EPIK in Review

At some point I realized that my EPIK Orientation post is one of the top 5 on this site and I thought, now that I’m leaving, it might be useful to some people to see what I learned about EPIK in the last 2 years. Like everything I write here, it is my experience and my story, not some definitive article, but it is my hope that my perspective can help a few of the hundreds of new EPIK recruits who enter Korea every February. It may seem a bit negative, but this isn’t a rag on EPIK post, it’s a look back: Things I experienced. Things I learned. Things I wish someone had told me. Things there were no way to know until they happened.

I’m not writing every good experience here because I’m trying to focus on things that I learned the hard way, that were not good surprises, or that could have made my life easier if I’d known sooner. And also because I wrote a lot of my good experiences as blog posts or Facebook updates or even Instagram photos while they were happening.

I chose to stay a second year. I think EPIK is a great opportunity. It’s generally agreed that with few exceptions the quality of job here in Korea for ESL teaching is 1) University, 2) EPIK, 3) Hagwon. EPIK offers reasonable working and teaching hours. It offers paid holiday leave on top of the national holidays that is 2-3x what hagwon teachers get (if they get any), and it offers paid sick leave which most hagwons also don’t offer. There’s far more of a support structure for newly arrived teachers as well. 4 stars: would recommend.


Public School in Korea

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Schools are graded: A-D, the A schools are the richest and best performing schools while the D are the poorest and lowest performing. The “good” news is that the Korean government seems to be interested in putting extra money into the lower grade schools, but there’s only so much the money can do.

Teachers don’t work for a school, they work for an office of education: Here in Busan, that’s BMOE. My contract is with them, and they get to decide what school(s) I work at in their district. But even Korean teachers are at the whim of the Office of Education within a structure. Korean teachers go to special teaching universities and pass rigorous exams to become teachers. Once they are placed with a district, they will stay there unless there is some extenuating reason to move and they apply for transfer. Korean teachers stay at a school for 3 years and then move to a new school in the district. Preference is given to teachers on a points system. Years of experience count toward their points, but they also get more points for a class D school than class A, so even younger teachers have a chance at getting a “good school” after they serve 3 years at a “bad school”.

No one bids to go to a class D school, which means working here I’ve been mostly surrounded by teachers who do not want to be here and are just biding their time until their 3 years are up and they can go back to a decent school. This is insanely discouraging for me, and I can only imagine how much more so for the students who have no choice. At best, I have a co-teacher who doesn’t want to be here, but out of a sense of duty will do her best while she is here. At worst, I have a co-teacher who complains about the students every day, who cancels class or ends early at any excuse, and who goes to her doctor to try and get medical leave for “stress” because the students are “just so awful”… spoilers, they’re not actually that bad.

In elementary (I can’t speak for middle and high, sorry) the students spend most of their time in “homeroom” where they learn most subjects from a single teacher. The homeroom teacher is almost exclusively responsible for discipline and is the only point of contact with parents. English teachers are “subject teachers” which means even the Korean English teachers are second class teachers, looked way down on by homeroom teachers, and generally given crap. Somehow, homeroom teachers don’t think subject teachers actually DO anything. Which is by and large a load of hooey, since subject teachers often have to do more lesson planning on a tighter schedule and are often assigned additional administrative tasks for the school.

The Principal Principle

main-qimg-84ba5eb5ec8a91c7ec0873bb8a036012-c-e1517966951546.jpgNot only are the schools massively different depending on if it’s A-D, elementary, middle, or high, all the schools have drastically different policies that come from the principal. Many of them will push to see how much extra work they can get you to do. You could try to force the letter of the contract (although it’s best to do that only as a very last resort because people will resent it), but it’s wiser to find culturally sensitive ways to stand up for yourself at work. Politeness will go a long way to smoothing the trail, but how you’re treated is going to be wildly different from everyone else in your intake because the principals make 70% of the rules, and the CTs make another 10-20%.

Your contract is very vague on school responsibilities. I personally found that I was expected to operate a “morning greeting” program 6 months of the year where I would stand at the school gates with some of the older students and make every student arriving read one English sentence form a signboard before proceeding to their homeroom. Other teachers have to run reading clubs. Some are required to participate in teacher volleyball, while I’ve never even been invited. This is all based on the principal and the CTs.

It depends on how your CT and principal get on with each other too! My first year CT had a great relationship with the principal. I’m fairly sure he thought she could do no wrong. She got away with all KINDS of stuff. But my principal does not like my second year head CT. He yells at her, embarrasses her in front of other staff, belittles her, and generally doesn’t trust her. Because of this, she’s far less willing to ask for things on my behalf (not because she doesn’t care about me, but because she doesn’t want to get yelled at by him), and he’s far more likely to jump down her throat if something isn’t done perfectly.

That first year head CT lost most of my intake paperwork. We still don’t know where my checklist for the apartment move in is. We had to redo several things. She filed my Korean tax exemption a year late… just, NOT good at paperwork. But now that I’m leaving, the principal is mad at the current head CT for not having these things, and is making her chase down the first year head CT to get her to sign new versions of 2 year old paperwork. That’s how much he likes one and hates the other. And it definitely impacts my experience at the school.

By the way, keep copies of everything for yourself, just in case.

Your Role as the Guest English Teacher

For myself and the other EPIK teachers I talk with regularly, the sense I got was “you’re not a real teacher”. Because all the Korean teachers went to a special university and are constantly undergoing training updates to be public school teachers, they are certified in a way you are not. Your basic job is to be an English speaker. A living recording. I felt far more like a department resource similar to a computer lab or library than I felt like a teacher. Eventually, my CTs came to realize I had actual skills and we did more collaborating, but I was lucky and it still took time and effort.

It all depends on your principal and your CT (co-teacher). English subject classes are run by a Korean teacher who may or may not actually speak English. They teach the English class alone when you aren’t there. They might plan all the lessons, or they might only plan lessons they teach without you. They might teach with you, or they might disappear on days you’re in their classroom (even though they legally aren’t allowed to do that for student safety reasons). I’ve personally had one CT who mostly liked to plan her own stuff, but close to half the time when she’d talk with me about it, she was open to changes I suggested. I had a CT who did all the planning and told me exactly what she wanted me to do. I’ve had a CT who wanted to plan and run the “lesson” portion but have me plan and run the “game” portions. And I’ve had a CT who didn’t seem to understand what lesson planning was at all, so I eventually just started telling her what I was going to do and letting her work around me.

I have friends who only speak as a kind of classroom demonstration and never run lessons themselves. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the second half of a lesson without attending the first half. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the entire lesson without the aid of their CT.

They cannot prepare you for this at orientation. They try, but it’s not going to really sink in until you’re doing it.

Remember, you are not their equal. You will never be treated as such. If you are temporarily made to feel like you are, there will come a time when you run into the wall of foreignerness and there will be times when, for better or worse, you know your role in this school system is purely for show.

Speaking of things being for show… a lot of what you, your CT, your students, and your school do are all for show. Most of orientation is for show, so that the schools can say their foreign teachers completed so many hours of training. Any activities you do beyond class are strictly for impressing parents or the school board.  You will have “open classes” where parents and the admin staff can attend, but those will be carefully orchestrated performances that bear little resemblance to a daily classroom experience. I had people from the school board come to my class twice during winter camp this year… to… see…. I’m still not sure.

That morning greeting thing I had to do? Solely so that parents would see my very white face smiling at their little ones every morning. We tried our best to make the sentences relevant to something they were doing in class, but I actually had to argue with the Vice-principal because she thought it would be better if I personally said “good morning” to every single student instead, and I couldn’t get her to understand how useless that would be because her focus was on how great it would look to see the foreigner talking with kids where their parents could see them rather than on the learning benefit to the students.

The Chain of Command

Respect flows in order from job title to age to nationality. You are pretty much at the bottom of this. (you’re lower down than the Koreans who are younger than you… ) You shouldn’t object, or say no, or in any way be direct about any negative feedback.  You get a little latitude because most of them know you don’t know the Korean WAY, but it’s easy to step on a cultural landmine or simply be confused as to why things are done this way.

Interruptions are going to be a way of life. In the authority structure of Korean work environments, when the boss says jump, you say how high from the air. They will not ask you to come see them when you finish what you’re doing, they will just expect you to stop whatever it is and attend. They will interrupt your conversations with other teachers, maybe for 20-30 minutes. Trying to talk about your lesson tomorrow? Well, if the Vice-principal calls your co-teacher, she’ll answer and pretend you don’t exist until the VP says goodbye, not even so much as a, “this could be a moment, sorry, I’ll let you know when I’m done.

I managed to have a conversation about this with my CT and while she can’t do much about the people above her, she has at least been willing to work with me so that if she calls me to talk about our next lesson and I’m working on something else, I can ask for a few minutes to get to a stopping point. But before we had this cultural heart to heart, we both felt disrespected. Her because as my supervisor, she expected Korean style obedience. Me because I feel like the only reason to not let an employee get to a natural stopping point while working on something is because they’re in deep trouble.

