Monday, August 16, 2010

How to Find a Good Hagwon

My hagwon experience has been one hassle after another.  The lastest trash they're making me walk through is my return flight: 24 hours with a stop in Manila, thousands of miles south, when the goal is to fly north and across the Pacific to San Francisco.  Does that seem logical to anyone?  If it can save my hagwon W50,000 (approx. $45) they'll do it.  They don't care at all about their staff.  A number of other things also happened to me at this hagwon that were disappointing, unfair, and just plain rude.  I've written up a few tips for people coming to Korea for the first time that will help ensure you're hagwon isn't a flop. 

1. To Be or Not To Be Recruited.

My recuiter was terrible.  Didn't realize it at first because they all had sweet voices on the phone and responded to my emails promptly.  But now I know that they misrepresented my institution by telling me that there would be more than one teacher.  They also offered no help to me--not even a response to a panicked email I sent--after I got the job, when no one at my hagwon listened to me at all.  They threatened that I would get no other job offers besides my first one, so I should take it as soon as possible, no questions asked.  It was about $200 less per month than I was hoping for, but I did as they said.  If you've read Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, they told a very similar story about realtors.  Because they don't get paid anymore if a house is on the market, they push their clients to take much less than they would like for their houses.  It's about turning more houses, not helping you sell your house as you'd like it.  Same with hagwon recruiters: the more clients they can churn out, the better their profits are.  BUT, Levitt and Dubner also stated that your realtor--or in this case, recuiter--is not going to dump a client immediately if they push a little harder for a better deal.  So moral of this story: push your recruiter, or find a new one all together, untill you get what you want from a contract and from a hagwon.  It's worth it.

You can find a job without a being recruited as well.  I think if I come back to Korea for another year, I will not do so through a recruitment agency.  There's lots of stuff on the web about job openings and they seem to give far more specifics about their company than the recruiting agency gave me.  Dave's ESL Cafe is a great one.  Most of the job offers are for immediate openings, but they usually list the phone number or address on the posting so you can call them with questions or do research on the area in which you'll be living/working. 

3. The Contract

Like I said, seriously don't settle.  There are certain things that I know are in some people's contracts that make their lives in Korea a helluva lot easier. 

a. Make sure you have at least 2 sick days.  This part is just kinda written out of contracts sometimes in Korea.  Koreans work really hard, and by this I mean that "personal days" are not a thing.  If you're not go-to-the-hospital-with-brain-swelling sick, you're expected to come into work.  I have pink-eye right now, something that would not fly working in American schools, but I don't have sick days, so my boss will take the risk of me giving it to all my students.  It's about the work that you output, not your physical well-being so much.  Please know that before you come to Korea. :)

b.  Ask that your flights--to and from Korea, always included in a hagwon contract--are the most direct flights available.  I talked about my upcoming 24-hour journey above and with other foreign English teachers in my neighborhood.  They told me that they all have a clause in their contract stating they get the most direct flight available.  What I'm saying is that I know it exists and I wish I would have had the foresight to require it. 

c.  Your contract should have a clause about what is included with your apartment: furniture, kitchenware, other facilities.  Almost all contracts say, and thus the apartments include, bed with linens, pillows, and a comforter, heating, air conditioner, hot water available 24 hours, a gas range, a clothes washing machine, sink, full-size refrigerator, microwave, rice cooker, a frying pan, a pot, dishes, silverware, a couch, a desk, a tv, a wardrobe, as well as cable tv and high-speed internet capabilities.  Almost everyone has these things, but if they don't include them in your contract, you probably won't get them.  Make sure they are each listed in your contract before you sign. 

d.  Lastly, ask your recuiter to reconfirm how many foreign teachers and other staff are working at your hagwon and how many students on average are in each class.  This will give you an idea of the scale of your hagwon.  Also ask what facilities your classroom includes (whiteboard, TV, projector, computer, individual desks, group tables).  This information will give you a sense of whether the school is doing fine or hurting financially.  If your recruiter can't or won't give you this information, call the school directly.  Someone must speak English; it's an English teaching institution for f's sake.  Once you get the school directly you can ask things about the dimensions of the apartment offered, how far it is from hagwon and if you can get some pictures of the place.  I did this pictures requesting thing, got pictures of the hagwon, but the guy *forgot* to give me pictures of the apartment.  Well, if was a dirty, small piece with no window.  The smallest apartment I've seen to date, and the only apartment I've seen that doesn't have one entire wall entirely made of windows.

