16.12.09

The Midget Conundrum

My daily journey to and from work on the subway passes, most days, without incident. The system is terrifically efficient and comfortable, even warming my little arse with heated seats on a -6º day like today. Kendra and I ride together on Line 4 to Dongjak station, sipping our morning coffees and bickering, before going our separate ways to work. From Dongjak, I join the shiny new Line 9 and ride it 4 stops to Sapyeong station which is a 5 minute walk from my school. This 4-stop journey on Line 9 has been known to cause some issues.

Firstly, as I have already mentioned, Line 9 is new. The stations are new, the trains are new and everything is shiny and smooth. Very smooth. Especially the floors. I wear black loafers to work that clip-clop like a newly-shoe'd horse and the soles are far from efficient for this surface which, quite frankly, is like an ice-rink. This morning for example, running slightly late as I was, I stepped swiftly off the escalator, placed one foot on the floor and slipped backwards into an old lady, spilling coffee on my jeans and jacket. She looked at me like I'd just shagged her daughter and walked off leaving me red-faced and pissed off.

When I join the subway on Line 9, the trains are always full. Very full. We're squeezed in like a fat arse into lycra, in fact. I wear a backpack to work and, as you can imagine, this isn't the most appropriate baggage when trying to squeeze into a small space. Anyway, intuitive as I am, I have developed a trick for bypassing this minor problem. I drain my coffee before the train arrives and make sure I am standing on the right-hand side of the doors. Then, when the train arrives and the passengers exit out of the left-hand side of the doors, I slip my bag off my shoulder, enter the train sideways and then make a little twist as the doors close so I am facing the door and don't have to make eye contact with anybody who's crotch I may have inadvertently rubbed my hand against. Anyway, on this particular morning last week, I had prepped myself in the usual manner and had my backpack held by my side as the train approached. The passengers got off and I crab-walked my way onto the carriage, heard the doors begin to close and began my little twist manoeuvre before....disaster! Some little punk was biting my moves and had squeezed into the carriage behind me. This meant that I was trapped between a chubby man and this punk character, mid-twist and unable to complete it. I had one arm up against my chest with my hand in the air like a gimp and my face literally 2 inches from that of the fat-boy, looking directly towards him. I had to ride that way, avoiding eye contact and trying not to touch his cheek, for 10 whole minutes.

The main thing that troubles me about Line 9 has become known, rather grandly, as The Midget Conundrum. And when I say 'become known' I mean 'become known by me and only me'. Now, there is a scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm - you may have seen it - where Larry David discusses the fact that he finds himself nodding at black people. He can't really help himself, he just finds that, more often than not, he will nod at a black stranger. I have a similar problem. I smile at midgets. I don't know why, but I do. I always have done. It's not that I find them particularly amusing (well, I find them a little amusing) or that I mean to be at all patronising...it's just something I can't seem to stop. Anyway, most mornings, a little midget lady gets off the subway with me at Dongjak and walks with me to Line 9. It's always very busy and people in Seoul aren't really the best at keeping out of your personal space, so I see her quite often being pushed around and shoulder barged - okay, knee'd - out of the way. This angers me a great deal so, one morning, as our eyes met for the first time, I gave her a smile which I thought said, "I feel sorry for you little lady, how you feel is how I feel in a group of North Americans, I can feel your pain". However, from the daggers she sent from her eyes to mine, my look apparently said "I've seen videos of your kind doing unspeakable things". I've seen her a few times since then and I haven't been able to get any sort of eye contact from her. It breaks my heart really. I don't know how I could have offended her. Maybe she's somehow aware that the first time I saw her I had to text Kendra to tell her about it. Or that I secretly wonder if I'd be able to fit her into my suitcase. Or that I have actually seen those videos.

Either way, I don't think I'll be smiling at midgets or dwarfs or elves or any of Tolkien's creatures, in fact, for quite some time.

Love, Smithy x

13.12.09

Christmas in Seoul

I haven't really felt Christmassy in years. Let's see if Mr. Johnny Cash can do it for you.



When I was younger I would go through stages of excitement which steadily rose to a crescendo on Christmas Eve and went through the roof on the day itself. Christmas Day was a routine of pure joy - wake up as early as possible (usually by my sister, Lindsay, who loved Christmas even more than I did) and go into my parents' room to open our stockings which would always be stuffed with chocolate Santas, chocolate coins and our little gifts (there were always dozens of varying sizes, we were spoiled rotten at Christmas). Then, after giving our parents their gifts and making the vague pretence that this day was also about them, my sister and I would stand at the top of the stairs waiting for my Mum to confirm whether or not 'he had been' (seriously, this went on into my 20's). Downstairs, we'd drink tea and open our presents, taking turns between my sister and I, and confirming with my parents which order we should tear through our gifts. Every year my Mum would forget which present was which and would be almost excited as we were as we opened them. Later in the morning, Auntie Pat and our family friend Bob (you need not know who they are, just know them to be as lovely as their names suggest) would come round and Lindsay and I would look at each other with frustration as our present-opening was halted. However they'd stay only for half an hour or so - just enough time to shower us with even more gifts (well, a book token in Auntie Pat's case, always) and allow my Dad to make us all bacon sandwiches before round 2 of the present-opening commenced. We'd reconvene on the living room floor, dressed still in our pyjamas and dressing gowns even though it was nearly midday, and work our way through to the big present finale which included, over time, the Ghostbusters house and car, the WWF ring with different sound effects and numerous gaming systems. After the gift-giving came The Feed and, wearing my ubiquitous new sweater, I'd help welcome whichever guests we were having into our house that year while my parents busied themselves in the kitchen. Turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes and gravy would be joined by a token sprout on my plate and we'd all pull crackers and wear paper hats whilst telling stupid jokes at the table, my grandad groaning at every punchline. The feast over we would, in stereotypically English fashion, retire for naps in front of whichever dire movie was playing that day, waking mid-evening for a turkey and stuffing sandwich and a play with the new presents. Christmas was ace.

