travelogues - andy coates, south korea


Travel Writing > Travelogues > Korea II: The Revenge


Last year Carruthers spent a year teaching English in the suburbs of Seoul, South Korea. In 2004 he's back now living in the centre of Seoul for another years teaching. You can keep up to date with his accounts of living and working in one of Asia's most exciting cities below:

31st May 2004 - Back in Seoul

I surprise myself sometimes. Like, for example, the time I suddenly found myself working as a Crime Scene Examiner. Then there was the time I quit that job to move to Amsterdam and mere days before my departure, changed my mind and learned to be an English teacher instead. Not to forget the time I was about to go to India, and ended up staying in Egypt and getting qualified as a professional scuba diver instead. It shouldn't therefore shock me unduly that after months of total dedication to the idea of working in SE Asia this year, I found myself on a flight to........Korea. Yes, that's right, Korea. It's part II. This year promises to be different in a number of ways though. For one, I'm living and working right in the heart of downtown Seoul. For another, I'm teaching adults rather than kids.

So far (I've been here 5 days) I've had a great time. My flatmate is a nice bloke, my co-workers are all very friendly, and my house is great, apart from the huge and generous leak in the living room ceiling... It's a conversation point if nothing else!

I've had my first two classes, which went well, and the past few days have been absolutely beautiful - scorching sunshine all the way. In the Korean tradition, there's already been three nights out that didn't end until dawn, although that's all got to stop now apart from the weekends, because I have to get up at 5.30 every morning.

So, in summary, it's great to be back,and I'm sure there'll be a lot to tell of in the coming year. i'll keep you informed. As you were.

4 June 2004 - Loving It

I thought I'd enjoy living in Seoul - and man was I right! It's great! This city has a vibrancy, an energy and an atmosphere unrivalled in my experience. After dark it comes alive with more neon than you can shake a power cable at, and living and working right in the middle of it makes me feel all cosmopolitan. I've never lived in the middle of a big city before, and I find it suits me rather nicely - especially one as buzzing as this. During my 30 min walk to/from school, I pass a 13th century royal palace, a host of ultra modern scyscrapers, a beautifully illuminated ancient city gate, a number of ridiculously large and busy intersections, about a million Korean people, and almost as many bars, restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and karaoke rooms. It's energising merely stepping onto the street. Emerging from school after dark I step into an insane whirl of light, sound and smell - all of which combine to give the impression that the whole city is one big party. Speaking of which....IT'S FRIDAY!!!!! Tomorrow I am spared the rigours of waking up at 5.30 am. You know what that means....I foresee mirth and merriment for the next two evenings, and there are no shortage of opportunities. Bring on the hangover.

22 June 2004 - Politics and Typhoons

Well, I'm sure you've all heard about the S Korean kidnapped in Iraq. You can imagine the concern it's causing in this part of the world. As I write, the deadline has long since passed, and as yet no word of Kim Sun-Il's fate. Interestingly, opinion seems to be divided here. Some people think that the govt. should oblige the terrorists and agree to their demands in order to save Sun-il's life, whereas just as many think that sad as it is, the deployment situation should stand. Negotiations for his release are still going on, but I don't hold out too much hope to be honest.

I had an interesting walk home from work yesterday evening, through about two thousand riot police and about as many demonstrators. It was yet another 'anti-US Army in Korea' demo. There was lots of shouting, "American Army out! We hate you!" (In korean obviously) and then rampant cheering. Walking through the middle of these things doesn't bother me unduly, partly because there are usually more riot police than demonstrators, partly because the Koreans are very unlikely ever to do more than shout, and partly because, although most people will undoubtedly assume me to be American (they always do with foreigners) I reckon I'm pretty safe on the 'not looking like a soldier' front. No grief so far anyway.

On a lighter note, i've just had my first invite out from my students. I've been bribed with chocolate milk and cans of coffee before, but this morning I was invited out on the piss tomorrow evening by my 8am class. It's really cool, because they are probably my favourite class. Most of them speak pretty passable English, and we seem to get on very well and have a good laugh. I'm quite touched really - it's nice to get some confirmation that your students actually like you! I hope I'll manage to keep them next month as well.

Right, I'm off to struggle home through the remnants of typhoon Dianmu (Chinese goddess of Thunder and Lightning) which is leaving us to go and bother China instead.

25 June 2004 - In between classes

In a quiet moment between classes, I thought I'd bore you with some useless information about my life. It's been a good week all in all. On Wednesday I went out for drinks with some of my students. We were out until about 3am, and I wasn't allowed to pay for anything. As a consequence, following the two hours of sleep I had that night, I felt like utter and complete shit on Thursday morning. I gave all my students tests, so that I could just sit in the corner and try to stay awake.

