Korea Sparkling: or On living and working in Seoul

March 30, 2010

Anyone who has read my blog, even a little, knows I love Korea. I love teaching, and I love where I am at now.  I have worked here and left here and come back.  I think Korea is fairly easy to live in, and it suits me well.  I’m always excited when someone I don’t personally know contacts me, and I’m always happy to help someone who wants to teach or who needs some help with living here.

So, I have gotten a comment and a few e-mails asking me about teaching in Korea.  So I thought I’d do a post on the good, the bad, and the really weird about teaching in Korea.   I teach in a public school, so I have a pretty good job. The other options for teaching are hagwans (private academies, usually after school) and universities.  If you don’t have a master’s or PhD, getting a university gig is not easy.  It is possible, especially small colleges outside of the major cities, but you do have to be already here, and have completed at least one 1 year contract.   If you want to teach English as a second language, you have to be from an English-speaking country, (USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, and South Africa)- but at the university level, if you are teaching another subject, you can still get a job teaching ( for example, a lot of IT and computer professors are from India and China.) —  I know that there are people from other countries that actually speak English better than some native speakers, but those are the rules according to Korean Immigration–  although some people do work here illegally, I cannot in good conscience recommend that option. If you have questions on what is legal and what is not,  you can look up your own situation here:  http://www.immigration.go.kr/indeximmeng.html

For hagwon jobs you can go to:  http://www.tefl.com/ or http://www.eslcafe.com/ Hagwons hire all year round, and they are pretty easy jobs to get.  It is a risk, because you never know exactly what you are getting into until you are actually here.  The best you can do is make sure you are doing a lot of research (do take the complaints posted anonymously on the internet with a grain of salt) Talk to the people who are working there now, not just by e-mail, but by phone if you can.  Hagwons have a bad reputation, and some of it is deserved.  Immigration is trying to right some of the wrongs, and they have more protections for foreign workers and organizations like  http://atek.or.kr/ are doing a lot to help foreigners get settled and mediate if there are major problems.

That said, I have had good experiences with the hagwon I worked in when I came back.  I worked for Reading Town in Incheon, and I had a great time.  Hagwons have some advantages– you don’t need a lot of experience, nor do you need an English or education degree. They usually have their own curriculum and books, and you don’t need to know what you are doing to teach a decent class.  The teacher’s guides usually lay everything out for you.  You just follow their program.  Because they hire throughout the year, you usually have other foreigners who you are working with, and they can show you around and help you get the ins and outs of life here.  Hagwons also pay a bit better, but you don’t have as many days off, and they are harder to schedule. A lot of hagwons only have vacation days when the school is closed.

Most of my experience has been with High Schools. I must admit it is the age I like to teach, and also the conditions I like the most.  If you want a public school job outside of Seoul, you should look into EPIK,  English Program In Korea  http://www.teachenglishinasia.net/english-program-in-korea-epik but if you want to teach in Seoul, S.M.O.E, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education  http://english.sen.go.kr/index.jsp is what you are looking for.  Neither will hire directly, you do have to go through a recruiter.  I went through footprints http://www.footprintsrecruiting.com/ and overall, I was very happy with them.  I recommend that you start the application process early, as there are a lot of documents that need to be submitted. The process is not quick.

I think Korea is a great place to live. There are a lot of good things. Seoul is easy to live in, there is great public transportation, and you can find most anything you want or need.  I love the work  I do, and the job itself isn’t that stressful.  Plus you do get some great vacations the 20 days on the contract, plus you anytime the school is closed, and all the major public holidays.  Korea is beautiful, and there are a lot of opportunities to travel within the country.  Seoul to Pusan is only 4 hours on the high-speed train, this weekend I’m going to Jinhae  for the cherry blossom festival through  http://www.meetup.com/ and they have a lot of other activities and group outings going on all the time.  Everything from temple stays to major mountain hikes and climbs.  Korea has skiing and scuba diving, tae kwan do, cycling, dancing, museums, festivals– you would be hard pressed to be bored. (and even in the small towns there is usually a lot to do; I think if you are bored here, it is because you are a boring person, but that is just my opinion)

That said, not everyone shares my opinion on how wonderful Korea is.  It is an adventure, and like all adventures there are usually a few harrowing cliff hangers between the wonderful beginning and the happy ending.  Korea isn’t always so easy to live in, and even though I do have a lot of experience traveling and living abroad, I still sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable.  Korea is in many ways a paradox.  In some ways it embraces technology and the world, and in other ways it wants to be dragged into the global  community kicking and screaming.  It is a very modern place steeped in ancient traditions. The Koreans by and large are kind, friendly, extremely loyal, and genuine.  They can also be stubborn, prickly about their “face”, and they have a very hierarchical  society.

