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I just finished my second day of teaching. This is a fucking nightmare.

I was supposed to get a week of training – two days at the very least. Instead I was given two hours, simply observing Jack’s class. After that I was tossed in with a bunch of ramunctious kindergardners and did my best to take them through their exercises and stop them from running around and climbing on the table and such.

The kids are okay. They’re really cute and some of them speak English better than my sister of the same age. When I run out of syllabus materials it’s hard to figure out what to do and I generally resort to letting them draw on the whiteboard or playing hangman, which I doubt I’m supposed to do (and there’s a camera in every classroom, with a monitor behind the secretaries’ desk). So the work itself isn’t too bad.

But there is waaaaaaay too much of it. Yesterday I started at 9.00 and wasn’t walking upstairs to my apartment until 7.30. And I had a handful of textbooks under my hand, to do the next day’s lesson planning with. I had an atrocious headache and felt like shit.

Today I didn’t have late classes so I knocked off “early” at 5.30. Coming from university and casual employment, a 9 to 5 schedule would have been hard enough to adapt to, but a 9 to 7 working day is just fucking insane. Technically I get breaks, but I’m expected to do lesson planning in them. And the whole lesson planning/syllabus/curriculum thing is really, really tedious. And that’s when it’s fresh and new – I can’t imagine what it will be like down the track.

It’s not that I wish I hadn’t come to Korea. It’s that I wish I’d planned it a little more carefully. I was so desperate to escape Perth that I only heard what I wanted to hear, and figured that “9-10” to “5-7” wouldn’t be so bad. I was a stupid idiot.

There is not a snowball’s chance in hell of me sticking out this contract. The thought of even sticking it out for the rest of the month is bad enough. At this stage I’m planning to wait until I get my first paycheck, or my flight reimbursed – whichever happens first, because I just need to break even – then bailing.

And even that will suck. I can either go to London, hang out with Georgie and try to find work, then traipse around Europe with Mike for a bit before going home stone broke – which subsequently destroys any chance of me and Chris backpacking around the world together, which is my #1 life goal at the moment. Or I can go directly home, which means I wouldn’t lose too much money at all (worst case scenario, I leave before either getting paid or getting my airfare back, in which case the entire sorry venture leaves me $1500 out of pocket). Then I continue working at Coles, or find some other crummy job, and maybe go with Chris to Japan early next year? Plus I have to deal with the shame of coming home. There’s no point sticking it out in a job I hate, but at the very least I’ll feel kinda stupid about amping myself up for Korea so much and then leaving so early.

I just want money so I can travel. Travelling is amazing because you have your freedom. It doesn’t matter so much if you get homesick or don’t like a place, because you’re your own man and you can do whatever you please. You’re not accountable to anyone. I didn’t realise until I came here just how much I valued that.

I’ve been in Korea for about 12 hours now. It’s disorienting and intimidating. I loved the hell out of Japan and figured Korea wouldn’t be too different. But Korea is not the same as Japan, and being alone is not the same as being with Chris, Jamie, Ellen, Steve, Rob and Roy.

I arrived at around 7 am, after fifteen hours in transit with an wildly swinging outlook on the whole venture. Sometimes it felt like an exciting adventure; sometimes like a sick horrible mistake.

I emerged from customs at Incheon to find a guy holding a piece of paper with my name on it, and he ushered me outside and into a minivan. He didn’t speak much English, so I mostly watched the scenery go by. Something I realised very quickly was that Korea is not Japan. Japan is gritty and grey and industrial, but there’s an underlying cleanliness to it that Korea lacks.

Upon arrival at the school I met my Korean supervisor, Sarah, and one of my fellow Western teachers, a Canadian called Valerie. There’s another Australian here whom I haven’t met yet, but that’s it for foreign English teachers. Apparently we’re getting another new one at the end of this week; with any luck they’ll be as clueless as me. Anyway, they left me to settle into my apartment, which is on the top floor of the school. It’s very… well, I don’t want to say crap, but… crap. The size doesn’t bother me (it’s just a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, but I’m only one man). It’s just kind of old and dirty. There are pipes all over it because it serves as some kind of plumbing hub for the building. On the bright side it has wifi and airconditioning. Yeah, Seoul in June is fucking hot. I was warned about that but figued it was just Canadians and Americans who didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘heat.’ Although it’s not so much the heat but the humidity.

Anyway, I slept for about four hours because I got none on the plane (some jackass was snoring behind me), woke up feeling disoriented and confused, and went to go take Valerie up on her offer of showing me around town a bit. She took me for a walk around the neighbourhood and bought me lunch. I did some grocery shopping (grapes! peanut butter! bread!) then we came home again. Apparently we’re going out again tonight at about 8 for welcoming drinks… shame I can’t actually drink since I’m still on antibiotics.