Then last night (thu) I went for a pint in the local after work. At least, that was my intention. As soon as I got there, a couple of Korean girls started talking to me (one of them, Sunny, I already knew because she's friends with Hwarang, the barman I know there) and I whiled away an hour or so in their company. Then Sunny's friend went home, while Sunny herself proceeded (without informing me) to buy me two Long Island Ice Teas. Hwarang then introduced me to a pair of Norwegians, who are in Korea for a TaeKwon-Do competition. They just kept on pouring the beer, and being grossly appalled whenever I even considered the idea of going home. I finally escaped, and managed to get to bed about 3am. I'm quite tired now. Indeed, that bar is evil. Not only are you guaranteed to meet people there (it always seems to happen), but the bar staff have a habit of dishing out 'on the house' drinks, and there is a sign above the bar which says "Live, laugh, love, sleep later." It's oddly encouraging when you know you should have gone home hours ago.

You will have heard the news of Kim Sun-Il getting beheaded. It's national hysteria in these parts. Every night this week I've walked home through demos, candlelight vigils, and literally thousands of riot police. Anywhere else the sight of riot police would be disquieting, but you kind of get used to it here.

Anyway, now it's Friday, and in homage to this fact, I have just conducted an entire class on the basis of Bob Marley. How jammy is my job?! I get to listen to reggae while I'm working - nice! It was all under the pretence of a listening comprehension. That's the beauty of being left to your own devices - you can get away with anything.

Tonight I'm off to Uijeongbu to see all the people I worked with last year (and Will obviously) so that should be fun. Then tomorrow I'm going back to the local to meet a bunch of Koreans who i met last saturday. A good weekend awaits.

01 July 2004 - The Rigours of Teaching

Well, we're two classes into the new month. My 7am class is once again a bigee. About half of them have returned from last month, and the other half are new. They all seem proficient enough and are easily amused. In my 8am it's a bit trickier. There are five students, two returnees and three new people. four of the five are great, they can improvise conversations, make their own questions, talk about spontaneous topics of their own etc etc. The other person couldn't even muster the phrase, "What's your name?" I don't know if she'll last. It really was quite painful. Theoretically she should have been level tested, but if she was, then clearly it was by an ill-educated orang utan.

Apart from that, everything is fine. The monsoon is supposed to start today, but the boss assures me that my roof has been fixed, so hopefully the rain will stay on the outside of the house.

right - lessons to plan.

05 July 2005 - Amusing Typo

In this morning's Korea Herald, there was an article about the proposed 5 day week. It contained the following gloriously untoward error. I quote, "The main issues are holidays, overtime pay and menstruation leave for women." Might be a good idea in some cases!

29 July 2004 - The heat is back

Greetings from Korea! Life here is rolling along merrily as ever. The monsoon season is apparently now over, which is somewhat of a relief considering the gaping hole in my living room ceiling, which allowed me the unusual novelty of experiencing indoor rain. We had periods where it rained relentlessly for a few days at a time, and I considered fashioning a dug-out canoe just to get home at night. I did wonder how it was possible for that much water to be in the sky, such was the extent of the deluge, but finally it seems to have packed up for another year. It's been replaced by a remorseless heatwave. The last few days especially have been absolutely scorching. I was reclining on my roof terrace yesterday afternoon, and at 14.30, the thermometer was reading 42.2 degrees C / 108 degrees F. I think that can justifiably be called 'hot'. Clearly no-one has thought to inform Korea that it's not in the tropics. I'm not complaining - far from it, I love hot weather, and the effect it has on the skimpiness of women's clothing can only be considered an added bonus!

I'm becoming more and more friendly with my students as time goes by. There's been a few good nights out with them, and this very afternoon I'm going for lunch with a student and her husband. I'm particularly looking forward to this, as he is apparently one of a very rare breed - the Korean vegetarian. This should guarantee me a decent meal, free from the rigours of meat and fish which are sometimes difficult to avoid when eating out around here.

Last night was another wonderfully random experience. So many people are so desperate to speak English, that on any given night you have no idea who is going to approach you in a bar and invite you to their table. last night it was a guy called Sok-Ju. I joined him, his sister and a female friend of his, and the usual 'Oh, you are handsome man' platitudes were quick to emerge. (This isn't me being big-headed. Every foreigner gets told they're handsome on a near daily basis whenever you meet people in bars). His female friend, 'Joyce' (who was rather cute) was absolutely plastered, and spent much of the evening fawning over my hair, nuzzling into my neck, and securing her hand on my inner thigh. I wasn't going to take advantage however, being a gentleman and all that. Still it was nice to get the attention, even if she was paralytic!

So, that's me for now. Vegetarian delights await in about an hour, so I think I'll go and have an iced-kiwi juice outside the cafe over the street, and swelter in the tropical heat for a while. Adios!

06 Aug 2004 - Its Friday!

Well, it's a beautiful morning here in Seoul. The sky is blue the sun is shining and it's about 28 degrees at 9.15 in the morning. I suspect we'll be up in the high 30s by lunchtime, as we have been most days for the last week and a half. Ahhhh.....summer.

I've nothing especially interesting to report, and if I'm honest, I'm just killing time between classes at your expense, so leave now if you're expecting anything earth-shatteringly stimulating from this email.

