Sunday, 21 February 2010

3 weeks in

Well i've been here now 22 days. I haven't felt the desire to blog for a while because things aren't as shocking or amazing anymore. But that doesn't mean they're not still great, because i still look around in wonder at my new home. I still walk around with my head angled upwards at the neon signs advertising this and that on 10 or 20 storey buildings, i still discover new places and it amazes me that so many signs and things in general are written in english. Some shops, like Dominos pizza for one, don't have so much as word of Korean written on them, on any of the advertising boards or posters or even the boxes. Yet anyone over the age of about 20 seems to be particularly poor at speaking English. It's odd to think a group of Koreans will visit 'Molly's Coffee' and probably not know what the sign means, but they still go anyway.

As for the last few weeks, i'm getting used to things and feel very comfortable. Buses are still a bit of a hit and miss as the buzzers are hard to find and they have varying ways of paying. I also have tried very hard this weekend to find Cookie Plaza, which is a kind of oasis for western foods but so far it feels more like a mirage because it's just not where the maps say it is.

So last weekend was Lunar New Year and most people were with family or travelling. I went to a foreigner bar to meet a friend who didnt turn up for over 3 hours, but as usual i made friends with the one guy in there. He had been there for 6 years and spoke good Korean. He had been chatting up the bar girls and it was nice getting to talk to them as well. Later i met a bunch of Brits including a girl from Harrow and a few others i already knew. It was good hearing our accents again.

This week i mostly stayed home and saved money. Sandwiches here are incredible and at only 2000 won they are a bargain. Last night i went out and had a good time. Some highlights include: playing Rummie with Dannica, meeting Perry Saturn the former WCW and WWF wrestler and having a chat about all things wrestling, seeing Brittani dance, attempting to catch these little cardboardy snacks in my mouth that jen was throwing, meeting Wes (he said i was like a cross between Chris Martin and Thom Yorke!!!), trying to help 3 guys out of a lift who were trapped (all the might of myself, Wes and Chris and 2 guys on the inside of the lift was not enough to open it), seeing Autumn again and getting to hug Amanda for a while (i seem to like spreading the love after a lot of drinks), touching Owen's beard, seeing Jen happy, talking politics with Willie (or was that a lowlight, i'm not sure), talking to Dannica and trying to figure out if 'tall guy' was nice or not and later having my little pinkie crushed in the taxi car door by Willie (definitely a lowlight). Its strange that i sometimes feel shy and a little apprehensious about going out to bars, yet i have a great time and the people are so amazing and friendly. It seems theres always a lot of jokes to be had. 

Am i still enjoying it here? Absolutely!
Would I be happier back at home? No way.

I'd love to see family and friends again, especially my bro, Andre, Tai and parents (among others) but at this point, it feels like a worth while trade to be around such a good bunch of people here, to have repsonsibility and a respectable occupation and a decent chance to save money and a sense of adventure that every day brings. I would thoroughly recommend the experience.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

A week in Changwon - Day 8

Its now Sunday morning and i've been in Changwon, Korea for just over a week. 7 days ago i woke up in a foreign land, knowing no one and having spoken to just a couple of expats on facebook. i didnt know what to do or where to go. i waited for the school director who came along and briefly showed me the city. I was amazed at the time. My room was still alien to me, the bathroom was scary and smelly and cold, my tv didnt work, i had no idea whether the electronic equipment would work, no way to contact hellen and my family and friends back in the UK.

A week later, i've been out 4 nights in a row (a new personal record) and i can honestly say i've never enjoyed going out more. I'm living the kind of life i wished i had at uni but didnt quite manage. Not the drunk expat life, but being in a place full of interesting and brave people with their own stories and reasons for being there and where theres a real equality among people as most of us have the same job, similar salary and working hours. 

Yesterday was really the icing on the cake that was my first week. I woke up and felt like going out hiking. Danica said she would be up for it, so we met up and went up one of the mountains/hills. It was so peaceful up there and really felt like the city had been escaped. From up there, you can look down at the tall buildings like they're tiny ant hills surrounded by little ants walking around going about their business. But hiking in this country is something of a luxury, as every shop i went into to buy a hiking jacket was charging upwards of 150-200 pounds for a jacket, most were about 250 and one i saw was actually 750 quid! Yup, 1,500,000 won, which is like 1.5 times the average monthly salary of a Korean.

Anyway so after the hike, i met up again with Danica and went to a Korean bbq. I thought when i heard that term there was like an American style bbq in Korea, it totally didnt occur to me that it was the sit down, cook your own meat things i had seen in blogs and on facebook. There was so much food for the small price we paid. You only pay for the meat, and they give you  load of accompaniments for free. These include tiny tiny prawns, octopus tentacles, kimchi (spicy cabbage), lettuce, mussels and many other things i forget now. I really like kimchi! Im surprised too, but it tasted pretty good. Danica also showed me some traditions/customs like how you have to pour the cold tea (yeah i didnt drink any). Also had some soju for the first time, it seemed much like vodka and i copied Danica in putting it with coke and treating it like a vodka and coke. Then we went to watch the band at International Pub. They were amazing, must have played for hours and hours and the place was quite full. As soon as we got there, i saw a table with people i knew. As always, there were a few i didnt know so i had to go through that phase where i bide my time before getting introduced and adding them to the list of cool people i can go and talk to in future. We played some drinking games that included this basic higher/lower, inside/outside, smoke/fire game that was quick but not that challenging. Then a new game was unveiled that involved betting (with drinks) on a suit in a kind of horse race thing. That was a lot of fun. Mine came up twice and i was drunk enough to celebrate like i'd won a small fortune. I also was umpiring a game of beer pong until a toilet break was needed and my number 2 seemed to have taken my role. But all was good as soon after i got to use my acting skills and some bravery and do a pretty good thing for someone who needed it.

