Friday, January 07, 2011

Should I go to Korea?

This is a question I have been asked a lot in the last year or so. So I have decided to write up a document which I can send to multiple people to answer some of the usual questions about going to teach English in Korea.

So when people think of going to teach in Korea I think it’s generally for two reasons: money and adventure. And you’ll get plenty of both!

Let me address the money matter first. When we were there we earned around R14 000 a month (tax free for the first two years). It all depends on the exchange rate, but that gives you a rough idea. For example, at the moment an entry-level salary at a provincial public school in Korea is 2 100 000 Won which is around R12 800. If you work for the public school system in Korea (as opposed to private education academies called ‘Hagwon’ in Korea) you are guaranteed a return plane ticket home and accommodation costs will all be fully covered. I will discuss the pros and cons of public vs. private a bit later.

If you want to save money you can easily ‘send home’ around half your salary per month. Over the two years I was there I paid off most of my student loan – approximately R120 000 (that works out at around R5000 per month). This was pretty easy, I didn’t have to live an all too frugal life and I had enough money to travel internationally in all my long vacations: I went on budget backpacker trips to the Philippines, Cambodia, China, Mongolia and Russia. In addition we travelled around Korea a lot – we were out of our small town almost every weekend. So you can save a lot of money in Korea. You could save more than I did if you were more careful with spending i.e. eating only local food, not travelling as much etc.

Compared to pay in Taiwan and Japan (this is word of mouth), Korea pays best. The cost of living is slightly higher than in SA, but the salary is more than sufficient to cover that. Japan has much higher living expenses and salaries in Taiwan are slightly lower - from what I have heard.

As for adventure, well there’s plenty of it to be had as a teacher in Korea: at times too much. Teaching English in Korea is a huge challenge: you will be frustrated by the way Korean people and Korean beaurocracy do things almost on a daily basis. The Asian approach is incredibly different to the western approach: in almost every aspect of life. You will learn how to cope with this eventually but it is something which all westerners working in Korea struggle with a lot. Be prepared to be very frustrated. The best advice is to ‘go with the flow’ and just accept that things are done differently but that is something that just comes with time. And remember you’re earning good money.

Working in Korea is an opportunity to explore and get to know an entirely different culture. It is clichéd, but clichés are usually true: you WILL get to know Korean culture very well: the good and the bad. Koreans are incredibly kind, generous and hospitable people. They are proud of their country and their culture, and many go out of their way to ensure that we have a good time there. You will have an amazing culinary experience too: most Korean food is excellent – some is strange and seems unpalatable but your senses will have a feast! Koreans drink a lot too, so be prepared to be coerced into a lot of soju and beer consumption :)

Korean students are generally well-behaved. It takes a while to get used to teaching them – they are intimidated and often scared of foreigners so it takes time to win them over and get them to warm to you. But you will soon find out what makes them laugh and how to get their attention. They are a pleasure to teach – mostly. As in any classroom there are a few ‘rotten eggs’ but the good eggs more than make up for them.

I really miss my students so much: they are the sunshine in a sometimes frustrating and exhausting job. It’s for them that I did it and giving to them makes them give back tenfold. If you make an effort to prepare fun, relevant and stimulating materials and activities they will reward you with their special smiles, enthusiasm and love. They are really affectionate and it always amazed me how much warmth and love they had for me despite how very worn-out they were from working so hard. Most Korean students over the age of 12 have a 12-14 hour school day. It is intense, but despite that, after the first 6 months of hit and misses, my classes were almost always fun and the students did their best to participate.

Private or public school? This is an important question. I worked for a public school i.e. I was a government employee. Foreign teachers in the public school system are administrated by an organisation called EPIK: English Program in Korea ( If you are employed by EPIK you will not have any major hitches. You may have small problems with your school like discrepancies about vacation dates, housing etc. BUT in the greater scheme of things you will not be messed around. You will be paid regularly and correctly, you will be on national health insurance and pay a pension, you will be provided with housing and you will be guaranteed a return air ticket. It’s a sure thing.

