The Grandfather on the 10th Floor

The apartment I rent a room in used to be home to the owner’s father. After he had a fall  two summers ago his children decided he probably shouldn’t be living alone any more and he went to live with one of his daughters in a city to the south of Seoul.
Even now, two years later, the caretaker who sits in a little office in the middle of the apartment complex asks after the grandfather who used to live on the tenth floor.

Every now and again he comes to see us. Back when I was living with his granddaughter he would come quite often to sort out the bills and the post, bringing bags of fruit with him and staying overnight in the spare room. In the evening he would sit in front of the big old PC in the living room and watch music videos on YouTube. He likes ballads. At first I was a bit confused, not knowing why I couldn’t understand the lyrics of the slow songs, filled with emotion that he would sit there listening to while banging his hand on the desk in time with the music. After some time I realised that the songs were actually in Japanese.
A while later, when my Korean was a bit better (even so it’s not easy to understand his rushed but slightly unclear speech), I asked him about it. The first language he had learned to read and write was Japanese, and he told me that he was pretty confused when he was first told he also needed to learn to read and write Korean. Why did he need to learn another language after having spent so much time and trouble learning this one? Of course that was when he was very young, before he could have understood anything about what was going on in his country at the time. He explained that he didn’t speak Japanese now, but the songs he was listening to, well, they were the songs he grew up with. Those Japanese ballads will have been the soundtracks to his first crushes, and accompanied his adolescence.
Some elderly Koreans who were taught in Japanese at school harbour a kind of hostility to the language (no doubt because of the associations they have with it) although it must be there in their minds, colouring their childhood memories. However understandable such sentiment must be in the context of the hardships of colonialism, somehow such a refusal to recall the language of one’s youth seems to deny a whole host of things that will have shaped that person’s development; like those songs for the grandfather who lived on the tenth floor.

The grandfather is a pretty amazing character, with most of his children and grandchildren living overseas, he’s travelled the world and survived all manner of bumps and falls. He told me of how he had fought in the Korean war, and gone right up to the Chinese border, how he had been injured, and how as a veteran he can now ride even the KTX high-speed train for free.

Even now, though his granddaughter has left the flat to go back to Europe to study, he still comes to see us from time to time, bringing all manner of treats, like rice-cakes and apples and once even a whole big spiral of 순대, a kind of sausage that’s a bit like British black pudding.

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Each time he’s excited to find out, again, that there are girls from three different countries living in his old home, and he always asks after those that used to live here. Now that it’s just me and one friend living in the flat he seems a bit disappointed that the nationality count has gone down, but the funny magic that this English girl can speak to him Korean, and peels fruit for him and makes him a cup of coffee never seems to get old.

A few months ago when it was really cold, he dropped by and was examining the plumbing in the bathroom. I reassured him that everything was working fine, but still he was in there checking this and that. After a while he seemed satisfied that everything was in order and was getting ready to be on his way, but his socks were soaking wet from having looked at the fixtures in the bathroom. I gave him a pair of socks that I had lying around to change into. They were something I’d been given at the office but didn’t really fit. They said ‘women’s basketball’ which wasn’t really something I imagined he’d be into, but they were thick and seemed like they would do the trick.
Since then each time he’d phoned me to check that everything was OK in the flat, that the water was draining well in the bathroom, and how many of us there were living there now, he would talk about the socks. How much did they cost? Did I need them back? Time and again I told him it was no big deal, that he should keep them, that I got them free at work.

Today he visited again for the first time this year. Lo and behold, along with the customary rice cakes, he had brought with him a pair of socks and a pair of gloves too for good measure. I asked him how he’d managed to find such pretty socks; he seemed very pleased with himself.

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Suncheon Adventure

Back in April I spent a few days in the small southern city of Suncheon. Part of the work I did in my internship involved the Suncheon Asia Pacific Scout Center, and as I needed to head down there to meet the volunteer staff working there that season, I left a few days early to have a good look around.

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In early April, before the cherry blossom had come into flower in Seoul, the trees in Suncheon were already blooming thanks to the slightly warmer southern climate. It was a real treat to see the blossom early and it made even the most ordinary Suncheon side streets look beautiful.

