Homeward bound…well, almost…

Goodbyes said, tears shed, boxes packed and shipped. Leaving Korea has been difficult, probably more so than we expected, but now we’re at the airport ready to start our next big adventure. China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, then home for Christmas…


Goodbye Korea

As I sit here in the empty apartment that has been my home for the last two years I still can’t quite believe that my time in Korea is coming to an end.

It’s been one hell of a journey. We’ve met some wonderful people, eaten some (weird and) wonderful food, and experienced things that we never could have done anywhere else in the world.

Of course there have been ups and downs. At times it has been very difficult to be so far away from my family, and missing big celebrations like birthdays, graduations and Christmas has been horrible. My job has been very frustrating recently and as much as it breaks my heart to leave the kids I feel ready to move on to something new. But on the flip side, I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life here.

To anyone out there who is considering coming to teach English in South Korea I would whole-heartedly encourage you to just do it! Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it won’t always be a bed of roses. And yes, sometimes you will want to throttle the next ajumma that cuts in front of you in the queue for the bus. However, it will also be rewarding, enriching and so exciting.

So, for now it’s goodbye to Korea. The end of this chapter and onto the next.

My South Korean Bucket List

With my time in Korea rapidly coming to an end I need to get checking things off this list!

  • Eat sannakji (live octopus) 

I’ve yet to get my head (and stomach) around this one but it will be done!

A vile experience that I plan on never repeating.

Again, a one time only occurrence!

  • Eat bosintang (dog soup)Korean chicken feet

Controversial I know, but it is one of Korea’s most well-known delicacies.

  • Learn Korean

While I am nowhere near being fluent I can at least hold a decent conversation in Korean so I’m going to count this one!

  • Visit EverlandKorean baseball game

We’ve visited South Korea’s largest theme park, albeit on the wettest day of the year.

  • Watch a Korean baseball game

Woo SK Wyverns!

  • Leave a padlock at the top of Namsan MountainNamsan Tower Padlocks

In true K-drama style I have left one padlock with my boyfriend and one with my Mum.

  • Sing in a norebang

I never thought I would enjoy singing in any place other than the shower but there is something about norebangs that makes it okay to grab a microphone and a tambourine and bust out your best rendition of Sweet Caroline!

And what an unforgettable experience that was…

  • Haeundae Beach, Busan

Way down on the south east coast, Haeundae is probably Korea’s most famous beach and I am determined to get there.Pajeon

Just one of Korea’s latest beauty fads, but I am now a convert!

  • Drink makgeolli and eat pajeon on a rainy day

Had plenty of opportunity to do this recently during Korea’s rainy season.

  • Wear a hanbok

Korea’s traditional dress.

  • Do a Temple Stay

Still trying to find time to get in touch with my spiritual side and do a temple stay in Seoul.

  • Appear on Korean TVBoryeong Mudfest

I think I might have walked behind someone being interviewed at Mudfest last year but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.

  • Get a photo taken with a Korean celebrity

Still working on this one, too.

  • Swim in the East Sea and the West Sea

Paddling counts right?Eurwangni Beach

  • Haggle at Namdaemun

Still need to work on my bargaining skills with the ajummas in this huge traditional night market in Seoul.

  • Watch a K-Pop concert

We saw Psy perform in Seoul last summer just as Gangnam Style was at its peak and it was epic!PSY concert Seoul Plaza 4/10/2012

  • Peer over into North Korean from the DMZ

Described as the most dangerous place on Earth, no trip to Korea is complete without going here.

As with most things, weddings in Korea are totally different to weddings at home, and we’ve been lucky enough to go toKorean wedding four of them.

  • Visit Jeju Island

South Korea’s answer to Hawaii and a favourite with Korean honeymooners, Jeju was recently declared one of the New7Wonders of Nature, and an absolute must-see.

  • Visit all 5 of the great palaces in Seoul

One down…four to go…

  • Visit Seoraksan National ParkSeoraksan National Park 

We went nearly two years ago in autumn and it was just so beautiful.

  • See the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul

This festival is held every May around Jogye-sa Temple in Seoul in honour of  Buddha’s birthday and is hands down one of my favourite memories of Korea.

  • See the Cherry Blossom Festival

Every spring Korean parks become awash with beautiful pink and white cherry blossom, and Yeouido Park in Seoul is one of the best places to see it.

  • Do the Gangnam Style dance in Gangnam

Many a time!Korean cherry blossom

  • Try kimchi soda

Yes, this actually exists. Along with kimchi cookies, kimchi ice-cream and kimchi cake.

