Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

Category: South Korea (page 1 of 3)

Trump Dong-un

Not too many people know this about me, but when I lived in Seoul I helped three North Korean refugees write speeches in English.  This was so they could share their experiences with the world.  At the time I had sympathy for them, but I never expected I would ever have any direct, personal experience with their stories.  It was early 2015.  I was American, Obama kept being the leader of the free world, and I had the privilege of being the helper, not the victim.

But here we are.  Two years later.  The first full day our new President is in office he sends his Press Secretary out to tell the media they shat on his brand new white carpet, all because they presented the fact that his Inauguration wasn’t as well attended as past Inaugurations.  Any of us can look at the pictures and see he’s wrong.  The Washington DC Metro rider numbers tell us he’s wrong.  The news organizations’ ratings tell us he’s wrong.

But when a fact is no longer a fact, and the only knowledge that is correct is knowledge that comes from the great leader, do you know what you have?  You don’t have a government- you have a regime.  And you know who’s in charge? Trump Dong-un.

Let’s circle back to the refugees.  I worked with three, but there’s one in particular who’s story is most pressing now.  She was a kindergarten teacher in North Korea.  We all know what they do: they teach little kids basic knowledge and social skills that will serve them later in school and life.  Sounds pretty straightforward.  But how does that play out when The Great Leader is responsible for everything good and wonderful?  It sounds kind of like this:

Kid Question: Why does 1 + 1 = 2?

Teacher Answer: Because The Great Leader made math!  He is so smart and he figured out this whole way for us to count and know how many things we have!

Kid Question: How come when I drop this thing it goes down instead of up?

Teacher Answer: The Great Leader made gravity so we could always get things we need.  If things kept going up, how could we get them?  They need to come down, and thanks to him, they do.

It was totally fucking crazy.  Part of me really didn’t believe what I was hearing.  Not because I thought she was lying.  I 100% believed her.  But I just couldn’t understand how a whole country could be like this.  Intellectually I could imagine it working, like how a novelist could imagine a fake world.  But on a personal level, I had no direct experience with anything like that.  It was so alien to me it didn’t feel like a real thing.

And then yesterday I watched that press conference and it started to feel real.  It’s not 1984.  This isn’t a book report I just have to do and forget about.  The White House Press Secretary actually got up in a huff and refuted plainly obvious, easily measurable facts presented by the press.  Wait- what?  The country that’s been saying for decades that North Korea is crazy for this shit is now doing the same thing?  Huh?

We’re not special.  We’re not exempt from crazy just because we’re America.  We’re prone to it just like anyone, anyplace else is.  We used to think North Koreans were the unlucky ones- and they still are, for now- by a long shot.  But we can so easily make ourselves just as unlucky if we don’t put a stop to this.

I asked her, “Did you believe what you were saying?”


“Then why did you say it?”

“Because that was my job.  To attribute anything good and great to the Great Leader.  If I didn’t say it I could be put in prison and probably killed.  They could hurt my family, too.”

“Did you know the truth?”

“I would wonder, ‘How could one man do all of these things?’ It didn’t make sense to me, but I had no answers.  So I didn’t think it was true, but I didn’t know how else to explain things.  But now I know it was all a lie.”

“How did you find out it was a lie?”

“My friend and I got an American dvd.  We lived near the Chinese border and they smuggle things in.  So we hid in my bedroom late at night and watched the dvd on a laptop.  We had it open just wide enough so we could see it, but could drop it shut in case anyone came in and saw us. It took us weeks to get up the courage to watch it because it’s illegal to watch outside media.  But we finally saw the movie and everything looked so nice and wonderful in America.  That’s when I realized it was all a lie.”

After much deliberation, she decided to escape to China.  She ran across the border in the middle of the night.  One of the North Korean guards saw her do it.  She could have been imprisoned and killed for attempting to leave, but she said she was lucky.  The guard knew her and decided to do nothing.  He just let her go.

Trump is The Great Leader.  His cabinet is the regime.  They are the kindergarten teachers and we, the public, are the curious little kids getting fed garbage answers.  This is us now, but it doesn’t have to be us in the future.

I was fortunate enough to travel and live overseas to have this experience.  But you can find it right here at home.  We have refugees here and I encourage you to talk to them.  They can be from anywhere.  Refugees are often very willing to share their stories because they want the world to learn from their horrific experiences.  It’s not going to be a nice conversation.  You’re going to hear things that make you uncomfortable and feel very sorry for the person you’re talking to.  But it’ll, hopefully, also be a wake up call for you about how easily societies fall into tyranny.

We do have a choice here.  We can steer ourselves away from it, if we choose to.




Alexandra.  The weird girl.

I met Alexandra as a third grader.  She was fat for a Korean kid.  She was also obsessed with pink.  So she was a fat Korean girl who always dressed in pink.  I thought she looked and acted like Miss Piggy.  No one in Korea knew who that was.  But when I showed my co-teacher and her homeroom teacher a video of Miss Piggy they cracked up and agreed, Alexandra was just like Miss Piggy.

In addition to the pink, she also had a pudgy face and pig nose.  Her voice was nasally, like sound originated somewhere between her throat and chest, then traveled up into her nasal passages and out through her nostrils.  It was delightful.

All of the other kids in her grade knew she was weird.  When I first met her she was in class 3-3, class 3 of third grade, which had two bad boys- the worst in her grade.  One kid, Colton, was kind of bad, like you could sometimes bring him to the good side.  But the other kid, Gabriel, was so bad a good day was when no one cried.  

