Today's Cools and Not-So-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
  • 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!


Love, Smithy x


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


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


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...


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


I'm a Seoul Man

After completing one year of teaching English in South Korea back in May, I returned to England for the summer in order to visit friends and family and indulge myself in some of the home comforts I had missed so dearly during my 12 months in East Asia. My girlfriend, Kendra, visited from her homeland of Ontario, Canada for a few weeks at the beginning of summer and then returned to her job, leaving us with a long 3-months of being apart.

My summer was excellent. I worked a job at the Town Hall that I was surprised to find out that I enjoyed, caught up with all my friends and family that I love so much - including my beautiful new-born niece, Lilia - and ate so many sausages, packs of bacon and portions of fish and chips that I gained an unknown amount of weight and a giant gut. However, being seperated from Kendra was painful and we always intended on returning to Korea, together, for work. And so here it is that I find myself, almost 4 months to the day since I left the country, back in South Korea and ready to resume my role as Andrew Smith: English Teacher.

Things will be slightly different this time around, however. Whereas last year we both worked in private academies (hagwons), this year we will be teaching in the public school system for SMOE (Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education). And, as opposed to the small towns we lived in last year (Yangsan and Geoje, respectively), this time we have taken positions in the capital city, Seoul. The final difference is that, rather than the free, one bedroom studio apartments that we lived in last year, we have taken the option of a housing allowance and used this to rent a 3-bedroom apartment together. These 3 things should make for a rather different experience this year than the one we had previously.

I decided to start this blog for myself as much as anything, so that I can keep a record of the things that I get up to and look back on it in the future. I will also, undoubtedly, use it to get up on my soap box about whatever issues I feel strongly about at the time, and to make ill-informed rants about the state of the world. I hope if you read this you will join in and make comments. I expect about 4 people to actually read it (and I probably share a surname with 3 of them) but if you do read, please take the time to leave feedback.

Anyway, 'bye for now. And, as I will try to do with each post of this blog, I leave you with a tune.


Love, Smithy x