You can get these things!  They are available!  You just need to require them and make your hagwon sign on it. 

3.  You Took the Job!  Now What? 

*stay tuned for a my next blog post about coming entering the world Korean hagwon work!*

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Something You May Not Know About Korea

Something you may not know about Korea is that all the chopsticks are flat, heavy, slick, and metal.  I had practiced using wooden, plastic, and bamboo chopsticks in the states before I came because that was all I had been exposed to.  However, the first time I picked up the unweildy sticks in Korea, I was shocked at how most of my acquired chopstick skills faded away.  Two wobbly strips of metal floating independently between my fingers is what I had.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fatty Fatso McFattigan

Take a look at this picture: 
Now, please tell me: what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you see this girl?  If you said pop star, you're right.  She's Tiffany from Korea girl megagroup So Nyeo Shi Dae, or Girl's Generation.  If you said, she's pretty cute, I don't know if you're necessarily right, but I agree with you.  Itty-bitty shorts, leather studded bracelet, hair in her face, etc.  There are many things one could say about this girl.  But, there is one thing that I thought I would never hear about this girl, let alone ANY Korean celebrity:

Two of my female students were talking today about a non-present male classmate, Raphael.  They were giggling and saying his name, so I asked them what they were saying.  "Do you know ν‹°νŒŒλ‹ˆ (spoken, "TeePanee" using Korean English)?" I didn't.  They explained who she was, and I knew her group.  "Raphael likes her." *more giggles* Then they said something else in Korean, and puffed out their cheeks.  "Are you saying she's fat?" "Yes!" they responded, and continued to giggle.   Like I said, I have NEVER seen any Korean celebrity who I would consider fat, so I raced home to find a picture of this obese pop star I'd heard about.  This was all I could find.  Fat? Did that pass through your mind?  It certainly did not for me.  

Image in general seems very important to Koreans I've met and not met (on TV, heard about through friends), especially body image and otherwise appearance.  I've heard multiple people assure me that 100% of Korean celebrities have had plastic surgery, and on many it is very apparent (like, they've gone overboard and their faces crinkle funny or don't move at all).  Maybe chill out, Korea.  I don't know; just sayin'. *^^*

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cherry Blossoms in Gyeongju

Last weekend, April 10th and 11th, I took the KTX cross country train far south to Gyeongju to see a more touristy side of Korea.  We arrived at about 11am, found a cute little hostel, rented some bikes to tool around the city, and viewed a ton of cherry blossoms and magnolia trees.  I have a few highlight pictures directly on this page--please click to view a larger size--and many more located at this link.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Kinda Miffed

So I just bought a new camera--sweet, right?--but everytime I take it out at school the kids try to cover their faces and run away like I'm some kind of child-molesting freak.  Today I had this great shot of three boys sitting in front of the plasma watching Cartoon Disney, eating the stinkiest dried squid tentacle snack, just dazing out, but as soon as I stopped in front of them they flipped out as if I was trying to murder them.  It's not just that "most Korean students are very shy," as my coworker Katie says, because tons of my friends have really great pictures of their students posing, doing the cheesy two-finger pose, huge smiles on their faces.  Maybe my kids think I'm creepy or mean and they're trying to punish me, unconsciously, of course.

Will I remember them if I don't have their pictures?  Will they remember me?  It makes me feel good to imagine my future with Korea in my distant past and still have some physical evidence that I existed in another country.  Some tangible proof that I helped some kids make it to adulthood.  *huff*

Monday, March 15, 2010

What is a Seoulite like?

I recently read an article on the Korea Times that gives a statistical make-up of people living in Seoul. Here's my commentary.

"In Seoul, a city with a population of 10.4 million, the average resident is a 37.6-year-old married office worker with a bachelor's degree."

With huge companies like Daewoo and Samsung headquartered there, it's no wonder that most people work in an office.  I also recently read in another article that Korea has the highest number of people in their workforce with degrees in post-secondary education.

"Six out of 10 households earn between 2 million and 4 million won monthly, which makes them the so-called middle class." 

Hey!  I'm middle-class!  I'm guessing that another two or three out of 10 make a lot more than that because housing is very limited and extremely expensive.  

"The number of Seoul residents in their 20s or under is on the decline while the population of the older generation is increasing."

This figure can't be read quite the same as it would be in the USA or Canada.  Most post-high school students live with their parents until they get married.  Some men move out of their family's home earlier than that, but not until they're like 30.  It's also true that Korea's birth-rate is dropping, meaning more old ones around (see this stat below).  