Finally went to Obriens after. I definitely remember making an ass of myself there because unfortunately i saw sandwich man and was hungry and in need of food enough to bow down and almost pray to the guy. I spoke to some people waiting for food and they seemed to love the guy as much as i do now. Then went to OB's where more jokes were had. I remember losing my jacket and being realy quite worried for a while until this guy found it and i felt so grateful it turned up. Oh oh and the barman there, what a legend. He kept flipping beer mats, he even tried 2 at once but failed on five attempts. You could tell he so wanted to get it right. Eventually i must have found a cab home. I remember getting one and he took me to the wrong place, or atleast i couldnt figure out where the hell i was. Then got another and made it home alive. I did however sleep with the apartment front door open all night because the latch seems to not work very well. Its happened a few times now but just realised theres a problem.

So to conclude, its been an amazing, incredible, heart warming week. I feel at home here now, the Koreans dont bother me one bit. I dont look at them or their faces anymore when out walking, so unless i am looking for someone in the crowd, pretty much everyone around me is not there. It works for me and probably works for them as its supposed to be disrespectful to look into their eyes anyway. I slightly regret having 4 hangovers in a row and will definitely not be making it 5 in a row. But I can honestly say if i have even half as much fun and excitement every week as i have this week, i will have lived more this year than in the last ten.

Friday, 5 February 2010


Happiness is a firecracker sitting on my headboard
Happiness was never mine to hold
Careful child, light the fuse and get away
‘Cause happiness throws a shower of sparks

Happiness damn near destroys you
Breaks your faith to pieces on the floor
So you tell yourself, that's enough for now
Happiness has a violent roar

Happiness is like the old man told me
Look for it, but you'll never find it all
Let it go, live your life and leave it
Then one day, wake up and she'll be home

 These lyrics by The Fray never meant so much to me as they did when i played this song while walking home from a night out in Masan. Then again every emotional song finally means something to me. I don't have to imagine excitement or loneliness or appreciation or surprise or humility or shock or alienation or happiness. These things are experienced on a day to day basis here. The last few days have been quite amazing and one blog post can't do them justice. Suffice to say i've made some friends now. Not quite solid bffs quite yet, but ive got off on a good foot with a lot of different, interesting and quite remarkable people here and seem to be doing it faster than most do in their first week. I feel quite humbled too with how nice some people have been to me, especially when it comes to introductions.

It all started wednesday night. I spent an hour and a half walking in the freezing cold looking for International Bar where i thought one or two of some facebook friends i had spoken to might be, though with no cell phone, it would be hard to coordinate or be sure they were even there. Eventually i found O'Briens Bar and went up to the door and heard English voices, which sounded so good, but i couldnt bring myself to walk in and have to say 'hi i have no friends, please talk to me', at least i couldnt do that without knowing what the layout of the bar would be first. Where's Chloe when you need her for some schematics? Anyway, i decided to give up and go back home and wait for another day. But at a cross roads, i thought about my book and how it would probably tell me to feel the fear and do it anyway, so i did. I went back, looked harder for the pub, eventually found it and went in. I sat nervously at the bar, trying to act like i was waiting for someone while really coping the place out. I saw a friendly looking guy callled Sam by a game and said hi. After that, i found Brittani and later Danica and a whole bunch of really fun people including Jack Sparrow, a hobo guy and a hippie looking girl with dreads. All totally cool people. We had more drinks than could later be remembered but definitely got to know some people.

Next night Brittani invites me out and i got to know a few more people and see a bit more of the city 7 mall. Finally after work tonight I got wind of a meeting at a burger restaurant and that was really great. Got to see some of the same people from wednesday but a few others too, some good food, well priced beer and really great decor. Then went to Masan to a bar. It wasnt as good as the bit previously, but got to meet some more people, including a Joe from Ohio (always wanted to meet one of them - all i need now is a man from Nantucket and a man with a wooden leg called Smith) oh and also a guy with a very interesting legit massage story that was quite shocking. I love how welcoming guys are here and I intend to offer the same hospitality to future noobs. I really sucked at pool tonight which would usually really bother me, but it really doesn't matter. Finally i got to meet a fellow Croydoner as well. I mean, what are the odds?! Just hearing such familiar place names as the one's he said (riddlesdown, addington etc) was a nice feeling.

 Some people went on to a club but by 2am, having already done more socialising with random people than i have in the last 5 years of my life (ok probably 2 years, but still its been 5 days!) i felt it was time to call it a night. I got a cab back with 2 girls i didnt know, and in another country that would be weird, but such is the culture and vibe here, if youre white, youre alright! lol im kidding, but it is kind of like that. you can just talk freely to other westerners, we're all in the same boat and one big family to some extent. It reminds me of the show Shipwrecked and how the different teams really welcome new people. I may be a fairly quiet person but i hope to contribute something to the group dynamic with my fairly unique brand of deadpan sarcasm and wit.

