Professor Gallivantrix 2: The Winter Applicant

It’s been both hectic and great getting used to this new job. Learning the ins and outs of my office, my classes, my students, and my new town has taken up a lot of my time, but I’m hoping to have more writing time soon. I’m also hoping to have more adventures to write about now that spring is springing and nature is more welcoming. For the moment, content yourselves with continuing the harrowing tale of my months long hunt and eventual capture of the elusive Korean University Teaching Job. 


Related imageInterviews

It wasn’t until November 17th I got my first positive response, and it was still a soul-crushing nightmare. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Korean universities all want to do face to face interviews… for the first round of shortlisted candidates… during school hours.

This school wanted me to travel 4+ hours to have a 15-minute interview and then travel back. I would miss an entire day of work, including class time, which is just not possible with EPIK. I could arrange to use my PTO to leave the building early (after classes but before “end of work”) or on a desk warming day when there are no classes, but the only reason to miss out on time in front of the students is being in the hospital. Yes, ok, I could possibly fake being sick and head to an interview, but this was the initial round of the application process not a final formality and there was no guarantee that I’d be offered this position, or accept it. How many more interviews would I have to attend during this process? I couldn’t burn my school out either because I still needed the CT and principal to be good references.

I had to turn down the interview. My first “real” interview was a week later when I managed to schedule a phone interview with another school.

12 December 2017

What is with the schools who want me to get on a bus for 4 hours to have an interview on a work day? If your foreign candidate is living in your country, they are probably here on a work visa, which means they’re working… probably as a teacher… which you are hiring for… would you let your teachers take off a day to go interview at another school? no? then WHY do you think we can come to you?

Midway through December, I had to turn down another face to face interview because of scheduling and travel. I had the flu, and even though the university was willing to work with me to change the time so that I could come on a Friday evening (leaving Busan after my last class at 12:30 to get there in time), I felt that pushing through the school day, and a 4 hour bus ride, with a flu that had me barely able to talk and totally unable to stop sipping tea and blowing my nose every 3 minutes was not going to make me a good candidate at the interview.

I managed another phone interview and one more skype interview a few days before Christmas. I was briefly feeling confident that I’d be able to make this happen without having to take time off work or spend tons of time and money bussing across the country.

Christmas Eve Blacklist

Going more than a little crazy, I made myself this promissory list on Facebook to help me through the holidays.

24 December 2017
Plans:

  • Get a good uni job in Korea
  • Get a spring start job elsewhere
  • Leave this apartment by Feb 25th no matter what
  • Move to Penang and keep applying for a uni job with a fall start
  • If no uni job presents itself, take any decent job and get into PhD program earlier than planned
  • online teaching
  • vietnam short term contracts
  • If this whole mess falls apart like crazy, go back to Seattle for a few months and then get into the PhD program
  • Do not falter.
  • Do not accept a job that will make you miserable (at least not until you’re down to airfaire money)
  • Do not give up.
  • Do not go crazy.

I was actually offered a job that day. I thought I’d succeeded in only applying for positions I would actually accept. I mean, there’s no point in applying for a job that obviously doesn’t work for you. I had already limited my search to universities. I rejected ads that had too many teaching hours or questionable lists of extra duties. And I rejected places that were too far out in the boonies because I know that about myself. So when I got this offer, it was like, “Merry Christmas to ME!”

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Then I looked at the contract, and it was not even close to what the ad had said or what was said in the interview. The work hours were all over the map. A teacher could be expected to have a class anywhere from 8am to 9:30pm. The 16 hours “average” was based on a semester total, and overtime was only paid by the semester, so it was possible to work 27 hours in one week and 8 in another but still not get OT. Moreover, I don’t do split schedules anymore. Some people might like that, I do not.  I really don’t trust someone who says, “but in reality, it works this way” when the contract goes on to specify how I’ll be getting screwed in hours and pay.

 

My suspicions firmly aroused, I looked up the school on teacher review websites and found that it was one of two universities in Korea to be on the blacklist… with two negative reviews from the most recent school year about exactly the things I was concerned about. It was disappointing, but my experience taught me that it’s better to say no than end up in a job that would make me miserable. I had my back up plans and I had to stick to my guns, so I turned them down.

The New Year

Somewhere in early January, I started getting more into schools in China. I was feeling very hopeless about Korea and discovered that several cities in China have boosted their air quality back to a level I feel comfortable living with, so I expanded my horizons. I’m not going into a lot of detail because this is a post about a job in Korea, but it is still part of the picture that I was hurling resumes out left right and sideways and scheduling phone or skype interviews as often as possible.

During this time, I also caved in and started going to interviews in person. It helped that one finally offered a Saturday option so I didn’t have to miss work, even though I did spend 12 hours traveling for 20 minutes worth of interview. And no, I didn’t get that job either, although they were very kind and reassured me that I was on a very short list of candidates invited to interview and was encouraged to try again in the future…

6 January · Gwangju ·

Trying not to be nervous. Arrived 1 hr 15 min early. Spent 30 min waiting for a taxi. I really don’t want to ruin this cross country journey by being 5 min late because of taxis.

Then a weird thing happened. A school I’d applied for and not even heard a peep from back in November put up another hiring ad. I emailed to be sure it was real and not some scheduled ad they’d paid for and forgotten about and was told yes, the school was doing another round of hiring after all. So I submitted my credentials again. A couple days later I get an email asking me to call them and after verifying I am the person matching the paperwork. Yes, I’m really me.

They politely tell me how sorry they are but the Dean will not approve an interview because they don’t accept “private academy experience”. “I’ve never worked at an academy. What are you talking about?”

After some misunderstandings, we realized the name of the company that hired me to teach in Saudi looks too much like a private English Academy and they disregarded the part where it said the name of the University I worked in over there. If the kind gentleman who received my email asking if the ad was real hadn’t felt bad and wanted to personally apologize, they would never have thought twice and I would never have known why.

I have since updated my resume to showcase the UNIVERSITY part first and the name of the employment company second, but all this stems from the fact that I got hired by a private company to work at a university which has been a thorn in my resume ever since. Getting experience to translate from country standard to country standard is not easy.

All this clarification happened the night before the interviews were scheduled, but it was in a town only one hour away, so I was barely able to squeak in getting to leave early from work to catch the intercity bus and the very last interview of the afternoon. To highlight how ridiculous this permission thing is: my classes finished at 12:20, I asked if I could leave at 12:30, I was told, no you have to wait until 12:40. I have no idea why, but this kind of insane scheduling nonsense was just one more stressful addition to my plight to attend interviews.

Plus, they wanted yet something else for the interview, because everyone wants to make their candidates create unique original content just for them. So I had to make a whole new Powerpoint presentation about my educational style and lesson plans with handouts. The only advantage of having to make slightly different versions of application and interview materials is that over time it does get easier to assemble the custom build from parts you’ve already made before.

