Tonight, thank God it's them instead of you.

Well, 2011 is drawing to a close. A cliche though it may be, I have no idea where this year has gone. This time last year, I was working an awful, soul-destroying and morally dubious job whilst living in a windowless box in Cardiff. 12 months later, I'm back in South Korea -which I swore I'd never do - yet I find myself with much to be thankful for. It's cold, the people are angry, and the food is still shit. But there is something about this place that levels me out.

2012 may start and end for me on this bacon-forsaken peninsula - who knows? What I do know, wherever I will be, is that I will end it a better person than when I started it. I think we should try and do that with every year we are lucky enough to put behind us. In fact, fuck it - that is my new year's resolution every year until I die. I'll try and make it the first one I've ever kept.

So anyway, let me fill you in on the last few months of my 2011. As tends to happen, days, weeks and months have morphed into one long stream of Koreanarama and I find myself nearly 3 months into my contract before it even feels like it's started. Over 3 years since I first said I would, I started studying Taekwondo after I was handed an opportunity that was really too good to be turned down. I train in a dojang 30 minutes from the apartment, with 2 young black belts running the classes and the whole thing overseen by Master Yoon - a fantastic, if slightly intimidating, guy who speaks fluent English having run Taekwondo schools in Chicago for the best part of 15 years. One of my work colleagues and I are essentially receiving 1-on-1 lessons 3 times a week, and I fucking love it. I never really got martial arts before. My mate Teh has practiced Judo for as long as I can remember, and he was always on at me to join the classes when we were younger but I wasn't interested. Now, I totally get it. I've got my yellow belt after 2 months or so and Master Yoon has suggested that reaching black belt before I leave Korea is not out of the question. So, I'm going to knuckle down, train hard and see where it gets me. Achieving black belt in Korea's national sport whilst in Korea would be something special.

It was through Taekwondo that I got involved in one of the more fulfilling and satisfying experiences that my life in Korea - or perhaps my life as a whole - has provided me with. A fellow TKD'er is involved with North Korea Peace, a non-profit organisation that has committed to sending 1000 pairs of socks and messages of peace across the border into North Korea via giant helium balloons every month. Socks may seem an unusual cargo for such a route, but - as we learnt from Mr. Lee, the North Korean defector who runs the organisation and who I was honoured to meet - socks are extremely hard to come by in North Korea. Also, the higher-quality South Korean sock as compared to the more common Chinese sock can be traded for as much as 10kg of corn - that is one month's worth of food in famine-stricken North Korea. After hearing this, we just had to get involved so I rounded up the Canadian and some friends and got stuck right in. So that's how I found myself, at 9am on Christmas Eve morning, freezing cold, mildly hungover and clutching a Sausage & Egg McMuffin, listening to the most fascinating tales I have ever heard, straight from the mouth of a man who risked his life on a hunch that the bullshit he was being fed by his Government was, in fact, bullshit. He was right but, as he pointed out to us, the price he paid to discover this information has been high indeed. Any family and friends that he left behind have almost certainly been rounded up and sent to Labour (Death) Camps, and he must live with that his whole life. He also described the racism he suffers at the hands of South Koreans (is nobody safe from that shit?) and the incredible lengths he goes to to contact people in the North (a smuggled Chinese cell phone that can get reception in North Korea's western provinces, if you're so interested). It really was fascinating stuff, and it was a privilege to be involved. The success of the balloon launch is dependent on the winds at the time, and it seems unlikely that last Saturday's launch ended with any socks actually falling north of the border. However, with a strong media presence including Reuters, AP, Japanese, Korean and Russian press agencies (partly due to the recent death of Kim Jong Il but largely due to a huge PR push by NKP members), the other aim of North Korea Peace has certainly been achieved - awareness has been raised. In fact, you can even see us in the Daily Mail (have a bang on the comments section of that article, pretty standard idiocy from Daily Mail readers - although the comparisons to condoms simply cannot be denied). It was a great day, and something that I will certainly following up with in the future. Each one of these launches costs $3000, and that money has to come from somewhere. Maybe it could come from you?

Later that day, with work looming on Boxing Day, we had our Christmas Day on Christmas Eve in Incheon with some friends, a cooked ham with Yorkshire Puddings (hardly traditional, but totally awesome), a Doberman Pinscher and a lot of red wine. While those in my homeland were opening gifts and, perhaps, sipping a morning Buck's Fizz, I was taking part in drinking games, comparing Kanye West to The Beatles, seriously contemplating riding the Doberman around the flat and nearly decorating the inside of a taxi. Next thing I know, it's mid-morning, I'm waking up fully dressed in my bed, confused as hell, with the Canadian glancing at me witheringly saying, "Yes, you are still wearing your coat, scarf and gloves." Good night, it was.

