For Future Reference

So, I get a **TON** of email...ok, I don't but it felt good to say it. :) But seriously, I get emails from readers and they tend to ask the same questions, which I don't mind answering at all. So, I'm gonna do the sisterly thing and share my knowledge about how I got my butt from the couch to Korea and how you can do it, too! :)

STEP 1: Don't bother with TEFL/TESOL/TESL, whatever in KOREA

I can't speak of other countries and in general, I suppose this certification is good because it lets you teach all over the world. But for South Korea, they couldn't really care less about this, at least not for hagwons. I think public schools may see a small bump for having it. But I forked over almost $1700 for TEFL certification and I can tell you right now, that money didn't translate a bit into higher pay for me. Being totally new to the profession, it did give me information on lesson planning, classroom manangement, etc. But I gotta tell you, that went right out the window. My school was on-the-job training all the way. What matters is your Bachelor's degree. Heck, it could be in Mudwrestling for all they care. But it matters. With increasingly bold degree scandals sweeping the country, they're getting more suspicious of already-suspicious foreigners. So, nail down that degree then come. OR, you could always come over illegally but obviously, I'm not condoning or advocating that.

STEP 2: Narrow it down!

Look, Korea's got a lot of areas. Most people say, "Blah blah blah I wanna work in Seoul. Blah blah blah". I reckon I said something like this, too. But Seoul is huge and so are the neighboring provinces like Gyeonggi-do and Bundang. Bust out the Seoul subway map and start learning about the areas. If you're a foreigner who likes being around foreigners, you may want to be near Itaewon. If you're a foreigner who hates other foreigners, well then you can pretty much go anywhere! Hahaha...

What I'm saying is that you need to be specific. I wanted to be near Seoul but with a lower cost of living and creature comforts like gyms, malls, parks and stuff within walking distance. Hence, Bucheon. Find out what's really critical to your well-being over the course of a year. It's a long time and your first year really sets the tone for whether you wanna renew a contract.

And also, when you're dealing with recruiters and they're throwing around random ass areas like Gumi, Macheon and Cheonwang, you can look at your map and gauge, with greater accuracy, how far or close you are to big areas in Seoul. Every recruiter SWEARS their school is only "35 mins" from downtown Seoul and it ain't! So, keep it in perspective and be SPECIFIC!

STEP 2.5: Speaking of recruiters...

I used a recruiter called EnglishWork. My personal recruiter, Ashley, was okay. She served as the go-between when I had negotiation problems or any questions. But mostly, Ashley was pressed for time and wanted me to sign on the dotted line as quickly as possible. For this reason, I wouldn't suggest using a Korean recruiter unless you've gotten some stellar recommendation. In general, they are very pushy and don't give two hogs' balls about whether you'll be satisfied in that position. They just want their $1000 per head pay so they can move on to the next one. With that being said, there are only 2 recruiters that I will personally vouch for - Footprints (Ben Glickman is one of the founders) and ESL Planet (Rowan Hall). They were both started by foreigners and cater to foreigners. They will work with you to make sure a position fits you. They are very thorough and there's considerable follow-up. And they usually only work with reputable hagwons, another BIG plus. Saves you from a premature heart attack. I dealt with both of them, but there was a slight hurdle in getting me placed, presumably because of my pigment. But also, it was just kinda slow. It felt like I applied to 500 jobs in 2 weeks so I knew I was bound to get something. It was just the luck of the draw that I landed my job through EnglishWork.

