You look just like everyone else – no one is staring at you. A tenner is about 17,000won. Keep to the LEFT on escalators. People can understand what you’re saying, so shhhhh. Don’t go out in a t-shirt just because it’s the end of May. You can’t just stand at the side of the road and hail a taxi when you get lost. Keep to the LEFT when using doors in public buildings. Smile and say hello to random strangers, because just walking past is rude. The fact that it’s broad daylight has absolutely no relevance to what time of day or night it is. Keep to the LEFT on crowded footpaths. It’s footpath, not sidewalk. Lift, not elevator. Trousers, bin, rubbish, crisps, bap, handbag, car park, flat, toMAHto. Just because the timetable says 4:35 does not mean a bus will actually show up around 4:35. For the love of all that is holy, KEEP TO THE LEFT when driving. It’s OK to talk at a normal volume on public transport. Just because you realise you can read and understand the newspaper of the stranger next to you does not make it socially acceptable behaviour to actually do so. Yes, there are “cows crossing” traffic signs. Absolutely no need to bow respectfully when you accidentally bump into an older person – this can in fact be seen as “taking the piss”. Keep to the LEFT on the stairs. Diet Coke bottles now have a different name on each bottle, which is a great marketing ploy except it’s never Hayley and I feel reluctant to buy a bottle with someone else’s name on it. Don’t speak Korean to shop assistants. It’s fine to keep your shoes on in someone’s house; in fact, they tend to prefer it. Eating noodles with a fork instead of chopsticks is normal behaviour. Keep to the LEFT, in general.
“Eeeepuh,” says the taxi driver hesitantly, making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror. “Uhhh…. eeeepuh…”
I look uncertainly at him.
My conversations with taxi drivers here have been entertaining, confusing, embarrassing, and (mostly) very trying. The drivers usually fall into one of three categories:
1) Wary of foreigners, refuse to speak at all, even in response to “thank you” or “goodbye”. I used to hate these men on account of the sheer rudeness of not even bothering to acknowledge someone’s existence, but they may now be my favourites – purely because they require a lot less attention and effort than the other two (much friendlier) kinds.
2) Eager to show off English abilities, regardless of skill level. Entire journey will be spent in the role of an English teacher, despite your early morning tiredness / attempts to write an email on your phone / hangover.
3) Very excited to have a real, live foreigner in the car, seizes opportunity for thorough interrogation, entirely in Korean. It doesn’t matter if you attempt to answer as best you can in your clearly terrible, broken Korean, or if you flat out say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean” – this taxi driver will continue to talk rapidly at you, pausing for answers to questions you don’t understand after the standard first 5 (where are you from, is Ireland in England, what do you do in Korea, how old are you, are you married).
So, tonight’s taxi driver falls into category number 2. He apparently speaks no English, nor has he attempted to speak to me in Korean, but he keeps looking back at me and he has that nervous, self-conscious look about him. It’s the look they get when they’re trying to psych themselves up to say something in English but are scared of making a mistake. Finally, he clears his throat several times. Here we go! I think to myself. I prepare my best encouraging smile for the impending “where are you from?” or “do you like Korea?”.
“Eeeeepuh,” he says, somewhat unexpectedly. “Eeeepuh….”
This is a new one. I have no idea what he’s saying, nor do I have much remaining confidence in my belief that he is speaking English. Eeepuh, eeepuh… I search in the dark corners of my brain, but there is no eeepuh there.
“Eeepuh?” I ask gently, trying to sound encouraging.
“Eeeepuh,” he agrees. “Eeeepuh, eeeepuh!”
This is not going very well. He sees my blank expression and looks flustered. “Uhhh…. i… ehpuh… eeepuh!” he adds for clarification.
Oddly enough, this helps, and I suddenly understand. “Ahh – i… f…. if!” I say with some relief. “Got it. OK. If….”
“If!” he repeats with satisfaction. There is a pause, and he clears his throat again.
“If you do not think about the future… then you cannot have one.”
I am too confused and taken aback to come up with an appropriate response to this, so I end up saying a polite “thank you”.
He smiles shyly at me, clearly relieved to have said his piece. We do not speak again for the remainder of the journey. I am fairly certain that that is the only thing he knows how to say in English. Forget “hello, how are you”, forget “what’s your name?”. No, his one English sentence is: If you do not think about the future… then you cannot have one.
