Arriving in Korea: The EPIK Orientation

I’ve been here about two weeks now, and I’m finally sitting down to write about the experience. Sorry it’s been delayed, but I have had some crazy times followed by some serious flu. I debated heavily about publishing it, since the flu is slowing me down and it’s not the story I had hoped for when I arrived. As it is, I still haven’t had time to explore my neighborhood, or even make it to my first day of school yet. Nevertheless, when I put off writing about Europe due to illness the posts never got made, so here goes – my first week on the ground with EPIK.

I want to forewarn readers at this point, that my experience at EPIK orientation was full of ups and downs. I’m not going to try to pull any punches over the downs, but I also don’t want to give the impression that there weren’t enough ups. These people took on a very daunting task of training a couple hundred new arrivals in a very short amount of time (one day less than planned as it turned out), and I really appreciate everything they did to try to prepare us all for life in Korea and for our new jobs in Korean schools. They were dealing with some restrictions not of their choosing, so I think most of my downs would have been mitigated if not altogether eliminated had they been able to have a full schedule and do the classes/lectures in the normal order instead of totally backwards.


EPIK (English Program in Korea) hires all the k-12 public school foreign teachers in Korea these days, and they run a week long orientation for all the newly arrived teachers in three big batches. I was in the Busan batch and our meeting point was in the Busan airport on Friday, from whence we could check in and take a shuttle bus up to Busan Foreign Studies University where we would all spend the next week learning to be EPIK teachers.

I ran into a large number of EPIK teachers at the layover in Taiwan where we began to share our histories and reasons for coming to Korea, as well as our hopes and concerns for the year to come. It was novel to come into a situation surrounded by other teachers in similar circumstances rather than on my own. It made us excited to get there and helped wipe out some of the travel fatigue. Once we arrived in Busan, we were able to keep each other company through customs, money changing and immigration, all of which are mind-numbingly boring, so it was pleasant to have company.

The EPIK staff had set up at the arrivals area of the airport with friendly volunteers holding big EPIK flags to signal us, and a reasonably well organized process of getting everyone registered and assigned to a shuttle bus. We still had to wait around the terminal for about 90 minutes before we were allowed to leave, but it was a fair trade for having the whole thing planned for us.


20160219_163854The week long orientation was to be held at BUFS campus, which is beautifully nestled in the mountains of Busan, and a good deal colder than the rest of the city. In order to stave off sleep until bed-time, I decided to take a quick walk around the campus to explore. In February, most of the trees were dormant and brown, but I can imagine how beautiful the campus probably is during the other three seasons. It is entirely surrounded by trees with a little stream running through it and trails running up into the mountainside.

Our arrival day was largely uneventful, with nothing planned aside from dinner, but the public WiFi was entirely unable to keep up with the demand from the 200+ new teachers trying to contact their friends and family back home. My over-preparedness came through in a pinch, and I was able to get internet in my room, help my roomie with power adapters, and get a number of people access to the internet who otherwise might have had some pretty worried parents.

Dinner was a fun combination of familiar and new foods, including what would turn out to be the ubiquitous (and delicious) kimchi. All in all, I felt a warm positive glow about my arrival by the time I went to bed on that first night. And then we got down to business.


The schedule for the orientation was packed. At first glance, it seemed mild, with 90 minute meal breaks and 30 minute breaks between classes, but as it turned out, these were mostly an illusion since the classes ended at (or after) the meal time started, the lines at the cafeteria and the convenience shops were always insane, we had to be in class 20 minutes before classes started to sign in (every class), and even the lines to fill a water bottle could last 15 minutes. To top it off, our dorm and the cafeteria was at the bottom of a steep hill, and all our classrooms/lecture halls were at the top, meaning that we had to climb up and down every meal break.

20160221_085036I admit, I’m not in great shape, but freezing cold air combined with physical exertion is hard for anyone, and especially triggering for asthma. After the first full day, I went out of my way to find the less steep options, but that first set of stairs was pretty insane, and then it turned out the elevators were turned off for the weekend! By the time I got to the lecture hall, I felt like I should be lighting some incense at an altar, because the only other times I’ve climbed that many stairs has been to get to a temple.

