Red Dead Perfection.

 

Okay, so I don’t do this very often… but sometimes I get moved. And boy, have I been moved.

This is a video games review. Yes, I know I often review films on here, but I’ve tried to stay away form video games for several reasons – not least of which is the fact that living in Korea has taken me completely out of the loop when it comes to new releases. Normally, by the time I discover a game, half the known world is already trading it in for the sequel (as happened with Left 4 Dead…)

But this game… well… I guess it’s a little misleading to call this piece a review, because it is, more accurately, a long-winded and emphatic plea for you to go out, buy this game, and join the rest of the world in basking in the joy of perfection. Or almost perfection. Which is close enough for me. If perfection were the centre of a city, this game would be the plush apartment that you got for a reasonable rate that allows you to walk into perfection every night. You could open your windows and smell perfection. That’s how close it is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First of all, a little background: Way back in 2004, a video games company called Rockstar Games (you may have heard of them, they did something called GTA… it’s about stealing cars or some shit…) decided that they had had their fill of the ‘big, bad city’ and all of it’s psycho inhabitants, and they went back to their (cultural) routes. Using the same ‘sandbox’ mentality that made the GTA series so popular, they created a ‘Western’ video game. That game was ‘Red Dead Revolver’, for the PS2. Here’s the trailer for those who missed it:

It was, at best, okay. The controls were clunky, the story was short, and the game world was kinda small for a sandbox. It also lacked the random-wanderings freedom of the other Rockstar games.

For a short while, these sandbox westerns seemed to be the new vogue… Neversoft and Activision responded to RD Revolver with ‘Gun’… in my opinion a much better game if only for the addition of more freedom when it came to the storyline… and the fact that you could now play poker in the saloons!! ha!

Again though, the graphics were not exactly high-spec, and as it always was back in the BM (Before Multiplayer) years, a woefully short main story made the game very, very short-lived.

After RD Revolver and Gun, the sandbox western seemed to die. A few ‘pretenders’ came along (Yes, Call of Juarez, I’m looking at you…) but no great successes ever popped up in my radar. Which saddened me. Because as much fun as running around a city with a rocket launcher in your pocket can be, somehow riding a horse into town, walking into a sallon, and calling ‘DRAW!’ just fulfilled a small part of my wish-fulfillment that no amount of car-jacking and prostitute bashing can match. I guess, like many others out there, I never got over the phase of playing Cowboys and Indians.

But then I heard about a new game. Following VERY closely on the heels of the MAD success of GTAIV, Rockstar were returning to their cowboy ways… but they promised it bigger, harder and longer than before (“That’s What She Said!” -Little voice in Jay’s mind. ) Boy, did they deliver…

Rockstar’s ‘Red Dead Redemption’ (hereafter referred to as ‘The Game’, in the same way that Sherlock Holmes refers to Irene Adler as ‘The Woman’) is, as I said before, ALMOST perfect. So, let’s start with the negative shall we??

So, things have come very very far since Red Dead Revolver… in the game the controls are… well… still shit to be honest. Riding a horse feels natural and wonderful… it’s stopping the bastards that I have issue with. And please, PLEASE Rockstar, when you release the inevitable sequel (Possibly Red Dead Revolution?? Red Dead Rectum? Red Dead Reaction?) can we have our hero RUN by default and ‘press a button to walk’? K, please, thanks.

Other than that… erm… I’m struggling…

See? Do you see how close this game comes to perfection? In terms of storyline, this could be straight out of a Hollywood script-writers loose-leaf folder… (and I can only DREAM of a movie conversion, seeing as how the western is cool again). You play John Marston, a man with a dark past, trying to go straight and live the good life with his wife and kid. But shadowy government agents kidnap your family and send you out on the trail, on the hunt for your old gang… the deal is simple: deliver their heads, get your life back. But things are never that easy. If this sounds familair, that’s because it has shades of ‘Unforgiven’, ‘The Searchers’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’… in fact, many was the moment during this game when I stopped and thought… “Wait, isn’t this from ‘x’ western??” At times, I even forgot I was playing a game, as I just sat back, followed my mini-map, and enjoyed the lush scenery roll by…

Seriously… Don’t believe me?? Take a look at this:

Tell me that isn’t EPIC. Look at that scenery!! There are moments in this game when you literally just have to stop and take it all in, and this was one of them! And what about the music?? Perfect right? In all honesty, Rockstar games are the only video games I have ever gone out and sought the soundtracks for – I recently made the comparison to Tarantino on my fb page – just as he has an amazing ear for the perfect track to suit a scene, so Rockstar match events and action in the game to an awesome and ever-changing soundtrack. And I’m not just talking the score – they actually got Jose Gonzalez (he of ‘Heartbreak’ and many other plinky plinky soppy guitar songs fame) to write a NEW track for the soundtrack. And he wasn’t the only one. Ever hear of Ashtar Command? No? Neither had I, until I finished the single-player campaign and discovered this gem:

AWESOME. And trust me, when you finish the game, you’ll get it.