Getting a job in the public school can also be a big risk.  Training is anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks, and then you are sent to a school.  You don’t get to meet your c0-teachers or principal until you get there.  This is very stressful. A lot depends on the school you are assigned. If you get along with everyone, and the school suits you, life is good.  Sometimes that is not always the case.  Part of it is culture shock, part of it is an unwillingness on the new teacher’s part to go with the flow, part of it is that the school really didn’t want a foreign teacher and they don’t want anything to do with her/him, and sometimes it is no one’s fault; the school is good, and the teacher is good, but the chemistry is bad.  Sometimes bad luck happens.

Most foreigners who come to Korea do so because they want to experience an adventure, they are just out of school and want different work experiences than they can get back home, or because the economy is so bad, they think this would be a good place to ride out the storm back home (so to speak)– they are cool, and they are some of the best people to hang out with and do things with. They can also be people you form life long friendships with.  I know I have with more than one other foreign teacher.  But. Some foreigners come here to escape a bad situation at home, or re-invent themselves – this rarely works out well.  Some foreigners come here expecting to live out a James Clavell novel; they want everyone to be dressed in traditional clothes, but think like a modern westerner and they will naturally rise to the  top because of their intrinsic specialness.  This rarely works out well.  Some of the men who come here because they either can’t win a girl back home because of a serious douchebaggery problem or they just want a wife/girlfriend that is subservient. This also rarely works out well.

I am going to assume you are one of the cool foreigners, coming here for all the right reasons, and you have an open mind, and an open heart.  Still, living abroad can be very stressful.  Korean culture is profoundly different from western culture.  Food can be a big problem, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan. It isn’t that Koreans are cruel, they just really don’t get the concept.  You will be eating lunch at your school, and you have to remember that the lunch ladies are cooking for all the students and teachers in the school. They really don’t have time or energy or desire to make a special menu just for you. And that is one thing a lot of foreigners forget. Korea isn’t set up for you. It is set up for Koreans.  “Travelers never think that they are the foreigners.”  ~Mason Cooley

I find that Korea can be overwhelming. It is very crowded, and even in the country there are a lot of people. The subways make you feel like you are suffocating, especially during rush hour.  Just standing on a crowded corner in Hongdae or Myondong, you can be harrowing, you are bumped and shoved, but it isn’t personal. It is just the way it is. I do not recommend going grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday, as it can be claustrophobic.  It is also a male dominated society. Men expect and mostly receive deference in everything. If you are waiting for a cab or bus, a man might just push you out of the way.  Feminism is making inroads, but this is something a lot of foreigners don’t get.. it isn’t your country, and it isn’t  your battle.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t help, but really, how would you feel if someone from another country started tell you how to do things.  I don’t think it is my place to say what needs to be done.  This doesn’t just apply to feminism– across the board, it is advisable to just remember – This isn’t your country and these aren’t your battles. You can offer material support and comfort, but it isn’t your place to tell others how to do things.

It isn’t just food and crowds that make culture shock, there are other stresses as well.  Living abroad can be lonely.  It can be difficult to find people who are similar to you, and like to do the same things you do.  It can be hard to find a balance, because many Koreans haven’t lived abroad, so they really don’t know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, and you don’t want to be that foreigner, the one who doesn’t have any Korean friends.  Koreans value family, and conformity much more than most westerners do, and that can be difficult to understand or deal with. If you are not small, finding clothes that fit can be a real challenge. If you are older, sometimes it seems everyone is either 20 years old, or 80 years old.  If you do decide to come to Korea, you are going to get sick, it seems that the first year you are fighting a cold or suffering from a cold.  The air is dry, so your skin is dry. Really dry.