This is not the same when working for a Hagwon (private education academy run as a business). The horror stories one hears of teachers not being paid, having no health insurance, being fired for no reason etc. etc. are all from the Hagwons (this applied to Korea as well as Japan, Taiwan etc.) Not all Hagwons are bad, in fact the majority of people I knew in Korea working for Hagwons had no problems at all, but there is always the chance that something could go wrong, so I always recommend people to apply for public school jobs with EPIK.

Placing – whether you choose to live in a city or in a rural area is also an important question to consider when applying to teach in Korea. The pay in the provincial i.e. rural areas is slightly higher. I suppose this is an incentive to entice foreigners into rural areas as life in cities is a lot easier for expats. The other advantage of working provincially is that life is generally cheaper – most people I know working in provincial areas can walk/bike to school and that saves on costs. There is a lot less ‘on offer’ provincially for foreigners and so one does end up spending less money. For example if you lived in a city and you craved decent pizza you could easily head off to Pizza Hut or whatever. There are obviously a lot more amenities in the city and that always increases living costs.

However, if you really want to have a lot of parties, have access to western food, English bookstores etc, then the city is better. There are always a lot more foreigners in the cities and it is a lot easier to meet people, to get around etc. Life in the provincial areas is harder: no-one speaks English (sometimes it’s even difficult to communicate with English teachers) and there are a lot less foreigners to connect with (although this is changing fast as Korea spends more and more on employing foreign teachers). Rural people are still not accustomed to foreigners and you will be stared at and watched s lot. That is a fact of rural life everywhere though. Conversely, you will learn so much more about Korean culture and people living in the provincial areas. You will meet warmer, friendlier people and feel more part of a community. It’s up to you where your priorities lie.

When applying for EPIK you will be asked whether you want to have a city or provincial job so bear this in mind.

I have done my best to address some of the most common questions I am asked by people interested in teaching in Korea. In conclusion I always say: go for it!

It is an incredibly challenging experience but you will grow so much as a person. You will learn so much about yourself, your priorities and what you want in life. Living in Korea will open your mind to a whole new way of seeing things – will make you realise how huge and diverse the world is. It’s an incredible opportunity and we as English-speaking, well-educated South Africans are truly fortunate to have such an opportunity.

So… once you’ve decided you want to go, how should you apply?

Here are some ideas:

We went over with an agency called Teach Korea. They are based in Cape Town and are pretty good. I have heard though that lately they have been pretty bad about not communicating with clients and keeping people waiting. I think it's because they just take on too many clients. Anyway, the one main advantage with them is that they are South African and can help with visas, education dept. docs etc. and they know the system here very well - I'd say that 99% of the time they get people there but you'll probably tear your hair out waiting and hoping it all works out.
So try - we dealt with the owner Cliff.

Alternative 2 is that you contact Footprints Recruiting. They are a Canadian company but I have heard of quite a few South Africans who have successfully gone through them. The problem is that you’ll have to make a few international calls and that they may not be much help with local government departments with respect to documents etc. But give them a try:

The third option is to go through the Korean government English teaching programme directly. It's called EPIK and if you apply for public school jobs through Teach Korea or Footprints you will end up working through EPIK anyway. The hard part of doing it direct through them is that you have to deal with visas, education dept etc on your own which takes a bit more guts and perseverance. But it is possible.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jeju for the Summer!

After much deliberating we finally decided to got to Jeju island for a few days over the summer vacation. This was quite a tough decision as we've been trying to save as much money as possible since we're going on the Trans-mongolian train in October and that's going to cost us a packet. But weeks of of spending our summer days in air-conditioned rooms made me decide we HAD TO get out ad at least try to spend some time outdoors and see the sun - in a place where we would at least be able to swim to cool down. Plus just getting out of Sangju for a few days would do us a world of good! We were also really lucky in that out friends, James and Barbara, who live and teach on Jeju, offered us their flat for the 4-5 days we were there - this was the final thing which made us decide to go.