Choices! 

While all this was going on, I was offered another position. It wasn’t as blatantly awful as the first but it was less than ideal. It was a few more hours and a less than great schedule, in a large city that I happen to know is too hot, but no clear deal breakers. I could be okay there. Not happy, not miserable, just okay. Which isn’t bad when you’re on a path to level up your career. The hard part was, they needed an answer while I was being invited to this interview at a school I really liked, and one other that was at least close to Busan (allowing me to keep my social life here). Do I take the mediocre and totally palatable bird in the hand or do I let it go and risk losing everything in pursuit of a much better bird?

I turned them down too and went to more interviews instead.

Winter Not-Vacation

The next week was my winter vacation. I didn’t go anywhere at all. Not only because it was a shorter holiday than I usually take, but because not knowing if the end of February would find me hopping off to Penang, moving to my new job in Korea, or moving to my new job in China, I couldn’t justify spending the money on a holiday if I was going to have to spend it on living without a job for 5 months or relocating to my new job site. Instead, I went to more interviews.

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I went to another near Busan, less than an hour away. I discovered there were 8 people interviewing and only 2 open positions. I wondered how common this was. I wondered how many times I would be invited to round one, beating out 100+ paper applications to make it to the top 10 or 8, then not be good enough to be the top 2. I got a rejection text later that same day.

15 January · Busan ·

I hate job hunting. I hate the fact that everyone wants something different but you never know what and are treated like an idiot for asking. I hate investing hours and hours and getting my hopes up only to be told I came in second place, really great candidate but there was just one person better. I hate the emotional rollercoaster of hope and rejection.

Too Much Winning

Then suddenly it happened. I got an email from THE JOB, the one I really wanted, the one I applied for twice, the one that almost didn’t interview me because they misread or I miswrote my CV. It seemed provisional, they said they were recommending me to be hired and had to wait for permission. I was almost sure it was a formality but it seemed so strange. I had one more interview scheduled for the next afternoon and I almost didn’t go, I was so thrilled to be leaving the emotional nightmare of job hunting behind me.

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Instead, I got on the bus and headed up to the next big city down the road. I found the campus easily enough and I had the best interview I think I’ve ever had. I was so relaxed and apparently the hiring committee had had some terrible interviews before me so they were relieved to hear that I had reasonable answers to their questions. We cracked jokes and laughed at each other’s silly comments and they told me about the job and it sounded magical. Like, everything I ever wanted magical. Low teaching hours, no crazy staff meetings, no office hours, no writing classes, huge paid holidays, and it seemed like I really got on with these people.

I went from feeling worthless in despair to having 2 great jobs in front of me. They emailed me the very next day to offer me the position. My emotional switches were all over the map. I couldn’t make up my mind which was better. There were no clear advantages to either place and nothing even close to a deal breaker. It was like I’d arrived at the next level of career and had no idea what to do now that I was there.

*Oh, yeah, and one of those Universities in China offered me a position as well. But with two great options in Korea, moving just didn’t seem appealing. No matter how great a story teaching Political Science courses in Communist China might be.

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In the end, my choice was almost entirely emotional. I spent as long as I could putting off committing to one university and I feel bad that I had to withdraw from one of them because I truly believe I could have been happy at either place. In the end, one of the new hires at the school I chose withdrew at the last minute too. I’m told it happens with regularity because basically everyone is doing what I did: interviewing everywhere and then going with the best offer rather than the first. When I showed up for orientation, I was the only new person at the university I chose because everyone else they had hired had backed out at the last minute.

What did I learn?

Image result for apply to all the jobs memeApply like mad, but weigh your investment. There is something to the idea of applying for jobs even if you don’t meet all the requirements, but in the case of jobs abroad make sure you do meet the visa requirements (set by the government) and there can be some flexibility of the school’s requirements (set by the Dean). However, when employing the scattershot application tactic, be sure to draw the line at applying for jobs that will waste time and energy for too little potential return.

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Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Of course, if you get your dream job on the first try, like my friend who applied to one university in Japan, interviewed and was hired (what is the word when you’re happy and jealous at the same time?), if that happens, there’s no need to say anything but “yes”. In my case though, I got offers that weren’t great and if I had accepted them, I would have missed out.

Practice. Practice. Practice the paperwork and the interviews. The more versions of your cover letter you write, the easier it gets. The more variations of lesson plan you compose, the easier it becomes. The more interviews you do, the more you get used to answering the questions that will be asked. I won’t say it’s never a waste of time, but a lot of these failed applications and interviews helped me get better.

Image result for never give up memeDon’t give up. Cry, eat too much chocolate, put that Will Smith inspirational video about failure on a loop, call your mom in the middle of the night. Do whatever you need to do to push through the horrible feelings of failure. I wrote a 3-page essay on my feelings of failure and posted to Facebook thinking “oh, no one is going to read this” and I got a massive amount of support from people who either do or have felt exactly the same way.

Being in 7th place is ok when there are more than 7 prizes. Okay, 7 is arbitrary, but I have this theory that the reason I got only crappy responses in December and way better offers in January is that all the people who were more qualified or better at interviews got those good jobs in December and were off the market by January, giving those top spots up to me. I feel no shame. My elementary school Korean coworkers were all jealous as hell of my new job, so I know I did good.

Image result for doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile meme

There is no “ultimate guide” to getting a university job in Korea. I read dozens of articles and blogs and listicles and they all have things that can help guide you, but nothing is really definitive. You don’t have to have an MA. You don’t have to be published. You don’t have to know someone who already works there. You probably don’t even really have to be in Korea. I had two offers from places I did phone/skype interviews with. All you have to do is qualify for the visa, apply like mad, and play the game of chicken: keep applying and going to interviews as long as possible because this country is still made of last-minute actions.


I’ve been at my new job for a month now, and so far I’m really happy with it. I know there will be things about this and every job I have in my life that I do not like or that I will complain about. I don’t expect it to be perfect. But I think it’s going to be a good step upward in my quality of life as well as in building my future. Only time will tell. In the meantime, I get to explore a new part of Korea (Gyeongju) and I get to have students who are forming adult thoughts, plus some generous vacation time this summer for more international adventures. Year of the Dog, here I come!

Run Corgi Run GIF by McIdea

©2013-2018 McIdea

 

 

Professor Gallivantrix: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get a University Job in Korea (Part 1)

The main reason I didn’t take a winter holiday this year is that I was clawing my way up the next rung of the career ladder. During the fall and winter, I read a bunch of articles and blog posts about it while I was aspiring, but it paid off.  The radio silence of the last month has been all about me moving to a new town in Korea and adjusting to my new job. Now that I’ve achieved my goal and had some time to settle in, it’s time to share my story. Like always, this is not a “how to” blog and I’m not going to make a listicle of “things you need to get the job”. I’m going to tell you my experiences and hope that it’s some combination of informative and entertaining that makes writing worthwhile.