So between Taekwondo, hitting the gym to run off my 'Canadian Weight' and driving the Canuck to desperation by repeating the same 4 guitar chords in my quest to become Alex Turner, I've found myself too busy to even tap out the odd blog every now and then. Work has stepped up a gear with the introduction of a new semester and, with intensives coming up, I've welcomed the change with open arms. I've got some really enthusiastic, fantastic kids this semester and that really helps make this job a pleasure. Sometimes.

And that's it. 2012 awaits.

All the best to you and every single one of yours.

Love, Smithy x


Ground-uh-hog-uh Day-uh

It's that time again. Remember what I said last time? I really should have been prepared, I suppose.

To be honest, things have been going so smoothly lately that I wasn't prepared for the downturn I'm experiencing. And also, this is nothing like as badly as I've suffered during my last 2 contracts. But man, it doesn't half get cold around these parts. Our 10th floor officetel is about as well insulated as a rabbit hutch, and I've taken to wrapping myself in blankets in my loft-bed the second I arrive back from work.

Ah yes, work.

Hagwon teaching is a strange profession, and one that is difficult to understand without experiencing it for one's self. Granted, the hagwon I currently work for is far more organised than the last one, and I do not see myself as quite the performing monkey I once was, but it still wears you down if you're not in the right mindset at the start of the day. I'm keeping very active at the moment - Taekwondo 3 times a week and gym visits on the off-days - but this week I've got a shitty cold and this morning I didn't make it to the gym. I suffered for that today. I think I need to make sure I'm up and at 'em as early as possible to be able to cope with a windowless box filled with lunatic children intent on coughing their guts up and practicing their swear words. Today hasn't been the greatest day, and the last two weeks or so have contained a fair few similar ones. Looking around at my co-workers, I can sense a similar type of fatigue. We need a break.

Luckily, we have one coming up, and plans for Christmas are well underway. A trip to the Yongpyong ski resort looks likely followed by Christmas day in a house (a house!) with an oven (an actual oven!). I also have my first Taekwondo belt test coming up (shitting myself) and we intend to start the Christmas period by involving ourselves in some charity work for those living north of the border. As well as this, we are preparing my application for Permanent Residence in Canada, which will allow me to avoid international fees when applying for University in 2013. It is a long and drawn-out process, involving hours of paperwork (yippee) and, amongst over things, sworn affidavits from friends and family that myself and my Canadian girlfriend are, in fact, a couple. I may include links to this blog to prove I've been making up ridiculous names for her for well over the required one year. I can already see that it will not go smoothly. I tend to not make things easy for myself.

Anyway, it's good to be busy, and we are certainly that. A new semester begins next week bringing new children and new materials, and I'm looking forward to this particular 3-month bitch being over so that I can get on with enjoying life and having fun, as I have for the first quarter of this contract.

Love, Smithy x


Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Quite a strange thing to mourn the death of a stranger, isn't it? I don't do it often, but there have been certain times when the death seemed particularly unjust, or the person a particular brand of genius, that it transcended all boundaries, and simply became about the world's loss of somebody who made it a better place in some way. I felt it for Amy Winehouse, for example. I didn't feel it for Jade Goody.

The news today that Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, has passed away shouldn't have really had that effect. He invented computers and phones. He had a reputation for being something of a megalomaniac. But his products were so inspirational, and his vision for his company so unique, that he has gone on to effect a whole generation of people with his work. He died aged 56, far too young, and we'll never know now what more life-changing products he had up his sleeve.

Anyway, I've been reading all the obituaries about him today and I thought I'd share an excerpt from a commencement speech he made at Stanford University in 2005, after he'd been diagnosed with and seemingly cured of pancreatic cancer. His words at the time were incredibly moving. Now, they seem even more poignant and beautiful.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. 
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumour on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes. 
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumour. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now. 
This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept. 
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. 
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.  
We should all take heed.

Love, Smithy x

2 Floors Downwards 1 Floor Back

You know what I hate?

You know when you live on the 10th floor? And you're waiting for a lift with a bunch of people, and then the lift arrives and only you get in? Then you hit the 10th floor button, and just as the doors close you realise that the lift is going down? And then you go down to Basement 3? Then back up to Basement 2 and then Basement 1? And then finally back up to the 1st floor where the doors open and you are on full view to all the people who you were waiting with, who then join you in the lift and look at each other like, "Hark at this fucking moron who can't tell if an arrow is pointing up or down and so took a little trip down 3 floors just to end up exactly back where he started?"

Yeah, I hate that.

