24.5.12

1460 and Forever


On May 24th 2008, shortly after I took the picture at the top of this post in a club in Busan, South Korea, I met a girl who told me that her name was Chloe even though it wasn't. I could have gone to that club on any other night. That girl could have been in any other bar that night. We could have never met. We could have so easily never met.

I have never forgotten the way those first few months panned out. The awkward first phone call, the songs I first sent her, the late-night Skype chats that ended at dawn. I have never forgotten how she became my best friend first. And how we hardly slept and fell in love that first night.

And I'll never forget what she has done for me. How she believes in me. How she has stuck by me and taught me what it is to be loyal. How she tells me that I can do anything - and I believe her.

And with 4 years behind us, she still makes me laugh every day. I hope that when she's nearly too old to do so, she still starts dancing for no real reason and cracks me up. I hope I'm lucky enough to see that.

And no matter what shit gets thrown our way, we stand as a team and throw it right back. Because she has shown me what it is to be strong. She's my partner in every sense of the word. She makes me into a better version of me.

When I think of what we've been through. The places we've been and the things that we've seen. And how it hasn't always been easy - I'm so proud of us.

Across 3 continents we have built something truly special. We're unbreakable. Nobody can fuck with me and my Canadian.

Stumbling into that club was the best thing I have ever done.

I love you, K.A.

Love, Smithy x




22.5.12

Cinco de Mayhem

I should come out early doors and say that I absolutely love Mexican food. I haven't been to Mexico, granted, but anything that even tries to call itself Mexican food is going to get eaten by me. Korea does not do Mexican food (or Tex-Mex) very well. Tacos are actually quite popular, but almost all restaurants that pop up in this country attempting to make authentic Mexican food like we know in the west are almost instantly bastardized by the damn natives of this peninsular and suddenly you've got olives in your burritos and gochujang where the salsa should be (although, actually, that spicy red pepper paste will end up playing a vital role in this story, so maybe the natives are on to something).

Anyway, I know a guy who shares my love of all things Mexican. His name is J-Mao and he is a sexual deviant. Don't bother following that link either because he hasn't updated his excellent blog in over a year. Regardless, on each of the previous two May 5ths that we have spent together in this country we have approximated a Cinco de Mayo party. I'm English, as most of you know, and have no idea what the fuck Cinco de Mayo means - 5th May obviously, but in terms of an excuse for a party, I'm not sure. Nor do I really care. My American friends introduced it to me as a day to make Mexican food and drink Tequila so I was sold. Anyway, the first 2 parties we threw were fine, but we were determined to make this one (almost definitely our last, by the way, as J-Mao is pussying out and moving back to the States) the best of the bunch.

We started thinking about the catering quite early because, regardless of the fun and the frolics that would undoubtedly occur, this party was mainly a way for J-Mao and I to stuff our faces with bomb food. With this in mind, we made a recce trip to Vatos Tacos in Itaewon. Inspired by the Kogi BBQ Truck in LA, Vatos is run by a couple of Korean-Americans with the view to combining the huge flavours of Korean and Mexican food and wrapping them in home-made tortillas. The place is fire and, whilst a couple of their ideas don't quite work, some of them really, really do. Their Kimchi Carnitas Fries are a lot of fun and they do a Samgyupsal Taco which is fucking ridiculous. If you're in Korea and you haven't eaten there, you're an idiot. Go there immediately, order a Makkeolita, and tell them that Smithy sent you. Just kidding, they won't know who the fuck I am.

This year, Cinco de Mayo fell kindly on a Saturday with the preceding Friday given as a rare day off for us hapless Hagwon teachers. I spent the day shopping and eating pastrami before J-Mao arrived in the evening armed with Patron and a winning smile. Despite an insistence that we would not get drunk that evening due the amount of work we'd need to do the next morning, we simply had to try a shot of tequila to make sure it was working okay. It was working fine as it happened, and that's how we found ourselves a few hours later pounding soju, grilling galbi and cackling like rapid hyenas. We managed to make it home at a reasonable hour, thankfully, as important work was to be done. J-Mao organised an orgy of seasonings, swirled it up in a ziploc bag with some tequila, dunked the chicken and pork into it and held them down 'till they drowned in that shit. The smell was intoxicating. As was the Patron.
Breakfast Burritos

