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During my daily life, what with all the screaming children and endless officework and borderline alcoholism, it’s often easy to forget that I live in South Korea. Even after two months it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. So it’s a completely abstract notion that I also happen to live only 30 kilometres away from the most reclusive, bizarre and batshit insane nation in the entire world.

I find the division of Korea to be pretty fascinating. No two nations in the world are more alike and yet more different. They’re both racially homogenous countries with a shared language and common history, and yet one is a democratic technological prodigy rocketing into the 21st century, while the other is a starving Stalinist dictatorship clinging onto the Cold War. Check it, yo:


We all have a subconscious tendency to categorise the brainwashed denizens of communist dictatorships as Others, and reassure ourselves that it could never happen to us. Yes, it’s odd that they all worship the Dear Leader and believe that he can manipulate the weather and was born on Baekdu Mountain underneath a rainbow, but, well… they’re not like us, are they? They’re different.

But not to South Koreans. You could pick up the average South Korean, plonk them down in Pyongyang and they’d be able to walk the streets having a conversation with people who were just like them… except completely brainwashed. Actually the average young Korean man, with his tight jeans and styled blonde hair, would probably last all of thirty seconds in Pyongyang before the military realised something was up and dragged him away for interrogation. But you get what I mean. Imagine if Queensland was surrounded by landmines and razor wire and ruled by a mysterious dictator with an elaborate cult of personality.

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, cuts the Korean peninsula in two roughly across the 38th parallel. It’s two kilometres wide on either side of the official border, which adds up to a four-kilometre wide band of land running all the way across Korea. It’s completely uninhabited, strewn with landmines and overgrown ruins, and contains not a single soul… except at one place.

That place is Panmunjon, or the Joint Security Area, where roads run into the DMZ from north and south and meet at a cluster of “temporary” buildings. This is the one and only place where North Korean and South Korean soldiers come face to face, staring each other down only a few metres apart. The purpose of the JSA is to hold official meetings and discuss reunification. In theory. What they actually use it for is sabre-rattling, and lots of it.

It’s a tense area. The two Koreas never officially ended the war, and hostilites continue to this day. Shots have been fired, defections have been made and axe murders have occurred (really). It might seem odd to bring tourists into such an area, but I suppose it’s appropriate – after all, this is Capitalist Korea versus Communist Korea and it’s fitting that the southern side should therefore exploit the fascinating military stalemate to rake in the cash off Western tourists. You might even say it’s their patriotic duty! (For this to work you have to ignore the fact that North Korea also runs guided tours from their side of the DMZ.)

I went on the USO tour, which is run by the US military and includes by far the largest amount of DMZ attractions. Unfortunately it also requires getting up at 5 am to be at Camp Kim by 7 am. I guess the US Army feels that’s a natural time to start things in the morning. Sucks for a teacher accustomed to sleeping in until noon every day, suddenly thrust into an environment where Saturday and Sunday mornings are precious sanctuaries of rest, but whatever.

So after spending the previous night trying to find an iTunes alarm that would wake my computer up and then play a song, so I don’t have to start my days with the fucking ear-splitting shriek of my apartment’s alarm clock anymore, I rose yesterday 5.00 AM, knocked on Tony’s door at 5.30 AM, and the two of us arrived at Camp Kim around 6.30 AM. It was a pretty big tour group, about 90 people. Mostly Americans, but not nearly as many soldiers as I expected. We waited around for about an hour while they checked all our passports, and were then piled onto two tour buses.

I’ll mention now that I absolutely hate guided tours. I hate being shepherded around, I hate having no independence, I hate the corny jokes and dull statistics dispensed by the guides and I generally hate the whole atmosphere. But you can’t exactly wander around the DMZ on your own, so I had to put up with it.

Our tour guide was a Korean woman who spoke decent English and had an obvious and amusing hatred of North Korea, her mother having barely escaped with her life to the south in 1950. As we drove north we came to a river, the name of which I forget, which empties out into the Yellow Sea just north of Seoul. This close to the coast, the river itself forms the border, and on the north side of the wide estuary we caught our first glimpse of North Korea. It’s strikingly different from the south. South Korea is covered with rice paddies, vegetation and towering apartment blocks. North Korea simply showed a few clusters of single story buildings and bare mountainsides, the vegetation having been stripped clean for food and fuel. Coils of razor wire ran the entire length of the river, and regular ROK (Republic of Korea) Army observation posts lined the highway, soldiers staring north with binoculars.

We eventually drove over a bridge (further east now, the north shore of the river being South Korean territory), and headed into Camp Bonifas, the northenmost US/ROK military base in the country. It’s right below the southern border of the DMZ, as close as they can possibly be to North Korea without violating the armistice agreement. The camp’s motto is “In Front Of Them All,” which could also mean “First To Get Our Asses Kicked If The North Invades” – although that could also apply to whatever equivalent exists on the northern side. (And yes, the North would lose a war in a matter of weeks – not that it would do me any good, since Seoul would be flattened in a matter of hours by the thousands of pieces of long-range artillery they have hidden just over the border.)

