When I was 16 I sat my GCSEs. In the month leading up to the exams I seem to recall studying sporadically and half-heartedly on a friend’s bedroom floor with multiple and increasingly lengthy ‘study breaks’, in which we ate many custard creams and quested on the N64. My mum did hire a Maths tutor for me (in vain) but I was more committed to ‘discovering’ the far-flung corners of my town on my bicycle than solving maths equations.

When it came to taking the exams I imagine I felt a degree of anxiety and afterwards I probably celebrated with more biscuits and the Legend of Zelda. If you were to ask a Korean about their memories of taking the CSAT exams (the equivalent of GCSEs) I suspect they would be somewhat less vague.

The CSATs are a national obsession here in Korea. To say that today (Nov 7th) will be the most pivotal day in the current high-school seniors’ lives is not an overstatement. Unlike in the UK, where test results are just one of many considerations in university admissions decisions, here in Korea a student’s CSAT score alone will determine the university they enter, and as a consequence, the course of the rest of their lives.

This video shows the extreme and unusual measures Korean society goes to, to try and ensure students’ exam success.


Thank heaven for little girls

Think back to the first semester. You know, those halcyon days when seeing a traditional temple was still a novelty and the mention of an organised trip didn’t send a shiver of revulsion down your spine. Back in first semester we were still busy trying to navigate our ‘flexible’ timetables, how to order in restaurants, and the seeming neon maze of downtown. All that adjusting and gallivanting didn’t leave time for much else, so extra-curricular activities extended to loitering on the street outside Gogos with a cocktail in a bag.

This semester we’ve got our shit together (to a greater or lesser degree) and we’re all making a conscious effort to be more proactive. One of my own efforts was joining a local non-profit, cultural exchange/mentoring programme that pairs native English speakers with Korean teenagers. The programme has provided me with a reason not to fester in my apartment watching old episodes of Made in Chelsea, plus  the novel opportunity to interact with that alien species: the Korean teenage girl.

Working at an all-boys school has its perks and I’m pretty fond of the little toads. That being said, it can get a little Mad Men around here at times, which is down to the prevailing Confucianism philosophy that governs Korean society.


Despite evidence to the contrary (which I routinely plaster across the TV screen and wave beneath their noses in the form of handouts) a lot of the boys I teach would have me believe that their female counterparts aren’t in possession of brains or courage or strength, and that their passions are aesthetic only.

Despite admonishing my boys on a regular basis I realise now that I too was beginning to form my own uneducated ideas about Korean teenage girls. I’m ashamed to admit this but after eight months adrift in a sea of testosterone I crashed into the rocks of lazy ignorance. Based on a toxic blend of the boys’ warped depictions, fleeting glimpses of Korean teenage girls out in public, anecdotal stories from other NETs and the back catalogue of Girls Generation  I constructed my notion of a Typical Korean Teenage Girl.


So meeting my mentee was something of a revelation.

For our first date I took her to the Cat & Dog Cafe, imagining that the chance to manhandle adorable balls of fluff over a cup of hot chocolate would send her into shrieks of delight. Well, the only person shrieking was me. Somewhat confused that she hadn’t been compelled to join me in cooing over the fantastically obese siamese cat darting in out of our legs, I presented her with my trump card: a hot-pink, be-stickered scrap book. Surely this girlish confection would inspire a TKTG reaction. In fact, her eyes did not moisten, and she refrained from clapping her hands together like a cartoon seal. Rather, she calmly accepted the gift and thanked me sincerely.

Since our first meeting she has  continued to resist the role I was trying to force on her, going on to cooly discredit each and every one of my students’, and my own, silly assumptions, and remind me that people – especially teenagers! – are too complex to be typical.


Speaking tests round two

The time has come once again for speaking tests, an announcement that was met with audiable groans and the slamming of foreheads against desktops. And the boys weren’t alone in their grief.

At once the memories of vacant expressions and long silences broken only by the sound of another student enthusiastically relieving himself in the nearby toilet came flooding back to me. The only difference this time around is that rather than sweating out the torture in the steadily intensifying spring heat, I’m suffering it swaddled in multiple layers to combat the encroaching winter freeze.

