Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Top Books to Read Before Coming to South Korea

Need something to keep you occupied on the long plane ride to Incheon? Want to boost your knowledge of Korean history and culture? If K-dramas and K-pop aren’t your style, here’s a reading list for a more intellectually stimulating look at South Korea. Whether you’re a newcomer or seasoned Seoulite, all of these books are worth a read!

1) Korea Unmasked by Won-bok Rhie- Part of a series on several different countries by a Korean cartoonist, this book summarizes Korean culture, food, history, traditions, society, and economics in graphic novel form. While it might be difficult to ignore some of the obvious biases and generalizations, it gives the reader an inside perspective on how Koreans view themselves and the world.
via Amazon
2) Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor- The Korea correspondent for The Economist, Tudor draws on his own research and interviews with some of South Korea’s most powerful figures to examine its rapid economic and political growth. He addresses a variety of interesting topics, including the social impact of Korea’s obsession with English. His ultimate questions about Korea’s future, its ability to sustain its current growth, and willingness to embrace outsiders, are highly applicable to experiences of many expats living in South Korea.
via Amazon
3) Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin- If you want to read Korean literature, this is a great place to start. Don’t worry if you’re not fluent in Korean, as one of the bestselling novels of all time in South Korea, it’s easy to find English translations. It tells the story of a family who goes searching for their mother after she disappears in a crowded Seoul subway station, giving a heartbreaking look at motherhood and generational divides in South Korean society. Word of advice: keep the tissues nearby.
via Amazon
4) Brother One Cell by Cullen Thomas- a cautionary tale of what not to do in South Korea, this is the memoir of a former English teacher who spent three and half years in a South Korean prison after he was caught smuggling drugs into the country. He recounts his experiences in prison and provides a glimpse of Korea most English teachers (hopefully) never get to see.
via Amazon
5) Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden- Of course, no reading list would be complete without a look at North Korea. Based on his extensive interviews and research, Harden gives the non- fictional account of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only known person to have escaped from one of North Korea’s notorious political prison camps. Harden also provides a compelling look at North Korea’s totalitarian regime and the hardships North Korean refugees face in their transition to South Korea. 
via Amazon
While Shin's story is fascinating, it's only part of the picture. For more background on the current situation, you can pick up The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History by Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin. For accounts on daily life in North Korea you can pick up Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives inNorth Korea by Barbara Demick.

*Bonus: Korea and Her Neighbors by Isabella Bird Bishop. This one is for the true history buffs. Originally published in 1898, this account of Korea was written by one of the first female European explorers and travel writers. While her account is no doubt a bit biased and Eurocentric, it’s a fascinating piece of history, bringing you back to a time when Siberian tigers still roamed around the Han River. You can access an online PDF version of it here.  


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why don't we share?: Korean School Lunch vs. American School Lunch

When one moves from the midwestern United States to South Korea, one sees the average girth of people on the street shrink a bit. When it comes to Asian countries in particular, we're quick to attribute this to genetic good fortune, but I must admit that Korean cuisine, at least traditional Korean cuisine, is pretty healthy. I don't think it cures all ills as some Koreans will try to convince you, but it definitely might surprise you. Fun fact: kimchi contains a lot more, perhaps 10 times more, probiotics than yogurt.

While I don't have scientific proof, I would argue that Koreans also tend to be slim not just because of what they eat, since clearly they don't always eat healthy food, but because of their food culture. Korean food culture is all about sharing. Always.

Forget about my light hair and blue eyes. I have never felt more American than when I scarf down a snack outside my office so I don't have to feel bad for not wanting to share with my co-workers. At restaurants, everything from soup to meat is served in one large order to be divided up amongst the group. Usually your personal plate is hardly bigger than a tea saucer or small cereal bowl.  It was a painful transition at first having to be conscious of leaving enough for others, but sharing with others at restaurants definitely makes me more thoughtful about what I eat, like social portion control. 

I'm sure every foreigner in Korea has felt some judgement when actually ordering a dish entirely for themselves. Even in western style restaurants, I rarely see a Korean keep a dish to his or herself, friends and couples will put their dishes in the middle to share. If a Korean does have their own dish, want to casually snatch a piece of food off their plate? No problem. This was quite shocking to me since like the average American, when it comes to my food I'm like a mother bear with her cub. Want to take some of my food? Sure! As long as you don't value your fingers and/or life.

There are some Korean foods meant for one, but even then Koreans don't tend to eat alone or on the go. Nothing will make you feel the sting of condescension like flying solo at a restaurant, or worse, eating McNuggets while you stand around waiting for your bus (yes, true story). Eating in Korea is certainly not a solitary venture.

So what does a Korean school lunch look like? Here is some non-Instagram-worthy photo documentation:

You're probably sensing a theme here. 