And yes, I did just say I argued with the Vice-principal. There is often a workaround for the foreign teachers, but I only talked with my CT’s bosses after talking to her and having her ask me to go to the Principal or Vice-principal myself. She did this in part because of the problems I mentioned earlier of her getting yelled at, and in part because she knew I could be more direct and get away with it. But please, don’t go around your CT or behind their back, as that is a recipe for disaster.

Your Co-Teacher and You

20170526_085942.jpgYour CT is the most important person to have a good relationship with at your school, and possibly in Korea. This is the difference between a good work life and a shitty one.

My first year here, I had an amazing head CT (except for paperwork, she was terrible at paperwork). She spoke excellent English, we loved the same books and TV shows, she was energetic and happy most of the time and she liked her classroom to be fun. She also liked to read books or do yoga in the afternoons, and generally did minimal lesson planning so she’d have more free time. She had been teaching English for ages, so that worked for her because she knew what she wanted to do already 80% of the time.

We chatted regularly, shared cookies and coffee in the afternoons, gossiped about K-pop stars or scandals in the news. And I had a lot of free time, too. Which was great. I taught 21 hours a week, and spent about 5 hours doing other class related work at my desk, and the other 14 hours a week in the office, I could work on personal stuff.

That first year, I didn’t always get on with my second CT. She was new, nervous, and very strict. But by the end of the first year we had worked most of that out and were doing ok.

I decided to stay a second year. I knew my primary CT was changing schools, but that secondary CT would become my handler and we already had a good working relationship. I knew the second year wouldn’t be the same, but I had no idea how much it would change.

Cue dramatic music.

Not only did I lose the fun CT, but I gained a second school. We’re office of education employees after all, and we have to go where they send us. In this case, they decided to split me between 2 schools, giving me a horrible schedule, increasing the number of students I spent time with, and decreasing the amount of time I spent with any given student. I need a job where I can have rapport with my students. Jobs where I can’t connect with my students are soul crushing to me… so this was a major disappointment. I’ve done my best to connect with the more than 300 students I see this year, but I don’t know most of their names, and I really only have any idea of the ability of the outliers (best and worst). It makes me feel like I can’t be an effective teacher, and then I remember that’s not really my job at EPIK.

Other than sheer overwhelming schedule nonsense, the second school was fine. The CT was new but she was young and energetic and very glad to have me because she knew I had experience teaching English and she did not.

Meanwhile, at my primary school, the new head CT was losing her shit because suddenly she was “in charge” and our entire co-worker dynamic was changing. Everything I thought we’d worked out and gotten comfortable with was suddenly quicksand because all that happened when she wasn’t my “boss”. I know I just laid out the hierarchy, but to me, she’s still not my boss… technically our CT is above us in rank, but I’m also older than her with more English teaching experience, and while I was happy to do as she was asking in most cases, I wasn’t down with the jumping part of the boss-worker relationship. So we had to go through a whole new series of fairly stressful bouts to find our work dynamic again. Which, by the way, is good now… it just sucked having to do it twice with the same person.

Remember when I said no one wants to work at a class D school? Well, that means all the new teaching staff we got in my second year didn’t want to be here. It was a penance because they were too low on the totem pole to get any of their top 10 choices. On top of that, when it came time for the staff to divvy up the jobs between homeroom and subject teachers, no one wanted to be the new English teacher either! One woman heard that subject teaching was easier than homeroom (remember that dirty rumor?) so she volunteered, and even though she could barely say 3 words of English, they gave her the job.

Also remember how I said all the teachers go to special universities with rigorus testing? Well, it hasn’t always been that way. It turns out that while nowadays teaching universities only accept the very best, back in the day they took the dregs. So depending on the age of your CT, they might have come from an era where academic proficiency was not required to become a teacher.

I went from a year of singing the lego theme song (everything is awesome!) to a year of crying at my desk at least one day a week. Because my CTs changed and I could not make it work. (Although, the nearly year long ordeal of two intractable root canal procedures that required dozens of trips to a variety of dentists and endodontic specialists could not have helped things)

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It took me about 9 months to finally get a plan for really dealing with her and it was “don’t deal with her”. Now I just make my materials and tell her what I’m going to do while I’m in her room. She doesn’t get a vote anymore. I’m not suggesting you handle a difficult CT this way. I think my case was extreme. At some point my head CT actually suggested that I simply not do anything for this problem teacher unless I was directly asked. I couldn’t bring myself to do that because I just cared about the kids too much. Because my head CT saw how hard I worked on finding a mutual solution, she eventually backed my decision to do it my way and appealed to the Vice-principal to select a different English teacher next year.

I’ve worked with 6 Korean co-teachers in the past 2 years and 5 of them were great. No it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows, but the other 5 I could at least communicate with and they cared about the students and classes and me, so we could hash it out when things got rough.

You are stuck with your CTs. They are not going away until the school board sends one of you to another school, which only happens in March. 5/6 we cover for each other when one is sick (I mean, it’s Korea, so we still come to work, but the well one will pick up the slack so the sick one can do less). 5/6 I can ask for help with things outside of school (advice, translating, calling stores or doctors offices that don’t speak English, stuff they don’t have to do). 5/6 have my back with the students and the admin staff.

6 isn’t a lot either. I’ve never had more than 3 at a time, but I have friends who have had as many as 11 co-teachers at once. When I think about how different all my CTs are in teaching style and in what they want from me, I get a little dizzy at the idea of trying to do that across 11 people. But it happens.

Plus, you’re the only native speaker at your job, so you don’t get to have foreigner friends lunchtime like the hagwon teachers do, if you don’t enjoy your CTs company, it gets very lonely.

The experiences of myself and my friends at BMOE is not universal, though. Ask 2 EPIK teachers about their CTs and you’ll get 5 different descriptions.

I found this article written by a teacher in Korea who finds himself constantly abandoned by CTs and left alone in the classroom. I want to point out that is a) illegal because you as a foreigner are not certified to handle safety and discipline issues.  I asked my Office of Education about it, and while it’s ok for us to be alone with kids during camp time (and for the occasional few moments a CT might need to step out to deal with pressing issues), the children are required to be overseen by someone with the right certifications and that’s not us. b) the Koreans who are assigned English classes are being paid for the English classes, so if they ditch you, goof off on their phone, etc. they’re basically not working when they should be. It’s up to you if you want to complain or not, but at least now you know the rules.

Last Minute Everything

The schedule is never what it says it will be. Ever. You will be told about events when they happen, or if you’re lucky, the day before.

I joined the monthly dinner club my first year (teachers pay into a fund and then go to a nice restaurant as a group once a month). Most of the time I found out when that one day was the day before or morning of.

Classes can be moved or cancelled or rearranged with zero notice. I will sometimes walk into an empty classroom only to be told by the CT that class was moved to another time. There’s a school wide phone system, they could call, but they don’t. I was told today that the class I just finished was actually the last time I would see my 3rd graders because she decided not to have class next week after all. Now I don’t even get to say goodbye…

Planning your holidays can be rough. You can easily look up the federal holidays and I recommend you book any trips you want for things like Chuseok as soon as possible because all the Koreans booked that 3 years ago. But your school holidays are dependent on camp, and often the principal won’t decide when camp is going to be until a week or two before the end of the semester. You can ask them to, but there’s no way to force them. And if you buy plane tickets before your time off is set, you could be very disappointed.

Speaking of camp. You won’t know how many or what level students you get until about a week before go time. But you need a lesson plan and materials list way before that.

Desk Warming and Other Kiddie BS

20170303_082606There is an expectation in Korean culture about your body being at work = you are working. Public schools are actually better than private companies because most of the time the Korean staff can actually show up and leave at designated times instead of trying to beat the boss in and wait until the boss leaves to go. As the foreigner teacher, you have a strict time in and time out and if they ask you to do more they have to agree to OT. Don’t agree to stay late until you get that OT approved, because they WILL try to get you to “volunteer”, and according to your contract, if you volunteer, they don’t have to pay you more.

I have a friend who has been teaching more than her maximum 22 hours for 2 years because when she showed up, the Korean teachers told her “the last foreign teacher did it” and she didn’t stand up for herself. Public schools are infinitely better than hagwons about your hours and time, but it’s still important not to get taken advantage of. But also, don’t be totally stingy about a few extra minutes on occasion when you’re trying to finish some work for the next morning.

However, while you’re busy watching them to make sure you’re not overworked, they’re watching you to make sure you’re body is in that school every second they paid for. I know they mentioned desk warming in orientation, but it still drives us all crazy. It’s not just that I have to sit around when my work is done. Or that I have to come to school when there are no students. It’s that I have to sit around when there’s no heat or a/c AND no students… It’s that I’m not allowed to decide which of my two schools I’d like to be working at so when the internet is down during desk warming, I can’t go to the other place. Or if I have work to do at school A but I’m scheduled to desk warm at school B, I can’t change that to get my work done at school A…. it’s obstructive.