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This massive tree was near where I was staying at a friends house. Located next to what I seem to remember was an old confucian style school, it must be hundreds of years old. Traditionally every village had a huge old tree like this, they would become meeting points and also the focal point of certain shamanic beliefs and practices. Many were destroyed during the Korean war, but this one stands, broad and tall.

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With blue sky and cherry blossom the unselfconscious streets of the outskirts of Suncheon felt like something from a theme park. This kind of comfortable, scruffy at atmosphere is hard to come by in Seoul where, because of population density I suppose, low rise neighbourhoods like this are choc a block with houses, and areas that have a scruffy feel can usually also be described as somewhat unclean.

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Looking out over the city from the outskirts of town you can see that the city has quite an organic construction. Unlike Korea’s new towns and cities Suncheon has developed somewhat gradually, and while not particularly grand, many vestiges of the past remain around the city.

The main place to visit on a trip to Suncheon is Suncheon Bay. This coastal wetland is a real wonder of nature and is home to many curious forms of wildlife like mudskippers and crabs that live among the reeds that grow in the muddy land and is a resting place for many migratory birds. Next year Suncheon Bay will be the host site of a world ECO GEO expo and a wonderful location, matched by a creative and innovative team mean that it should be a great attraction.

We were really lucky with the weather. My trusty tour guide suggested taking a hike up the mountain beside the bay, which is part of the park, and on such a lovely day I could hardly refuse!

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The view from the path up the mountain was wonderful, from above you can see the beautiful formations of the reeds as they grow in circles in the bay.

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I had visited Suncheon Bay once some years ago. On that occasion we were taken on a boat ride though the shallow waters at the edge of the bay. While it was a nice ride, it wasn’t really a good way to appreciate the scenery. There are boardwalks on which you can walk across the bay between the reeds, but the best view of the bay comes from standing completely still and looking down into the mud. The longer you look the more you see, and soon you are spotting crabs and mudskippers and all sorts! The second best way to appreciate the bay definitley has to be from the top of the small mountain that we climbed up.

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The colours of the reeds from afar along with the contrast between the bay and the surrounding mountains is really beautiful, almost other-worldly.

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After coming down from the mountain and having a little look in the museum near the entrance to the bay we popped into the gift shop. After looking around at some nicely designed gifts and postcards we found out way into a shop of local produce that is connected to the shop full of souvenirs. There was a really good range of teas and Korean ingredients, many organic or environmentally friendly in some way. The prices for some items seemed a bit steep but most of the goods were sensibly priced and clearly good quality. We picked up some cookies made in Suncheon and headed off to the bus stop to get back to the city.

On my second day in Suncehon I met up with a friend who was teaching in an academy there are headed off to one of the two big temples in the area. Songgwangsa, or ‘spreading pine temple’, is one of the most beautiful temples in the whole of Korea. A bumpy hour-or-so bus ride from Suncheon city centre it sits nestled among low mountains and bamboo forests.

The lanterns strung above the stream that runs beside the temple are beautiful reflected in the water. I really love their colours and seem to take a photograph every time I come across lanterns like this.

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Being one of the oldest temples in the country many of it’s buildings really show their age, they re not shabby at all, but they have a kind of humble, refined feeling, the sort of enduring quiet that comes from an inanimate object that has stood for a long time.

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The main hall of the temple is relatively large and spacious inside. The roof of this hall in particular is a really beautiful example of the curved slope design of old Korean roofs, which make them subtly distinct from both Chinese and Japanese examples.

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My favourite thing about the temple was the toilet, and if you get the chance to visit the temple, you mustn’t leave without visiting the loo. The building looks almost like all the other temple structures, but inside in the faint light coming through small windows near the roof, you can have a very quiet and thoughtful moment of calm and relief ^^.

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Up the hill from the temple is a beautiful bamboo forest. The deep green of the trunks and the leaves, the way that the sunlight filters through them and the sound of the coarse leaves rustling in the breeze make it a really magical place. At once peaceful but also incredibly alive to the senses.

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After two wonderful day trips around the Suncheon area it was time for me to get to get down to business. As I was working with the Suncheon Asia Pacific Scout Center and their World Culture Village in English program as part of my internship in Seoul, it was really helpful to me to visit and have a look around and see how the program there is run.

When I visited around 120 local school children arrived for an overnight educational trip. The first thing they did was pile into the main hall and have a kind of welcoming and orientation, and then prepared to meet the international volunteers who they would be getting to know over the next two days.