Colton had ADHD.  He had trouble sitting still and focusing on classwork.  Instead he often goofed off for attention, ripped paper and ate it, licked glue sticks, bothered other kids, and ran around the room.  According to his homeroom teacher his mother didn’t know how to mother him, so she’d just let him do whatever he wanted.  So Colton’s issue was a mix of needing a parent who knew how to handle him and getting his ADHD under control.

Gabriel, on the other hand, was a wreck.  He was evil.  He would bother the shit out of other kids.  Not in a lighthearted, silly way like Colton would.  He would torment and bully them until they cried.  I kid you not- almost every single 3-3 English class the first half of my first semester there someone cried.  He had a knack for knowing how to piss off people and get lots of negative attention.  He shredded his English book, the pieces would be on the floor after class, so he couldn’t do any work even if he wanted.

Since Alexandra was weird, these boys loved to pick on her.  They’d run up to her and pull her hair or pinch her, she’d scream, and then my co-teacher would get upset that she was being disruptive.  She didn’t care about the details of what had happened, she just wanted Alexandra quiet.

Alexandra didn’t give up without a fight, though.  Every time one of these boys would torment her she’d try to get my co-teacher’s attention.  First she’d raise her hand.  If that didn’t work, she’d call my co-teacher’s name.  When that didn’t work, she’d get out of her seat, walk right up to her, and explain what was going on.  I had to hand it to her, she was determined to get justice.

Where was I when all of this was happening?  I was in the room, observing, trying to help.  But the thing is, when these kids don’t speak English and you don’t speak their language, there’s a limit to what you can do with classroom management.  You can’t have a discussion with them.  At best you’ll rely on body language and simple common words and hope it works out.  After that, you need to involve the co-teacher, a native speaker, especially when you’re dealing with complex, long term problems.

My co-teacher, though, was apprehensive when it came to discipline.  She didn’t want to fuck them up.  She was afraid that disciplining them would draw more attention to their bad behavior and egg them on further.  She wanted to ignore it, hope they would stop and all the problems would go away.  From my perspective, she was burying her head in the sand.  

My biggest concern with how this class functioned revolved around Alexandra.  She was the sorest subject of these two boys’ negative influence on the classroom environment.  Everyone was victim to these boys, including us teachers, but Alexandra got hit the hardest because she was weird.  

Being weird makes you a target.  I love weird people.  I’m weird myself.  The last thing I’d want to do is encourage a weird kid to stop being weird.  Being weird in Korea just isn’t allowed in most contexts because they value sticking to the straight and narrow path.  This is especially true in school, so if I could offer a kid even a little reprieve from that- a place where they could just be-  I’d feel I was doing something good for them.  So I didn’t want to snap the weird out of Alexandra.  Instead, I wanted to give her a space to be weird in English class, if that’s what she wanted to do.

Working with my co-teacher to pull this off was hard.  She really didn’t want to pull out the big guns in terms of discipline.  It felt too wrong to her.  But she was open to reorganizing the seating.  It was an indirect approach that didn’t call out any one kid- everyone would get a new seat and therefore everyone would be treated the same.  I wanted to give Alexandra some space.  3-3 was a stressful class for her to be in with those boys, and I wanted coming to English class to be 40 minutes of peace from the drama she normally found herself in.  I felt that if I could give Alexandra that, then maybe everyone else in the class could benefit too.

I decided to put Colton in the front of the room in the corner.  That way he could easily pay attention but not be so close to other kids and random shit in the room to mess with.  It also meant that if he ever needed to get up and move around, he had some empty space to do it.  Plus he was right next to the door so he could slip out and make an ass of himself in the hallway, if he so pleased.

I put Alexandra on the opposite side of the room.  She was in the back corner.  She had no one in the seat right next to her, so she could stretch out.  The kids who sat in front of her were mellow.  Helpful if she needed it, but otherwise kept to themselves.  

Gabriel I put in a solo desk, in the back, by himself.  He needed to be away from other students for a while.  He lost the privilege of being near classmates because he just couldn’t play nice.  To bother people, he’d have to make a big, bold effort, which it turned out he wasn’t interested in doing.

It’s amazing what a simple seating arrangement can do.  At first, Alexandra quietly sat back there and observed the room, taking it all in.  She’d put her feet up on the empty seat next to her, sitting sideways, with her right arm over the back of her chair, looking up at the board.  Sometimes she’d play with her pink pig pencil case.  I didn’t care.  She was relaxed, having some fun, and at times focused on class and learning.  Then after a few weeks she started getting into class the full 40 minutes.  She’d pay attention, follow along, write in her book, and she even started raising her hand!  And getting answers right!  She was coming into her own and into class so quickly in her new seat.

As we got into December it was getting cold outside.  We had our first snowfall and the ground was freezing over.  One day as I was walking back to the classroom from lunch, I noticed all the third graders were outside on the playground, playing on the ice.  No adults were around (which is completely normal in South Korea, that kids play on their own, even at school during school hours).  “They don’t bubble wrap their kids,” as one of my British friends put it.

So I’m walking by, kids are running and sliding on ice, giggling, playing, and Alexandra is on her own, sliding in her own weird way towards the edge of a huge patch of ice.  She slips and falls.  I then see Gabriel in the distance immediately yell something, then charge towards her.  A group of boys follows.  They run and slide to her.  They surround her and start kicking her.  Alexandra is on the ground, on the ice, surrounded by the boys of her grade, getting kicked from all sides.  Like some Lord of the Flies shit.