"Every day there are 264 births, 106 deaths and 197 marriages. In 2009, 91,000 babies were born in Seoul, around a 3,700 decrease from the previous year."

The woman that I tutor said that in order to turn this birth rate drop around the conservative party is suggesting making abortions illegal.  Huh.  Interesting reason supporting this ethical dilemma. 

"More than 42 percent of Seoul's housing consists of apartments, while houses only account for 7 percent."

This is apparrent as you look at any horizon line in Korea.  Beautiful mountains covered in green foliage surrounded by hundreds of identical tall, white buildings.  I don't think I've ever seen a house in Korea, actually. 

"About 47 percent of households are in debt, with the biggest portion being mortgage loans."

Oh, I BET!  In order to change my apartment I had to pay a move-out fee of close to $200, and then a move-in fee for the same amount for moving within the same building!  The cost of housing is VERY high in Korea.  This runs parallel to the aforementioned fact that most people live with many family members, which is much cheaper than living alone.  I wonder if the high cost of living alone is a means of keeping people together or just an end of people being together already. 
"The subway is the most popular means of public transportation in Seoul with 7.2 million users a day, while buses have 4.6 million passengers.
"Seoul boasts of one of the world's most convenient subway networks."
Awesomely true.  It's under W2,000 (about $1.50) to go one way anywhere within the subway network.  The trains run on time and everyone and their mothers take it.  Many people use their time on the subway to watch TV or movies on their cell phones or MP3 players, listen to music, read or doze off while leaning into the person next to them, most often with no discomfort caused to other Koreans.  I've seen some foreigners flip out when nodders-off sway their heavy heads their way, and to them I say: GET OVER IT.  Sleeping people are in no way malicious.  Calm down. Love the subway. 
"Over the years, Seoul has become much more expensive to live in.
"Bus fares have jumped 25-fold from 40 won in 1977 to 1,000 won today, and subway fares have gone up from 30 won in 1974 to 1,000 won as of now.
"Soju, one of the most favored liquor in Korea, cost 120 won per bottle in 1975, but is currently priced at 1,200 won."

Aw, soju.  For the almost the same cost for your bus/subway ride to a friends party, you will not come empty-handed.  W1,200 is like pocket lint.  Pocket lint that can get some one pretty drunk.
As for the bus/subway fares rapid expansion, this whole country has had a 25-fold jump is so many things in the last 30 years: international business, GDP and standard of living (not the same), technology, producing Olympic athletes, superstructure, and education.  It's changing fast.  A friend of mine from Wisconsin who taught in Seoul in the late 1980s (sorry if I fudge the dates, Linda) said that Korea didn't really have many sweet or dessert-type foods, aside from red bean paste.  I was surprised to see that almost every 4-blocks or so is a Baskin Robbins, Dunkin Donuts, Paris Baguette, or Tous Le Jours (two sweet bakeries in Korea). 

I interested in coming back after this in 20 years and see how much more it has changed.  One thing I hope for Korea's future is more trash cans and more inter-city trees. 

Please leave your comments or questions in the box below.  Remember, you can post anonymously if you'd like; I just wanna hear from you! 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Such a Lovely Day!


How'd you get so gorgeous allasudden?  It's 59 degress outside in February.  That NEVER happens in Minnesota, and I'm not missing it at all at the moment.  I bounced into work today, watched Korean figure skater Kim Yeon A win the gold medal on my coworkers DMB (television capabilities on your cell phone), and wanted to talk about how awesome I felt about the weather and up-coming weekend. 

Vanessa: So, any plans for the long weekend?
Katie: -silence, while staring down at the ground-
Janice: -somber- No, nothing special.
Katie: -turning to me, looking like she decided to answer my question afterall- koreankoreankorean.
Janice: koreankoreankorean.
Katie: morekoreankoreankorean.

Thanks for sharing my enthusiasm, guys.  You're real pals on this gorgeous spring day.  Don't worry; I'll get over it you ignoring me.  I always do.  : /

After work, I'm going to take my kite out to Central Park in Pyeongchon, a huge open space in which I've seen young and old ones alike flyng their kites.  I wish I had someone to take pictures. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

New Apartment!

