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.)