Even the multiplayer is breathtaking. You play in exactly the same ‘mega-expansive’ map that the single-player campaign appears in. The lobby is a free-roaming, multiplayer version of the world of the game. Complete with challenges, animals, tasks, gang hideouts and annoying twats who sit on top of towers in the towns with a sniper rifle and giggle as they blow the head off each and every player who rides within range… or is that just me? Anyway… you get the idea… finishing this game is impossible. Even if you do manage to get 100% completion on the single player and reach the giddy heights of ‘Legend’ in mulitplayer, you still aren’t done. With today’s age of ‘Downloadable Content’ things just keep getting better…

And so we come to the real reason I’m  writing this. Yes, the music is awesome. Yes, the graphics are gobsmackingly beautiful. Yes, the storyline is put together like a classic Eastwood western. But you know what’s missing? Zombies.

Until now…

Oh. Fuck.Yes.

Thank you Rockstar Games, for making my life a little brighter with this GEM of a game.

And if you haven’t got it yet, slap yourself in the face, then go and buy it. Now.

I leave you with two things:

1) A short montage of images, together with another original song (I actually think this is a remix of a previously released song), this time by Jamie Lidell (again, I’ve never heard of him either…) Enjoy.

2) You may think that I am overstating the ‘cinematic’ pleasure and joy of this game… but I’m not. And neither is John Hilcoat (Director of ‘The Proposition’ and ‘The Road’). He loved the cinematic feel and the rolling vistas so much, he made a short film, completely digital, to tie in with the game. Here it is…

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Things to Come…

(Disclaimer: I generally try to avoid doing my venting here. When things wind me up in Korea, it is usually my facebook status that bears the brunt of my anger. However, after seeing several things on the interwebs, I feel obliged to share the ‘dark side’ of expat living with my friends back home. If you live in Korea, and are sick of all this kind of stuff, feel free to pass.)

It’s easy to get pulled into an “I hate Korea” conversation here. If you’re having a bad day, it’s really easy to paint home as some kind of idyllic paradise where bosses didn’t screw you over and everybody treated each other with respect. It’s a fallacy, I know, but it helps people through the tough times out here. The trick is to REMEMBER it’s a lie, and not start believing your own spleen-venting rants against the mighty-evil that is Korea and all its minions. It seems like lately though, the internt is filled with “I hate Korea” diatribes. My common response to these is to think “wow. Dude needs to have abeer and chill.” But with recent internet scuttlebutt and general conversations, I felt pushed to highlight some of the ‘darker’ moments here in Korea. Before I leave and start remembering only the good times…

Don’t get me wrong. I love Korea. Korea has been, and (generally) continues to be very good to me. It has given me a lot of things, not the least of which is my future wife. I am truly thankful for all the great friends and amazing times I’ve had here. But there is a worrying trend lately for the very negative side of being a foreigner here in Korea to come to the fore.

Take, for example, this video:

Horrid, right?? What on EARTH could have prompted such a thing?? (There is a story, but basically, that dude needs some serious anger-management…) You know what’s worse?? Take a look at the comments.

Now, I know that the internet is home to some of the finest scum of the earth, who only show their true colours when they are anonymous and safely tucked up in their mother’s basement, and of that scum, people who comment on youtube videos are the weirdos avoided at the internet scum parties, but still. Just take a look.

They range from the sublimely ridiculous, to the downright offensive and threatening:

“How we know he is a soldier? He is American in Korea” – Because no other Americans live in Korea for any reason?? Idiot.

“forigner all, Get out of korea ! we don’t need you ! OK?” – Erm.. no, it’s not okay…the government wanted English teachers, here we are. I’m sure the Korean government would also LOVE to wave goodbye to the men, weaponry and support that the U.S. supplies to help defend the South against Northern aggression. Tool.

“white guys being open homo, closet fags, or sex perverts pictured on dateline NBC. Gay whites are prancing around in the San francisco gay pride parade, and nerdy whites are off to asia to find his dream asian wife.” – Wow… just… wow… I’d love to see things from your point of view, but sadly my head doesn’t reach that far up my own arse.

And then, of course, the lowest of the low:

“I really enjoyed seeing that twin tower coming down and scared fat yanks running like a bunch of lil bitches screaming “waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa wooooooooooooooooo”

and

“I really hope the arabs will finish the job this time – turn america into a huge parking lot!”

You might think that this is just an example of why you should never read youtube comments… but you know what… it’s indicative of a serious issue here in Korea. I know, I’m using big words, but stick with me here, because this one could get intellectual.