This is how my school lunch looks every day. Rice, kimchi, soup, protein, metal tray, metal bowl, small portions, and bad lighting. Despite the drab pictures, the food isn't too bad, and most days I like what is served. But there are no alternatives and this is what everyone eats, from the students to the teachers to the principal. And this isn't unique to my school; this is what lunch at most public schools across Korea looks like. While seemingly mundane, I can't even imagine this happening in the States. Everyone eating the same thing with no alternatives? And no super sized portions? There would be mutiny, some parents would probably even call it inhumane. 

The lack alternatives in South Korea's school lunches certainly clashes with my American sensibilities, which equate wealth and capitalism with choice and individuality. Food options may have been limited in the not so distant past for Korea, but since the economy has developed tremendously over the past 50 years, why not enjoy the ability to choose now? Why not install a cafeteria with a variety of lunch and snack options? To me the cafeteria seemed out of step with Korea's overall development. 

Eventually though I could see that these questions were more telling of my own values than a hiccup in Korea's development.  It's easy to look at Korea and see a westernized capitalist nation, with it's behemoth shopping centers and upscale coffee shops, but Korean and western mentalities couldn't be more different. Americans and westerners tend to think about "me", while Koreans are always thinking about "we", and how to keep the community in harmony. When I walk into a cafeteria I think "what do I want to eat?", but for Koreans it's "what are we eating?"  

Yes, Korean students are slimmer because their food tends to be healthier, but are there additional benefits because there is one standard meal? And because Korean food in general tends to be standardized and community oriented? I imagine that if you've grown up eating this way, you'd have an easier time learning portion control and accepting healthier food options. After all, if you don't have a choice, eventually you are just going to eat what is served. Even as an adult, living in Korea has changed my eating patterns. When I first arrived in Korea, kimchi and I did not agree with each other, but after two years of having it on my plate every day, I eat it like candy. These days I'm also much more likely to share food and feel satisfied after eating proper portions. 

I also think about my own high school cafeteria. While I'm sure some of my weight gain in high school was due to the natural process of growing up, I imagine the appearance of my second chin also had to do with the greasy pizza, giant sandwiches, and inexplicably delicious cookies served in the cafeteria. Even if I brought something healthy from home, I often found it hard to stop myself from buying snacks or a "side" of fries. I tended to eat more simply because their was more food in front of my face. The amount of choice was overwhelming.

Of course, a choice-free lunch system bodes well with Korean culture, and would be understandably difficult to implement in the States, but it is certainly (pardon the pun) food for thought. I've been raised to think that more choice is always better, that more choice always makes us happier. There' have been many studies however, showing that this isn't necessarily true. More choice can make us stressed and overwhelmed. Could more sharing and less choice in our diet also improve our health? My time in Korea has led me to believe that they are important factors that deserve much more attention. Improving health isn't just about what we eat, it's about how we eat.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What it's like living next door to North Korea

Like books that I pick up and never finish, I have a tendency to write blog posts that I never get back to. These days however I'm getting tired of headlines about Dennis Rodman's antics, and wanted to provide some more thoughtful material on North Korea. 
How do threats from the North affect Koreans and expats living in the South?

As headline became more intense and threats from North Korea more bellicose during the spring, I received some messages about my safety and whether or not I planned to leave Korea. One should note that throughout the ordeal the United States embassy never issued any travel warnings for the area and life continued as usual for expats and Koreans alike. This is not to say that people completely ignored the situation, or that I myself wasn't cautious, but I think the foreign media's portrayal of Korea as on the brink of an all out war was entirely overblown.

Local Korean news outlets were quick to point out how largely unaffected South Koreans were by North Korea's threats. One must understand that South Koreans have always lived with these threats and fluctuating tensions. At the end of the Korean War in 1953 the two countries sign an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving many issues unresolved. A few years ago North Korea actually shelled a small South Korean island; this event however did not end in all out war. Despite North Korea's declaration of nuclear power and missile launch demonstrations, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knows he would face swift and fierce retaliation if he attacked the mainland. Both North and South Korea clearly want to avoid any real military action. 

South Korean soldier at the DMZ
It's a sad but undeniable fact that in spite of the Kim dynasty's well known human rights abuses and the crippling poverty the average North Korean citizen faces, North Korea's collapse is simply not in the interest of any other country involved in this conflict. Younger generations of South Koreans are understandably anxious about the tremendous economic and social burdens they would face if the two countries were to reunite, and China and the U.S. certainly do not want to bear that burden either. If reunification were to occur, the U.S. would also risk losing its strategically placed military bases in South Korea. If the U.S. wanted to use the same logic it used to invade Iraq, to find weapons of mass destruction and take down a volatile dictator, the war would have already begun.    

