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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.

—————–
Photo by Michel Filion.

Living in Korea

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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.

Speaking English

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!

Canoeing

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.

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

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.

A Mossy Adventure

There’s bad news and there’s good news.

First, the good news.

After a long short, hard easy struggle, I have found myself a job. It pays well, I get to work in a skyscraper and officially my title is Underwriting Assistant. Unofficially I’m an admin again, and will be doing exciting things like typing a lot and sipping tea a lot.

Next, the bad news.

I have found myself a job. I start on Monday. Oh shit…MONDAY IS TOMORROW! BOOOOO!

Today, I feel very much like a child on the last day of the Summer holidays, looking back at the previous 6 weeks and thinking “Dammit, I wish I’d spent less time sitting on my arse, and more time doing exciting things! I’ve wasted 6 weeks!” Knowing you have to go back to the grind after weeks of laziness is a horrible feeling. My response to the word “work” is “UGH!” But it’s got to be done. Something has to pay for my horribly expensive addictions to food and warmth.

Knowing my days of rest are almost at a close, I’ve been spending my time exploring as much as possible, trying to make the most of my freedom while I still have it. One late afternoon, I decided to go and see the sunset. My plan was simple: I’d just keep walking towards the sun and this would eventually mean I’d end up at the coast where I could watch the sun going down.

This seemed like a perfect plan, but was completely imperfect for two reasons:

1. The coast was around 2 inches away on the map. This made me think “Hey, two inches? That’s nothing! It’s probably only a ten minute walk! 2 hours later, with aching legs, I was starting to think I was possibly, maybe wrong.

2. Pacific Spirit Park.

Ah, Pacific Spirit Park. According to some random stranger online, it’s “The closest thing you can get to the wilderness in Vancouver.” Brilliant, I thought, I can go for a lovely hike through the woods on my way to the sunset. All I have to do is remember: follow the sun, follow the sun, follow the sun.

After 20 minutes of walking along random trails, I very quickly realised, I was lost. Following the sun is the most moronic idea ever! Once you go into a dense forest it’s impossible to see the bloody thing! Now I know why the compass was invented.

After 20 more minutes, I realised, I was not lost, I was really lost. I started to panic slightly. The sun was going down rather quickly. The forest was getting dark. I’d heard there were coyotes in Vancouver. What if a coyote ate me?! I tried to think back to all of the survival shows I’d watched on TV. “I’ve got it!” I screamed, “I’ll just check the moss”. Apparently moss only grows on the North side of a tree. So I checked a tree. It was covered in the damn stuff, ON BOTH SIDES. Actually, the whole fucking forest was covered in moss! This was clearly some kind of crazy moss forest of doom!

Another 20 minutes, I felt the need to pee. I wondered if I should drink it to keep my hydration up. I started to hear voices in the forest around me. Possibly somebody walking their dog. POSSIBLY A SATANIC CULT THAT’S GOING TO KILL ME!

An additional 20 minutes and after a lot of deep thought, I decided NOT to drink my pee. Instead I released it all over the moss to punish it. TAKE THAT MOSS! MWAHAHA!

With the sun almost down and the forest ever darkening, I decided it was probably time to write a farewell note to my family, but just as I was reaching in my bag to get some paper, I heard footsteps on the trail behind me. Coming towards me were three dark figures with shining heads. I screeched in terror. Only aliens have shining heads, I’m about to be abducted!

Then a soft voice said, “You ok, man?” It’s then that I noticed they weren’t aliens at all. But three Chinese ecology students with lamps on their heads. I broke down in tears, dropping to my knees “I thought, I was going to die in this horrible mossy death forest!” One of the students rolled their eyes “Pffff, this forest has some of the rarest moss in the world! Don’t diss the moss, man!” “I’m sorry, I’m just so thankful, I was lost…and…and…” “Dude, the road is just there…” The Chinese student pointed to my right, and there the road was, directly beside the trail, metres away.

Standing up and brushing the dirt off my jeans, I thanked the students and walked to the road, finding a viewpoint to watch the sunset from. As I was walking away, I heard one of the students sniffling “fucking tourists, always blaming the moss.”

Dealing With Culture Shock

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. 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 locals, 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.

——————

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

Emergency Contact Emergency (E-mail #2)

Hello again,

Has it been a week already? Man, does time fly when you’re sitting on your arse doing nothing – which is what I’ve been doing mostly this week. I’ve already got into the old, productive routine of waking up, then checking my emails for 12 hours straight. I tell myself I’m looking for jobs, but who am I kidding, I’m mostly just looking at cat videos.

Thankfully, I have managed to fill in a few job applications and have signed up for a couple of recruitment agencies. Applications aren’t usually a problem for me, but recently I’ve been struggling with one section a lot, the good old emergency contact.

Back home, my emergency contact is usually my mam (awww), but over here I’ve come to the horrible realisation that I don’t know anyone. You can’t exactly meet somebody for 5 minutes then say, “Hey, by the way, I’m putting you down as my emergency contact!” It’d be a bit awkward, wouldn’t it? It’s almost like proposing marriage, you need to find the right person first, somebody you can trust, somebody you’re close to, somebody that doesn’t mind if you fart aloud in bed.

If you’re in an accident at work, and you’re in hospital about to die, who would be the person you’d want to see before flying into that tunnel of light? Your emergency contact, of course!

But, I have no emergency contact. I’ve met a few people, sure – but I’m still at the stage with most of them where I tend to forget their name and what they look like. Hardly emergency contact material. I can hardly write, “That tall dude with the brown hair who might be named Bob or Rob” on application forms. Plus heaven forbid that I’m actually in an accident and they turn up to the hospital, look at me and say, “Sorry, have we met?” I’d look completely pathetic! Especially when explaining, “Yes, of course we’ve met! Don’t you remember? You’re my best friend. I held the door open for you at the supermarket that one time…and you said ‘thanks’…”

So for now my emergency contact is myself. I’m hoping nobody notices and just thinks I’ve got a friend with the exact same name and phone number. God help me if I’m in an actual accident, I’m the last person I want to see before death.

In other news, you may remember last week that I swore off meat due to its expense. Rather predictably, my vegetarianism only lasted around a week. My friend mentioned to me that I’m here to have fun, not to live like a hermit and I managed to see some sense. I’ve decided to say FUCK IT. Even if meat is too expensive, I’m going to eat it regardless. With that in mind I headed straight for Japadog – a fast food restaurant that sells Japanese hot dogs.

Now you may be wondering, what exactly a Japanese hot dog is. I can tell you that the hot dogs themselves are NOT Japanese, just normal hot dogs. It’s what they put on top that is Japanese. Take a look:

Yup, a hot-dog smothered in sea-weed. Very Japanese. It was surprisingly tasty and the perfect way to break my meat fast (although I guess it was only technically meat, since it was probably made of cow anuses.)

After finishing my hot dog, I thought a little dessert might be in order, which is when I looked up and saw this:

I decided the sea-weed hot dog was enough adventure for one day, and went on my merry way, happy to be back to my meat-eating ways. But I’m unfortunately still not allowing myself to buy one thing due to its expense. Beer. At around $8 (£5!) a pint it’s $8 more than I’m willing to spend. Finally a good excuse to stop drinking the damn stuff!

Anywho, that’s enough for now! Have a good week everybody.

Dan

Fear of Freedom

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)