The last few Christmases have not been quite so special. Various factors including, but definitely not limited to, my own chemical experimentation and my parents' separation have found me dreading the season and feeling a certain amount of relief when the whole caper was over. Last year, my head clear for the first time in a long time, was quite an improvement as it was spent with my Mum and Kendra in Hong Kong. Turkey was eaten and gifts were exchanged, but I still felt very detached from the holiday itself and could just have easily of been celebrating a friend's birthday.

This year will be different.

Seoul started celebrating Christmas in mid-November. Shops draped themselves in the glitter and vulgarity that comes with commercial festivity and, despite a little grumble at how early everything was happening, I felt a long-buried excitement when I began to hear the Christmas carols for the first time. We've had snow already which certainly helps, as does working with children whose passion for Christmas will forever surpass those who have been dragged into adulthood. I spent last week with my 1st and 2nd graders making Christmas cards and listening to Christmas music and I couldn't keep the smile off my face. Kendra's self-imposed ban on Christmas has been lifted now her birthday has passed and we finally got round to watching our first Christmas movie together (it was National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, by the way. I'd never seen it before. It's brilliant.) In fact, right now, I'm listening to an album of Christmas songs which is very unusual for me. I'm excited for Christmas this year. Very, very excited.

We'll be spending the day in a Canadian pub near to us at a Christmas party they are hosting. The booze will be flowing and they are catering it with a turkey buffet so I'm hoping for a noisy, cheery and festive affair. Some old friends from my stint in Geoje last year are coming to join in and one of them, Jessica, is having her brother fly in from South Africa so there will be a family feel to the party. Also, a couple of days after Christmas, my Mum is flying into Seoul for the first time and Kendra and I are looking forward to showing her around the city and letting her get to know this crazy little country we've been living in for the last couple of years. Add that to the fact that we have tickets for Muse and The Killers concerts in January and February respectively and that we have just booked our flights to Malaysia and Thailand in late February and that on the Malaysia leg of that journey I will be meeting up with my oldest friend and all his family, many of whom I have never met before...well, this could be the happiest Christmas period I have had for a long, long time. Of course, you should never say never, but this will more than likely be my last Christmas in Asia and I am determined to make the most of it.

It has taken a minute for me to get to this point in my life and, I must say, it feels fucking fabulous.

사랑해요!

Smithy x

9.12.09

The Cutting Edge (Archive - 2008)

The problem of violence amongst Britain's youth has for a long time left me and my friends largely uneffected. The horror stories I've read in the press have been just that - stories. However, in the last week, an acquaintance of mine, Edgie, from my street back home in Bury, found himself attacked whilst on a night out in Manchester and was left in a coma. Thankfully, it looks as though he might pull through, but it certainly made me realise that anyone can be effected by the violence and anger on the streets of my country and, even when you are walking away - as Edgie appears to have been doing - you can still catch that one maniac in the wrong mood who will smash you across the head with a metal bar.
Anyway, I thought I'd re-post something I wrote last year when the stories coming from the British press were getting too much for me to take. I apologise for the language. I was a little angry when I wrote it.

I'm a regular visitor to the BBC News website and, let me tell you, that is how you make a website. Quick, easy to navigate, thorough, impartial, informative...and utterly depressing. A standard visit to the UK section of the website will regularly show these headlines - credit crunch, stabbing, credit crunch, stabbing, credit crunch, stabbing, rape. And since the credit crunch bends my head (I have no idea what it means; Forte explained it to me one time but I've drank since then so I'm just going to presume it's an alliterated work of fiction designed to keep us ignorant and the war funded and carry on living my life) I spend most of my time reading about the delightful little terrors that are running around England, stabbing each other to death.

There is, undoubtedly, some Daily Mail-style scare-mongering going on here. A brief glance within the pages of that racist, stuck-in-the-40's, wasn't-Diana-wonderful, right-wing pamphlet of hate would suggest that you can't leave your house without bumping into two young, working-class boys duelling with steak knives. Now, granted, I've been out of the country for some time, but I'm assured things aren't quite that bad. You can't argue with the figures though.

The UK does not have a huge problem with gun crime. Definitely not on the same scale of a country such as America. I cannot begin to get my head around America's gun laws. They terrify me. If I was ever living in a country where my local nutcase could buy cereal, milk, duct tape, eggs, condoms, bread and a bloody Mac-10 in the same visit to Wal-Mart then I would just move. I'd be out of there in a minute. But, since there aren't many handguns lying around in the kitchen drawers of English homes, our angry, disaffected youth are finding shiny, sparkly, serrated blades in their stead.

And the scary part of all this is it's almost understandable why the kids are arming themselves in this way. If I found myself wandering the streets of an inner-city council estate because my benefit-grabbing mother was too busy raising the 6 other pay cheques she'd dropped since I was born to keep me entertained then I'd probably carry a knife too. Because you can be damn sure that the other group of lads has got one and what am I going to do? Not defend myself??

I didn't have a knife as a child. I never saw anyone with one and I never knew someone - or even knew someone who knew someone - who carried one. Now we are told that that there are 400 victims of knife crime a week. Whilst we must take these statistics with a huge pinch of salt, it can't be disputed that young people in Britain are killing each other in large numbers. But why?

It's my own personal opinion that the youth of Britain are angry. And with every justification. They've been abandoned by the system and, without the luck of having a good family or the naivety to be drafted into the forces to fight an illegal war, they are sent out onto the streets to fend for themselves. They are constantly bombarded by the tabloid media and TV abominations like Big Brother and told that there is this 5-minute, effort-free route to fame and fortune. But then, when it doesn't happen for them, who's there to explain that life isn't like that? The parents? They're too busy grabbing benefits, remember? Then we tell the kids that they are stupid and ignorant, that these violent episodes must be provoked by rap music, or movies or video games. That's not patronising is it? And they are constantly told that they aren't performing in schools like they used to...and then the GCSE results come out, they are the best results we have ever had, and it has to be because the exams papers are getting easier! How demoralising is that??