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Then they went to find where they would be staying in the accommodation at the center. The surroundings and the center itself are really quite beautiful with trees, flowers and open spaces among the mountains.

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The center is being run by the Korea Scout Association and the local Scout council, in partnership with the Suncheon education office and Scouting at the Asia Pacific regional level. It was also the location for the Asia Pacific Jamboree in 2010!

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When I visited spring was just beginning to bring it’s colours to the grounds. Unlike the centre of the city, the Suncheon Scout Center is located up among some mountains, so is a little colder, and sees spring a little later.

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The World Cultural Village in English is run and put together by international Scout volunteers, young people between the ages of 18 and 30 who come to Korea for three months to work at the center. In partnership with the Korean staff they design and deliver a program of activities which range from classroom sessions of teaching simple facts about their countries to games, dances and mini-olympic style competitions.

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Part of my task on visiting the center was to catch up with the volunteers and find out how they were finding their stay, what they were making of their experiences and what we might be able to do to make things better for them.

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Observing the classes the school children seemed to be making a lot of the experience even if they struggled to understand English. For many of them it was their first meaningful interaction with someone from Africa or South Asia.

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Through simple fun activities like learning the names of the ‘big five’ wild animals that people try to spot when on safari in East Africa the pupils and the volunteers both had a laugh while learning about each other. One of the volunteers loved to explain how when she showed the students a picture of a rhinocerous and asked them what it was, one of them put up their hand eagerly and shouted out “FIRE NOSE COW!!!” The student had made an attempt at literal translation from the Korean word.

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One great thing about the Suncheon Scout Center is that the volunteers can use the outdoor space to run games and ‘Scouty’ activities that get the students out of their seats and also help to break down any embarrassment they have about using the English they have learned.

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For many of the students also a trip to the center is great just as a chance to play and enjoy being outside of their school with their friends. With education in Korea becoming ever more pressurised from an earlier age, these kinds of opportunities are crucial to the emotional and physical well being of young people.

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After finishing their culture classes the students gathered for the always necessary group photograph. Watching the scene from a distance I found myself really hoping that as many young people as possible get a chance to take part in programs like this. More than learning some English vocabulary, their visit to the center gave them an opportunity to meet people from countries they can’t point out on a map, and find that they are intelligent and fun to be around. These kinds of encounters can be the starting point for a genuine passion for language learning and exploring, making them something real and tangible far beyond text books and university entrance requirements.

I didn’t want to leave Suncheon at the end of my stay and I am looking forward to having the chance to go back ^^

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What on Earth is a Hay(na)ku?

Last week I was helping out at the Seoul International Writers Festival, and as part of helping a poet from Britain to find her way around Seoul, and easing verbal communication between said poet and the Korean poet that she was paired with, I ended up sitting in on a poetry class.

In the class we learned about the Hay(na)ku, a take on the haiku which goes on numbers of words, not syllables, can be extended with many stanzas and can be made into a reverse Hay(na)ku by changing the configuration of the words in the stanza. The basic pattern is 1 word, 2 words, 3 words, with reverse being 3 words, 2 words, 1 word. All of us there were invited to have a go at writing out own versions and were given ten minutes to write.

I was quite shocked by what came out! It seemed charged with emotion, like it had been simmering inside me for a long time, but a bit like a burp, now that it’s out I feel well rid of it and much more comfortable.

It went like this:

Oh look it’s
a foreigner
wow!

Maybe
I know
what I am

Body
and mind
can’t be foreign

Context
not misplaced
I live here

Me
living here
with you too

Slotting into place
sometimes not
foreign

Going to Japan to Stay in Korea

At the end of March I had to take a trip to Japan to visit the Korean consulate. As I was going to be given a living allowance with my internship I needed to have a working visa, and for some reason the visa that I was assigned with required to be issued in a foreign country.

Thanks to the help of one of my colleagues who completed most of the application process, what I had to do was quite simple. Go to the consulate in Osaka, hand in the paper work and pay the visa fee and then wait for my visa to be issued and collect my passport. General wisdom has it that the visa can take up to three days to be issued (although the Osaka consulate is usually much quicker), so I got to have a four night stay in Japan!