Walking home tonight, i realised that in such a short space of time, i've pretty much found what i was looking for. Infact i'm going to write to Bone from U2 and tell him it was in S. Korea all along! (if you dont get that then you must not be aware of their songs). It was a cold but beautiful night walking home. I reflected upon what i had here and it made me smile and appreciate my new home for what it has brought about. Life in the UK was so stale, like its not too hard to survive there, but going anywhere at the moment is like walking up an escalator. You get no where. I had no feelings to describe. Nothing to miss either because everyone i knew wasnt too far away, but the shame of not having a decent, stable career and the lack of money just took away my energy and desire to do anything. Becoming good at COD4 was about my only passion, though i appreciated the guys for some good times. But in Korea, the bad is good and the good is amazingly good. Things may change in the future, but for now i'm very happy here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Winter Sunshine

What a day it's been so far. Ok so i havent blogged yet about yesterday when i went to the school to watch classes for the first time, that'll have to wait for tomorrow. But something has changed dramatically in me over the last 2 days. Before saying what i did this morning, i'm going to describe the extent of my fitness and diet if this were a typical day back at Tai's house in Waddon:

I'd wake up really late from staying up late the night before, it would be freezing cold so i wouldnt want to get out of the double sleeping bag i fashioned. Eventually id spend the day freezing in my pyjamas and probably make some kind of greasy chicken and chips like the other lodger. Then if this was the 5% of days when enthusiasm for fitness was at its highest, i might just venture outside, hoping the vast cloud cover doesnt turn grey all of a sudden. Id maybe run for 15 or 20 mins alongside busy roads before being sick of it and going back to playing video games.

Now here's my Korean life for you. So i wake up and its lovely and warm in my room thanks to underfloor heating. I open the window and feel the chilli temperature of the air, but at the same time i see and feel the warmth of the sun in full view. After some cereal, i feel its time for a run. I avoid the quieter, more traditional markets and run along the main roads until 6 mins later i arrive at an olympic running track outside the 35000 capacity football stadium used during the Korean/Japanese Olympics a few years ago. Its maybe 11.45 and there's almost no one there. A couple of teenagers perhaps jogging very slowly now and again on the 100m track and thats about it. So i chuck the bag down and carry on running. After a few laps, i decide to have a go at the sports equipment on offer. Unlike gyms that require you to have training, these things are fixed into the ground with minimal intelligence needed to operate them (although one of them i still cant fathom?!) and you can do sit ups with ease on one and do this really easy spinny action on another (pictures to follow in a few days). I intersperse running with doing some exercises on these. Again, it's cold out but with the sun beaming down, it's really nice too. I could go weeks without actually seeing the sun in the UK. It might be slightly warmer there, but I find the Sun is such an inspiration and really gives me energy. When i was doing some exercises, a middle aged Korean lady in good shape came along with sports clothing and a scarf completely concealing her face. Might even have been a man for all i know. I thought she might be competition and might jog along with me but sadly just seemed to walk around the circuit. Then an older Korean man came along, and where as such people usually avoid looking at me, this man seemed to acknowledge my existence and i think wanted to use me to set his pace. So he ran along behind me for a lap. I moved to the outside lanes hoping he'd catch up with me and we might have a kind of conversation through mutual appreciation of jogging, but then he trailed off. I must have been running and exercising for over an hour and loved every second of it. After, i felt so good and confident, that despite wearing running trousers and a tshirt with long sleeves underneath and a back pack, i was quite happy to approach the 'mall' just 5 mins down the road.

One of the first places i saw for food was Paris Baguette. A note about this place - i love it! The food is so light and European in its style. And more to the point, i feel so at home there. I may not be French, but I feel like for Koreans to be eating there, they have to at the very least have some respect for westerners. I also feel like maybe me liking their food means more to them than a Korean liking it, because ive really eaten baguettes in and from Paris. One such a thing ive had a few times before is French style pizza bread, a long thin slice of bread with all kinds of toppings, mostly vegetables, like a large piece of garlic bread but with actual pizza flavour. That cost £1 and a carton of milk was about 35p. Truly a bargain. Everything is presented so beautifully as well and its clean and nice to sit in. Next i had a wander around the mall but nothing i wanted was there. Did see a Vietnamese restaurant that i will be returning to.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable couple of hours and one i hope to do a few times a week until fitness returns.  

Monday, 1 February 2010

Out and About - Day 3

Today was a more mixed day. I started out by making some videos for youtube. You can check them all out at - there's one about the journey, my apartment and some pictures from this evening's walk around town. After editing and talking, I went for my first run in the community. The advantage here being that by the time people notice me coming, i'm already gone and my vision can't detect their reactions very well when moving fast. Plus it makes you feel better when anxious. So i went for about half an hour as it's been a while since i did any exercise. Viva la Vida by Coldplay has for a long time been an album that i'd listen to when thinking about making an escape from the UK and always wanted to listen to 'Lovers in Japan' somewhere in Asia. It was a fun run but dangerous too as there are few pavements (sidewalks) in my neighbourhood and with headphones, sometimes you don't know a car is coming until it's beeped at you or worse still, attempted to squeeze past. There seems to be a lot of members in the Korean chapter of Hell's Angels so one has to be wary of them at all times. I was a little disappointed that the kids on my journey were less inclined to high five or wave at me than either stare menacingly or in a bemused way, but when running white man becomes a regular part of their lives, perhaps the sight of me will be more of a joyous occasion.

