Thursday, September 29, 2011


A small, bundled-in-scarves boy runs to his mom in the supermarket, huddles close to her and stares at me from behind her legs. Confusion is written all over his face, his nose scrunched and head tilted to the side. “What is this foreigner?” I imagine his brain pondering. Not WHO, but WHAT. He looks up at his mom and speaks softly in Korean, and I pick up enough to know he’s asking her if I’m a boy or a girl.

I’ve got short hair. I’ve had it a few inches off my scalp for the majority of my adult life and never really had an issue. I’m not particularly boyish, and I think it’s fairly obvious, even in the changing times of Caster Semenya and Chaz Bono, that I’m a woman. Unless you’re Korean, in which case brains seem to short circuit when confronted with my chopped locks.

The Lovely Gen and my short-haired self
When I first arrived here I taught at a small-town elementary school, and I was the first foreign teacher they’d had in a while. As a result, I was a huge novelty and on top of it I had short spiky hair. Well, did this only throw their universe off kilter. For the first week all anyone, adult or child, asked me was why I had short hair if I was a girl. I had 6-year-olds tell me I looked like a boy. Even now, teaching at a High School, I get kids who tell me I look ‘handsome’ when I get my hair trimmed.

The irony is that Korean men are so metrosexual that I’ve often done a double take to see if the really beautiful boy on the subway is in fact a cute butch girl. But foreigners who do not look like characters from English textbooks are not held to the same standard, and I’ve been stared at and scrutinized for ages on buses, subways, trains and even in bathrooms.

I’ve become used to walking into a public bathroom and being checked out by everyone in there. This is especially common in winter, when my black ski jacket conceals my rather obvious female assets. They turn around, look me up and down, stare at my face for a few seconds and then turn around again slowly, not quite sure but willing to accept that I know where I am. All those women with their identical straight haircuts and identical outfits.

The most memorable occasion was when I was in a hurry to catch a bus in another city. I needed the bathroom really badly and was running to the ladies room. I dashed inside and was gathering some toilet paper (big roll outside, not inside the cubicles. Don’t forget!) when an old lady came storming up behind me. She poked me in the ribs from behind with her umbrella and shouted “NAMJA!” Boy! As in, what the hell are you doing in here, get out!

She pointed and waved, and as I was about to go to a cubicle she grabbed my arm. Anneyo! Yeoja Hwajangshil! No, girls' bathroom! So I unzipped my jacket, smoothed my t-shirt tightly over my boobs and shouted “Yeoja!” The look on her face was worth all the times people looked questioningly at me. Take that, granny! 36C, biyatch!

Monday, September 26, 2011


Usually, when you arrive in a foreign country you're obliged to email the masses back home to tell them all about your adventure. Or, you, know, start a blog. I shall now combine the two practices by publishing a few emails I sent when I first arrived in Korea in February 2010. As I said before, this country is crazy, but it's mostly the same crazy for everyone! It's quite strange to read these 18 months later, and reflect on how much things change, people change, in such a transitory environment.

21 February 2010, a few days into orientation, meeting the Allstars

Hi all!

So I thought I'd send you a quick update about life in Korea so far. I'm sitting in an internet cafe, which is super fancy. They give you free drinks, you can spend hours here and it only costs R7 ($1) per hour, and you can do whatever you want! Most people play games for hours.

Blake, me, Tom, Sean and Libby
Anyway, I've been having a great time so far. It's been four days of lectures and beer. Oh, and Soju, which is Korea's national drink. It's kind of like vodka, except sweeter and not quite as strong, which makes it dangerous! They mix it with strawberry juice, which resulted in yesterday being a miserable one!. The people I've made friends with are party animals, which has its perks, but oh my word. They are at the pub right now waiting for me. Libby is my roomie, she's from Wisconsin, Tom is from London, Blake is from Dallas and Sean is from Glasgow. We're quite a motley crew but have bonded really well, almost to the exclusion of other people!

I still have no idea where I'm going to be placed, or what age group I will be teaching (probably little kiddies though). We've been having lectures about how to make lesson plans, how to communicate with the kids, etc, which have been super helpful and interesting. We've also been having Korean lessons, which I've loved. I can say quite a few basic things, and I told the taxi driver that I love him last night, which he found most amusing. And no, I wasn't even drunk! The kids here are so cute, we spent today doing touristy things and there were so many toddlers all over the place. The people here are fascinated by us, they stare without any shame, which is quite fun.

That's pretty much it for now. I will find out my destination on Thursday, and go there on Friday. I hope someone I know is going to be there too, I can handle being the only gay in the village (which seems to be the case so far...) but being the only foreigner would suck!