Love, Smithy x



Now, I'm really not one to say, 'I told you so'...okay, that's a lie. I am. I LOVE IT. So here we go.

I fucking told you so.

Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, after spending nearly 4 years in an Italian prison for killing Meredith Kercher, have been fully acquitted of the murder charge levelled against them by a corrupt and inept prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini.

I stayed up to watch the verdict and, despite my erratic internet connection and zero knowledge of Italian, was able to witness the judge confirm that the charges were being dropped 'because they did not commit the crime' and see Amanda Knox collapse into the arms of her defence team with a relief that I don't think any of us will ever be able to understand.

In the days leading up to the verdict, I would try and put myself into her shoes. And I don't even mean as someone who stood falsely accused, let's just disregard her innocence or - lack of - for the moment. She was building up to a moment in time that would either leave her in an Italian jail cell until middle age, leave her in an Italian jail cell for the rest of her life (as Mignini had requested) or send her back to her home country, with all her friends and family, and where she had spent the first, event-free 20 years of her life where nobody had ever accused her of murder.

How she must be feeling now, I have no idea. My first thoughts turned to food, to be honest. 'She's going to eat the shit out of some Italian food before she leaves', I kept thinking. She must be on cloud 99, never mind cloud 9.

But she will surely never be the same after this. Prison must take something out of you, whether you are guilty or not, and 4 years of it must really change a person. She will no longer trust anyone like she would have before, never know whether people actually believe she is innocent. If it were me, I'd be paranoid as hell for the rest of my life, scared to ever let myself get anywhere near a situation whereby someone might accuse me of some awful crime. I just hope she is able to find happiness somehow.

And for Sollecito as well, seemingly ignored by his home media during this trial and certainly largely ignored by the foreign media, his future must be uncertain. I wonder if he will be able to move on, in the country where the crime took place under a system that wrongly imprisoned him for 4 years? I'd be so angry, bitter, resentful. I wonder if he can let these emotions go? I wonder if the Italian people will be able to accept their justice system's own verdict? I suppose only time will tell.

So, did they do it? I never thought so, but only those present at the scene will ever really know. Rudy Guede, the man who's DNA was the only one represented at the crime scene is serving 16 years for the murder but has never formally admitted his involvement. But a denial carries little weight when forensic evidence puts you at the crime scene and you fucking run to Germany the day after the crime. Knox and Sollecito's denials always seemed a trifle more convincing - because nobody could prove that they did it.

It is the responsibility of the prosecutor to prove guilt, not for the defendant to prove innocence. That is why I was so angered throughout the trial and subsequent appeal, and why only very shallow digging will unearth that dreaded whiff of corruption that so often underpins Italian society. Sig. Mignini, for example, has recently been convicted of abuse of office. More specifically, he was found using illegal wire taps to support his evidence in another trial. Because of his right to appeal, however, he was not prevented from doing his job and so you are left with the quite frankly hypocritical situation where a convicted criminal is prosecuting suspected criminals. Mignini was gunning for Knox from the very beginning, when he realised the media exposure that would come from a sex crime involving two beautiful foreigners, a studious looking Italian boy and a token black man. No problem that the first black man to be implicated (Patrick Lumumba) had an alibi! Just substitute in Guede, literally invent some bullshit about a sex game and the occult, and you have yourself a prosecution case! They had no evidence that even placed Knox or Sollecito at the crime scene. All they had was some odd behaviour at the police station (cartwheels by Knox, exactly what a murderer would do after being arrested for murder, right?) an unexplained turning off of their mobile phones on the morning following the murder and no alibi except each other. There was nothing else. But of course, they were charged due to a lack of other leads.

This lack of evidence was brought up by the father of Raffaele Sollectio on national TV, 45 days after the body was found. The host of the show, a widely respected Italian journalist, suggested that, were Sig. Sollecito to be correct regarding the prosecution case's weaknesses, then 'somebody would pay'. The day after the show was broadcast, the prosecutors announced that they had found one of Meredith Kercher's bra clasps upon which they had discovered the DNA of Sollecito. At appeal, an independent trial deemed this evidence inadmissible, as it was "not supported by scientifically validate analytical procedures". It was complete and utter bollocks, in other words.

As well as this farcical and borderline criminal behaviour, the 'tag-team' questioning of Knox conducted by the Italian police in the middle of the night, where they relentlessly bullied her, denied her either a rest or a lawyer, confused and coerced her before forcing her to implicate herself and Lumumba (she has served a 3 year sentence and will pay a fine for this crime of slander) was disgusting and again casts doubt on the already pathetic evidence the Italians were using to prosecute. I was accused of not showing enough respect for the Italian justice system when I wrote my first blog. Now I wonder if I actually showed it far too much. The American press has certainly suggested the Italians have made a hash of it, but from a country that recently executed an innocent man and released a guilty woman...let's just say that their glass house is in danger from their own stones.