We were ushered into a small meeting hall where we were issued UN visitor badges and signed forms absolving South Korea, the US and the UN of any responsibility in the event of our deaths. (“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”) Then we watched a slide show given by an MP who seemed in a rush to get through the whole thing. It outlined the history of the war and some examples of the aggression that the JSA is a hot point for, such as the Axe Murder Incident, which took place in August 1976.

Before the unpleasantness of the Axe Murder Incident, both ROK/US and North Korean soldiers were allowed to freely move about within the entire JSA, crossing the demarcation line (official border) whenever it suited them. There was a particular tree within the area at this time that, growing larger and larger, was starting to block the view between a ROK/US command post and a ROK/US observation post. They decided to trim some branches, and dispatched a fourteen man team of both Americans and South Koreans to do so, led by Captain Arthur Bonifas – at the time, the camp to the south was called Camp Kitty Hawk. Since it has subsequently been named in his honour, you may guess that this story does not end well for him.

The tree-pruning team wasn’t carrying guns. Few soldiers in the JSA do, even today; just a few MPs. It is, after all, a demilitarized zone. They did have a few axes and mattocks to prune the tree.

Shortly after they began cutting back the branches, a North Korean force of equal size appeared and ordered them to halt, because the tree was apparently personally planted by Kim Il-Sung, and was growing under his supervision. Bonifas ignored this bullshit, which was probably imprudent, because a few minutes later a truck full of 20 more North Koreans showed up with clubs and crowbars. The North Korean officer again ordered Bonifas to stop, and Bonifas again ignored them, which was definitely imprudent, because the North Korean officer then ordered his men to “kill them all!” and personally karate chopped Bonifas in the neck and then bludgeoned him to death.


In the enusing melee, the outnumbered ROK/US forces were badly wounded, and the fight was only broken up when one of them drove their truck into the fray and over Bonifas in an attempt to protect him. When the North Korean forces retreated they dragged their own wounded with them, and also US Lieutenant Mark Barrett. Nobody realised Barrett was missing until later, when an observation post saw North Korean soldiers jumping down into a ditch and hacking at something with an axe. A medevac was dispatched, but it was too late for both Bonifas and Barrett.

Three days later the US/ROK forces dispatched into the JSA 23 trucks containing 60 soldiers, 16 chainsaw-equipped engineers, 64 Korean spec ops with M16s, grenade launchers and Claymore mines strapped to their chests, 20 utility choppers, 7 Cobra attack choppers, several B-52 bombers and F4 Phantoms, and the aircraft carrier USS Midway sitting on full alert just off-shore in the Yellow Sea. The purpose of this enormous expeditionary force wasn’t to retaliate, or to start a war. They just wanted to cut that fucking tree down.

This would all be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high.

Anyway, after hearing about all this, we jumped back on the tour buses and drove north, passing under a blue archway into the actual DMZ. Immediately there was a fence on both sides of the road lined with signs warning against landmines. I personally figured the fifty-odd metres to either side would have to be safe, because they surely would have sent mine-sweeping teams in to make sure the area around the base was clear – after all, how else could they build the road? But apparently the torrential rain Korea experiences every summer causes a lot of mudslides and constantly buries or re-exposes the mines. So yes, the danger is very real. There’s a one-hole golf course at Camp Bonifas considered the most dangerous in the world because the rough is full of mines.

As we headed north we passed by Daeseong-dong, also known as “Freedom Village.” It’s small South Korean farming community whose existence inside the DMZ is either a gesture of peace, reconciliation and determination to reunify, or a propaganda exercise, depending on who you talk to. The residents all have to be indoors by nightfall, with doors and windows locked by midnight. In return for this, and for living so nerve-wrackingly close to North Korea, they are exempt from taxes and national service, and have a hell of a lot more land to farm than most South Koreans do, so they make about a hundred grand every year.

And then we were arriving in the Joint Security Area, a fairly plain-looking collection of buildings patrolled be extremely fierce-looking ROK soldiers wearing Ray-Bans and maintaining motionless taekwondo stances. After being told several times that we must absolutely not try to communicate with the North Korean soldiersin any way, including gesturing and pointing, we were ordered into two lines and slowly led through the main ROK/US building out onto the other side, where the official border is. Several small blue and grey meeting rooms sit right on the border, the demarcation lines running right through them and over the conference tables. On the north side is the main North Korean building, an ugly and imposing structure of grey concrete.


It was eerily quiet, and I was a little disappointed, because only ROK soldiers were in sight. Sometimes there are North Koreans stationed right there on their side of the border, staring their counterparts down. Today we could only see the ROK soldiers, standing half-behind the edge of the walls so as to present a smaller target for snipers. I don’t see why they don’t just stand behind the wall entirely. Or, if that presents a problem for visibility, have them stay inside the main building behind reflective windows or something.