Korean society, and the culture at large, is set-up to exclude the foreigner. Yes, the road signs and subway names are in English. Yes, a large part of the population speaks English. Yes, life here as a foreigner is nowhere near as difficult as it could be. But I’m talking about a CULTURAL and SOCIAL trend, not “Let’s put up lots of Englishee.” Fopr example, there are still Korean laws and systems that exclude anyone who is not a Korean native. Property ownership, property rental and business ownership are all geared towards Koreans. Now, you could argue that the same is true anywhere – but the difference is other countries do not make it ILLEGAL for foreigners to own and run their own business. (If we did, 85% of the skilled labour in the UK would disappear, for christ’s sake!)

But so what? Do I want to run a business? No. Do I want to buy property? No. Do I care if someone uses the polite form of the phrase rather than the impolite because they feel I’m ‘beneath’ them in confucian hierarchy? Not really (but it grates… Go back and read the ‘Analects’ you rude asshole… manners cost nothing…) So what’s the problem? Why am I writing this blog post?

Double standards.

Plain and simple. Double standards. Yes folks, I’m writing a blog post about equality. And what has sparked this?? Take a look.

Back?? Good. Now, a lot of what the Metropolitician says in that article is pure vitriol and venting, but he also makes some valid arguments in there… you just have to skip over the ‘Goddam Korea’ sections. Almost every foreigner I know has felt these emotions to some degree here in Seoul. But you know what? We deal with it and move on. Even when it borders on outright racism. And trust me, I’ve heard plenty of tales of that too, and even experienced it on a couple of occasions. So what am I saying? Korea is racist? Well, in a way, yes… but also, no. You see, for someone to be accused of being racist, in my opinion, they have to understand that what they are doing/saying is wrong. If they are blissfully unaware that treating people with a different ethnic origin differently is actually considered bad, then they are ignorant fools, not racists. And that, dear readers, is the issue.

Korea is, for all intents and purposes, a baby. They don’t understand that their ‘I’m the best thing in the world and everyone else sucks’ attitude is wrong. Hang on, maybe a baby is the wrong metaphor. Korea is a self-centred child, demanding sweeties and throwing a tantrum if they don’t get exactly what they want. And smelling slightly of vomit and poop. I think my metaphor is lost somewhere in there, but regardless… Korea celebrated the 65th anniversary of the end of Japanese rule this year. Think about that for a second. 65 years. My Mum is almost as old as Korea.

“Bullshit, Korea has been around for centuries… what about the Joseon Dynasty, the Shilla dynasty, the three kingdoms period…?” Okay. True. Korea as a country has existed for centuries. You got me. But Korean society… Modern Korean society… free of any and all impingements or hindrances to development… has only been in existence for 65 years. And this is the problem.

What you have in Korea right now are four generations:

At the top (literally, according to confucius) are the ajumma and ajoshi… the grandmas and grandads. These are the people old enough to remember growing up under Japanese rule, when all things Korean were treated with disdain, and any activity or action that wasn’t agreed with was crushed under a steel-toed boot. These are the men and women who, after fighting for liberation, began rebuilding their cities and culture from the ground up. Many of them would have suffered at the hands of the Japanese. I have no idea what their life must have been like, and I have no desire to imagine it, or experience it. But they are relics. They have been left behind by a society that is developing so fast that they can’t keep up. And they’re scared. They see foreigners coming in, and they see the society they created changing, and they can’t understand the difference between ‘subjugation’ and ‘progress’. They are shocked to see anyone not Korean on the subway. Some respond with amused smiles and a kind nature. Other’s are not so benevolent. That confucian ideology puts these people (the oldest) at the top of the pecking order, and they have developed a sense of entitlement similar to that held by the schoolkids in the UK today – The idea that they are the centre of the world, and they can do whatever they like, whenever they like. This attitude came to the fore of public discussion recently when a video of a young girl being assaulted by an old ajumma appeared on the internet.

All because the young girl was 'rude'.

I would post a link to the video of this, which is much more powerful when you hear the teenage girl screaming for help and crying as the old woman swings her around the subway like a rag-doll, but sadly, this particular video has been deemed ‘inappropriate’ for the interent, and all sources have dwindled to nothing.

Which brings me to my second group… the ‘Adults’. The children of these entitled elders. Your first-generation freedom born Koreans. Obviously raised by the ajumma and ajoshi, they have the same ideals, the same beliefs, and the same problems. These are the people who, though they may speak English, still act, behave and think totally Korean. Again, they do not see a problem with an old woman beating on a girl because she was rude. These are the cowards (and yes, that is the POLITEST word I can think of for them) who stood by and watched that assault happen. Personally, I find the image of a train filled with people sitting their and doing nothing much more frightening than the image of an angry drunk american hitting an old Korean guy.