I got back and before long, headed off to town to take some pictures for folks at home and maybe try to find the Cookie Plaza i had been told about. It was a lovely walk with many great sights. Theres a mist all around the town that makes the mountains fade into the background, you could almost miss them in many pictures, but they will always be there, a reminded that even in this industrious city full of wealth and extravagance, we're still dwarfed by nature. That said, i've not yet seen a single animal of any shape or size in the landscape. Not so much as a bug, a moth, a mosquito, an ant, a squirrel, a rat or mouse, no lizards, i'm not even sure i've seen birds flying around. It's really quite bizarre. Either they were all exterminated when the site was first built, or else the wild fauna here is of a variety i've never seen or heard of before which seems the less likely of the two. There is also an absence of homeless people, disabled people and ofcourse people of any ethnic origin besides Korean. My theory is they take the homeless and disabled off the street and put them in an LG or Samsung factory and find them an assembly line job. It's just a guess.

So the walk was actually quite nerve racking. Most of the time i felt like a lumbering bear that stumbled upon a bee hive. It didn;t make matters any better when, after a few moments of summoning the confidence to go into a shop and speak to someone, i would drop things or generally have my hands full and look even more lumbering than usual. I'm sure it will ease after a while when this place feels more like home. The good thing is i'd imagine every customer service assistant i come across will remember my face and my humorous antics and a rappor may be established eventually. I ordered a pizza to go and had to wait a while on my own at a table by the staff and it felt very odd with no one else waiting. Like one of those guys who goes to the cinema on his own, except if all the seats at the cinema faced each other and the lights were on and the one guy looked totally different to everyone else. Still i got a free coke out of it. Pity coke? You're giving me pity coke?! They were very friendly.

I also had a look at some TV's, hoping to find one at a good price. Considering LG and Samsung Tvs are made not 5 mins from the shops, I would have thought theyd be at a good price. No sir, they were not. One guy, after following me around everywhere i went for 10 mins as i inspected TVs, he got the manager and he made me an offer of 300 quid for a 32in hd flat screen tv. its a real beauty, but i dont have that kind of money just yet. Apparently the deal was 'today only' but now theyve let it beknown you can haggle, as a wise old man in the Simpsons once said, 'Advantage Burns!' Im gonna try to get them down to 550 before the week is up.

Oh and one more story. I went into a department store to buy some things and after seeing some Koreans go in, i was shocked and saddened when the security guard gripped me and sent me on my way back out the door. Determined not to let their brand of 1930's Alabamma racism stop me from buying a much needed towel, i headed back in there and the same happened, only this time the guard hgad the courtesy to let me know the backpack was the problem, and that there were lockers right by the door! So now that's been made clear, i can join the party that is Korean shopping! Their equivalent of Tesco or Walmart is just so manic, with staff on every isle and counter selling things and ready to help you. If they turned down the lights, sold beer and put some music on, i'd be sure i was in a night club. I even saw a 40-50 year old korean lady in some kind of tight cheer leader outfit. I dont know what she or they were thinking!

So that;s been my day. Oh finally I took Phil's advice (against my boss's advice) and popped into the school at around 8pm. Sadly i should have listened to my boss, as he didnt seem too pleased to see me. he asked why i came and i said just to say hi, so he said hi and didnt seem to want to exchange any more chit chat, so i hot tailed it out of there post haste! First day of watching people teach starts tomorrow. Good night.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Brothels and Family Restaurants - Day 2 (Part 3)

 The last blog entry was cut short rather abruptly because Philip the teacher from upstairs came by to show me around town. I thought we'd probably take a cheap cab but instead walked there, which was surprising as i didn't realise downtown was only a 15 min walk away and a nice one at that. So right outside my apartment is a nice little park with exercise machines. Walk further down the road and there are shops and restaurants, a little further and you reach the stadiums. Just past that is a massive round about, so big that apparently the foreigner football team trains on it once a week at 10pm as it's free and flood lit. Sounds a bit dangerous to me but I trust they know what they're doing. Just got to make sure I don't get carried away with a goal kick! We walked on and came across a massive lake that apparently has really amazing fireworks shows in the summer. Looking forward to seeing that. Also there were some western style bakeries, one called Paris Baguette and the other i forget, but the food in there looked just like that at home. With sliced bread back on the menu, i'm one can of beans and a toaster away from my fav lunch. Speaking of beans, there's a place Phil told me about called Cookie Plaza that has loads of imported food, though it also comes at a high price. I don't intend to eat western the whole time, but might help my transition in the first few weeks. I shall be hunting that down later. One very different thing about Korean cities is how shops can exist several floors up in a building. The best way to describe it would be to imagine if the many businesses that share a 20 storey building were all shops instead and had signs outside the window telling you they were there, that is what it's like. There's a staircase you can use and a lift, but it's very odd at first, seeing a highstreet as both horizontal and vertical as well. It means there's a lot to look at. The upside is that it means you can get more shops in a smaller space, hence the reduced distance to the city centre. We had a look at O'Brien's Bar and the Indian restaurant next door. O'Brien's was closed but looked decent inside. Then we headed over to International Pub. It was about 6pm and we were the only one's there. A nice Korean lady welcomed us and served a couple of beers and some free popcorn, which was refilled regularly (the popcorn that is, not the beer sadly). It had a nice, relaxed feel and a few other foreign teachers walked in and out, mostly Americans and Canadians. After a good evening, we grabbed a cab which was about £2. I originally thought the price was going to be a total of 2200 won (about £1.10) and looking back, i must have looked pretty cheap handing Phil the equivalent of 50p and saying 'you mind getting the other 10p'? All in all, i got to see so much more of this city. It looks really quite stunning at night with all the lights on. It also has a totally different feel when you're with another foreigner, in a way you don't feel quite so much like the sore thumb anymore, but like tourists on holiday. I'm sure that will change over time, but for now i'm excited about this new home.