And tomorrow I start teaching. Two new Korean teachers are also starting this week, and apparently Sarah is fairly new at being a supervisor, and we’re still short one teacher. So it will be somewhat chaotic. This is either a good thing or a bad thing: my incompetence at teaching will fade into the noise, but at the same time I doubt I’ll be getting much help.

So yeah. This is really, really hard. Much harder than I thought it would be, and I haven’t even started teaching yet. The worst thing is that I’m already feeling homesick. It’s not so much the foreignness, but the fact that I’ve jumped into this completely alone. All my friends and family, everyone who loves me, is on another continent. And try as I might I can’t block out the thought that according to plan, I won’t see them for a year.

Chris said he felt the same way for the first week or so when he went up to Mornington. Then it passed. I hope it does for me too. I’m nowhere near as tough as Chris, yet I’m doing something exponentially more difficult than he is – a harder job, a foreign country and a longer period of time.

I hope it will pass. Because if I turn tail and run back home… then what am I gonna do?

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985) 337 p.

A heavy and difficult book, and not an easy one to review while I’m hepped up on antibiotics, but let’s give it a shot.

Blood Meridian is considered Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, a dark and violent novel set along the US-Mexican border circa 1850. The novel follows a protagonist known simply as “the kid,” who falls in with the Glanton gang, a historical band of bloodthirsty scalphunters. Led by the wild and savage John Joel Glanton, the real antagonist is Judge Holden – a pale, hairless, disturbing man serving as Glanton’s advisor and second-in-command. He fancies himself a philosopher, an educated man, and yet he seems to thrive on violence and depravity, and is implied to be a pedophile – children often go missing when he is around.

I’ve read one other McCarthy novel, The Road, but this one struck me as a lot more similar to Moby-Dick. They are both deep, thematic novels focusing on the darkness of human nature and the weight of the world, with the characters very clearly being drawn towards an inexorable doom. After the kid joins the gang the narrative shifts away from him, largely focusing on Glanton and the Judge, which reminded me of how Ishmael fades from view once Ahab and Starbuck come into focus in Moby-Dick. And The Road, for all its bleakness, had an optimistic and uplifting ending. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, sinks into a black hole of utter and infinite despair.

It’s unwise to try to judge an author after reading only two of their books, but my preliminary impression is that McCarthy is a one-trick pony. Now, it’s a very impressive trick to be sure: lyrically beautiful prose describing a landscape soaked in brutal violence. I suppose that’s the equivalent of a stallion doing a backflip on a trapeze. But it’s a single trick nonetheless. If you had to pick this or The Road, I’d probably say Blood Meridian – while The Road was one long sad trudge through a landscape of ashes, Blood Meridian at least takes place in a living, breathing world, and thus presents a lot more diversity.

It’s a good book I guess. I generally split books with literary merit into two groups: those that are fun to read (Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and those that are tedious and boring (A Passage To India, The Sheltering Sky). Blood Meridian hovers somewhere in between those two groups, just like Moby-Dick: it’s not fun to read, not particularly enjoyable, but you come out of glad that you did so. Whatever. I’m going to sleep.

Matt Harding is one of my personal heroes. He’s the guy who earned his 15 minutes of fame by dancing badly around the world, becoming a fairly popular YouTube sensation (first video, second video, third video).

A YouTube celebrity might be a weird person to idolise, but I find him really inspiring. He was a backpacker before he ever became an Internet hit, and he writes what is easily the wittiest and most insightful travel blog I’ve ever read (my favourite entry, in which he conquers Kilimanjaro). A lot of travel writers like to think they’re Cormac McCarthy and babble on as poetically as possible about the landscape, with a few observations on the human condition thrown in for good measure. Everytime they hop on a plane they have a fucking epiphany. Matt, on the other hand, has an accessible writing style that’s full of rants and wisecracks, making it all the more surprising when he throws in his own observations on human nature – and a lot more profound. He makes travelling the world seem like fun. Reading his blog was a significant factor in my own desire to hit the road.

And he’s written a book, which is apparently not selling well, but which you can buy! If I wasn’t about to fly to another country in two days I’d definitely buy it myself. But even if you don’t, you should at least check out the hundreds of thousands of words he has typed detailing his travels to over 65 countries on all seven continents.