I defy any hangover to cope with the onslaught of one of J-Mao's breakfast burritos and the spicy, starchy, bacony, eggy goodness that I rolled up into a warm tortilla, stuffed into my face and washed down with some stupidly strong coffee obliterated the faint throbbing in the temples from which I was suffering. I can't tell you how awesome those were. We were good to go. The Canadian and I cycled down to the supermarket for some last minute supplies and, once we returned, we got stuck in to chopping tomatoes for salsa and mixing Sangria while J-Mao worked his magic on the guacamole and the various sauces we had to look forward to. One in particular, with a nod in the direction of Vatos Tacos, had a gochujang base and was immediately christened 'Dank' by yours truly due to its intense, aromatic flavour. And the fact that it was the bomb. One of my favourite parts of this party came later in the day when, with completely straight faces, our guests were asking people to 'pass the Dank, please' as if it was the most ordinary name in the world. It was fucking dank, though.
Bonathan Punch & one of the bottles of Tequila
©Priscilla Vasquez

The guests soon arrived and busied themselves in the punch that Bonathan had created. J-Mao and I hustled in the kitchen, him creating food and me being 'his bitch' according to my Canadian girlfriend. I saw it at as helping but, whatever. The food made it's way out and people were soon snarfing up the food like there was no tomorrow. My personal favourite were the beer-battered fish tacos with homemade coleslaw and a healthy slathering of dank, but the pork tenderloins were meaty and intense and the chicken was light and fragrant and damn tasty. I'm drooling onto my lap right now which is a repulsive sight for my sorry co-workers but, damn, that food was good. I wish it was Cinco de Mayo every day so I could just turn into a disgusting, fat sweaty pig. That's the plan for my 50s.
Chicken, Guac and yes, that is Dank in the centre.
©Priscilla Vasquez

Anyway, the rest of the day/night was a foggy haze of leftover quesadillas and mucho, mucho tequila. We played Ring of Fire at some point which, in a moment of genius from La Canadiana, was filmed by a hidden camera. Watching that back now is like one of those 'found footage' movies (you know like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity?) but, instead of a rising climax and jumpy moments of terror, you've got 10 drunken idiots from all over the world, screaming at each other in mockney accents and calling each other Sharon. Fun, it was.

So, what can we learn from this? Cinco de Mayo is a fun-ass holiday that should be adopted the world over. Expensive tequila > inexpensive tequila but, at the end of the day, any tequila > anything else. And mate, that sauce was fucking dank.

Ariba.

Love, Smithy x

14.5.12

A Grey Day



It's a grim and miserable day in Bucheon today. The rain is drizzling, the temperature has dropped and the Umbrella Army left a trail of damp puddles throughout each aspect of my thrice-weekly taekwondo commute. I left The Beast tied up this morning so as not to subject her to more rust-forming rainwater while chained beside Songnae Station.

And it is a grim and miserable day inside my heart as, last night, Manchester City were crowned league champions for the first time in 44 years after the most emotional 90 (95) minutes of football I think I have ever experienced. When City struck with those two late goals, I covered my face with my hands and waited for the tears and devastation to wash over me - but they never came. All I felt was a resignation, an acceptance bordering on relief, actually. City were definitely going to start winning trophies at some point - the talent they have in that team made that fact inevitable. The truth is, if QPR had held on last night, if Joey Barton hadn't, once again, proved himself an actual maniac, we'd have won the title and, for the first time, I really don't think we'd have deserved it. There is too much work to be done at United, and I just hope that Fergie has the time - and, most importantly, the money - to make the required changes. Being a United fan in your 20's means that you have never experienced failure. It is difficult at times to suppress that sense of entitlement but it is important to remember that success is not a Fergie-given right to all United fans. Ferguson has created team after team after team that wins things. Chelsea, Arsenal and Blackburn all had runs at us, and we batted them away. City have so much money behind them that this could be the biggest challenge of them all. Fergie doesn't have too much time left at United - he is 70, after all - and he now needs to build a team capable of competing with, and beating, City and Barcelona. It's time for the Glazers to put their hands in their bearded pockets, or simply fuck off.

Anyway, it's important to keep positive. We have a cracking new hanger for our tea towels, for example. And it's fish curry for tea tonight. So, you know, every cloud and all that.

Love, Smithy x

30.4.12

The (Alternative) Expat Lifestyle



I don't know if it was turning 26 and acknowledging that my early-20s are actually over, or the realisation that this really, actually, will be my last contract in Korea, but I am making the most of my time like I never have before. Working hagwon hours - the 2-10 shift - makes it very easy to live a vampiric existence of late-night Facebooking and unnecessary weekday drinking. This is how I spent my first year in Korea - although 6 hour Skype-sessions with a certain Canadian I was in the process of wooing also cut into my sleeping time somewhat. Back then, I would rise at midday (at best), work through to the evening and then stay up till dawn. It's no way to live.

