Some shake their heads. Most ignore him as though he’s invisible. Nobody gives him any money.

For ten minutes he waves his cup. With each passing minute the feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. The man gives up, leaves. But the feeling doesn’t leave with him. It continues to grow. It comes back stronger every time I walk to work.

Now this is a feeling so complex that I struggle to describe it. Some emotions are easy to explain, we can justify them with some real world evidence, or a little psychological analysis, but this emotion is so intricate that no matter how much I search myself for an answer to its riddles, I can never really conclude anything.

The feeling is a cocktail of guilt, anger, hopelessness, compassion, fear, pity, apathy, frustration and confusion. A mixture of emotions for the mixture of thoughts that pass through my head when I’m honest with myself. When I’m really being honest.

Let me start to be honest:

I’ve also started to ignore the homeless.

It’s all I can do to keep myself sane. I see people on the streets desperate for help and I turn the other way. I’ve seen teenage girls turning tricks and pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve seen half-starving men begging for help and I’ve not even sighed. Just walked on by. Shaking my head, apologising.

Yet, no. I’m not being honest. Not at all. Ignoring these people isn’t even the start of it. I’ve not only started to ignore the homeless but I’ve started to think of them as…well…not human.

The world of the homeless is so far from my own, that there’s no human connection for me to make. I can’t (or wont) empathise with the homeless at all. Not because I’m some massive sociopath, but simply because that’s the easiest way I’ve found of dealing with this strange situation which I can’t understand. I’ve fooled myself into thinking there is no connection between their world and mine. That we aren’t just different people, but a different species. I’m in denial. These people aren’t people, so why should it matter if they suffer to me?

One day as I was walking home, an old Japanese man tried to stop me, I just continued to walk, but he called “EXCUSE ME!” so loudly that I finally had to stop in my tracks. The old man looked up at me, and politely asked the way to the train station. Although the whole exchange only took a matter of seconds, it showed me how mistrustful I had become of people on the street. All people. I’ve become prejudice. Judging people not on who they actually are, but on how they look, or how they act.

Oh. I want to be honest. With myself and with you. I am not a perfect person, nobody is, but I’ve always felt that I was somehow good inside. I always thought that if I saw somebody collapse on the street that I would stop to help, but I’m starting to think that isn’t true. I’m instead starting to think I’m the type of person that would instead keep walking, pretending they saw nothing and fighting back the remorse with the words “somebody else will take care of it.”

Those words are the words that most people in Vancouver must use to sleep at night. “Somebody else will take care of it.” One person ignoring the homeless isn’t a problem, but the majority of the city ignoring it – hoping that something will magically sort it out? Pretending there is no problem. That’s a problem. It scares me shitless. Living in a society where everybody is completely in denial about what is around them.

Still. I try to be honest. Because I feel like honesty is the one thing that can save me. Admitting my faults is the first step towards slowly changing things for the better. Maybe all we need to do is change a little. But I feel that admitting I’m wrong is the smallest step, and every step afterwards is harder, and no matter how many steps I take it wont matter, because no matter how much I change, the world wont change with me.

There’s a hopelessness I feel, knowing I can do almost nothing about this situation. One less person ignoring the problem means nothing if everybody else in the world is pretending nothing is wrong.

People find it so hard to admit they’re wrong. Why can’t we all just say: Yeah, we’ve fucked up, there are people in our city, our community that need our help and we’re turning a blind eye and it’s time to change that.

Maybe it just takes too much courage, to stand up and admit to yourself that you’re not as good a person as you’d like to believe. Maybe it’s just too easy to live in denial, to stay at home in your nice warm house and think “yeah, I donated a little to charity this year, they’ll sort it out…I’m doing my bit.” But all the money in the world can’t solve a problem that’s being ignored.

My dad has a saying he always uses. When it’s especially cold outside he’ll shiver and say “I’d hate to be homeless tonight.” At no point in saying this does he actually consider the words. The implication –  that there’s another human being out there on the streets possibly freezing to death. Instead it’s just a thing he says, never really caring to ponder the full meaning. We all do it.

I feel like I might be coming off as high and mighty. But that’s not my motive. I don’t know what my motive is. When I write, and when I think, I try to come up with some reasonable conclusion. I try to find out why things are as they are. I try to understand.

This time though, I can never understand. No matter how much I search. Why we do what we do. Why we are what we are.

I used to think that the homeless just made a wrong decision at some point. That I could so easily have made the same decision, that I could have ended up in their shoes. I used to think that it was nobody’s fault, that some people just fall through the cracks and we can’t pull them back out again.

But that’s not it. Not it at all. I want to be honest. Those people fall, and they scream. They cry for help and we hear their calls. Yet we ignore them. And we wont pull them back out again.

No matter how loud they scream. We wont pull them back out again.

We just shake our heads and apologise.

