Thursday, August 13, 2009

My 10 Favorite Things About Living and Teaching in Korea

I'm two days away from leaving Korea. In two years of living here, I have developed deeply ambivalent feelings about both my experience here and the society itself. A couple days ago, I was re-reading The Prophet, and I was surprised to find a section that echoed my feelings about leaving Korea:

The hero has been in a strange land for twelve years and upon seeing the ship that will return him to his homeland...

"the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul.

But as he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart: How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

Too many fragments of the spirit have I scatterd in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a bruden and an ache.

It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands.

Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.

Yet I cannot tarry longer.

The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.

For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould."

A bit dramatic perhaps, but it really nails how I'm feeling. But, moving along... last week I posted my 10 least favorite things about living and teaching here, and here are my 10 favorite things about living and teaching here, plus a few runners-up.


Ice cream bars -- This didn't make the top ten because it has been absolutely disastrous for my fitness. At every convenience store, and they're everywhere, there is a freezer full of delicious ice cream on a stick in every flavor you could imagine and more (one of my favorites is a chocolate bar on a stick, surrounded with "nano-silver vanilla", coated with chocolate and peanuts, another is melon, another still is watermelon flavored and shaped ice cream with hazelnut seeds). A full price bar is 700 won ($.55), and most places sell them at half price. I don't know how that can be profitable (and I probably don't want to), but it sure does make for a delicious, fattening summer.

Elders' robustness -- Before the monsoon came with its endless days of rain, I was playing tennis every morning with a 64 year old man that was in nearly as good of shape as I am. I never saw him eat an ice cream bar. On my way to school, I routinely see 80-something year old men and women hunched over working in the fields, digging up potatoes or planting chili pepper plants. I've never seen them eating ice cream bars either.

Lack of zoning -- Where I come from, an area is either commercial or residential, so people end up driving a lot. Here, everything is mixed together, so people walk. On one level, it's nice to have a convenience store (with ice cream bars) in the same building as my apartment. On another level, it gets people out in the streets and creates a mixing of people and a sense of community involvement that I think we could use more of at home.

Free time -- I am ambivalent about this. Every single day here, I've had hours of free time. I play guitar, watch TV, read, watch movies, cook, paint, play online games, meditate, etc. I have learned a lot from the reading I've done, I'm a better guitarist and singer and cook, and I'm a champion of Settlers of Catan (my online game of choice), but I'm also bored a lot and frequently feel like I'm wasting my life away. It is that feeling that compelled me to take the plunge into grad school at the end of my contract here.

Now, to the top ten....

10. Gardens everywhere --
This province, Gangwon-do, is notorious in Korea for being difficult to grow food. The people respond by growing food absolutely everywhere. Any land that is less than a 15% incline and is not paved over is growing food, without exception. That's true whether it's someone's front yard, a triangle of dirt between a bridge and road, or way up in the valleys that surround the towns. They're not farms, much more like what we think of as gardens. They grow chili peppers, corn, soy beans, onions, garlic, potatoes, greens, grapes and on the occasional flat section of land, rice. This is this old couple's yard. It's worth noting that it's September and they're planting, probably the third crop of the year. I'm certain they would think we are insane for the money, effort, fertilizer and pesticides we put into grass.

9. Jjimjilbang -- These are combination health club, sauna and recreation center. Admission is about $5 and for that you soak in hot tubs infused with jade or eucalyptus or whatever, sweat in the saunas and steam rooms, and get a sports massage or a scrub down from an old Korean man wearing nothing more than briefs. There are restaurants, but for reasons that escape me Koreans seem to prefer to pig out on hard boiled eggs at these places. There are barbers and televisions and computers and massage chairs and cold and hot rooms and salt rooms and charcoal rooms and oxygen rooms. A great place to hang out and warm up in the winter or sweat out in the summer.

8. Outdoorsiness -- Koreans love the outdoors, whether eating squid jerky and drinking rice wine behind an apartment building, or hiking through valleys (which they have done an excellent job of protecting by concentrating in the cities the population of 50 million people in a country the size of Indiana). I love the tendency toward the outdoors, especially in summer, when restaurants pull out their plastic tables and the dining room floors spill out into the streets. The images of dozens of Koreans eating, drinking and laughing in a courtyard on a warm summer night will stay with me for a long time.

7. The sweet kids --
Not all of them were, but the ones that were sweet were the cutest, kindest, funnest kids I've ever known.

6. The restaurants & the food -- A lot of foreigners here complain about the cuisine, and while I admit the flavors can get a bit monotonous (sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and chilies), I love the food, even though much of it is off limits to me as a vegetarian. Restaurants typically specialize in just a few dishes, are usually owned and run by an old lady who might work with one other old lady to prepare the food, serve the food, clean the place and everything. My favorite restaurant in town is a place where a 4' 6" 60 year old lady serves grilled fish lettuce wraps (I'm a quasi-vegetarian here) and seems to rotate through being amused, confused, appreciative and fed-up with the foreigners that frequent her place. The prices, and there's no tax or tipping, so what you see on the menu on the wall is what you actually pay, for a typically quick meal might be $3, and unless it's a very special dish (or foreign food or drink), meals rarely exceed $10 per person.

Every meal comes with bancheon, side dishes, that always include kimchi and usually other fermented vegetables. In a cheap place, you might just get three little kimchis, in a nicer place, it's not uncommon to get over ten bancheon, and they might include fried fish or raw octopus or other treats that can be even better than the central meal itself. In most cases, everything is shared with everyone at the table. In fact, when eating with Koreans, even glasses are shared -- it's a neat little social device... if you see that someone is bored or if you want to chat with someone that you're not sitting near, you take them your empty glass and a bottle of soju (chemically fermented rice wine) and pour them a shot, and in that manner, over a meal that might last a few hours, people move around (everyone sits on the floor) and everyone talks with everyone, everyone shares germs and everyone gets drunk.