The Italian judges presiding over the appeal had two options for acquittal. They could have freed the pair due to a lack of evidence. In this case, they would not have been declared innocent, but the court would admit that there was not enough evidence to convict and so they would have been freed. Or, there was the second option. The one that they chose. To fully acquit them of their crimes, and admit that their conviction were, in fact, incorrect. 'They did not commit the crime', the Judge told the court. Knox will return to America today as a completely innocent woman, with 4 years of torment to contend with. But the prosecution team has been dealt a full-force and incredibly humiliating blow.

The question must surely be asked - and in Italy, to the people who are responsible for this miscarriage of justice, it must be asked over and over again - why were they even charged with the crime in the first place?

At the end of all of this (and despite the prosecution having the option of an appeal, one has to suspect that this will now be the end of it), Meredith Kercher is no more alive than she was before. There has still been a beautiful, intelligent, innocent life extinguished for no bigger reason than some mobile phones and a sexual kick. Her family has every right to be confused, as they have said since the verdict, but hopefully they will accept the appeal verdict as much as they seemed to accept the guilt of Knox and Sollectito after the initial trial. If they want to blame someone or something for their 4 years of torment, and the lack of closure they must now feel as further confusion and doubt is cast over the events of that fateful night four years ago, then blame Giuliano Mignini and his entirely inept prosecution team.

But for Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito - a young couple who were guilty of nothing more on the night that Meredith died than enjoying a cheeky spliff, some pasta and a shag - their lives, that have been on pause for the last 4 years, can finally start again.

Love, Smithy x


Reverse-Reverse Culture Shock

During my summer in Canada, before bedtime, after a day of piling wood or mowing grass, lying on the beach or eating bacon, I would often take a walk around the house or a seat on the patio, and attempt to count the stars. I hardly grew up in the city, but never before had I seen a sky so completely covered with tiny, twinkling spotlights as those summer nights in the Canadian country. The silence was glorious, if not a little intimidating. I have never experienced a more peaceful mind.

Last night, before bedtime, I took the lift down from my 10th floor Bucheon apartment, and took a walk around my building. I looked left, looked right, and looked left again, stepped out of my doorway, and jumped desperately out of the way of a kamikaze chicken delivery man on a scooter. At 1am. On a footpath. I looked up, shielding my eyes from the neon Norae-bang and PC-bang signs, and strained to find the stars. On a clear night, I saw not a single one.

We are 1 day short of a week into our 3rd contract in South Korea and in many ways it feels like we've never been away. After a brief fling with a civilised public school existence, we're back to whoring ourselves out to the cut-throat hagwon industry. We had our reasons, trust me. It is important that I remember them in these difficult early days.

Canada, and the UK even more so, seems an awfully long way away. Without internet or a mobile, it is almost possible that I feel more cut off from the world now than I did in rural Ontario, despite the non-stop noise and business flooding 24 hours a day through my senses.

I definitely underestimated what a huge shock to the system my return to Korea would be.

Love, Smithy x


From Canadia With Love

A quick glance over to the right of this page will show that I haven't posted a single one time in 2011. It's September. Now that simply isn't good enough, is it?

If truth be told, I've lacked the inspiration to put fingers to keyboard for the last year or so. I last posted in October 2010 when I was living amongst the Welsh in central Cardiff. The Canadian was a-learning and yours truly was a-working. That job was one of the weirdest of my life, and deserves a blog all of its own. I met some of the strangest people, some of the cruellest people and some of the most moronic people I have ever had the (dis)pleasure to - and that was just the management. Trust me, this is not bitterness. I had quite a decent experience. I'll just have to explain more another time.

Anyway, we left the UK in early July and travelled westwards to the United Republic of Canadia. Here, I have gained 10 pounds, learnt to drive a ride mower, rocked a fitted and met a retarded raccoon. It has been a hell of a summer. And it's nearly over.

Korea beckons once more, and my Canadian and I will once more fly west to teach English in the east. 1 more year of Asian adventure awaits and we couldn't be more excited. The E-2 visa process is nearly over for one more year (one that hasn't been much less eventful than last time) and we are counting down our last few days in Canada. Exactly what our role and location in Korea will be, I won't share yet. Simply because so much as gone wrong already that I'm not going to presume we're home and dry until we're actually home and dry. But all in good time, my friends.

Anyway, it is great to be back and I will definitely be keeping this updated as we navigate through our latest adventure.


Love, Smithy x