It is easy to get into a negative space, and just focus on all that is wrong or different or bad.  But overall, I think Korea is awesome, and I have had a wonderful time here.  I have done things I never would have dreamed I would be able to do here.  There are so many wonderful experiences I’ve had here.  I’ve had people go out of their way to help me more often than not, and most of the people I’ve met, both foreign and Korean, are truly amazing. And I quite like the food. (although it does help to have a very open mind)  Many people come for one year, and stay for much longer.  Many people go back and return often.   It isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding.

I hope this helps, and I hope I see you out and about on the streets of  Seoul.

at city hall


1/2 a disappointing weekend

March 28, 2010

So.  KoTESOL was this Saturday.  It was open to non-members and there were some fairly cool presentations.  I went to the classroom TECH niques group because I KNOW I am a tech-tard, it is bothering me, and I want to change it.  I want to be part of the cool kids doing cool tech stuff.  So I woke up early, paid my 10,o00 won (about 10 dollars US give or take depending on the exchange rate of the day).  N. and I were late, but that was ok,  and I went to several of the presentations.

They were all quite interesting, but … and it is a big but, the presentations really didn’t give me what I was looking for.  The first one I went to was WebGems, and the presenter mostly gave out his favorite websites, and although they were cool, and I appreciated his presentation of different ways to use one site or another for different levels, I already knew about quite a few of them.  The one that surprised me the most, and the one I can’t wait to use for my kids wasn’t very tech at all.  It was about having the students do their own radio show, getting them to use English outside the classroom but having them write and record the radio skits outside of class. It could be done high-tech with a podcast, or low tech with a tape recorder, but I really liked the idea.   The one on YouTube and Wizard of Oz, although well done, didn’t help me at all.  I thought she was a good presenter, but I really wanted her to talk about how she got the YouTube videos into the Powerpoint, how she set things up.  It was a good class, but I really don’t want to teach her class, I wanted to know the tech, you since that was the whole reason I woke up on a cloudy Saturday.. sigh…

There was on bright spot (other than seeing some people I hadn’t seen in a while) It was the talk on using TED. Now it was mostly about his research on the lexical information in TED (in case you don’t know what TED is, it is a web site that has talks from all kinds of people about all kinds of subjects: http://www.ted.com/ and it is pretty interesting.) His research although not about tech in the classroom was also really interesting, and I enjoyed it.  I also did finally get some cool tech that I’m not sure I will be able to use in my classroom, but if I can it will be kinda awesome.   It is called prezi, and it is what Powerpoint wishes it could be: http://prezi.com/ I don’t know everything about how it works, but like  http://www.xtranormal.com/ it is a cool toy to play with and pretend I am working.

So kinda disappointing, but not a total waste of time.   After the workshops, I had a plan with some friends, and so got on the subway, that was packed. Sardines in the can have more room, and then the subway stopped, kicked us all out, and closed.  So… I grabbed a taxi, since I wasn’t very far away.  The taxi driver decided that since I didn’t speak fluent Korean, it was ok to take me on the city tour.  This upset me more for the waste of time than for the money (although that didn’t make me happy)–  I kept thinking, I should have just stayed in bed.

I am glad I didn’t. We finally got everyone together, although I still couldn’t reach one of my friends, and we went to a place called Yeti in the Hongdae area.  Hongdae is one of my favorite neighborhoods/ areas in Seoul because Hongik university is one of the art universities. If you want to be an artist in Korea, that is the place you go. So it has the funky university vibe, plus it has a lot of the art vibe. Ewa and Sinchon are close as well, and there are always clubs, restaurants, funky little shops, and cool things going on.  Yeti is one of them.  It is an Indian/Nepali/ Tibetan restaurant with some awesome curries, done right, with nan. And bonus, on one of the walls they have Bollywood movies, real chai, and lassi – I love lassi, mostly because I haven’t met a yogurt drink I didn’t like.   We hung out quite awhile, watching the dancing and singing, and since the movies didn’t have subtitles, the action made even less sense than most Bollywood movies.

Sunday I wanted to sleep in, but the sunshine woke me up.  Sunshine!! The sun really did come out.  After weeks of really horrible weather, snow, sleet, clouds, cold… Sunshine.  A friend I haven’t heard from in a while called me up to take a walk down by the river.