These people are also the ones who, unfortunately, run all the businesses, own all the newspapers, produce all the TV shows and generally OWN Korea. So… you have an outdated idea, and outdated attitudes, being promulgated by a media and ‘adult’ society, that excludes, sidelines and (I would argue) endangers foreigners.

How does it endanger foreigners? Easy. Recently, a Korean child, aged 8, was walking to school. A drunk guy, aged 57, dragged her into the bathroom of a church, strangled her until she was unconscious, then raped her. He was caught, and arrested, and sentenced to life in prison (the maximum sentence for rape here in Korea. But then he pointed out that he was drunk at the time. Taking into account his “weak state of mind and body” the courts have overturned his sentence, and he now has to spend a whopping 12 years in jail. So, in a society where being drunk can reduce a life sentence to 12 years for the rape of an 8 year old Korean girl, and ‘being rude’ gives an old woman the right to swing a teenage girl around a busy public subway car without ANYONE interfering or stopping her, you tell me what the chances are that any foreigner (who is ‘less important’ than any Korean) has any chance of gaining a conviction for anything if we are attacked, assaulted or (God forbid) raped in this country. Now try and tell me that Korea isn’t a dangerous goddam society, I dare ya.

It all comes back to those double standards. The older generation demand respect without giving any. They act in ways that are shameful, and expect everyone else to simply deal with it, ignore it, or even worse, cover it up. The one time I have been tempted to call the police here in Seoul, a little voice in my head kept screaming “NO!” because I knew that anything I said wouldn’t count. Even the fact that I was the one who called them wouldn’t count. I would still be the one arrested because I was the foreigner, and the guy who was being an asshole was a Korean ajoshi. Age + Korean = Right. That’s just how it goes.

And we deal with it every day. Amongst the expats I know, we will bitch and moan and complain, sure… but it’s no different to the bitching moaning and complaining we would do at home – it’s just about different things. We even have a phrase: T.I.K. This is Korea. What’s that, your boss wants you to teach his daughter english, two hours a day, twice a week, for free? TIK. Oh, the government has retroactively taxed all foreigners for every payment ever? TIK. The news is printing another story about how all white, middle-class, university-educated teachers of ESL living in Korea are paedophiles or drug dealers? TI- wait, what?? Yep… We travel thousands of miles, give up our lives, say farewell to friends and family, immerse ourselves in a foreign culture… and suddenly become hunted, evil, disease-spreading monsters. There is even a group – The Evil League of Evil… wait… no, got that wrong… The Anti-English Spectrum. Gotta love this ‘open-minded and welcoming’ culture, right?

Most times we just shrug our shoulders, laugh, complain a bit, and get on with it. Why? Because we are only here temporarily. We don’t really care. This isn’t home. And it never will be. Korea can try to big themselves up as a ‘multi-cultural’ society all they like. Saying it doesn’t make it true. But I have hope for the final two generations living in Korea… (ha – forgot about that, didn’t ya??)

The final two generations are the future of Korea. They are the ‘things to come…’ and they need to make sure that this society develops and changes as it needs to… at 65 years old, Korea is just starting to come into itself, finding it’s place in the world, figuring out what it’s all about… and the university students and kids in school are doing the same thing (yes, I did just make a puberty allegory… sue me…)

It’s easy to see – the shift in attitudes and opinions is already apparent. More independent women. More inter-racial marriages. More single mothers. More accepting attitudes to all things Non-Korean. More travelling abroad. And more independent thinking. Just the other day I was out with my girlfriend, enjoying fireworks, and we got chatting to a bunch of Korean students. Nice kids. Friendly. Clearly excited and happy to see foreigners enjoying a traditional Korean festival. We even exchanged numbers at the end of the night. That felt ‘open’. That felt ‘welcoming’. That’s the kids.

But the old order is still there… it’s not gone… so these kids… these people… they need to teach THEIR kids how to behave appropriately, and how to respect people – not just old Korean, but everyone – and not because they ‘have to’ for fear of getting a beat-down in public, but because it is just the right thing to do.

Korea needs to grow up. It needs to start treating everyone as equals. It needs to stop buying into its own propaganda. In short, it needs to reach that point where you can really tell a society is developed – they need to learn to laugh at themselves. If you can’t openly criticise, joke and laugh about your own cultures insanity, you simply aren’t civilised. Sorry. Come back in about 30-50 years Korea, maybe we can try again then…

Apples and Chips… The U.S.A. Tour (Pt. 2)

New York, New York. The city so nice they named it twice!! hahahahhaah – Sorry, I had to.

After St. Louis, I said my goodbyes to Andrea, left her to head off back to Seoul all on her own (aren’t I heartless??) and jetted off to NYC to meet up with Cooper J, an old buddy from last year in Seoul.