This was my second short trip to Japan, I had visited Kyoto and Osaka in 2009 when I was in Korea to attend language school and went to visit my university friend Momoko on the farm where she was training to become an organic farmer. This time, as well as seeing Momoko I stayed with my Korean friend Hanbit who went to university in Japan and is working in Kyoto and stayed over with a Japanese Korean called friend called Suran friend who I met through Momoko when we were both studying Korean in Seoul.

Being in Japan after spending a long time in Korea is really quite refreshing. There seems to be a much stronger sense of individuality, or at least variety, when it comes to dress code and appearance and a lot of young people have a much more relaxed style of dressing than in Seoul. Also, as there is a strong history of western foreigners in Japan that can speak the language very well, people weren’t hesitant in addressing me, although sadly, unlike in Korea I couldn’t actually communicate with them…I felt somewhat less conspicuous than I do when I am travelling around Seoul with my tourist, or tour guide, hat on.

I arrived at Kansai airport in the evening and took a bus to Kyoto. From the bus I took a taxi, which compared to the taxis in Korea was painfully expensive, but the only logical option in the circumstances. When I got into the taxi, I showed the driver the address on my phone, but he didn’t seem to know the place, so I had to call Hanbit, who I was going to stay with, and put her on the phone to him. Finally, after a nail biting twenty minutes of watching the numbers on the meter go up and up I saw Hanbit standing in a small side street as we drove past and managed to get the taxi driver to stop.
Hanbit is living in a guesthouse near one of Kyoto’s universities and when I arrived I was welcomed with an amazing plateful of pasta, cooked by one of her Italian housemates who works as a chef. It had an amazing creamy sauce with gorgonzola cheese and was unlike anything I had eaten for a long time. That was how my Japanese adventure began!

The next day we headed to Osaka by train to hand in all the necessary papers at the Korean consulate. When we arrived they were having their lunch time so we headed to a nearby restaurant and had okonomiyaki for lunch!

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After lunch we went back and handed in the papers and I was told to come back the next day to collect my passport with my new visa. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Osaka, looking in shops and dropping in on a small temple where I met a little buddha. My friend explained to me that it was supposed to help ease pain if you rubbed the part of the buddha statue that was causing pain in your body. Having had two wisdom teeth taken out the week before, it was an opportunity I was not going to pass up!

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After spending a long day walking around the city we met Momoko and Suran beside a large market and headed off for dinner in a new restaurant that Suran had found selling really delicious tempura and where the shells from the shellfish in the soup that goes with it are all thrown on the floor by the diners and crunched on as you walk out. The food was really delicious and it was really surreal catching up with two friends who I had only ever met separately but who had gone to school together. It was three years since I had seen either Momoko or Suran so we had a lot to talk about.

That night we all stayed at Suran’s house and had a little party with a bottle of organic sake from the sake factory that Momoko had been working in. I am certainly not a sake connoisseur, but, it was really amazing!

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The next day Hanbit headed back to Kyoto to go to work and me and Momoko went to go and collect my passport while bride-to-be Suran headed off to the beauty salon to get ready for a pre-wedding photo shoot in the afternoon. After picking up the passport in true SOAS alumni style, Momoko and I headed for an alternative looking Indian cafe and had a long chat over some more delicious food before going to meet Suran at the photography studio.
It was really lucky that I was in town for the day Suran was having her photos taken because it meant I could get to see how a traditional kimono is worn and all the layers and aspects of the beautiful dress. Me and Momoko watched at Suran and her fiance had loads of adorable photos taken, together, separately and in lots of different poses. When they were finished with the main photos, they got me and Momoko to go into the frame too and have our picture taken admiring the beautiful bride-to-be in her kimono.

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Saying goodbye to Suran and leaving the studio me and Momoko set off for Kyoto to get back to Hanbit’s guesthouse. We decided to walk back from the station to the guesthouse, which was not a short distance, and not an easy task for a tourist and a country girl! We found our way eventually, though it probably wasn’t the most direct route, we managed to pass lots of exciting things on the way, like this truck/shop selling locally grown organic vegetables.

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That evening, I felt that I ought to do something to earn my keep at the guesthouse, so I agreed to make a ‘British’ meal for Hanbit and Momoko. The two ingredients that were to make up this feast were a tin of baked beans and a packet of instant custard powder, so I stocked up on the other bits at the vegetable truck and cooked up a storm in the guesthouse kitchen, frying eggs and potatoes, broiling spinach, and confusing the other people living there with a jug of yellow stuff!