I yell at them.  They all flee and I can see Alexandra laying on the ice, crying.  Gabriel then runs back for a few more kicks.  I yell again and he runs away again.  I go to Alexandra, as do a couple of girls in her class.  We have a hard time getting her to sit up, then stand up.  She wants to be left alone.  I spend at least fifteen minutes trying to help her.  Still no other adults around.  Eventually she gets up and the two girls somehow tell me they will take her inside to their homeroom, I think.  

I should have gone with them, but instead went to my room.  About twenty minutes later the two girls came running to my room, asking if I knew where Alexandra was.  They lost her and didn’t know where she went.  I felt like shit for not sticking around.  I didn’t know what to do or how to explain anything to the other teachers in Korean.

Eventually my co-teacher came back to the room and I told her what had happened.  She called the homeroom teacher and headteacher to explain.  They then held a meeting with Alexandra’s mother and the mothers of all the boys who kicked her.  I wasn’t invited, but this is what was later relayed to me:

Alexandra’s mom spent the meeting apologizing for how weird her daughter is and kept saying she understands why the boys acted that way- because her daughter is strange.  The boys were never punished.  According to the school handbook, whenever there’s any kind of violence the abusers will have a long punishment, like lots of hard labor to do around the school for several weeks or months, depending on the situation.  But nothing happened to these third grade boys because they lied to their mothers about how bad it was, and Alexandra’s mother accepted that her daughter will be tormented sometimes.  

The head teacher told me she wanted to slap Alexandra’s mom across the face for putting her kid down like that and not sticking up for her.  I couldn’t believe her mother’s wishes could override the terms of the school handbook.  It was a disheartening outcome.  That abusers can get away with abuse.  That boys can get away with mistreating girls.  That “normal” kids mean more than “weird” kids.  That the feelings in a discussion weigh more than established protocol.  These were not ways I was raised to think.  These were not norms I was accustomed to living with.  It was a way of thinking and operating I found hard to respect.  It worried me what else Alexandra, and kids like her, endured for being different, and it scared me to think of the long, hard process it would take to truly carve out a free space for them.


Winter break rolled around a few weeks later.  Alexandra and all the other kids had five weeks off from school.  They came back to school for two weeks in February and started their new school year in early March.  Alexandra was then in fourth grade and got placed in the best homeroom teacher’s class.  She was still an oddball, but in no way a nuisance or embarrassment to anyone.  If anything, she inadvertently provided comic relief in an otherwise serious, studious class, and we all welcomed her wholeheartedly.

Colton was in her class, too.  He was also a changed kid, for the better.  Apparently his teacher ripped his mom a new one, which improved her parenting.  He was still goofy, but the big difference was that teachers could get through to him.  He was sweet to work with.

Gabriel ended up in a different class.  He remained disengaged, but he kept to himself.  He was still a problem, just a different kind of problem.  I never figured out how to work with him.  He was so broken I don’t know if I ever would have.
It’s been four months since I’ve been in that classroom in Korea.  I’ve had time to reflect on my experiences and what I can say is this: the classroom environment absolutely makes or breaks a student’s ability to learn- to see themselves in the space, to feel a part of the lesson, and to trust it enough to add to it.  It’s the teacher’s responsibility to do everything in their power to create that welcoming environment.  I hope I was able to do that for my students.

Korean Work Culture

Koreans love to work.  They are addicted to work.  Work is their everything.

Sometimes I feel like it’s impossible to make plans with Koreans because they’re always at work.  They never know when they’ll get out so they can’t commit to seeing you.

I know a lot of Americans think that we’re overworked, and we are. But Koreans take it to a whole ‘nother level.

Let me explain.

Most Koreans I know who work for a company work a minimum of 70 hours a week.  Anything less than that would make people think  they’ re just not committed to their job, and that’s a really horrible thing for people to think about you in a country obsessed with work.

So if you’re working 70+ hours a week, you must be getting a lot done, right?  Well, no.  The reason is that while they stay at work a long time, they tend to not have the most productive work habits.  I’m not making this up.  A study found that Koreans were the least productive of all OECD countries.

From how I understand it, a large part of work in Korea is about face.  You have to be there, you have to be available, you have to be a yes-man, you have to stay late, you have to go out with your co-workers- you have to do all these things so people think you care, that you’re dedicated, that you’re loyal, that you’re committed.  What you produce in that time is far less important.  The important thing is that you follow these few specific social norms so everyone believes you’re committed to your job.

Things about Korean work culture that I find peculiar are:

  • You can’t leave until your boss goes home.  Your boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  Your boss’s boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  This goes all the way up the the CEO.  So if the CEO stays late, EVERYONE else will be there late.  This keeps lots of lower level employees just hanging around the office trying to look busy until they can leave.
  • If your boss wants to go out drinking, you have to go and you have to drink.  Not attending would be extremely rude and not drinking every drink offered to you would also be extremely rude.  People get pissed drunk with their bosses all the time, even if they don’t want to.
  • Consequently, people are often seriously hungover at work.  No one bats an eyelash at this.  People openly admit to being out late drinking, and being hungover.  People will sleep at their desks.  Obviously, productivity is low when you’re hungover.
  • There’s a strict hierarchy and they value the “yes-man” so much that communication suffers.  People will get assignments and agree to do them without asking questions, including basic clarification questions.  No one ever pushes back.  This can result in poor quality work, unnecessary work, and work that misses the mark entirely.
  • Poor time management skills.  I see this in the schools as well.  Someone with authority will ask someone beneath them to do a project with hardly any notice, so it’s rushed.  This can result in poor time management in two ways: 1- leaders do not consider the needs of their staff to do quality work, so, as I mentioned before, the staff has to rush to get it done, and 2- always getting projects at the last minute does not help employees develop time management skills because the focus is always on hurrying, not on being smart about how to use their time to do the project well.
  • No sick leave.  Officially they have sick leave, but in practice you wouldn’t dare use it unless you were deathly ill.  My co-teachers told me the previous principal at my school would accuse teachers of feigning illness to get out of work.  In my teaching orientation I was advised to not use any of my 14 sick days for the year if I wanted to work a second year, as the school would view my using them as me being lazy.  I did use 3, once because I had a fever, once because I had a migraine, and once to go to the doctor to get more migraine medicine.  In addition to being sick, I was really worried about what would happen to me if I used them.  My principal later approached me each time to ask about my health, which at first I thought was really nice, but I later realized it was because he thought my condition must have been critical to warrant taking a day off.
  • Not surprisingly, all of this leads employees to being stressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out.