Must be off to the pub now! I'm taking advantage of being social before I get shipped off to the middle of nowhere.

8 March 2010, a week into the new job. Everything's still new and exciting!

Hi all!

So I’ve just finished teaching three classes of Grade 5 kiddies. It wasn’t too strenuous, I just had to show them a Power Point show of myself and then we played games. I played a game with them called chiggle chiggle chuck chuck, which is something they all learn as little kids so it was rather competitive. We managed to turn it into a drinking game at orientation but it’s actually rather innocent.

I teach grades 5 and 6, and then I have after school classes too where the kids sign up for extra English classes. I also have to do one hour a week of looking after the little kiddies, which should be fun. Damn, these kids are cute! I’m still getting used to the fact that they all stare at me ALL THE TIME! I half expect a paparazzo to pop out from behind the door at any minute. They walk past my office at every opportunity, and when I look at them or smile they screech and run away! Amusing.

Otherwise, all is well. I’m getting used to very few people understanding me, which was more difficult to deal with initially than I’d expected. It’s infuriating, and I have to remind myself where I am: a little town in Korea . Why would they speak English? So yeah, that’s getting better to deal with. The food, on the other hand, is not improving with time! I just can’t get used to it, and I’ve never eaten so much spicy food in my life! Every day with the chilies in everything! I do like some dishes, but they tend to be Chinese in origin. My absolute worst is a dish called Kimchi, which is the national food. It’s fermented, spiced cabbage. Yeah, it’s disgusting and they eat it with EVERY meal!

My apartment is now nicely kitted out, washing machine and all. I don’t know what the settings mean, so I did laundry last night on blind faith that the automatic setting was correct! And now my jeans are all laid out on the floor as the under floor heating is a very efficient drying system. The wee smell is also pretty much gone now, which is a relief.

Western fooooood!
This past weekend a bunch of us went to Daegu, which is the closest big city. We went to a bar and played Billibow. It’s a combination of bowling and pool. You shoot the cue ball down the long alley with a cue and try to knock the skittles over.

I think after this month things will begin to settle down properly. I only start teaching proper lessons next week, where I have to teach “How are you?” to the grade 5’s and “Where are you from?” to the grade 6’s. I can do whatever I like with the after school kids, which could result in numerous games of soccer outside…

As for cell phones and skype, I’ll sort that out once I get paid at the end of the month and have my alien registration card (oh yes, that’s what I am. I’m a prawn!) I can’t really do anything until I get that card. So proper communication will start next month, I promise!

23 March 2010, after a month of exploring and very late nights!

Annyong Haseyo! (That means hello/how are you/general greeting)

I'm sitting at my desk at school, voiceless and powerless in a country that doesn't understand me at the best of times, so I thought I'd swing y'all an update. You're excited, I can tell:)

So yes, I am without a voice. Everyone is getting sick this week, as four weeks of non-stop partying and hectic acclimation seems to have caught up with us. I was sick last week, and then I thought I was better and went away for the weekend. On Saturday morning, having gone to bed at 5am after singing at the Noraebang (karaoke bar), I awoke to discover a lack of sound coming from my mouth. Since then it's been a case of hand signals and whispers. The frustration of not being understood is double now, which is making me take deep breaths. Bizarrely, Koreans are very good at reading and understanding English so a notebook is actually working out quite well and I might keep using it once my voice is back!

Anyhoo, so the past three weekends have been spent exploring our province. It (Gyeongsangbuk-do) is the biggest region, so there's lots to see even though there are relatively few people. I told you about the trip to Daegu on the first weekend, which was awesome. Two weeks ago we went to visit Tom and Jack in Gumi, where quite a few of us foreigners are based.

In Gumi, which is lovely and nestled in some mountains, we decided to get some exercise in. So we climbed Mount Guemo, which is taller that Table Mountain and takes about five hours to summit. The most upper reaches were pretty icy, so most of us didn't go up that far. God, we almost died. Everyone else in my circle of friends smokes, so I've been second-handing it all month long (and you know how much I LOVE that!). We sounded like wheezing old men after about two hours, it was pathetic. But there was a Buddhist temple halfway up, which provided a stunning rest stop, and there was also a waterfall and a cave. After the hike we undid all our hard work by eating Pizza Hut and going to a bar called Waegook Cook till 5am. The bar was disgusting and sticky, but they showed Six Nations rugby, which was the main reason for the trip in the first place.