Some of the big hagwons in Korea are YBM (with many subdivisions like YBM Sisa), ECC, CDI, SLP, and Topia. I'm missing a bunch I'm sure. Those are just the big ones but there are literally thousands of smaller, lesser known ones. But here's the important distinction, and I will put this in BOLD - IF YOU DECIDE TO WORK FOR A CHAIN HAGWON, MAKE SURE TO DO YOUR RESEARCH ON THAT SPECIFIC LOCATION!! I'll go ahead and type it again...FIND OUT ABOUT THAT PARTICULAR SCHOOL! This is very important. Each school is owned by different people so this is what causes friction. For example, you apply for a position with So-and-So Hagwon in Mokdong, thinking it's all peachy because "So-and-So is a good brand" and turns out that school is bouncing teachers in the 11th month without severance and airfare. So, be certain, you need to find out how that location is run. Just because you see double G's doesn't make it Gucci, if you know what I mean.

STEP 3: Determine your non-negotiables

You will probably get a lot of offers, whether you're brown or not, and they'll start to look the same after awhile. How do you weed through the junk? Figure out what is non-negotiable for you. Be specific but not picky. Face the fact now that you're not going to get EVERYTHING you want in a job. Landing a job overseas requires flexibility. So, you may have to deal with slightly incompetent Directors for higher pay or you may not be able to walk to work. Maybe you have to take your vacation when the school says or you have one of those hose contraptions for a shower. Some things you can control and some you can't. The point is not to nitpick. Determine what you simply will not budge on and stick by it. Any offers that come your way with the dreaded unmentionable get nixed. You wanna work mornings and an offer is from 2-10pm? Trash! You don't want kindy and you're required to work it 2 or 3 days? Trash! No severance? TRASH!! An hour from downtown Seoul?? TRASH!!
This is how you weedle down those offers and just keep it moving. There are plenty to go around.

STEP 4: Know the standards

Slimy hagwons will beg, borrow, and steal to get around their legal obligations. I got lucky with my school and ended up in nicely moisturized, non-slimy hands. They actually had integrity, except for the whole cutting-off-my-insurance-after- 4-months scandal. But they paid me back, which is a miracle. You should know the standards for each and every contract because they are essentially the same. You are supposed to have certain basic accommodations and if those things are mysteriously absent from the contract, you should be throwing red,white, and blue flags all up and through there. Here's a quick run-down of what you can expect (and again, there will be variations depending on hagwon vs. public school):

- Decent pay, between 1.9 - 2.2 million won for a first year at least (this fluctuates wildly based on experience teaching and school)
- Furnished housing either paid by the school or with a decent housing allowance
- Health insurance paid 50% by the school and 50% by you (mine was like 50,000 won a month)
- Paid airfare and a return ticket home (REVISED 4/15/10: It seems with the recent economic conditions, schools may ask you to pay your airfare upfront and will reimburse you upon arrival)
- Severance bonus after completing your year (horror stories galore about teachers getting fired in the 11th month so be careful)
- National korean holidays and between 10-14 vacation days (I could choose my vacation days which is rare but really hold them to this)

I'm sure I'm missing some things but fellow teachers, please feel free to comment and add on to these. It's been awhile since I looked at a contract so I could be wrong on some of these.


Oh, how I love cliches, don't you?? Well this is actually steps 1-5, but this just stresses how important this factor is. And all rules of common sense generally don't apply here. For example, recruiters and schools will always need you to start "immediately". They don't but doing things at the last minute is the way of the world in Korea. You will need probably a month or more to prep for leaving with all the new rules and regulations for criminal checks and medical exams. If they really want you, they'll wait. If they're just looking for an idiot to fill the position, they'll move on. Period.

I can't stress this enough but I'll try. TALK TO THE FOREIGN TEACHERS AT YOUR SCHOOL!!! Please, please, please, and please talk to them. Ask them the tough questions about what the hell you're getting into. If you'd like a specific list of questions that I asked, email me for them. It's the only way to really gauge the financial and emotional health (yes, emotional health!!) of your school. Because no one wants to be ostracized and belittled for a year. You need to try to eliminate as many variables as possible BEFORE getting your ass on the plane. And you don't wanna walk into a situation where you get there and come to find out, the school is closing in a month. So the questions you ask before will save you a whole lot of headache later.