Before I could scan the northern side trying to spot one of those strange, elusive creatures of the People’s Army, we were led inside one of the conference rooms. As I mentioned earlier, the border runs right through the room (and the table), so you’re allowed to walk around in what is, strictly speaking, North Korean territory. The fact that there was a South Korean guard there blocking the door to the north sort of spoiled the effect, although it was pretty amusing when one of the girls strayed too close to the door and he barked gruffly and put an arm out to block her. She freaked. They are pretty intimidating; apparently all ROK soldiers at the JSA are the cream of the crop, hand-selected by the government.


Our US soldier guide talked about the conference room and dispensed some more amusing stories of dick-waving; at one point the North Koreans brought in a flag slightly larger than the UN flag, so the ROK/US forces responded by bringing in a slightly larger flag, and it escalated, until the flags were almost too big to fit in the room and they held a conference just to discuss the size of the flags. Mature and professional!

After that, we were led back out onto the steps of the South Korean building while the second half of our group entered the conference room. And this was where I spotted my first North Korean soldier, standing far away on the steps of the North Korean building.


His job is to watch us through binoculars and photograph us. The dress code for these tours has relaxed in recent years, but there was a time when you had to wear dress shoes, a collared shirt and either slacks or khakis – because the UNC didn’t want photographs of scruffy Western deadbeats showing up on propaganda posters in Pyongyang.


After a few minutes I spotted another soldier in the foliage off to our right. Not sure what he was doing.


And then a few minutes later the first guy’s superior came out, borrowed his binoculars and peered at us himself.


It was only later when I zoomed in on this photo that I realised they were smiling, as though one of them had just made a joke. I think seeing that was probably the most surreal part of the whole experience. They may be brainwashed tools of a brutal police state, but they still laugh. Weird.


Anyway, the obvious question that comes to mind when you’re observing the only direct border between the two countries is: what would happen if you made a break for it?

It happens from time to time, usually by North Korean soldiers who have uneasy doubts about just how Dear their Leader really is. There were no North Korean guards standing by the conference rooms when I visited, but typically, one stands right on the demarcation line with his back to South Korea. His job is to watch all the other soldiers to make sure they don’t bolt.

Anyway, the answer to what would happen if you tried to dash across the border is that it would be a really messy situation. Regardless of which side you’re on, the guards will do everything they can to stop you. On the northern side this would involve shooting you. On the southern side, I don’t like your chances of making it over the line before being crash-tackled by the badass motherfuckers of the ROK Army’s finest. And no matter which side you fail on, you’re going to be in serious trouble: execution in North Korea, and jail in South Korea.

Where it really gets interesting is if you make it over the line. Korean guards from either side are not, ever since the Axe Murder Incident, allowed to cross the line. But in pursuit of a defector they very well might. This would result in a heated battle between unarmed (but taekwondo-trained) Korean guards, and the one or two MPs that have handguns. That would last for about two minutes before fully-armed reinforcements from Camp Bonifas and whatever its opposite number is arrive, at which point the JSA would become a raging battleground while the defector is rushed to safety.

This has happened once and once only, in 1984, when a Soviet citizen on a North Korean tour fled south to defect. The ensuing firefight lasted forty minutes, with three North Koreans and one South Korean killed. I’m not sure how they defused something like that. I’m not sure how it didn’t escalate into a fully-fledged war. Either way, the Soviet guy made it to safety and now lives in Los Angeles.

I don’t think anyone has ever fled from the south to the north (at least not in the last twenty-five years, when you started actually being able to distinguish one Korea from the other). If you did, and you made it, you would probably be welcomed by the North Korean guards because a Western citizen would be an invaluable propaganda tool (and it would definitely be a Western citizen, because Koreans aren’t allowed on the tour). You’d be put up in a nice house, have to learn Korean and the Juche philosophy, and probably be employed as an actor playing white villains in propaganda films, or teaching English to the select few North Koreans who will themselves be used by the government as diplomats, spies or propagandists. You’ll be quite well off by Noth Korean standards, but you’ll have no freedom whatsoever, and when the two nations reunify on South Korea’s terms (which will probably happen in your lifetime) you’ll be in a lot of trouble.

So the moral is, don’t defect to North Korea.

That was it for the JSA tour. We stopped off to buy souvenirs (yes, there is a souvenir store in the JSA, and yes, I did buy a T-shirt) but after that we were heading towards Dora Observatory.

I’d heard of this place before, and my mind automatically assumed it was an astronomical observatory inside the DMZ, some relic from before the war that was kept operational purely for symbolic purposes. It’s not an astronomical observatory at all, and it’s not in the DMZ – it sits just south of it, and commands an impressive view of the north. On a clear day, which today was, you can see for several dozen kilometres into North Korea with the aid of coin-operated telescopes.


You are not, however, allowed to take photographs within a certain limit of the observation balcony. There’s a yellow line painted marking the limit, which resulted in a whole heap of tourists standing on their tip-toes with their cameras held over their heads, trying to take photographs of the North. (I was one of them, which is why that last photo was of such poor quality.) A ROK soldier patrolling the area watched us like hawks and made anyone who took a photo past the yellow line delete it. He was a pretty nice guy though, spoke fluent English, and allowed me to cross the line and take a photo pointing the other way to illustrate how ridiculous this situation was:


I have absolutely no idea why they don’t let people take photos. Normally it’s because they want you to buy postcards in the gift shop, but that wasn’t the case here. Plus it seemed like a pretty arbritrary cut-off point, since you’re only about four metres from the balcony anyway. After a while I stopped trying to get good photos and just took in the view.