This year, I am making the most of the fantastic opportunity that this shift pattern opens up to you. I wake up at 9:30am, check the weather (which is increasingly blue-skied and temperate) and hop aboard The Beast (my bicycle) and pedal over to either the local subway station for Taekwondo training on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, or down the road to Gorilla Gym (yes, that's really the name) on the other 2 days of the week. Saturday's usually begin with a joint trip to the gym with my Canadian girlfriend before spoiling it all with bacon & eggs, and Sunday is basketball day at the local park where I try valiantly and fail miserably. Basically, I'm a keep-fit machine with guns of polished steel. I'm disgustingly attractive nowadays.

But isn't just my exercise regime that has taken such a giant leap in recent months - nowadays, I just get shit done. I'm organising nights out and exertions with my friends, hosting parties (got a nice little Cinco de Mayo shindig coming up this weekend, did somebody say fish tacos?), completing paperwork for my Canadian visa application (this is a bitch, believe me), writing articles for expat magazines, orgainising my finances. I know this is all normal stuff that normal adults do - but I now feel that I am one of those normal adults. And far from bored by that realisation, I feel invigorated. I'm confident, fearless, ambitious. I'm all the things I wasn't for quite a while.

And it was with this confidence, and my beautiful girlfriend and laughing friends, that I strolled down the Cheonggyecheon River (more of a renovated stream, to be honest) in central Seoul on Saturday past, towards the bustling, noisy, neon-lit Gwangjang Night Market. Here, I sat beside The Postman (who now works with me in a nonsensical twist of fate) and gorged on sundae (Korean blood sausage), pig's feet (basically inedible, it would turn out) ddeokbokki (a deliciously spicy street food) and noodles, washed down with shitty - but cold - (s)Hite lager. And as I looked around, I couldn't help but smile to myself and feel proud at where we are and what we've done. My Canadian and I have got through so much together that we feel invincible. No matter what gets thrown at us, we turn around and batter it back.

It is a glorious feeling that comes from knowing that everything is going to be okay. I just wish I could say that about the match tonight.

Come on, United!

Love, Smithy x

23.4.12

April Sun-Showers



Let's get this show back on the road, shall we?

Life is good here in Bucheon. I can confidently, and comfortably, admit that I am happier and more positive than I can remember being in my adult life. I was relatively happy and positive as a toddler, but a fucking cynical teenager. And my early-20's are probably best - and actually - forgotten.

But it's all good now (I used to hate the phrase 'it's all good' because most of the time, it wasn't) and my Canadian girlfriend and I are really enjoying our 3rd stint in this weird little country of South Korea. Was it John Lennon that said that life is what happens when we are making other plans? I was reflecting the other evening (as I'm wont to do after one too many Long Islands) and I realised that Korea has been the making of me. I've spent all this time slagging the place off but, over the course of 4 years, it has turned me from a sniffling little rat-boy into a man. Now, let's not speak too soon of course, it could still all go tits-up, but I'm more confident than ever that it won't. Life is what happens while you're making other plans, but that's fine as long as you fulfill those plans eventually. And we're well on the way to doing that.

Speaking of things going tits-up, how about United's title bid? A couple of weeks ago we were 8 points clear and you couldn't read a single opinion piece that even gave city a shot of getting back into the race. But now, with 3 games to go, United are a meagre 3 points clear with a visit to Middle Eastlands coming up a week today. That will be a 4am kick-off for me and if, as I suspect, we lose, city will go top on goal difference. How did this happen? city were crowned champions by the press after they beat us 6-1 at Old Trafford in October but, while the Berties Pozman'd around like drunk lottery winners, we just got on with the business of winning games and putting points on the board. The inevitable city collapse came in March as they dropped points against Swansea, Stoke, Sunderland and Arsenal, and the press seemed to have it right when they gave the title to United. We don't lose 8-point leads, in the same way that we don't draw games after scoring 4 goals. But we fucking do, don't we? 3-1 and 4-2 up at home to Everton and we end up drawing 4-4. A nonsense result that was baffling to watch. city followed on by sending Wolves down with a 2-0 win and that leaves with this 'fascinating title race for the neutral'. I'm not a bloody neutral though, am I?

But yeah, besides this blip on my radar everything is A-OK. I'm training hard at Taekwondo and working out in the gym, getting out with the Canadian to explore the fair city of Bucheon and saving hard for the exciting things we have planned post-Korea. But, that's for another day.

Love, Smithy x

26.12.11

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's it. 2012 awaits.

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

Love, Smithy x






6.12.11

Ground-uh-hog-uh Day-uh

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

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

Ah yes, work.

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

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

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

Love, Smithy x