The trip got off to a flying start (or not) when my flight was delayed by about 5 hours. Joy. But whatever, I got there in the end, and found myself cruising along in a Yellow Cab, heading to the Bronx, watching the famous new york skyline whip past my window, chatting away to a cab driver whose name I could not pronounce. Yup… I was in New York, and damn was it surreal!

I arrived at Cooper’s place about 10:30pm, and so the first night was spent just chilling and catching up, then I flaked out on his pull out couch! The real fun didn’t start ’til the next day. I had always known in my head that New York was gonna be my ‘Photo-Geek-Gasm’ part of the trip… and I wasn’t wrong. So for once, I’m gonna shut up, and let the pictures do the talking:

One thing I will say, is that I love travelling to places where I know someone – travelling solo can be interesting, and finding your way around is always an adventure, but if you know someone, I always seem to find waaay more interesting spots… case in point, one of the best Mexican restaurants I’ve ever experienced…

A local taco manufacturing line...

... gives you some of the freshest tacos possible!!

So… That was New York. For people who wanted a blow by blow on this one, tough. In all honesty, these pictures sum up my trip pretty well. I walked a hell of a lot (more than I should, in all honesty, my legs still ache!) and saw almost everything I wanted to. New York was amazing, and it felt surreal to be there a lot of the time, but it was also tiring and expensive. Seriously. If you ever go to New York, take plenty of cash!

And so, we move on to  Las Vegas… Sin City… The Strip… Man, what a place. I loved Vegas. It was awesome. I just wish I had longer there, ‘cos I’m sure there is way more to see and do!

As it was, I only had a couple of days in Vegas, and I arrived a few hours ahead of Jack and Steve, my partners in crime for this particular trip… So I decided I would walk the strip and get some shots of these world famous casinos… maybe find the ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign and get a shot there… Well, I did!

Unfortunately, I didn’t realise the goddam sign was about a two miles out of town on the strip… damn that was a long walk… and in the heat too!!

After that adventure, all I had to do was wait… so I decided to experience a little local flavour…

And wait for the guys… Once they arrived, the party truly started. In true Las Vegas style, the pictures are rare from this point, for two reasons – 1) I didn’t really fancy walking the strip at night with a big-ass camera on my shoulder, and 2) I didn’t wanna run the risk of getting drunk, and leaving it somewhere…

And boy, did we ever get drunk. $1 beers at the poker bar… moderate success followed by abject failure on both craps and blackjack (Many thanks to Steve for teaching me the finer points of craps…) and free drinks whilst gambling… Vegas is indeed a dangerous spot.

As you can imagine, aside from the odd trip to the pool…

… our trip was spent mainly doing what Vegas is good for… namely, losing money and getting drunk.

Good times guys… good times…

Next time, Remind me to keep my winnings in a separate pocket, okay??

To good times and bad ideas... See ya again soon guys!!

Arches and Rings…The U.S.A. Tour (Pt. 1)

Okay, so as many of my friends know, I recently came back to Korea from my summer break, during which I went to the States. A hell of a lot happened on this trip, and it’s probably gonna take me an age to get through it all, so if you just want the short version, here it is:

Went to America, got engaged, had a ball.

Okay… so there – you got the big news and the important stuff… if you don’t care about the details and the nitty-gritty, then you can leave now feeling fulfilled. For those of you who are here for the long-haul, strap in, grab your complimentary peanuts, plug your headphones in the arm-rest and get comfy.

Now, I know many people will be chomping at the bit for me to get to the big guns, but you’ll just have to wait – this is a blow-by-blow, and you’ll take what you’re drip-fed and like it!

So, first of all – the trip over there…

Well, as you can imagine, any trip to the opposite side of the world, with three layovers, is gonna take a while… so we had plenty of ‘sitting around’ time to cover… but we were in good cheer as we prepared to leave… either that or it was the massive amounts of coffee in our system…

We bounced from Seoul to Tokyo, then on to Chicago and finally on to St. Louis.. the first stop in my massive American Tour. My first moment of panic was when I sat down on the flight from Japan to America (the long part of our long haul trip) and realised that my TV screen wasn’t working. Oh joy. 13 hours in a plane with no movies and no entertainment – thank christ I’d bought a book. But the fun didn’t end there. About an hour into the flight, Andrea started to complain about feeling ill… she proceeded to spend half the flight in the bathroom, and it was only through the kindness of the cabin crew that she managed to survive the trip. But soon enough, we were on American soil… Before we continue, let me say a quick word about U.S. immigration…

I had heard nightmare stories about Chicago O’Hare Airport – stories that made my blood run cold with dread… Andrea and I were completely prepared for me to be delayed coming through immigration (just like I was in Texas) and for us to be stuck for a while in the airport. But no… Chicago was a painless, simple, efficient system, and they even bumped the foreigners across to the U.S. Citizens desks when they had no lines… so simple, yet so effective. So, no problems there! HA!