What You Don't Read in the News About North Korea

Generally the media paints a frightening picture of North Korea, but for all its brandishing of nuclear technology, North Korea is largely unstable and impoverished, and clearly could not defend itself against the military forces of South Korea and the U.S. if they launched an attack. So why all the threats? Why spend billions and starve the country to create weapons? My friend showed me this extremely interesting video lecture from Brian Reynold Myers (a professor at a university in Busan). In it he gives many insights into North Korea's culture and motivations. Even though the lecture was given over two years ago, his conclusions paint a very accurate picture of today's current situation. It's an hour long, but I think it's must see for anyone who is coming to Korea or interested in this issue. 

I'll give a brief summary for the TL;DW crowd (too long; didn't watch). He argues that North Korea's regime survives not just by the "dint of oppression" but by the people's sincere belief in the late Kim Jong Il's greatness as a leader and ideologue, and the belief that because North Koreans are racially pure, they are inherently morally pure. They believe this moral purity has made them a target for other nations like the US, which have caused North Korea's current plight. They view the current leader Kim Jong Un not as an oppressive dictator, but as a safeguard from those enemies who target them because of their purity.

He also argues that North Korean ideologies differ greatly from those of Communism and Nazism, to which they are often compared. Whereas communist leaders are portrayed as teachers, educating the masses on the dangers of capitalism, Kim Jong Un is portrayed as a protector, and very often a maternal figure, who keeps his people safe from enemies and moral impurity. Myers provides evidence of this protector status in that some North Koreans who escape into China actually bribe their way back in. 

I should pause here to say that one shouldn't look at this lecture uncritically. This particular point about Kim Jong Un being a protector has many facets, and there other well documented reasons why refugees might want to return to North Korea. As detailed in the book Escape from Camp 14, the adjustment to life outside North Korea, and particularly to South Korea's hyper competitive society, is extremely difficult and refugees often face discrimination. It's not necessarily that they long for their dictator, but many long for the simplicity of their old life and the feeling of belonging in their home country. Hyeonseo Lee discusses these complicated emotions in her TED Talk as well. 

The idea of Kim Jong Un as a protector however does explain in part how his regime has managed to last. The North Korean ideology, and even the constitution, is hinged on the presence of an enemy that threatens their values and the nation. Through his propaganda machine and his provocations toward the U.S. and South Korea, Kim Jong Un continues to create that enemy and act as protector, justifying his authoritarian rule and strengthening the cult of personality that has kept the Kim family in power. And indeed, to the outside world, this nearly religious veneration of the Kim family and military weapons is one of the most perplexing aspects of North Korean culture.

While some may still live under an illusion of superiority, through illegal cell phones and smuggled DVDs, many North Korean citizens now realize that their quality of life pales in comparison to that of their "enemies" in South Korea and the U.S. However, Myers argues that by claiming that they must use all their resources to protect their morally pure state, Kim Jong Un and his predecessors have also been able to justify ignoring the country's economic and social ills. In the past many countries have provided aid and material assistance to allay North Korea's threats and arms build up, but we know that trading aid for reduced tensions cannot last forever. 

How long can Kim Jong Un up the ante before he must act? Clearly that is the question that no one wants answered, but given what I know, I think internal disputes, such as those which led to the execution of Kim Jong Un's uncle, and economic instability could likely lead to North Korea's downfall before war does. While I believe preparation for war is still necessary, overall I think there needs to more consideration and planning for what would happen if the North Korean government, using the term loosely, were to collapse. Though a seemingly insurmountable task, what could be done to turn the country around? Given South Korea's meteoric rise from impoverished nation to OECD powerhouse in the last 50 years, I have to believe that there must be workable, even if difficult solutions.

If you want to learn more about other aspects of North Korean society and the current political situation, I would highly recommend checking out:

Off the Beaten Subway Path: Life in a Small Korean City

While it’s possible to be located in real the countryside in Korea, not well connected to any major city or downtown center, the majority of Gyeonggi-do province surrounding Seoul is well developed and densely populated. Though neighboring townships like the one I work in might be considered rural, civilization is never too far off! I'm always amazed by how a 15 minute bus ride can take me from farms and rice paddies to a crowded city center with many of the comforts of Seoul (overpriced coffee shops, massive apartments complexes, rows of cosmetics stores, countless PCbangs, Italian restaurants, etc). While not without its drawbacks, living in a smaller city has had a lot benefits as well. 

The Pros

The space. Aside from those living near the Han River, people often complain about the lack of places to enjoy a good run, or open space, Seoul. I myself really enjoy running and biking, and don’t know how I would have made it through my experience in Korea without having large parks nearby. This park surrounds part of the bike path that extends from Seoul to Busan. 

Enjoying some BBQ on the river.
It has a real oven! 
You might also have some extra living space. Now this isn’t a guarantee, I have plenty of friends in town who live in typical shoe box size apartments, but living in a less populated area with cheaper real estate might mean getting a bigger place! My situation is highly unusual, but I lucked out with my school and landed a 3-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen. This certainly would never happen in Seoul!