That said, Koreans seem to wear hard work as a badge of honor.  They like knowing they’re doing everything they can for their company/place of work.  It’s a huge compliment to tell someone they worked hard, even more so than telling them they did a good job.  They work hard and like knowing their effort is recognized.

So that’s what I’ve gathered after being in Korea for about a year.  What other thoughts and experiences do you have?

New Job

I got shome shocking shnews: I’m shtaying in Scheoul a bit schlonger.

I know that seems really weird, especially after my post about wanting to leave.  So I will explain.

I got asked if I wanted to renew my current position at my current school in mid-April.  That would mean deciding in April of 2015 if I wanted to stay here until late August 2016.  I had two days to decide.  Some of the new contract terms wouldn’t have been in my favor (nothing personal to me, but rather big administrative changes created cutbacks).  This, in addition to the other things I mentioned made me feel like it wasn’t worth sticking out.

So then there’s the question of what to do next?  I looked and looked and looked.  I talked to lots of people about lots of possibilities throughout Asia.  I interviewed at several places.  I even started looking at and seriously considering options back home in the US.  I spent 2 1/2 months doing all this research and was even starting to get cranky because I wasn’t getting that “fuck yes” feeling, ever.

Then a recruiter in Seoul turned up with a good offer from a school here.  I was already 85% sure I wanted out and nearly called him the day of the interview to say, ‘Fuck it.  I don’t want it.’, but I told myself to be open to it and dragged myself over there.

Apart from not being able to figure out how to open the door when I got there- all I saw was a wall of glass and missed the small button that opens it- everything about the interview was great.  I spoke to several people who worked there, all were really nice, friendly, helpful, great listeners and conversationalists, excellent English (you’d think the staff at all language schools here would have excellent English, but that would be a mistake), professional, transparent, conscientious, considerate, easygoing, etc.  They say the interview is reflective of the job, and I’ve found that to be true of jobs I’ve had in the past.  So if that’s true, this should be a really nice place to work.

I’ll continue to get all of the same benefits of my current job, which includes free housing.  My salary will go up by 25% and I’ll only be a 5 minute walk from work, as opposed to a 35 minute commute on an overcrowded subway.  That saves me an hour a day.  I’ll also have 2 more teaching hours a day, so that should help with the sense of boredom I’ve experienced in my current job here.  Class sizes will be much smaller than what I currently have, probably half the size, if that.  I could go on, but after making a list of positives and negatives, the only negative I found was that it’s in Korea, and that’s only a negative at this point because Korea is now familiar to me.

Shooooo….. shat’s she shupdate.

10 Korean Talents

When you live in another culture for a while, you notice some things people are really good at doing.  I mean, Americans are good at some things, but we aren’t good at everything.

So here’s a list of things I’ve notice Koreans not only do, but do very well.

10. Wearing long pants and long sleeves in any level of heat, humidity, and activity level.

Koreans love having white skin.  Like so white it’s can look ghastly.  So when summer comes, it’s like the sun is their worst enemy.  They still go out though.  It’s just that they’re often covered up so they don’t tan.

I don’t know how they do it.  I sweat way too much to wear long pants and long sleeves in the middle of summer.  But these people, I have to hand it to them, they do it.

9, Cramming lots of people into tiny spaces, especially public transportation.

I’ve already commented on this a lot, but I can’t stress it enough.  They PACK people into subway cars and buses.  A good day is one when your lungs aren’t pinched.  It’s too much for me.  I think it’s a big part of why I’ve gotten sick here a lot.

8. Drinking heavily, including mixing alcohol.

I don’t drink, but I see it and hear it all night long.  These people love to get drunk.  They go out often and for long.  There’s no shame in going to work hungover the next day.

7. Not being able to speak English or think critically, despite studying for more than 12 hours a day and valuing education.

I don’t get it.  They work so hard at it, but their efforts are for naught.  Too much emphasis is on memorization and going through the motions, versus thinking about how the subject plays out in the real world.

6. Holding a grudge.

You can add jealousy here too.  If you’ve in any way wronged people here, they will never forget it.  Japanese people will never truly be welcome.

5. Eating a lot and not gaining weight.

This is something most foreigners notice immediately when they arrive in Korea.  There’s so much street food, quantities of food in restaurants are large, and there are tons of cafes serving sugary sweets and drinks.  All of it gets consumed, often with some beer and soju along with it.  And yet, most Koreans are very thin.  Their metabolism is the envy of the world.

4. Brushing their teeth.

Koreans brush their teeth after every meal.  This includes the bathrooms at work filling up with employees brushing their teeth. American dentists would rejoice.

3. Falling asleep anywhere.

I’m more used to it now, but it still amazes me.  People will fall asleep anywhere here.  On the subway.  On a park bench.  On the sidewalk.  At a restaurant. At work.   No, these aren’t homeless people.  They’re normal people just taking a nap.  No one bothers them and no one steals their stuff.