5. Community focus -- This is the highest ranking item that is really about Korean society, as the next four each have to do with my position here. On the whole, I'm not a big fan of Confucianism, at least as it operates in modern Korea. However, the focus on social harmony is really nice, and something that I think we North Americans could learn a lot from. Where I is the dominant pronoun in the US, we is here. Studies have shown that the different mindsets actually affect visual perception, such that Asians are more inclined to view ambiguous situations from a removed, more holistic perspective, whereas Westerners are more inclined to view the same situation from inside it, from a first person perspective. Unfortunately, because of the xenophobia here, foreigners are not always considered part of the community in the same way Koreans are, which I think makes being a foreigner here harder than it would be in a more individualistic society like the US. But, while I'm sure my Korean friends still think I'm terribly obstuse and inconsiderate, this mindset has implanted itself in my head, and I'm glad for it. I hope it stays with me through the years.

4. Income:expenses ratio -- The salary foreigners earn teaching in Korea isn't anything special, except that foreign teachers' apartments are paid for by employers, as are airfare here and home and immigration costs. Food is cheap, entertainment (at least out here in the boonies) is scarce, and buying stuff doesn't usually make sense when you know you have to fit everything you own into two suitcases at the end of the year. Health care is nationalized and very inexpensive and the tax structure is very progressive so even those who aren't exempt pay less than 4% income tax. I have been saving almost 80% of my salary, and on top of that I'll receive about two months' bonus pay at the end of my contract. No one has gotten rich doing it, but especially for folks right out of college or when the job market at home is what it is right now, it can be a very solid financial move.

3. Vacation time & neighboring destinations -- While I've been here, I've spent time in China, Vietnam, Laos, Japan, Thailand, and Thailand again. Spending almost the entire month of February in Thailand is about as good as it gets. And it was a relatively quick flight on a lovely Asian airline to get there.

2. Novelty in everything -- Living here is a bit like being a child. You never really know what's going on, you don't have responsibilities the same way you would at home, you're easily surprised, and routine events are novel and exciting. It's incredibly frustrating, but also really enjoyable.

1. Anonymity & outsiderness -- There is something comforting about knowing that no one knows you, and that no one can. If people are going to stare at me as I walk down the street, I might as well wear shorts and flip-flops and sing as I walk. If my students are going to think I'm a weird foreigner anyway, it's much easier to engage them with silly foolishness that I might hold back at home. At home, as soon as you see someone, you thin-slice their age, sex, body language, clothing, and a thousand other things and make a judgement about who they are and how they relate to you in society. In a culture as foreign as this, that's impossible. Advertising doesn't affect you, because it is designed to take advantage of the human mind's inability to stop thin slicing. And not understanding what that 16 year old girl on the bus won't stop talking about can be really nice.

I couldn't have named this at the time, but this is what brought me back to Korea for a second year. When you remove a person from their native culture, you force them to examine themselves in way that is otherwise impossible. We define ourselves by our relations: to our jobs, our achievements, our friends and family, our hobbies, and the culture we consume (and, less often it seems, create). Take away all those things and one has to look internally for a sense of identity. That transformation started for me in my first year here, but it didn't have time to run to completion. When I got home, I didn't identify in society as I had previously, but I was still looking to things like my friends and my job to define my position in society, my social identity, especially since it had been upended since I had left. I ended up feeling lost and floundering around for quite a while before returning to Korea. I don't know if that transition ever really reaches completion, but I know that I am going home with a much stronger internal compass than I had before I came to Korea, in addition to a much broader perspective on culture, politics and the world.

Friday, August 7, 2009

My 10 Least Favorite Things About Living and Teaching in Korea

I've got a week left here in Korea before I go home to start grad school and say goodbye to the Sparkling Hermit Kingdom of Morning Calm for good. I've lived and taught here for two years, and it has been wonderful and terrible, glorious and excruciating, boring and exciting, eye opening and let-me-just-tune-out-the-world-and-watch-television-for-weeks-on-end.

I thought I'd finish out the year with two last posts: my ten favorite things about living here and my ten least favorite things. So that we end on a positive note, here are ten things that I have found consistently, repeatedly, powerfully annoying.

10. "Hello! Howareyou! Whereareyoufrom!" This is at the bottom of the list because in slightly modified form, it can actually be nice. When I pass an ajuma and her 4 year old granddaughter and the ajuma smiles and tells her granddaughter to say hello, it's really sweet. When I'm in the right mood, it can make me smile for a bunch of middle school girls to get over themselves and say hello and then giggle for fifteen seconds. But when I pass a group of college aged boys (or grown men!) across the street and one yells out "whereareyoufrom!" and the others start laughing uproariously, that's annoying.

9. Auto exhaust. I like to run and I walk everywhere, so I spend a lot of time "with" cars, trucks and scooters. I don't know what it is that our exhaust tests in the states get off the road, but the majority of autos here put out a foul, noxious gas that I'm sure is just destroying my lungs. Of course the tractors and scooters are even worse.

8. Sewers rising. Again, I don't know what they've done in the US to prevent the smells of sewers from rising into the streets, but they certainly haven't figured it out here. The national dish is kimchi -- rotting (er, sorry, fermenting) cabbage with garlic, fish sauce, shrimp paste and chilies. Unfortunately, that's what everyone shits and it smells even worse than you would imagine.