Jeju is the largest Korean island - it is the NUMBER ONE holiday destination for almost every Korean person. Most Koreans would probbaly rather visit Jeju than an international destination - it has some 'nicknames' e.g. "The Hawaii of Korea" etc which demonstrate its popularity. It is indeed a beautiful island - but to be fair, one cannot really compare it to Hawaii or other tropical island paradises. It is more tropical than the mainland, has milder winters and a very green and pretty landscape. Jeju has grown into a veritable 'Tourist island' for Koreans - I would hazard a guess that about 80% of the islands' revenue comes from tourism: it is littered with hotels, guesthouses and tourist attractions: some natural but mostly man-made and uniquely suited to Korean tourists: Museums, shows, museums, parks, museums, art galleries, museums, etc etc. You get the idea - the 'places to visit and things to do' list one could make for Jeju would make a fat book.

Jules and I avoided all those commercialised not-so-relaxing options and just CHILLED. The weather helped a lot - we had 3 almost solid days of rain and drizzle which meant we stayed holed up in James and Barbara's apartment reading, watching movies and just chilling. The rainy-beach-holiday kind of vibe that is so good for the soul. We had really hoped to do some diving on Jeju, but alas, the weather was awful and the sea in no state for us to immerse ourselves in it.

We did, however climb Mount Halla - South Korea's highest mountain and an ancient volcanic crater. Climbing Mount Halla (Hallasan in Korean) is a bit of a pilgrimage for most Koreans - living in such a mountainous country, Koreans have a strong, often spiritual, connection to mountains. Mt. Baekdu is the highest mountain in the Korean peninsula but is now pretty much inaccessible to all South Koreans as it is in North Korea, and so they all want to climb Mount Halla - which comes a measly second. It isn't very high at all (1950m) - compared to the 2744 m of Baekdusan, and is easily climbed in a day, as long as one is moderately fit. So, we climbed with with hundreds of other people! The climb up and down took us about 9 hours - it is quite steep, and is about 19km in total. Almost a third of the climb is on boardwalks or stairs which makes it much easier than it would be otherwise. It's an interesting mountain to climb - it has 4 distinct vegetation strata and the geology is very different to all the other mountains we've climbed on the mainland. I really enjoyed the climb - it was quite misty at the top so we couldn't see the sea which one usually can but nonetheless the view was pretty awesome - there is a beautiful clear crater lake in the top of the mountain and the base of the crater is so green!

On our other 'sun-day' we went to a Herb Farm - Jeju Herb Dongsa (yup, one 'tourist' trap which caught us!) where we ate giant plate-sized hamburgers (actually just a giant round ham sandwich) and enjoyed walking around the pretty gardens and taking pictures. In the afternoon we headed down to Pyoseon beach - I was really keen to swim, and I did take a dip, but the lifeguards were overbearing and I was just not ready to srum it in the tiny 'safe swimming' zone into which everyone was jammed so we just lay on the grassy banks above the beach and relaxed.

We also managed to meet up with some friends from the mainland (Joe, Clint and Natalie) and had a meal of traditional Jeju island black pork together - turns out it wasn't 100% good pork as 3 out of 5 of us had an awful bout of food poisoning within 48 hours of consuming the damn pig! Below are some photos of our Jeju holiday. I'm so glad we went - it really was relaxing and great to just have a change of scenery and be on holiday!

We travelled the cheap way to Jeju - by train from Sangju to Mokpo which took about 6 hours, and then another 5 hours by ferry from Mokpo to Jeju. A bit tiring but we had time on our side so it wasn't too bad.

We travelled 'stowage class' on the ferry - all in a big room together!

On the way there we were in a slightly smaller room - 30 people.

Fish trays in Mokpo

Boats in the afternoon - Mokpo city.

Cicadas in the garden at the herb farm - wow, there were so many of them, and also so many beautiful butterflies!

Chair swing! So Romaaaantic - typical Jeju!

Our black pig dinner...

Seogwipo Harbour on Jeju.

Kids playing, yes, really PLAYING, in a small tidal pool in Seogwipo.

We weren't the only ones hiking to the top of Mount Halla!

The crater lake on Hallasan. So pretty!


Some mossy forest - this bit was very moist with water oozing out of the ground.

Drier pine forests lower down the mountain.