Why University?

Twelve class hours a week and 4-5 months of paid holidays a year is a goal worth aspiring to, but it’s not as easy as it was 10-15 years ago. I was recently at an expat comedy club where an amateur funnyman showed off the “resume” he used to get his first uni job back in the day. It was a plain A4 paper with the words “tall” and “white” writ large in crayon. I don’t know if simply looking like an exotic foreigner was ever really enough, but it certainly isn’t now. I worked mainly university jobs before coming to EPIK where I was assigned as an elementary school teacher. However much I may value that experience, I have a lot of reasons for wanting to go back to university teaching, not the least is that primo schedule.

I also like being able to engage with my students about things a little more meaningful than ice cream, Marvel superheroes, and K-pop idols… or at least if we have to talk about those things can we get into the deeper cultural layers? How does it feel to be one of the only countries on earth not colonized by white people when you see Wakanda brought to life? Is there a difference between how you identify or don’t with white, black, Hispanic, Chinese characters since 99% of what’s made in Hollywood will not represent your culture? How do you feel the suicide of Jonghyun will impact idols and fans? Really, anything more than “who’s your favorite?”

Image result for university memeAnd finally, because there is no future in K-12 ESL teaching abroad. Unless you open your own school, there’s an age cap (usually 50-55) and no room for advancement or retirement plans. At university, the age cap is generally higher, and there’s the opportunity to get tenure. Sure, I’m not that old, and I won’t be for a while, but there’s no sense in letting the end of the road creep up on me. It’s not like I feel confident in my ability to fall back on Social Security in the US in my old age, so I better start building something long term out here.

BTW, If you’re looking for info on getting the E-2 visa or getting into EPIK, I wrote about that in a two-part blog called Bureaucrazy part 1 & part 2.

When To Apply

The school year in Korea is from March 1 to February 20 something-eth (varies from school to school). Japan starts in April, but nearly every other country starts in August or September. Most ESL positions start posting ads 3-4 months before they are hiring, and plenty post ads only 3-4 weeks before hiring, but almost none post a year in advance.

I wasn’t actually very sanguine about my odds of getting a uni job in Korea and had been thinking I’d have to switch to a fall start in another country. However, the ads for those jobs wouldn’t even be listed until after my job in Korea was over and done. I had visions of living in a hostel in Malaysia teaching ESL online for 6 months while I searched for a job in the fall semester. I wasn’t worried. I know Korea and Japan are the hardest places to get uni jobs but I had confidence I could find something in Taiwan or maybe even go back to the Middle East.

Then I got back from the Philippines and a friend sent me one ad for a university in Korea that I was qualified for and I was all, “well, it can’t hurt to apply”, and the next thing I knew, I’d purchased a subscription to profsabroad.com and was submitting 1-4 applications every day.

The Hunt and Fret

I decided a while ago that I would pay for profsabroad because I remember the extreme hassle of going to 5-7 different job sites every day and sorting through the million and a half ads for kindergarten teachers looking for that one gem of a university listing. I don’t know why Dave’s ESL and all the others can’t just create a search filter for schools by type and by age (private, public, kindie, uni, ect), but man it was worth 10$ a month to not have to scour the far corners of the internet for what I wanted.

Once I got all signed up and had my university only ad feed going,  I began to read the ads. This is depressing as hell. I’m not qualified for a lot of them and might never be. There was a lot of “I’m a fraud.”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’ve wasted my whole life not doing my professional development correctly.”, and “I’m going to die alone in a gutter.” during this process. I have very supportive friends who prevented me from drowning in despair.

Overcoming my personal anxiety of self-worth was a daily struggle that didn’t end until I got hired. But even the jobs I felt qualified for still had an amazing array of hurdles to jump through. One of the first things I realized I needed to do was make a USB with all possible application materials on it so that I could attach any document quickly to an application email.

7 November 2017 ·

I feel like every time I go on the job hunt, there is some new insane obstacle. This year, it appears to be that I must not only have 20 pieces of documentation to submit each time, but I must have them in multiple formats because SOME places only accept .doc, or .pdf, or .jpg because they don’t know how computers work. One place wanted me to combine all 12-15 pieces into a single PDF file. Excuse me while I spend the day making triplicate copies of everything in every major file format for you. HIRE ME!

Gathering The Materials

  • Cover Letter
  • CV/resume
  • professional photo
  • copies of all degrees
  • copies of transcripts from all degree-granting institutions
  • copies of my criminal background check
  • copies of proof of employment letters
  • copies of letters of recommendation
  • copy of my passport
  • copy of my alien registration card
  • copy of my TESOL certificate
  • sample lesson plan
  • statement of teaching philosophy

All of these in docx, jpg, and pdf format. And just because you spend hours perfecting all of these does not mean you are finished, only that you have a solid foundation from which to start.

Cover Letter

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I have a basic cover letter file that I edit for every job application to make it as personalized to the job as possible. Making sure to cover all the things they mention in the ad and maybe even something I know about their school or city as well to show I’m invested. No one likes form letters, but realistically I can’t start from scratch every time either. This is my compromise.

Resume/CV

I spent days crafting my CV. I keep it up to date and make sure the formatting is sharp. But it often feels like it doesn’t matter at all because even though they ask for your CV, they then ask you to download and fill out (or fill out online) an elaborate 14-page application. Okay, 14 might be a slight hyperbole, but not always. Usually you can’t copy/paste because you have to fill in one box at a time or worse use drop-down menus.

notawolf-e1521531831748.jpgIt can take several hours to complete one of these even if all you are doing is entering information from your existing documents. After a few dozen, it starts to feel like one of the labors of Hercules, or possibly one of those epic Greek punishments that people like Sisyphus are receiving. More than once I abandoned a job entirely because the application form was broken or because it simply wouldn’t allow me to enter real information, or because halfway through I discovered it required me to write a 5-page essay or upload a video of myself. I reassure myself by saying I probably wouldn’t have been happy working for an employer this demanding anyway… but it might be sour grapes.

6 November 2017 · Busan

NaNoWriMo? Try NaResSubMo: national resume submission month, I’m gonna reach my word count in information repeatedly entered into online forms because the schools won’t read a resume unless it’s been dissected and reentered into a million and one picky form boxes. Finally gave up on one after 45 minutes because they would only accept a copy of my transcript in jpg format.