7. Fan death and other insanity. A lot of Koreans (maybe a majority. really. even doctors.) think that if you sleep with a fan on in your room you will die. A lot of Koreans also think that Korea is the pinnacle of culture and accomplishment. Logic here is... to be culturally sensitive, I'll say different, though having studied symbolic logic, I feel pretty comfortable saying it's just either missing or gets beat out by antiquated cultural beliefs. Ignorance and delusion are everywhere.

6. Logistical challenges. A lot of things are a lot harder in a foreign country. Often to buy something, I have to ask a Korean friend for help. I'm not going to miss feeling like a retarded four year old.

5. Volume and style of speech. Korean men are much worse than the women on this, though plenty of women are plenty annoying as well. Fresh from the west, you would honestly think a discussion on where to go to lunch was a boiling blood feud. Koreans love to eat and drink outside (which I love), and there's a nice spot just below my apartment window (which I don't love). For hours on end two women will sit pouring soju (the Korean version of sake, except it's vile) for men talking and yelling and interrupting and gesticulating at volumes I thought impossible. No time of day or location is off limits for this manner of communication.

4. Confucianism. Confucius mapped out social relationships to try to produce social harmony (the ultimate goal of Confucianism) in any situation. According to Confucianism, the younger, female or lower status should be deferential and obedient, which often seems more like meek and unquestioning. I think social harmony is an admiral goal, and I think deference and humility are lacking in westerners, but the rigid way Confucianism operates in modern Korea creates manifold problems. As my coteacher (a 31 year old woman) said when she learned we wouldn't be having a retirement party for our principal (a 64 year old man) because the government found out he has been stealing money from the school, "Why does he still have job? If I am stealing, I don't have job one more day!"

3. The staring. Maybe now I know what it's like to be a gorgeous woman. No, not the same. I am stared at constantly. This was less true (though still common) in the big city, but in this rural little town, I'd say around half of the people I see on the streets just fix their gaze on me. I almost always look back, try to summon compassion and acknowledge them. Maybe one in ten gives me a nice smile and bows back (usually the older women), the rest look away until I've stopped looking at them, and then fix their stare right back on me. What really makes this hard is what's behind the stare:

2. Xenophobia. Korea has long been called the Hermit Kingdom and with good reason. Throughout its existence, Korea has had to fight off domination from China and empires of the Japanese, Mongolians and others. Even in modern times, Korea has remained remarkably isolated. Besides the utter unfamiliarity with anything not-Korean, there is also a deep (and historically valid) antipathy toward foreigners. I once asked three wealthy, cosmopolitan middle school students from Busan if they would allow their children to marry foreigners and all three said absolutely not. I have received a tremendous amount of kindness and welcome from Koreans, but with a few notable exceptions, there is always an element of my being not quite the same, not quite human. What I'm about to write is completely unfair -- there are so many differences and what I have faced here doesn't even enter into the same arena -- but living here has given me emotional insight into what it must have been (and be) like to be black in many times and places in the United States.

1. Missing events and holidays at home. All of the above end when I leave in a week. But one of my best friends got married this summer, and I missed two Christmases with my family, and those are gone forever. I wouldn't trade the experiences I've had for those that I missed, but without exception, the hardest days here have been the days I have most wanted to be home.

What do you think waegookin seonsaengnim... what would you have included that I've left out?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Teaching English in Korea Interview

I was recently asked to provide an interview about my experience teaching in Korea, my decision to move to Korea, stereotypes of English teachers in Asia, culture shock and cultural assimilation, EPIK, and some other general stuff about my experience teaching English in Korea. I thought I would go ahead and provide the interview here. I hope you find it helpful. There may be a follow up interview in the future, if so I'll post that as well.

----- Why did you first decide to move to Korea? Had you had previous
experience? Did you know others who had traveled to Korea before
deciding to relocate there? Please describe your decision making

My decision to come here was very circumstantial. I was working as a research scientist in the US and was dating a Canadian when my grant got canceled and I was out of work. We didn't have a good way to be together in either of our countries, and she had friends who had paid off significant portions of their student loans teaching in Korea, so we started looking into it. We considered Taiwan most seriously as an alternative, but in the end the ease of the offers in Korea -- airfare paid, apartment ready when you get here -- and the excellent pay (at that time, in 2005, the exchange rate was about 40% better than it is now) lured us here. I had one friend that had taught in Japan with JET and had a decent experience but left before the end of the year. I read a lot about teaching in Korea before I came, espeically on, which presents a particularly negative side of teaching here, but we decided to come anyway.

----- Was the process of moving different than what you expected? What
everyday difficulties, if any, do you encounter living in a foreign

The process of moving was very easy and more-or-less what I expected. The shock of landing in a very foreign country was intense. I had never been outside of N. America before, and Korea is very different than home. Jet lag was severe, and I remember on our second night there we went out to eat, at an Italian restaurant of all places, and after being out for an hour or two, my energy just plummeted. I didn't know how I was going to make it back to the apartment. I think our minds have a filtering system that keeps us sane by blocking most of the massive amount of information that constantly surrounds us. It filters that which is the same, usual, because we don't need to be aware of that. But suddenly in a Korean city, nothing is usual, so the mind is very easily overloaded. You ask about culture shock later, but let me say here, I think there are two seperate events that are labeled as culture shock, and they are very different. There is the experience I just described, which was very intense for just a few hours on the first few nights, mostly just lasted a few days and fades away entirely with a week or two. Then there is another experience that sets in around 3 or 4 or 6 months into living in a foreign culture, when the novelty has worn off, and things get really hard. I talk about this at length in a blog post, here.