Oh yeah, before i forget, the blog title. Phil pointed out that 2 barber polls means there is a brothel and we were shocked and surprised to see brothels operating right next to family restaurants and places with kids. It seems to be so ingrained in the culture that it is accepted. I will learn more of this as time goes by (from the outside ofcourse!)

Wacky, inflatable arm, flailing tube man - Day 2 (part 2)

At 11.20am the school director arrived. He was surprised to learn I had already been out and about. He explained the poo situation again. Basically you can't flush toilet paper down the loo (anywhere in Korea, not just my apartment) and so you have to throw it in with general trash, which i understand gets collected daily. They also have recycling of plastics and food. We got in the car and went 'down town'. It is worth noting at this point that the further down town you go, the more Americanised the place is. As i would later find out, Changwon is not like the rest of Korea because it's one of a few planned cities. The roads (as previously mentioned) are enormous, i counted 7 or 8 lanes in some of them. He showed me where the school is, which i would estimate to be about a 5 minute walk away on the 6th or 7th floor of a building in the city. Apparently there are 400 kids at the school, 300 elementary kids and 100 junior school kids. He also said the school is very busy on Monday so i should come in on Tuesday, though I don't have to. I will anyway to see how the job is.

So things on my shopping list included rechargable battery plug, some plug adapters, a mouse for the laptop (yes, all my essential items are electronic, it's sad but when food, water and warmth are ample, electronic things come a close second. We drove a little further and to my shock and surprise, there were 4 enormous stadiums very close to the school, maybe 8 mins from my apartment. A football stadoium, then basketball stadium, then a velodrome and finally a swimming pool and sports complex. I can only assume the pool is huge giuven the stadium and ive been told its about 25 quid to use the pool as much as you want for a month. The whole place looks like it was designed on the game Theme Park, or one of the Sim Cities. It's like someone had a blank canvas and thought if i'm gonna put one stadium here, might as well put them all here! We drove on further and saw a public football pitch with a running track around the outside. I intend to use it often having never had access to a running track so close by. I noticed some of the roads here are so wide that you can park in the middle. So strange. We drove on further and saw so many shops open, it's not like at home where everything closes. Some of the bigger stores are open 24/7. There was one building that is like an electronics department store, another street was pure electronics with LG and Samsung having whole stores to themselves (both companies have major factories on the other half of the city). It was good to see a massive poster of Stevie Gerard on one of the major streets. I bet when he was kicking footballs around as a young boy, he never imagined his face would be plastered across buildings on the other side of the world. I've yet to see Rooney but perhaps once photo editing becomes more advanced it'll be safe to use him as well.

After getting a map of the city from 'shitty hall' as he called it, the school director asked me 'have you heard of Tesco'? I laughed and said ofcourse and he told me one of the big stores in town is a Tesco. Sadly, after visiting, it turns out it is nothing like Tesco at home. It was a Tesco by name only. I hoped maybe some of their domestic produce was sent overseas but it seems not. I want to highlight an overall impression i had of the place. It is such an organised, efficient kind of a city. It's so different to home. It feels like any kind of a job someone could have, they do. A lot of people were shopping, it seems to be such a thriving community. English speaking ability seems to be quite terrible among all the people we spoke to, including many staff at Tesco and Lotte Mart when trying to find a plug converter. But the shops and streets are so advanced, technology is everywhere and whatever you could want or need, it's there and at an affordable price. I don't think anything i have seen has been 'cheap', but everything is close by and within reason. Perhaps we have more cheap items at home because British shoppers have constantly chosen to selfishly buy a cheaper product that undercuts more reasonably priced products, thus losing someone their job and business, to the point where only Tesco exists. Right now, Tesco is a medium sized player in a thriving market, but give them 20 years and we'll see how loyal the Koreans are to their society. Everyone seems to be working here in so many jobs, to the extent that shopping or indeed doing anything is so much easier as there are so many people to help.