I also had to sign in and out during winter camp this year because my new VP thought I couldn’t be trusted to show up if a Korean teacher wasn’t there to see it… I know there are newbies out there who might try to take advantage and skive off, but after 2 years of being at the same school, it was insulting to be suddenly treated as untrustworthy.

Paid Time Off

20170126_081916Your holidays and sick leave aren’t exactly what you think they are. EPIK teachers get 11 sick days, and it says in your contract that for more than 3 days you need a doctor’s note. BUT. That actually means any non-consecutive 24 hours.

Unless your CT and principal don’t care… because that CT who was bad at paperwork my first year? Yeah, I only brought a sick note for my 5 day quarantine, and I was never asked for another one the rest of the year.

My second year with the more rules focused CT, I had a million dentist appointments for which I often left school only 1 hour early, but those added up and soon I was having to bring a note for every visit. Which also costs 3,000 won at the doctors office. On the other hand, one day I was actually too sick to get out of bed, I was told I could not use my sick time because I didn’t get a doctors note despite the fact that I had food poisoning and could barely drag myself to the bathroom, forget the hospital.

I explained later to my CT why I wasn’t able to go (no car, no family/friends to drive me, no ability to even call a taxi, and unwilling to call an ambulance for non-emergency illness because while the ER costs are low if they deem it necessary, if they think you’re wasting time, you get a bigger bill). She sympathized with me, and could tell how awful I still felt the day I returned to school, but there was nothing anyone could do, and I had to use a vacation day instead of a sick day.

Those doctor notes are only good for the day they are issued. Unless you have something like a surgery or a highly contagious flu, they can’t issue a multi-day note. So if you want to miss more than one day, be prepare to schlep back to the hospital every single day, or else not get paid time off. More than one teacher has gone to a doctor thinking that note will cover the duration of an illness and returned to work only to find they’re burning vacation days or not getting paid for the missed days.

The holidays are also restricted to use for summer and winter break, so unless your principal feels benevolent, there is no way you can make them give you time off during other studentless days. I originally wanted to use my winter vacation days to end early this February. There are no English classes in the last week of the school year and desk warming at the end of my contract when I had so many things to do to get ready to move my life seemed silly. I asked before winter break if I could be allowed to do this and was told flatly “no” because it wasn’t official holiday time. Even though I also was told I had to use a paid holiday for my sick day… outside of official holiday time. They said I could use the paid leave to have short days, but not full days off. Yet, it turns out, I’m actually taking the last two days of my final week completely off anyway. As circumstances changed, I have an appointment on that Thursday morning, and I think my principals finally decided it was a reasonable request to just have the last two days off rather than to try and juggle half days all week.

School Computers

The school computers are all awful. Get a VPN. I can only erratically access my Google Drive from school because of the network’s security features. Sometimes, I can’t even copy images off the internet which is bad when you’re trying to make a PowerPoint and need that clip art. Sometimes one program will only work with the VPN and another will only work without it, so I have to keep turning it off and on. One day Drive needs the VPN, but the next day it won’t work with the VPN on. Some days, I have to turn the VPN off and on again every few minutes because the school’s network keeps blocking me… I swear I’m not trying to watch porn, I’m usually just trying to get to a picture of a cat eating a hamburger.

They are also sloooooooowwww. Like dial up modem slow. Like, are you sure there’s not malware on this machine slow. It’s because they have so many redundant security programs running that it eats the processor speed to nothing. And they also never clean them out. The IT person is only at your school for one day a week, so it’s best if you can manage a minimum of your own tech support… change that windows desktop into English for a start. Basically, try not to run anything too demanding and be patient.

Everyone hates the messenger program. That penguin is a thing you will come to hate. You can turn it off, but then you miss messages from your CTs. Most of the time, I leave it on with the sound disabled (god it was hell before I got that fixed). Sometimes when I’m working on a thing where the pop-ups get in my way I turn it all the way off. I’ve also asked my CTs to verbally tell me if they send a message on this thing because I get a notification for every single all-staff message. I’ve gotten 3 while writing this paragraph. I ignore them. All of them are in Korean and most of them do not apply to you. Some teachers say we should try to copy and paste every message into translate because sometimes there is relevant information. That’s… true-ish. Information about school events that might include or affect you are there, and your CT might not think to tell you about them, but I think if you just talk with them and let them know the situation, you can work something out.

Culture Clash

20170422_204235There will be a lot of cultural misunderstandings. And just because one Korean person explains Korean culture a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s that way for every Korean. I mean, does everyone in your culture represent it the same way? If you feel confused or upset, try to find the specific reason for those feelings, and after you’re calm, ask to talk with your CT about it. Ask about the Korean perspective, and let them know your cultural perspective, not to try to get them to change, but so you can understand each other better and find something that works. One CT does not think a teacher should ever have their hands in their pockets in class. Another CT might have her hands in her pockets regularly. Is that Korean culture? No, but they might tell you it is.

Pick your battles. To me, hands in the pockets was just not that important, but being able to come to a natural stopping point in my work before shifting to another task was.

Remember it’s not about you. This seems obvious, but I have met some people who had a rough time with this idea. Yes, they brought you over from another country to expose their children to native English speaking and a little bit of cultural exchange, but it’s not a “teach your class about your country” kind of experience. Some of the kids I’ve been teaching for 2 years still can’t remember what country I’m from. It’s not personal, I know they love me, but it’s just not a priority for them at this point in their lives. It’s great if you get the chance to share things about your homeland, but it’s not why you’re here.

Not only are you expected to teach things in English that are familiar to your students (not to you), your CTs might not be interested either. Regardless of the innate interest of your students and CTs, the best thing you can do is be curious about Korea. Let them teach you about their language, culture and food. Show appreciation for it. My students love correcting my Korean and it makes them feel better about their English mistakes. They go wild when I use a K-pop star or popular Korean cartoon character in a PowerPoint. And my CTs are far more willing to listen to my cultural concerns if I demonstrate that I respect theirs first.

The Good Stuff

I’ve said a lot of scary stuff, but none of it was a deal breaker for me. In the past I’ve worked at places that were so much worse. Every hagwon teacher I’ve met here has a harder job than me with less vacation time and no sick time. But more than “it could be worse” there are a lot of things to like about working with EPIK.

22 teaching hours: At this point in my career, it’s pretty much my maximum because I believe we should have at least 1 hour of paid working time per hour of paid class time for things like lesson planning, materials prep, and student assessments. More if you’re looking to do career development, too. However, since most private academies ask teachers to do 30-35 teaching hours in a week, I appreciate how great that 22 hour limit really is. Also, it’s not 22 full hours. It’s 22 class hours. I have 4 class hours from 9am to 12:10pm… teacher math.

The good side of desk warming: even though we are forced to sit at these desks for hours of non-productive time, the good news is you’re never given “busy work”. If you’re done with your class prep/homework grading then the time is yours. You can take a nap (some schools have nap rooms for staff), Skype your friends, do yoga, go for a run on the school’s track (it’s generally ok to wander around the school, but best to tell your CT if you’re going somewhere other than the bathroom or your office), shop online, watch Netflix, play video-games, or like me, work on a blog.

Support structure: You are an employee of the Korean government. You are protected by the same workers rights laws as all other government employees here. That is AMAZING. You have at least one (probably more) co-teachers. They can be challenging sometimes, but they are also your best allies. I lost count of how many times I had to ask for fairly simple things, help with finding goods or services, help scheduling repairs for broken technology, help dealing with hospitals and companies that don’t speak English. Advice about Korea. Although the CTs are only required to help us with the things that directly apply to the job, most are willing to do more if you have a good relationship and show your appreciation for their extra effort. I see hagwon people on the Facebook page all the time asking for help because they can’t ask a Korean at their office. We can.

Cultural immersion: Hagwons tend to hire lots of foreigners together, so hagwon teachers see foreigners every day and can hang out between classes or at lunch or after work quite easily. EPIK teachers are the only foreigner at one or more schools. We spend all day entirely surrounded by Koreans. I found that I had to take an interest in Korean things just to have something to talk about at lunch. And yes, sometimes we sit at lunch and they talk rapid Korean and I get lost and tune out, but more than half of the time, I am included in the conversation. Plus, I can just go to my CT and chat. We can talk about classes, and students and lesson plans of course, but we can also talk about our lives and what’s going on in the world around us. It’s a much more involved job opportunity because you really have to work NOT to be exposed to the culture around you.

Paid leave: It’s really good. I mean, university is still better, but EPIK is better than any job in the US. EPIK teachers start with 18 paid holidays and get more if they stay longer than a year. I managed to have a 10 day trip to New Zealand and a 12 day trip to the Malay Peninsula my first year (weekends). Tell me another job you can afford to take two international holidays a year? Plus, there’s a lot of national holidays that give you long weekends when the tour groups run extra trips because they know all the expats are free.