Our route up the mountain - as everything in Korea is - very controlled and orderly. No alternate routes, just straight to the top!

Strange conifers near the top of the mountain.

Broad-leaf forest similar to that which we see a lot of on the Korean mainland.

On the way down.

Hallasan Nabi!
(Nabi=Butterfly in Korean)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Let's build a jungle gym!

Sometime during our stay in Korea, Jules and I decided to start collecting money for a good cause.
This came about as a result of us hosting a number of braais in Sangju for other foreigners and friends, and we realised that this could be a good way for us to raise money - and all the effort that went into organising a braai for 20+ people would be extra rewarding. I think here credit to Julian is due - he is the 'ideas man' in this team!

So we've had two successful fundraiser braais in the last 6 months, and one successful pancake fundraiser. To keep track of our progress and let people 'see where their money is going' we've started a blog, so have a look at for more details.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


My attitude towards Korea stinks. This has been bothering me for a few weeks now.

When I go back to school after the vacation I will have less than two months left - there will be many people asking "will you miss Korea?" "are you sad about leaving?" "Will you come back to Korea?" etc. This started before the vacation and even then I was finding it hard not to be too honest: I don't think I will miss Korea. I will miss some individual people I have met and built friendships with (Koreans and fellow foreigners). I will miss some of my more special students and the feeling of affection and warmth I feel from many of them. I will miss the financial and travel freedom and safety I have felt whilst here. But I won't miss Korea. And now, when the questions start I think I am just going to be honest. "I am ready to go home". "I am tired of being a foreigner in another country." "I probably won't miss Korea very much." "In fact...I can't wait to leave!!!" urgh. They won't like hearing that. Koreans themselves are good at sugar-coating the truth, beating around the bush, not being direct and honest. The harsh truth might be a shock to them. They will likely feel offended. But I have had enough.

I can't even seem to get myself to enjoy Korean food anymore: I avoid Korean restaurants. More and more we eat Pizza rather than healthier, cheaper Korean food which is more readily available. More and more, Korean people annoy me. Little things, big things. Spitting snorting, sucking teeth to clean them whilst sitting on a train, staring at me, staring at us, staring at our food, asking 'what are you eating?', bumping into me, pushing in front of me in a queue, old people pushing young people around and so on and so on. I am just in a downward spiral of seeing only the negative.

Also the negatives in society in general: women obsessed with their appearance and constantly checking their make up in hand mirrors: in restaurants, on trains, on busses, waiting for trains, waiting for busses, on top of Mountains: after hiking all the way to the top of Mt. Halla, Korea's highest, for goodness sake!

The way the Korean government is pushing ahead with the hugely destructive "4 rivers project": it's clothed in words like 'ecological restoration' but in fact it is a huge, economically-driven project to deepen Korea's 4 biggest rivers to enable more ship transport across the country. Trucks are working 24 hours a day to dredge as much sand out of the rivers before environmental groups or cival society realise what's going on. Urgh. I have walked past some of the construction trucks parked in Sangju, and for the first time in my life been genuinely tempted to sabotage something: it would be so easy to shove a kitchen knife into the tyres. It would slow down the destruction a tiny bit and annoy them project managers quite a bit more...

The way kids just have to study study study. The way mothers just have to take care of their families an have no time to relax. Who does one see when out at night eating and drinking? Korean men. No women. Women have no time to relax and eat and drink they are too busy keeping the home fires burning.

The way some of the brightest and forward thinking students I have met will likely not make it into the leadership positions they deserve and would hold so well. A young girl student of mine writes brilliant, insightful, analytical even critical essays about the Korean government and society, she should become a lawyer and a judge. But she grew up in the countryside and her English is no match for the youth who grew up in Seoul and whose parents have the right money and contacts to get them into the right universities. Sorin will likely not achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer: not because she doesn't have the ability or the drive, but because she was born the wrong sex in the wrong place. Such inequality happens all over the world, but for a country as developed and economically successful as Korea is, such inequalities should not be. For a country that prides itself so much in its success, as a member of the OECD etc.
Then of course there are the old issues of cruelty to animals and gender inequality... Don't get me started!