Video Resume

I’m going to make a video one day… probably at this next job. A lot of employers love the idea of watching you teach on camera. They can see you at work! For real! Like that isn’t much more about your ability to stage a performance than your ability to teach… but, it looks good. I couldn’t make a video in Saudi Arabia because I could not film my female students. I couldn’t make a video here at my elementary school job because of protecting children from online exposure. So, hopefully, at some point in this new job, I can set a camera up and get some footage to use the next time I have to go through this ungodly process. Obviously, the lack of video didn’t stop me, but everyone is always looking for that edge up.

Professional Photo

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The photo is the other major factor in employment in Korea. Looks are oh so very important here. Can you get hired if you’re not pretty? Yes. I’ve seen plenty of people with great jobs who are not on the Korean scale of conventional beauty. Pretty sure I’m not on the scale of conventional Korean beauty. Oh, they love my skin, but I’m roughly the size of 2 Korean models (I mean, they are *really* skinny, but still). 

I have some previous professional experience as a portrait photographer, so I did my own, but it’s important to have a nice photo. I picked out a green shell top and gray cardigan. I did my hair, got that straight iron out, framed my face in a way that it never stays 4 seconds after I leave the house. I put on makeup in the Korean style, pinks for eyes and lips, eyeliner only on the outside emphasizing eye size, and of course BB cream. I stepped out on my balcony for natural lighting and used my silver blackout curtains as a backdrop. Then I took 1000 selfies.

When I finally got a few that didn’t suck, I took them into photoshop and made them glamour shots, removing all imperfections in the skin, correcting all the color tones (including that blue in my hair, who needs that?), and cropping and framing as appealingly as possible. How you clean up may not be how you’re expected to show up for work every day, but it seems to be an important hallmark of professionalism here.

Even after spending most of a day dressing up and posing and editing my one perfect application photo, it still wasn’t enough. One place demanded the photo be “full body”, which I guess was to weed out fat people? I was too tired to go through the process again and ended up sending a photo of me at some famous Korean landmark. I never did hear back from that school.

Letters of Recommendation

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These are fairly standard in the US, although for some reason no one told me as a young adult to always get one every single time I ever left a job or a school. It was a scramble to get letters when I was applying for EPIK and I was pondering the process of asking my supervisor here for a letter when the decision was made for me, and one of the jobs I wanted (like actually wanted not just would apply for anyway) required a letter of recommendation from my current Korean employer.

Just one problem: Koreans don’t use the letter of recommendation format ever. They have another thing called an Employment Verification Letter. So I had to explain to my co-teacher/supervisor what it was and why I needed it and she nearly had a panic attack because she’d never heard of anything like it ever before. After a few days of calling everyone in the chain of command, it was finally determined that it was not illegal for her to write me a letter (yes, she thought it actually might be) and that *shock* she didn’t actually have to write it herself (for those of you unfamiliar with this charade, usually the person asking for a letter will actually write it and the person doing the recommendation will look it over and sign it, so authentic! What a great system!).

I was given strict parameters that the letter could only contain “objective facts”, no opinions (so, they still didn’t really understand what a letter of recommendation is for?) but I managed to overcome and got my letter signed by my co-teacher and also stamped with the official red stamp of the school (which is a pretty big deal). It turns out the job I took doesn’t need this, but at least I have it in my ever growing pile of official job hunting documents.

Letters of Employment Verification are the standard here (and possibly a growing standard for other countries). The horror about it in Korea is that every job wants an ORIGINAL letter, meaning they somehow expect you to go back to an employer from years ago and ask for this letter again and again? I know in Korea, there’s a standard form, so yes you can just submit a form request to your former employer here and get that, but my former employers are in China and Saudi Arabia… it’s not that easy. I managed to get one letter from the school in China back in 2015 when I was applying for EPIK, but now they have the original and I’m never getting that back. I only have a digital copy. Meanwhile, the school in Saudi refused to send anything but a digital copy.

Fortunately, it seems like the universities are a shade more flexible about getting copies from non-Korean sources. I was told by the one who hired me that while they “would prefer” an original, they will take a digital copy if that’s all I have.

Plus, I went to file for one of these from my current Korean employer and it was made out from the date of hire to the date of letter request, so it’s useless… and I had to wait until my contract was OVER to ask again so that it has the right dates. Which was thrilling because my new contract started only a few days after my old one ended and there was plenty of overlap in the new job wanting me to provide paperwork before my start date. In the end, it’s still not a deal breaker because at least I’m dealing with two Korean institutions and they expect things to be done in the Korean way.

Answering Ads

Most of the ads I read, I didn’t qualify for. The craziest of these was the school who wanted a teacher with a Ph.D. AND 10+ years of experience teaching university AND not be over 40 years old. As far as I can tell, that means someone who graduated from high school knowing they wanted to be a university teacher in Japan and going immediately into TESOL courses with no time off or time spent exploring any other career or even time spent working at any other educational institution than another university. That is some kind of unicorn.

Image result for job experience meme

Of the ads I qualified for, I still couldn’t apply to all of them because some just had hoops that were too absurd for me. It is technically free to apply, and I know all the adages about trying and what do you have to lose, but there is legit a point where what you have to lose is 5 hours of your life and 5% of your sanity for a 0.0005% chance of a job and it’s just not worth it.

Fortunately, there were plenty of ads I did qualify for and was willing to jump the hoops of. I sent hundreds of applications. I spent an average of 10 hours a week on this, possibly more, from mid-October till after Christmas. It consumed my free time. It consumed my thoughts. It was the all-singing, all-dancing stress of the universe.

A few places had the decency to send emails that they received my application, most of them just vanished into the void.

job seeker memes


To avoid overwhelming you with a novel-sized blog post, I’ve decided to insert a non-commercial break. Stay tuned for the second installment where our heroine finally receives signs of interest from potential employers, must make hard choices about job offers, and finally reveals her hard-earned life lessons to you, the faithful reader.

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.

Letters From China (Introduction)

No, I haven’t moved to China (and probably won’t because of the pollution), but I used to live there ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to move the stories over to this blog for a few years, and since the second semester looks like it’s going to be more dental work than exploring, it seemed like a good time to go for it. 


The very first time I went to teach abroad was a 7 week program in the summer of 2005, and I did zero online storytelling that time. However, upon graduating from the UW, I embarked on my first long term ESL contract in China in August of 2007 teaching at a technical college near but not actually in Beijing. I wasn’t keeping a blog, yet. Actually, in 2007 Facebook was still a baby, so it was my plan to have a LiveJournal to update friends and family on my adventures, but when I got to China, it turned out LJ was blocked, so we made a cute little message board instead.

These are not really stories in the way that I have evolved to tell stories in this blog. They’re more like letters home. I thought that the 10 year mark was a good time to dust them off and bring them back into the light to see where my adventures began and how my storytelling has evolved.