Last week Friday, I moved my entire apartment in a flurry of bedsheets, stacks of clothes on hangers, and shopping bags of dishes aflyin' in about an hour.  If my faithful readers recall, I lived in a jail-cell-sized one room apartment with a huge barricade over the window and no sunlight at any time of the day.  Now, I've moved across the hall and down two floors to an identical apartment, only this time with an east-facing window. The minute I opened the door to my new place and saw the glory of the sun pouring into my new home, I knew I had made the right choice to change.

The room sat an utter mess for an entire week: suitcases still brimming with odds and ends along with my disassembled bed, mattress bare and taking up the dead-center of the floor.  So finally, Saturday (yesterday), I took a weekend day off from meeting with friends for drinks, shopping, and dining to finally straighten it up.  The previous tenant left an ABSOLUTE mess.  Years of urine seemed to be baked into the tiles surrounding the toilet.  The floor had muddy foot prints on it.  Sweeping under the fridge, I felt like a detective of the occupants before me: I found (lots of dust,) several baby spoons, a package of baby wet wipes, cat food, a tiny photo album of a baby girl, along with a huge photo of a mom, dad, and the same baby in hanbok at what looked like a birthday celebration for the baby.  What I'm thinking is, You mean to tell me that a baby, a cat, and possibly another adult all lived in this same tiny space?  Wowza.

I literall spent the entire day cleaning, sorting, and rearranging.  I want to post pictures of how it is now to show what a difference getting rid of some of the furniture made.  I found out that in the little closet that holds my water heater and airconditioner, there's a ton more space to shove other things to get them out of the way.  I decided that setting up the bed with the side railings and headboard would just take up too much space, so I set the mattress on its platform and called it a day.  I moved my two huge pieces of luggage, side rails from the bed, my fan, and my coffee table into the closet and now I'm free, free, free.  I feel like I may want to have guests over now!  Getting sunlight and removing all that clutter has really made a difference in my mood.  Yesterday was the first day that I actually felt comfortable just staying at home, by myself.  A body needs that, you know. 

This weekend is Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year.  Many things were closed and the streets were pretty empty.  It's like Christmas in America: women make tons of food, spending the whole time with family, leaving the city to visit relatives, giving gifts of money to children and grand-children.  On Friday night, Ashley invited a bunch of my friends over to her place in Sanbon, where our friend, Gideon, made panang curry and we ate until we exploded.  There was wine, ddeok (a kind of semi-sweet glutinous rice cake, see pic below), strawberries; it was the best! 

Here are some more pics that Sean Han took of the event.

Purple wine teeth.  Gross.
The girl with the long blonde hair is Ashley, blonde hair worn up is Meredith, super-tall guy at the helm of the curry operation is Gideon--he just got a suit tailored for him in Itaewon because he simply cannot buy clothes anywhere else in Korea--and making a very small appearance from the back is Steve, from Stillwater, MN. 

Please leave your comments and questions in the comment box below or send me an email at 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mr. Lee x2

I met my three clients today for the first time near Beomgye station.  Like I said before, two older men, civil engineers, who said they need to improve their English skills so that they can make conversation with other foreigners when they have business trips in the United Arab Emeritus.  They were accompanied by a younger woman, with whom I met before to discuss the goals and conditions of the tutoring.  Her name is Chae Won, she's a shy, TINY thirty-something whose English is good enough for conversation with a patient listener, but needs some tuning on pronunciation and a few specific grammar issues. 

Chae Won greeted me at the elevator and brought me into a vacant conference room on the fifteenth floor of a bustling office building in "downtown" Beomgye, if that really exists due to it being dwarfed by neighboring Seoul.  A gigantic digital clock glared red in the elevator hallway, reminding people of how late they were to their 9 o'clock workday.  She brought me into a vacant conference room and slipped on a pair or slippers at the door.  Soon after, she came back with my two English beginners.  They wore matching nylon coats and looked like building contractors, the ones you see on TV at building sites wearing clean khakis, hard hat, and holding a few rolls of schematics. 

The suggestion from some teaching adult ESL internet sites was to ask them to choose English first names, both so they could learn English under  a guise if they had anxiety about their level and so I could remember their names more easily.  They wanted to keep their names.  The first one said he would go by Mr. Lee.  Easy enough.  The second one gave me his full name, of which, condensed to last name, was also Mr. Lee.  This made me a little nervous, but as class went on, it was just easier to address them as the same name and gesture to one or the other if I wanted them to speak individually.  Most of the material I prepared was too low of a level for them and I started getting nervous that they would call think I was underqualified and quit before we had even begun.  Not the case: I thought up some stuff on the fly and they were content repeating after me, taking notes and doing small role plays of, "What do you like to do? I like to golf," and the like.  I then asked them to repeat, "What is your favorite food?" and the older of the two Mr. Lee's asked me if I like soju.  I giggled, made a motion to my chest and said, "뢈" which means "fire." They both got a good laugh out of it, and I felt like I gained a little bit of respect because I took it well. 