My vege lunch appointment last week was a delight. We went to my student's house and had a resplendant feast of vegetables, tofu, gimchi, chigae (spicy soup type stuff) noodles and rice, washed down with some species of bizarre tea and a glass of rather potent home made grape wine. Then last Friday a number of students joined us in the pub and all got embarrassingly legless. It's becoming a common theme.

Most of my students this month are new, because my schedule has been jigged about a lot. However they're all lovely people and I work a grand total of four hours a day! This leaves ample opportunity for sitting about, doing the korea Herald crossword, and watching illegally downloaded films in the staff room. If you haven't seen it yet, go and see 'The Chronicles of Riddick' - it's a corker. 'Hellboy' isn't bad either.

Combined with the general joy of Friday, is the happy reality of another three day week next week, with Thu and Fri off. Then the week after that my sister (or 'you', Elaine) is coming to visit for the weekend, so much mirth and merriment awaits. I'm hoping that such an auspicious event will bring forth a copious amount of on the house drinks from the bar staff at the local. Considering that I don't remember the last time I went in there and DIDN'T get something for free (cocktail, whiskey, tequila, extra beer etc etc) the appearance of my sister from 5000 miles away should be guaranteed to oil the gears of generosity.

Ah - Mr Soju has just appeared outside. He's one of the local unfortunates. His life seems to consist of drinking frightening amounts of Soju on a daily basis, hanging around outside our school, and passing out on the pavement, although recently he's added coughing up blood to his repertoire. He may not be around much longer. Aside from him there's Mr Scribbler, who appears with an assortment of magazines, scrawls all over them, and then leaves them on the seats outside the cafe over the street for general perusal. I'm sure he's probably either damning all humanity or speaking words of profound wisdom. Either way, I'm not prepared to find out, since I believe that picking up anything he's touched would probably result in the acquisition of a host of communicable diseases. He's not the cleanest looking chap I've ever seen. Aside from that we have Teddy Bear Woman, who hangs around outside the Korea Star Bank building carrying an enormous teddy bear, and spends her time either wiping the walls in a futile attempt to get them clean, or abusing innocent passers-by. That's when she's not sitting on the pavement decorating posters with glittery nail polish. Jongno seems to be magnet for the mildly insane. Only this morning there was a woman outside Jonggak station who was quite contentedly standing on the spot and rotating 360 degrees, over and over again. It's rather reminiscent of Manchester, except the crazies don't swear at you and attempt to stab people.

08 Sep 2004 - Hey Ho!

Thought I'd give you an update on life in the Orient. Things here are going swimmingly as ever. We've just seen off the edge of Typhoon Songda, the 18th typhoon of the year (which we kindly sent to Japan where it killed a couple of people). Fortunately the leak in my living room ceiling appears to have been fixed - and it only took four months! All these typhoons have made me realise that whoever it is that names typhoons has no imagination. We've been thinking up alternatives:

Typhoon spudgun
Typhoon git
Typhoon scruttocks
Typhoon wanker
Typhoon big ugly dangerous bastard.

Now wouldn't that be a more interesting world?

Aside from the assorted meteorological phenomena, everything is cool. My new students are cool, and one of my classes has been cancelled so I'm only doing six a day. I also have my first cute student - who is in my 7am class. It's taken four months to get one, but it makes class so much more of a pleasure! Today she hung around after class to tell me she likes my smile! Unfortunately, the rules state that dating students is VERY FORBIDDEN INDEED. Perhaps I can persuade her to quit!! No, but seriously..I enjoy all of the classes this month. Last month I had a couple of irritating high school girls who made my last class a bloody nightmare. This month, everybody's cool. It makes a lot of difference to the overall feel of your working day/week. Those of you who are teachers will appreciate this.

Recently I met a film director, who has invited me to his set on Saturday, so that should be interesting! Seoul continues to provide random amusement by the tonne.

13 Oct 2004 - Validation

Greetings from Seoul. The winter is advancing with some speed here. For the first time yesterday my ears were cold by the time I got home. It's only a matter of time before the windows are encased in ice and the mere act of stepping outside risks frostbite and amputation. I'm actually rather looking forward to it in a strange, masochistic kind of way.

Anyway, encouraging news on the professional front. Our students sign up for one month at a time, however completing a textbook for any given level takes at least two months, so theoretically they should register for your class at least twice. Whether or not they do this depends on many things, not the least of which is how they feel about the teacher. Thus our boss keeps figures on our returns (how many students re-register for each teacher's classes). We had our monthly meeting last week, and hey ho, what do you know - I came in top! 65% of my students re-registered, compared to figures such as 38%, 29%, and 50% for other people. I find this very encouraging, because obviously I'm doing something right! It's sometimes difficult to tell if students like the way you do things, especially in the mornings when most of them are knackered, and appear to be about as enthusiastic as a wet mop. It's nice to know I don't suck.
The boss also asked me if I want to extend my contract the other day. I think i probably will.

Read South Korea Year One

More to come soon

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