The letters are reproduced through this series in roughly chronological order with some regrouping by topic and a little editing for clarity. The 13 posts will be released as I am able to proofread and reinsert the original photos, but here’s a draft list for reference. (Hint: if it doesn’t work as a link, it’s probably not posted yet)

Letters From China:

Getting Settled 2007: My arrival in China, the beginning of the message board, my first impressions of my town, meeting the other teachers and learning about my job, my first visit to Beijing (not counting that week in 2005), and a bonus letter about Chinese food.

First Month 2007: Stories about my school, my students, shopping, and other experiences as I found my feet and started to learn how to be an expat. Also, finding coffee.

Playing Tourist 2007: Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing; the lake district; and the Great Wall at Huangyaguan.

Queen’s Village 2007I got invited by one of my students to come to her village and visit her family over a weekend. I got this a lot actually, but only Queen lived close enough for us to actually do it. I was the first foreigner to ever set foot in her village, despite the fact that it was less than 2 hours by bus away from the Beijing city center. It remains one of the most unique and treasured experiences of my adventures to this day.

The Bunny 2007-8: I got a bunny. He was adorable. He was frustrating. He saved me from depression and made me threaten to turn him into gloves several times. These are his stories.

Fall 2007: This is where I hit my first major clash with the monster of culture shock. The letters are fairly emotional and show what I have now come to affectionately dub the “culture shock roller coaster” very effectively. Way before I had any idea what hit me.

Holidays 2007: Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, Christmas without Christ in China, New Year’s Eve, decorating and celebrating my first set of holidays away from home.

Winter 2007-8: Snowmen, Chinese home remedies (aka the ginger coke story), my long weekend in the old capital city of Xi’an, where the Terracotta Warriors are from. Although I didn’t write anything about them at the time, I threw in some memories this time around.

About Tibet 2008: In the spring of 2008 there were riots in Tibet that were reported in the Chinese news. Since I was teaching a journalism class at the time, I hoped to open a discussion, but was quickly shut down by the students, and the school, and the government. It’s not a long letter, but I felt it deserved it’s own post.

Spring Flowers & Holidays 2008: Saint Patrick’s Day with the Irish and the first open parade in Beijing since 1989, Easter Brunch, and April Fool’s pranks at school.

Second Semester 2008: After returning from the long break in Seattle, my life became about surviving the bitter cold and isolation of a north China winter, Dostoevsky style. I needed western surroundings and more reliable internet than I could get in my small town, so I started weekly forays into Beijing in pursuit of these and other necessities/comforts. And then there were cherry blossoms.

Bunny Bureaucracy 2008: The intrepid and daring tale of how we fought the bureaucracy of two countries to bring the Bunny back to the US. So worth it.

The End 2008: The beginning and progression of the illness that forced me to leave China and nearly ended my adventures forever.


I learned some interesting things looking back on these letters too.

I have grown a lot. And have become much more adept at navigating the challenges of living abroad, culture shock, and other unfamiliar life challenges. It feels good. My life is by no means challenge free, but I feel like I’ve leveled up… a couple times. And it’s not just the challenges of bureaucracy or different ways of doing things or even dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of culture shock. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world around me, broadening and deepening my understanding and my compassion.

I miss noticing new things. I don’t know if it’s because this is my second year in Korea or because it’s my 4th country to work in, but I feel like there were way more “oh, how does this work” or “wow, this is different” observations in these old letters than in my recent posts. I’m not sure how to get that back or even if I can for Korea, but I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I move.

I really miss teaching at university level. This elementary thing has been fun, but I miss being able to talk to my students about real things. So many stories from China (and from Saudi) came from being able to communicate with my students about their lives and their culture. However sweet, adorable and full of unconditional love my elementary students are, they are not full of complex thoughts that they can share with me.

But most of all, I miss the level of support and involvement I used to get from readers. I mean, back then, my only readers were friends and family, but these days I feel like I interact more with readers I don’t know personally than readers I do. And even then, we don’t interact much. I value every comment. I yearn to see discussions and shared stories appear in my comments section. I hope my messenger blows up and my Instagram is full of words. I need people, not just likes. Hope to hear from you soon. ❤

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! 🙂

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.

Bureaucrazy: The Korean Edition (part 1)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve had an update here. I really wanted to do fun and exciting adventure stuff in Seattle while I was “home”, but it turns out that finding an overseas job and filing paperwork is a huge time sink. I have been spending some fun times with my friends here, and I have some trips planned to visit family soon, but really it’s been mostly working and spending all my free time on the paperwork/job hunt or on really mundane stuff like groceries and laundry. Thankfully, I looked back on my posts from last year about paperwork and realized that I totally learned some valuable lessons that have helped me navigate the waters this time around.

I have come to terms with the fact that I’m going to be a wizard level expert at international red tape by the time I am done with this phase of my life. As rewarding as travelling around the world can be, it seems that it’s always going to be expensive. It just so happens in my case, the expense is time, sanity and maybe gray hair and only a little bit of money. Eh, I guess until I’m independently wealthy, I have to pay the red tape price for pursuing my dreams. So, welcome to Bureaucrazy, the ongoing cycle of dull boring (frantic, insane) paperwork that I must complete in pursuit of my life of wonderment and adventure.


Every international traveler knows the joy of passports and visas, and most ESL teachers have a similar list of things that are required for basically every overseas ESL Job ever:

  • CV/Resume
  • Cover Letter
  • Copies of Diplomas/Transcripts
  • TESOL Certificate
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Recent Photo
  • Copy of Passport page

These things aren’t hard, and I have so many versions of cover letters (it’s really best to be as personalized as possible when writing these) and updates of CVs that I can do them in my sleep. I generally try to take a new photo about once every year or two, but otherwise, once you have these things, you think you’re set. I have copies in my cloud and on a USB I carry with me everywhere so I can do job hunting any time I have a few minutes at a computer.

There were some additional things I thought I needed specifically for South Korea:

  • FBI Criminal Background Check (Apostilled)
  • Apostilled copies of Diplomas
  • Official Transcripts

After the Saudi debacle, I really didn’t think this was going to be any harder or more frustrating a process. I did some cursory research on the CBC and Apostille process and realized that it took forever, but shouldn’t actually be hard (ha-ha). So I determined to start the paperwork process in September (even though the hiring season is Oct-Dec and the school year starts in March). I am so glad I did.

The FBI

It’s not really surprising that we need a criminal records check to get a job. I had to get one from City of Seattle for my Saudi gig, after all. But Korea is not satisfied with a mere city, county or state level criminal records check, oh no. They need the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be in on this. MIB, Moulder and Scully, Quantaco. So, I head over to the FBI website to find out what the process for criminal background check actually is.