The orientation program also imposed a curfew, which wasn’t so bad in and of itself, since they were simply trying to get folks inside by 11pm and in their rooms by midnight (and not up all night drinking in town). I didn’t think much of it, but it turned out only to be the tip of the iceberg of how we were corralled during the week. This may be the only downside that I do hold EPIK accountable for, since I can’t really see how it would not have been within their control. We were treated to ever increasing degrees like elementary school students without any ability to be self responsible. Our “free time” and “breaks” became overseen with greater restrictions as the week wore on, with limits placed on where we could go and when we needed to sign in.

The signing in for classes and lectures made sense, because they had to prove to the Offices of Education that we had completed a certain number of hours of training, but events that really should have been optional (like networking, and the field trip) weren’t. Eventually there was a point where some teachers had to choose between, eating dinner, or getting their luggage prepared for the next day’s departure because there simply wasn’t time to do both.


20160221_063840We had to forgo breakfast and rise at the crack of dawn to get our medical exams done. Well, my group did anyway. My roomie was in the second group who got to sleep in. Not the very best organization, since we then ended up sitting in the bleachers for almost 2 hours waiting our turn, but once we got into the ersatz medical check up facility, things went fairly smoothly with each test having its own station around the gym and a huge medical staff processing our vitals and taking notes. Other than a little sleep deprivation, it wasn’t too bad, and I did get a chance to rest in my room before lunch and a full afternoon of welcoming lectures.


20160220_141948Ok, enough complaining, cool stuff for a minute. The first few days were full of auditorium style lectures and presentations, most of which were actually quite lovely and entertaining. There was a fun dance performance of traditional percussion dancing, a demonstration of filial piety with the new year honoring of parents, and there were several speakers who shared great stories and experiences of their time in Korea and working with EPIK. The best part for me (maybe right after the hat ribbon dance) was that many of these stories involved how they had helped previous EPIK teachers overcome obstacles and misunderstandings. In all my previous ESL experiences, I’ve had little to no support in my job and even less for cultural issues beyond work. It made me feel profoundly supported to hear what these staffers were willing to do for me based on what they had done for others before me.

I found out later on that the lectures are usually the second part of orientation, and I have to say they would have been much better placed there as far as both helping us to complete our mandatory lesson plan demonstrations and to provide some levity in the later days when we really needed it.


20160223_111403This was also mostly a positive experience, although the kindergarten treatment was a tad intense. Our first stop was the famous Haeundae Beach park. There is a reason I hate tour groups and I think this day hit on all of them. We were made to stand in line by bus assignment and follow our leader with a flag. We progressed at a set pace from one gathering point to another, often being rushed past photo ops or up steep hills just to wait around in lines again at another gathering point.

The really crazy part was that they had given us a schedule on the buses that indicated we would be able to walk from the bus to the 1st meeting point on our own as long as we got there by the target time, and again to the 2nd meeting point. However, we simply weren’t allowed. On the second part of the walk, we were walking up and down wooden stairs along the rocky seaside. There were lots of spots to step off and admire a view, it was stunning and the weather was perfect, and just as I was settling into enjoying the outing, I was tapped gently by one of the staff who told me we needed to hurry. I checked the time and said (as politely as I could) that I thought we had almost an hour before the second meeting point. I was told that time was to be spent on the beach and had four staffers grudgingly walking behind me the whole rest of the way, giving me the stink-eye any time I stopped to take a picture.

Hilariously(?) the others who had arrived at the beach before me were mostly just milling around anyway, and they didn’t actually go on to the beach until moments before I caught up. I missed so much. I know they didn’t want to loose anybody, but it struck me as tragic that they couldn’t trust us to get to the tour bus on time, yet in a few days they would turn us loose in large foreign cities where we would have to navigate the public transportation alone.

img_20160223_122149Despite the nannying, the beach truly was wonderful. I’m looking forward to going back on a day when I can be my own time-minder. As it was, I did get a chance to doff my shoes and socks and play tag with the waves. All the locals must have thought we were insane for playing in the water in February, but it was definitely the highlight of the day for me.