----- I know there has been a stereotype of inexperienced Americans and
Canadians going to foreign countries and working very briefly, using
the job as a means to pay for a vacation. Do you think this is still
the case? There also has been a history of foreigners being lured to
countries like Korea (or Thailand) with promises of great jobs and
money only to be met with disappointing living and working conditions.
Has this practice changed? What opinions do you have regarding
both sides of this complicated relationship between teachers and
recruiters? Do you think EPIK has changed this in Korea?

I don't know how qualified I am to speak generally about this, especially since I haven't lived in Seoul, and that's where the vast majority of foreigners are (that was even more true before the government's recent push to put native english speakers in every public school in the country). But here are some thoughts.

Yes, people use it as a way to get away from home, as an escape. The reality is that living and working here comes with a huge load of challenges. I don't want to say it's harder, that would depend on specific circumstances at home and here, but it's definitely hard. I don't know a single foreigner here that would disagree with that. And while I think Korea rightly has a reputation for being particularly difficult, I've heard similar complaints about Thailand, Japan, China, etc.. So if this job has a reputation for being an easy way to take a vacation, I think that's undeserved. I think we earn every won we make.

I had read a lot about people showing up and being given moldy, rat-filled apartments. I think that has always been a tiny, if highly vocal, minority, and even more so now as the arrangement has become more widespread and communication between foreigners living here and thinking about coming here has increased. That said, people definitely do get screwed from time to time. Hagwons, the private, after-school tutoring centers that outside of EPIK employ almost all of the foreign English teachers, are intensely for-profit, and every won saved on a foreigner is a won of profit for the owner. I worried a lot about what would happen at the end of my hagwon contract, because at the end of a contract foreigners generally receive a month's pay, a bonus month's pay called severance, approximately a month's pay from contributions the boss should have been making each month to the national pension fund that can be withdrawn as a lump sum by foreigners leaving the country, and return airfare home. That adds up to about 7 million won for most foreigners. In the end, I did get nearly everything I was owed, with a hundred thousand or two won, but I felt like if the boss had thought he could have pushed me around, he probably would have.

Recruiters are driven by profit motivation too, and they understand how few recourses a foreigner has once they have moved here. So I think it's terribly important for foreigners to get references for their recruiter and their hagwon before they sign a contract. With EPIK this is much less true because the contract is standardized and there isn't the same profit motivation present in public schools. EPIK is far from perfect, and there are plenty of complaints among my friends and I about the program, but it is much more secure than a hagwon gig.

----- Have you experienced significant "culture shock" as a foreigner in Korea?

Yes, see answer 2.

----- To what degree do you think it's important to assimilate to the
culture you are living in?

Again, I'm not sure how qualified I am, because I haven't ever assimilated into a foreign culture. Note that the vast, vast majority of foreigners living here don't assimilate to any noticeable degree. I suspect those that have would say that it's both difficult and important. I think it's particularly difficult in Korea, because Korea has a history of fending off foreign invasions (surrounded as have been, historically, by empires: Japanese, Mongolian, Chinese, etc.) and that has informed their culture around the treatment of foreigners. For a more thorough treatment of this, see Korea Unmasked, which is written by a Korean. I think xenophobia is common here, as is fetishization of foreigners. Racism is, I think, less common, but prevalent as well.

On a lighter note, learning some simple aspects of the language: the "alphabet," food, numbers, taxi directions, etc. is hugely helpful, and new arrivals should learn that stuff ASAP.

----- I know EPIK views their native English speakers as assistants to
the regular English teachers, do you think using native English
speakers is beneficial when teaching English?

It's true that we are titled Assistant Teachers. What this means in practice varies widely from province to province, county to county, school to school, and especially from elementary to middle to high schools. My understanding is that in elementary schools foreigners are often treated more like assistants, with Korean teachers planning the lessons and incorporating foreigners to degrees ranging from not at all (I had one coteacher, who I taught 4 hours a week with last semester, with whom I would literally sit in a student's chair, in front of the class, facing the class, which he taught, and often not say a word. I eventually started bringing books into class and sat there reading.) to true coteaching, where the teaching role is passed back and forth. There are also situations in elementary schools where the Korean teacher feels embarrassed about their English in front of a foreigner, or is just lazy, and has the foreigner do all of the lesson planning and teaching. This can be good for everyone, if the Korean stays engaged with the class to keep Korean norms around discipline and respect in order. If, as many do, the Korean sits silently in the back of the class or even walks out, it can be very frustrating. It is extremely difficult to teach beginners of a language without a common language, especially children, with their constantly ambling attention. This alone is sufficient for me to recommend EPIK over hagwons to incoming teachers -- in EPIK you have a coteacher, in hagwons you don't.

I think it could be valuable to use native teachers, and in many cases I think it is. But the systems to make it properly and be of real benefit to the students haven't been put in place yet. This initiative to have native English speakers in every school is very young, and they are still learning how it should be done. So, as with the example I mentioned above, it often ends up being worthless for the students, and I think very frequently is of marginal value. I think a native speaker is most valuable as a teacher to advanced language learners, and those aren't primary and secondary students in Korea. With the right sort of co-teaching, I think it can be valuable. It brings a new pedagogy to language learning in Korea, which I think is sorely needed. I think it may be most valuable in diminishing xenophobia. There are now foreigners in every town in the country, and every student will grow up knowing at least 12 different foreigners. It's an extremely expensive cultural reform, but I foresee it opening up Korea quite a bit, and Korea has been a rather closed culture. When I left Korea last time, I took a ferry over to China, and the first Chinese person that I spent any time with told me that he thought culturally, "Korea is more [traditional] Chinese than China."

----- What are some of the benefits of teaching overseas as opposed to
teaching in your home country? What are the negative aspects?