A Day in the Life of a TEFL Teacher

My day usually starts at a leisurely 10 o’clock with a bowl of Rice Krispies and a quick scan of BBC News; it’s finally sunny in England, and a school in Essex has banned triangular flapjacks because apparently they’re dangerous when kids throw them at other kids’ faces. Oh England. Then I drag myself, still bleary eyed, to the gym and after a quick shower and lunch I get ready and set off for work.

I’m late leaving for work, as always. I run for the bus, as always. I politely laugh at the bus driver’s joke about me running for the bus, as always. Whilst my journey to work is pretty standard, you can guarantee that once I arrive at school no two days are the same. That’s one of the best things about this job. Tears, laughter, singing, shouting, and even the occasional nosebleed, you never know what the day holds in store.

Work starts at 1.30pm with an hour to prepare our lessons for the afternoon, which we usually put to good use discussing last night’s episode of The Walking Dead or our plans for the weekend (even on Mondays!). Before we know it the kids are pouring out of the elevator in a flurry of Pokemon cards and sweet wrappers. The bell rings and classes begin.

To start the day I have a class of 7 year olds and a Disney-themed textbook, not quite sure who enjoys it more to be honest. They have only been learning English for 6 months but they are doing really well. Except for one. The windowlicker. Seriously, I wish I was kidding, I walked into the classroom a few weeks ago to find him actually licking the windows. Moving on…

Now for science class with my 8 year olds. We used to study Geography, but this term we’re on Science, which is probably for the best after that little mix up with the Nile and the Amazon. Today we’re studying push and pull forces and how things move. Have a slight accident involving a choo choo train and one of the kids’ front teeth. He’s fine though. It was wobbly anyway.

At 4 o’clock the first lot go home and the next influx of kids arrive. For me it’s my brand spanking new, so-cute-you-just-want-to-grab-their-cheeks-and-smush-them 5 year olds. They only started learning English 2 months ago so the lessons mostly revolve around practising the alphabet, singing Brown Bear and trips to the bathroom. While these classes can be quite challenging and require a lot of patience and mime skills, they are definitely the most fun and they are extremely rewarding. And did I mention how cute the kids are?

Half time nourishment arrives in the form of a box of Krispy Kremes and an orange juice. Korean parents are exceptionally generous and barely a week goes by without donuts, fruit, ice cream or coffee. Must do an extra 10 minutes in the gym tomorrow.

Next up are my favourites. I probably use that term too much but these are my favourite favourites. They’re 9 years old and they were my very first class when I arrived in Korea nearly 2 years ago. I walk in the classroom to lots of cuddles and after a thorough, sometimes brutal, evaluation of my hair and outfit choices of the day (fortunately it’s a thumbs up today!) we can get down to work.

Now it’s time for my class of five 14 year old middle school students. This is another of my favourite classes and I genuinely look forward to teaching them. They’ve been learning English for about 7 years and they’re really interested in Western culture, especially music, movies and Emma Stone. I’m barely through the door when they ask me if I’ve heard ‘the latest American song’ which turns out to be ‘Kiss Me’ by Sixpence None the Richer (released in 1997), before treating me to their best rendition.

My last class of the day is a torturous 50 minutes with a group of 16 year olds who are going through their quiet, moody stage and literally won’t even answer yes or no questions. Their attitude probably isn’t helped by the fact that this week we are studying the spread of deserts in Africa. Scintillating stuff. At 9 o’clock the bell goes, and not a moment too soon, and that’s it for another day. Home time!

My trip to a Korean jjimjilbang 찜질방

One of the things I miss most from home is a lovely, big, hot bath. Something that I have now managed to find in a Korean jjimjilbang. However, at home I never had to worry about sharing my bubbles with a gaggle of ajummas (not entirely sure what the correct collective noun for ajummas is but gaggle somehow seems to fit. Either that or a coven).

It can be rather difficult to explain what a jjimjilbang is to people back home. Partly because we don’t have an equivalent in England, and partly because people can’t get past the ‘What?! Everyone’s naked?!‘ bit. I suppose the best way to describe a jjimjilbang would be like a public bathhouse but with added extras like saunas, a gym, a restaurant, an internet cafe, a DVD room, a library and sometimes even a norebang. They are open 24 hours a day and entry is usually somewhere between £4-£7.

There are two parts to most jjimjilbangs; the segregated (nude) bathing areas and the mixed sex (clothed) areas with all the other facilities. A visit to a jjimjilbang is usually fairly high up a foreigner’s to-do list in Korea, but despite having lived in South Korea for over 18 months I only tried it for the first time last week.