But its not all bad. Yes you will have to repeat the same half a dozen questions at least 616626728 times. And in return you will receive a variation on the same half dozen or so answers, or simply a blank stare. But, it is worth it for these moments:

Me: What do you hope to do?
Stude: I hope to do a dung

Me: What do you hope to do?
Stude: I hope to find the confidence inside to talk to a girl. These days I freeze

Me: What do you plan to do tonight?
Stude: I plan to go home, wet my body, lie on my bed, looking at my phone (pronounced ‘pon’) and watching many videos

Me: What are you pretty good at?
Stude: I’m pretty good at breathing

Me: What are you pretty good at?
Stude: I’m pretty good at massageee. I show you teacher?

Me: What are you grateful for?
Me: I’m grateful for my mother, I’m grateful for my duck, I’m grateful for my friends
Me: Sorry…did you just say your duck?
Stude: Yes
Me: Er…right…well, why are you grateful for your duck?
Stude: She make me happy

Dog day afternoon


This photo of my students taking a break from walking the local shelter dogs makes a charming frieze. But it belies the reality of the situation.

For instance, the photo fails to convey both the quantity of poop I was compelled to scoop, and the multiple road traffic related doggy deaths I scarcely managed to prevent. It also gives no clue as to the looks of pure, unadulterated horror on the faces of the park’s resident OAPs at the sight of a pack of dogs and teenage boys charging towards them. Or the similarly horrified expressions on the students’ faces when they were informed that they would have to carry their flagging canine charges.


 Or the disgruntled looks on the dog’s faces when they got carried like this.


Breaking point

It’s mid-term time so for the past three working days my day has ended at noon. Yesterday I took this opportunity to make a trip to Seomun Market (서문 시장) with Main Co. So far, so painless…

After picking up a cute animal-eared bonnet for my friend’s baby, I was ready to escape the bustling rabbit warren that is Seomun Market when MC invited me along to her appointment at a traditional Korean medicine clinic. As part of my pre-Korea research I read about the practice of traditional Korean medicine (한의학) but in the seven months intervening I haven’t seen very much evidence of it’s popularity. Being a waygook in Korea you occupy a specific bubble, detached from a large part of the culture – although you catch flashes you never get the full picture. MC knows this so she makes a point of inviting me along to any specifically Korean things that she thinks might interest me, and these little forays into ‘real’ Korea generally pay off. My visit to the traditional Korean medicine man, however, did not.


As I followed MC out of the market I envisioned turning down a narrow, deserted alleyway and ducking through an unmarked door that would open onto a dark, cavernous room heavy with the scent of ginseng and unidentifiable herbs. The walls would be lined with endless weird and wonderful items, bottled and labeled. There would be rows of ornate Chinese medicine cabinets with thick, dusty tombs detailing the human anatomy stacked on top of them.  Every other surface would be covered in scales, pestles and mortars, test tube racks, perhaps a bubbling cauldron or two.

Basically I was prepared to walk into Potions class

Well I was right about the ginseng. But for the most part my expectations were about 70 years out of date. It turns out that traditional Korean medicine clinics are pretty much identical in appearance to western clinics, right down to the dogeared womens’ magazines. I think MC could sense my disappointment as we took our seats in the noticeably comfortable, well-lit waiting area. She encouraged me to think of a medical complaint so that I could join her in the doctor’s office and receive a traditional diagnosis of my own. Intrigue restored, I mentally composed a fictitious ailment and followed MC into the doctor’s office.

As in the reception, there was a distinct lack of cauldrons inside and the doctor himself looked suspiciously like a regular doctor. I began to wonder if MC had duped me. MC went first and I took a seat to observe proceedings. First the doctor asked her some seemingly routine questions. MC said 네 (yes) a lot. Then he seemed to take her pulse on both wrists for an inordinate amount of time. This was followed by more questions, then MC stuck out her tongue for inspection. More questions, many more 네s. Finally the doctor prodded MC’s legs for a bit before closing her file and pronouncing his diagnosis – “Acupuncture.”

With me in the hotseat the doctor went through the process again, aided by MC’s translation. I was informed that I have a comparatively weak heart, lungs and stomach. “What should I do doctor?” I asked eagerly, hoping to be prescribed some exotic, vitalizing concoction. “Acupuncture,” he said. MC was nervous because she hadn’t had it for many years and she thought it might hurt but I was unconcerned. As I told MC sagely, a friend had recently had acupuncture and had reported that it was entirely painless, we had nothing to fear. I practically skipped into the treatment room.

Instructed to lie down on adjacent beds, curtains were drawn between us. In broken English the doctor told me to lose my skirt and advised that what was to follow would “hurt probably”. Still I was unconcerned, and so was entirely unprepared for the acute pain brought on by doc viciously stabbing me in both thumbs and big toes with a hat pin. After squeezing about a pint of blood out of my wounds the good doctor set to work covering every visible portion of my flesh in needles via a disconcerting and unpleasant jabbing, wiggling motion that made me shiver all over.