This is a huge question. I think most of the benefits come from living abroad, and after that working abroad, the actually teaching abroad, in my opinion, has marginal benefits.

For teaching, that it is easier to get into comes to mind. Anyone with a bachelors degree can get a job in Korea. It is also an easier job for most people, but this is balanced by it being harder to live and work here. The negative aspects of working here are primarily that you might not have much control over your curriculum if you teach in a public school, and you might not have much control over (or ability to communicate with) your students if you teach in a hagwon.

A lot is made about the potential to save money here, and I think it is misunderstood. A typical job here, and this includes probably 95%+ of the jobs here pays between 2.0 - 2.3 million won per month. In addition, your airfare to and from Korea is taken care of and apartment (minus utilities) is furnished and paid for. Income tax is much more progressively structured in Korea than in the US, so at these income levels, the tax rate is 3.3%, and in public schools there is a two-year exemption from even that. Health care is socialized and costs about 50,000 won/month for coverage and makes visits to the doctor/dentist/pharmacy extremely cheap. Add to that the fact that, outside of Seoul, there isn't a lot for foreigners to spend money on. Restaurants are cheap, public transportation is excellent, and most of us don't want to accumulate much stuff, because we have to get rid of it or find a way to get it home in a year or two, and desirable entertainment options are scarce. So, 2.2 million won isn't that much money (about $1600 right now) for a month's work, but some expenses are covered by employer, some are minimized by the policies of the Korean Government, and others just aren't present here.

The benefits of living and working abroad are significant, and I think under appreciated and misunderstood. Much has been made of President Obama having lived in many different cultures and his penchant for surrounding himself with advisors that have also lived in other cultures. People that have left their home for an extend period of time develop a different way of looking at the world. I think this comes from having the beliefs that are operant in your home society (which we don't notice because they are omnipresent) challenged. That leads people to have more nuanced perspectives that are less based on the beliefs that are instilled by our culture's stories. Leaving the culture you were raised in, even temporarily, is -- must be -- an eye opening experience. A friend asked me recently what made me come back to Korea when I had many grievances about my first year here. I told him that I felt like a transformation had started in my first year that I needed to continue and couldn't at home -- that by removing myself from the shared beliefs, common assumptions and homogeny of the society I grew up in, I was forced to look more closely at the people and events around me and deliver my own conclusions, because I couldn't rest on the beliefs I had picked up by osmosis at home. I also had to redefine myself, because those around me didn't see me through the same cultural lens I had always been seen. Those processes are extremely trying, and I think they are generates the culture shock that emerges after a few months of living in a foreign culture. Really living in a foreign culture is probably the only way to experience it. When one travels, one is not immersed in a culture the same way one is when they are, for example, working in a foreign culture. So that's a benefit and a negative aspect. I believe it is hugely important, and it's why I am here now in spite of the intense frustration and frequent loneliness. Well, that and student loans. And the food. And the proximity to Southeast Asia.

One last thing I'll mention is a certain sense of freedom that comes with living here. I think it is related to the redefinition I just wrote about at length, in that it comes from a lack of understanding between you and those around you, which comes from a lack of shared cultural stories/assumptions. But knowing that no one really gets you, and no one can, is frighteningly liberating. And not understanding what that 15 year old is talking about on her cellphone can be pretty nice too.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Teaching in Korea FAQ

In my ongoing efforts to help people decide if teaching English in Korea is right for them, I thought I would post my responses to some questions I got from a friend of a friend who is thinking about making the move to Korea. I hope this helps. If there are any questions you think should be added to the list, let me know.

1. How did you apply for the position?

Through a recruiter. It is possible to apply to public school jobs directly, but there isn't any advantage to doing it that way, and it's more difficult and you have one less person in your corner should any issues come up. You could also come here to look for work... I think that makes the most sense for those with experience who are trying to land a highly competitive position, such as a university gig. One of the greatest benefits to starting in Korea is that everything is taken care of for you.... the recruiter will find you positions (for free, they're paid by the school), help you get everything in order for your visa and such, and then you'll be set up with a ticket (or airfare) and when you get here you'll have an apartment waiting for you. I can't imagine landing in Taiwan or Vietnam and trying to find a place to live at the same time as all the other new-arrival stuff.

2. Are you TESL/TEFLO certified?

No, and there's no need to be in Korea. For those who think Korea is a good fit, I would suggest starting here without it, and if after a year or two hear, you decide you want to stick with TEFL and possibly move somewhere where the certification is more important (particularly in the Middle East and a few particular Asian countries), then look into that.

3. How long did it take you from the begginning of your application process till ending up in Korea?

I started in May-ish, knowing that I wanted to come at the begining of the semester Sept. 1. One guy in my town did the whole thing in a couple weeks, but that's definitely on the fast end. The new school year just started last week.... there are always positions available, in public and private schools, but the big hiring pushes are for 3/1 and 9/1... I'd suggest starting several months before you want to come.

4. Is it easy to transfer teachig positions throughout Korea/Asia/World

I'm not sure what you mean by transfer. Korea runs almost 100% on 1-year contracts. One downside to Korea is that visas are non-transferable, so if you don't finish your contract, you have to get a release from your employer and go through the whole visa process again with your new employer. My understanding is that in Japan, for example, the visa is transferable. If you mean at the end of the contract, it's certainly easy to transfer within Korea... a year of experience here is a big plus because employers know you know what you're in for and that you can handle it. I imagine that's true with employers in other countries too. Two years experience and/or TEFL seems to be a commonly listed necessary experience for some of the more desireable jobs I've seen.