  1. Fingerprints on specific government form
  2. FBI CBC application form
  3. money
  4. time
  5. oh and don’t forget to explicitly specify that you’re going to get this apostilled so that they put a seal and signature on it.

So, starting with number 1, I look up places to get fingerprints done and decide to head to our city PD downtown office. I had a very nice and smooth experience. I was the only person around that day and the lady was very nice to me (her daughter also travels overseas a lot). So I left feeling pretty positive about the whole start to this paperwork process. I completed and printed the application form and wrote a sticky note with the reminder to stamp and seal the final document for apostille use, then stuck the whole thing in a big envelope and dropped it in the mail. (I may mention, as foreshadowing, that this is the only time in this process I have not used tracked mail. Never underestimate the importance of tracking numbers.)

Then I decided that I would wait the 6-8 weeks to get my CBC back and send all my documents that needed apostille off to the State Department at once. Convenient, right? Wrong!

A month later, I still hadn’t seen the FBI charge appear on my credit card and was starting to get worried. So I called the info line and was told that they don’t even *open* the applications until they’ve had them for 8-9 weeks. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the FBI’s already insanely backed up process that is supposed to take 6-8 weeks TOTAL, is now so clogged that it takes them longer than that just to open the envelope. Then another 4-5 weeks to process the request. At this point I don’t even have a means of verifying that they have received my request, because my dumb butt thought that seeing the credit card charge would be enough of a clue and didn’t bother tracking the envelope. (Did I mention the importance of tracking numbers?)

Meanwhile, even though main hiring season is Oct-Dec, I popped online to Dave’s ESL where all the ESL jobs live and noticed that there were some jobs posting early for the March start. I’m not a big procrastinator, so I started applying, of course, and learned that *some* jobs wanted applicants to already have their apostilled documents in hand (or scanned versions of them to include in the application). Which was even more confusing, since the documents are only good for 3-6 months after they are obtained (I still can’t get a straight answer on this timeline). So, I’m starting to freak out a little because on this new extended timeline, I’m not going to have my apostilled background check in time for application season. So, I start researching approved FBI Channellers.

These are a handful of companies that have some strange in-road to the FBI process and can get your CBC in 5-7 DAYS, with all the bells and whistles for apostille. After exchanging a few emails with the company to make sure they really mean it, and I’m not just reading wishful thinking into their website, I’ve been assured that their company is not subject to whatever new policies are causing the 13 week wait time for everyone else, and that all their CBCs are apostille ready, I decide to shell out the 85$ for expedited service nearly 6 weeks after my original submission to the FBI (and still 3-4 weeks before they’ll open it). But this meant another round of fingerprinting and application forms, too.

I moved habitation in the meantime, so I was hoping to go to a police department closer to the house I was staying in, and then to the local post office to send off this new round of application materials, but as it turns out, you can’t get your fingerprints taken at most police stations without an appointment and proof that you live in their jurisdiction. Since I’m basically couch surfing while I’m back in the States, I don’t have proof of living where I’m staying like a driver’s license, bank statement or utility bill, so there was simply no way for me to get my own fingerprints taken except to go to the large municipal police department in downtown Seattle. Round 2 fingerprinting took a little longer because there were more people in line, but still a pretty positive experience (way to go Seattle PD, well done). I take my new fingerprint cards and my application to the Channeller, and go to the post office to mail them registered style so I never have to fear a lack of package arrival again.

About 8 days later, I got a UPS letter with my CBC in it and a letter helpfully telling me I could pay their partner service another huge fee for expedited apostille service. The State Department really seemed to think it only takes a week or two to apostille a document, so I took my chances and spent the roughly 20$ to send the paperwork to the State Department myself instead of the nearly 200$ that the “expidited” service wanted to charge. In the meantime, my card still hasn’t been billed by the FBI and I may or may not receive another CBC sometime … ever.

It’s been pointed out to me by one of my Seattle hippie socialist friends that this processes is incredibly corrupt, since it basically entails a private company using its connections with a federal agency to bypass the public applicants and get served first, then charge an arm and a leg to the public for piggybacking on this privilege. Twice. Yay capitalism.

The Apostille

Moving on to the apostille process (and no, I still don’t know how we’re supposed to say this word. I got a French, Spanish and American version and every office seems to say it differently). When it looked like my CBC was going to be super delayed, I decided to get a jump on the diploma apostilles so that I could show the schools I was applying to that I was doing my best to meet the requirements. Further research led me to discover that the United States Department of State doesn’t apostille diplomas. In fact, local documents have to be apostilled locally. So, actually, only my FBI CBC is going to the US Department of State, but my diplomas need to go to the state level State Department offices. Of course, I make this more complicated by having gotten my BA and MA in two different states. You thought we were one country over here? Oh no. I’ve seen easier transitions between countries in the EuroZone than between certain states in America.

Washington (state not D.C.)

A note to non-US residents: It’s still fascinating to me how many people outside the US don’t realize that Washington state and Washington D.C. are not the same place, and are in fact on opposite sides of the country. D.C. sits on the Potomac which feeds into the Atlantic, it’s close to New York. Washington State is all the way in the far northwest, near Canada and the Pacific.

So, starting local and working outward, I hopped on the Washington Secretary of State website to see what the apostille process was. Although the website is not terribly easy to navigate, I found the apostille process itself to be fairly simple: a notarized copy of the diploma, a printed out application form, and a check. No problemo. Fill in and print out the form, write the check and take my original diploma off to get a new notarized copy made.

Since I had this done last year for the Saudi experience, I decided to go to the same notary as before. But when I asked for a notarized copy I was informed rather rudely that it was illegal to make notarized copies of diplomas, and that they would not do so. I expressed surprise and dismay since they had notarized a copy for me last year. He told me someone must have made a mistake. I pulled out the copy (which I wasn’t using for the apostille because it had Saudi stamps all over it in addition to the notary stamp) and asked him if that was his seal/signature. It was, and at this point he became pretty hostile. I tried to ask what the procedure was, how I could get it done. I tried to show him where on the Secretary of State’s website it said that originals were not accepted for apostille, only notarized copies, but he was downright mean at this point. So we had to leave.

I say we. Fortunately, I was running errands with a friend that day to help keep me sane in traffic. She’s an avid reader of my blog/follower of my travels and occasionally gets to see the barest glimpse of the bureaucracy wars (like that time she got up at 4am to help me call airlines and bring this bunny home from China). Also like this time where we were basically stuck between two people in positions of relative authority telling us totally contradictory information. So, sitting in the car and fuming slightly, I decided that the best option was to call the Secretary of State’s office and find out what the heck was going on.