Ok anoither thing to note at this point. After finding a converter and walking around many big shops, i was yet to see a non Korean person. Occasionally I has thought I had seen a black person, but it always turned out to be a Korean with a black scarf covering all but the eyes. So, no foreigners to speak of. That was until I found out that the British teacher lived right above me. The director introduced us and It was exciting to meet a fellow Londoner this far from home. I can only liken the feeling to that which a chameleon must feel when strumbling across another of it's kind out in the desert (see Life if you don't believe some chameleons have adapted to living the desert). So his name is Phil, he has a Canadian (i think?) wife and a daughter. Apparently he was dropped off in the same flat i'm in now and started work the next day, no introduction or shopping trip was offered, so the more we spoke, the luckier i felt. This week off should allow for a smooth transition into teaching. He loves it here so much that he's still here after 2 years

Saturday, 30 January 2010

One small step for man - Day 2 (part 1)

I woke up at 6.45 after a fairly good sleep. The school director would be coming back at about 11am to show me around, so I wanted to get a few things done first. I unpacked the suitcase and bag and that made the room look and feel so much better. The room came with about 12 different small posters that had inspirational messages on them, so i scattered them around the room and put up some things i brought from London, including 2 things i bought as gifts for the school director but which I will be keeping for now as they make the place feel more like home. I got the tv working - it's pretty terrible in terms of the picture quality, but i found out it has a full digital subsciption including 3 bbc channels, movie channels and some sports channels i later found out have every major sports game you can think of. After unpacking, my first thought was to find a way to tell people at home I am alive and well. So i took my first tentative steps into the unknown. Finally, i felt like I was really in Korea! The streets i live on are so cramped and small, there are no pavements and there's no overall structure or planning involved with the houses, each one has been equally badly designed in a new and original way, so it was a little overwhelming at first. I tried to memorise the way back by using signs and features that stood out. One of the first things i noticed was a park with some arabian style roofs (that would later prove very useful in my imagined trail of breadcrumbs). I found a major street within a minute or two of walking. And it really was huge. It took 32 paces to walk across and i wouldn't have wanted to do it without other Koreans crossing at the same time. But strangely the city was almost desserted. That would be less amazing if it wasn't for the huge number of massive blocks of flats. Each blovk of flats looks almost identical and they are lined up like dominoes. They must be over 20 stories each and some of them i counted later had 115, 116, 117 on them, so there really is a lot. I walked in my first shop, desperate for a drink. To my delight, they had Orange Fanta, which cost about 50p and tasted about the same as at home. There were many phone boxes on the street but I had no luck with any of them, even after spending 1.50 on a phone card. The next shop i found was a bit bigger - again to my surprise, i found pringles and they really did look and taste exactly the same. I also bought some Korean cookies (not great but grew on me), some tooth paste that was Korean but had 'total care' on one end, some cereal that looks like very small chocolate frosted ring doughnuts from Krispy kreme, or like Wheetos with white stuff on them. I found milk too - apparently over here milk belongs to the marsupial family, as each bottle had a sort of mini bottle attached to it liek a suckling offspring. I'm not sure what it is yet, maybe a sample of another product. Anyway, I was relieved to know i could enjoy at least one meal per day. They had a variety of interesting cereals, including one with a Lion for a mascott that clearly wished he was as cool as Tony the Tiger. I tried speaking what little Korean i knew (ang yo ha say yo - 'hello', cum sam ni da - thank you) but i kept getting a bit tongue tied. Walking down the street, I have never felt more like a foreigner before. There wasn't a single non 100% ethnically Korean person around and people seemeed to look at me as though i were a sore thumb, but then maybe that's because my body language probably reflects that feeling at the moment. I walked further and found a few more streets with shops. An asiany smell kept wafting past, like raw meat being processed only a few metres away. It comes and goes. I saw fishtanks outside a few shops which i kept naively thinking were pet stores, only to find some very sad looking eels, crabs and other fish. I knew i would not be able to free every fish from their grim fate, so just had to ignore them. We may eat a lot of fish in the UK but it's rare you see live fish in tanks on street corners.

So a bit about the scenery. It seems no matter where you stand, you will see tall buildings in the distance with mountains right behind them. It's quite an amazing feeling you get seeing such development and technology surrounded by untamable nature. It's like they built as far as they could, but the mountains were too much to surmount. Incidently the pavement on this part of my journey was shocking, to the extent that if i were walking up hill, i'd describe it more as rambling, or possibly climbing. But they don't care, shops actually have uneven floors. One shop entrance was actually a couple of metres of steep downward gradient. It was quite exciting but i don't know how the elderly cope.

Also on my walk i came across a large football field. I call it a field but here's another thing i noticed - Koreans don't believe in grass. They have plenty oif trees, but it seems they have replaced all grass with either sand, paving or some kind of dead grass or weeds. I have yet to see a single blade of the kind of lush, bright green grass you find everywhere in the UK. This football field was actually made of sand, which was good news as i think the school director who plays football every week (seriously, he's 50?!) plays there so i can join in with my astro turf boots.