5. How hard is it to adapt socially (i.e. nightlife, dating,)

This is a huge question, and there are a lot of variables, most importantly you. I would suggest reading blogs of English teachers here... that's a nice window. Mine is at I'll probably refer you to a couple specific posts at some point.

In sum, Korea is not an easy place to adapt to. It is probably one of the lesser foreigner-friendly places on the planet. I have friends that have married into Korean families and are happy and plan to spend the rest of their lives here. But I know a lot more people that have come, foudn it very difficult, and are anxious to get out at the end of their contract. I think much of that is culture shock... the experience of living and working in a foreign culture after the novelty has worn off, and I do hear similar complaints from teachers in Japan and Thailand, but I'm not sure they are as ubiquitous or as strong as they are here.

If nightlife and dating are real concerns for you, I would suggest Seoul, or possibly Busan. Seoul is one of the biggest cities in the world, and you can find just about anything there, though I have never heard it refered to as cosmopolitan. Busan is a city of something like 3 million... I lived there for a year and quite liked it... it's on the beach and has a more moderate climate and a less hectic feel than Seoul, but also many many less foreigners and services for foreigners. Now I'm in a tiny town on the east coast, far from everything and very isolated. I took the job largely for the 5 week vacation, but it makes the other 47 weeks pretty tough, and I'm someone who likes a lot of time to himself for reading, guitar, exercise, etc.. Again, search for blogs of folks teaching in Seoul, Busan and other random places... the differences will be obvious.

6. What happens if i get sick/injured?

Korea has wonderful socialized medicine. About 50,000 won (~$30) of your monthly paycheck gets you medical care at prices you won't believe ($2 for a dentist visit, $.85 for a perscription fill, $300 for a crown treatment). Many doctors are trained at US medical schools. The bigger the city, the better in terms of quality of care and availability of ENglish speakers.

7. Have you been able to save money fairly easy?

Yes. This is the other advantage to living in the sticks... there's nothing to spend money on! Unfortunately, over the last six months, the exchange rate has moved massively against those of us saving won to convert to dollars (~40%). It hasn't affected prices here much, but it sucks when you transfer money home. Still, I will bank 5-figures this year, and that's with a 3-week trip to Thailand, buying the nicest food I can find and taking regular trips around the country. I don't, however, drink or smoke or eat meat, so I save money on all of those. The maxim is that you should be able to save half of your salary without trying. I save around 70%. When thinking about savings, don't forget that at the end of your contract you effectively get 2 months extra pay - one called severence and one from a pension.

8. How much stuff did you bring to Korea?

I brought the two largest suitcases I could get my hands on, and packed things like Clif bars, books, and a tennis racket. My parents send me a package every few months with my favorite foods and toiletries, which helps a lot.

9. have you picked up much of the language since your inception?

No, and most people don't, but that's stupid. Korean is one of the hardest languages for an English speaker to learn, but it can be done. Especially in Seoul, if you really wanted to commit to it, there are hagwons (a hagwon is like a tutoring center, they offer after school classes to students, especially in English, and employ most of the foreigners here) that teach Korean to foreigners.... If there were one here, I would do it. I have enough of the language to get around, but embarrassingly little for having lived 18 months here. I bought some books before coming and while here, but just haven't dug into it. I've heard people talk about acquiring languages like Hindi and Italian in less than a year because they loved the culture and always wanted to be immersed in it. I think the converse explains why most of us don't make much of an effort at Korean.

So there are some thoughts. Here are a few blog entries that might be valuable to consider:

several videos, if you want to get an idea of what life looks like in Korea.

differences between hagwon and public school teaching

general thoughts about being and teaching here. be sure to check out the comments section, as there are lots of valuable insights from readers there.

I hope all that helps. If it brings up any more questions, feel free to ask. If you decide you want to come, my recruiter was great before we got here, and in helping us when we needed to move. I'd be happy to set you up with them (I get a little kick-back if you end up signing on.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

First Cherry Blossoms of the Year!

The cherry blossoms have arrived! We went up to Donghae last weekend and saw a few trees starting bloom next to the sea, up the road from E-Mart. I'm glad, and surprised, Melanie got to see them before she goes home next week.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hwanseongul... the 2nd Largest Limestone Cave in Asia

I figure it's time to start blogging again since I've been back from vacation for two weeks and have had the same post up here for over a month now. Actually, I kept it up because it turned into a great discussion of what prospective teachers in Gangwon-do's EPIK program can expect.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, Tom Cruise, our favorite of all the teachers at our school, invited us to go with him to Hwanseon Cave. Hwanseongul is the closest thing we have to a tourist attraction out here near Dogye, and as one of the largest caves in Asia, it's a pretty decent draw. Scientists have mapped out over 6km of it, and there's still more they haven't gotten to. All of the large caverns are accessible to tourists, and for scope, if nothing else, it was quite impressive.

The hike up to the entrance is only 1.6km long, but at an average grade of over 15%, it was trying (and tough on the knees on the way down). This whole area is quite beautiful, and the valley the cave is situated in is a nice example of that. Here's Melanie posing in front of a waterfall on the way up:

The beauty of the hike was tempered by awful music being played at stupidly-loud volume all the way up. Here's a little sample... try to catch the lyrics. ;)


I guess the water flowing into the cave is flowing too fast for stalactites and stalagmites to form, so instead there are lots of "flowstones," which look largely like curtains. Here's nice formation that was called something like "Shapely Woman Flowstone:"

And another one that was supposed to look like a statue of the Virgin Mary. I thought the semblance was striking.

Here's a picture of Melanie and I in front of one of the myriad caverns:

And a heart-shaped formation that made for an awkward moment. Melanie is leaving next week; we've decided to go our separate ways. But when we came to this formation Tom Cruise said he would take a picture of us in front of the heart because "Michael and Melanie love forever."