We decided to start with the mixed area, and hoped that we would be so relaxed afterwards that we would have lost our inhibitions, and some of our British prudishness, by the time we went to the baths. Having changed into our super-flattering standard issue shorts and t-shirt we ventured forth into the jjimjilbang. Around the edge of the main room there were a series of dome-shaped saunas, each with different temperatures, scents and purported health benefits. We tried Himalayan rock salt, bamboo, rose quartz, pine and, my favourite, a big cave-like room where the floor was covered in a layer of marble-sized hot pebbles. A nightmare to walk on but utter bliss once you managed to lie down.

Korean jjimjilbang

Once we dragged ourselves away from the saunas we tried a massage chair. Well, I don’t know what I ever did to that chair but it seemed to hate me and was taking it out on my back. We somehow sat through 10 minutes of back-wrenching, shoulder-punching ‘relaxation’ while the Koreans all walked past us chuckling to themselves. Maybe they knew something we didn’t.

After another trip to the pebble sauna it was now time to brave the baths. Having said goodbye to the boys, I left my clothes, and my modesty, in my locker, made a mad dash across the changing room into the bathing area and just prayed that I didn’t bump into any of my students.

After a quick shower I headed for one of the steam rooms, thinking that they looked nice and dark and would give me a few moments to adjust to my new-found nakedness. But oh no. I stepped into the steam room and before I could even see through the steam I heard an alarmingly friendly ‘Hi! What’s your name?‘. After a few minutes of polite conversation the sweltering heat got too much for me so I made my excuses and escaped to the relative cool of the nearest hot tub. My new friend came over to join me and before I knew it started scrubbing my arms and back. ‘Don’t complain‘ she told/ordered me as she proceeded to scrape the top three layers of skin off my back. ‘You’re getting a bargain!‘ she assured me as she gestured towards a corner of the room where some jjimjilbang masseuses were charging ₩50,000 (£28) for all over, and I mean all over, body scrubs. I just hoped she wasn’t going to be quite so thorough. Fortunately she stopped after my arms, back and shoulders and after a little more stilted conversation we went our separate ways.

Korean jjimjilbang

After a little more soaking in various pools, and accidentally hopping into the cold pool without looking at the temperature first, it was time to find my clothes and head home for the best nights sleep I’ve had in a long time.

We went to Sky Land Spa in Bucheon (Sang-dong Station, Line 7). The entry fee was ₩9,000.

Life as normal in South Korea

Another day, another threat. Long, vague, wordy statements reeled out one after another with all too familiar stock phrases such as ‘sea of fire‘ and ‘disastrous consequences‘. With joint US and South Korean military training exercises currently taking place and a newly elected President in the Blue House, Kim Jong-Un and his regime seem to have taken the bluster and hyperbole to a whole new level over the last couple of weeks. But despite the potential outbreak of ‘thermo-nuclear war‘, (Kim’s words, not mine) there is no sign of panic in South Korea and life goes on as normal.

Many Koreans have lived their entire lives listening to such threats, and the truth is that despite all the talk, North Korea’s threat-to-attack conversion rate is (fortunately!) very low. The general consensus seems to be that starting a war would be tantamount to suicide for the Kim regime. In fact, most people don’t even think that they want a war, but that they actually just want to be able to start negotiations for aid for their starving population and failing economy, and what better bargaining chip than a nuclear bomb. All these ominous threats and imminent rocket launches are seen as desperate attempts to be taken seriously and to get some attention, much in the same way that a petulant child might whine and stamp its feet until the older kids take notice.

For outsiders I think the situation looks a lot worse than it is, and most of the panic and fear-mongering is coming from several thousand miles away. Most Koreans seem remarkably unfazed by the presence of a tinpot dictator sitting on a reported stockpile of weapons just 30 miles away. However, every time I look at the Western news and read things written well out of reach of any nuclear weapon North Korea might possess, people seem to be genuinely afraid. I saw a headline on BBC News last weekend that proclaimed in big, bold letters ‘N Korea at war with S Korea‘. Well that’s been the case since 1950 so it hardly seems like news to me.

So to those of you (Mum and Dad!) waking up to headlines like ‘N Korea threatens nuclear war‘, don’t start sending gas masks and water filters just yet!

Norebang; Karaoke Korean style

We’ve all been there. It’s 2am and after a few too many shots you and your friends are slurring and swaying your way through your best rendition of Hey Jude. While in England the word ‘karaoke’ conjures up images of dingy pubs and office parties, Korea has taken karaoke and turned it into something of a sacred institution. Norebangs (literally translates to ‘singing rooms’) are popular, commonplace, and, dare I say it, enjoyable?