Korea like you’ve never seen it. I’d say I’ve found more cultural depth in my town than I’ve seen even in parts of Seoul, and anyone who has lived in smaller Korean towns and cities can tell you that such treasures are everywhere. Living outside Seoul can be a great way to experience more authentic Korean culture and life. Here a few of my favorite gems from my city: 

I was in Korea for almost a year before my friends stumbled upon this incredible sculpture park, filled with contemporary statues and models of Korean monuments.

Interestingly, it's a model of a palace that is (was?) in North Korea.
This old amusement park just five minutes from my apartment complex is like a trip to another time.

Yeoju is known for its ceramics and home to many nationally recognized, and even internationally renowned ceramics artists. These are photos from the Biennial International Ceramics Festival in Yeoju.

Photo from the Yeoju city homepage
Yeoju has many other cultural destinations, most notably King Sejong's Tomb. Yes, that King Sejong, the one who invented Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. I think it's one of the nicest landmarks I've been to in Korea, and a great place for an afternoon stroll.

Going back to the pros:

Tight knit expat community. Thanks to Facebook you don’t have to worry too much about wandering around to find friends. If you’re not into Facebook, or need to get out of town, there is also Meetup where you can find interest groups, or Couchsurfing for meeting other travelers. You can also take weekend trips with groups like WINK, Seoul Hiking Group, and Adventure Korea, which are great for meeting people. No matter where you live, in Seoul or a larger city, you will have to exert some effort to meet people. For every expat I hear complaining that they wished more foreigners lived in their city, I hear expats in Seoul complain about how they don’t meet many people outside of their hagwon.

Gaining an incredible sense of independence. Many teachers come to Korea seeking new experiences and that deeper perspective of the world that comes with living abroad. However like many newcomers, I also thought there was no way I could last in Korea without eventually moving to Seoul or a bigger city. After a few months though, I found that having to make my own way and make my own fun were more life affirming challenges. I feel I’ve had to adapt and become more independent in ways some of my Seoul counterparts haven’t. Now of course, a lot of this is personality, a proactive person will be active anywhere he or she lives. I know for myself, being fresh out of college when I got here, that if I had had a lot of night life and other distractions around, I probably wouldn’t have been as motivated to push myself outside of my comfort zone and try new things. 

Saving money. Most people agree that the cost of living is manageable in Korea no matter where you live, but when there are less places to spend your money and less temptation you tend to save more. This is personal of course, but I know if I lived near downtown Seoul I would certainly be broke from shopping in Myeongdong and schmoozing at nice bars and restaurants.

Still having access to good travel. Korean public transportation is incredibly efficient and cheap. If you live in a Gyeonggi-do city you shouldn’t have to worry too much about getting around. I don’t live on a subway line, but buses between my city and Seoul run every half hour on the dot! If you're travelling far, The Arrival Store has a great post on reserving bus tickets for long trips! 

More public school jobs- while getting harder and harder to come by in and around Seoul, public school jobs are much more common farther out in Gyeonggi-do. In my city the vast majority of English teachers work at public schools.

So what are the cons? 
The drawbacks are probably what you’d expect from living in a smaller city in a foreign country: less going on socially, less international cuisine, fewer English speakers, and fewer facilities. In general it’s easier to feel isolated physically and socially. However, Korea is continuing to change rapidly. Every month I see new restaurants (including more international cuisine), updated shops, and new constructions. Just this past summer they put up a large luxury hotel with a water park next to my apartment complex, which is a big deal for Yeoju! By 2015, Yeoju will be accessible by the Seoul Metro. Witnessing this transformation has been an interesting experience in and of itself. 

While you may have to look harder for them, there is no shortage of activities to do and things to try. I know teachers in Yeoju who have done everything from getting black belts in Taekwondo to taking pottery classes with renowned artists. Living in a less connected city requires a higher degree of independence, willingness to be proactive, and the ability to deal with some more frustrations and discomforts, as you may have less access to certain resources. But if you want a challenge, and to see a different side of life in Korea, living in smaller city can be very rewarding. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Updated: Everything You Need to Know About Finding a Teaching Job in Korea

*Since I wrote my original post "The Hunt: Searching for Teaching Jobs in Korea", there have been some changes to the availability of public school jobs and I've learned some new information. Unfortunately it is true that many GEPIK public school jobs are being cut. Here is the updated version (the same corrections have also been made to the original post, but I've re-posted it again here for ease).

Recruiters and Programs

If you're looking for a teaching job in Korea, you'll need to start by applying through a recruiter or program. For recruiters, I recommend Teach ESL Korea, Hands Korea, or Work n' Play. All offer public and private school jobs. For public school only there is Korvia. You can also apply directly to public schools via EPIK and TALK, which are government programs that place teachers throughout Korea (usually not in Seoul or Gyeonggi-do, the province surrounding Seoul). 