This past weekend Libby, Sean and I went to visit Blake in Gyeongju. (Our little group, aka the Allstars, consists of myself, Libby, Sean, Tom and Blake.) Gyeongju is the oldest city in Korea, and was the capital for much of the country's history. It's a world heritage site, as much of the city is classified as a museum without walls. We saw burial mounds of ancient kings (huge hills, like pyramids in concept), a fortress, the oldest observation tower in Asia and a pond surrounded by temples. We also went to Korea's number one tourist spot, called Bulguksa Temple, which was beautiful.

So with all this culture and history, we felt we deserved some frivolity. As some of you may know, karaoke (called Noraebang) is HUGE here. Seriously, eveyone does it and there's no shame in being terrible. You don't do it in front of a big group though, each party gets their own private room so it's brilliant if you're shy. Anyway, so we went to a western bar for some beers and a live band, then to another westen bar for tequila, and then to the noraebang. Oh dear. When you start singing 'Just the two of us' to a beer bottle, you know things have gone pear-shaped! That wasn't me though, that was Sean.

And that is how I came to be here, mute and emphysemic. You only live once, baby! As for the actual reason I'm here, the teaching kids bit, that's great fun. It's very rewarding, I didn't think it would be this cool. It's like acting on a little stage every day, albeit VERY slowly and with lots of hand gestures and miming. We've noticed that even when we're not teaching we use some of the motions in general conversation:) But I enjoy it and I'm really bummed that I won't get to teach some of the cool lessons I had planned this week.

This coming weekend I'll be staying home, obviously, and then the next weekend we're going to Seoul for the weekend.

6 April 2010, a recap of a mad weekend in Seoul


So I’ve just finished teaching some five year olds how to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and thought I’d swing y’all an update while I still have a vocabulary of more than “Very good, excellent!”, “I like pizza,” and “Today is Tuesday”.

When last I wrote, I had just been to visit Gyeongju and ended up losing my voice. I then went to the doctor, who said I had to not speak for a week. Yeah, that went well. I didn’t teach for five days, during which time I sat at my desk and checked Facebook sixty five million times a day. I was so bored! I did manage to avoid smokey bars and such, which helped a lot. So I recovered, and am full-voiced right now.

This past weekend the Allstars went to Seoul. As with any other major city, it was ridiculously expensive, but it was a lot of fun. We went on the Friday night on the KTX, which is the bullet train that goes at 300km/h, and arrived in Seoul at 9pm. Plenty of time for a quick drink. What a joke, I don’t think I’ve been to bed before 2am on any weekend night since I got to Korea. I’m not kidding.

Allstars and Japanese girl, at Ho Bar
We went out for a quick bite, and then moved to the university area, where there are a lot of bars. We started off at Ho Bar, which amused us no end. We seem to be very restless when we go out and very rarely stay in the same bar for an entire night. We then went to some other place that sold crap yet expensive beer, and when next I looked it was nearly 4am. I have no idea where time goes!

The next morning we got up at around 10am, ate noodles and went out to see some sights. We were staying in a dorm room type place, which also contained two Japanese people, a girl and a guy. So the night before, in a fit on international diplomacy, we invited them along with us. Big mistake! The guy seemed to feel the need to protect the girl’s innocence (Wahaha! What a joke, the hussy!) and ended up nearly punching Jack for holding her hand on the way home. So the next day he apologized and left the hostel, bags and all. Oh well, more space for us.

Anyway, we met up with Dani (fellow Rhodes person) for lunch. Shame, she was sick but came along anyway. We ate some very expensive food (four times the price of our little provincial town) and then went to see a palace. It was called Gyeongbok Palace and was built in the 1300’s. Massive! There were uniformed guards in front ala Buckingham Palace, and everyone seemed to be posing with them as they stood impossibly still. What a kak job! We wandered around there for a few hours, and then went to find an ancient stream in the middle of the city. It used to be underground, but the current president dug it up with he was the mayor. Very pretty in the sunset.

We then went to find the giant pillow fight at city hall. We hung around in the cold, waiting for Tessa to arrive (she was supposed to meet us at 1, it was nearly 6pm) and for the fight to start. Suddenly, the square was filled with foreigners holding pillows and at exactly 6pm all hell broke loose. Fluff flew everywhere, heads were bashed in, locals stared in horror at the stupid Waegookins (foreigners). We then went to the western area of Seoul called Itaewon, which is close to the US military base.

Itaewon is like walking into the USA. It’s bizarre to see NO Korean anywhere. We went to an Irish bar called the Wolfhound, where you can have bangers and mash, burgers, fish and chips or a full English breakfast. I had the latter, it was delicious! I drank beer and proper tea simultaneously. The bar was cool, but some of the clientele left much to be desired. The Army guys were there, Jarhead haircuts and all, wearing t-shirts saying ‘Fuck this shit’ and playing darts. Libby and Blake were horrified, being from the USA themselves. At this bar we also hung out with some of Tess’s friends from Suwon.