Korean norebangIf there’s one thing Koreans love besides soju, which let’s face it is often an essential part of karaoke here, it’s a good sing song. According to statistics from 2009, there were almost over 36,000 norebangs in Korea, with 1.9 million people visiting them every day. Norebangs are dotted along every street and are usually identifiable by the glowing neon signs outside them and the wailing coming from within.

They range from tiny booths in games arcades to full-blown themed suites, and no Korean night out is complete without a visit to one. Usually kitted out with a disco ball, tambourines, a song book the size of the Yellow Pages and sometimes even a dance podium, the private rooms mean you don’t have to subject strangers to your best cat-strangling impressions. Just your friends.

The room hire itself is pretty cheap and while you are expected to order some food and drink you will often receive a lot of ‘service’, the wonderful Korean custom of giving away free stuff, often crispy pork cutlet, fried mushrooms or noodles.

One word of warning; never underestimate how seriously Koreans take norebang. Just as you’ve finished laughing your way through  ‘Sweet Caroline’, your Korean friend will swoop in with an emotional version of ‘My Heart Will Go On’, and maybe even shush you if you dare to talk over them…

The hat is optional

The hat is optional…

Korean norebang

…as are the dodgy dance moves

Korean norebang

How to get a Chinese visa from South Korea

Trying to obtain a visa for a country you plan to visit while you live in a country that isn’t the same country that issued your passport (are you still with me?) can prove rather complicated, as we recently found out when we tried to get Chinese visas for our English passports from South Korea.

Recent, rather frustrating, legislation means that Westerners living in Korea who plan to visit China have to get their visas through registered travel agencies, as opposed to applying directly to the Chinese embassy in South Korea. After reading various horror stories of hiked-up prices and scams I stumbled upon Soho Travel Agency which is based in Seoul and they were brilliant. Not only were they extremely helpful in answering the bazillion questions we had about the seven pages of  visa forms wanting to know our life histories, but they also replied to our emails very quickly and in perfect English.

We posted our forms, passports, alien registration cards and passport photos off, and within 5 days we had our visas. Highly recommended!

You know you teach English in Korea when…

…despite having no kids of your own you still get called ‘mum‘ five times a day.

…hearing ‘nice to meet you‘ from kids you’ve been teaching for over a year makes you want to cry.

…’magic‘ becomes a valid answer to any question.

…most lessons resemble a game of charades, and you’re actually getting pretty good at it.

…you’ve given up trying to explain that dragons and unicorns aren’t real.

…you feel so proud when you hear a kid talking to their friends outside the classroom and they use an expression that you taught them.

…there’s always one child who was obviously allowed to choose his own name. In a classroom of Toms and Sophies, there’s Chocolate.

…you’ve perfected the ‘shut up and sit down‘ glare.

…you’ve given up caring when your students tell you that you’re having a bad hair day, that you’ve got dark circles or that you have ‘soju face‘.

…there is nothing more heartbreaking than planning what you think is an amazing lesson, only for it to fail. Spectacularly.

…when trying to explain some of the finer nuances of the English grammar to a bunch of 6 year olds you’re met with the same expressions as if you were teaching them the laws of astrophysics.

…every time you hear ‘so-so‘ in response to ‘how are you today?‘ a little part of you dies inside.

…your English actually starts to get worse.


Teaching English in South Korea: Hagwons vs. Public schools

South Korea’s education system has a global reputation for being rigorous and fiercely competitive, but also very successful, churning out thousands of highly motivated and hard-working students every year. In fact a recent league table of the best education systems in the developed world placed South Korea second, with 82% of high school graduates going on to study at university, the highest rate in the OECD. For a country that in 1945 had an adult literacy rate of just 22%, that is an incredible achievement.

So, having decided that you want to come and teach English in South Korea, one of your next decisions will be where you want to work. While there are a few highly sought after opportunities at international schools and universities, the vast majority of jobs are either at hagwons (private after-school academies) or at state-run public schools.

What is the difference?

Hagwons are privately owned schools, usually part of a franchise, and they are run for profit. They range from kindergarten through to adult learners, but most are elementary school students who go to a hagwon after finishing their day at public school. These academies are fuelled by South Korea’s drive for success and thirst for knowledge, and only the students whose parents can afford the fees enrol, which leads to some debate over academic elitism. The curriculum is set by the school or the franchise itself, and the teaching materials are provided for you.

Public schools however are run by the Korean government’s Ministry of Education. There are no fees and attendance is compulsory for children over the age of 6. The main public school recruitment programs are EPIK, GEPIK and SMOE, and they cover elementary, middle and high schools. While there is usually a set curriculum the foreign teacher should do all their own lesson planning. Just as a side note, Seoul’s Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) is gradually phasing out employing native-speaking English teachers by 2014, meaning that the only jobs available in the city will be at hagwons.

