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.


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Kat said...

I'm considering a move to Korea - actually, applying to EPIK and trying to work in Gangwon-do. Your blog was an incredibly valuable find, especially this post. Thank you!

Michael Levy said...

Jay, you are welcome to use any content from my blog, but please clearly mark it as being written by Michael Levy, originally appearing at and link back to the original posts here. Let me know what you decide to use!

Kat, thanks a lot. It's always great to hear that people find it helpful. If after reading this you're still thinking about coming to EPIK Gangwon-do, consider contacting my recruiter, Jen at ESL Job Networks. She's been great, and I get a small kickback if you mention that I referred you. Her email is

Shari Sollars said...

Michael, I appreciate your blog alot. funny to find it; I've also seen your youtube videos since I've been googling everything I possibly can about Samcheok.

I'm applying for an EPIK job in Samcheok starting in July at an elementary school. it's been good to read your thoughts on being culture-shocked and homesick since that has been my main concern. do you think it would have been less intense if you lived in Seoul?

Samcheok appeals to me because I am looking for a slower pace of life than what I imagine Seoul to be like. I am 39 and probably have a bit higher standards than college-age kids and I'm bringing my (small) dog with me. I could care less about night life; it's fine on occasion. I am psyched to experience all the quirks of Korean culture, hike, hang out at the beach (just hang out, I don't care about the weather), and finish my master's thesis in my free time. does this sound do-able?

well, if I do end up in Samcheok I will probably hit you up for more advice. and if you're there when I get there I will happily cook you a meal in return. I am a professional chef.


Michael Levy said...

Hi Shari - Samcheok is a great town, I would recommend it. Slower, for sure, and far away from everything. Beautiful with hills and beaches. And the best department store in the region is in town with some key international groceries.

A couple recently left Samcheok Elementary School... if it's that vacancy you'd be filling, it's a good spot. It would mean you'd work in town, so no commute, and they spoke highly of the administration there, which is important.

Do I think culture shock and homesickness would've been less in Seoul? Hmm... perhaps, yeah. There's lots more to get involved with -- Korean classes and other classes in English, meetups with foreigners and more Koreans that speak English, etc., which could take the edge off of homesickness. But you're still working in Korean culture, which is where culture shock really shows itself, and most of your interactions will still be with Koreans, so I don't think you can escape culture shock much.

Seoul is an insane city. Some love it, some hate it. I can tolerate it long enough to pick up some tahini and oatmeal. You said something about wanting some peace and quiet... Seoul is the 3rd largest city in the world, and it feels like a giant factory to me (perhaps producing efficient overdriven workers by the millions?) There are a few dozen foreigners in greater Samcheok, thousands in Seoul. I think if you're not a city person you're not a city person in Korea either. There are certainly disadvantages to being out here, but I wouldn't move to a city for the same job.

Shari Sollars said...

Thanks Michael! Still waiting on a placement; I'll let you know if I end up in your neighborhood!

Jacki said...

Hey, just wanted you to know that I've been following your blog for awhile but you haven't updated too much recently, are you still in samcheok?

We're also in rural Korea, south of Seoul, and I was thinking about going to the east coast later this summer to go to the beach. Would you recommend visiting samcheok? I'm also interested in going to the penis park, if that is also interesting enough. Anything else you would recommend in the region? How's the crowds and weather in July? Thanks

Blean said...

Great and informative post on teaching in Korea. I've tutored a Korean boy here in my place and I actually enjoyed that. I hope to do that again. Hey, these Hawaii Statehood Apparel might interest some of your Korean friends. Thanks.

sam said...

Thank you SO much for your blog. - I just got a letter from EPIK letting me know that I'm being posted in Gangwan-do in September. I was initially a little freaked out because I had requested strictly metropolitan provinces thinking that the cultural adjustment might be easier. Your blog has calmed me down a lot though and I'm really looking forward to my stay!

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

My friend and I will be teaching in South Korea through EPIK. We told Jen from ESL Networks that you referred us to her. Hopefully you'll get compensation for referring us.


Alex said...

Hi, I'm Alex and I teach English in South Korea. Was wondering if you wanted to do some link sharing between blogs?

Let me know!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your post it was extremely help full. I have an interview for Korea tomorrow. I have been abroad before and totally understand culture shock and the readjustment period you are going through. The new self Identity is in fact frighteningly liberating as you don't feel tied down, connected or rooted. This identity is always in flux and will serve you well once you return to your home country as you may be able to function on a higher level than before. As far as foreigners assimilating, I look at "cultural adjustment" as having four states that people experience or identify with. Foreigners abroad can either be adopted foreigners, accepted by the society around them because they think alike but physically look different, mirrored foreigners, someone who looks alike but does not think alike, complete foreigners someone who will not accept cultural norms of the host culture and physically looks different and finally a hidden immigrant usually ex-pats of host country repatriating. I think my point was this sense of identity is very diverse and highly important to develop and craft while abroad. Good luck to you.

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