Many folks just starting out usually go to Dave's ESL Cafe for assistance. I certainly did, especially trying to find out what a school was like. But I found over time that I was getting too much opinion and not enough facts from them. I think they're very useful for contractual clarifications to determine if you're getting a good deal. But sometimes you've gotta take it with a grain of salt. You've got some hardened ESL veterans on those boards whose only purpose in life (aside from teaching occasionally and trolling for lonely, desperate Korean girls) is to badmouth and nitpick. They essentially hate Korea so trying to glean objective information from them becomes nearly impossible. So, just be cognizant of that as you search for answers.

Step 6: Be open-minded

This goes without saying but I'll say it because I like hearing myself type. I guess if you're considering moving to another country, you must be somewhat open-minded already. But you know, you'd be surprised how many hermit foreigners live in different countries. The most anti-social, weird, freakish people you can imagine somehow wind up in Korea. So, if you're gonna come to Korea, make a point to experience some Korean things (and not just the men!! Hahaha...ha **womp womp**). You know, um, eat some kimchi (it took me 10 months but I love it now!), wear a hanbok, travel around Korea (my only regret), make Korean friends, go to some temples, etc. Above all else, just be receptive. And try not to get too pissed off at the sheer ignorance of some Koreans. Just like all Blacks aren't gun-toting, welfare baby mommas and daddies on crack, all Koreans are NOT clueless and ignorant. So, at the end of the day, you get what you give out. If you wanna be that Korea-bashing foreigner, go right ahead. Just don't be too surprised when all you encounter are foreigner-hating Koreans. :)

I will add some links probably for useful websites to check out if you're considering the move. I'm glad you kind people have followed me all this time...it's really been a pleasure writing and getting to meet some of you! Now I'm off to the next adventure but Korea will always have a very special place in my heart...


I Came, I Saw, I Kimchi'd

Damn blogger for not loading my pictures!!! I started this post about 2 weeks ago but internet was so sporadic in the Philippines and I was so busy my last week that I didn't update. So, I apologize for the massive delay, loyal readers!! Soooooooooo sorry...

It's my last post here in Korea. Can you believe the ride is over? Seems like I just got on. Emotional, saddening, exciting, gut-wrenching...that about sums it up. My week started with tears on Monday night. I cried at the gym saying goodbye to Justin. Well actually, I didn't cry in front of him but rather quietly in the elevator. He had the saddest puppy dog face in the world as he hugged me. I'm really gonna miss our chats...and looking at his niiiiiiiice body. I also said goodbye to my other gym rat buddy, Jin woo. So adorable that kid. I didn't think stumbling through words could be cute and endearing, but he makes it work! I'll miss them both so much...and a few other gym cuties that provided constant motivation for me to stay in shape.

On Tuesday, I said goodbye to my other kindergartners. I really, really loved my Tuesday kids. They knew me better because I saw them more. I started crying when some of the kids just jumped on me and started hugging me, telling me not to go. I mean, my God, I was so close to caving and saying, "Alright, alright! I'll do another year!" just so I wouldn't have to look into their eyes. Even the Director, Grace, got choked up. She said that they'd never had an English teacher who really cared and connected with the kids the way I did. The one before me was a great teacher but not very involved, rather standoffish towards them. They always looked forward to my classes. Truthfully, all I did was just play games with them. I wouldn't even call it teaching, but it was something...and they really appreciated it. So, that made me proud. I feel like if I can walk into a room full of hollering 6-year olds and keep it together, how hard can it be with adults?! And if a vice presidential candidate can get on international TV in front of the entire world and have no idea what she's talking about, surely I can handle anything that comes my way. :)

More gut-wrenching goodbyes came on Wednesday with my smallest ones at school. Even though it was written on the calendar a month ago that I was leaving, for some reason, they didn't know. So when I wrote down their homework, it said, "1) Homework Book p. 19-21 2) Write new words 5X each 3) I love you. Goodbye! :(" So, as they're dutifully copying down the assignment, I watched as it dawned on them that #3 wasn't a homework assignment but a secret message meant to torment them. Clare's face registered sheer horror.