We live in a culture of anger and hatred and this is perpetuated by a media which has to be held responsible. We always have to be angry about something. Whether it's Russell Brand leaving a slightly lewd voicemail on the 'phone of some old actor that nobody cared for previously, or the Baby P scandal which, whilst tragic and terrible - truly awful - was just another example of child abuse which just so happened to receive more coverage than any of the others did that week. If we keep allowing our kids to feel this anger towards people and happenings, then can we really be surprised when this anger manifests in violence? Just today, one of the people on my facebook joined a group called 'Dem ppl who caused dem fires dat killed da orse shud be torchered n burned'.

What? Is that a fucking joke? Are you serious right now? 'dat killed da orse'? And are you seriously advocating that some arsonists that killed a horse should be burnt at the stake like Joan of Arc? Let's castrate rapists as well shall we? And while we're at it, let's cut the hands off thieves. And stone adulterers to death. Oh wait, hold on, now we're Iran. It's this sort of misplaced, vengeful anger that leaves 16-year-old boys lying dead in the street over an Xbox.

The Government has a responsibility to promote positive ideals and alternative resolutions to conflict. We need to elect a leader who will set an example. Invading a country and leaving thousands of people dead in order to pillage its most saleable asset and, in the process, lying to your people about the reasons for committing these atrocities is not sending out the right message. Why would a young lad think twice about stabbing some lad for his 'phone when his Government is capable of such appalling behaviour?

We need to rebuild the moral fabric of our society and move away from this obsession we have with celebrity culture, the get-rich-quick, the material fantasy. We need to find aspirations that are less transient, more attainable. Peace, love, unity, friends, family, happiness...these are the things that will keep the knives in the kitchen drawer. If we can demonstrate this to our young people, then perhaps we could lead them in a more positive direction where they can achieve the best that they possibly can in life. And this doesn’t mean being the most successful businessman, or having the biggest house. This means building a happy home, a family, leaving a legacy - no matter how big or how small.

These people have been lost in a world where reality TV 'stars' take the front page while lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are hidden in corners on page 6. No wonder the line between right and wrong has become blurred.

Peace and love,

Smithy x

6.12.09

A Tragic Tale

On 2nd November 2007, a beautiful young British student, Meredith Kercher, was found with her throat cut in the bedroom of her rented apartment in Perugia, Italy. Her flatmate, American student Amanda Knox and Knox's then-boyfriend, Raffaelle Sollecito, were eventually charged with her murder along with Rudy Guede, a pot dealer with joint Italian/Ivorian citizenship. The stage was set for a drama of Shakespearean proportions.

This case was, from the beginning, a media-led farce with not-so-subtle racist, sexist and anti-American undertones. The British press in particular were keen to paint Amanda Knox as a complete slag as well as a keen drug taker and party girl; Sollecito became the weird loner with the creepy website; and Rudy Guede was a drug-dealing immigrant, ungrateful to the Italian family that adopted him from his home country. The press had a field day when they learned that Amanda Knox's nickname back home was 'Foxy Knoxy' and that she had once written a short story about a man who drugs and rapes a young girl. Similarly with Sollecito, when pictures emerged of him posing with a meat cleaver and a bottle of bleach, it was easy to paint him as a deranged young man with sick, murderous fantasies. Rudy Guede was even easier to pigeonhole. He was black. He had links to the 'underworld'. He received a fast-track trial and was quickly sentenced to 30 years for 'his part' in the murder.

Guede's reasoning for requesting the fast-track trial was that he feared a conspiracy between the two lovers, Knox and Sollecito. He claimed to have been in the bathroom when the attack occurred, heard screaming and Knox and Kercher fighting, and returned to find Meredith's blood-soaked body. He made quick attempts to clean up the mess before panicking and fleeing to Germany where he was consequently arrested for riding a train without a ticket and returned to Italy to face trial. The evidence that convicted Guede? A bloody fingerprint on a pillowcase that matched his.

Raffaelle Sollecito and Amanda 'Foxy' Knox (a nickname given to her aged 8 due to her fancy footwork on the soccer pitch by the way, and in no way related to her supposed promiscuity) told the same story at their joint trial. They told the court that they spent the evening at Sollecito's apartment where they smoked a bit of weed and watched a movie before Knox returned to her apartment and found blood on the floor, evidence of a break-in and then called the police who broke down Kercher's locked bedroom door to find her body.

The prosecution alleged that Knox, Sollecito and Guede had tried to induce Kercher into a 'drug-fuelled sex game', she refused and was held down by Sollecito, sexually-assaulted by Guede and had her throat cut by Knox as a punishment. The jury believed them. After 22-year-old Guede's earlier 30-year sentence, 23-year-old Knox and 25-year-old Sollecito received 26 and 25 year sentences respectively, the extra year given to Knox, seemingly, for being the culprit who actually brandished the knife.

I followed this case rather closely throughout the year-long trial as I was fascinated by it on many levels. The victim had been spending a year during a foreign country, much like I am, and so I was drawn to it for that reason. I was also compelled by the young ages of the defendants, their middle-class backgrounds and the quite disgusting media coverage of the whole spectacle. The over-dramatisation of murder cases, particularly those involving attractive young females, is nothing new but this appeared to take it to a whole new level. The media vultures swarmed and tore Knox's character to shreds. Any member of the jury who even glanced at a newspaper after her arrest would find it impossible to not be influenced by the way they attacked her. But none of the media's attacks made any sense. They focused on this 'Foxy Knoxy' character which, as I already mentioned, was bollocks, and they used that short story that she wrote as proof of her sick fantasies. Ignoring these things, Amanda Knox appeared to be a perfectly normal, intelligent and popular young woman. Hey, I once wrote a short story based on the Oedipus Complex. Doesn't mean I fantasise about it!

Now, I want to make myself clear here - I am not in the habit of defending murderers. If Knox, Guede and Sollecito acted as the prosecution allege they did, then they deserve every year of the sentence that they received.

The problem is though, I just don't think that there is enough evidence. I think what we have witnessed is a panicked Italian judicial system, feeling the focus of the world upon them, determined to show that they punish criminals to the full extent of their power. We have a crime with no motive, 'no blazing gun' as one writer has put it, and 3 suspects with different stories who have all been convicted. DNA evidence is slim - highly questionable in fact - and I am amazed that they have been found guilty. Each is allowed an automatic appeal in around a year's time, and I don't think that we have heard the end of this case just yet.