Enforced savings: You pay into the pension plan every month and that’s employer matched. Most countries have an agreement with Korea that allows foreigners to cash in that pension fund when they leave Korea. Plus, severance pay is national law here now, so for every 1 year of work you do, you are entitled to a month’s pay in severance when you leave that company. So even when I do a bad job of saving from my paycheck (no one’s perfect) I’m still getting a little nest egg for every year I’m here. It’s not enough to build a retirement plan on, but it’s nice.

Healthcare: The only people who complain here are Canadians because they are spoiled people who pay nothing to see a doctor. The rest of us are blown away by the high quality and low cost of healthcare. As government employees, we’re on the national plan. But even services that aren’t covered are often far more reasonably priced than in our home countries. I’ve been able to get LASIK and take care of some normally costly dental work here, and I’ve got a list of other minor things I want to take care of next year because I can afford it here but not in the US.

Tiny Koreans: no, it’s not an Asian height joke, I’m talking about the kids. The only thing that can reliably cut through any amount of frustration or culture shock depression any day is the genuine enthusiasm of my students when they see me. I know that I’m extra lucky because I have friends who work at schools and academies that cater to spoiled rich kids and I hear the horror stories. But my kiddos are kind to me. They smile when they see me in the halls or on the streets near the school. They wave. They want hi fives. They are curious and want to share. And their joy is just contagious. I can be having the worst day, but I still smile when I see them smile. They can make me feel like a rock star, and I hope I can do the same for them.

Korea in General

korea-travel-landmarks-vector-illustration-57253225Most of this is EPIK specific, but that “K” does stand for Korea, so…

Shopping: Get into that online delivery as fast as you can. G-market, yogiyo, iherb. Love them. On the ground, basic needs shops are Home Plus, E-mart, and Daiso. Buy things from people on the street. For the love of god, the produce and (at least here in Busan) fresh seafood is much cheaper from the street vendors than any store. Even my Korean coworkers are amazed by the deals I get on fresh seasonal fruit because I am willing to buy it out of the back of a truck.

Pharmacies are only for direct health needs. Not everything needs a prescription, but you will have to ask the pharmacist for what you need because it’s not out on the shelves. From cold medicine to band-aids to hand sanitizer. It’s at the pharmacy. If you don’t know the Korean, ask your CT, use a translating app, or just show a picture of what you need to the pharmacist on your phone.

You can get most of what you need here. Most common medicines (check your prescriptions, and don’t assume they have your favorite birth control options, I had to go to Thailand for mine), hair and skin care, cosmetics, shaving and styling. Easy to find many options. What’s hard to find?

  • There is no toothpaste with fluoride. I don’t know why, the Koreans are obsessed with dental care but don’t use fluoride. You can get it on iherb.
  • They also don’t use deodorant. I did read a study that says they don’t as an ethnic group have as smelly sweat as other ethnic groups… this is mostly true, although I do still run into the occasional case of BO in the hot weather. Beauty shops are the places to find the few brands that exist here, but most expats just bring in a case when they go on holiday or buy it from iherb.
  • Tampons are… just, hard to find. Mostly at Costco, Home Plus, or E-Mart. Pads are easy and in most neighborhood shops.
  • Plus size clothing (both genders, worse for women) and large shoes. I sometimes buy men’s shoes because I’m the largest size ladies shoes are made here. A few places carry larger sizes in store, but online options are easier, and a lot of cities have clothing swaps among the expats to refresh a wardrobe. I have found that bras, underwear, and jeans are the most challenging (read, have never successfully bought in Korea) but everything else is workable.

Socializing: Join the Facebook group for your city. Go to events. Go on tour groups (I like Enjoy Korea best). Go places on your own, the intercity train and bus system is great and cheap. Go to all the festivals. Talk to Koreans. Do not be one of those people who only works and drinks. I mean, if that’s all you want out of life, I can’t stop you, but Korea is amazing and I really feel bad for the people who come here and never experience anything but their school and local expat bar.

Bank/Phone: KEB Hana bank. No really. As my FB admin says, “the least worst option”. Banking here is hard. Make sure your debit card is set for international use (sooooo many people ask every month, “why can’t I use my Korean bank card on my vacation in Bali?”), just ask for the international option when you open the account. You can also get your debit card to act as a bus/subway pass if you ask for it.

You can read more about my experiences with KEB/Hana here.

Make sure your phone can do international SIM cards AND Korean SIM cards… I don’t know if I just had a bad translation, but I think I almost ended up with a phone that would do only one of those things and I had to explain a few times that I live in Korea and vacation abroad,so I need both to work. They got it eventually.

Learn some Korean. Learn to READ at least. You don’t need to be fluent but this will make your life easier. Talk to Me in Korean and Duolingo are my favs that are free.

Google then ask. Foreigners have been moving here in droves every year for a while. It’s an annual migration and they all have the same problems, questions and concerns. Chances are, someone, somewhere has asked before you and had the question answered. As much as experienced expats do like helping the newly arrived, we hate answering the same 5 questions over and over. You will be mocked if you ask a question with an easily Google-able answer. Older expats are not a service you are entitled to, they are helping because they want to, so put in a little effort to show you’re trying and not just lazily hoping someone on Facebook will do it all for you. That said, if you can’t find the answer, DO ASK because someone here knows. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but the Busan expat community is very connected and helpful. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or figure everything out on your own.

Is It Worth It?

Hell yes.

20170526_100631.jpgI know I wrote some discouraging words, but trust me I’ve written far more about my wonderful experiences here. Korea, like every country on earth, is not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it, and EPIK public school teaching is a great way to get to experience it all. I hope those of you reading this looking for advice or in anticipation of your upcoming trip to Korea will learn from my experiences, good and bad, and make your own great adventures in the upcoming school years.

If you’re feeling apprehensive about your EPIK experience, just go take a look at all of the wonderful things I’ve shared in the last two years in this remarkable little country.

First Week at EPIK

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival 2016 & 2017

Holi Hai, Sailing, first Norebang, Canola Flower Festival

Best desserts & Samgwangsa Lanterns

Taean Tulip Festival

Sand Sculpture Festival 2016 & 2017

PRIDE: Seoul 2016, Seoul 2017, Busan 2017

Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, UN Memorial, Dadaepo Fountain, Sulbing, Beomeosa Temple, Jinju Lantern Festival

Jeju Island

DMZ & Seoraksan

Boseong Tea Fields (winter), NYE at Yongdusan Park

Daegu Flying Lanterns

Boseong Tea Fields (spring) & Jindo Sea Parting Festival

Gamcheon Culture Village

Gaya Theme Park

Nami Island & Garden of the Morning Calm (winter)

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival


I hope this gives some insight into the nitty gritty of being an EPIK teacher. Of all the things I learned while writing this, the biggest one is that no two EPIK teachers have the same experience. I advise you to read as many blogs and watch as many Youtube videos about this as you can if this is something you are planning to do because one perspective, no matter how detailed, is incapable of covering all the possibilities. Above all, when you come to Korea, keep an open heart and an open mind. You will face challenges, but if you persevere, you will have wild and joyful adventures as well.

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Settling In: My First Week of School

UPDATE: Something happened to the pictures the first time I published, I’m assuming something to do with using my work computer instead of my personal one? Anyway, it should be all fixed now. Thanks for your patience and enjoy!


Despite the best efforts of the flu, I managed to both make it to and survive my first week of elementary school teaching in Korea. The week was less than normal for several reasons, but it gives me a pretty good idea of what I’ve gotten myself into, and it appears to be good news.


First, let me explain a little about Korean education as I was led to expect it from EPIK orientation and online research:

Typical Korean Students

Korean kids study from about 9 am to about 11 pm (later for the high-schoolers). They start with public school, then do after school programs, private English schools, and subject tutors before going home to do more hours of homework. I think this speech was given to me a half a dozen times at orientation as a way of helping us understand what our students go through, and to give us some sympathy for them in our classes. English class is often the only “fun” class they will have all day (even the little kids), and kids will often end up falling asleep in your class because they were up past midnight studying. Also, your class is only one of 3-4 places they study English.

Next, let me explain a little about my school:

I guess recently the Korean government decided to pour some foreigner money into the lower income schools around the cities, so I work in a neighborhood that one of the locals described as a “slum”. OK, Korean slums aren’t really as bad as say American ones, there aren’t any metal detectors and no cops are roaming the hallways,

Not actually one of mine, but…

but the kids are from economically disadvantaged homes and often receive little to no positive attention from their parents, let alone the costly private after school programs. In the first week, I’ve already encountered several special needs children, and heard horror stories of abusive parents. Social services isn’t really a thing here yet, so kids aren’t protected unless the home life is Jim Jones levels of bad. As such, my kids don’t have a lot of advantages that I was led to believe Korean students have. They don’t have a very high English level and my class is most likely the only place they will get to study English (or possibly get positive feedback).