After I ran out of material at 11--half an hour earlier than planned--they said they would go back to work,* and I was left with Chae Won for the last half hour.  We just shot the shit, as much as you can shoot the shit with a woman 17 years older than you who smiles and giggles as if she's half your age.  It was fun.  My second lesson is tomorrow, and after that we meet Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays every week.  If you would like to know more about how my tutoring is going, post a comment below or send me an email at 

*So I guess they take time out of their work day to meet with me and all "free dinners"--inquire within--they give me also come from their employer.  Pretty rad.  Sounds legit. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

English Tutoring

My week has been super busy.  I've recntly agreed to give three Korean business people some English tutoring--free of charge--three mornings a week for a while.  My first meeting with them is this morning and I spent a couple hours last night preparing.  Rigid gender lines between younger generations are beginning to soften, but tutees are two older men and and that may be little bit weird for me.  Since I've come to Korea, the only older man that I've met has been my doorman, Mr. Han, but he's one of the sweetest and most Westernized people I've met here (he was a KATUSA--Korean in assistance to the US Army--for two years and then a military cook for many years after, mingling with American soldiers and practicing his English for more than a decade in country).  So I hope we can all be respectful to each other.  :)

So tutoring this morning and tomorrow morning, and then on Thursday night, I need to finish getting my entire apartment packed and cleaned so my friend's Gideon and Diana can come and help me move early Friday morning.  Well, none of us work until around 2pm, so early for us means 9am.  I offered to buy them lunch after we finish--AND NOT A MINUTE SOONER!  hehe.  This weekend I need to go out and buy myself some apartment warming plants.  OH, AND! while I was moving stuff around, I found W100,000 that I had stashed a couple of months ago in a secret hiding spot!  Pretty cool, huh?  I'm probably just going to to use it to pay bills, but whatev's.  Kay wish me luck on my move! 

Monday, January 18, 2010

New Bike

I finally got a bike here in Korea.  I bought from a guy living near Ssangmun station--almost an hour and a half from where I live--but I really think it was well worth it.  Found it on craigslist: Seoul.  It's a white Lespo Rally (Korean make) with a nice smooth ride and compact design.  It cost me W280,000 (equivalent to $250) and it's definitely well worth it for how much use I'm going to get out of it.  I'm going to get the handlebars adjusted tomorrow at a bike shop down the street and s/he is free to ride!  Tonight it started warming up here as well, so a trip out tomorrow is in order!  The amount I'm going to save on taxi rides is going to be very freeing.  Tomorrow and Wednesday are going to be in the 40s, so I I better get some riding in before Thursday when it drops down in the 20s with a low of 3 degrees.  ChillAY!

I won't have many pictures up in the coming month of two because, uh . . . I lost my camera.  :/ Very sad, I know.  I'm still going to steal some from my friends' facebook pages, though.  Hehhe!  Any questions or comments, please submit them using the comment link below. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

False Korean History?

While thinking of movies that I would like to see and download, I saw show on TV that looked like some black and white footage of Korean history.  I wonder why I haven't gotten a chance to learn about Korean history before this point!  I know about the Korean war and how the south became democratic while the north became communist, but that's really about it.  My Korean coworkers don't talk about it.  Most of the references to historical periods or past leaders in museums and temples have mental "hooks," no frame of reference, to to "hang" the new information I read.

So I googled "korean history, and I followed the video links.  From there I found an 18-part series on the Korean war, but more numerous, however, were kind of lectures through text about how Koreans fabricated most of the major points of their history or stole them from China and Japan.  The videos said, in not the best English, that Koreans claim Confucius as Korean, stole Chinese symbols to use on their flag, and Seoul was a grand slum before the Japanese occupation made it a successful metropolis.  One video even claims "Korean cultural plagiarism."  Wow. 

With titles like, "Why Koreans Always Lose to Japan," and "All Your Culture Are Belong to Us (sic)," it's hard to just ignore such a great presence of this propaganda!  Korea's so small, why would people feel such a need to pick on it? My best guess is their fantastic global economic image is causing part of it, but if anyone has any comments on this, please post in the box below!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010