After lunch, we were taken to a UN Memorial Graveyard for the troops who fell during the Korean War. I got the impression from many of our lectures that the Koreans are intensely proud (and rightly so) of their amazing recovery following the near total destruction of their country during this war. I’m sure that played a part in choosing the cemetery as our second destination for the field trip. I was told by a caretaker that the best time to visit is really in the summer when the azaleas and roses are in bloom, so I may try to go back then to see the flowers.

20160223_145955Possibly the most astonishing thing that I saw on this visit, however, was the memorial wall, a near replica of the one in Washington D.C. for the Vietnam War. More than half the wall was covered by American names. Considering most of my interaction with the Korean War was watching M*A*S*H, it was sobering to see the impact of the conflict in terms of numbers fallen per participating country.


Our lives were mandated and scheduled from 7am to 9pm every day. There was no down time, no quiet time. I complained a bit about this the day before the field trip and most people were still optimistic and energetic, but by the day after the beach practically everyone I spoke to was complaining about being totally “peopled out”. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone I met there was great, interesting, friendly, polite, fun to talk to, helpful and lots of other positive adjectives. I did not have one single negative personal interaction. But as it turns out, most Westerners just can’t deal with 14 hours of non-stop people then coming back to a dorm room with a roomie. I found myself hiding in the bathroom sometimes because the stalls were the only really private place on campus.

As soon as the field trip ended, the fun was over and it was time for serious training. That very night we were required to attend a networking event after diner, but rather than an opportunity to mix with other teachers, exchange information, and learn about each other, the Americans were all chivied off into a separate room to hear a lecture from our embassy about how to register online and how to avoid being sexually assaulted. The rest of the nationalities were made to watch some kind of movie followed by a quiz (or so I was told).

Groups and topics for our “final presentation” had been assigned and our first of two meeting times to work on the project had passed before we were ever even exposed to the class on lesson planning. Again, I’m told that it’s normally the other way around, and that would have been hugely better. Somehow three people were expected to find time in this wall to wall schedule to write a lesson plan… with little to no internet access. Heck, even with my own mobile hot-spot, somehow the lesson plan I wrote in Google Docs didn’t upload fully and so my teammates weren’t able to access it until the next class meetup when they took pictures of my screen to have copies.

All of us had a series of 8 classes that were designed to teach us things like lesson planning, co-teaching, Korean school levels, classroom techniques and other things about the job. Of course this meant the poor instructors had to present their class 4 times a day for two days. And, they’d all just come from another orientation where they’d done the same thing before flying to us. The upshot is that our instructors were just as tired as we were, and often didn’t have a full picture of the information we’d been given already, so there was a lot of overlap and contradiction.

Saudi Arabia prepared me well for things like shifting expectations and technology that only sometimes worked, so for me, this wasn’t an especially challenging part of the orientation, but there were definitely some others who were struggling with the lack of resources, time, internet and clear instructions.


In addition to all our other lectures and classes, we had survival Korean in the evenings after dinner. I rather expected this to focus on the same material that the online orientation had covered, giving us time to practice how we would be expected to introduce ourselves at school, or the names of relevant places at and around the school, and maybe some basic stuff like how to buy food or take a bus. Not so much.

First, they gave us a placement test that was insanely difficult and not actually scaled to a predominantly beginner audience. The test was so inaccurate that they had to re-plan all the classes in  the wake of the results. I wound up in level 2, which I assumed was simply because I had more than zero knowledge. Yet, when we showed up to class, the instructor had prepared Hangul handouts to teach us how to read Korean and was surprised to discover we all knew how. Her entire first lesson was a wash, since everything she’d planned we mostly knew. I don’t blame her at all, I’m sure she wasn’t given a great picture of what to expect, but it was frustrating for us to basically waste a 90 minute lesson.

The second lesson was better organized and more on target with our ability, but it mainly involved us learning how to order several types of coffee and how to ask the waiter/waitress for their name and phone number if we thought they were cute. I’m sure there are people who want to learn how to pick up hotties in Korean, but honestly, it is not ‘survival’.