20160317_160151.jpg

My “office” / English resource room.

Do not mistake this for a horrible situation, however.We may not have the best facilities, but we have computers, TVs, and about a million English books. Our main textbooks come with lots of cut out activities and interactive DVD-Roms. And my “office” is the English play room/ library which is full of stories and even a short row of student accessible computers. On top of that, the kids aren’t little hellions of bad attitude or behavioral problems. Most of them are really cheerful, well behaved, respectful and pretty happy to see me. I don’t know if they’re happy to see their other teachers as well, but I get lots of greetings and big smiles in the hallways and the classroom.

20160316_075209In the morning, I wake up before 7 am to get ready. My neighborhood is still quiet then, and when I step out onto the cold spring sidewalk, everything except the 24hr stores are closed up tight. Because I live in a pretty ritzy neighborhood, I have a bit of a bus ride to school, but it’s a nice time to wake up and see what’s in the city through the windows.

20160316_081753Because it’s still so early, the bus isn’t too crowded and I can usually get a seat.
Walking from the bus stop to the school is really peaceful. There are a million tiny shops selling fruit, sweets, snacks, and various household goods, but it’s still too early, so the little alleyways are silent. When I round the corner and my school comes in sight, I suddenly become a superstar. Kids recognize me and are happy to say hello or practice the most recent English phrase they learned in class. They call my name from across the street and run up to get high fives. It really is a great way to start the day.
20160316_082107My first week was actually the second week of school because I spent the first week in quarantine, so you can imagine the kids were surprised to see me after their first week with no native English speaker. There were lots of curious glances and furtive shy peeking in the window. Some brave students even came up to ask what day I would be in their class. Monday wasn’t especially a typical day, but I made it through my classes with minimal technical difficulties, and learned that there are three other teachers I’ll be spending most of my time with. The other two English teachers, who I will refer to as co-teacher 1 and co-teacher 2, as well as a music teacher that is in our hallway. They’re all really sweet ladies, and did their best to make me feel included, sitting with me at lunch and chatting with me in the hallways or after class.

MONDAY

I had to go back to the doctor on Monday after class, which is the boring part. Then I found out that we were having our first teacher’s dinner that night. EPIK orienters advised us to get in on any teacher activities to make our stay easier, but this one sounded like fun anyway. Apparently, every month, the teachers pay into a pot fund and then once in a while we all go out for a great dinner. 20160307_170141This one was our year start dinner, and we went to a traditional Korean barbecue place. Every 4 people shared a table with it’s own grill and assortment of banchan (반찬 : the side dishes served at every Korean meal). It was the duty of the youngest at the table to cook, which is our music teacher, so she set to grilling the pork belly (Samgyeopsal 삼겹살) which we ate with the various spices, sauces and side dishes to change the flavor of every bite.

I was mostly watching and following along, but it was delicious. We ate two plates full and then the waiters came by to ask us what we wanted for dinner! In Korea, after the plate of meat is all cooked and shared, people order some soup or a noodle dish to finish off. I was stuffed, but the ladies ordered a single bowl of a cold noodle soup, which I tried a bite of because they told me that most foreigners don’t like that kind of soup… so of course I had to try. It actually wasn’t bad. The noodles were a little chewy, but the flavor was nice. I think if I hadn’t been so full of pork belly I might have eaten more.

My Korean co-teachers don’t drink much, so we toasted with cider. It’s not what you think. In the west, cider is made from apples, either a spiced apple juice or a hard (alcoholic) apple juice. In Korea (and Japan), cider is a clear, carbonated, sweet, non-alcoholic beverage. I have no idea why it’s called cider. Think Sprite/7Up. It was my first real day out after the flu, and I’d already had a long day at school, and the doctor, and dinner, but it was soooo good. Then they asked if I wanted to go get some dessert afterward. Imagine how sick I have to be to turn down dessert. I wasn’t that sick.

They started describing this kind of frozen dessert,

snow-cone-cup

American Sno-Kone

but didn’t know the English name. After a while, I realized they were talking about shaved ice. Now, Americans (49 states anyway) don’t know from shaved ice. We have this thing called a sno-cone, which is small chips of ice covered bright colored sugary artificial flavored syrup. Hawaiians know a little better. They actually shave the ice instead of chipping it, resulting in a fluffy, fresh snow texture. Some of them even use real fruit in the syrups! I also had the chance to eat some Japanese shaved ice last summer in Yokohama.

yokohama ice

Japanese shaved ice

It was really good… compared to the only thing I’d ever known, which was of course the American sno-cone. When I tried to describe these to the Koreans however, they got looks of disbelief mixed with pity. I even showed them some pictures on my phone to get the point across. They smiled a little knowingly at one another and said that Korean shaved ice was really the best.

I’m used to most people thinking their own culture is the best at xyz, so I take it with a grain of salt. But then they started showing me pictures on their phones, and one told me about the seasonal strawberry flavor that had strawberries, whipped cream and cheesecake! WHAT! So, yeah, we’re going to get dessert.

We walked a long way, it might have been faster to take the bus or subway, but it happened to be a warm night while we had an early taste of spring, so I didn’t mind too much. Heck, if not for the lingering cough, it would have been idyllic. Finally, we arrived.

We picked up another teacher on the way, so there were five of us, and  co-teacher 1 offered to treat us all, so she headed up to the counter to order.I can’t even. Just look at it. It’s better than it looks. And it looks amazing, right?

20160307_191911

Korean shaved milk ice

So, instead of shaved water ice, this is made with shaved milk ice. Making it way more creamy than a mere shaved ice. The bowl is filled with this fluffy frozen milk, then topped with fresh berries, cream and a slice of cheesecake! It’s served with a little dish of sweet condensed milk in case it’s not sweet and creamy enough for you. The five of us shared 2 of these monstrous creations. I’m an addict, but I can’t go alone. Even if I did manage to finish a whole one, I’d feel guilty for days.

We had some great conversation too as we learned more and more about each other. I’d answered a lot of questions about myself in class for the students, but not all of them were as … honest? as possible. I mean, I didn’t lie, but when asked my favorite food/video game/tv show/book, I tried to answer things that I really do like, but that would be more familiar to them than my actual favorites. Good thing for me I like Harry Potter and the Avengers. But, at dessert, with just the teachers, we started talking about other things, and it turns out that  co-teacher 1 and I are both avid Whovians. I’m pretty psyched about that.

They’ve sort of decided I’m the font of all things English, which I don’t mind, but they did ask a lot of questions. The music teacher told me a story about how when she was travelling in Japan, she met an Englishman who, dressed in many layers in the warm weather, she figured must have been uncomfortable, so she told him he looked hot. Apparently this caused his face and ears to turn red, much to her surprise. I had to explain the other meaning of the word hot, and a few social context norms as to why this man would be so embarrassed to have a pretty young Korean woman tell him he was hot. This led to a comparison of our favorite stars, and it turns out we had a lot of overlap in our tastes in men too. I really can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with “girl talk”. Or teaching anyone to say “Cumberbatch”.

“Hot” in any language.

Co-teacher 2 seems constantly surprised that I’m not a more stereotypical American. She was surprised that I could read Korean (and wanted to learn more), surprised I could use chopsticks at dinner, and surprised I was comfortable sharing a common dish while eating. I guess those aren’t normal American traits, but it was strange to run across someone with such strongly ingrained stereotypes of us. I tried to reassure her that she wasn’t necessarily wrong, that of course many Americans do live up to those ideas, but that I’d been fortunate enough to have lots of international experiences, and a group of friends at home who are way more comfortable with things like affection between platonic friends and sharing stuff like food, drinks, clothes or whatever.

TO FRIDAY

The rest of the week was me introducing myself to the students class after class, and having lunches with the other teachers, and hanging out after classes finishing our lesson plans or just drinking coffee and sharing snacks. One day, we took off early again to get me registered with the immigration office and start my Korean bank account. It was a lot of walking around down by the waterfront, so I got to see and explore another part of town and the weather was cool and sunny, so it was a good day for it. When we finished our errands, co-teacher 1 and I went over to Starbucks to celebrate and had so much fun sharing stories that we didn’t even realize how much time had passed and she had to run off quickly to pick up her son.

Thursday was an evaluation day for the students. In Korean schools, there are two kinds of teachers/classes: homeroom and subject. In elementary school, the students spend most of their day with the homeroom teacher who covers most things like Korean, Math, Science, PE, etc. The subject teachers are English, Music and Ethics (as far as I can tell). The homeroom teachers actually look down a little on subject teachers, which in turn frustrates the subject teachers who feel like they work just as hard (if not harder) because they have such a narrow focus. Anyway, evaluation day meant that there would be no subject classes, so we had nothing to do and spent the whole morning in one empty classroom, making a huge mess with our combined piles of drinks and snacks. There’s a lot of “desk-warming” time for Guest English Teachers, but it looks like sometimes at least, I’ll get to spend it having fun with the other subject teachers and not just stuck at my desk alone.