I am going to miss this place.
Starting this blog, back in May 2007, turned out to be an unexpectedly life-changing decision.
Not only did it give me the chance to do the thing that I love, but it opened up a whole new world for me. Through Coffee Helps, I began to meet people who were to change the direction of my life. Some were readers whose encouraging comments gave me confidence in my writing. Some were fellow bloggers who became useful contacts, friends, and employers. Some connections developed into cherished friendships – a couple even blossomed into love and romance.
This little online catalogue of my embarrassing moments, strange encounters, and rambling thoughts gave me something I’d been searching for throughout most of my life: an identity. I used to be painfully shy, and there was no comfort or encouragement to be had from my awkward attempts at talking to new people. If I managed to pluck up the courage to introduce myself to a new person, the conversation would simply die.
“Hi, I’m Hayley.”
“Hello, I’m X.”
I didn’t believe I had anything to offer, and it showed. I saw myself as boring, uninteresting, awkward, and generally unwelcome – and so, perhaps, it was one of those self-fulfilling prophecies that was true only because I believed it to be true.
6 years later, I am a different person. Sure, I will always be a bit on the quiet, shy side in big groups of people, and I’ll probably never be the social butterfly who flits around the room making easy conversation with one person after the next… but I know who I am now. I’m Hails, I write, I travel, and I have stories to tell. I know this because the past 6 years of my life would not have been what they were without being able to write about them, and share my tales with an audience, however small. Turns out I’m not boring after all! You might have to work a little harder with me than with others to get the conversation flowing naturally, and maybe I do tend to babble when I’m excited about the topic, but I’m no longer scared to be myself.
This blog, and the people it’s brought into my life, has made me who I am today. The girl who realised she was not made for small town life, and packed it in to take off around Europe, writing about her experiences. The girl who learned that heartbreak and pain is all part of life, and makes for a better writer. The girl who crashed on the couches of complete strangers and made genuine, lasting friends through it. The girl who found herself housesitting in luxurious locations, sipping champagne by the pool as she wrote about her surroundings… and the girl who found herself homeless in an underground bus station in Estonia, with her clothes in a couple of tied bin liners at her feet. The girl who got travel articles published in a few different European countries… and the girl who stayed up all night writing 50 articles about dog food or green tea, and leeched off the free wifi outside fancy hotels so she could submit them and earn enough money for her next train ticket and a decent meal. The girl who went to Korea on a whim and became an English teacher there for nearly 4 years. The girl who took part in vodka ceremonies with nomads in the Mongolian wilderness, walked on the Great Wall of China in the freezing snow and ice, rang the Peace Bell in Hiroshima. That girl. That’s me!
Sometimes I can’t quite believe it – but then I can go back and read all the stories I’ve written here, and it gives me a feeling I never used to have. Confidence mixed with happiness mixed with the assurance that however bad things seem, there’s a whole world of options and opportunities out there. However much pain you’re in, time really does heal. However financially dire things seem, there’s a way to get back on your feet again. However badly your plans go wrong, you can find a way around it. However spectacularly you fall flat on your face, people will always help you to get back up again. I have 6 years’ worth of blog posts to prove it!
Life is a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and you don’t know what will happen until you make your next choice. This is my 1000th blog post, and I would never, ever have imagined where I’d be writing it, back when I was writing post number 1 – or indeed, the story that the next 999 posts would eventually tell. One page at a time. Post by post.
I might not be getting paid for it, and I might never be a published author or a known travel writer, but I am doing what I love. That’s all I need – and it’s because of this blog, and all the people, adventures, relationships, experiences, and opportunities it’s brought into my life. To someone who doesn’t write, my attachment to this jumbled collection of words and stories probably seems weird, and it’s not something I can easily explain. It’s my baby, you see. I created it, I nurtured it, I watched it grow, I’m protective of it, I’m proud of it. It has brought so much into my life. I love it. It’s mine.
Thank you, my humble little blog. I can’t wait to see what the next 1000 posts will bring us!
Sometimes – well, a lot of the time – I feel sort of guilty that you got me as a daughter. I hardly ever call, I’m not someone who often sends cards and presents, I’m not very thoughtful. I’m scatterbrained and forgetful. I never remember to ask about the little details in others’ lives. I don’t like “visiting”, and hate talking on the phone. I travel around and live on the other side of the planet instead of settling down like a normal person and being a good daughter.