2. Getting work done at the last minute.

One thing I’ve had to get used to here is the lack of planning, which results in getting asked to do things at the last minute.  Koreans are so used to this they will drop whatever they’re doing to complete a task at the last possible minute.  This has included my co-teachers having to work on a report instead of helping in class because they were just asked to do it and it was due in an hour.  It stresses people out and no one seems to like it, but it’s the norm so they don’t complain.  I think American corporations would love Koreans.

1. Eating after having just vomited.

This takes true skill and it’s downright disgusting.  But I’ve seen it.  Oh, I’ve seen it.  If you’re out drinking, there’s no giving up.  If you’re sick with a stomach bug, you still go to work and you have lunch with your coworkers.  I physically could not do it.

Why I’m Not Renewing

I’ve been in Seoul for about 10 months now, which means I have 2 more until my contract is up.  Most jobs here for foreigners are on a 12-month contract.  Towards the end of that time, you can ask to renew.  If your school is happy with you and still has funding for your position, you can stay another year.

I decided not to stay.  This is actually a very common decision for people in my position.  Everyone has their reasons.   I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you why I’m choosing to leave.

Overall, things are pretty okay here, but they’re not so great I want to give it another year.  Here’s why:

First, I don’t find the teaching methods they use to be very effective.  Are kids improving: yes.  Are they functional with the language: nope.  I think the methods and classroom organization are holding them back.

Here’s how students are organized: Kids are put into classes by grade, not ability or aptitude.  So kids who are pretty good, motivated, and learn fast are in the same class as kids who know almost nothing, lack interest, and/or are slow learners.  There’s an enormous disparity in the room, which only widens as they get older.  You’re supposed to run class so it’s appropriately challenging to everyone.

While this could be possible, the school generally prefers group uniformity/conformity to individual customization.  That plays out with everyone doing the same work altogether, so English class can feel like military formation.  They also want me to strictly follow the book.  The book is pretty cookie-cutter and also doesn’t allow for individual customization.  This means that advanced kids get bored and slow kids are totally lost.  When this happens, they often goof off, which makes it challenging to keep the class under control.

The approach is to get kids to enjoy learning a language.  So the focus is mainly on games and fun activities as opposed to explaining patterns and rules.  I think in theory that’s a great thing to shoot for, but in reality, if they can’t speak the language, they are never going to have fun with it.  The approach has dropped clear instruction for “fun”, versus finding a balance with it.

I find that maybe a few kids  get the point through these fun activities, but the bulk get lost and frustrated until I show them the rules.  Is listening to a rule fun?  No.  Is playing a game in a language you can’t speak fun?  No.  So I drop a fun thing sometimes for the sake of effective teaching.  I’m getting tired of explaining why this is necessary to my co-teachers who take the “they must always have fun” directive a bit too seriously.

Now onto co-teaching with a Korean teacher.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I have personally liked all of my co-teachers.  They’ve all been very nice people and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them.  On the other hand, professionally, they have varied greatly in their attitudes toward teaching.  Most have been good overall and I’ve learned a lot from them.  One, though, was negligent, disorderly, and accepted no responsibility for outcomes (again, this was the exception rather than the rule).  Whenever she was around things devolved into chaos and she wasn’t willing to work on it.  No one had a clue what was going on under her watch.  So, co-teaching can be great or awful, depending on who you’re with.  But you never know what’ll happen because your co-teachers change year-to-year.  So I have no idea what would happen if I stayed.

The next thought that comes to mind is if I have any influence over things.  Sure, in terms of how I execute lessons from the book.  Officially though, none at all.  I’m on great terms with my principals and they don’t want me to go, but I don’t have any real power or influence in how things are run.  I just have to be open to whatever directives come from above and support that.  I don’t mind it for a short while, but long-term I want a position where I can have the same power as my coworkers and have an impact outside of the classroom.  Since I hit the ceiling the day I arrived, I don’t see this going anywhere for me.

Another factor is the students.  Before coming to Korea I expected to have studious kids, who were hungry to learn.  I know that’s definitely true for some teachers here.  Families push their kids to get ahead.  I was expecting to work hard and be pushed as well.  That’s definitely not the case for me.  Most of my students are very nice, but they are content with a slow pace.  Kicking it up a notch/rising to the occasion isn’t in their wheelhouse.  I try to give them motivational speeches, but they don’t understand and I’m pretty sure my co-teachers don’t either.

But the primary reason is the job is way too easy.  Since I’m expected to stick to the book and not deviate, preparing for lessons only requires reviewing the book, and that takes less than 10 minutes a day.  That means I have 3-4 hours a day to myself.  I have to stay at school, in my classroom, all that time.

At first I didn’t mind it.  It was nice to have quiet time to relax.  But that’s 15-20 hours a week of nothing to do.  Yes, I have my own projects to keep myself busy, but it’s still way too much time.  It’s boring.  Like, it’s so boring I’m sure I’m getting dumber.  I just can’t sit through that for another year.  I’m afraid of the person (or blob) I’ll become if I do.

Despite making the decision to not renew, I have mixed feelings about leaving.  Overall Korea has been good to me, and I feel like there’s so much more I could learn about this place.  But on the other hand, I have to acknowledge that I’m just treading water with what I have.  I’ve never been content with that.  It’s not a thing everyone understands, only the ones who are also continually curious and/or ambitious get it.