After three tries, I finally got to the lovely and helpful lady who deals with all the apostille stuff. Really, really good idea. She informed me that apparently in the state of Washington, notaries public aren’t trained in how to do their jobs. These are people who collect fees from the public in order to act as legal witnesses to all kinds of things, and they don’t get trained before they are certified. Go Washington, well done. She told me the name of the Washington State law that I needed to direct the next notary to, where they could find the short forms in this law, and which of the short forms needed to be attached to the copy of my diploma in order for it to be a legitimate notarized copy. She also confessed that whenever improperly notarized copies come to her, she fines the notary, which probably explains why Mr. Grumpy refused to do his job, since he also refused to learn how to do it and so got fined for doing it wrong.

Next, Google gives us a list of nearby notaries. We call one and ask specifically if she knows how to do “true and correct” copies and she says, yes. We go, we stand in line, we get to the front and she has no idea what short forms we are talking about. Thankfully, before we can be turned away, my friend whips out her phone where she’d taken all the notes from our helpful friend in the apostille office and shows this notary where to go. Despite being totally out of her comfort zone, this lady was way more gracious than Mr. Grumpy. She got on her computer, found the page in question, was able to print out the short forms and cut out the one we needed for the copy. And she did it all with good grace. See what happens when we’re nice to each other? I get properly notarized copies and she avoids getting fined by the Secretary of State’s office.

Tennessee

My Bachelor’s Degree apostille is a little more complicated. I went to the University of Memphis for my BA, and so I have to get the apostille from the Tennessee Secretary of State. So, on to their website for the rules. Not only do the copies have to be notarized by a Tennessee licensed notary, it then has to be stamped by the county clerk’s office of whichever county clerk licensed the notary then it can be sent to the Secretary of State for the apostille.

My American readers will have a good understanding of how far away from Seattle Memphis actually is. When I fly over to visit my mother there, it’s a good solid day of flying, like 7-9 hours. For the non-Americans, think about how far from your home country you can get in 7-9 hours of flying and know that isn’t even all the way across America, only about 2/3. So there is no way for me to do this in person. I couldn’t imagine that there was not a way for people living outside the state to achieve this, so I waited until the next business day and called the office to ask what methods existed for people who no longer resided in Tennessee. I was told to find someone who was willing to run around and get the stamps/signatures for me. Because Tennessee is trapped in the mid 1970s and knows nothing of the information age.

Fortunately my mother lives and works in Memphis, and she saw my plight on Facebook and offered to get involved (although she may regret that offer now). So, I printed out the forms, cut the check, and wrote a very long email of very specific instructions, then shipped my diploma to my mom. She managed to get notarized copies (she told me they wrote “true and correct copy” on it, and all I could do was hope that Tennessee doesn’t have a short forms law that their notaries don’t know how to use either). I included a list of all the county clerks offices in her county in the email, and advised her to call ahead before going (because websites are so reliable). She did call ahead, and asked all the right questions, and got directed to an office where she waited for an HOUR just to be told that no the only place that they certify notary signatures is the downtown office. When she called to tell me, I just said, “Welcome to my world.”

She finally made it to the downtown office where she was indeed able to secure the certification, and the Tennessee state apostille arrived in good shape a little more than a week later.

United States

As for the federal apostille, that was another adventure. Once the email alert telling me that my CBC was en route showed up, I started the detailed research on the US State Department website. I downloaded the form and started filling it out. Small forms should not be so complicated, but it turns out that most government forms require additional pages of instructions translating the boxes on the form so that you know what to actually fill in. Just as I’m finishing the form and quintuple checking the instructions to make sure that I haven’t missed anything, I see a little line that says that “you must submit a new cover letter for each request. Failure to do so will result in your case being rejected and your documents returned.” WHAT? I check again, maybe this form is a cover letter? No, the paragraph where this line is written mentions the form by alphanumeric designation specifically. I check the website again which has a list of all the things to include with your mailed in request and there is NO mention of a cover letter. Yet clearly, failure to include one has dire consequences. So, I wrote the most basic “to whom” cover letter expressing my desire to have my document apostilled and not rejected and hoped that was good enough.

In addition to the CBC itself and the application form and the money, the US Secretary of State also wants a self-addressed stamped envelope. These aren’t difficult, although they’ve become increasingly rare because most companies want to be able to track their packages and so simply ask clients to include a return shipping fee (or just raise the fee to account for return shipping cost). It’s been a long time since I had to include an SASE. But it’s not just this, the application form wants to know the shipping carrier and tracking number of the SASE that is inside the envelope that the application form is also inside. I think the poor little guy at the post office hates me.

I wrote myself sticky notes of instructions for this process over the weekend, and then headed into the post office on Monday. I began by picking out flat rate trackable envelopes and filling out address stickers. When I got to the front of the queue, I started out by requesting first the money order I needed to include, then explaining that I needed to know the tracking number for the envelope that would go INSIDE the one I was sending. Then I had to fill in the tracking number on the application form before it could go into the big envelope. Then I had to pay for everything before I could get the money order, so he took the final destination address slip and started logging it into the computer to generate a tracking number and of course a price tag.

He told me that I had written the address incorrectly. I told him I’d copied it exactly off of the US State Department website. He went to a supervisor who told him to get me to re-write the address. I showed him the website.  I still had to rewrite the address. It needs to be pointed out that it wasn’t incorrect information that caused this, but merely which line of the address the information went on. I had written 4 lines of text (as it was on the website) and the USPS decided they needed 5 lines of text. Riiiiight. Let’s hear it once more for the federal government! Finally, I had the package paid for and managed to assemble all the necessary bits (CBC, application form with SASE tracking number, SASE, and the mysterious cover letter) into the envelope and of to the east coast.

Transcripts

This should not be hard. Universities send these out all the time. I needed them to get into grad school. I needed them to get hired in Saudi. But yet for some reason (possibly because the Korean government actually cares about the substance and not merely the form?) this year’s quest for transcripts was unusually dismal. Each school of course has it’s own procedures, and since I’m in town with the UW, I decided I could always run down to the registrar’s office for a quick copy if things got down to the wire, so I would tackle the UM first.

I went on to the website to discover that only e-transcripts can be requested via the online request form, and e-transcripts can’t be official. OK. So I print out and mail off the form requesting my official transcripts, 3 copies just in case (I’m told I need 2, but since it’s all the way across the country I order a spare). When they arrive, they are in an improperly sealed envelope with “return service requested” on the outside instead of “official transcript enclosed” which is what it should say. After a few emails back and forth with the office of transcripts, I discover that I should have added the fact that I needed the transcripts to be signed and sealed (instead of merely requesting “official” transcripts) even though there is no place for this on the form and no indication in the instructions on the website. At least they don’t charge for copies? And eventually she agreed to send me what I needed without me having to submit another request form. Small favors.