Upon arrival in St. Louis I could feel Andrea’s excitement building… unfortunately all I felt was tired, dirty and hot. Her Dad picked us up at airport (after a little confusion) and drove us back to their place. Yup, talk about your ‘in at the deep end’ scenarios – I got to meet almost all of Andrea’s family in one fell swoop! ha! Of course, Andrea had eyes (and hands) for only one in particular:

Her new nephew occupied most of her attention for the evening, leaving me to get acquainted with the rest of the family…

That night there was a huge storm raging, and it managed to knock out the power to the house… so our first night in America was spent in the dark, without air-con… hahhahaha Luckily, things got much better from there!!

Our first day was spent celebrating Andrea’s sister’s birthday, hanging out by the pool, and enjoying some amazing barbecue… oh, and let’s not forget REAL BEER!!

Andrea’s family seemed to enjoy the gift she brought home for them… though I’m not sure they’ll ever co-ordinate again! ha!

That night we went out for ice-cream – or as they all insisted it be referred to – concrete. We hit up a place called ‘Skeeters’ and I have to say, it was damn good – though my one word of advice would be to make sure you know what a ‘large’ size means before you order it…

The next day is where the real fun begins… and I don’t just mean the Anheuser-Busch Brewery tour…

No… this was THE day… you see… here’s the thing:

I had been planning on asking Andrea to marry me for a while before our trip, and had various ideas about how/when to do it… The romantic in me had grand ideas of a trip to Italy (which we are doing, but later on now!) and a gondola in Venice… however, I soon realised that it would be really funny, and really cheesey (but also really special) if I proposed to her at the St. Louis Arch (also known as the “Gateway to the West”).

Ya see, ever since I met Andrea, she has been obsessed with three things – 1) The St. Louis Cardinals (her baseball team), 2) The St. Louis Arch – the local landmark, and I guess the thing that put St. Louis on the map, literally! and 3) Me! Ha!

So yeah, the Arch was somewhere that we joked about, talked about, and it was also top of her ‘must-see’ list whilst I was in town. So I decided, before we left, that I would propose at the Arch. That just left the ring…

What a joy that was… First of all, Andrea does not wear rings. Ever. She doesn’t even have the common decency of having a ring in her jewellery box that I could steal, take to a store, get sized, and then return. No. Nothing. So I was shopping blind. Nothing seemed ‘right’ because I couldn’t imagine her with a ring on her finger. It didn’t help matters that Koreans have a rather ‘gaudy’ sense of what looks good when it comes to jewellery. Some of these rings were so huge and tacky that I could swear you could see dents in the rock where Titanic struck… Another hurdle I kept hitting was the fact that, apparently, in Korea the MEN also wear an engagement ring… so all the rings that looked nice were part of a couple’s set that was waaaayyyy out of my price range!! (And no, I’m not telling you how much I spent… that’s my secret!)

But, eventually, I chose what I thought was a modest, reasonable and yet very pretty ring for Andrea. So, I had the ring, I had the plan… all I needed was the time… And it came on day 2 of our trip…

The plan was to hit the brewery then toddle over to the Arch in the afternoon. What I didn’t take into account was the fact that our daily activities were open to invasion by the family, and so we set off to the brewery about twenty strong… (ahhh, hyperbole… so useful…)

Anyway, the point is this: All I could think as we were walking around the brewery was “Ain’t no way I’m asking her to marry me in fron tof half of her family.” So, a backup plan was needed. Or was it??

After the tour, we were sat sampling some of the delights of the Anheuser Busch selection and the family started debating whther to go to the arch or not. Inside I was secretly screaming “NO! DON’T COME!” but outside I just paid extra attention to the conversation… which apparently made me seem ‘weird’ as I was told later…

Anyway, decisions were made, cars were swapped and only me, Andrea and one of her closest friends made our way to the arch. “Fine…” I remember thinking… “I can do this…”

As we were walking to the arch, I passed my camera to Bethany, Andrea’s friend, and we got a goofy pic in front of Andrea’s beloved arch.