Avoiding the negativity and finding the right job

When doing research on English teaching jobs in South Korea, the results can be overwhelming, and sometimes it seems like no one has anything nice to say. Here's some advice on how to avoid the negativity and get accurate information: 

1) Rely on real people, not internet forums- When I started encountering lots of negative feedback on the internet about private and public schools alike, I frantically emailed my recruiter, worried about picking the wrong job. He emailed me back with a piece of logic I  hadn't thought of before: positive experiences appear vastly outnumbered on the internet because foreigners who are having a great time in Korea (which is the majority of them) are too busy having adventures and enjoying their lives to post their complaints on a random internet forum. I'm not saying bad experiences don't happen, they do, but it is often blown out of proportion on the internet. 

Although popular sites like Dave's ESL Cafe,, etc. can be helpful for many things, unless what you read applies directly to your potential employer or particular school, take the negativity with a grain of salt. These internet forums usually don't attract unbiased sources, but they certainly do attract naysayers and those who like to stir the pot. If you want general information about working and living in Korea, check out reputable and well known websites like EatYourKimchi, and do lots of research to find personal blogs from people living in your potential new hometown or city. Every other foreigner has a blog, and most likely you'll be able to find a contact who has worked at your school or in your area, or someone who can point you in the right direction. 

You should also find contacts through people you know from home or through your recruiter. Seriously, if you tell people, even strangers, that you're looking for a teaching job in Korea, you'll quickly find that everyone and their mom knows someone or knows someone who knows someone, that is teaching in Korea.  I can't stress this enough: the best hagwon or private school jobs usually come through word out mouth! 

2) What are you looking for out of this experience? Although issues can occur with your job that are entirely out of your control, sometimes I wonder what percentage of people on those forums are truly unhappy because they didn't consider what they were signing up for? Even though you may not want to teach English as a permanent career, an interest in education, kids, or at least getting to know foreign cultures will make your experience much more pleasant. Remember: the majority of your time here will be spent teaching and in school. If your only interest in coming to South Korea is an apartment and a pay check, then you might be in for a long year. 

Public vs. Private Schools- How to Decide

If you've done any internet research, you've probably noticed by now that hagwons, or private academies, don't always have the best reputation, and that many people prefer public school jobs. The biggest reason is that public schools are held accountable by the government and have standardized contracts, where as hagwons are private business that are unregulated and can pretty much do whatever they want...including going out of business. However, I'd like to be optimistic and say that where you choose to work should depend on your personality. Many people also work at hagwons that they enjoy. 


Pros: standard contract, less teaching hours, more vacation (20-25 days)
Cons: usually only one foreign teacher, can't always choose location, longer application process
Neutral: Lesson planning

Native English teachers (NETs) at public schools are employed by GEPIK or EPIK. GEPIK hires mostly through the private recruiters I listed above, while one must apply directly to EPIK. These are government offices that provide the teaching contracts for public schools. NETs can also contact these offices if they have questions about, or problems with their schools. Among the other pros listed above, people tend to gravitate towards these jobs because the government technically ensures stability.

HOWEVER, these jobs are losing their stability. Already, most public schools in Seoul no longer receive funding for foreign teachers. I currently work for GEPIK and these jobs are also starting to get cut drastically. Unless schools are funded by local city halls, only rural schools will receive funding from GEPIK starting in 2014. While teachers can't be let go mid-contract, hundreds of contracts are not being renewed. 

If you're interested it's still worth applying, but beware these jobs are becoming extremely competitive. You will need to get at least TEFL certified, and online certificate programs cost $300-$400. In the next couple of years, public school job numbers could continue to decline, or go on the rise again. It's hard to tell because it depends on each province, annual budget votes, and of course, politics. Currently however, they are very much on the decline. If you're planning to work in Korea for more than a year or two, be aware that renewal may not be possible. 

You can also apply through EPIK or TALK, which serve all of Korea, but because of increasing competition you can no longer request a specific location...which means you can be placed anywhere...including the middle of nowhere. Generally, if you would like to be surrounded by other foreigners or expats at work, then public schools are definitely not for you. You will more than likely be the only foreigner at your school.

I put lesson planning in a neutral category because I think this definitely depends on the person. If you enjoy devising lesson plans and thinking of creative ways to teach then you will certainly enjoy working at a public school. Some public schools provide textbooks, but many expect you to come up with your own lessons for regular classes. 

*Ask about after school classes and English Camps at public schools!!*

Most public school teachers also run 1-2 week "English Camps" during summer and winter breaks. Expectations for English Camps vary greatly by school (anywhere from 1 to 4 hours a day). Your interview is a good time to ask what kind of special programs are expected of you during breaks and throughout the year! While I get paid overtime and enjoy the challenge, I didn't know until I arrived at my school that I would be expected to teach special Fall and Spring after school courses until 8 p.m. twice a week for 5 weeks, which is highly unusual for public schools!    