Let's not forget that, at the centre of all this, a 22-year-old girl with her whole live ahead of her has died. She had her throat cut like an animal as she lay in her bed in a picture-perfect Italian town. It is an absolute tragedy. Now, we have 3 more young adults who have had their own lives cut short as a consequence.

Wouldn't it be equally as tragic if their loss were as needless and unnecessary as Meredith Kercher's?

22.11.09

Au Revoir, Ireland!

For the uninitiated amongst you, next summer will see the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa (I am, of course, talking about football) and never have I been more excited about a tournament. England - disgustingly, I might add - failed to qualify for the European Championships in 2008 and so by the time next summer comes around, it will be 4 full years since I supported my national side in a bona fide tournament. I will be out of the country of course, and there will be some interesting sleep patterns during the tournament (I'm sure Kendra will be delighted) but I have promised myself that if, by some miracle, we are in the final on Sunday July 11th in Johannesburg, I will be in England to watch the game. Come what may. The thought of being away from my mates when we win the World Cup is too heart-breaking to consider. I can't see it being a problem though. We'll get knocked out in the quarters amidst fury and great expectation like every other tournament.

Anyway, England qualified with a near-perfect record in the group and so avoided the play-offs between teams who had equal points at the top of the groups. These play-offs were, controversially, seeded. This meant that the higher ranked teams that had made it to this stage (Portugal, Greece, Russia and, as will become pertinent to the story, France) would avoid each other and so will play the lower ranked teams of Ukraine, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republic of Ireland. The theory being that the higher-ranked teams (and, in most cases, the best players) would go to the World Cup Finals thus ensuring the most high-profile and exciting tournament possible - what everybody should want. I agree with the system. It sucks for the lower-ranked teams but, anybody thinking it should be easy to reach the World Cup Finals is dreaming. You'll have to beat good teams when you're there and you should have to beat good teams to get there. In my opinion.

These were the fixtures -
  • Russia v Slovenia
  • Greece v Ukraine
  • Portugal v Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Republic of Ireland v France
These games would be played over 2 legs - home and away - with the winners proceeding to the World Cup Finals in South Africa. Greece and Portugal came through their ties without too much difficulty and Slovenia pulled off a minor shock by beating Russia on the away goals rule after two tight legs. And then... Well, then there was the Ireland - France game.

Ah, the luck of the Irish, eh? You've got to feel bad for them, I suppose. Here's what happened. The first leg, in Ireland, went 1-0 to the French and it looked like it was all over for Ireland. From what I've seen of the game they didn't play well and nobody really gave them a chance of going to the Stade de France - a ground where France have won 80% of their games - and getting a victory. The game came around the Irish were terrific. They outplayed the French on their own soil, wanted it more and were rewarded with a goal from The World's Most Irish Man (Robbie Keane). The game looked like it was heading for penalties and in the last few minutes of the second half Ireland were pinned back in their half defending the French onslaught. And, then this happened.
video
It's a blatant handball. The ball bounces in the 6-yard box (and Roy Keane was right, by the way, that should never have happened) hits Thierry Henry's forearm and begins to bounce harmlessly out of play, before Henry taps it down to his feet with his hand and prods it across goal for Gallas to score the winning goal. It happens so quickly that it is hard to notice until a few watches of the clip, but it definitely does. Henry cheated, it led directly to a goal and because of that Ireland will not be going to the World Cup.

The reaction to this has been, quite predictably, one of outrage. And, again predictably, massively out of proportion. I hate cheating on the football pitch. It angers me. To see Henry celebrating that goal makes me feel sick (but, then again, seeing Thierry Henry celebrate anything has always made me feel sick - I've never liked him) and I fully support the reasonable points that have been brought up in the wake of this dispute. There is, perhaps, room for another official on each goal line. If there was one at the game, it is much more likely the handball would have been given. I agree that the officials involved in this game should be banned, as failing to spot such a blatant offence is gross misconduct. I also agree that Henry should not have stuck his hand out to cheat and that he now, deservedly, will go down as one of the world's great football cheats. Like this gentleman.
video
However, I do not agree that there should be a video referee like in Rugby. "Oh, but it works so well in Rugby, we should have it in football". NO! For a start rugby is boring as hell and should not be held up as a sport we're inclined to copy and secondly, human error is a part of football and to take it away would sterilise the game beyond belief. And to ask for the game to be replayed? The Irish FA have lost so much credibility with this request that my sympathy for them has almost dissipated. If the game were to be replayed, we would be plunged into absolute chaos and it would set a precedent that would ruin football as a concept for ever more. Thierry Henry has to live with the knowledge that his country have qualified for the World Cup because he cheated. I'm certain that if he had the chance to, he would go back, not handle it and allow the game to run to extra time or penalties when the French would have probably won anyway. However, going back is not an option (in fact, is about as likely as the game being replayed) and the Irish need to get over it. Move on. Maintain the dignity you deserve after putting on a valiant display in France. The fact of the matter remains that had you won more games in the group stage, then the play-off would have been unnecessary. As it is, you will be watching the World Cup with a strange disconnection. Just as us Englishmen had to watch the 2008 Euros.

And besides, all that's really happened is the disappointment has been brought forward about 7 months, right?

See you in South Africa, Frenchy!

15.11.09

The 3-Month Bitch

Choooooooooon!

There is a sort of rule of thumb around these year-long teaching sojourns whereby the first few months are adventurous and exciting, full of new experiences and new people, thus making it easier to be away from your friends, and family, cats and dogs, food and television that you love so much. It is around this time, so the theory goes, that the '3-month itch' kicks in. I have very much reached this point.

The '3-month itch' consists of the following -
  • missing your friends and family so much that even people you barely like from home enter your consciousness and you crave their company
  • you salivate uncontrollably at the prospect of a decent slice of bacon or a full-bodied glass of beer
  • the aspects of the foreign culture in which you exist that were previously exhilarating and fascinating become annoying and even mundane
  • a mild depression descends that sits over everything that you do.
Well, at least it does in my case.