Blake, far left, fascinated by out cross-dressing friend
After this bar we went to a place called Scrooges, which shows SA rugby and Premier League soccer, so we watched Man United lose to Chelsea while eating biltong and filling in rugby raffle tickets. Tess won a kilo of boerewors, I’m so jealous! We left there after a while and went to the gay area of Seoul called Homo Hill. Yeah. It’s overrated, I’m not gonna lie. But we did find a cool little place called Trance, which showed a drag show at 2am, which was amazing. Seriously, you had to remind yourself that the performers were men, and Blake said, “Oh my god, I’m so confused! Is it wrong that I’m turned on right now??” Sean, Tom and I went home at 4:30am but the others went to sing Karaoke and got back at 7!

Libby, Laurie and I with our Yong Moo Do instructor, 'Beast'
We took the slow train back on Sunday afternoon, arriving back at 7pm. I was so tired! I still am. It’s not helping that Martial Arts classes are nearly every night and carry on until past 10. It’s fun though, I have a green uniform and it has my name on the back and down the pants leg. I’ll send a picture soon. Three of us are doing it for free (Libby, Laurie and I) and for the most part we spend the class teaching them English. It’s a very nice bunch though, and it’s good to socialize and interact with Koreans. I’ve actually picked up quite a bit just by going to class, and a lot of the stuff I did as a kid is coming back to me. Oh, they gave me a black belt and it has my name on it in gold, it’s so cool!

And now, seeing as my desk has been moved into the staffroom (I was not impressed!) I’m being called to eat rice cakes. Not the hard crunchy kind, the kind that’s sticky and disgusting. They LOVE them, I hate them. It proves to be an exercise in diplomacy every time they serve them. Ugh.

Friday, September 23, 2011


In my previous post I regaled you with the story of how I discovered a fibroid the size of an orange in my uterus. The following is the tale of my hospital adventure.

As you can imagine, having invasive surgery in a foreign country, without your family (let’s be honest, mostly your mom) is super fun. The whole experience was surreal, from the big prayer circle the surgeons conducted as they put me under, to the fact that I ate the same thing (rice and seaweed soup) for a week, to the insanity that is surgical aftercare in Korea. Nurses who help you? Um, no. They give you drugs. (But they're very sweet while giving you said drugs!)

I can guarantee you that a hospital stay in Korea is unlike any other you’ll experience. I arrived at 8am on the day of the operation, and they quickly administered a delightful enema and inserted a catheter. Like, within 10 minutes of my arriving! I barely had time to say goodbye to a tearful Lovely Gen. Then, I was told to walk myself to the operating theatre down the hall (catheters are so comfy when walking!) and lay myself down on the gurney/operating table.

Before they could get cracking, the poor nurses and doctors had to remove my belly ring, which had been in place for the past 10 years and was thus reluctant to bid my belly goodbye. Confused looks were exchanged, much Korean was muttered (crazy foreigner, must be a gangster, etc), and then someone fetched a pair of pliers. After realising that my skin was not enjoying being stretched to breaking point while being stabbed with a rusty tool, they gathered for a prayer and put me under. I even counted backwards from 10 in Korean, high five to me!

When I awoke, I found myself in a room with four other women in various stages of childbirth/aftercare. The room wasn’t big enough for all the patients, let alone the nurses and various visitors next to, on and even under the beds. To make matters worse, in Korea they keep maternity hospitals really hot as it’s ‘good for health’ so I was boiling. I had a sandbag on my cut, which was much bigger than expected thanks to a surgical complication, a huge IV shunt in my arm and pain radiating to every part of my body.

The Lovely Gen visited me every day. So did the hippo.
Thank god for the morphine clicker, which kept me oblivious for the next 24 hours. During this time, I got to see the fibroid they had removed and put in a glass jar. I told everyone I loved them, including The Lovely Gen (true) and my co-teacher (she’s nice, but not true). I spoke to my mom on the phone but had no recollection of it later on, and various people came to visit me.

In Korea your family looks after you in hospital and there are no visiting hours, so there were people all over the place, all the time. The Lovely Gen had to sleep on a pallet under my bed, but got zero rest that first night thanks to bright lights, nurses coming in and out with meds, making sure I was ok, the other women moaning and having babies, etc. In all seriousness, I would not have survived that week if it hadn’t been for her. She was exhausted by the end of it, and still let me stay at her house for 2 weeks to recover. If I wasn’t sure she was the one for me before that, I certainly was afterwards.