"Joooooiiiiaaaaa!!" she whined.

"Yes, Clare?" I said, already feeling small pools forming around my lower lid.

"Why? What? You....leave???"

"Yup! Uh huh...today is my last day..." **biting the lip, avoiding eye contact at all costs**

"But...but...no.." By this point, she's in my face, demanding an answer and shaking her head angrily. Then she wrapped her little arms around my neck and boy, you shoulda seen how fast those tears flew down my cheeks. And I think, for a child, seeing an adult cry, especially an authority figure, is quite destabilizing. So naturally, I think she cried harder when seeing me cry. And that made me cry harder seeing her cry. It was a total mess. She was clinging to my leg and not wanting to get on the bus. Heartbreaking does not begin to describe my emotions. We pulled it together enough to snap a couple of pictures. But as you see, Clare is not smiling or happy at all. In fact, I think I succeeded in really pissing her off. I will miss her the most.

So, a few weeks ago, I had lunch with Bryan...and his new girlfriend! It was kinda out of the blue because we were supposed to hang out the night of the soul food dinner, but he had to cancel because his great-grandfather passed I think. But he also said, "I have a new girl and I want you to meet her..." I wasn't sure I heard him right so after we hung up, I texted him just to be sure. And he confirmed that yes, he had a new girlfriend. I agreed to meet her, conscience be damned, because we are friends. A little awkward? Sure. She's a really nice, pretty girl though. And quite frankly, it's not like we were going to be anything but friends. I didn't understand why he wanted me to meet her and I didn't ask. I just went along with it...

For my last big night, I went out with my friends for dinner, drinks, and dancing! It was amaaaaaaaazing! Definitely my best night in Seoul because all of my favorite people came out for me. We had dinner near Seoul Tower, in Namsan, at a really cool restaurant called Space. The atmosphere was perfect, reminded me of an NYC lounge. Even the menu had NYC prices! Except the $10 can (not including 12% VAT) of Dr. Pepper. YES, a can! Mind-boggling. I even asked the server how in the hell they could possibly charge that much for a can of Dr. Pepper and her answer was, "Well, that's just what it is..." I'll tell you what it is, lady...a crime!!

So after dinner, we went to Itaewon for drinks at a cool (crowded) spot called Brixx. Free drinks will always be okay with me! And that's when everyone else showed up! I was ecstatic!!! YAY!!!

We stayed there for about an hour or so before moving on to Gangnam. We piled into taxis and went to NB, which was really poppin' for a Thursday night. So, my friend had called ahead to see if we could get a VIP section because it would only be about $20 per person. We get to the door and get DE-NIED! Suddenly, the manager/bouncer/bartender/idiot was saying that we had to pay an entry fee in addition to the cost for the VIP. I was trying to talk to the guy to strike a bargain. Didn't budge. Then a bunch of others tried to talk to him and explain how foul it was that they changed the rules once 20 black folks showed up. But whatever. People buried all that anger for the sake of my last night, paid the money, and partied til the wee hours!! I really had fun and I appreciated every, single person who came out to send me off in style!

I had more pics but Blogger is acting up so I'll add them later. But my time in Korea was incredible...I'm really sad to be leaving here because it's like leaving a family. I can truly say I have real love for the people I've come to know here and I miss them already. So, if anyone has reservations about packing up and moving across the world, if there are any voices (be they real or imagined) telling you not to go...I'd say ignore them and just jump. At the very worst, you won't like it...but at the very best, you'll unearth new dimensions of yourself and forge new friendships.

One of my favorite quotes by Todd L. Bradbury says, "Life is like a circle, and if we travel in opposite directions on that circle, we will meet again..." I hope this is true... :)