From Dora Observatory you can see the small city of Kaesong, a light industrial centre which essentially looked like a typically bland South Korean city – but minus the flashing lights and corporate logos that lend this country the appearance, if not the entire truth, of being a completely developed country. Further south you could also see a good chunk of the DMZ, including Camp Bonifas, Daeseong-dong and the JSA.

On the Northern side of the DMZ is their equivalent of Daeseong-dong, a small town called Kijong-dong allowed to exist within the DMZ for the same reasons the South permits Daeseong-dong. While the South’s is nicknamed “Freedom Village,” the North’s is nicknamed “Propaganda Village,” and for a much better reason than the typical American obsession with that word. Kijong-dong is completely empty. Nobody lives there, and the buildings are concrete shells without window glasses or interior rooms. The lights are automated and the streets swept clean by caretakers bussed in from Kaesong. It was built from scratch in the 1950s, a time when both Koreas were impoverished, devastated nations languishing under military dictatorships, to encourage South Korean defection. Loudspeakers would blare propaganda about how easy and wonderful life was in the north; after several decades, when that proved ineffective, they started pumping out anti-Western speeches and patriotic marching music, and turning up the volume. The South responded by blaring out K-pop from Daeseong-dong, and as somebody who works with kindergardners who recite K-pop all day long, let me assure you that the villagers of Daeseong-dong suffered the most in this whole debacle. Eventually both sides agreed to stop broadcasting just to give themselves some peace and quiet.

Kijong-dong also contains one of the world’s highest flagpoles, standing 160 metres tall and just barely visible in my crummy photo further up the page. It was built after the South extended the height of their flagpole to 100 metres so it was taller than the North’s; they responded by building the current record-holder. I think this is the perfect symbol of the pointless pissing contest that goes on between these two countries. And while one would be inclined to assume that the North Koreans usually start it – they’re the bad guys, right? – the South is reponsible for their share of childish bullshit too. After working in South Korea for two months I understand much more clearly how the North operates. Confucianism and saving face – North and South both operate under these same frustrating, illogical values. Westerners may be inclined to believe that the South is always in the right, because it’s a reasonable and rational nation. Wrong. I’m not defending North Korea at all, or suggesting the two countries are basically the same. But their fundamental, traditional values are basically the same. Kim-Jong Il owes a lot more to Confucius than he does to Stalin.

Apparently there’s a gold statue of Kim Il-Sung (which isn’t quite as ludicrous as Saparmurat Niyazov’s revolving gold statue)  somewhere in Kaesong, but my binoculars snapped shut before I could find it. There’s also a huge radar mast sticking up from one of the mountains, placed there to disrupt radio signals originating in the South; it’s a crime in North Korea to listen to broadcasts from the south. What our tour guide didn’t mention, and which I later found out myself, is that the reverse is also true.

After the observatory we made a final stopover to visit one of the most insane things North Korea has ever done (the other being the kidnapping of South Korean film director Shin Sang-Ok so that he could personally make films for Kim Jong-Il). During the 1970s, residents just south of the DMZ reported hearing strange rumbles and noises, but couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. It was only after a defector tipped off the military that they realised what was going on: seventy-three metres below their feet, a team of North Koreans was digging a tunnel all the way to Seoul in preparation for a surprise invasion.

The South Koreans drilled down to it and took control of it, and today you can walk down a very long access ramp and go through the wet, rocky, low-ceilinged tunnel yourself. It’s quite cramped, but easily large enough for three soldiers abreast, and would also accommodate field artillery. At the end of the tunnel, below the demarcation line, are several concrete walls and a CCTV camera constantly watching them. I sure hope they have more walls and some minefields further up. I’m not sure why they didn’t just fill the entire tunnel with concrete.

There are several other tunnels, the most recent one discovered in 1990, and the South Koreans now have to drill all over the place looking for any new ones. North Korea’s response to all of these is that they were coal mines. They even put black paint on the walls to support this theory. The South Koreans claim this is a lie because the tunnels are dug through granite, which doesn’t contain coal. Personally I would consider it a lie because they are two-metre wide tunnels with no other branches running in a straight line directly towards Seoul. Oh, and North Korea? You’re not actually allowed to dig for coal beneath another country’s territory!

We were also treated to a short feel-good documentary about how the DMZ’s lack of humans has made it a natural wildlife preserve. My favourite excerpt: “The DMZ is now home to living fossils such as the… goat!” Then we were herded into another gift shop (fucking guided tours, man) where I bought some North Korean blueberry wine, which I assume was exported via China.

And that wrapped up the tour. We all fell asleep on the bus ride back to Camp Kim, having gotten up at the crack of dawn, and then hauled our exhausted asses back home.