Hagwon (Private)

Pros: usually higher pay, more available, many foreign teachers, easier application process, can choose where you want to go!
Cons: non-standard or lack of contract, less vacation (7-10 days), more teaching hours
Neutral: lesson planning, the unusual work schedule

Due to slightly longer hours, overtime, and less vacation, hagwon teachers tend to get paid more than public school NETs. If you're coming to Korea to save money or pay-off student loans or debt, this may be something to seriously consider. In addition, you'll also enjoy the company of other foreign teachers, which certainly makes for a much easier transition! While I like my school, I live in a smaller city and definitely have to make the extra effort to meet people. As for lesson planning, it varies highly, some hagwons will have you strictly follow a textbooks, others will require you to come up with your own material. You should ask in the interview what is expected. 

The best part though is that hagwons are everywhere, so you can choose where you want to go! So here's the tough part: how do you make sure it's a good school? I don't want to undermine those who've had bad experiences at hagwons because there certainly are problems that I've heard from teachers who work at them. Because they are run like businesses, their priorities are a bit different from public schools...namely money and customer retention, which can put additional stress on bosses and employees. There's no 100% fool proof way to ensure your hagwon is great, but here are some tips:

  • I'll say it again: the best hagwon jobs often come through word of mouth!  If you talk to someone living in Korea, they might know a friend who is leaving at the end of the month and needs someone to take their place at a job. Many schools use private recruiters but they also take private referrals!  
  • If you can't find a friend, or friend of a friend living in Korea to speak with, don't be afraid to ask to speak to a current NET at the school you are interviewing with! The employer should allow you to speak with someone who currently works at the school. If they won't, it's probably not a good sign. 
  • Prepare detailed questions to ask during the interview: "Is public transportation easily accessible from the school and my apartment?" "How long have the other foreign teachers been working there?" "How often will I be expected to work over time?" "How much time is given for class preparation?" 
  • Go with your gut and be patient. Although it's hard to give up a job that looks great on paper, if you speak with someone who rubs you the wrong way, or there's a clause in the contract that no one seems to able to clarify, then follow your instincts. I'd say this applies to both private and public schools. 
  • If you follow the above advice hopefully you won't need this, but there is a hagwon blacklist that you can check on the internet, for schools that are unusually atrocious. I also found this site which compiles hagwon reviews which should offer positive reviews as well.
I listed the unusual schedule as neutral because again I think this is personality based. Most hagwons, unless you're teaching kindergarten, have their hours from 1-9pm or 2-10pm. If you're a night person who likes to stay up late and wake up late, this might be your dream schedule! Even if you haven't historically been a night person, many hagwon teachers who adapt to this schedule don't mind it since their friends and co-workers will be on it too.  I will be honest and warn you though that hagwons are much more likely to ask you to come in on the weekends or stay late, but you should get paid overtime.

While there is certainly less vacation time during the year with private schools, if you're planning to travel after you leave Korea, which most people do anyway, this doesn't have to be a big problem. There is also so much stuff to see locally in Korea! You can easily satisfy your need for a break with day or weekend trips. Having less vacation, or being in a more rural area like myself, really encourages you to get to know Korea and have an authentic living experience.

*The Classroom and Co-Teachers- Public vs. Private *

In hagwons you'll be physically in the classroom teaching about 28-30 hours a week, whereas you're only the classroom 22 hours a week with public schools. It's true that more teaching hours can be tiring, but there are other factors to consider. While public schools leave ample time for "desk warming", the technical term for sitting at your desk, some people get very bored by this and prefer more fast-paced hagwon schedules.  Public school also classes tend to be much larger, 20-35 students, while hagwons usually have 10-15 students (less if it's a small academy). 

Working at a public school also involves co-teaching with a Korean English teacher. Unfortunately there are no standard expectations or training sessions for Korean co-teachers. While some may be helpful, others may not.While in some public schools you'll be fully in charge of the classroom, in others you might be more of a side kick. Many NETs establish beneficial relationships with their co-teachers, but many teachers also prefer the independence that comes with working in a hagwon, where there are usually no co-teachers

Your experience will be what you make of it

At the end of the day your experience is going to be what you make of it. People have good and bad experiences at public schools and at private schools, in rural areas and in urban areas. I've met people who've been in Korea for many years and held several different jobs, and although some have been better than others they are all still here because the fun they've had and the friends they've made have been worth it. The happiest teachers are the ones who take the good with the bad, and chalk it all up to experience.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Where to Live in Korea: Big City vs. Small City

My newest post is up on The Arrival Store Blog! You can also check out the original here:

As the capital and cultural hub of South Korea, Seoul is of course the most popular option for prospective teachers. Gyeonggi-do, the province surrounding Seoul, is also a popular place to look for jobs. While your gut instinct may be that you must live in Seoul, and nowhere else, don’t be too quick to judge! There are plenty of great alternatives, such as large Seoul satellite cities (eg. Anyang, Suwon, Seongnam, Yongin, etc.) and smaller cities outlying cities such as Yeoju, where I reside.