Melanie really wanted a picture with Tom Cruise, but thought it might be awkward to ask for it. So instead, she told me to point the camera at them with the flash ready, and she would get him to smile for the camera. And it worked:

All of the formations and constructions had names like "Melting Turtle" and "Palace of Dream." There were also two bridges, "Bridge of Heaven" and this one:

The "Bridge of Hell" was actually really wobbly, and quite scary with a many-hundred foot drop beneath it. Beneath that was a water pool so deep scientists haven't been able to determine its depth. Scary, but well worth the fear to be rid of our sins.

And finally, back down near the start of the hike:

The rock pinnacle in the upper-left corner of that last picture shows how dramatic the mountains can be around here. Many, if not most, are unclimbable (for me at least) because they're too steep to be hiked and too covered in dirt and trees to be climbed. Awfully good for looking at though.

It was well worth our time to visit the cave, mostly since it's less than half an hour away. We had a good time with Tom Cruise, who has decided to quit the teaching job that's obviously been making him unhappy for the last fifteen years to "follow his dream." He's a smart, caring guy, and we sure wish him luck in finding it. Thanks Tom Cruise, for being our one friend at Dogye Elementary School.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Teaching and Living in Korea, Gangwon-do Public School and Busan Hagwon

After a year of teaching EFL in a Hagwon and a semester of teaching English in a public school in Gangwon-do, here are my thoughts on teaching English in Korea in general, and about the differences between the public school gig and the hagwon gig. I hope it will be helpful to those that are thinking about coming to Korea to teach English.

Before I get into it, I want to preface this by saying that real culture shock, in my experience and the experience of my friends that have lived in Korea and other foreign cultures, sets in around the three to four month mark. It is characterized by disdain for the local culture, frustration with other aspects of one's life, and a strong desire to escape the “shocking” culture. For more on culture shock, check out this post from about a month ago. I have been here about four and a half months, and I feel like I'm on the tail end of what has been a fairly severe culture shock. Just wanted to throw that in for completeness, for those readers contemplating coming to Korea, or to Gangwon-do to teach for EPIK in a public school.

Living in Korea

Korea is not particularly hospitable to foreigners. There is a lot of kindness in the Korean people as a whole, but there is more xenophobia (fear of foreigners). There is a historical reason for this: the Korean people have, throughout their history, had to fight off invading forces – Japanese, Mongol, Chinese, etc. The result is a people that are very insular and distrusting if not downright disrespectful toward foreigners. Of course there are exceptions – I've had friends (male and female) marry into Korean families and be, to varying degrees, accepted by the culture. There are also some teachers that come here for a year and enjoy the time they spend with Korean people. But the vast majority of foreigners I've talked to and emailed with feel isolated and disliked by Koreans and look forward to the day they get to go home or to another culture.

What is the difference between those who have a great time here and those who can't wait to leave? I've thought about this a lot, and I think I have some insight into the personalities that fit best and worst here.

Those that have the hardest time here are typically:

- Female – sorry ladies, but this is a culture of and for men. I've known a lot of strong women who have had a very hard time here. The disrespect I experience is multiplied several times over for women. I suspect beautiful women have it easier than others, with blond hair and thinness being primary qualities of beauty here. Also women that are okay with being less involved in conversations, decision making and the like will do better.

Those who have the best time here are typically:

- Drinkers/Smokers/Red Meat Eaters – I am none of these things, and that has proved hard. Had I come here just out of college, I would have been going to the bars and cook-your-own-meat-at-the-table restaurants with other teachers from my school three times a week, getting drunk and smoking cigarettes with them and building social bonds through that. This seems to be the primary social opportunity here. Of the people I've met that are happy in Korea and plan to stay, nearly 100% have enjoyed regularly consuming at least 2 of these 3 things.

The other big difference I see between those who are happy here and those who are not is sensitivity. Korea is not a place for sensitive westerners. Expressions of appreciation are few and far between and ostricization – most often expressed non-verbally – is constant. On the streets, smells of sewage hit you like a truck every couple of minutes. Buildings are aesthetically devoid and covered in advertisements, and loud noises are constant. Those who set their own emotional state, or who are relatively constant in their feelings, regardless of their surroundings, can do very well here, but this is not the place for those who are sensitive to their environment and the way they are received by the people they work with.

Teaching English in Korea

Public Schools

In public schools, foreigners are hired as assistant teachers, and we are more assistant than teacher. For the fall semester, which we've just finished, I had three co-teachers that I worked with at my primary school. With one of them, I taught eight hours a week (actually eight, forty minute classes) of sixth grade, for which I prepared one, forty minute lesson and usually got to deliver it to both sixth grade classes. Sometimes my lesson plans ended up in the trash because something took precedence – a special event or falling behind schedule or the children misbehaving and the teacher needing to take thirty minutes to yell at them (no kidding, that happened several times). With my two fifth grade teachers, with each of whom I taught four hours a week, I simply sat next to the desk while they taught. Sometimes I would be asked to speak words or phrases for the students to mimic the correct pronunciation; sometimes I would sit silently and do nothing for the entire class. Of the three teachers, one would consistently offer me his comfy teacher's chair; for the other two, I would sit in a fifth-grade-student-sized wooden chair.

That was the bulk of the semester. For winter vacation the students and most of the teachers get six weeks off. We get three (I'm leaving for Thailand tomorrow!), and run “winter camps” for the other three. Winter camps were hard, but rewarding. For one week, we had a budget, two Korean teachers who actually helped us and seven hours a day to do whatever we wanted with the kids. That was great, but very demanding. For the other two weeks, we had three hours a day with the kids, with no budget and no Korean teacher to translate or help us control the students. That was more difficult, but we got to go home at 12:30 everyday, which is nice. Summer vacation will probably be similar, except that it's a bit longer, and our vacation is shorter (two weeks), so there will probably be more camp and special education activities.