I thought it was pretty good. I mostly went on it because I wanted to visit the JSA and see some North Korean soldiers, which was kind of disappointing because they were shy, like when you go to the zoo and all the interesting animals are hiding at the back of their exhibits. But it was still well worth the 90,000 won (90 AUD, 70 USD). Overall a fairly surreal experience and something that few people can say they’ve done. Also something that won’t be around forever.

I suppose I could also go on a tour to North Korea if I felt like blowing thousands of dollars.

Work has gotten shittier lately. Every day the kindy kids have a “special class,” which is either Chinese or phys ed or science or music, depending on the day of the week. This gives the teachers one free period in which to relax, do some more planning or stave off the inevitable brain aneurysms.

However, the current South Korean government is apparently trying to crack down on the hagwon industry – CAN’T IMAGINE WHY – and has passed a law saying that anyone employed at an English academy must be a licensed teacher and that all classes must be taught in English. So all the special teachers, who are all either part-time contractors or only speak Korean, are off the payroll. At least that’s the reason the school gave us. Maybe they just fired them to cut costs. Maybe they quit, like the entire Korean staff mere weeks before my arrival! Who knows! In this glorious whirlwind of Confucian deceit and exploitation, anything is possible!

The point is I now have to teach during that particular period, increasing my classes and robbing me of my only morning break in one fell swoop. It’s amazing how such a small change makes such a huge difference – teaching five straight kindergarden classes is utterly exhausting.

At least it was also monthly test day, which meant my afternoon elementary classes involved me napping with my feet up on a chair while the students feverishly scribbled away. I’m not entirely sure why we bother testing them. The tests are deliberately written to be easy so that they score well (I know this because I wrote them myself, under those specific instructions), poor scores result in absolutely no changes to the syllabus, and the only people who see the test scores are their parents when theey receive their report cards – who can then be impressed by how well their child must be doing in English, since they scored extremely high on the test and the class will be moving on to the next textbook in a month!

This is the hagwon industry in a nutshell. They don’t provide education. They provide the illusion of education. Oh, okay, the kids learn English here and there. But there’s so much smoke and so many mirrors. Acquiring and maintaining clients (sorry, students) comes first and foremost, which means that appearances are everything.

I went for a walk this evening, partly because I needed some milk and beer and partly because I felt like taking a walk to the second-closest subway station to my apartment, since the closest one is the same one all my co-workers use, so I might hypothetically stumble into them coming home in the early hours of a Sunday morning, if I was, for no particular reason – just idly speculating here – going the opposite direction wearing my huge backpack. At that particular time of day. With plane tickets. Anyway, while I was walking by the canal I saw a huge video ad for the upcoming Korea vs. Australia soccer match, which faded out to a simple image of the Korean flag opposing the Australian flag. Rarely does real life provide such appropriate cinematic symbolism.

I also stopped by the ATM to start the slow and steady process of withdrawing all my cash. The largest denomination in Korean currency is 10,000 won ($10). I will be leaving the country with approximately 3,000,000 won ($3,000). I wish my jeans had deeper pockets.

It’s Sunday evening, August 2009. I’m sitting in my tiny apartment in South Korea drinking Jinro wine straight from the bottle and mulling over the decision I just made.

Not entirely true. I made this decision a long time ago. In the first few days after arriving, actually. It’s only now that I’ve taken steps to make it a reality.

No turning back now.

The Dark Tower Volume I: The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982) 249 p.

Stephen King is a strange beast. His wild deviation between quality and crap is a matter of public record. Here is a man who can produce brilliant novels such as The Stand or The Mist, mediocre novels such as Cujo and terrible novels such as Rose Madder. I’ll admit that I haven’t actually read much of his canon, but the rule of thumb I’ve picked up from others is that his works start to decline around the 1990s. Since The Dark Tower series, his self-professed magnum opus, begins in the early stages of his career and progresses into the 2000s, I was wary of reading it.

That sounds pretty harsh. I actually like Stephen King quite a lot – when he writes well, he writes really well, and from reading his various forewords, non-fiction pieces and his EW blog he seems like a pretty cool guy. And while his writing may not always be top-notch, there’s a certain quiet wisdom in it that elevates it above typical popular fiction; something that goes beyond an entertaining story and embeds itself in the zeitgest. If I had to pick a 20th century writer who best represents American culture, I would name Stephen King in a heartbeat.

Rambling. Anyway, I figured it was about time to give the Dark Tower series a chance, so I read the first book, The Gunslinger. It traces the journey of the eponymous gunslinger (only named as “Roland” in flashbacks to his youth) as he pursues a mysterious man in black across a desert, into mountains and through a massive cave and tunnel system. Roland faces various challenges along the way, such as a town of people enchanted by the dark man to destroy him, a young boy who died in New York and found himself in Roland’s world, and a strange oracle spirit in the mountains.