Friday is my shortest class day, because we only have 3 classes, and we can finish our planning early. However, there’s no early leaving, so I hung out on my computer until 4:30 playing games and chatting with friends on Facebook. I’m really hoping to start using this time more constructively, like studying my Korean or (as I am doing now) working on this blog. But it was my first week, so I gave myself some permission to slack.

WTF DUDE?

Then, on my way out, the kookiest thing happened to me. I decided to buy a pizza from the local shop on my way home (that’s not the kooky part), but as I was walking toward the shop, a young man approached me to say hello. Now, I’m a little bit used to being a minor celebrity when I’m abroad. Really, unless you’re in a high tourist area, the chances are there aren’t a lot of white folks (or whatever the non-native ethnicity happens to be). Europe was nice, because as long as I kept my mouth shut, no one could spot me out by sight. But in the Middle East and Asia, I kind of stand out with my glowing white skin (this is not a brag, btw, I’d love some melanin to protect me from the sun’s harsh rays, it’s just not in the genes). As such, it does not freak me out when random people come up and get very curious or friendly. I watch out for signs of scams or aggression, but most of the time, it’s really just honest curiosity and a chance to see if that English they learned in school really works.

So, when this guy came up to me to say hello, I was friendly back. I know in a way I represent my country when I’m out, so I try to be a good example. Plus, I’m actually a pretty friendly person and probably talk to strangers more than is strictly good for me. He asked my name, and also my age, but I’d been warned that asking someone’s age at first meeting is normal in Korea because they use age as part of the system of address (how you speak to someone older/younger than you changes). He also introduced himself and his own age. His English was shaky, but I try to be encouraging (I am a teacher, it’s a good habit). I thought that might be the end of it, since the light changed and I could cross the street, but he followed along, continuing to try to communicate. I thought maybe he lived or worked nearby and wanted to be friends, OK. We took a selfie together and I gave him my public Facebook page (not personal), then said goodbye and went into the pizza shop.

Still not the kooky part. So far this has been a pretty normal cultural exchange, and I felt safe and happy. I order my pizza (a sweet potato pizza, which I have been told is a popular Korean variant and a must-try for all visitors, with a “gold” crust, I’ll come back to the pizza later), and am told it will take about 10 minutes to cook. Then the guy spots me through the window and waves me back out into the street.

This is where it gets weird.

He then confesses his love.

And asks if we can be a couple. “Couple” sounds like “cup-oo-roo”, but I know what he’s saying anyway.

A thing you may or may not know, depending on your own gender and nationality, but girls hate having to turn dudes down. It’s awkward and can be scary. Often when a guy is rejected, he can become hostile, insulting us or even attacking us. It’s not a joke, it’s not an overstatement. It happens all the time. I’ve seen the police called on guys in my own regular hangout places because they got hostile that some girl wouldn’t kiss them. I’ve had plenty of dudes call me all manner of unpleasant things. So most of us learn the delicate art of the gentle turn down/de-escalation. This usually involves flattery, humor, and the inevitable presence of another man in the girl’s life. I often had to pretend to be married in the Middle East just to get away from amorous dudes. Not fun. And it’s even harder when you’re facing a language barrier. Plus, this was my first time dealing with this in Korea (every culture is different), and the whole conversation had started as normal.

I was flummoxed, but tried to stay light, smiling at his compliments and saying no, no, I’m too old for you. (10 year age difference). But he kept insisting! “I love you”, “Couple”. He took off my glasses and held them away from me. I’m pretty blind, and while I have extras in my apartment, I don’t like being unable to see well. He was trying to tell me how pretty my face was without glasses, and that I shouldn’t wear them. Which is a line I don’t think I’ve heard since the early 90’s. I like my hipster argyle frames, I own contacts too, but it’s a choice… my choice. I retrieved my glasses and put them back on. I was still trying to keep it light. I’m not really sure if that was the right choice, but I was nervous about making a scene in a neighborhood that my co-teachers had described as a “slum”, and I started thinking back to the lecture on sexual assault that the US Embassy rep had given us at orientation. I didn’t really want to believe this young man was violent, he just seemed desperate, but desperation can be scary too.

This went on for what felt like an eternity, back and forth. He also took my phone at one point and added himself to my private Facebook contact list (I have removed him, now, of course), and tried to get my Kakao Talk and phone numbers as well. He kept touching me, taking off my glasses and stroking my hair and face. And I kept pulling away, and saying no as politely as I could. I never let myself get angry. Looking back, I know that was a learned response to avoid conflict with males at all costs, but that upsets me too, because how the heck am I supposed to say no if a nice no doesn’t work and a firm no is attacked? Ugh. Consent issues.

I finally fled back into the pizza shop, which is how I know it wasn’t actually as long as it felt, because my pizza wasn’t even ready. When I went back out and started heading to the bus stop, he caught up with me again to give me a little can of lemonade he’d clearly just purchased in the shop nearby. I tried to decline, but he tucked it into my bag anyway. In the end, he got a kind of cold fish hug, but took the opportunity to smell my hair. Leaving me totally creepified.

I spent the whole way home looking like a crazy person, muttering to myself and going over and over the experience trying to figure out where it went from normal to nuts and what I could have done differently. Even then, it took talking to three different girl-friends online about it to calm down enough to enjoy my pizza.

THE POTATO PIZZA

Most countries have imported the pizza over time. It doesn’t always look like what we think of pizza as in America. Sometimes the crust is a totally different texture, sometimes the sauce is sweet or spicy, or not made of tomatoes at all. The toppings can be anything, literally. In China, I saw pizza that used mayonnaise instead of cheese because they’d only seen pictures and didn’t know what it was. So, when I came to Korea, and my instructors told us about the sweet potato pizza, I was very curious. I really like sweet potatoes. And pizza. So this seemed like a match made in heaven.

20160311_175843My pizza was cold by the time I got home, but my apartment has a microwave, so that was ok. It turns out that sweet potato pizza is one of the ones without tomato sauce. The box declared proudly that the crust was made from organic flour (kind of surprised that’s a thing here) and Korean rice. There are small diced vegetables like onions, green peppers and roasted corn, as well as some kind of sausage reminiscent of Italian. Then, placed like a crowning jewel on each slice, is a single chunk of roasted sweet potato (or possibly yam), and the whole thing was covered in mozzarella cheese. The “gold” crust turned out to be a satellite rim of mashed sweet potatoes, topped with cheddar cheese that had toasted in the oven. Not really like anything I’d have described as “pizza”, but quite delicious nonetheless.

SATURDAY NIGHT

Finally, on Saturday, a large group of EPIK teachers organized a March Birthday party. It just so happened they chose to meet right in my neighborhood, so even though I was still recovering from the flu, I decided I could go out for an hour or two. We met just outside the subway station to gather everyone from all parts of Busan together, then marched off in seach of our destination. With a group as large as 30-40 people, it can be hard to find a place, but apparently Korea has these kind of “bar cafeteria” things, where you pull up a table (or group of tables), then you walk around the area getting your food and drink from various stands around the large room, a little like fair booths. One booth has the booze, another has grilled meat, another stir fry, etc. When you pick up your goodies, you tell them your table number and they log it into the computer. Then, at the end of the night, you pay for what you got.

When we arrived, the escalators didn’t go all the way up, and there wasn’t any stairwell access, so we had to take the single elevator up in small groups. I ended up being the first one to arrive, and the host asked how many people we would have. I have learned enough Korean to count, so I told him 30. I’m sure he must have thought I was not speaking Korean correctly, because he asked again with some serious disbelief. After all, I was standing there alone. I kept affirming my estimation, and several more hosts were gathered together until they found one who spoke English and he checked the number again. Yep, that many, really. They put together about 10 tables for us and showed me to the area, taught me about our table pager that would track our orders and buzz when food was ready to be picked up, and finally more of the group started to arrive, preventing me from looking like a serious fool.

It was strange but nice seeing familiar faces, even if we’d only met for a week in orientation. We tried so many flavors of soju and tried to find a local beer that wasn’t totally awful. I tried a dish of kimchi fried rice topped with mozzarella cheese which turned out to be MUCH tastier than it sounded, and I even met some new people to connect with on Facebook and here in Busan. Of course, I want to hang out with my new Korean friends too, but it’s nice to know that there are lots of events where I can catch up with expats and stop speaking ESL or broken Korean for a few hours at a time.