Mark Manson wrote a piece a couple of years ago called “Fuck Yes or No“.  In it, he basically says the right opportunity is the one that has you saying, “FUCK YES!”  I just don’t feel FUCK YES about this anymore, so I had to say No.

So there you have it.  The reasons why it’s time to move on.  I’ll spend another 4 weeks keeping the status quo, then I’ll do 3 weeks of camp.  After that, travel.  After that, TBD.

Stay tuned.

Still Worrying About MERS

It’s been over a week and a half since people have been in a panic over MERS.  Last week I wrote about how my school has been handling it.  Here’s an update on things I’ve observed, read, and experienced.

The media hype about this is bigger than it feels, to me.  That might be because even though I’m here in Seoul, I mingle with a mix of Koreans and expats.  The expats generally think Koreans are panicking way too much.  As far as I’m concerned, if I take some pretty normal precautions, I should be fine.  But most Koreans I talk to seem to be more worried about it, to the point where they’re only leaving the house when absolutely necessary.

I don’t blame Koreans for being so worried.  From a PR perspective, the whole thing is a mess.  First, any health scare will always get a certain amount of people in a tizzy.  Next, consider the general lack of trust in the government due to the Sewol Ferry accident last year.  It’s natural to expect skepticism.  Then, after being asked repeatedly, the government took over 2 weeks to release a list of hospitals where MERS cases showed up.  And when they finally did release the list, it was wrong.

Then consider how medical treatment works here.  Generally in the US, when you’re sick you see your primary care doctor.  Your treatment is mainly through this one person unless a) they refer you to a specialist or the ER, or b) for whatever reason you feel you need a second opinion and go see someone else.  In almost all cases you’re going to a doctor’s office which is usually a pretty small place.  Most of the time when I go to the doctor in the US there are fewer than 20 people in the office.

In South Korea though, when you aren’t feeling well you go to the hospital.  You sit in the hospital’s waiting room and then you go see a doctor.  When I wanted to get a refill of my migraine medication here, I was at the hospital for about 3 hours and must have passed a couple hundred people in that time.  And next time I need more migraine medicine?  I can go to ANY hospital.  While it can be convenient for me, the patient, it’s scattered and lacks consistency from a treatment perspective.  This hospital doesn’t have my medical history, including where else I’ve been.  It also exposes me to a lot of other sick people, which can be devastating when you have something like MERS going around.

So, the fears and lack of trust among the general population make complete sense to me.

That said, I read Western media and also grew up with doctors for parents, so I’m not on board with all the worrying.  Should there be some cause for concern?  Absolutely.  If you’re stupid and don’t take any precautions you could get sick.  But should I put myself in voluntary quarantine when I feel fine?  I think that’s going too far.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  • I’m living my life as usual.
  • I’m being extra diligent about washing my hands regularly.  This includes bringing my own soap to work since they removed bar soap from the bathrooms and only have liquid soap, and theirs is basically lemon-scented water.
  • I bought a face mask, which I wore once because it felt disgusting always having hot air on my face.
  • I’m not sharing food with anyone.
    • Normally I don’t, but a lot of Korean cuisine involves sharing a large pot of stew, barbecue, and side dishes.  I’m just not going out for those meals.
  • I’m not going to the gym.  But that’s mainly because I’m lazy.

Since I teach at an elementary school, here are more things I’m doing:

  • Any kid who feels sick, at all, gets sent straight to the nurse.
    • While this is standard practice in the US, it doesn’t seem to be normal here. (Your education is too important to miss class!) What tends to happen is the teacher has a long conversation with the kid about how s/he feels, and then maybe after that they go to the bathroom and come back.
  • I spray disinfectant on desks and doorknobs daily.
  • I don’t touch kids.

I should also note that MERS has mostly spread in hospitals and among families of people sick with it.  The ones who’ve died were generally old and already had a severe illness, so their immune systems were weak.  I haven’t been to a hospital since the outbreak, I live alone, and I’m pretty healthy.

That said, I did feel sick last week.  The left side of my throat was swollen.  Normally I’d go to the doctor to get it checked out, but I decided against it.  Since most of the MERS cases spread in hospitals, I figured I’d wait it out rather than expose myself to who knows what.  It passed in two days and I feel fine, for now.


It only took the outbreak of a deadly virus, but I did it.  I bought a face mask.

My MERS mask.

My MERS mask.

Many Asians wear these, often out in public, so they don’t get sick.  My school’s now requiring we all wear one if we take public transportation.  I’m actually impressed with all the measures they’ve taken to keep us from catching MERS.

  • Wear a face mask
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • They cancelled our staff dinner (in case anyone was infected they wouldn’t spread it)
  • They cancelled the 6th grade field trip next week
  • They removed all the bar soap from the bathrooms – only liquid soap is left
  • They posted MERS info sheets in every classroom
  • Kids have to go home after school (they can’t hang around the school and play like they normally do)

But what I don’t get is… why isn’t school cancelled?  If someone has MERS and comes to school, won’t they still spread it?

The World Health Organization seems to think it’s coming for us.  Oh joy!

Moving to Seoul

In this piece I want to focus on moving costs when coming to Seoul.  It’s something others have written about and I think it’s worth having another take on it.  So here’s mine.
Korean Won

Before I came, everything I read had recommended bring $1,000 USD in cash for the first month.  This is to cover anything you need before you receive your first paycheck.  It’s also supposed to take into account that you may not be able to use your credit or debit cards here.

I found $1,000 to be way too little.  I’d recommend doubling that to $2,000.  Here’s why.

1- No one’s ever complained about having too much money.  So you might as well over-prepare than under-prepare.