But I never want you to think that me being the way I am means I don’t care. I think about you every day, even if you haven’t heard from me in weeks. I have a picture of you on my wall, and I often see or hear something that makes me think immediately of you.
And more than all that, I love you! I might be terrible at showing it, but I am really, truly thankful to have a mother like you.
Thank you for staying home and devoting all your time to raising us when we were small. I don’t think I ever realised how uncommon that was becoming, or how fortunate we were to have a mum who was always there to look after us.
Thank you for cooking good food that was varied, healthy, and tasty. I find it hard to make the time to plan meals for myself for the week, never mind a family of 4 for all those years!
Thank you for
writing me a note from Santa getting Santa to write me a note on the typewriter “he” brought me for Christmas one year. I was so excited – I told everyone about it! It still makes me smile now when I remember how I felt when I saw it.
Thank you for never pushing me to get high grades, yet always being proud of me if I did. I never felt under pressure from you. I always felt trusted to do my best.
Thank you for always knowing what I wanted for my birthday.
Thank you for never fighting with Dad – or at least, for never fighting with him in front of us. It never dawned on me, as a child, what a wonderful thing it was to grow up in a peaceful, loving household. I just took it for granted.
Thank you for giving me such a wide taste in music!
Thank you for being a mother who planned fun activities to do with her children, instead of just sitting us in front of the TV all day every day.
Thank you for encouraging me to go where I want and to follow my dreams, even when they probably seem a bit crazy.
Thank you for being my friend.
Thank you for teaching me by example: respect, kindness, politeness, truthfulness, love, and humour – lessons that can be learned from a good mother much more effectively than from a textbook.
Thank you for being the sort of mother that I could never, ever be, and for giving me a true, proper role model to try and live up to.
Thank you, Mum, for being my mother. I am grateful for you every day of my life.
Yet again, I am not there with you to celebrate your birthday. I can’t take you out for dinner, or clink glasses with you in a birthday toast. I’ll be there in a couple of weeks to personally deliver belated birthday hugs… and until then, I hope these words from the heart will make up for my not being with you.
I love you, Mum. Happy birthday!
To avoid the embarrassing and frankly quite disgusting details in the information needed to set the scene for this tale, I will just say this: I made kimchi bokkeumbap the other night using some questionable rice left over from several days earlier, and I have been paying the unfortunate price ever since. Capiche? Then let’s begin.
Having said goodbye to my friends after brunch at a nice little cafe in town, I decided to walk home – the sun was shining, the flowers were pretty, I needed the exercise. And anyway, the brunch place is only about a 15 minute walk from my apartment – getting a taxi would be a tad on the lazy side when the weather is neither cripplingly cold nor meltingly humid.
Sadly, I had only been walking for a few minutes when I felt the ominous volcanic rumbling in my stomach. Obviously, getting home was no longer my primary objective. From that moment, my entire goal in life was simply to find a bathroom.
One of the handy things about Korea is that there are public toilets just about everywhere. Any building containing shops, bars, or other businesses generally has a toilet on every floor – you can just walk right in and find one. So I paused and looked around frantically, but my poor heart sank when I realised that the stretch of road towards my home was completely devoid of any such buildings. This never happens, so obviously it would happen to me at this precise moment of emergency.
There was no way I could make it home. In sheer desperate panic, I veered off the main road and headed down a side street, where I could see shops and buildings that could plausibly contain public toilets. The first one I went into turned out to be an apartment building, which was of no use to me. I tried the next door, and found myself in an English hagwon being stared at by a confused receptionist and a bunch of screaming children – I was much too mortified to ask if I could use the bathroom, so I quickly backed out and continued down the street.
I hurriedly chose another winding street and went into the first building there. Result! Oh sweet manna from heaven, there was a toilet at the top of the first staircase! I ran up the stairs, grabbed the door handle… and discovered that it was well and truly locked. As were the toilets in the next two buildings I tried. Why? WHY?!!!!
Cursing the universe and its continued hatred of me, I stood in the street turning in frantic circles before taking off at a run down another street. Finally I found a building containing some kind of fancy photography studio, and (in total despair at this point) poked my head around the door. There was the restroom! Clearly marked “private”, but it was a restroom and the chances were high that it wouldn’t be locked, if it was for the use of customers. I didn’t care about the things I wold normally care about, such as the “private” sign and the swankiness of the building and the security camera in the corridor watching my every move. I made a run for the bathroom, barely able to refrain from letting out a whoop of joy when the door opened and I saw the blissful sight of two toilet cubicles.