Both types of school have the same set of requirements, and both offer very similar contracts, including accommodation (or a housing allowance), a return flight ticket and an end of year bonus.


The pros

I’ve been working at a small hagwon in Incheon for 16 months now and I absolutely love my job, I have very little reason to grumble. Unfortunately the internet is full of horror stories about teachers being conned out of money, fired without warning, or turning up to work one afternoon to find the place boarded up. Please don’t think all hagwon employers are like this! Obviously the stories must come from somewhere, but my friends and I have only had positive experiences here, so don’t write hagwons off just yet.

Hagwons in general have much smaller classes than public schools, my largest class has just eight students. This not only makes controlling the classroom a lot easier, but it also gives you a real chance to bond with each child, which to me is invaluable. An added bonus is that all the students in the same class tend to be at roughly the same level of English, which isn’t always the case at public schools.

Working as an English teacher at a public school you should expect to earn around 1.8 million won (£1065) per month, whereas hagwon employees take home between 2.1 – 2.3 million (£1250 – £1360). However, wages at both types of school can vary slightly depending on what you studied at university and how much teaching experience you have.

Hagwons tend to employ more than one foreign teacher at a time, while public schools usually have just the one. While you’re not guaranteed to be best buds, it is somewhat reassuring to have someone else there, to bounce ideas around with and just generally whinge at on those rough days.

The cons

The one thing that I wish I could change about working at a hagwon is the pitiful amount of holiday we get. The average seems to be around 10 days a year, but some only give national holidays. Other possible downsides include the possibility of doing overtime or working on Saturdays. My one piece of advice would be to read your contract thoroughly (several times if necessary!) before you sign it to fully understand what will be expected of you.

Another fairly common gripe about hagwons is that they are businesses. The students’, and therefore the parents’ happiness is crucial. This is something that you will need to get your head around because if, heaven forbid, one of those little cherubs isn’t entirely happy, you will hear about it!

Due to the fact that hagwons are generally attended by students after they have finished at public school for the day, the working hours can seem a little bizarre at first. Most hagwons don’t start until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and can finish classes as late as 11, although most stop around 9 or 10. If you’re not a morning person (like me!) this might suit you quite well, and seeing as most English teachers are employed by hagwons the chances are your friends won’t be finished until then anyway.

A typical kindergarten hagwon classroom

A typical kindergarten hagwon class

Public school

The pros

At a public school you will get almost twice the amount of holiday time that you would from a hagwon, which corresponds with the slightly lower salary. Public school teachers usually receive around 21 days a year, split between Christmas and the summer, giving you plenty of chance to go off and explore Asia.

Another plus of public school employment are the regular hours, and only having to work on weekdays. Most schools run from around 8.30 til 3 or 4.

The fact that public schools are state-run provides a certain degree of security. There is no chance of being paid late, not being paid at all or being fired with no reason, which unfortunately are risks you take if you work for a hagwon. 

Upon arrival in South Korea all public school teachers have several days of orientation. This gives you chance to meet other foreign teachers, and be introduced to the public school system. If you work at a hagwon there’s no guarantee of having much time to find your feet before starting lessons. I arrived in Korea late on a Thursday evening and I started teaching classes at 9.30 the next morning!

This could be a pro or a con depending on who you end up with, but all foreign public school teachers have a Korean co-teacher in the classroom with them, to help keep control and to translate. This also means that the workload is split between two people. Some foreign teachers find having a Korean teacher with them to be invaluable in large, lower level classes. However, the students may come to rely on the Korean teacher too much and you might find yourself being ignored.

The cons

Another one that could be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view, is ‘desk-warming’. At a public school you are paid for a set amount of hours per month, and you are expected to be at the school for that time whether you are teaching or not. So there may well be mornings, afternoons or even entire days spent sitting at your desk, playing on your phone or watching films. While getting paid to do nothing might sound great, a lot of people actually find it mind-numbingly boring, and a waste of time.

Larger class sizes, often between 30 and 40 children per class, can make it harder to build up relationships with the students. Also, in public school classes, although the students will all be the same age their levels of English may vary widely.

There are certain limitations when it comes to applying to public schools. You can state a preference of ‘city’ or ‘provincial’, but you have no more say in the location than that.  Also, they tend to recruit only twice a year, in February and in August to tie in with the Korean semesters. Can you wait that long?!

A typical public school classroom

A typical public school classroom

There’s no obvious choice as to which type of school you should go for, it really just comes down to personal preference and what you want out of your time in Korea.