 It can be daunting to search through job listings and try to choose a location based on cities which you know little about. For a complete list of the cities in Gyeonggi-do, you can check out the subdivisions section of the Seoul Capital area wiki. Before you get worried about landing in the middle of nowhere, keep in mind that Gyeonggi-do is very densely populated and well connected.  

Large satellite cities and smaller outlying cities are usually connected to Seoul, and to each other, by bus, subway, or KTX high speed trains, all of which are highly efficient. I live about as far out in Gyeonngi-do as you can get, and it usually only takes me an hour and 10 minutes to get to the world famous Gangnam. While some cities may be lacking some of the culture Seoul offers, most will contain all of the same amenities, access to universities, and active expat communities.

It’s important to realize that South Korea is an incredibly homogenous country and that much of these cities, including Seoul, will look the same. As you travel throughout Seoul and Gyeonggi-do you will inevitably encounter the same architecture, same stores, and same atmosphere in cities large and small. The fun part is finding the hidden gems. And there are many! Lately I’ve stopped going to Seoul to see my friends, instead they come to visit me to experience a different side of Korea.  Choosing a smaller city in Gyeonggi-do, where Seoul is still nearby, is a great way to get the best of both worlds!  

A taste of Yeoju and the Korean countryside. 
People often ask me what to look for when deciding where to live. Experiences and preferences vary widely, so the best thing you can do is consider what you want out of your city and make sure it has those things. In addition, I would research:
  • Variety of Facebook groups- most cities have Facebook groups, but it’s also good to find cities with groups that cater to diverse interests, such as sports clubs, language exchanges, etc.
  • Use Naver or Daum, Korean search engines- if one were to Google my city, there would be few returns, however this is not the case on Korean search engines. While the returns will be in Korean, many sites have English titles. There are lots of Korean bloggers out there, and even if you can’t understand their posts, they’ll provide lots of pictures you won’t find on Google, Yahoo, or Bing. It might give you a better idea of what your city is like!
  • Historical and cultural attractions – it’s my opinion that cities and districts with more history are more likely to have more hidden gems and traditions. Try to look at tourist sites to see what kind of attractions are around. If you find that your prospective residence is a very industrial area without many cultural sites that could be a bad sign, as that usually indicates that there will be factories, offices, coffee shops, and not much else.
  • Personal blogs- I try to stay away from public forums like Dave’s ESL and Waygook when searching for unbiased opinions about cities, as they seem to attract a lot of naysayers, or those who think there is no life outside of Itaewon. Try to look for personal blogs of teachers living your city; people giving thoughtful day to day accounts about what life is like there.
  • Universities – A reputable university usually means there will be some culture, nightlife, and vibrancy that comes with having young people around! There will probably also be Korean language classes, language buddies, and more opportunities for cultural exchange if you’re interested! 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Buam-dong 부암동 and the Best Coffee Shop in Seoul

When looking to have a classy afternoon of coffee and shopping, many Seoulites head to Samcheong-dong (삼청동), an upscale neighbored next to Gyeongbok Palace (경복겅). Filled with boutique clothing stores, independent coffee shops, marvelous little restaurants, and timeless traditional Korean architecture, Samcheong-dong is a great place for a weekend stroll (Anguk Station, exit 3). However, it’s an extremely popular area. On any given weekend afternoon it will be overrun by crowds looking to shop, or tourists hunting for a meal after a walk around the palace.

If you’re looking an equally charming area without the crowds, try heading over to Buam-dong (부암동). Not as developed as Samcheong-dong, Buam-dong is a small neighborhood with a lot of character and a quaint atmosphere not often found in Seoul. It’s located between Inwangsan and Bukhansan, two mountains, offering great views at every turn. It’s also known for an eclectic mix of hidden galleries, classic restaurants, and superb coffee shops, including the famous Sanmootonge (산모퉁이), which is arguably the most beautiful café in Seoul. Buam-dong receives a lot less crowds since you cannot get there directly by subway, but here are simple bus directions!
  1. 1.     Go to Gyeongbokgung Station (line 3), get out at exit 3.
  2. 2.     Go straight about 100 meters to the second bus stop, take green buses #1020 or #7022 and get off at the Buam-dong Community Service Center 부암동민주센터. It’s only 6 stops away and it will be announced in English.
Places to go: 

To get to the first four places on my list, go to your right when you get off the bus and walk straight up the hill for 2 minutes or so until you hit Espresso Club (pictured below on the left). Known for serving up some of the best cups of coffee in Seoul, Espresso Club is also at the base of the road that takes you to most of major destinations on Buam-dong.

Espresso Club is the brick building on the left. You can stop in there for a taste of some of the best coffee from around the world! If you want great views and coffee however, head up to Sanmootonge.

Sanmootonge (산모퉁이) 
1.    According to the internet, this coffee shop was made famous by its appearance on the Korean drama Coffee Prince. However, even if you are like me and have never seen a Korean drama (it’s true), you’ll still be impressed. Located in a lovely brick house with magnificent views of Seoul and what I’ve deemed the Korean “Hollywood Hills”, Sanmootonge has just the right amounts of style, class, and quirk.