Choice picks:
Calcutta, India – Touching The Untouchables
Mahe, Seychelles – Chasing The World’s Biggest Fish
Singapore – The Policeman Inside
Samos, Greece – Road To Ephesus
New York – The Blackout



My visa has cleared, my passport is in the post on its way back from Canberra, and I booked my tickets this morning. I’m flying to South Korea on Saturday. 72 hours from now I’ll be hunting for a universal electrical outlet adaptor (which I cannot find ANYWHERE in Perth) at the airport in KL. 82 hours from now I’ll be meeting my employers and fellow teachers in Eupyeong-gu. 107 hours from now I’ll be facing down a classroom full of Korean tykes as part of my vaguely defined “training… day.” No, not plural – day.

It’s not quite as exciting/daunting as it might be, partly because it’s still so incomprehensible, and partly because I’m pre-occupied with a sudden medical situation that reared its monstrous head a few days ago. I’m not going to go into details, but suffice to say that I spent a very stressful 24 hours googling symptoms and self-diagnosing, and convinced myself of what I had – a condition that would dramatically affect my ability to live a normal life. I had a pretty sleepless Monday night and woke up at 8.00 am (my equivalent of 4.00 am), spent five hours pacing around the house before my doctor’s appointment, and another hour sitting in a waiting room plastered with swine flu alerts, marinating in my own awful anxiety.

But it turns out it’s probably not what I thought it was! What it is is still pretty unpleasant, and definitely not something I want to be suffering from while starting a new job in a foreign country, but it’s not permanent and compared to what I thought I’d contracted it’s like receiving the Miles Franklin Award. Well, my doctor is 99% sure it’s not what I thought it was. He’s put me on antibiotics and my blood test results come back on Friday. Fun fun fun! This couldn’t have happened at a more convenient and opportune time!

Anyway, enough about my hypochondria. I had a family dinner tonight to say goodbye to some of my relatives. There’s a popular conception amongst backpackers that they are hip, cool adventurers following in the footsteps of Magellan and da Gama, laughing off the naive, panicky considerations of the typical American slobs back home who think the whole world is one big warzone. That always struck me as arrogant. I didn’t think anyone actually believed that it was dangerous to travel to Thailand or that you’d get kidnapped if you went to South Africa; these people were just fabricated in backpackers’ minds so they could believe they really were doing something dangerous and exotic and pretend they were James Bond.

But my elderly aunts and grandparents proved me wrong! Here are some of the more amusing quotes:

“Be careful what you write in emails and stuff – you don’t want to get thrown in jail.”

“Don’t go out too much… they can tell you’re not one of them.”

“I don’t think you should be going, what with all this North Korea stuff.”

And the prize quote, a hilarious example of bald-faced, unwittingly offensive xenophobia:

“Do you feel comfortable around Asians?”

Fugue For A Darkening Island by Christopher Priest (1972) 125 p.

This book was bundled in an omnibus (how quaint!) with Inverted World, and I’m not entirely sure why. Aside from being science fiction novellas written by the same author, they don’t have much in common. One is a gripping, creative science fiction mystery, while the other is a fairly generic dystopian apocalyptic story, which was both unremarkable and somewhat disturbing.

Fugue For A Darkening Island presents a tale of gradual social collapse that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read Wyndham or Christopher; typically the only variable in these stories is what causes the collapse. In this case it’s a nuclear war in Africa sending millions of refugees flooding onto British shores.

And this is the disturbing part. For much of the book, I thought it was severely racist: a story of thuggish blacks invading the white British homeland and causing death, anarchy and destruction. It was written more than thirty-five years ago, before the UK became the multi-cultural melting pot it is today, when the idea may have reflected the concerns of many British citizens (or, alternatively, the concerns of many citizens in modern-day Australia). As the book progressed, it seemed somewhat less racist – the British government in the story is extremely right-wing, fascist and engaged in overt genocide, and the narrator is portrayed as a hapless civilian refugee caught up between the two forces, light and dark. He sums it up in the last few pages:

In my unwitting role as a refugee I had of neccesity played a neutral role. But it seemed to me it would be impossible for this to continue in the future. I could not stay uncommitted forever.

In what I had seen and heard of the activities of the Secessionist forces, it had always appeared to me that they had adopted a more humanitarian attitude to the situation. It was not morally right to deny the African immigrants an identity or a voice. The war must be resolved one way or another in time, and it was now inevitable that the Africans would stay in Britain permanently.

On the other hand, the extreme actions of the Nationalist side, which stemmed initially from the conservative and repressive policies of Tregarth’s government (an administration I had distrusted and disliked) appealed to me on an instinctive level. It had been the Africans who had indirectly deprived me of everything I once owned. Ultimately, I knew the question depended on finding Isobel. If she and Sally had not been harmed my instincts would be quieted…

Priest appears to be arguing here that while we will always harbour a natural instinct to distrust the Other, defend our family and fight off outsiders, we should rise above that with our intelligence and civilisation, and hold to the better part of human nature. This is a wise argument, which is also the defining theme of Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite books of all time.