Our situation here isn't exceptional, but it isn't universal either. Some teachers have much better rapport with their schools. I think this is mostly just a crap shoot. One couple hasn't had to go into school at all over vacation and is teaching a winter camp after the spring semester starts. Lucky them. Where we are (in Samcheok County), situations like ours seem more common, but I think this county might be particularly tough on its foreign teachers.


In 2005 – 2006, I taught in a hagwon (a private after-school academy) in Busan. That teaching was very different than what I'm doing now. Much has been written on the internet about the hagwon-teaching experience, so I'll be brief. It was extremely tiring to teach without a Korean to translate for me, but on the other hand, I got to design my lessons and could teach anything I wanted. I taught six, fifty-minute classes a day, as opposed to four, forty-minute classes a day in my public school. Every day I would step outside between classes and think, “I can't do this any more, I've got to get out of here.” But I did do it, and so do lots of other people. I was always scared that my boss was going to cheat me out of money, but in the end he ended up paying me all I was owed, within a couple hundred dollars anyway. I suspect if he had sensed he could have pushed me around more, he would have. There were two big upsides to the hagwon gig: the hours – 3:30 to 10:30pm with an hour to go home for dinner beats the pants off 9-5 with lunch in the school cafeteria in my book. The other biggie is that you know exactly where you're going before you get on that plane. With the public schools, you typically know only the province you're going to before you leave home. We got massively unlucky in this regard, as we came to Gangwon-do, the mountainous, rural province the northeast corner of South Korea and ended up in one of the last remaining coal mining towns in the country. With a hagwon, not only do you know where you're going, but you can find out the details of who you'll be working with, how far your apartment is from your school (in my hagwon, I was a three minute walk away, in our public school we were initially placed a $3, forty-minute bus ride away), and even what your apartment looks like. Here as everywhere, the devil is in the details, and before you sign up with a hagwon, you can know a lot more of the details than with the public schools.


I would recommend teaching English in Korea primarily to guys strait out of college. If you want to do something interesting for a year or two, save a ton of money and put an interesting item on your resume, this can be a very good gig. If you want to go to the bars most nights, and would enjoy cooking beef at your table, you might even fit in with some of the people you work with. And of course there's travel – most people experience major personal growth while living here, and the opportunities for travel (either on vacations if you go with Gangwon-do public schools, or afterward if you don't have as much vacation) are second to none.

If I were doing it again, I would go with the public school over the hagwon – it's a ton less stress, but I would try to come at an off time (not 3/1 or 9/1), and I would want to know exactly where I was going to be placed before I signed anything. I would also make a huge effort to build report with the teachers and administrators in my school in the first weeks.

If you're interested in teaching in the public schools, we came with a recruiter, Jen, who did an excellent job of answering our questions before we came, and of representing us through our battle with the authorities to move closer to our school. If you'd like to get in tough with her, send me an email – mlevy79 (at) gmail (dot) com, and I'll put you in touch with her.

Whatever you decide to do, good luck, and if you do come to Korea, let me know how it goes.


Be sure to check out the comments below -- there is a lot of insight there from other westerners that are teaching here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Seoul Trip II

Last week we had Thursday and Friday off, so after a day of recovery from teaching English Camp, we went to Seoul on Friday for 3 days of recovery from living in small town Korea for months on end.

One of the coolest things we did was visiting Inwangsan - a shamanistic temple right in the middle of the city. The indigenous religion here, as I understand it, weaves together Buddhism, Shammanism, and ancestor-worship. I love the religion-customized for a people and place, and it creates unique sights like this temple where there are Buddhas carved into rock faces, families making offerings to ancestors and hundreds of scattered shrines around the grounds.

The pidgins at this temple were well fed with white rice, and their population reflected it!

Here are a few of them taking flight above the temple and above the city. Magical place for a temple, above and amidst the third largest city in the world.

These naturally formed shapes in this rock are supposed to resemble human figures. It was at least a bit spooky, and a major worship site immediately in front of the rocks.

In some cultures, you might think, "Weird, that a fifty-year-old woman is hula hooping in a shamanistic temple." But in Korea those are just as natural together as kimchi and chocolate.

The two of us, happy to be out hiking on a trip to a city.

A Buddha carving in a rock wall.

Of course, any trip to a major city is as much about food for me as anything else, and this trip was no exception. We stumbled upon this burrito shop totally by chance - the only authentic burrito I've had in Korea, and for like 8,000 won (US$6) with guacamole! To get there exit subway line 1 at Jonggak, exit 6 and go strait until you find Tomatillo, next to an Au Bon Pain.

Later we climbed Mt. Namsan, which is also right in the middle of Seoul and also provided some great views.

Kids chasing birds - cute in any culture.

I got some cotton candy for all the hiking...

...but decided to skip the spawn potage dinner on offer in Insadong.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Cheap Tickets to Thailand!

We just booked tickets to Thailand for Jan. - Feb. for 580,000 won (US$460), and we should get some (about 80k) back based on taxes going down in the new year (see edit below). Amy at Shoestring travel hooked us up: emlee(at) or 82-(0)2-333-4151. With the political instability in Thailand, we've been waiting for prices like these for a while. Glad they finally manifested.

Now I just have to keep telling myself: It will be 80 degrees and I'll be on the beach with delicious food in two weeks.

The final price of our tickets were 483,800 won ($369) each. That's awesome.