Please, don't get me wrong. We're having a great time here. Work has become much more fun and rewarding over the last few weeks and I really feel like I am making headway in terms of getting to know the children and my teaching is consequently improving. We are studying Korean and reaping the rewards that this pastime brings. We feel more embedded in the culture and find that people relate to us much better now that we are making an effort to learn the language. We feel settled in Seoul and have enjoyed exploring the city, especially the culinary side of things, and now feel almost at home here. We are certainly happy. The problem is, quite simply, missing home and there's nothing I can do about it other than man up and get on with it. So I shall.

Anyway, the most exciting thing to happen to us in recent weeks is that we received confirmation from Kendra's recruiter that she has been accepted into Cardiff Uni to do her PGCE and so we are getting closer to our first choice move for next year. Now we only have the small matter of Kendra getting her visa (and my getting into Uni, ahem) and we will be all set! Anyway, even if I don't get in, we will certainly be moving to Wales (presuming the visa application goes without a hitch) and we are very excited to move to an English-speaking country (sort of), relatively close to my friends and family. Thrilled, even. Only 9 months to go!

Anyway, I'm going to leave this very short post here as we have to go out soon but I have pledged to keep this blog up more often. There may be less pictures, the posts may be less interesting, but I shall be posting every passing thought that enters my head. If you wish to unsubscribe, I shall perfectly understand. I just won't talk to you anymore.

Oh and, very briefly, let me recommend that you check out my friend the Postman's blog, The Sententious Vaunter. If there was a way of doing this without him knowing I was kissing his arse then I would, of course, pursue it but, as I know he will read this, I suppose there is no way around it. However, this is a very, very well written blog which I know would be of particular interest to my father and sister due to the Postman's recent pursuit of his pilots license. However, I have absolutely zero interest in aviation and even I find it fascinating. I wouldn't wax lyrical about something like this unless I actually meant it. Give it a read. Seriously, it's brilliant.

Anyway, I'm gonna go eat some dak galbi. For those of you that know what that is, I'm sure you'll be jealous.

Take it easy.

Love, Smithy x

20.10.09

Daily Hate Mail

Russell Brand has a joke about The Sun, "I grew up with The Sun. It's like an old friend. But it's, like...does anyone have an old friend that they just fucking hate?"

I feel that way about the Daily Mail. It's the paper we had delivered to my house my whole life and, until I was old enough to question the nonsense printed within that rag, it was the only paper I ever read. In fact my earliest memory of journalism as a concept was around the time of Stephen Lawrence's murder when the Mail printed it's infamous cover declaring a gang of youths to be his murderers and inviting people to sue them if they were wrong. I remember thinking how bold and brave that was, and wondering how a simple newspaper could know something that even the police did not - 'Here y'are coppers, go buy the Mail, they've got the bad guys for you!' - but now, as an older and (slightly) wiser man, I can see how this could be so. The police have to worry about a simple thing called 'The Truth'.

Now, those 5 lads might well have killed young Stephen Lawrence - they were certainly a racist, violent and small-minded group of individuals and an intelligent black man like Stephen Lawrence probably stood for eveything they despised - but that's not my point. My point is that the headline was there to sell papers and, in it's ferocity, exascerbate the issue of racial segregation within Blair's Britain. And those 5 men have never been convicted. We don't know if it was true.

This week, over 15 years on from the tragic death of young Stephen Lawrence, came the tragic death of young Stephen Gately, a pop singer with the irish boyband Boyzone and the star of a number of West End shows. Gately was 33 when he fell asleep on the sofa of his holiday home in Majorca and never woke up, the coroners verdict being that he died of a rare condition culminating in a build up of fluid on his lungs. This was the tragic death of a young man in his prime, and one that affected many people as he was a popular man with fans all over the world.

Oh, by the way, Stephen Gately was homosexual.

The Daily Mail waited a few days, during which the pathologist report came back showing that Gately died of natural causes, before publishing a piece by their esteemed columnist Jan Moir entitled 'A Strange Lonely and Troubling Death'. Throughout this piece, Moir makes the most oblique and petty jabs at the circumstances surrounding Gately's death and displays a lack of sympathy and respect that is disgustingly typical of this most sneering of tabloids. She shamelessly uses phrases like, "sleazy" and "dubious" and suggests that, as another man joined Gately and his partner back at their apartment, "It is not disrespectful to assume that a game of canasta with 25-year-old Georgi Dochev was not what was on the cards." No, Ms Moir, it fucking is disrepectful, and it is journalism of the most pathetic standard to take such a low blow at a dead young man who had not yet even been buried. She goes on to suggest that Gately's death, "strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships" that he, "at least" smoked cannabis on the night that he died and that, "his mother is still insisting that her son died from a previously undetected heart condition". Yeah, I wonder why that is, Jan? Could it be that the coroner said that's how he died? Could it be that there isn't a jot of evidence to suggest that anything untoward happened that night? Could it be that smoking a spliff before bed does not lead you to die in your sleep - ever?

Even though every shred of evidence and common sense points to the contrary, Jan Moir displays an arrogance and self-belief in her bigotry that would be almost admirable were it not for it's stupidity. I began to get on my high horse when I first read this article, and worried for the number of people who would be sat around, nodding to themselves, and thinking how this dangerous homosexual got his just desserts for the "dark appetites...and private vice" that he embraced. But after this initial anger and fear subsided, I'm left with only pity. The article was pathetic. A disgusting, poorly written, dreadfully ill-researched load of tripe that could just as easily have been written by a 16-year-old idiot. It just seems so fucking 80's to even bother being racist and homophobic now. What's the point? I'm sure when you were a little girl dreaming of seeing your words in print, you saw yourself making snidey little jokes about dead, gay pop stars. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Oh, and to anyone who still reads this piece of shit, please stop. It stands against everything that a forward-thinking human being should believe in. And it is forward-thinking that this poor little planet of ours needs nowadays.

Love, Smithy x

11.10.09

Sundays, eh?