Yet there are certain elements of Fugue For A Darkening Island that still seem racist – white Secessionist forces always treat the protagonist more humanely than black militants, there’s an unrealistic shallowness to the portrayal of African refugees (a fairly unified force that speaks Swahili across the board), and there’s the squirming feeling I get simply from reading this scenario put into words. It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis – the population of the Third World greatly outnumbers that of the First, and Europe and Africa are geographically close… though you’d think continental Europe would cop the brunt of it, rather than Britain. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the handful of Muslim riots in France, which right-wingers interpret as evidence that immigration has turned Paris into a corpse-strewn wasteland identical to Mogadishu, and that some kind of apartheid should naturally be introduced.

I digress. I don’t want to accuse Priest of being racist. Science fiction is all about exploring speculative scenarios, especially with a political bent to them, and while significant parts of the book made me uneasy I’m not going to cast judgement on his decision to write it.

But, having barely cleared the political correctness board, Priest must now pass the literary merit test. And he fails. Fugue For A Darkening Island, allegations of racism aside, is simply not a very good book. The bulk of it consists of the protagonist scavenging, conflicting with other parties of survivors, picking up what bits of news that he can and wandering through refugee camps and ruined towns looking for his family. It’s not a badly realised world, but neither is it an original or compelling one. This isn’t helped by Priest’s decision to tell the story in four different timeframes at once, rapidly switching between them, mixing up pointless adolescent sexual misadventures and taking us through the protagonist’s marriage problems. Finally, the cold and detached tone that seemed perfectly natural in Inverted World does him a great disservice here, portraying the narrator as an emotionless bastard with a tediously analytical mind. Fugue For A Darkening Island is a fairly unremarkable book, which is why I was so puzzled at the decision to bundle it with Inverted World, an excellent science fiction classic.

Inverted World by Christopher Priest (1974) 251 p.

I read this book after going through the “Classics” section in the New York Review of Books and noting down the ones that seemed interesting. I’m glad I did – it’s been a long time since I read science fiction so intriguing in its ideas and concepts that it had me reading well into the early hours of the morning.

Helward Mann has reached “the age of six hundred and fifty miles,” when he becomes a man and joins one of the guilds of “the city.” The city is in fact a moving vehicle, constantly travelling north at a rate of about one mile every ten days, through an arid landscape where the local populace is stricken with poverty and disease. It is unclear, at first, where this book takes place – the citizens speak English and the locals Spanish, yet the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and is not spherical but instead shaped like an inverted hyperbola.

Mann is put to work with the Traction Guild, constantly dismantling the rail tracks to the south of the city and reassembling them to the north. Here Mann learns that the city is travelling towards something called “the optimum,” the ideal position for it to be in. He asks his supervisor if they will be able to stop when they get there, but is told that they will never get there, because the optimum is always moving. As Mann is shifted amongst the guilds, learning about the strange world he lives in, it gradually becomes clear that the purpose of the city’s movement it is not about what they are trying to reach, but rather what they are trying to escape.

The ominous foreshadowing Priest applies throughout this story, developing the fascinating mystery of the terrible thing that lies to the south, is brilliantly executed and makes for very compelling reading. I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to sit down and read rather than do anything else, because I was so drawn into this world and determined to discover its secrets just as Mann was. I stayed up reading Inverted World until 3.30 AM, which is late even for me. So, yeah, DO NOT READ ANY OTHER REVIEWS OR SYNOPSES OF THIS BOOK, because you want to know as little as possible going into it, and quite a few of them (i.e. give away significant parts of the mystery.

It is classic science fiction, mind you – the kind of dry characterisation, dialogue and description (just the facts, ma’am) that can only be supported by an excellent concept, as in the case of John Wyndham or John Christopher. Priest’s concept is excellent indeed, so no complaints there.

The issue I have with Inverted World is the ending. The mystery of what lies to the south is resolved, quite satisfactorily (it involves very hard science fiction, but is explained perfectly well to the layman). But it doesn’t answer all the questions about the city – about its origin and history, and certain outrigger mysteries – and it is in this second resolution that Priest falters a bit. He seems to have felt the need to bring the more outrageous aspects of the world down to earth, so to speak, and it results in an explanation that robs Mann’s world of some of its magic, does not actually answer certain things, and seems almost crammed in at the last second – again, I’ll compare Priest to Wyndham.