Of course they had to be squat toilets.
I will just say this: no matter how many times I encounter these crimes against humanity, I am firm in my belief that there is no dignified way to use them. Particularly in the throes of predicament I was experiencing. I didn’t have much time for contemplation, however, so I made the perhaps slightly bizarre decision to hurriedly remove my jeans and underwear altogether before I attempted it.
You would think, really, that that is as embarrassing and undignified as this tale could get. Hello, have you met me?! There I was, semi-naked in a grotty squat toilet cubicle, jeans and underwear draped around my shoulders due to the impossibility of setting them down on the extremely unsanitary floor, when I heard the restroom door open and a man’s voice call out in Korean. “Who are you? This bathroom is for customers only!” (or something to that effect), he was telling me. Oh, for the love of all that is holy. Deciding to play dumb and hope that he was one of those people who freak out and run away when someone tries to speak to them in English, I called back “Ummmm, I don’t understand! I’m sorry!”.
He hesitated briefly, and then yelled something I didn’t understand. Then he actually rattled the door of my stall. I repeated my babbling in English, suddenly stricken with the fear that he would climb up and look over the partition at me. Being seen in that particular position, naked from the waist down and with my jeans and underwear around my neck would surely be the most mortifying thing that has ever happened to anyone in the history of all time. With renewed panic, I struggled to my feet.
Well. If there is no dignified way to use a squat toilet, then there is absolutely, positively no dignified way of getting up from one. In my haste, I fell back against the wall and dropped my underwear on the floor next to the door, making it now clearly visible to Angry Dude on the other side. Oh, the humiliation. He fell suddenly and understandably silent as I clattered around trying to stand up and get dressed at the same time, in a very limited space with a water-filled hole in the middle of the floor.
When I finally opened the door and slunk out, my face burning with shame, he could do nothing more than simply gape at me in astonishment and confusion while I hastily washed my hands.
“Ummm…. sorry. Thank you.” I mumbled as I pushed past him and took to my heels, leaving him rooted to the spot and staring after me in amazement.
And the icing on the cake? When I paused to catch my breath on the street outside, I realised that I had absolutely no idea where I was. I couldn’t even find myself using the GPS on my phone, but as I knew I couldn’t possibly be far from home, I couldn’t hail a taxi for fear that I was about 30 seconds away and the driver would yell at me for wasting his time. All I could do was wander cluelessly for an hour around the area I’ve lived in for nearly 4 years, until, finally, by some happy accident, I recognised a building and sheepishly realised that I was right across the road from my apartment.
All in a day’s work for me, kids.
This, right here, is really all I need to say to explain to you the general state of bewilderment I’ve been living in since I moved here in 2009.
So, I go into a shop for a bottle of water. I have been walking briskly around for over an hour (having gotten completely, hopelessly lost in my own neighbourhood, which is a very embarrassing tale for a separate post) in the warmth of this pleasant afternoon in springtime.
The sun is shining brightly. My face is bright red; I may even have a touch of sunburn. I’m carrying my light jacket, having taken it off a long time ago. I’m fanning myself. I literally have beads of sweat running down my forehead. Now, this is important. I am clearly, visibly, obviously overheated. I swear to you, if you saw me, you’d remark to your companions, “Goodness! That girl looks awfully warm, doesn’t she?!”. If I were a laptop, I’d be making that whirring noise that happens when it’s been on too long and is trying to cool down.
The two women behind the counter look stricken, and say a lot of shocked-sounding things to each other before one of them can’t contain herself any longer and asks me in a genuinely disbelieving and horrified tone…
(wait for it)
(seriously, this actually happened)
(are you ready?)
… “Aren’t you cold?!”
With the exception of someone actually sitting in a sauna, sweating from every pore in their body, nobody could possibly look less cold than I do at this moment.
I am beyond trying to hide my utter stupefaction in this country any more. I just look at her in total disbelief and give the only response I know how to in Korean. “I’m hot!” I tell her in the way that one might speak to a particularly slow learner in the classroom, wiping some perspiration from my forehead for added emphasis.