Eventually i decided to try to make it back by 11, which i almost didn't manage due to forgetting one turn i made without noticing a landmark. Subsequently i walked a lot further around and found a Domino's pizza among other things! Also there are quite a few community parks, one of which i sat in for 10 mins. It has kids apparatus, as well as a series of fitness obstacles, like non electric equivalents of those found in a gym. I'm going to think of this as my new, free membership outdoor gym, which is especially useful as it's a 20 second run from my apartment. Oh and one more thing. I bought 2 AA batteries that said 'rechargeable' in English on them. I thought my charades skills are adequuate for me to be able to ask if they have the plug to go with it. Sadly, they were not. We shared some laughs, but in the end, i left the store defeated with my batteries. After getting back to the flat, i felt rather alone still, but suitably happy to find food and drink that could sustain me until i make some friends here.

Croydon to Changwon - Day 1

So I set off from Tai's house in Croydon at about 8.30am for a 12.35pm flight. There may be a youtube video of this trip at some point as i filmed on and off the whole trip. If you think the migration that monarch butterflies make from Canada to Mexico is amazing, you haven't seen anything yet! I got a bus, tram, then 2 tubes before ngetting to Heathrow. The flight was so so long, about 11 hours sitting in one seat. The route went north east over scandinavia then east through Russia before flying down through Mongolia to Tokyo. It was good to see so much land in Russia untouched by man, though also impressive to see a load of very bright lights somewhere in Russia that seemed very remote. I don't suppose they have a Tesco there... yet! Got to Tokyo and was impressed with the bathrooms there. Put your hands in front of the soap dispenser and it fires soap at you, same under the water tap, then the hand dryer senses you there as well, so no buttons needed pushing. Seoul's bathrooms were equally good, but their fountains were better as they also sense your presence rather than having to tell them you want water. Anyway, waited a few hours for the flight from Tokyo. I was so tired by this point as I only got about an hour of sleep. The Seoul flight was fine, a bit of a smaller plane. I was sitting next to a Korean English teacher (ie a native Korean teaching English language) and he was very friendly and taught me some basics to reading Korean. They have about 5 different variations of our 'o' or 'oo' sound including one i couldn't really imitate very well. But his teaching was sufficient that I was able to decipher a few random words he wrote down.

So, that was the easy part. In Seoul, i had to find my way to another airport via train after having so little sleep and with 2 massive bags. Something i have yet to mention is that in an effort to keep the weight of my suitcase down, I put all the heavy electronic equipment in my backpack. Which subsequently made every security check long and somewhat embarassing. Everytime, i had to unpack it all, show off all my stuff, have it go back through the checker and then struggle to put it back perfectly in position again. Plus the first item i take out, the ipod speakers actually looks a bit like a stereotypical bomb, its just as well i didn't have a white cord sticking out and a lighter in my pocket. So back to the train, i was unable to locate it on the subway map, but fortunately a Korean lady helped me out. I almost fell asleep several times on the 20 minute express train ride (which incidently cost a modest £1.50 - they don't even have journeys by train for that price in the UK, the most similar would be the heathrow express which costs about £20).

So I got to the airport with not too much time to spare, only an hour and 20 mins. A random westerner appeared out of nowhere on the escalator and started talking to me. She told me i'll be fine as long as i don't work at a hagwon (which i will be doing) and said she had a bad experience so is going on holiday to thailand instead. A bit worrying but i was confident i had done enough research on this place to not be disappointed. One thing to note here about flights is that in the UK, I was told to arrive 3 hours early, but i only arrived with 1 hour 30 mins to go and i was worried. But people in Korea were arriving for their (domestic) flight with barely 5 mins to go before the gates opened. Both asian flights opened the gates barely 10 mins before the scheduled flight time, yet they don't seem too bothered about it. The Seoul to Busan flight was very short, only 55 mins. i slept for about 5 mins then it was time to land. At Busan, I was greeted by the school director, a man of about my height, slim build and i estimated him to be in his mid to late 30's (the following day he told me he was 50!). He drove me to my apartment, about 45 mins away by car. He said his English wasn't that good, and i was so tired, but i thought it best to try to keep the conversation going and get as much info from him as possible. I asked what the population of Busan was, he told me 300 million people. He was right about his English!

After a short journey, we arrived at my apartment. I'm not going to lie - initially i was more than a little disappointed. On the way there, I could see row upon row of tall apartment blocks. He said he lived in one of them and that his one had 6 bedrooms (4 family, 2 guest). So i naturally assumed i would be housed in a similar, new, elegant looking room. Instead, he went down a few side roads and we ended up in what looked like one of the slums of the city. It was a first floor apartment with a small, cold room you first walk into that smelled of very strongly of something distinctively asian, perhaps soy sauce? It had a little table like one you would have in the garden, with 2 chairs, a sink and some hobs, a microwave was on the table and 2 other doors connected with it. One room was a fair bit larger, with a yellow floor (like the other), an old tv in one corner and a bed on one side, something to hang shirts on in another and a large 6 draw chest of drawers on one side. The other room was truly the worst bathroom i've ever seen. It was freezing cold in there, the ceiling slopes down on one side and its basically a shower and toilet room. I didn't feel at home at all. But, having read a brilliant self help book about feeling fear and doing it anyway, i was determined to see the good side of it and see it as a challenge, something to be overcome. he explained a few things before heading off. I was so tired that i thought it best to just go to sleep and hope things brightened up the next day. Fortunately they did in a big big way. It turns out the yellow floor is just a lining to cover the under floor heathing, which was very nice once it got going. Oh and my first real success of the day was discovering that my ipod speakers had an international plug, so i hooked the ipod to that and fell asleep to some Norah Jones. The adventure begins...