When I took back the camera, I said “Before we go inside, I have something for you” and handed Andrea the lovingly wrapped and massively oversized box containing the ring. Andrea stared at me and said “What’s this?” with the most serious look on her face I have ever seen. Like, devoid of emotion. Nothing. If she could replicate this face and play poker with it plastered on her visage she would be unreadable. Unfortunately it wasn’t exactly the reaction I was looking for – a smile would have helped. My heart started beating rather fast at this point (or fastER…)

So, much cooler than I’m feeling, I reply “You’ll have to open it and find out” and smile. She says “Do I want it?” – My smile is now feeling like a rictus of pain and I can feel my heartbeat behind my eyes… still her unreadable mask of a face is giving away nothing… “That depends… there’s a question to go with it…” at which point Bethany squeals… unfortunately all I hear is Andrea say “Oh you didn’t…. you’re not…”

Now, ya know those scenes in the movies when everything slows down and all the action is seen in perfect clarity, then it speeds back up again and you get to see sword plunging into chest or car smashing into post?? That’s kinda how I felt at this point. The one thing that had never, EVER, crossed my mind as I was planning, buying the ring, and thinking about all of this stuff was ‘What if she says no??’ – Somewhat arrogant, you may think, but whatever… I just never thought it would happen. But I was thinking about it now. Oh man… was I ever… Looking back I guess this entire exchange took about 30 seconds. At the time it felt like 30 minutes. I watched her unwrap this box and eventually find the ring inside. I tried to read her face for any emotion whatsoever. And all the while I was thinking in my head “Well, I guess I can get a hotel room, hang out here for a bit, then continue my solo travels… things are gonna be awkward… I’ll have to find a place to live back in Seoul… IDIOT Jay… IDIOT…” (Yes, I am that neurotic and pessimistic.)

However, once the ring was out in the open and she figured out what was going on, Andrea’s statuesque face broke, and she started laughcrying. Yes, I have just made up that word, and it’s copyrighted, but it’s the best way to describe it. I figure, what the hell, right? And say “So, will you marry me?” and she says “Of course I will” and Bethany says “Why the hell did you take your camera back off me?” and grabs said camera to take these pics:

If you look close, you can see the relief oozing out of my pores…

In all honesty the rest of the day passed in a haze. I have never seen Andrea look so girly as she kept checking her new ring out and (as you can imagine) we were kinda loved up. I feel I should take this opportunity to apologise to  Bethany, who had to put up with us for the rest of the afternoon.

Once we dropped Bethany off later, we decided to go eat together and enjoy some ‘us time’. So we headed to Cheesecake Factory. Classy, right?

All I’m gonna say is this: There’s a reason everything is bigger in the States. This is the only meal I have ever encountered that I couldn’t finish. Damn people, cut down on the portion sizes!! After dinner we got back to the house, told her family and I stood back to watch the first of many ‘Showing off the ring’ sessions.

The rest of our time in St. Louis went far too quickly. I met a lot of Andrea’s friends, we hung out by the pool, enjoyed the warm weather (hot, but not humid – Korea, take note!!) ate WAY too much, and of course, showed off the ring. Here are some of the highlights in picture form, because I feel like writing it all down wouldn’t do it justice!

I’m gonna be cheesey for a minute (not like me, I know!) and thank everyone in St. Louis for making me feel so welcome – I’m not sure how many of Andrea’s friends and family will read this (probably none) but you all made my trip awesome on so many levels… Special shout outs go to:

Jennifer D – Amazing food, an open house and a warm welcome, what more could I ask for??

Paul D – Thanks for the beer, hope you enjoyed the ale!!

Jared D – Abuse, sarcasm and insults… You made it feel like home man, cheers! 😉

Eickhoff – The party was awesome. You are awesome. Thanks for everything. Sorry I stole your man.

Jeff – I’ll be back soon man… stay strong! ha!

Christy – Sorry I stole your fiancee… hope you don’t hate me for it! 😛

And so, the first part of our tale ends… If you’ve made it this far you either wanted the details of us getting engaged (Debbie) or have waaaay too much time on your hands.

The rest of my trip will be next… Keep your eyes peeled.

Coming Soon….

Lessons learnt, but never taught…

So, after a particularly awkward and (seemingly only for me) embarrassing attempt at a conversation with one of my students, I started thinking about things that you learn in life… things that aren’t ever explicitly told to you, but you know they are wrong (or right) anyway… For example, allow me to expand on the conversation I’ve just had:

I was in the gents (and right here 90% of my male friends are cringing…) and a student decided that right then… whilst I’m stood shaking hands with the vicar… THAT would be the perfect time to say hello and ask about my day. Now, for the ladies, this may seem normal – yes, I know you girls go off to the bathroom in groups, seemingly taking comfort from having your friends cheer you on whilst you pee. Men, however, are different animals, we walk into any toilet staring straight ahead, we make eye-contact with no-one, and we continue to stare straight ahead (or down – NEVER left or right) whilst we pee, then we wash our hands and leave. Now, in most of my social circles it is ‘the done thing’ to never, ever strike up a conversation whilst urinating. You may make the odd comment “So, this is where the big knobs hang out, hunh?” is about as acceptable as it gets. In most situations, meeting a friend in a bathroom setting will result in nothing but obscure grunts, muted “Hey”s, or simple nods… at least until the hand washing stage.