These are just a few of the convoluted thoughts that have passed through my head this past weekend -
  • Autumn is a fantastic season in a country where the words 'grey skies' and 'drizzle' mean not a jot.
  • Krispy Kreme is as dangerous as crack.
  • The deaths of Michael Jackson and Stephen Gately are not - I repeat, not - comparable.
  • The crescendo of strings at 5:56 in Noah and The Whale's First Days of Spring is as exciting a moment in music as any other.
  • Beef is good.
  • Missing friends and family members is not a sharp, impossible-to-ignore pain but more a dull, never-ending ache.
  • The England national team, like Manchester City, will find a way of fucking up every opportunity that is put in front of them.
  • Had Barack Obama been white he would not have won the Nobel Peace Prize but, if he had been white and had won the prize, nobody would have said a word about it.
  • I want a puppy.
  • I am becoming dangerously blase about suicide bombs and the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan - proof positive perhaps that apathy will be the friend of the tyrant.
  • The death penalty is, without a shadow of doubt in my mind, wrong.
  • The love of a good woman can make everything else seem rather meaningless.
  • Learning new languages is actually rather exciting.
  • I don't look good in purple.
  • You get what you pay for with W5,000 watches.
  • Hidden geeky-ness is very attractive.
  • I want a pair of 1980's original tortoiseshell RayBan Wayfarers, a gold Rolex and, in fact, the entire wardrobe (and not, I should add, the personality) of Patrick Bateman.
  • AstroTurf burns take a long time to heal.
  • Don't ask, don't tell could be the most offensive policy towards sexual orientation I have ever heard.
  • To be a critic, be it in food, movies, sport or music, it must inherently mean that you spend your life criticising something that you are, in fact, not good enough to do yourself.
  • The only bad thing about a good Sunday is the morning that follows.
Love, Smithy x

7.10.09

Soccer, Studying and Saluting

Well, it's been a while since I've posted anything here which isn't very good now, is it? I'll just choonfully briefly bring you up-to-date on what we've been up to...

Work is going ok. Kendra seems to be finding her feet a bit more and, although she still finds it difficult with her less-than-enthusiastic students, and staff who think it appropriate to communicate only in hand gestures (a half-hearted salute on his entry and exit into the room), she comes home from work with a smile on her face more often than not which can only be a good thing. My work is plodding along. I'm beginning to build up relationships with a few kids as I begin to recognise their faces - as with last year I am more drawn to the cheeky ones and find them much more fun to teach. I have had a couple of small issues to do with money and with one co-teacher in particular who has been far from helpful - to be honest these issues didn't seem too small at the time - but I believe they are being sorted now and I should have the money that I'm owed within days. Or else I'm going to start throwing things at people.

We have taken as many opportunities as possible to get out and explore Seoul - starting from the touristy areas outwards. We went to Insa-dong with it's endless streets selling tradtitional Korean tat, we strolled through the department stores of Jongno-dong and the designer shops of Akpujeong. We also found a nice little park not far from our place in Yongsan-dong where we enjoyed the end-of-summer sunshine one Saturday afternoon. This really is a fantastic city.

For me, the most exciting thing that I've done since I last posted here is that I joined an expat football team, Seoul United FC, who play in the Seoul Sunday Football League. I was incredibly nervous before my first game as I hadn't played 11-a-side football for a good few years, but those nerves were eased slightly when I learnt that our opponents would be a Japanese team who were bottom of the league and who only had 10 players for the first half hour of the game. Anyway, I made a good account of myself - scoring the first goal and setting up a few others - and was asked to join the team for the rest of the season. It's going to be really good getting into the competitive spirit again and I can't wait for the games ahead. We had a friendly the other day and I managed to get on the scoresheet again from right-back so, fingers crossed, I can keep that going!

We have also signed up for Korean lessons every weekend, as both of us are a trifle embarrassed about our Korean ability after each living here for over a year. They will take place for 3 hours every Saturday and aren't exactly cheap, but it will make a huge difference being able to communicate properly with the locals, not to mention being quite interesting and giving us something productive to do with our time off. It will also be good to get back into studying mode because.....

We're going back to Uni next year. Well, Kendra is and I almost definitely am. This will be our last year teaching ESL after which we will both spend a year training before starting our careers. Kendra will do her teacher training which will give her a qualification allowing her to teach both in Britain and Canada (handy, given our little arrangement) and I will (fingers crossed) be doing a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism. Obviously nothing is set in stone, and the fact that I want this so much will probably allow sod's law to intervene and deny me my opportunity, but I'm going to do everything in my power to get accepted and then find the relevant funding to do it. Writing is the only thing I love doing (besides playing football and, when FC Seoul inevitably come knocking after my goal-to-game ratio becomes too impressive to ignore, I will have some serious decisons to make) so I've decided to stop saying, 'Well, I'd love to be a writer', and just go ahead and fucking be a writer. Maybe I won't be a millionaire, but I think I'd be happy. More important, some might say.

Anyway, that's the happy-hap from Seoul. Get in touch, let me know what you're up to and please leave feedback! 'Cause I probably miss you.

Love, Smithy x

25.9.09

Today's Cools and Not-So-Cools

Cools
  • Random Fridays off work
  • Cold pizza
  • Free (good) coffee
  • Naked ambition
  • Terrific novels
  • macbooks
  • Free speech
  • The Gaslight Anthem
  • Nicely lit rooms
  • Mid-morning naps
  • Kendra
  • Well-buttered toast
  • 2 long weekends in a row
  • Yorkshire tea
Not-So-Cools
  • Kendra working
  • Heavy-handed American policing
  • The Entourage writing going bad
  • Delayed pay-days
  • Finishing said novel with no replacement
  • Racism
That will be all!

CHOOOOOOON!!!


Love, Smithy x

21.9.09

Do I Make You Angry, Teacher?

Click here for one of the best rapper ever's best raps ever.

Last Friday saw me complete my first full week of teaching at an elementary school in the upmarket Seocho district of Seoul. The school is a 45-minute journey from my house with about 30 of that spent on the subway. The subway comes overground to cross the Han River every morning, and the novelty of this is still very much alive for me. Seoul does not have the instantly recognisable skyline of a New York or a London or a Hong Kong, but it is very much a foreign landscape, and looking across the river to the smog-covered skyscrapers makes me feel exhilaratingly far from home.