Korea, you have been wonderful to me in so many ways, but I will never, ever understand you. The majority of the time, I feel like I’m living in some weird Douglas Adams style alternative version of reality, where absolutely nothing makes any sense whatsoever.
In one of my first Korea blog posts, I wrote in frustration: “I don’t get it. I. Do. Not. Get. It.”. A fellow expat in Asia commented: “Welcome to Asia. “I do not get it” will become your catch-phrase.”
How right she was!
*For further commentary on this inexplicable “aren’t you cold?!” phenomenon, please refer to this post from last year.
I had a really lazy day today.
It was only the lack of food and water in my apartment that finally forced me out of bed to go to the shop, but the thought of showering, dressing, drying my hair, and generally making myself look presentable enough to be acceptable in the outside world just seemed like a huge, impossible amount of effort. Sod it, I thought to myself, I’ve lived in this area for years, and it’s not like I ever run into anyone I know on these quiet little back streets. I’m leaving in a few weeks – I can cope with the judgmental looks of the ajummas in the corner shop.
And so I pulled on a pair of sweatpants I normally use as pajama bottoms, and scavenged a worn Beatles t-shirt from the top of the overflowing laundry basket. It had a stain on it, but sure you could hardly see it amongst all the wrinkles and creases anyway. I scraped back my tangled hair into a ponytail and threw on a baseball cap to complete the full-blown Waynetta Slob look. Adding to the overall effect was the fact that I hadn’t even taken off last night’s make-up, but I decided to ignore the smudgy mascara around my eyes and the inevitable zit on my chin. One quick excursion, just 2 minutes down the street, and I would have supplies to sustain me to the end of my day of Utter Sloth.
I pulled on a pair of flip-flops and scurried downstairs, where I ran smack into my landlord. He looked mildly concerned, but I think he is of the “foreigners are weird creatures whose ways we shall never understand” persuasion, so after a few curious glances he decided to let me pass without comment.
I jogged to the shop and was beyond horrified to hear someone calling my name. Horror turned to complete mortification when I identified the caller as the guy I had a bit of a crush on when I first got here. Haven’t seen him since 2009, but there he was now, of course, larger than life and looking like the sort of ruggedly beautiful creature they use in commercials for Gillette razors and Lynx body spray for men. I didn’t even have my phone with me so that I could hurriedly pretend to be receiving a Very Important Call and thus avoid speaking to him. With a forced smile, I responded to his greeting, did the awkward small talk, and cringed at the thinly-disguised pity in the gaze he gave me. You could almost hear the “Wow, you really let yourself go, huh?”.
A few minutes-that-felt-like-hours later, I was in the safety of the shop. Filled my basket full of veggies for my soup, picked up some bottled water, and then, on impulse, grabbed a bag of very unhealthy potato snack things. Obviously that was the moment that three – count ‘em – THREE of my former students came in with one of their mothers, and promptly started shrieking my name, running to me for hugs, and bringing the entire shop to a standstill as everyone turned to see what all the commotion was about. The mother tried some polite chit-chat with me in Korean after I’d made a fuss over the kids (while quietly dying inside), and finished with a hesitant question in English. Are you OK? Oh, dear lord.
Finally, finally, my groceries were in bags and I was leaving the shop, hanging my head in shame by this stage and swearing never again to leave the house unless wearing a sparkly evening gown, and that’s when I met one of my ex-colleagues. For Pete’s sake. She had just finished a full day’s work and looked all sensible and healthy and grown-up and productive, and meanwhile my biggest achievement of the day was squinting at daylight with my bleary eyes framed by streaks of yesterday’s make-up. Had another awkward conversation while wishing the earth would open up and not just swallow me but preferably give me an instant makeover and spit me back out to do the last 20 minutes differently.
I was just saying goodbye to her when a car honked its horn behind me. I jumped and spun around to see my old director rolling down the window to reveal an entire carload of my former colleagues, looking as dainty and pretty and Koreanly perfect as ever. They were smiling and waving and saying hello, but I swear I saw them exchange Looks. Um, yeah, I’ll come over and see you next week, OK? I said desperately to the director, practically backing away towards my house at this point. When she drove off, I sprinted for my building and did not stop running until I was in my safe little kitchen, slamming the door shut behind me.
I have decided that the Universe hates me, and I am going back to bed.