By the third (and final) lesson we were on to things like money and taking the bus or subway, which were definitely more useful. It became obvious that our instructor was actually quite capable and had just been thrown into a tough situation, but it made the other 2 classes seem even more wasted when I saw how much we could have learned in that time. Right now, for example, I really want to know how to order food delivery because I’m told Korea is the delivery culture of the planet, but I can’t seem to work it out on my own just yet. I also want to know how to pay my utility bill that showed up in my mailbox this week. “Survival” clearly means some different things to different people.


By the last day of orientation, it was like the final stretch of an endurance marathon. Everyone was tired, stressed, and a good chunk were starting to be sick as well. I blame my current flu/quarantine state on the fact that orientation staff refused to let the plague bearers stay away from the rest of us. One of my new friends had a fever and spent 2 days in our class before they finally let her go see a doctor on the final day.

Breakfast had been cut short so we could get an earlier start on our lesson plan presentations, and for some reason they had done away with the second line, resulting in an incredibly long wait. I managed to eat in time, but there were people just sitting down with food as I was heading off to the classroom.

The final decision on our presentations was that we would somehow present a full 45 minute lesson in 10 minutes without using any technology, or “student” interaction. This is possibly the strangest request I had ever heard in presenting demo lesson plans, but what could we do?

After the first group went, the instructor started giving feedback that made it clear he did not know what our assignment was, so I may have taken it upon myself to bring it up. I was highly relieved to hear him say that it was basically an impossible situation. We managed to make it through the ordeal intact, but that wasn’t the end of the day by a long shot.

Next we had the farewell lunch buffet. Similar to the welcoming diner, it was held in a nicer dining room with a more elegant selection of food, but there was no time to relax and enjoy because we had to rush rush to the closing ceremonies! Which were actually pretty cool. The staff had been taking pictures and videos all week and they made a cute little show of the experience, and we had some nice retrospectives of everything we’d learned. On the whole, it helped me (at least) to remember the people who had worked so hard to make it happen, to provide us with tools we would need to face the coming year. It made it easier to overlook the downsides and appreciate the effort that had been put forward for us all.

The group going to Daegu had to leave right away, and although I wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 2 hours after the close of events, I still had to rush back to my dorm room to finalize my packing, label my luggage, and haul it all downstairs as soon as possible so I could turn in my room key on time. Earlier I mentioned that in the end some folks had to choose between food, sleep and packing, because there really was no free time and meals the last couple days got even shorter than normal. I’d only done part of my packing the night before because I thought I had 2 hours to deal with it, but even that turned out not to be accurate information.

Finally, the last group wheeled our luggage across campus to the pick up area where each teacher was collected by individual car. There were probably 50-60 people still waiting in the cold when my co-teacher arrived with her husband to collect me.


My co-teacher turned out to be a rather adorable young woman whose English name is Misha. She can’t drive, so her husband drove her to meet me and take me to my new home. They both speak excellent English, which is somewhat of a relief because I heard from some other teachers that their co-teachers were not so easy to communicate with. They found the apartment with little enough trouble, and I enjoyed chatting with Misha in the car on the drive over.  They did an excellent job of making me feel welcome and helping me learn what I needed to know about the apartment, including the contact info for the last teacher to live here in case I needed to ask her anything.

img_20160303_094214I thanked them muchly and bid them goodnight. I did a little exploring of the kitchen, then headed out to pick up some basic supplies. The neighborhood is a tangled maze, like a hutong but with much taller buildings and a lot of neon. I found a grocery store and a convenience store nearby, then wandered a lot farther looking for some kind of restaurant before settling on some to-go soup from the only place that looked reasonably priced.

I also discovered the previous teacher had left me some booze in the refrigerator and thought I could settle into a nice weekend, recovering from my hectic week and preparing for my first day. This plan would have been great if it weren’t for the fact that I wound up with a high fever in the middle of the night and a subsequent week of illness and quarantine.


As it is, I’m not sure I’ve recovered from anything, orientation or the flu, but I’m really ready to stop being sick in bed. This Monday, I start work a week late and I imagine I’ll be playing catch up for a little while. I’ll try to post some pics of my neighborhood and school as I get to explore, but until then, I hope you enjoy the full Orietnation album on my facebook page and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