We were not the only ones with this idea.  People were roller blading, riding their bicycles, walking, playing with remote control cars (we almost crashed into a race) playing basketball.  It was like the whole neighborhood decided to come out and play.  And the sun shone down on all of us, and everyone seemed to be happy and smiling, and just damn glad to get out of the house.    I know I was.


March 24, 2010

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a week, but I really don’t have much I wanted to say.  Its been very busy the last week.  So I thought I would let you know about some of my random musings.

I like that Seoul has a lot to do, even if you are in the middle of a yellow dust storm.  There is the wonderful cafe cinema, where my kind of co-teacher and I went to see Sita Sings The Blues.  This was an awesome movie.  It is animated, and is the story of Sita, a goddess in one of the epic poems of Indian mythology.  What was very cool about the movie was that instead of the score being traditional Indian music, Sita really did sing the blues,  mostly from the 1930’s and 40’s. The story is interwoven with a modern tale of love and loss, and there are some rather interesting shadow puppets giving narration.  The creators have given it creative commons licence, and encourage people to share the work .  I thought it was clever and funny.

If you want you can see it yourself at


Seoul right now is under Yellow Dust.  Saturday afternoon it got so dark I really did think that I had somehow slept through the day or spaced out the day and woke up in the evening.  Yellow dust comes every year from China, sweeping in the spring with a haze over the city. You can taste it in your mouth when you are walking, and it makes my eyes itchy.  A lot of people feel sick, and I’m feeling lucky because even though I’m out and about in the storm, I haven’t had many problems (except for the previously mentioned itchy eyes)

I am fully convinced my students are major drama queens.  I remember when I would want to get all dramatic and my father would call me Sarah Heartburn, after Sarah Bernhardt.   My students would put me to shame.  They said the enjoyed the proverbs, and quite a few did some really great ones.  So this week we are doing dialogs. I have given them a worksheet with several words blank, and then asked them to  fill in the blanks and write several more passages (depending on their level)– I then gave them character cards – everything from “housewife” to “evil alien”  — I distributed the character cards randomly, and they laughed at the way some characters were paired.   But that isn’t what makes my students budding Sarah Heartburns.  It was the enthusiasm in which they threw themselves into the project.  Pairs of girls were hunched over their worksheets giggling.  When I went to check how they were doing, they would cover the sheet with their hands and say “no teacha– surprising!”  so I let them surprise me.  And they did. Many even reached into their book bags to get random items to create sound effects.  I was surprised because Korean students are notorious for being very shy, but I guess presentation isn’t as scary when they can be an evil alien for it.

I finally got off my butt, learned how to download the submissions, and started going to the writer’s workshop.  The serious regulars are mostly guys, but they were pretty nice, and now I have to finally finish that short story that has been rattling around in my head for a while.  It is good to get back into writing, but scary as well. I find myself second guessing all myself.  I hope this is just a phase.

I am also hard a work writing a test and a book for my classes. I’m actually enjoying writing the book, and it will be nice to have all my worksheets done, and not have to worry about making copies, running out of copies or even worse, throwing copies away.

And my last random thought

I love going out for coffee with my friends here in Seoul. Seoul has embraced coffee culture in a very Korean way.  They have made what is essentially a bitter brew sweetened with milk and sugar and turned it into something very cute.   For evidence I present to you:

a coffee bear

If at first you don’t succeed, you have to challenge

March 20, 2010

When I go into the classroom, of course I want my students to have learned something (anything) when I leave.  But more than that I want my students to enjoy English.  The Korean English teachers do a very good job of teaching grammar rules and vocabulary (although I’m probably weird in thinking vocabulary is kind of fun).

When I plan a lesson or make up a worksheet, I’m not thinking of grammar points or vocabulary (although I do consider them) — I’m thinking if the students can “play” with the language.  Most Korean students (or Asian students, or might I even stretch and say Western students)- don’t get to play much with a subject.  And that is sad.

Here teaching to the test is important; the test is the be all and end all of most classes.  Teachers here are morally obligated to make sure that their students are prepared for the test.  So there are a lot of mini tests and vocabulary lists and verb conjugations.  It is enough to put me to sleep and I’m one of the teachers! —  however, I’m a bit of a wild card at my school.   I don’t have a test to teach to.