Satisfied that I resembled a pin-cushion, the doctor placed a type of hot water bottle over a free patch of abdomen and a heat lamp over my feet before disappearing. I now have no doubt that under torture I would confess and surrender all of my friends and family immediately. Over the next 30 minutes I considered throwing in the towel on at least three occasions. The doctor needn’t have told me not to move, if I so much as attempted to shift my weight my muscles twinged in protest. Glancing down at the forest of needle ends made me feel sick and the panpipe music offered little respite as it was overpowered by regular sharp intakes of breath as the doctor set to work on other patients. Finally, needles removed, MC asked hopefully, “Do you feel well?” I rubbed my aching legs and eyed my blotchy reflection pointedly.

After paying for our torture session we were given an infernal brown liquid to drink. It tasted not dissimilar to the tortoise jelly that I had the delight to sample in Hong Kong.


And drinking it produced an identical reaction, which MC, the receptionist and the random pair of ajummas got a big kick out of.

 Korean medicine has officially been ticked off of my to do list.


Lets get physical

This past week I’ve set out on the daunting task that is applying to PGCE courses from abroad. As part of my application I need to compose a glowing personal statement so, like a good student, I’ve been doing my homework and bringing myself up to speed on the UK teaching environment, which has inevitably prompted me to compare my current classroom environment.

There are some fundamental similarities but on the whole Korea does things rather differently, and there is one practice in particular that I know I’m going to miss.

In the UK any physical contact between teachers and students – in particular teenagers – not deemed absolutely necessary is strictly prohibited. This applies to female teachers to a lesser degree than their male counterparts, but contact is still very much restricted. Like so many other British cultural norms it’s not something I’d ever really questioned; I understand why the restrictions are there and have no doubt that countless potential victims have been protected as a result of their enforcement.

But then I moved to Korea. Korea,  where everything is topsy-turvey and you suddenly see everything you once took for granted in a new light. Where it’s OK not only to rest a reassuring hand on a student’s shoulder, but to give them a full-on embrace. I first witnessed one such episode a couple of weeks in. A student came into the teacher’s office, visibly distressed, and reported to his home room teacher, who took one look at him, gathered him into his arms and cuddled him close against him. It was a genuinely touching sight, but it surprised me.

Over the coming weeks I frequently witnessed similar physical displays of affection between teachers and students. I saw teacher’s giving students’ heads fond ruffles in passing in the corridors; a teacher softly holding a distressed student’s hands between theirs while the student confided his trouble; and even a teacher jokingly hand-feeding a rice cake into a student’s mouth; in class, teachers massaged sleeping students’ shoulders to wake them.

Without being a Korean student on the receiving end of a head-ruffle or a hand-fed rice cake I can’t say for certain that this practice of unrestricted touching definitely has a positive effect, but from my observer’s perspective it certainly seems to. And that applies to the teachers as well as the students.

This tactile approach is reflected in all Korean relationships. You’ll regularly see old men walking down the street arm in arm, or a couple of old girlfriends hand in hand. On a recent school trip I thought my heart would explode when I saw my (15 and 16-year-old) students happily walking hand-in-hand with their mothers and fathers.

I know I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions my fondness for the bromances I see being played out in my classes. In the last decade movies like I Love You, Man have made closeness between young  men more socially acceptable in the west, but  back home I never saw such natural displays of affection between my younger brother and his friends, as I do between the boys in my classes.

You’ll very rarely find a boy on his own. Generally he will be glued to one body part or another belonging to his best friend – it may be an arm loosely slung around a friend’s shoulders, or a hand absently running through another boy’s hair. If they’re seated in class they may be holding hands, and sometimes feet (this I’m not so fond of if they’ve just had PE). They’ll sometimes offer a pat on the backside to show their support when a friend is called on to present to the class.

If Korea sounds like a homosexual haven, sadly it isn’t. In fact, Korea is still getting used to the idea that homosexuality might not be an exclusively ‘western problem’ after all. In general, Koreans simply don’t interpret physical closeness between members of the same gender as anything other than a demonstration of platonic feelings. And it seems to be this blind rejection of the existence of gay Koreans that has allowed this tactile culture  to flourish.