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I certainly didn’t do British cuisine justice, but the reviews weren’t bad, and maybe it was because she was starving after a long day at work, but the main target of the food charm seemed very pleased!

The next day the three of us took Hanbit’s three bicycles for a ride up to the foot of a mountain by a famous shrine. Parking our bikes near a small school we hiked up the mountain and looked out over Kyoto while eating cucumber. As we were hiking down the mountain an elderly man that passed us called us ‘yamagirls’…which apparently is a whole trend where young women kit themselves out in expensive hiking gear (designer hiking skirt/dress mandatory) and climb mountains. None of us could have looked very professional, but still it was quite funny!

After getting back down from the mountain I said goodbye to Momoko and met up with a girl called Yukari who I had met when she was an exchange student in Korea. We spent the afternoon looking around Kyoto and exploring some of the concept shops, old little streets and sitting by the river.

The beautiful old wooden buildings in Kyoto are really charming, and even more so because they all still seem to be being put to good use.

On my last day in Kyoto I was not a very diligent tourist. I had visited the main temple when I had been in Japan in 2009 and after a tiring couple of days taking a picture by the beautiful gate of a temple or a shrine, without actually going in, was enough for me.

One thing that I did want to enter and have a look around was a Japanese arcade. Last time I was in Osaka I was really quite frightened by the noises coming out of pachinko houses when their automatic doors slid open as people walked past. I wasn’t really interested in playing pachinko, so with my trusty guide, we head for a more accessible but just as noisy amusement arcade in the centre of one of the main streets. Most of the photo sticker machines in Korea seem to be imported from Japan, so this was an opportunity to try out the real thing on it’s home turf. The result was very amusing! The machine not only put make-up on us automatically and completely change the colour of my eyes, it also changed the shape of my face by default to slim down my jawline. On top of that we added colours and sparkles and bows and all sorts.

The next day it was time to go home, I packed the small rucksack I’d brought with me, along with a shopping bag lent to me by Hanbit, full of cookies and green tea latte mix and cute things, and we went together to the airport bus stop in the centre of the city. I’d arrived in Japan in a bit of a sorry state, with a swollen cheek after having my wisdom teeth out, and an expired Korean visa, but  thanks to my Korean and Japanese friend I was going home with a beautiful new E7 visa and heaps of happy memories ^_^

Wisdom Teeth

Around Christmas time my wisdom teeth really started hurting. They would be really bad for a few days and then OK for a while, and it was on and off like that for a couple of months. Then in February it became so much that I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I had already had one taken out the year before, a top one, and managed to do an all day 50km hike the day after. I’d heard that taking out a bottom one was much worse, and my dentist in London had said that I may eventually need to do it, and in that cast I would have it done under general anaesthetic at the local hospital.

Being in Korea, a country with a very different medical system, I was nervous about how much I would have to pay   (as I was not yet covered by my workers insurance at the time) and whether I would be able to get over the language barrier even in such a painful situation. Still, the pain was so much that I had to do something, so on one of my off days I headed to the local university hospital with my friend from Hong Kong who had been there before. It was all quite simple, having my teeth checked and taking an X-ray, and I was given some medication and given an appointment with the department for extraction.

On my next visit my Korean friend agreed to come with me and not only did a great job of explaining things to me, such as the procedure for taking out each tooth, but she also helped to keep me calm when I was told that I would not be being put to sleep, but rather only numbed with injections. I had another scan of my wisdom teeth to check their proximity to my nerves and then a date was set for the surgery – a whole month later!
I was really surprised at the wait as usually everything happens so fast in Korea, and I was in pain, but it seemed that there was little I could do.

When the dreaded day finally came around I booked the next day off work and got a friend to go with me to keep me calm beforehand and help me get home. When I got into the dentists chair I was really afraid. Having to deal with everything in a foreign language in such a situation was not difficult, as indeed when there are two sets of hands in your mouth it hardly matters what language you are speaking, but it did seem to make me more uneasy.