The coffee is a bit pricey at 8,000 won but it’s good quality, and of course you are really paying for the seat. Try to go early (before 1 pm) so you don’t have to fight K-drama fan girls or couples taking selfies for a seat on one of the balconies or in front of a window! The gallery downstairs is also worth checking out.  

Directions: Once you hit Espresso Club, turn left and you’ll see a fork in the road. Stay left and keep walking; soon you’ll hit a small bend where you’ll see a white building with a large brown sign for Santoomonge, pointing you uphill. It’s about 10-15 minute walk uphill, but there are great views and architecture along the way. Additional signs along the hill will keep you on track!

Jaha Sonmandu (자하손만두)

This is a famous mandu (만두) or dumpling restaurant. Known for its fantastic tteok mandu guk (떡만두국), or rice cake and dumpling soup, this restaurant also has a beautiful minimalist interior, perfect for dates, birthdays, treating yourself, and other special occasions. While certainly pricier than every day street mandu, regular dishes only cost about 6,000 to 15,000 won; 12,000 won for the tteok mandu guk. As a huge mandu fan, I think it’s well worth the visit!   

Directions: It’s just a little up the street from Espresso Club. Turn left at Espresso Club, then stay right at the fork, going a little up hill. You will see Jaha Sonmandu almost immediately on your right. 

Gyeyolsa Chicken, 계열사 치킨 (formerly “Cheers Chicken”)
Gyeyolsa is one of the most famous chicken restaurants in Seoul and is known for its traditional Korean fried chicken. Traditional Korean fried chicken is distinguished by a very thin crisp shell. The chicken is served on platters with large home fries. There is no English menu, but it’s just the first item on the menu, 후라이드 (which is Hangeul for “fried”). If you’re feeling more adventurous, another popular dish you’ll see many people ordering is the second item on the menu, 골뱅이 국수or snails with noodles! Get here by noon if you want to avoid the lunch rush!  

 Directions: It’s also just a little bit up the street from Espresso Club. Stay to the left at the fork. It’s located down on the lowered sidewalk to your left. 

Changuimun Gate and Seoul Fortress
if after all that eating you’re in need of some exercise, make a right behind Espresso Club and walk straight for just a minute and you will come to the Changumin Gate (the oldest of the fortress gates) Through the gate you’ll find one of the entrances for the Seoul Fortress which you can hike (yes that large fortress you can see from Sanmootonge).

Ivy and Shortcake
If you want to explore another part of the Buam-dong area, make a right at the base of Buam-dong (when you are facing these shops). A few minutes down are some other neighborhood favorites.

One of the first places you’ll see walking down the street is Ivy, a small yellow café with only 3 seats. Apparently it can be rented out at night to small groups for 50,000 won. After Ivy you’ll see Shortcake, which is a popular cupcake shop. While probably more sought out for its cute décor than the cupcakes (I agree with the assessments I’ve read that the cakes are a little dry) Shortcake is still pretty good! In a city with a lack of cupcakes, I don’t get too choosey! The frosting on my Oreo cupcake was quite good. 

Left- Ivy, Right- Shortcake interior and Oreo cupcake!

Keep walking past Shortcake and you’ll come to a rotary intersection. You have to cross the street to get down to the pedestrian intersection. If you go to the right you can get great views of the mountains and visit some other interesting shops.  I didn’t get a chance to go left, but it looked like there were a few interesting things there as well. Really you could spend an afternoon exploring, which I would encourage you to do if you have the time.

With limited time, my friend and I decided just to check out nearby August (to the right of the rotary), which is an interesting vintage shop filled with clothes, house ware, and other knick-knacks. The owner was very friendly; she used to live in L.A. and speaks English very well! 

 Pro tips for Buam-dong (and in general):
  1.  Wander down small streets, take long walks, and let yourself get lost. The neighborhoods surrounding Gyeongbok Palace, particularly Samcheong-dong and Buam-dong, are filled with hidden coffee shops and galleries. There are tons of great places and little treasures to discover.
  2. Taxis are cheaper than you’d think. If you start the day checking out Gyeongbok Palace or Samcheong-dong, which I would recommend, a taxi to Buam-dong from there will only cost about 6,000 won. In general, travel between major destinations in central Seoul isn’t too pricey, especially if you are splitting it with friends. Even going all the way from Hongdae to Gangnam is only about 15,000-20,000 won depending on where you are.
  3. Coffee shops are empty before noon. For most Koreans, coffee shops aren’t for morning pick-me-ups, but places to be seen in the afternoon. If you want to avoid crowded coffee shops in Samcheong-dong or Buam-dong, you don’t have to get there too early. Coffee shops start to get really crowded around 3 or 4 o’clock. 


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