____________________
Photo is Cherry Blossom by kiuko on Flickr.

Tasting Garlic Ice Cream


As soon as I heard that there was an ice cream parlour in Vancouver that sold garlic ice cream, I knew I had to go. I’m pretty adventurous in my tastes, and I love to try new crazy foods – even if they do sound disgusting – so off I hopped to La Casa Gelato with a spring in my step.

If Willy Wonka ever decided to expand his candy business to ice cream, he’d have a tough time competing with this place. Upon entering, I let out an immediate groan. There before me were an amazing 218 different flavours of ice cream, all lined up in a row. Some people might think this is a good thing, but personally I think so much choice is a bad thing. It means going through the horrible process of deciding what you want. Who the hell likes deciding stuff?

Often I’ll end up spending 20 minutes looking at a menu in a restaurant, staring at a number of choices, wishing I was a cow with multiple stomachs. “Should I have the steak…or the hamburger. Hmmm. I’ll have the hamburger. But…but…the steak looks sooo good. Ok, I’ll have the steak….but what if that hamburger is juicy and tasty? Ok. I’ll have the hamburger…” Usually, I can never actually decide and I instead have to flip a coin. This is never fool-proof though, and often I’ll still end up changing my mind again. And again. And again. As I said – who the hell likes deciding?

So there I am, trying to decide, strolling along the many flavours (and I mean strolled, 218 flavours in a line last for about half a mile!) noting down the most interesting varieties, trying to make my decision.

First there were the classics of the ice cream world, your Strawberries and Vanillas. Then there were the more modern flavours, your Rocky Roads and Cookie Doughs. After that there were what I’d like to refer to as the “awesome flavours”, the types that make you shout “OH MY GOD! YOU PUT NUTELLA INTO ICE CREAM! I LOVE YOU!” These would be your Nutellas (obviously) and, your Candy Canes.

Then there’s the disturbed ice creams. The types that were clearly thought up by some deranged psychopath, hell bent on making you vomit. The types of ice cream that could barely even be considered ice cream to a sane individual. I’m not lying to you when I say I saw the following flavours: Cheddar Cheese and Apple (really!), Pear and Gorgonzola (honest!), Jalapeno (no lying!), Bacon (seriously!), Dog Poo (ok, that’s a lie). Then, one of my personal favourites. Corn. Yup. Corn. Not Corn and Strawberry. Not Corn and Vanilla. Just Corn. Good old reliable Corn in ice cream… yum.

But let’s not forget the tastiest ice cream of all: Garlic.

With my heart set on the smelly stuff already, my decision was easy. But I also had to decide on a second flavour. Something that complemented Garlic. Hmmm. Strawberry and Garlic? Nope. Liquorice and Garlic? Bleurgh! Corn and Garlic?! Tempting…but…no thanks.

I ran along the flavours, trying desperately to find something to complement Garlic. Then I saw it. Right there in front of me, glistening in the sun. Pineapple. Good old reliable Pineapple. Pineapple goes with EVERYTHING. Pizzas, curries, desserts – pineapple is everywhere. I’d hit the jackpot here. The perfect flavour combination.

With a smile on my face I strutted over to the girl behind the counter. “I’ll have a scoop of Garlic and a scoop of Pineapple, please.” The girl gave me an evil smile. The type of grin that lets you know there’s a joke that you’re not in on. I should have known then that I was in trouble, but I’m never one to back down, so I paid up and she started to scoop my ice cream.

First she placed a scoop of Pineapple on the cone. Then she moved onto the Garlic. The tub was almost entirely full. “It’s probably so full because so many people buy it and you need to replace it all the time, because it’s delicious, right?” I exclaimed. The girl simply replied with her grin, before handing me the ice cream. “Enjoy” she said before cackling wildly into the air. I cowered from the shop, a little scared and as I left I’m pretty sure I saw her turn into a bat. (Which was weird, I thought, why would vampires be selling garlic ice cream?)

As I exited the shop, I realised the time to taste my glorious concoction was at hand. I brought my tongue up to the garlic ice cream, closing my eyes to increase my sense of taste. In slow motion, the creamy scoop touched my tongue and it was then, that I knew.

I had been duped

It tasted DISGUSTING. Imagine, if you will, that you are licking a giant wet garlic clove! Not the most tasty of things, I assure you. It tastes almost like a sweaty shoe (which funnily enough is the next flavour they’re going to make…)

Realisation quick set in, I was just another stupid tourist. Trying disgusting foods, just to say I’ve tried them! I felt pathetic. But that’s ok, I thought, the pineapple will still be enjoyable. But no, I’d been duped again! Now I knew, why the girl grinned so evilly. Now I knew the joke. To get to the pineapple, I had to make my way through the entire scoop of garlic. I cringed my way through it, belittling myself for being such a moron.

Thankfully the pineapple ice cream was almost good enough to make up for the punishment. But all day afterwards the smelly taste of garlic lingered in my mouth, reminding me that sometimes you shouldn’t do things for the sake of doing them. Especially if you know you wont like them. And especially if they take a whole packet of Tic Tacs to relieve.