You see, there is something about talking to another guy whilst holding your own member, and knowing he is holding his, that transcends the boundaries for most guys. Like most boundaries, this disappears with alcohol (many is the drunken conversation I have had whilst pee-ing… but drinks screw everything up, so they don’t count).

Anyway – I digress – my point is this: There are some things I have learnt in life – never explicitly told to me, but lessons I have learnt nonetheless… Now, you could blame the fact that a 17 year old male student thought nothing of trying to chat to me whilst I was trying to pee on the fact that Korean society has different rules… maybe… but I believe there are certain rules… certain ‘codes’ that transcend nationality and borders… and the ‘No chatting whilst urinating’ rule was (I thought) one of those.

So I started thinking… what other rules do I live by that no-one ever sat me down and said “Now son, this is how things work…”? (For example, shaving – my Dad taught me to shave… that’s an explicitly taught lesson… doesn’t count!)

So here – Lessons I’ve learnt from life, that no-one ever taught me…

1. No chatting with your wee man in your hand.

Yes, I know this labouring the subject, but it’s a valid place to start!

2. Shake hands with people you meet for the first time, and look them in the eye.

I can’t remember when I started doing this, but it seems like I always have. I meet someone new, I shake their hand, and always look them in the eyes. I think I just did this because my Dad always does it…

3. How to change a tire.

I don’t drive. I’ve never owned a car. I don’t have a driving license. But when my girlfriend’s car got a flat, who changed the tire? Yup… me! Now how the hell did I learn that?? And while we’re on the subject…

4. Lighting a Barbecue.

Again, when I was growing up, we never had a barbecue. Not that I remember anyway. So how the hell did I know what I needed, and how, to light one??

5. Don’t ever break your word. Ever.

Quickly following this I could throw up “So be careful who you give it to.” Again, not something anyone has ever directly told me, but I think I was around 14 the first time I gave my word to someone and nearly died (literally) trying to do what I promised… I’ve never welched since, and don’t intend to start now!

6. Always be nice to the following people: Chefs, serving staff, bar staff and doormen.

Basic common sense – If people are preparing or handling your food, you kinda want them to like you. Trust me. I used to serve food. If we don’t like you, we have ways of showing it. The bar staff and doormen thing came after I realised that these two people can make or destroy a good night out. So yeah… be nice to them!

7. There are some things it’s worth spending a lot of money on: Good friends and good times are two of the best.

I’ve always been one of those people who would spend a fortune if it meant a good time was had with good friends. ‘Things’ can be bought too, but they never last as long as the memories!

8. There are things you should NEVER spend a lot of money on: Haircuts and watches, for example.

You may disagree. Fine. But you know what? It’s my blog, and these are my rules. I’ve had expensive watches. One of the most expensive was a great gift from my Mum and brother on my 21st birthday. You know where that is now? In a box under my bed at home. The best (e.g. longest surviving and worn the most) watch I ever had was a 10quid plastic Casio. And as for haircuts… well… as soon as a man starts spending more than a fiver on his hair, it’s time he got a REAL hair cut…

9. Friends and money don’t mix.

It’s sad, but true. As much as I love spending money to have a good time with friends, the one time I have loaned money to friends it ended badly. I got the money back, but lost two very good friends because of it. As good as your intentions are, loaning money puts pressure on people. So now, I don’t. Or, if I do, I consider it a gift and don’t worry about getting it back. I don’t borrow either, FYI.

10. Never pack more than you can comfortably carry.

If you do, you’re in for an unpleasant trip!

11. Don’t spit in public.

It’s just gross. No excuses.

12. Sunglasses have no place inside.

The clue is in the name. If you need sunglasses indoors, it’s time to switch to a lower wattage bulb.

13. Know what is worth fighting for…

I have seen fights start over the most ridiculous nonsense (and yes, I’m including ALL sports in that). If you’re gonna fight, make sure it’s for something worthwhile. Try thinking “When I tell this story to other people (or the police), am I gonna sound like an idiot when I explain why I smacked this guy in the face?” – If the answer is yes, walk away.

14. … BUT – If you fight, hit fast, hit hard, and leave quickly.

If you do get into a fight, end it quickly. And FYI – Fight Club had it right – A fight is over if someone goes limp or taps out. NEVER hit someone when they’re down. It just ain’t right.

15. Take a picture. It’ll last longer.

Forget souveneirs or trinkets. The best way to remember someone, or something, is with a picture. If something, or someone, is important to you, take a picture. It WILL last longer.

I’m sure I’ll add more to this as time goes on, but that’ll do to start… Any suggestions are more than welcome!