That about wraps up my first week of school. As I write this, it’s the one month anniversary of my most recent departure from the US. It’s really hard to believe I’ve already been gone a month, what with Orientation and the Quarantine, the first two weeks were barely real, and this is the first week I’ve started to feel like I’m adapting to my new life here. The good news is, my health is improving and the weather is getting nicer every day. I really like my job, and my co-workers, and my students, so I walk home every day with a silly grin on my face while I try to decide what new delicious food to try for dinner that night. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out more photos and daily updates on the Facebook page! 🙂

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.

BUSAN AIRPORT PICKUP

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.

BUSAN UNIVERSITY OF FOREIGN STUDIES

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.

CLIMBING, CLASSES & CURFEWS OH MY

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.

MEDICAL EXAMS

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.

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.

FIELD TRIP

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.

BUCKLING DOWN

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.

SURVIVAL KOREAN

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.

THE FINAL DAY

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.

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT

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.

WHAT’S NEXT?

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! 🙂

Bureaucrazy: The Korean Edition part 2 – EPIK Style

Welcome back to part 2 of the craziness. I know these stories aren’t filled with beauty and joy, but I think it’s a valuable reflection of what kind of work goes into the lifestyle. It helps me (and others) to appreciate that it isn’t just luck or privilege that allows me to do my thing, but hours of hard work, lots of determination and not a small amount frustration. In the end it only makes the prize sweeter. So join me as we explore the realities of the job hunt in South Korea.


EPIK

As I began to apply to university positions, it became clear to me that these were really competitive and difficult to obtain unicorn jobs, which I might technically be qualified for but would also be at a massive disadvantage because I wasn’t already in Korea with a visa in hand. Apparently the catch-22 of needing experience to get the job you need to get the experience is not limited to the US. So I decided I needed a solid backup plan. After all the work I was doing for this Korean visa, it would be a real shame if it all went to waste simply because I overreached in my job applications. Don’t get me wrong, I’m was still holding out hope as many schools said they would be conducting interviews in late Nov-early Dec, but I like back up plans.

I did some research about non-university teaching jobs and quickly decided I didn’t want to work at a hogwan (private language school), but could be open to teaching at a public school where I would have a Korean co-teacher and at least theoretically better hours and treatment than at many hogwans. I found the three main government sponsored public school programs: EPIK, GEPIK, and SMOE. At one time, these were all separate, but now it seems they’ve been blurred together due to funding issues, so filling the EPIK paperwork seems to be the only thing you can do.

not to be confused with the K-pop band Epik High

I had my intake interview (which mostly felt like, “are you not a total idiot?”) and then received a packet detailing what documents I needed to mail to them in Korea in order to move on to the next step of actually being offered a job. I guess they don’t want to make offers to people who don’t have the paperwork, but I admit it made me nervous to think of sending all the paperwork I worked so hard to get while I was secretly hoping to get a call back from one of the universities. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. It took another month after my interview acceptance to the time I finally got all my documents to send to them, and I’m starting to feel pretty committed to the idea that I’ll be an EPIK teacher instead of a university professor next year.

EPIK Application Form

This form is 8 pages long (not counting the 5 page lesson plan you are meant to attach to the end). It asks for your complete academic records including the names and dates of your elementary and middle schools. (I’m an Air Force brat, it’s not just one school.) It includes several essays, explicit details about any piercings and tattoos, 5 years of residency history and even more of job history. I once applied for a job with the US government that required the SF-86 background form. This wasn’t quite as detailed, but it was a near thing. I sent this form in as an email attachment prior to my intake interview, and then part of the interview process was reviewing the form in painstaking detail to correct any formatting or informational mistakes I had made in filling it out the first time so that I could redo it before printing the hard copy to mail to Korea with all the other documents.

This lesson plan was pretty intense too. When I did my TESOL certification classes, we had to write long elaborate lesson plans basically to demonstrate a grasp of the material we were learning, how to organize a lesson, how to manage time, how to actually teach the material, etc. At no point since then have I been asked to write anything so long as 2 pages for a 45-50 minute class. That’s not a lesson plan, it’s a script. The 5 pages of lesson plan that is part of the EPIK application is ostensibly meant to be 2 pages of actual plan and 3 pages of materials. I don’t have any lesson plans that long from actual teaching jobs, so I broke out the one I used for TESOL and revamped it to fit the EPIK format provided in the application file.

We talked about my lesson plan in the interview, which was fine. It’s actually really easy for me to talk about teaching or classroom management now. They asked me to find one flaw in my lesson plan, which seemed a little odd, cause I’m thinking If I thought it was flawed, I would have fixed it before I sent it to you. But fortunately the interviewer had asked a question about a game I used being problematic for a larger class, sooo I just kind of re-worded his critique and suggested some solutions. Later on, in the email review process where I sent in several more versions of the application to make sure it was perfect before shipping, he told me that my lesson plan was too short because it didn’t fill a full two pages and the ideal lesson plan should really be 2.5-3 pages.

I suppose if you’re reading this blog you’re probably thinking something like, “please, Kaine, we know you can generate pages and pages of text, don’t tell me you can’t bs a 3 page lesson plan”. Of course I can. But my ideal lesson plan looks more like this:

There was just a point where I realized that less than 5% of this application process was about whether or not I was actually qualified to do the job and the other 95% was about my ability to follow precise instructions to meet government mandated requirements. There was no way for me to add more material to the lesson plan without going over the allotted time, so I just had to resort to using the longest most descriptive sentences possible to bring my total length up to about 2.25 pages. Hoop jumped.

Original Letters of Recommendation & Original Proof of Teaching Experience

So, my historical understanding of letters of recommendation is that you request them from employers on your way out for your files. You have a copy in your personal files, and you can show it, make a copy, etc to potential employers down the road. They are not meant to be single use items. People hate writing these things, and it’s kind of insane to expect a teacher, pastor, boss, or other person in authority to write them over and over. Yet EPIK is very specific that the letters must be in their format, and signed in INK (no color printed scanned copies of signatures, INK). So I had to get two brand new letters of recommendation, because the ones I have on file are not in the magical format, and they are electronic copies only.

I hate having to ask for these things. It’s always awkward. It takes up the time and energy of the people involved, many of whom do not have experience writing such kinds of letters and end up stalling because they don’t know what to write. In the past, I have written letters and simply asked the people to sign them. I did this because teachers have asked me to do it that way to save them time and to make sure that the letter has what I want in it. I hate even more having to ask for them on a deadline, or in a specific format, because then I feel like I’m asking for a really difficult favor, which I basically am. Thankfully, I am in a situation where two people are willing to print and sign new copies of the letters they just wrote for me should I need more than one original, but what it basically comes down to is that any time someone wants an original letter of recommendation, expect to have to inconvenience someone in a position of authority over you.

The original employment verification letters may be even more ridiculous, since those are pretty much just form letters given by an employer. I’m honestly don’t know what the obsession with getting your only copies of these letters is. Do they just expect your employers to print and sign letters of recommendation and proof of employment in batches, or is it’s just supposed to be really obnoxious to weed out those who lack grit and determination. Also, while the universities required the proof of employment with exact dates on it, the EPIK program wants them to say “full academic year” if the dates are less than 12 full months. Even though school years in nearly every place on earth are 9-10 months long. So, you may remember how kind and cooperative the school in China was to send me that verification letter in the exact format I asked for back when I was only applying for university jobs? Well, not being able/willing to infer that September to June  is a full academic year, EPIK needs new letters!

As you might conclude from the previous installation, there is no freaking way I’ll be getting this from the school in Saudi. Even if I could convince them to issue a 3rd letter, they won’t mail me an original, because you know, e-copies are good enough for “most” employers. But the school in China lived up to their original niceness and mailed me yet another letter which included the phrase “full academic year” just for EPIK. The good(ish) news is that this only impacts my pay grade, not my employability. None of my other experience will count towards the 2 years for the level 1 pay grade (my summer jobs can’t count because only whole years count, not cumulative ones) and this means I get bumped to a level 2+ pay grade, which is a difference of 200,000 won per month (170$US) so I’m not super happy about the situation, but it isn’t the end of the world.

SMOE

Also known as the “Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education”. This is one of the three programs to hire teachers for public schools through the government. EPIK is “English Program in Korea”, and handles basically everything that isn’t Seoul. There used to be one for the greater Seoul area called GEPIK, but it seems to have vanished. I tried to apply for GEPIK at the same time I applied for EPIK but the “official” GEPIK website routed me to a recruiter for the application page. I couldn’t find a SMOE website at all. Now I know why. Only after you’re accepted by EPIK can you fill out the SMOE attachments, addendum and contract to add yourself to the Seoul list of schools possible teaching pool.

Since I was already filing a huge number of papers, it seemed reasonable to go ahead and print out another ream of paper and initial every page… twice, and thereby be considered for jobs in the Seoul area as well as the rest of Korea.