But this was only a minor issue in an otherwise excellent science fiction novel. Inverted World is a brilliantly crafted mystery that is original, intriguing and certainly worth the time of any science fiction reader.

I’ve signed a contract.

It’s with a school in a suburban district on the edge of Seoul. It’s a branch of a very large franchise called “Wonderland.”

Wonderland does not exactly have a sterling reputation. You might even say that they have acquired a reputation for appalling treatment of foreign English teachers! Contract breaches, withholding of pay, and actual physical abuse are all themes associated with the Wonderland company name.

But if you consider that…
a) When there are over 100 branches they can’t ALL be bad
b) The recruiter who placed me there does have a sterling reputation
c) I spoke with a Canadian teacher working there and she said it was fine
d) If I listened to all the hysterical warnings and ridiculous complaints about teaching English in Korea that I heard on the net, I would never even step foot out the front door
e) It’s the only job I’ve been offered in Seoul proper
f) I really wanna go
…then I’m sure you’ll agree that I’d be crazy not to sign with Wonderland!

The lodging they provide is in the actual school building itself, on the fifth floor. I was concerned about the blurring between my personal and work life, but apparently the other teachers also have apartments on the same level. Also fuck it, who cares, if I don’t like it I’ll bail.

The start date is on June 23 (or thereabouts). I’ve already mailed off my diploma, criminal record check etc. to the school. Then they send it back, and I have to either send it to/visit the consulate in Sydney. Then I have a working visa and I’m set to go. Frankly I think we’re pushing it to try and squeeze that into two and a half weeks, but whatever.

The fact that I’m really going (again, pending visa time race issues) keeps washing over me in a sobering tide of sheer terror. I’ll be hanging out with Mike and suddenly think oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, and then it’ll pass and I’ll be brushing my teeth later that night and it’ll come back.

It’s not leaving home or living overseas that bothers me, it’s the concept of teaching kids. I have no business teaching! The idea is completely incomprehensible so I’ve resolved not to worry about it until I’m actually shoved into a classroom and they lock the door behind me.

I was not precisely reassured by Youtube’s suggestion of similar videos after watching one of a typical Wonderland class:

The Court Of The Air by Stephen Hunt (2007) 582 p.

I have come to the conclusion that I am never going to read any swashbuckling steampunk adventure better than the four books in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series (Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain). The man is king of the hill. There’s just no beating him. Yet I still have an urge to read steampunk wherever I find it, and I am almost always disappointed.

Such is the case with Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air, a novel that employs all the typical tropes of steampunk young adult adventure – orphans, epic quests, Victorian society, and loads and loads of airships. But it soon becomes clear that this isn’t a book aimed at young adults at all, as one of the primary characters is apprenticed to a brothel and the other encounters several brutal murders, all in the first few chapters. This was the first misconception I had, the second one being that this novel would be any good.

I originally thought The Court of the Air was set in an alternate Earth, but was proved wrong, as it becomes evident that this story takes place in a wholly fictional world. But Hunt has taken the lazy route and, rather than creating his own nations and societies, he has simply tweaked minor details to the point where it is very obvious which real-world nations the fictional kingdoms are meant to represent. Jackals, the “nation of shopkeepers” with an unstoppable Navy is very clearly England, Quatershift is France and Cassarabia is guess what? There are occasional flashes of creativity – the robotic steamman race and their mountainous free state was particularly interesting – but on the whole, the creative touches in this world are rather shallow. Even the characters are cut from stereotypical moulds: the plucky, bullied orphan who grows into a hero, his disreputable but highly competent adventuring mentor, the gruff retired military officer, the diabolically insane supervillain… all of whom Hunt regularly uses to dispense some preachy Heinlein-style “wisdom.” The absolute worst offender is “communityism,” an egalitarian political philosophy designed by a man named “Benjamin Carl,” which becomes a revolutionary ideology that ultimately fails, turning states totalitarian and resulting in mass starvation and oppression. I wonder what that could possibly represent. I also wonder why anyone would bother writing a critique of communism in 2007.

The story itself is crammed full of a million different factions, races, characters and storylines, drawn from sources as wildly varied as Charles Dickens to the Cthulu mythos. The effect of this is not an epic novel of dazzling variety, but rather a bloated mess. By the end of the war that takes place in the last 150 pages, I had no idea who wanted what for which reasons, and I no longer cared. It was a very similar feeling to watching the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Having said all that, The Court of the Air is Hunt’s first novel, and as a writer he shows promise. At his best, he demonstrates a certain amount of imaginative flair and vivid writing. It’s just a shame that, in this novel at least, he’s rarely at his best.

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June 2009