Sadly there is another huge drawback. It is the aspect of Korean teaching that I dislike the most and the one thing that I just can’t get used to. Though it does seem as though with each generation the popularity of physical disciplining is fading, judging by the experiences of friends and acquaintances, it is still very much an issue in Korea today.

As Korean educational culture begins to incorporate more and more western-style practices and methodologies it’s likely that the acceptance of positive physical contact between teachers and students will become prohibited too. But perhaps not. Perhaps the Koreans will do what we didn’t in the UK and find a way to retain the good, while throwing out the bad. It’s a nice thought.

Down the aisle Korean style

Recently I was able to strike another entry from my Korea bucket list – attend a Korean wedding. As with many Korean invitations, this one was extended seemingly out of nowhere and at the very last possible moment – in this case the night before the wedding.

It’s become common practice for Korean couples to have two weddings – a traditional low-key Korean one and a big, brash imitation ‘western’ one. The father of the bride must foot the bill for BOTH sets of nuptials and so for dear dad’s convenience the Koreans have invented ‘wedding centers’ – sprawling, shiny buildings that can be identified by low flying planes from the inflated portrait of a glossy wedded couple plastered across the front. Here you can hit two birds with one big, tacky wedding stone.

Walking in is like stepping onto the set of a Mariah Carey music video. So much diamante and glaring white faux marble. Plastic chandeliers and plastic plants everywhere. Suited men with ear pieces and dark shades striding around would-be-purposefully. Piped chamber music. Waitress uniforms inspired by Britney Spears circa Toxic. Many elaborate water displays involving cupids in improbable poses.


Because wedding centers are roughly the size of the London O2 it is possible for 244598943 weddings to take place at once. Our wedding was happening on the third floor in the ‘Fantasy Fairy Bride Suite’, which was as fantastically tacky as the title suggests.

We arrived just in time for Wedding Part I and elbowed our way into the wedding ‘chamber’, plonking ourselves down on some gaudy golden chairs by a pair of asjoshes making an early start on the soju.

In my experience wedding services can drag on so with a double feature in store I had envisioned a long day. The first service was over in no more than 15 minutes. The priest said approximately five words. The rest of the time was filled with a serenade delivered by the couple’s friends, from a kneeling position at the couple’s feet, accompanied by a women wearing white feathers playing a white grand piano, with water cascading down the wall behind her. Then the couple kissed and everyone clapped and the couple strutted down an elevated catwalk and posed at the end for the bank of waiting well-wishers. All while a montage of photos of the couple posing with cupcakes and harps played on a loop on the widescreen tvs in the background.


After such a long, draining service the guests were in desperate need of sustenance so we followed the crowd downstairs for eats. Instead of trawling John Lewis for a cutlery set that will sit in a cupboard the Koreans cut to the chase and hand over a (small) wad of cold hard cash on arrival at the wedding. This entitles them to a food coupon which gives them entry to the biggest buffet in the galaxy. I only wish it had been a little later in the day so that I could have been as shamelessly piggy as I wanted to be, but as it was I wasn’t prepared to tackle cooked meats and seafood at 11am.

Refueled we headed back upstairs for Wedding Part II. The next western ceremony was already in full swing in the Fairy Suite we’d vacated literally 20 minutes before, which also happened to be attached to the broom cupboard where Part II was about to begin.

While we were chowing down the bride had switched from her western gown to her traditional Korean dress (Hanbok). She looked pretty spectacular and super uncomfortable. It took a couple of people to maneuver her into the correct position to begin the ceremony.

At the heart of the ceremony is bowing. The couple bow to each other. The couple bow to his parents. The couple bow to her parents. I think the parents might have bowed to the couple at one point. It all looked very tiring for the bride. But they did get to eat some tasty looking snacks that represented a long, harmonious marriage, and after that one of the fathers tossed some small objects into a blanket to see how many grandkids he could expect (six). And then it was all over.


I was looking forward to abusing the buffet again at the after-party but sadly there was none – perhaps because abeoji bankrupt himself shelling out for two weddings. So with that we got our complimentary Decoration Cake Box Sets and hit the road.




In praise of studes

School started back three weeks ago and on the first day I was something of a nervous wreck. Having not taught properly for almost a month I was convinced I’d lost the ability altogether, and I was less than confident about the returning students’ enthusiasm for the semester ahead.

I remember being fifteen and actually looking forward to going back to school. After six glorious weeks of freedom I felt recharged, and with the evidence of a new season all around me – the sparse trees, the reinstated knitwear, the dark, crisp mornings – by September I was ready for a fresh start, however short lived it might be.