PICTURES

Another ingredient of the international job recipe that is often discounted: photos of yourself. Pretty much every overseas job wants you to send digital photos of yourself as part of the application process since they will not get to meet you face to face before hiring you. Skype has really helped with the visual aspect of overseas interviewing, but it’s new and everyone still wants to see your picture first. Plus, a lot of government documentation will require “passport style” photos to be attached to official forms. When I was going through the Saudi application process, I spent way too much money getting passport photos from a local drug store at 10$ per 2 photos. A long time ago this made more sense because they had to take your photo against a plain white background and it had to be aligned correctly, then developed and cut to size. Now, you can take your own passport selfie against any white wall and crop it to passport regs in your phone. So why are they still charging me 10$ to take a digital picture?

For Applications

This is going to change from country to country, and sometimes even from job to job within a country. Some places want to see you posing in business dress, others want to see you in a more natural habitat, engaging in your hobbies or out with your friends. Most of them want the photos to be less than three months old. I try to keep a pretty up to date stock of fun photos (no NSFW photos) so that I can provide some shots of me being a fun loving, outdoorsy, go-getter, but the professional shots really confounded me. Korea specifically seems a little schizophrenic about what they want, because I was told professional attire, but BIG smile.I have a hard time working up a fake smile, so my business pose tends to be a small smile, polite and friendly, but not “hey I’m having a great time in this suit!”. The picture I sent to EPIK the first time wasn’t “smiley” enough. However, it’s still easier to do this yourself or with a friend. You don’t even need Photoshop anymore to touch up your imperfect selfies because Pixlr offers most PS features for free online. I was able to remove my facial piercings (easier to Photoshop them out than to take them out for a photo, I’ll remove them for real before I fly out), change the background to a better shade of white, and brighten up the colors all pretty quickly. It’s also great for removing zits.

For Passport Style

To make things more fun, each country could have a different standard size or ratio for passport style photos.America is 2”x 2” square, but Japan and Korea use a rectangular aspect ratio (and cm). So a standard “passport photo” from your local drugstore is not only expensive, it might be the wrong size. When I realized I needed a million passport photos for Saudi, I decided to make my own sort of contact sheet by putting the photos into an A4/letter sized document and just having them printed off on photo stock paper. It was certainly cheaper, but thanks to the internet there’s an even better way.

Here I have one piece of good news for the international paperwork questor. There are about a dozen websites that will take the photo you upload and help you re-size and crop it to fit the passport size for the country you select. You don’t even have to know the sizing (though I like to double check) you just select your country of choice and upload your photo. Here’s the cool part: they turn it into an American standard 4×6 print (or 4R other places) with however many correctly sized photos will fit. Then you simply send this file to a photo printing place and they print you off a copy for less than 1$ (I actually got 4 copies for less than 1$, I placed the order online and the photos were finished and waiting for me in less than an hour). If  you have access, you can even print it out on a home photo printer. This one small breath of fresh air, of ease, convenience and inexpense deserves a standing freaking ovation.

The Final List

I was really surprised at how quickly the apostilles arrived once they were sent off for, and found myself waiting with increasing anxiety on the final document: the second letter from my former employer in China. I passed a couple of weeks by checking and rechecking the checklist, going over my documents with a fine tooth comb to ensure that I had not missed anything, emailing my EPIK liason with re-edits of the application for approval, making copies, learning how to use the scan function on the office copy machine to send myself digital copies, and hunting down “passport photos”. In the end, I had everything ready to go and waiting in a neat little file folder but still the letter had not arrived. To make matters more frustrating, it was coming on time for another couch hop (ok spare bedroom hop) which would take me about 90 minutes of driving away from the address the letter was coming to.

One day after I’d moved across town, I got a text from the former roomie letting me know that the letter from China had arrived. Not being willing to wait another 5-6 days until the next time I had planned to visit their house, I drove up in the middle of the night (after I get off work, plus less traffic) to retrieve the letter. I was so excited to finally have everything together I actually couldn’t get to sleep until I’d gone over the checklist one more time and put everything together for the great mailing. The instruction packet sent to my by EPIK on how to assemble my documents is 15 pages long, by the way. Here’s the final list:

  1. completed and signed application + 5 page lesson plan + passport size photo (notice how they just slip three things into one item on the list? sneaky.)
  2. scan or copy of the passport : the instructions say they prefer color copies but will accept black and white if it’s legible. I’m kind of wondering since they have a color scan already, why they can’t just print it if my copies aren’t good enough?
  3. criminal background check with apostille attached: it’s really important to make sure the apostille doesn’t come loose while you’re making copies of this document too.
  4. I’m really happy to have avoided this one, which is only for UK and Australians, but original birth certificate with apostille. I’m pretty sure my original is long lost, but I have this crazy credit card looking one that they were experimenting switching to the year I was born. No one knows what the heck it even is.
  5. copy of degrees with apostilleand if you don’t remember what was involved with this headache, check out “part 1“.
  6. sealed transcripts: please write “transcript” in pencil on the envelope… 
  7. original letters of recommendationmust be on official letterhead and have INK signatures.
  8. smoking sworn declaration & tattoo/piercing sworn declaration
  9. copy of TESOL certificate with proof that it’s at least 100 hours and proof of how many hours are in class vs online
  10. original proof of teaching experience: that letter I had to ask for from China twice, and will now never see again. also please write “PTE” in pencil on the envelope. So much for giving those stamps to my niece.
  11. Seoul attachment form,
  12. SMOE Addendum,
  13. SMOE contractyes, you have to sign a contract pre-accepting a job with SMOE in order to be considered for a job with SMOE

The next day, once the letter had been scanned and copied dutifully, I checked the checklist and every piece of paper again before sliding it all into a thick manila folder and heading over to FedEx… where I paid nearly 100$ to ship this brick of paper to Korea. I’m really happy to be there, but man I don’t know why we couldn’t just do this electronically for free. I tried to remember how much it cost me to ship my documents to Saudi and eventually realized I never did, I only sent them to a US based visa specialist, so got the far cheaper domestic overland shipping costs.

The Takeaway Lessons

Last year I recommended to myself and my readers:

Do your own research:I’d like to add to that – research should include phone calls and/or emails with a person who will oversee whatever it is or who has undergone the process before. Cursory internet/website research is often incomplete, outdated or just plain wrong. So are untrained cogs.

Have patience: Yeah. That’s really reinforced. I spent three months just gathering the documents I needed to get hired, and I haven’t even started the visa process yet.

Hold on to the story: Last year I thought that was so I could look back while I was having wild adventures and laugh at the red tape blooper reel. I still think keeping the story is important, but now I’m looking at it more as a learning opportunity. The paperwork isn’t going away. Re-reading my Bureaucracy stories from Saudi really put some things in perspective for me about my current trials.

This year, in addition to adding a few caveats to last year’s lessons, I can say I’ve learned the following:

Be as tremendously specific as possible when requesting documents: It’s better to over document, send extra letters, attach extra instructions, assume that the people who will receive your request  are going to do the bare minimum asked of them, or look for a way to avoid doing it altogether. I don’t think this is really true of most people, but it’s like those direction writing exercises we used to do in school, assume you’re writing instructions to an alien and be really really specific.

Leave yourself enough time to do it twice: It turns out I had to do several things twice, part of that was improper research and part of it was lack of super specific requests, but I’m sure there’s something else I haven’t accounted for that will make me need to do something twice again next time.

Look carefully at who or what is causing your frustrations and setbacks: Re-reading my posts from pre-Saudi paperwork made me realize how much of my hair-pulling and head-desking was the result of the company that hired me providing incomplete, contradictory or erroneous information on how to proceed. It turned out that my whole working experience with them was just as frustrating, so maybe I should have been clued in before I ever got on a plane that it wasn’t going to get better. Meanwhile, this time around much of the frustration has been caused by domestic institutions and not at all by my potential employer. I won’t know for a while yet if this is a reliable correlation, but it seems worth paying attention to.

It’s ok to say “no”:

As an international adventurer, I’m usually all about the power of “yes” but over the last year I had some intensely disappointing situations that I ended up having to leave in less than ideal ways. Of course we want to maintain an open mind about travel and adventure to make the most of the time and opportunities. It is important not to wait for everything to be perfect or the ideal situation because we might end up waiting forever. But it can be dangerous to jump into situations that seem too much less than ideal. Looking back on my blogs, I can’t believe I didn’t see what a bad idea that Saudi company was. The job in Japan seemed great until I showed up. My reluctance to say “no” once I realized how disparate the reality was from what I was promised led to a great deal of frustration, heartache and eventually to my premature departure from the country because I didn’t have enough time to search for another visa sponsor. This time, I decided firmly that I was simply not interested in working for another private language school. It would have been easy as pie to get hired by a hogwan, I had recruiters banging down my inbox with private school opportunities, but I said “no”. Only time will tell if I made the right decision, but so far I feel better about it.

and last but not least…

It’s worth it!: No matter how frustrating the preparation work is, or how many potholes or pitfalls I’ve met along the way, I wouldn’t give up the last year of experiences for anything and I’m really excited for the next year, too.