2- You need to pay for your normal expenses plus additional things related to the move.  This can vary greatly from person-to-person.  I’ll detail what I spend money on normally and what I had to spend money on when I first got here.

3- I know several people who were broke the last 2-3 weeks before we received our first paycheck.  If you don’t believe me, you can read about my friend Carmen’s experience.  She was so hungry she almost stole a potato from a food vendor.

Normal Expenses

  • Groceries ($60/week – $240/month)
  • Public Transportation ($20/week – $80/month)
  • Phone ($70/month)
  • Internet ($40/month)
  • Apartment Building Fees ($95-$190/month)
  • Going Out ($200/month)

Sub-Total: $725 – $820


Moving Expenses

  • New Toiletries ($60)
  • Furniture ($300)
  • Staple Groceries ($100)
  • Cleaning Supplies ($50)
  • Phone / Internet Start-up Costs ($50)
  • Bedding ($230)
  • Extra Clothes ($200)
  • Kitchen Items ($100)
  • Medical Check-up ($60)
  • Alien Registration Card (ARC) ($10)

Sub-Total: $1,160

Total: $1,885 – $1,980

Like I mentioned earlier, expenses will vary from person-to-person.  That said, I think this breakdown will be a safe bet.  Even if you don’t buy all this stuff when you first arrive, you will likely need these things, or other things, that will add up to around $2,000.

Here’s more detail on what some of the above includes:

  • Apartment Building Fees: I live in an officetel, which is a large apartment building with small businesses on the first floor.  The building charges a flat fee of $70/month for all tenants for general building maintenance.  I have other expenses that vary month-to-month like hot water, electricity, air conditioning, gas, and heating.  During the fall and spring the bills are as low as $95/month.  During winter and summer when I have heat and a/c on they climb as high as $190/month (heating and a/c are VERY expensive in Korea, so Koreans generally only use heaters and a/c for a short time and then turn them off).  Even though my school pays the rent on my apartment, I am responsible for this monthly bill.  Everything is clearly listed on the bill, so there’s nothing shady about it.  But this is a monthly expense I did not expect, so keep in mind that you may have it.
  • Furniture: Everything I read about coming to Korea said I would get a furnished apartment.  Then when I got my contract it said I may get a furnished apartment.  When I got to my apartment I saw that it was partially furnished.  I ended up buying a couch, desk, and desk chair for around $300.  I know other people who walked into fully furnished places, and others that were completely empty.  Depending on your province/school, you may get help with the expenses.  That said, most people I know (including myself) had to pay for furnishings out of their own pocket.  And yes, that includes one person who had to buy a bed the day she moved in so she’d have something to sleep on that night.  This expense could be $0-A LOT of money depending on how lucky you are. So be prepared.


  • Medical Checkup: This was required by my program to prove I was in good health.  I had to pay for it.
  • Extra Clothes: It’s pretty hard to pack all the clothes you need into one suitcase.  I know I spent a lot more than $200 on clothes in the 9 months I’ve been here, but in the first month I realized I’d need a few more staples to be comfortable, especially after seeing how the other teachers at my school dressed.
  • Other Staples: Remember, you’re starting a new life in a new country.  Things that you normally had around (like pots and pans, extra toilet paper, etc)  and didn’t have to worry about buying will have to be purchased, new.  Plus, you won’t know where all your purchasing options are.  So factor in some of the things I listed as part of your start-up costs.
  • Drinking: I don’t drink or go clubbing, so if you plan to do this, factor in another $200+, depending on how hard you party.  Lots of people I know went out a lot their first month and burned through a lot of cash.  So if you think that’s you, bring some extra money.
  • Membership fees: Many of my friends here have gym or yoga studio memberships, or they are part of some activity club.  It’s the same as home, there are monthly fees for these things.  But I’ve found in Korea you often have to pay all the fees upfront.  So for a 4-month gym membership I paid about $400 upfront and for a 6-month membership to a yoga studio I paid $660 upfront.  No other costs came after that, but it can be a lot of money right away.  If you want to start as soon as you arrive, have extra money ready.

One last note: If you need to buy a lot of things for your apartment, good starter stores are Daiso, E-Mart, Homeplus, GMarket and The Arrival Store.

  • Daiso: This is basically a dollar store.  You can get most of the starter things you’ll need there.  The quality won’t be the best, but if you take good care of your things it will be fine.  These are all over Seoul.


  • E-Mart & Home Plus: These are like Walmart, Target, Tesco type stores.  They are grocery stores / cheap department stores.  You can do pretty much all your shopping there.  These are easy to find in Seoul.


  • GMarket: This is an online retailer, like Korea’s Amazon.com. You can order pretty much anything you need here and it’s often cheaper than buying it in-store.  If you can wait a few days for something, buy it there.
  • The Arrival Store: This is another online retailer, specifically serving expats.  I found them very easy to use and have great customer service.  They were totally okay with me canceling/changing my order after I arrived in Korea and realized I didn’t need some things I anticipated.

Reflections on Teaching: School Placement

I’ve been in South Korea now for about 5 months.  I came here for a break from American corporate culture and to try something which I thought would be more meaningful, teaching.  While it’s been a break from corporate life, it has definitely been work.  Most people I know here have much to say face-to-face about their teaching experiences, but far less often I see people writing about it.  It probably has to do with saving face, which suppresses any urge to be openly critical of anyone or anything.  But for anyone who knows me, I’ve never been, nor do I think I will ever be, overly concerned with what other people think of me.