Like I said before in a previous post, in a way it is liberating to not have to be slave to a book or test, and in some ways it is stressful. Everything is on you.  I do like making worksheets and making lessons.  I like being creative.  My students are still a little afraid of it, but once they get that I’m not after one answer and that one answer is the only answer, most get into it.   The hard part is getting them from “teacher, what?” to having fun.   And English is a very fun language.  There are a lot of ways to say something, most English speakers like puns and anagrams and puzzles and jokes; word play is valued in conversation and writing.  But it is difficult to switch from a mind-set that is concerned with grades and tests and the right answer, to a mind-set that is “playing” with a subject.

I’m lucky in my school. Most of the teachers I work with are supportive of my approach, and want the students to have fun.  But it is much harder for a teacher to pull, pry and coax a student to find their own voice than to give them the answer.  Last week we worked with proverbs.  Most of the students didn’t know what to do with the worksheet at first.  It took 15 minutes of class time, trying to coax one sentence.  It takes a lot of patience and you have to explain the same thing multiple times.  Thankfully, most of my students are engaged, and are really trying.  Once they were able to get one sentence completed, and once they realized I was going to be happy with a “wrong” answer (not the actual proverb) they were able to finish the worksheet in good time.

However, not every student is engaged, and no every student wants to work, or be creative.  They want the teacher to just give them the answer already, then they can memorize it and do well on the test.  These students are usually in upper level classes, so they can be frustrating. They should know half of the stuff you are trying to get them to do, but they will say “teacher, don’t know” —   Don’t get me wrong.  If a student is sweating, and trying, and asking what a word means, I’m willing to work with them and I’m still very proud of them.  However, if I go to a group, and the girls are all playing with their hair, and they haven’t even looked at the worksheet, I am somewhat less than sympathetic. ( I should make a caveat here: my smallest class has 14 students and my largest class has 35 –   this only happened with 5 girls, so I know I’m a very lucky teacher)

I am not willing to dumb down my lessons for a few students who are not very interested.  I am willing to go all out to make my lessons interesting.  I don’t want to make things easy.  I want to make English something that my students can engage with and enjoy.

Some things I do

March 17, 2010

So a couple of people asked me what I did in class, especially since I never use a book.  I thought I’d share with the world.

I almost always put everything on PowerPoint, but I also know that even in the best of schools computers can be moody. I know that they are really not sentient, but sometimes, they act as if they are- and that they don’t really like me very much.  So I always have back up material.  If I need a song, I import it to PowerPoint, but I also burn it on to disk.  I also make sure I bring paper or worksheets, because I know my students will conveniently ‘forget’ to bring everything they would need.

For the first class of the semester I had them do a survey- I made up 6 different survey worksheets, each one had questions about different things- food, school uniforms, music, study habits, hobbies, and romance.  For the advanced students I gave each student one survey and had them ask all their class mates the questions, then give a presentation about the results.  For the intermediate classes I explained some of the vocabulary, and put them in pairs and gave out the surveys.   They had 5 minutes  to ask and answer the questions then they would change partners.  For my lowest level class I did the same as with the intermediate, but I would go over more vocabulary, and I gave the students a lot more time.

The next class is one I’m doing now. We are having fun with proverbs.  I made a worksheet with several half proverbs:

When in Rome___________________________

If at first you don’t succeed ______________________

etc.  I explained what a proverb was, and for my advanced class, I put them in groups, told them they didn’t have to have the ‘real’ proverb, but that they should make their own, and let them go.  For my intermediate class, I explained vocabulary, and did one on the board, with examples from the advanced class.  I put them in groups and helped each group until they ‘got’ it.  For the very beginner class, I put them in pairs,  gave more examples and my co-teacher and I helped them a lot.  I was really impressed by how well they did. When they were finished I had them present their best proverbs.  I also did a bit of grammar correction.  It is a fun class

Next week we are doing Mad Libs.  I made up some stories using the vocabulary book they have, and took out the nouns, verbs and adjectives.  I then made up a list of nouns, verbs and adjectives. I  used the vocabulary from their textbook and vocabulary book.  I will model a mad lib with my co-teacher- then put them in pairs.  I will have to monitor the students to make sure they don’t  cheat by matching up the story and list worksheets or by one reading the story to her partner, but like the proverbs, it takes a bit of work before they ‘get’ it but once they do, they usually have a good time.  ( I’ll do a lot more pre-teaching for intermediate and beginner classes, but I think all my classes can do it.)  Once everyone is finished I will have them present their stories.