When it comes to injection anaesthetic is seems that I am almost as strong as an ox. Just like when I had my other wisdom tooth taken out, I had to keep having injections, the dentist would check if I could feel anything, and I would squeal that yes I did, and then another injection and then another squeal. Finally they set to work and it really did seem to be like something out of a nightmare. Hearing those noises coming out of my own head was quite disturbing. When they were taking out the lower wisdom tooth I was in a lot of pain, even though I had had a lot of anaesthetic and it turned out that a small end of the root was connected to a nerve, thanks to the skill of the dentists I avoided a potential numb face situation, and just have a little tiny bit of tooth left in there. After it was all over and I was starting to calm down I looked over at the teeth that had been taken out. Though the dentists didn’t say anything to me, I heard the two of them exclaiming to each other about the size of them! I asked if I could keep them to show them off to my friends and boast about my ordeal, but while I was given my tooth in a little box at my dentist in London, I was told that it is strictly forbidden to take such things away in Korea.

After leaving the hospital my friend accompanied me to the pharmacy and then bundled me into a taxi and I went home to sleep. This was a bit of a mistake, as you are supposed to hold an ice pack on the side of your face for a few hours after the surgery, but when I was sleeping I didn’t do this. So, my face swelled up like a gerbils and the swelling didn’t completely go down for almost a week.

Still, after I recovered I felt much better to be rid of those two pesky wisdom teeth, even though without insurance and at I good university hospital it had set me back around £400, I escaped with myself intact, even if I do get the shudders every time I pass by and look up to the window of the extraction department!

Life on the 10th Floor

It’s been a long time since I posted in this blog. So much has happened in the last few months that even trying to remember the main events isn’t easy. Over my next few blog posts I will try to fill in some of the gaps!

From March to August I was an intern at the Korea Scout Association, on the 10th floor of their building in Yeouido and the months seem to have flown by. 

It’s now been almost a year since I moved into this apartment on the side of a mountain, living on the 10th floor, that feels much lower because there is a hiking path that runs outside the window.

Since finishing my internship with the Scouts I have been studying at the Korea Literature Translation Institute and finding my Korean constantly improving and constantly inadequate.

Now that it’s almost November the temperatures have dropped here, and winter will soon be drawing in. Hopefully by blogging my way through the past seven months of spring and summer I can forget the incoming winter blues!

 

To Become a Nameless Woman

To Become a Nameless Woman
이름없는 여인 되어 

By Noh Cheon Myeong (노천명)

I want to go out to some small mountain place
And become a nameless woman.
Setting vines to grow on the thatched roof,
Planting cucumber and pumpkin in the vegetable patch,
And weaving a fence with wild roses.
I will greedily bring the sky into my garden,
And at night, embrace the stars to my hearts content.

On the nights when the owl hoots I won’t be lonely
In this village that trains only pass by.
Eating millet taffy mixed in a big brass basin
Chatting about the goings on of this mountain place
Late into the night with someone I care for
While the sapsaree dog barks at the moon.
I will be happier than any queen.

It’s 9pm on a Saturday night, and before heading off to the public bath via a walk round the local park, I am again trying my hand at translating poetry. The pain and frustration of killing the original sound, rhythm, and some of the meaning of the poem is somewhat eased by my motivation for doing so: I want to be able to share this poem with people who can’t understand the Korean. I really love this poem, especially in the hustle and bustle of Seoul, the humble but idyllic portrait of country life it paints is really appealing to me, and I like to think that I could feel such a satisfaction with simplicity and closeness to nature. Korea is full of beautiful mountains, and they seem to be calling me out of the big city.

About the translation: I swapped the order of the 4th and 5th lines of the second verse, and it is these two lines which I am least happy with. What I wrote as ‘someone I care for’, is actually written as something closer to ‘my liking person’ (내 좋은 사람), which could mean anything from the ‘man I love’ to ‘a nice person’. Then, ‘chatting about the goings on of this mountain place’ is most lacking, ‘mountain conversations, with foxes that come out’ is one way to read the original, and it seems here that my understanding of ‘fox’ as a symbol in Korean is lacking. ‘Sneaky/sly village conversations’…? (여우 나는 산골 얘기.) There were many ways to interpret it into english, and in the end I went for a safe option.

F.Y.I: Sapsaree dogs are a Korean breed, and they were apparently popular with nobles in the Silla period. They are said to chase off bad spirits.

I hope my translation will be forgiven for what it lacks, and I hope you enjoyed it for the poem it tries to share with you.