Unfortunately my students don’t have the luxury of a generous break and a seasonal prompt. When they finished school in July it was hot and humid. For the entire duration of their holiday period – all three weeks of it – it was hot and humid. And wouldn’t you know it, when they started back at school in August it was hot and humid. This depressing lack of development in the weather was compounded by the fact that they had to attend two weeks worth of its-not-technically-mandatory-but-if-you-don’t-attend-just-consider-all-of-you-future-hopes-and-dreams-dashed extra-curricular classes and camps.

The solitary week that the kids had to call their own was one of the two hottest weeks in the year (the other being the week they started back at school) so most of them just stayed inside in their ACed apartments until they had to attend their evening and/or weekend academies.

Essentially its as if there never even was a holiday…

Ignore your feelings students, there was a holiday

So I had resigned myself to my fate. As I walked to my first class, fan thumping up and down at my side like a demented death knell, I pictured the rows on rows of comatose students that would surely greet me.

Imagine my surprise when on my entrance I was met with a supersonic wave of ‘hello Teacher, long time no see’s from forty expectant, shiny faces. What followed was one of the most  enjoyable, productive classes I’ve had to date. And it set the trend for the rest of the week. Yes this initial zest for learning has now dissolved into a soup of lethargy and mild contempt but I accept that because at 15, even in spite of my generous holiday time and the cool weather, I was well over my ‘fresh start’ by the third week back too.

The fact that my students were able to summon the energy to be enthusiastic about learning a second language after virtually no holiday whatsoever, in challenging weather conditions, with no AC (!!!!!!!!!), is pretty inspiring to me. Yes they often give me good cause to grumble but its too easy to forget that these kids are expected to learn under some spectacularly challenging conditions all year round, and that sometimes they need to be cut a little slack.

So from now on whenever they’re being little horrors I will count to ten, take a deep, calming breath and cast my mind back to their best, first-week-selves – the students they could be on a more regular basis if numerous influences weren’t conspiring to make their educational career as difficult as possible.

With any luck the memory will deter me from launching one of them out of the window.

Should I stay or should I go?

The time has come to decide: to re-sign or not to re-sign?

In the next month or so all NETs will be approached by their schools and asked whether or not they intend to commit to another 12 months teaching.

I personally made the decision to leave Korea after the one year mark some time ago, but now that the time has come to let my school know I’m surprised to find myself weighing up my options.

Staying pros

–         Ultimately I want to become a teacher back in the UK and two years’ teaching experience will make me a much stronger candidate for my preferred university

–         Even if I don’t end up taking up teaching, being asked to renew a contract looks good to any potential employer, and my school would hopefully give me a glowing recommendation if I save them the inconvenience of having to bring in another inexperienced newbie

–         Also ESL teaching provides an opportunity to build confidence and skills in a relatively low-pressure/minimal-responsibility environment

–         I would get to start over with a fresh bunch of first-graders. I know the mistakes I made with this years’ lucky lot and how to avoid making them again

Not a viable disciplining method apparently

–         I would get to see my second-graders graduate

–         I would get to see my first-graders through into the second grade and witness that awkward, hairy transition from adolescence to young manhood

–         I would get to save more money. A low cost of living and free accommodation makes it possible for an NET to squirrel away a tidy sum of money (or so I am told). Think of the bounty I could return with after a two year stint. I could buy a mortgage or a car or even a 13-inch sculpture of Hogwarts


–         I could continue to use Korea as a base to explore more of Asia. Once I head back to the UK I’ll probably be needing to knuckle down for a good spell, and nipping over to Japan for some sushi won’t be quite so convenient

Going pros

–         I would get to hang out with all of those clowns in the UK that I love so much

–         I would get to eat cheese and pickle sandwiches to my heart’s content

–         ‘Humidity’ and ‘precipitation’ would disappear from my vocabulary forever

–         I could begin moving forwards with my career


–         I could work with people that speak my language (theoretically). This is kind of a pro and a con because I would definitely miss all of the hilarious lost-in-translation moments that you get in an ESL classroom

–         I wouldn’t be able to nip to Bali on my summer break but frankly who needs Bali when you’ve got Wells- Next-the-Sea

Cracking huts

And while Mount Fuji is fairly impressive, you can’t beat Mount Snowdon

Definitely not humid

And Shanghai is great and all that, but how about some cobbles?

UK: cobbles galore

It is a tough decision, and I’m glad I’ve thought it through before coming to my final conclusion (not really a habit of mine). In the end though, those cobbles are just too convincing.