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...