This book is fantasy, a term which has come to mean “Tolkien-derived rubbish.” The Gunslinger is the good kind of fantasy, a fable that creates its own worlds and cultures and creatures. More fascinating by far than Roland or any of his friends and enemies is the land he moves through – a strange place, similar to the American West, yet entirely different. There are suggestions it is post-apocalyptic; “the world has moved on,” as the characters say. Roland is clearly a cowboy figure, yet the clan and culture he hails from is unmistakably Arthurian. The people he meets in the desert towns sing “Hey Jude” and worship God. When travelling through the mountain caves, he comes upon an abandoned railway network, where long-dead station attendents crumble to dust at his touch, victims of chemical weapons in a forgotten war. This world, it seems, it both an alternate universe and a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

King describes The Gunslinger as “almost (but not quite!) complete in itself,” and I agree. At the end of the book there are far too many unanswered questions, Roland’s story is clearly not over, and it is obvious that this is merely the first book in a larger series. That’s fine by me. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, because I expect it to be pretty good. The Gunslinger isn’t a particularly great book on its own – plotwise it’s quite sparse, it suffers from a lack of characters, and as King himelf said it’s not a stand-alone book. But it’s very readable, and enjoyable, particularly when King reaches near-poetic heights of storytelling, which I’ve never seen him do before.

The Gunslinger is clearly a set-up. It exists to lay a foundation stone for a larger epic story, and is only worth reading if you plan to read the rest of that story. So is the Dark Tower series as a whole worth reading? I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.

Every single weekday here consists of pacing like a caged tiger around a table full of kids as they scream out “TEACHER HERLP PREASE” and “TEACHER I AM DONE” because these are THE ONLY ENGLISH WORDS THEY KNOW AND THEY WILL NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER TRY SOMETHING BECAUSE THEY EXPECT ME TO GIVE THEM EVERY SINGLE ANSWER, wrangle through Korean Confucianist half-answers and duckings and weavings with my supervisor whenever I ask for a REASON why something has to be done or a REASON why something hasn’t been done, sit at my computer doing endless plans which basically just equate to “NEXT FOUR PAGES IN THE TEXTBOOK” but arranged into a nice table for the fucking parents, and serving the kids lunch which apparently I haven’t been doing properly so my supervisor has started sitting on on my lunch periods and LITERALLY SPOONFEEDING the kids. Then at the end of the day I trudge up the stairs to my apartment, suck down a bottle of wine and plot my escape from this wretched place.

Truly, these are the best days of my life.

Strange how things change. I was watching the birthday party unfold in the kid’s room today and it struck me that this is the second monthly birthday party I’ve seen here, and that I see these children and these teachers every day, and that their simple tics and mannerisms are wholly familiar to me… and that this is my life now. This is the place where I live and work, the entirety of my being. These are the people and the things and sounds and the smells that I experience every day.

My hometown no longer exists, except as a memory, or in digital format as photos and emails and grainy skype videos. All the things that have made up my life over the last 20 years are as insubstantial and unreal as World War I or the First Fleet. The balcony over the swamp at Carine Open Space. Fishing on the beaches along West Coast Highway at one in the morning with my sleeves and cuffs rolled up, standing in the moonlit surf, casting in silence for an hour before Chris eventually says, “…fishing blows.” Bees drifting through spring flowers outside my primary school. The first warm evening in November. The relentless beep of the checkouts at Coles. The musty smell of my faithful Hyundai. The baking sun, the endless curbs and footpaths, the daily commute down Marmion Avenue. A city seemingly designed for cars and cars alone. Open blue skies you could drown in. Magpies trilling in the garden. Lying on my towel at the beach covered in grit and frying in January heat. Bracing ourselves against the bulkhead of the Sea Vixen as she plows through the Gage Roads on a choppy day, every wave bursting over the prow and soaking us, so that by the time we arrive on Rottnest at dusk our shirts are rigid with salt. Going to Northbridge and seeing people vomit in the gutters, brawl in the streets, the hideous stink of booze and sweat and urine mixing together on the sticky floor of every single club and bar. The freeway and the train lines, the CBD and the suburbs, the rolling hills and the long unspoilt stretch of white coast.

None of those things exist anywhere but in my mind. All that exists is this school, this sterile kindergarden, the walls plastered with rosy-cheeked template cartoons and simple sentences, the warped chiming of the period bell, the paper-swamped office with its tiny window offering a view of smog-choked suburban Seoul. And my apartment, perched on the top floor, the drains submerged under pools of water they can’t swallow, wine and beer bottles sitting on every surface, the stink of unwashed socks and bad plumbing. Techno blaring out of every store, the whining tones of Korean, the cruel humidity, the blast of cool air that comes with every arriving subway train. The imposing northern mountain of granite outcrops and riotous green foliage. Concrete makeup and hooker heels on the young women, frizzy perms and sun visors on the older ones. Flaming metrosexuality on the young men, khaki pants and singlets on the older ones. The refreshing, startling feeling of seeing a Caucasian face on the street. Bumpy green and yellow footpaths. Tanks full of eel and squid outside every restaurant. Motorcycles everywhere. Homeplus. Emart. LG. Seven-Eleven. Lotteria. Samsung. Paris Baguette. South Korea – the totality of my existence, and the only thing in the world.