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Process

The first correspondence I had with my agent Julie for a job in Jeju-do was on the 30th of November 2009 and my final starting date will likely be the 1st of Feb. So while it may be shorter in some cases, that’s two whole months it’s taken from seeing a good job to actually getting there and starting it. This will be a bit of a long post but I’ll try to give as much detail as possible to help with newcomers to the profession.

Stage 1 – Find a job
This apparently used to be a very easy stage that has been made harder by the economy among other things. For me it consisted of getting a CV together and contacting lots of the recruiters who advertise on dave’s esl cafĂ© and waiting to see who would reply. I received some emails but one stood out because she also called me and got things moving. Her name was Julie and she continued to act as my agent for a couple of months, through a lot of hard times. She got me an interview with a school owner in Jeju, which went very well.

Step 2 – Prepare your visa documents
Some would say this should be step 1 and some might be right. Julie gave me a month to get everything ready and I failed miserably. The main thing to consider is the criminal record check. In the UK, I got a basic disclosure from Disclosure Scotland for a reasonable enough price. I think it was around 32 quid. But it took 2-3 weeks to arrive, though there was a complication that delayed my application so it should be only 1-2 weeks normally. Then I had to go to Milton Keynes for the day to get it apostilised. That trip alone will be the subject of another blog entry in the next week. Also you need to a passport with at least 6 months remaining (if yours doesn’t, fortunately there’s a fast track system if you pay more money) and you’ll need ‘sealed’ transcripts from your university (or universities if you have changed university, as I learnt the hard way!) There are a few other things, but the criminal record check is the real time consumer.

Step 3 – Post documents and wait
This sounds like the easiest step of all, but in my case, I hadn’t reckoned on FedEx screwing up every package I trusted them with. The first and main package I sent was a day late due to weather conditions but still only took maybe 2 and a half days at a cost of 40 pounds. The second, consisting solely of a transcript from another university that I spent 1 year at, took a week to arrive due to some major technicalities. Next is the period where the agent sends documents to the school and they take it to the embassy, who in turn take about a week to process the visa. Then you receive a visa issuance number that you then take to the Korean embassy in your country. As I found out yesterday (and the day before) the visa department of the embassy is only open between 10am and midday (not 1.30pm apparently) and visas take a week to process, there is no fast track system for people willing to pay more.

To conclude
Around 9 weeks of waiting and paying out silly money for documents and waiting and more paper work and sending things off and more waiting and finally, you may just get your E2 visa to teach English in Korea. The costs can be broken down roughly to –
University diploma – £5
Transcripts (Essex uni x 2) - £10
Transcripts (Reading uni x 2) Free
Passport photos (x2) - £10
Passport renewal (may not apply) - £120
Criminal record check (Basic Disclosure) - £40
Apostilize document-
Foreign Commonwealth office - £32
Lawyer signature - £10
Travel to Milton Keynes - £15
Fedex International Shipping (x2) - £90

So my total would be £332, but then because Fedex screwed up, both were (or should be) free of charge. Also passport renewal might not apply to everyone. I also spent £60 on presents for my new employers and children and coteachers, an investment that I’m hoping will pay out in the long run by giving the kids more of an incentive to be good in class and the owners more of a reason to pay me fairly. If you’d like any more information on the process, please comment or send a message.

Friday, 22 January 2010


Why go to Korea? Why teach English? If you're thinking about teaching English in Korea (or indeed anywhere) then you will most likely be asked the above questions by the doubting few of your friends and family and there are some good justifications for it. Here are mine. Firstly, I love working with kids. There are countless jobs out there for people with no morals who are willing to do unscrupulous things like sell over priced insurance products over the phone, making some other guy richer while you and the majority of society gets poorer, but teaching and playing sports or activities with kids has a kind of wholesome, good feeling about it. Secondly, the job situation in the UK is such that there are many people after very few jobs and the numbers of unemployed have been getting higher every day. I would teach in the UK but it takes a full year of study and course fees, food, accomodation for that year and the reward is you get to teach 30 kids in a class, most of which have iphones and mp3 players and from what i've generally seen and heard, they are a bit of a nightmare. So the thought of teaching between 2 and 10 kids to a class, for 45 minutes at a time, for only 6 hours a day, in a culture where kids respect their elders and one phone call to the parents will put an end to the bad behaviour for a month... well it sounds good to me! I would probably persue tefl for just these two reasons, but in addition you also have the very good salary by local standards that the job offers, with the possibility of making some savings a very nice feature and also it offers the chance to travel a bit and see another culture, something i've wanted to do for so many years. All that was needed to give me a final push out the door was the increasingly jagged and disjointed shape of my social circle, to the point where it has become more of a hexagon, with friends from university and previous jobs scattered all over the globe and only a handful of good people in my home town. I will miss them, as i continue to miss a great many people I have known, but i'm ready to start or become part of a new group, where geographical boundaries are no longer an issue, everyone can afford to go out and really live life to the full and one added perk is i'm told westerners are sometimes seen as like rock stars in Korea for being so different. I shall soon be able to confirm this...