So feeling so bitter about being here does not sit well with me. I feel I am walking around with a scowl on my face. I am intolerant to any small impolite social interactions which are quite normal: bumping into people in a busy train station, people spitting on the pavement in front of me, men honking loudly and clearing the phlegm from their throats. I am starting to speak English to taxi drivers even though I can converse with them in basic Korean.

I'm not sure why I am feeling overwhelmed by all these negative thoughts. Maybe it's the summer heat and humidity which seems harder to bear than it did last year. Maybe it's that I just need a break. Maybe it's that I am homesick. Maybe it's that I KNOW I am leaving Korea soon and I can let down my guard i.e. I don't have to try so hard anymore to accept and understand this foreign culture an the people. I don't like feeling so negative. Then I think - what kind of experience of culture has this been, if, when i 'let down my guard' i.e. stop trying to accept and understand, I become overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings? Have I been tricking myself into having a good time?

Who knows. This post is a bit rambly, but pretty representative of my state of mind for the last few weeks. I don't mean to offend any Korean people by it. I am just expressing my feelings and trying to understand why I feel like this. Comments are welcome and will likely be helpful :)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Capturing a modern Korean tragedy

Advertising in the subway in Seoul.

Transform yourself.
Become more like a westerner, less like an Asian, less like a Korean.
Bigger eyes, narrower face, gentler brow lines.
The key to success.
Or so it would seem.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dear Teacher ^^

I have started email correspondence with some of my students. This is an email I received from one of my past students. She's studying in Daegu, our nearest big city now.

This kind of REAL English practice is soooo good for them: they hardly ever have to just 'produce' English: written or verbal, and it is such valuable practice. I think they must find it incredibly dificult, but the fact that they try is such a huge step.

These students are such a joy: they are full of life and so natural. They are also so naive, but I love them for it. I will really miss these interactions with them, and hope to keep up some of these precious email connections.

Here's her latest email - enjoy!

Jessica *^^*

At last u send e-mail, I waited u e-mail .

Now u spend summer vacation ?? 17, July summer vacation start, I heared it.

I spened my summer vacation but I'm going to work at professor office. I want to enjoy my vacation.

My professor's visually impaired but I worked cleaned, make a cup of coffee, use computer word and go with my professor . I give help to my professor because my professor's blind so always I give left my arm. Everyday's happy because I service myself. It is related my major.

These section exam's bad. ㅠ,ㅠ I don't study everyday and not review . I'm unhappy about exam degree.

Today's so hot. > , <>

Theseday I'm learn Jazz dance . *^^* Because I lose weight. I want a standard body weight. So I will wear a bikini. ㅋㅋ

U going to swimming pool?? Next, We r going to swimming pool together. *^^* I already excite .~~

Do you wacth '이끼' movie ?? It's very interest. > , <>

I hope to get another email from you again.*^^*

Thursday, June 03, 2010

A muffin

This evening Jules and I went out for dinner to on of our favourite meat restaurants just down the road. We've made a decision to eat a lot less meat this year, and so we haven't been out for a 'meaty dinner' for ages.

The restaurant is quite a popular one, has homely wooden architecture and interior and a nice family vibe. The service is always excellent, as are the samgyeopsal (thick bacon BBQ) and dweji galbi (pork rib BBQ).

Our dinner was yummy as usual, and the service great: the waiter BBQed all the meat for us at our table, and made sure we never ran out of any side dishes: one thing I really appreciate about Korean restaurants. Side dishes are "eat all you can" and in good restaurants your side dishes will never be empty.

The cherry on top, though, was when the owner's daughter came over to our table and brought us a big chocolate muffin! What a darling! She looks about 10 years old, and was a bit shy to speak English (despite her mother and the waiter's encouragement) but bringing us the muffin was brave enough in itself!

Kindness and generosity are two characteristics of Korean people which I will remember for ever. Little incidents like this make me appreciate our experience in Korea all the more, and as we start drawing near to the end of our stay here, I am going to try and make a point of 'capturing' more of them.

Thanks muffin girl!