Yet! When I leave, it will be this place which ceases to exist, and its antipode that swells back to life, as vibrant and colourful and real as I remember it. Check and balance – there is room for one world and one world only, and while it sits in the centre of my perception all others that have been or will be must remain dormant. This elegant law ranks alongside certainties such as the rising sun or the falling apple, and in dark hours it grants me comfort to know that this place is no more permanent or inevitable than a bad dream.

am i going insane? y/n

One of the worst days I’ve had since I came here. I woke up with a really bad sore throat, which only got worse as the days went on. Being a teacher, I have to talk. All the time. By the time my afternoon elementary classes rolled around it felt like I’d swallowed a caltrop. I scavenged some cough drops out of my predecessor’s drawer, which have been sitting there for God knows how long, but they did fuck all. So before I left for the day I got my supervisor to write down “sore throat” in hangul and went to the pharmacy next door. (Nice how I can go out for a drink, have a meal, go to the bank, do my grocery shopping, and get medical treatment all within thirty metres of my apartment. Are you listening, Perth?)

The pharmacist squinted at the paper for a while and then gave me two different boxes of pills. Any anxiety I might have about quaffing unknown medicines was slowly eroded during my hellish four-class afternoon, the highlight of which was repeating the sound “ck” over and over again to a bunch of bored children oblivious to how agonising that particular phonic can be, so I gulped the motherfuckers down. He said they’re not antibiotics; one’s a painkiller, ibuprofen I think, and the other’s some kind of anti-inflammatory. They seem to be working. It’s definitely better than it was before.

So yeah, that was a pretty awful day. I was looking at an $590 ticket home on during one of my breaks, but couldn’t quite summon the resolve to click on it. Soon. Soon.

I’ve spent the evening reading up on the ol’ contract, since I’d be quite pleased at this stage to discover that my school is cheating me so I could shrug off some of the guilt about planning to do a midnight runner (still split on whether to actually do one or give notice). Unfortunately, after careful study and use of the Windows calculator, it would seem that my contract is very carefully worded so that it’s not actually lying, but still in no way resembles my actual workplace situation.

I won’t go into the details, partly because it’s tedious enough for someone closely involved in it and partly because an hour of mathematics is enough for one night, but suffice to say that I’m only supposed to work about 28 hours a week. I actually work between 40 and 45 hours a week. This seems like a breach, but it’s not, because they make it vague and confusing by drawing an arbritrary line between teaching hours and prep hours. I get paid overtime only if I teach more than 27.5 hours a week, whereas I actually teach about 24 hours per week. The other 16 hours comprise of lesson prep, writing tests and plans, serving the children lunch and the 5 minute breaks between every class which really add up and which aren’t useful for anything more than going up to the office and switching books and files. Apparently none of this qualifies as work. I beg to differ.

You can look at it two ways: either I work 45 hours a week and get paid 10 bucks an hour, or I work 24 hours a week and get paid 20 bucks an hour… but have to do a lot of unpaid work on the side. That’s the exact same thing. Why did I make that comparison? What the fuck am I talking about? Why am I still awake at midnight when I have work tomorrow? Why am I in this country slowly losing my mind? Why why why why why?

Long story short: only by reading very carefully will you realise that a standard Wonderland contract gives you a shit deal. Okay, so I should have read carefully. That still doesn’t exempt Wonderland from writing a beartrap of a contract.

Message to any prospective English teachers googling “Korea” and “Wonderland:” DON’T ACCEPT A WONDERLAND CONTRACT! Yes, their reputation is severely exaggerated by the moaning hypocrites at Dave’s ESL Cafe, and it’s nowhere near as bad as Jane Keeler would lead you to believe. But you can do better!

My sister scanned and emailed me this today:

There you have it, folks! For just $180 and a lot of bureaucratic hoop-jumping, you too can become a citizen of a country that you’ve never been to!

OK, so you have to have a grandparent born in Ireland too, but my cousin got Italian citizenship through her Italian grandparents, and I’m pretty sure the UK has a similar thing going on. This suggests that a lot of other European countries have citizenship-by-descent arrangements too. And in any country of immigrants like Australia or the US, there’s a lot of people with foreign grandparents.

The reason this is so useful is because of Europe’s attempt to amalgamate itself into a dysfunctional American-style union to regain its past glory. Having Irish citizenship automatically grants me European Union citizenship, allowing me to live and work anywhere in Europe. As I am just entering my early twenties and plan to spend a lot of time out of Australia, this will come in handy.

Another benefit is having a second passport. Even if you never plan to go to the country you’re a citizen of, a second passport can come in handy. There have been several times here in Korea when I’ve had to surrender my Australian passport to government institutions (once for an entire week) and it makes me distinctly uneasy to be in a foreign land without it.

I strongly advise anyone who plans to travel to take a look at their family tree and see if they can acquire dual citizenship. Well worth the time and money.

Guns, Germs And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1997) 440 p.