You’re probably thinking, “Ok, this is all well and good, but what’s the deal with the rainbow-coloured hippo?” So I shall tell you forthwith. I had a shunt in my arm, for drips and injections, etc, which was not very comfortable. So my friend Fay bought me a long, rainbow-coloured hippo plush toy to rest my arm on. I love rainbows. Anyway, while examining this gift I looked at the tag, and it said that this thing’s name was Clytia, which I read as Clit-ia. Clytia the hippo. I have a filthy mind at the best of times, so drugs made sure I found this hilarious, which was not ideal in my current, cut-stomach-muscles state. Laughing hurt like a bitch!

The next evening, a bunch of friends came to visit me, which was very sweet of them. Before they arrived, I asked The Lovely Gen not to tell them about Clytia, because laughing hurt too much. Despite this, the news leaked during a lull in conversation, with everyone sitting around my bed. They all examined the toy, and started giggling. They tried hard not to laugh, the poor things, but you know how it is. You laugh hardest in church because you’re not supposed to. And the more they giggled, the more I laughed/hurt/ruptured my innards.

Finally, as everyone else burst into hysterics, I burst into tears because I was trying so hard not to laugh out loud that the morphine no longer helped. As you can imagine, there’s nothing awkward about that at all! Silence followed, feet were shuffled, throats were cleared and suddenly everyone had to leave for various reasons. The Lovely Gen was horrified, and to her credit she still apologises when I mention this cruelty. I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone who witnessed my melt-down! Thanks for visiting me!

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Many, many doctors! (Credit:

I’ve been to more doctors’ appointments in 18 months in Korea than in all 28 years previously in South Africa. I’m not exaggerating. It’s not just the number of times I’ve been to a doctor that’s astonishing, it’s the sheer variety of medical experts I’ve seen. I’ve gone to regular GP’s, gynaecologists, neurologists, optometrists, dentists, orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists and even an OBGYN. I’m sure I’m leaving someone out… Oh yes, a dermatologist.

It’s apparently common for foreigners to get sick quite often during their first year in Korea. The air, food, weather, lifestyle and alcohol are all very different, so that’s fair enough. I rarely had the flu in SA, but I got it twice in the space of a month when I first arrived here in February 2010. It was snowing, I drank a lot of cheap beer and ate virtually nothing, so it was to be expected. But since then, various doctors within a 25km radius of my house all know me by name and the receptionists don’t even need to see my ID card when I walk through the door.

Aside from various bouts of flu, I had fairly serious surgery, and then needed a neurologist to figure out why my arms wouldn’t work and I had no feeling in my thumbs. These events are connected, and it was a case so bizarre that the neuro wanted to use me as a case study. Not only was I teaching children how to say fork instead of pork, but I was contributing to medical history!

It all started when I went for a routine gynae check up, as all responsible women should do. The doctor, who spoke very basic English (another fun aspect of all these doctors visits has been learning to speak medical Konglish) did his exam and then suddenly said, “Whoa!” and looked at his assistant with wide eyes. That’s not the best reaction when having your insides examined, just FYI doctors! He quickly recovered his composure before struggling for the word ‘tumour’. “You have big, uh, tumour in uterus. Maybe 7cm diameter,” he said. Oh, is that all? Ok then!

After calling a Korean friend to explain the full story, me in tears, Dr Tumour sent me to another hospital in another town, where I saw an OBGYN. Luckily this new man spoke better English, because going to the gynae is almost the least fun thing a woman can do and it helps to be able to speak to the stranger poking about down there. Dr English confirmed that I had a fibroid the size of an orange inside me, and booked me into surgery that same week.

To be continued…

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


You know that feeling when you think about the near future and your heart beats a little quicker? Things are going to change, you realise, and then it strikes you that you have no idea or plan about how to deal with it. I started thinking about how I'm going back to Cape Town in five months and haven't written more than an email or a Facebook status update in 18 months. I'm supposed to be a writer! Hi editor, please give me a job. I promise I'm really good, despite not adding to my portfolio in nearly two years!

And so here I am. People, from my friends to my parents to my girlfriend, have been nagging me for months to start a blog. I've resisted because a) after a day of teaching kids not to say 'Jew' when they mean 'Zoo', writing is the last thing I feel like doing, and b) everyone who comes to Korea starts a blog and they all say exactly the same things. This may be a crazy country, but it's the same crazy for everyone.

But alas, I have relented. I have the material, I have some fairly unique experiences to comment on, and I need to write something other than, "Oh my god, Bibimbap for lunch again!" for my own sanity. So I'm not promising anything, but I'll try to put something up once a week (ok, every two weeks) and I'll try not to bore you to tears. There might be pictures.