I will also do metaphors:  I will play the song “Missing” from Everything but the Girl and although I did add a video last time, I can’t re-figure out how to do it this time, so …. you can look it up on youtube.

The lyrics are very haunting, and my students last year really liked the song.   I will have them do a cloze test with the lyrics, and then put the important lyrics on the board

“And I miss you like the deserts miss the rain”

I will explain a metaphor with examples.  For the advanced class I will put them in groups, give them the worksheets and let them have fun.  For the intermediate class I will put them in groups and give them the worksheets, then have them brainstorm emotions and expressions that they can make metaphors from.  I will then monitor them carefully and help them as much as they need to get started.  (once the students do one, and you say “yes, that is right” they usually become confident enough to finish the task fairly quickly) For the beginners, I will put a lot more examples on the board, and brainstorm more expressions and emotions.  The students last year had a blast with this, they really enjoyed getting creative.

I also enjoy situation/character cards.  I make up several cards (enough for each pair group in my largest class) with different situations- getting lost in the woods, shopping, the school is mysteriously closed, etc.  I then make up enough character cards for every student in my largest class.  Once the cards are made up, I laminate them so I can re-use them.  I then put the students in pairs and hand out the situation cards, and hand out the character cards.  I explain that they have to write a dialog using the cards.

a : b   a: b    a  :  b  ( at least three exchanges for beginners, five for intermediate, and eight for the advanced class)

After they have written the dialog I have them perform their skits.  ( this is something that can be used over and over, and the students start very shy, but by the end of the semester, some become quite the little hams.)  Again, for the advanced class I explain what I want them to do, then let them go, I do some pre-teaching and brainstorming for the intermediate class, and a lot of pre-teaching and brainstorming for the beginner classes.

In the coming weeks I will have them make their own country with their own bill of rights,   maps, have them make a travel ad for Seoul,  a murder mystery, and several word games.

The hardest part is getting the students to let go of having the one right answer, and getting confident producing their own language.  Its a bit frightening for them, because they are used to having all the language there, and choosing the right answer from a set list.  But.  They really enjoy it once they let go of the fear.

This is my favorite part of my job, creating the worksheets and activities for my students.


March 16, 2010

Just because I like this song… and I want to see if it works– yeah. I know. I’m a tech-tard.

Why I love Seoul revisited.

March 14, 2010

I love living in Seoul. The city is easy to get around in, you can find something to do almost every day, and when you want to get out  of the city it is easy to do.

So today,  I went with a group to go to Heri, an artist village near Paju. It is north of Seoul, but it only took 45 minutes from the meeting place. There was a city bus, so it wasn’t expensive, nor difficult.  The ride reminded me a bit of high school field trips, even though most of the people didn’t know each other.  I found the group online, from meetup.com, and this was the first time I tried one of the field trips.  I had a pretty good time. (at least until it rained.)

To live in Heri, you have to be an artist. And you can’t paint your house, so many of the houses are made of dyed concrete. No two houses look the same, and every other place was a gallery or cafe.  They had a jazz museum, a fabric museum (with a quilt cafe attached) more cafes than I could visit – even a chocolate cafe – and the chocolate there was heaven.– I quite liked the political museum, with campaign posters, buttons, and little toys; I quite liked the President Clinton cork screw.

My favorite was the musical instruments museum. It was interactive. Plus there were instruments from all over the world.  We wandered from cafe to museum, on roads that wandered as we did.  One of the roads was built to follow the way rain ran down the mountain, so it wended and curved around the incline.

It was a real village, with a shopping center that included Ikea furniture, but that is ok, because even artists need to sit. Several in the group wanted to go back just to shop there.   There were lots of little shops, most selling art, jewelery, trinkets, ceramics, and a few selling toys and tourist stuff.  The whole village was too big for just one day.  Even if the sun had shone.

But.. it didn’t shine. It started to rain.  I tried to keep my spirits up, and trudge on, but I admit to being a wuss. I decided to go on home a bit early, but with a promise to myself to return.   It is easy to do.