On the 18th of January 1788, the forerunners of a Royal Navy fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Philip made landfall on the east coast of Australia, after a gruelling eight month voyage. By the 26th of January this fleet, comprising of eleven ships and 1, 332 sailors, marines and convicts, had sailed north to Port Jackson, founded the tiny settlement that would eventually become Sydney, and established the first permanent European presence on the Australian continent.

Over the next two centuries, approximately half a million Aboriginals would die. Whether from organised massacres or introduced British diseases or even a genocidal “breeding out” policy that the dominance of the British settlers enabled them to enact, the Australian Aboriginals were completely and utterly at the mercy of their technologically superior invaders.

The same sad story has been played out hundreds of times across the globe. Indigenous groups of the Americas, Africa, Australia, South-East Asia and the South Pacific have been Europe’s whipping boys for hundreds of years. Even today, in nations such as Australia and the United States, these natives are stuck on a much lower socio-economic rung than the ancestors of European settlers. Why wasn’t it Australian Aboriginals who built vast fleets, sailed to the other side of the world and got all up in Britain’s grill? Why did they remain primitive hunter-gatherers while Europeans invented cool stuff like the moveable printing press, flintlock rifle and hot-air balloon?

For many years the assumptive answer was that Europeans were simply genetically more intelligent, a superior race to any other. Diamond slaps a great big RACIST stamp on this assertion, and proceeds to explain exactly why Eurasia wound up as big man on campus by tracing technological developments back to their earliest roots.

The core argument he makes is that certain parts of the world have more domesticable plant and animal species: for example, Eurasia had awesome big mammals like the horse and the cow, which provided one with a sweet ride and a tasty dinner respectively, whereas Africa got stuck with the lion (which will eat you) the hippo (which will eat you) and the zebra (which willl bite you and not let go until it dies). Likewise, Eurasia had easy crops like wheat, which you can grow by just tossing the seeds around the field all day and then sitting around wanking until they grew, whereas North America only had corn, seeds of which you had to pain-stakingly plant individually under the hot sun – with no beasts of burden to help you plow. (Oh, and living around herds of animals all the time? That’s what helped us build strong immunity to diseases which originally developed in those animals, which we then unleashed on people who weren’t quite so lucky to have as many shivering, plague-ridden pets.)

Thus Eurasia was able to grow a hell of a lot more food, which led to higher population densities, which meant Spaniards and Russians and Chinese had a whole bunch of people sitting around inventing shit or deciding to build an empire, whereas in the depths of the Amazon every able-bodied man was hunting and gathering from dawn till dusk just to stay alive. I’ve generalised what was already a very general argument, but this is the gist of it.

Diamond makes a lot of outrigger arguments supporting this – even the axes of the continents were supposedly fundamental to human development. Eurasia is largely oriented west-east, while the Americas are mostly north-south, with a particularly narrow gap at Panama. This made it a lot easier for technologies (particularly animal domestication and crop development) to spread, because they were travelling along lines of latitude latitude to similar climates and day lengths – whereas anyone trying to plant Mexican corn in Canada would starve to death when the seeds sprouted expecting a Cancun  paradise and instead found themselves in Manitoba. Likewise, Chinese innvations could wind up in Britain via India, the Black Sea or Russia, whereas the only way for North America and South America to contact each other was through a very long, thin stretch of land that was mostly impenetrable swampland.

Guns, Germs And Steel needs to be evaluated on two levels: its worth as a theory, and its worth as a book. My professional scientific analysis of Diamond’s theory is “pretty good I guess.” Naturally he’s looking at things through an extremely wide window (15,000 years wide, to be precise) and makes a lot of sweeping generalisations and oversimplifications, but this is inevitable and Diamond acknowledges that. I feel that certain elements of his theory are wonky; he focuses on geography to an almost bizarre degree, even arguing that China’s historical unity is because it is mostly flat, while Europe has all these rivers and mountains and shit that empires can’t possibly cross and forge into a megastate. Shit, I just spent decades assembling this massive legion and now there’s a five-metre deep river between us and Gaul, better ride all the way back to Rome instead of chopping down that forest and building some rafts. And I’m no expert on China either, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of rivers and mountains there too. On the whole, though, he convinced me that geography played a significant (not a total) role in explaining why history played out the way it did: whites just got lucky.

As a scientific book, Guns, Germs And Steel is a fairly easy read. It’s certainly accessible to the layman, even if extended chapters on the distribution of cereal crops and carbon-dating archaeological sites might cause you to nod off on the subway. Jared is certainly no Bill Bryson – he doesn’t have the knack for peppering his writing with witty observations and jokes – but he’s readable to anyone with a passing interest in history. I suppose a large part of the appeal of this book is simple curiosity, because he does pose an interesting question: how come some ethnic groups ended up in the cotton fields with chains around their necks, while others were sitting on the porch in a rocking chair sipping mint julep? On the other hand I just managed to summarise an answer that question in about 399 less pages than he did, so if the finer details don’t intrigue you than maybe you should just check out some other fine Pulitzer prize winners.

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August 2009