My school lies within spitting distance of the brand-new Sinpyeong-yeok subway and I emerge from underground into a high-rise suburbia which is currently under construction. Directly opposite the station is a huge and brand-new apartment complex that has been lived in for only two months or so, whilst to the right and left are immense building sites throwing up like-for-like apartment buildings for Seoul's white-collar workers. A quick survey of one of my classes informed me that my kids' parents are of the doctor, lawyer, architect and dentist variety. This is the Korean Cheshire Set. Seoul-derly Edge, if you will. A short walk through a small park and I enter the school, giving a half-bow to the two ladies stood with their little machine, taking the temperature of every child that enters. They have done this every day since I arrived as a precaution against swine flu (of which 2 kids have been diagnosed in the last week) and each day I'm tempted to go stand in front of them and hold my mouth open to see if they'd take mine. I haven't yet. I might, though.

The school is 4-storeys tall, reasonably modern, and clean. Each classroom (there are at least 40) is fitted with a 50-inch Samsung LCD TV which we use for displaying Powerpoints, flashcards and inappropriate YouTube videos (more of that later). I teach mainly 6th grade students, but I also have five 3rd Grade classes a week, two 2nd grade and one 1st Grade. Although this schedule makes my planning slightly more confusing than for other teachers in the SMOE programme, I can hardly complain as my planning tops out at four lessons a week. And that's if I find it in me to separate the 1st and 2nd graders in term of level - I haven't as yet. The kids are good fun, mostly well behaved and very, very smart. One 1st grader - a 6-year-old girl - pulled me up on my spelling of the word 'Clementine' by standing up, adjusting her glasses and saying, verbatim, "Teacher, I believe you have misspelled Clementine", before sitting down, adjusting her glasses again, and rolling her eyes at the boy sat next to her as if to say, "Who's this dipshit"? I turned and muttered "I think you'll find it's mis-spelt," before sulkily correcting my woeful spelling on the chalkboard. Turns out it is misspelled, actually.

We were promised more free time when we decided to take up public school positions and I suppose we have it...I guess it just depends what your definition of free time is. We have to be at school between 8.30am and 4.30pm but my teaching is always finished by 1.30pm. This means that I have a minimum of three hours planning time every day but,with only four (well, three) classes a week to plan for, this planning time becomes free time which must be spent at school. It is so, so boring. I am trying to use this time productively to do some writing, but it is a frustrating few hours and I would much prefer a system whereby, provided I could prove I had planned my lessons (and I would be happy to do this) I could go home and sit around in my boxer shorts rather than sit feverishly refreshing facebook or talking to the school geek about an Apocalypse theory he's read about on adolescentangst.com. Seems pointless to me.

The main difference in the teaching between our public school gigs and last year's hagwon job is the difference in class size. I have 25-30 students in each class and, whilst this makes the lesson more difficult to control, you do get more characters in your lessons. There's one kid in my class who doesn't say a word to anyone, does his work quietly and perfectly, but 3 times now has handed me a note at the end of class saying, in English, "Do I make you angry, Teacher"? Or the other lad who insists on doing the robot every time he moves away from his desk. Or, my personal favourite, the special needs boy at Kendra's school who will fix Kends with a keen stare before shouting, "MY NAME IS KENDRA TEACHER!" at the top of his voice and running out of the classroom, only to be found peeping around the door moments later to see if Kendra is looking. I suppose it is the kids that make a teacher's job worthwhile and it's moments like this that do make the boredom less of a pain. However, the main thing I miss from the smaller sized hagwon classes is the one-to-one interaction with the kids and I can't see a way of us getting that this year. It's a shame.

Another difference is that we have a co-teacher in each of our classes who, in theory, is there to control the class, help with any language barriers and do a little teaching. This relationship will be very important for the year ahead and I'm lucky that my co-teachers are quite cool, young and speak English well. We're getting along okay so far and, as I say, I feel lucky for that. However, one tip I would give to anyone considering this experience for themselves would be to double-check any YouTube videos you were thinking of showing the children before pressing play. In the first class that I would lead, and the first opportunity I had to impress my co-teacher with the world-class teaching that I bring to the table, I showed an animated video for the song, 'Anything You Can Do' from Annie Get Your Gun that I was using as a lesson on comparatives. The video ended with the two characters baring their arses before giving each other a double-fisted middle finger- something the students found considerably more amusing than my co-teacher did. Embarrassing moment #2 came during my first (and hopefully last) appearance on the school's television network when I was to introduce myself to the school and express my joy at returning to Korea. Humiliating enough, you might think. Well yes, you'd be correct, had I not coupled it with a huge outbreak of sweat and an odourless but definitely audible fart as I stepped in front of the camera. Horrific.

We knew coming into this that it would be a different working experience than last year, but I'm not sure we were prepared for how different it was going to be. The days are long, the teaching
difficult and, in a minority of cases, the colleagues are dickheads. But, one of the reasons we didn't take the hagwon jobs in Busan was to take ourselves out of our comfort zones and, when we order our 4th cocktails of the day, lying bollock-naked on a beach somewhere in south-east Asia come February, I'm sure we'll be able to see the benefits of our decision. We're in this together and I'm certain it will be worth while. Every day is an experience, and we should be thankful for that alone.

Anyway, I'm going to hit the sack. Got to do it all over again tomorrow.

Peace and love,

Smithy x

15.9.09

Wake Up Mr West!


So, I hear Kanye has been making the headlines back West? What a lot of silly bother. Sadly, the way I heard of this event was through facebook status' - "So-and-so thinks Kanye West is a DICK", "Such-and-such can't believe Kanye West could be so RUDE" and so on and so on. For those of you that don't know what happened, let me explain.

During the acceptance speech for her Best Female Video award, the beautifully boring Taylor Swift was interrupted by a certain Mr West who took her mike, apologised for the interruption, and promptly informed the audience that Swift was undeserving of the award since Beyonce (his boss' wife and fellow nominee) had made "one of the best video's ever". This was greeted by a chorus of boos and heckling (and some cheers, by the way) before Kanye made his way off the stage and into the entertainment pages of newspapers the world over.