I say this because in people’s desire to save face there’s a lack of transparency, and a lack of transparency gives other people false impressions and hopes, which ultimately leads to dissatisfaction and poor results.  In my time here I’ve noticed a lot of absurd, dysfunctional, and at times disturbing ways schools tend to work, so much so that if I had read about these things in blogs, glassdoor.com, etc, my decision-making process to come here would have looked very different.  That’s not to say everything is awful; there are a lot of good things about teaching.  But the writing is disproportionately tilted in the “it’s so amazing!” camp that I feel someone needs to say, “Hold on, let me show you the other side of the coin”.

So this is the stuff I wish I had known before coming.  It’s meant to help people make a well-informed choice to come or not come, and set expectations based in reality so they are adequately prepared.

The first topic I’d like to explore is school placement.

You have very little say in which school you work.  What you do have say over is which province or city you’d like to be placed in.  This is no guarantee that you’ll get it, but you do get to list your preferences.  When you’re given an offer for the job you’ll be told which province you’re in, but you won’t know where exactly you’ll be placed.  For example, I was placed in Seoul.  Where I live and work is basically the edge of the city proper.  So it still looks like a city, but it’s like a busy suburb.  Other people I know are right in the middle of super busy areas while others are so far in the outskirts it’s almost rural or like a small village.  This means that even though they asked to be put in a city, they’re really not living “in the city”.  They’re really in a village 1 hour outside the city.

Your commute may be a short 5 minute walk to school, or you may need to ride public transportation for up to an hour each way.

Your apartment may be brand new, with the latest technology, and be fairly spacious, or you may be in a closet-sized apartment, in an old building with bad plumbing, and a previous tenant who left the place a filthy, stinking mess.

You may work in a wealthy neighborhood, where almost all your students already speak English fluently, or in a poor area where the sight of a Western person startles people, and where “hello”, “goodbye” and the alphabet are the extent of their English vocabulary.

You may work in a school that is well run and the teaching philosophy jives with what you believe, or you may work at a school that’s disorganized and uses teaching methods that make you uncomfortable.

And the thing is, you won’t know any of these details until after you’re already here, after you’ve already signed your contract, and for some, after you’ve been working at the school for some time.  Everything could turn out great- and it does for some people- but many people experience challenges with these things.  And this system of having no say in the matter and just being placed somewhere was very new to me.  Coming from a large internet company and previously being at a progressive non-profit, and all the while working in theater, I can say the topic of recruiting is always hot.  Any good workplace in the West does not take that lightly.  In fact, they pride themselves on taking as long as they need to, even years, to find the right fit for a job.  This is because they know how important it is to the success of the organization to have not just people with the right skills, but also the right personality in the job.  Cultural fit is essential.

But in Korea, at least in the education system, they seem to think anyone who passes a test and an interview at a city, or even a national, level will be a fit at any school.  This is how it works to be a teacher here: you study education, you take an exam, and if you pass the exam, you apply to a province to be a teacher there.  The province then places you at a school somewhere, whenever they get an opening.  Then every five years they move you to a different school, and again, the province chooses where.  So public school teachers here have no say over where they teach.  This is also true for school administration, like principals and vice principals.

Now, to illustrate how this gets even more complicated, let’s say you spend your first five years teaching at a school in the wealthiest part of the city, then for your second five-year stint you’re placed in the city’s poorest area.  It’s like going from teaching New York’s elite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the poorest of the poor in the Bronx.  Somehow your skills are supposed to translate even though the demographic is completely different.

Now while you’re halfway through your second year at a school, your principal changes.  Whenever leaders change anywhere- in schools, companies, nations, etc- so does the feeling of being there.  So your first principal may have had a “just keep the peace” way about him/her, and the new principal may be very rigid and strict.  Korea is a very hierarchical society, so you always have to agree and go along with whatever your superiors tell you to do, no questions asked.  So with a principal change like this, you may have to change your teaching personality.

I bring this up because in the US part of why I chose to work where I worked was because the values of the organization and the people I was working with fit well with what I wanted to pursue and how I wanted to work.  There was at least some transparency with cultural fit and an expectation that I would be myself because who I was already fit with the organization’s current culture or what they wanted to evolve into. (That’s not to say it was always great. I did leave places because I had changed or they had changed in a way where it was best to move on.)  The important thing to note here is that both the actual organization I worked for and I had a lot of upfront contact before either of us made a decision to work together.  This does not happen in education in Korea.  Everyone is just expected to mold and fit in together.  So long as people are willingly flexible with their work personalities, this “works”.  But this country has the highest suicide rate of OECD countries, so I’m going say it’s not really working.  (I know a lot of factors contribute to that statistic, not just work culture, but work culture isn’t helping.)

This is not to say you should not be open and try to adapt to your new school environment.  You definitely should do what you can to make this new experience work.  But what it does mean is that things will come up that you are not expecting, and you will have to figure out a way to deal with it.  For example, this could manifest itself as teachers at your school using corporal punishment as discipline, and kids not responding to authority unless they think you may hit them.  I’m guessing most people reading this are against corporal punishment.  If that’s the case, you’ll have to figure out a way to earn your students’ respect without you hitting them.  And the answer is never a simple ‘just don’t hit them and it’ll be fine’, because when they’re used to being hit, you not hitting them is weird, and weird stuff confuses them.  You’ll have to be thoughtful, creative, and well-informed in your approach if you want to succeed.

But back to the original point- you have very little say in which school you work.  When you look more closely at it, all these details about how you work (and this is just scratching the surface) are also part of what you don’t have say over.  So when you sign up for this program, you really have to be totally open to whatever they give you, for better or worse.  And no matter what you do to prepare, things you’d never guess will happen and you just have to go with it.

Older posts