Now, seriously, what is all the fuss about?

Let's break it down - a multi-millionaire, egomaniac pop star, drunk at an awards show, bum-rushed the stage and said something mildly inappropriate. That is all that happened! Isn't that what we want from our pop stars? A bit of unpredictability and artistic flair? Stupid haircuts, crazy outfits and uncontrollable egos? Kanye West is one of a dwindling number of artists who is refusing to conform to what the music business wants him to be and I completely understand his frustration with puppets like Taylor Swift. I don't care about Taylor Swift. She has nothing interesting to say. She is an MTV poster-child who they are jumping all over because she is not only a good enough country singer to buy into the huge market of that genre in the States, but she is also good-looking enough to cross over into the mainstream and add a poppier-charting side to her success. She makes bank, and that is the only reason she won that 'award'.

MTV awards ceremonies used to mean something and they no longer do. A quick YouTube of the two videos in question would prove that Beyonce should have won the award. It was a record company decision that she didn't. The whole show was corporate White America's wet dream and the sterile, passionless background to the sickening Michael Jackson 'tribute' was made even more farcicle by the Smooth Criminal dancer fucking up the signature dance-move he's probably been practicing for the last few months. And Russell Brand was shit.

But Kanye West, take a bow. At least you got people talking. At least you have clearly got a passion for music and craft and a desire to see brilliance rewarded. At least you are different. At least you stand up for what you believe in, even if you do look like a bit of an arse when you do it.

Let's have a rap album this time as well, eh?

Love, Smithy x

6.9.09

Early Days

Brendan, if you read this, dude, I'm shamelessly ripping off your idea. But that's only 'cause I like it!

Play this and read on...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcwABj_1FKA

Getting an E-2 visa to live and work in South Korea is not an easy process. Especially for somebody as disorganised as myself. However, I am well aware of my personal foibles and so resolved early on that I would not leave myself in the same position as the last time I applied for a visa for Korea - booking my flight 48 hours prior to departure and having to sell my car to finance to trip, for example. This last part would be quite easy to avoid, since I had no car to sell.

Everything started off just fine. I took the initiative and contacted various agencies early, discussing with them our options and, more specifically, whether to apply for public school jobs or hagwon (private academy) jobs. The main difference between the two would be more money in the hagwon system, but more vacation and more free time in the public school system. We decided to go for public school as we would have more chance to travel, but also as we could take the housing allowance and it would look more impressive on our CVs. The agency we selected, Planet ESL, were more than helpful in the initial process and things were looking good. There was no way I would be leaving things to the last minute.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the application process took longer than expected, our Korean-American liason to our employers - the extraordinarily named Randy Hong - was a fucking idiot and the Foreign Office Visa Section at Milton Keynes is a shithole. Suffice to say, I found myself taking a National Express bus through the night to London for a 9:30am appointment at the Korean Embassy to collect my passport, before booking my flight on the phone outside, hauling my two huge suitcases, hand luggage and laptop on the tube to Heathrow, flirting with a 50-year-old woman in the hope that she would let me off the £300 she wanted to charge me for being 10kg over my 30kg baggage allowance (she did) and catching the 2:30pm flight from London to Dubai where I would take my connecting flight to Seoul. It was chaotic to say the least, but as I sank into the reclining seat of the brand new Airbus A380 on which I flew, sipping on the first of a number of complimentary bottles of red wine, I was able to finally relax and look forward to seeing Kendra and the adventures that lay ahead.

After 2 flights of over 8 hours each and an ill-advised McDonalds in Dubai, Kendra met me at Seoul's Incheon airport accompanied by a driver in a very welcome, air-conditioned, black people carrier that was provided by Planet ESL. As I was welcomed into the country by our recruiter, Jiyeon - who's help during this process had extended to putting down her own money in order to secure our apartment - and kissed on the cheek by my beautiful girlfriend, the midnight haul down to London and all the stress from the last few weeks dissipated. Out of the blacked-out windows of the people carrier I could see the 21st century skyscrapers and traditional Korean temples that make up the Seoul skyline and the bright blue, sun-filled sky that made the grey hue of northern England seem a world away. When, really, it was only half.

The next few days were taken up with exploring the local area, settling into our new apartment, getting re-adjusted to the great Korean food and sleeping! We're in Yongsan-dong which is most well known for Yongsan Garrison, the main US military base in South Korea. This means that the area is crawling with GI Joes and their (mostly Korean) girlfriends. The major benefit of this is the plethora of western amenities in the area and the local shops are filled with familiar products, herbs and spices that would be much more difficult to get hold of in other areas of Korea. I'm also hoping to get involved in some expat football but I haven't heard anything as yet. Our apartment is only 10 minutes from the subway station where I integrated myself into the local culture subtly by dropping my T-Money card (a plastic keyring type thing that I use to get on the subway) down a 50 foot drop, bouncing off escalators and missing the heads of commuters by inches. And, later, I fell on my face. On my first day.

I only really started to appreciate Korean food in the last few months of my year in Geoje so I'm determined to try more because there are some delicious dishes out there. We went out for galbi (marinated pork rib, barbequed) the other night, but we have also eaten Chinese, Mexican and American food in the few days that we've been here. And Italian if you count the pasta that I made. We've been shopping almost every day to spend the settlement allowance we are provided with on the essentials for the apartment. We also managed to pick up a bit of furniture to make the place look more lived in but we're still in need of a few pieces. I'll put up some pictures when it's a bit more finished.

So, all in all, it has been an excellent few days settling into our new home. The weather has been beautiful (30+ and sunny) and everyone we have met has been kind and friendly. We've also met up with some of our friends from last year - shout out to Hacksaw Jim Duggan - and just enjoyed being together again after a long summer apart. Kendra starts work tomorrow and I do later in the week - after our Government-enforced semi-quarantine due to the 'western evil' that is Swine Flu - so now the holiday ends and the real work begins. We're both really nervous about starting but excited as well and I think it will be a more rewarding experience than the work we did last year. Coupled with the fact that we get 4 big fat weeks of holiday to explore Asia and it's looking like it could be a pretty good year!

Love, Smithy x