The UW accepts online requests, but also charges 9$ per copy so I just ordered 2. They both arrived in the same envelope… For those of you who have never had to deal with multiples of official transcripts, they are invalid after the envelope is opened. So if you have to send an official transcript to multiple places (which you do for going to teach in South Korea) you need them in separate sealed envelopes. I have no idea why the universities (which require official transcripts for admission, transfer and job applications themselves) don’t get it when they issue transcripts. So I also ended up having to email the transcript office here and explain the situation, asking with fervent hope if they would please send me a second official transcript since I had paid the 9$ for it as well as the online “convenience fee” (you know for the privilege of paying for something on the internet). Fortunately, she was very accommodating and agreed to send out a second copy as well.

Letters of Employment Verification

Some of you will have noticed that this isn’t in the list. This is because it wasn’t something I thought I would need, but rather something I discovered in the process of applying for jobs. Basically every single school I applied for wanted these letters from previous employers simply stating that I had in fact worked there and from what day/month/year to what day/month/year. I have not ever encountered such a thing before. I have always been in a situation where someone either took my word for what was on my resume or simply called the company to verify my employment with HR. As such, it had simply not occurred to me to get these letters on my way out of previous jobs. I had tried to get one leaving Saudi, because my boss suggested it, but the company (not surprisingly if you’ve read anything else about my exit process) did not deliver.

So, this meant I had to go back and ask. Since the universities seemed focused on other university jobs, at least that meant I didn’t need to go get letters for my summer teaching gigs. First order of business was to dig up the email for the English department at a school I taught at back in 2007 over in China. I can’t say I expected anything to come of it, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well it went. They responded quite quickly and mailed me a letter exactly in the format I had asked. Wow, awesome.

Then I reached out to the school I had just left in Saudi. It took them two weeks to get back to me since everyone was on vacation when I emailed. My request bounced from person to person in the company, until getting to someone who was willing to talk and then needed all my information again because they couldn’t be bothered to read the original email I sent(?). I had long since determined that my decision to leave this company was correct and justified, but this experience only further solidified it. After several more weeks of confusion, I got a PDF file of a letter that did not include the information I’d asked for, but did include an advertisement for the program that went on for 2 paragraphs.

I wrote back, waited more, got tossed to more different people and eventually told that it was not their policy to use specific dates (because most employers don’t need it), nor to mail copies once a teacher had left. I explain that South Korean universities ALL want exact dates, and also that I did ask for a copy before I left but hadn’t been given one. Then I was told they would make an exception and rewrite the letter, but only mail it to me if I would pay the shipping costs. (BTW, they have a branch office in America, so I have no idea still why the US office couldn’t have slapped a letter in an envelope and sent it for $0.49, but hey! mail it from Saudi, it’s better I’m sure).

I say fine, ok, but can you please also mention that we were teaching in the university, to which they explain no, despite our physical location in a university teaching university students in a program that granted a certificate to the students who had just graduated from the university,  that because I was in the ONLY branch of their program that is like that, because they are contracted with the Department of Labor and not the Department of Education they would not write such a thing in the letter. Fine, ok. Then I don’t hear from them for another two weeks because the country director is out of town. Eventually, after many more emails pleading for my letter with exact dates, they sent me a new pdf. I’m never getting a paper copy. I’m not saying I won’t ever work in Saudi again, but I have some strong feelings about who it won’t be for if I do.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of Bureaucrazy: The Korean Edition where we’ll learn about EPIK teaching options and follow up on more surprise paperwork!

Reflections: Halfway Through Saudi

So, we’re in the last few days of my first of two semesters teaching in Saudi. I thought I would take a moment to reflect.

As with all new experiences, there was so much I didn’t know when I first arrived. How to wrap a hijab, how to time my shopping and dining around prayer times, how to haggle for a taxi, and so much more. A visiting substitute teacher started reading my blog from the beginning today, sort of forgetting that my taxi experiences were back from late September and early October, he started giving me some advice on “the way things are” in Saudi. It was a little funny, because I realized how much those early posts must have shown off my ignorance, but at the same time, it was nice to see that I was able to share the real first time experiences so well. I worry sometimes now that I’m leaving out or glossing over things that a Western reader would find interesting or not understand, simply because I’ve become so used to them.

In the time since I arrived I’ve been snorkeling in the Red Sea, and ridden Asia’s tallest double loop roller coaster. I’ve had a marriage proposal from a taxi driver and a slightly less savory offer from an over amorous telephone salesman. I had my first drive by flirting. I went to an all girl gaming convention, a family party at an Istraha and a wedding at the town’s most famous wedding hall. I’ve visited a Saudi home, and been treated to a traditional Saudi meal. I’ve seen the Edge of the World and ridden to the top of the world’s tallest man made structure. And so much more.

Sure sometimes I’m bored or lonely, because my days are not one string of adventures after another, but those times of solitude are needed rest times, and also serve to contrast the excitement of exploration.

Getting back into teaching after a six year break has also been an adventure. It turns out that even though I didn’t get paid for it, I never really stopped teaching. My “teacher mode” is still alive and well, and has been commented on if I accidentally slip into it when chatting with my peers. There were a lot of things about the educational facility and the national system here that I found frustrating at first, and sometimes still do, but I feel like I’ve settled into a groove and nearly every day I enjoy my job, so that seems like a good sign for my present and my future.

Keep Calm and Inshallah

I think one of the more interesting things is my own changes in perception of time and plans. One of the biggest phrases used here is “Inshallah” which literally means “if God wills it”. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that I not only didn’t understand when I arrived, but found endlessly aggravating. I couldn’t understand what was so hard about just committing to a plan, but every time I asked if someone could do something, the answer was “Inshallah”. It didn’t seem to mean anything! Sometimes it was an excuse to say ‘no’ without being rude, sometimes it was a ‘yes, assuming nothing catastrophic goes wrong’, and it could be anything in between.

Before I came here, I was really big into plans, and confirming plans with other people. Are we gonna hang out tonight? If yes, great! If not, I’m gonna find something else to do. But “maybe” means I sit around waiting for you, and you change your mind at the last minute and I miss out on something else cool I could have done if you’d made up your mind earlier today? PNW people are notorious for replying “maybe” when they mean “no”, but you can never tell the one time they’re going to expect you to follow through because they said “maybe”. I still think that’s really rude, but I think I’ve found a headspace where I can be less bothered by it through the power of “Inshallah”.

Now I know that “Inshallah” works because the whole culture embraces it. Everything is slow, no one gets upset when things aren’t on time (except my driver when my plane is late), and if it doesn’t work the way you expected you can generally get someone to help you work it out anyway. For example, once I showed up to the airport a little bit late. The check in desk had closed. In America, this would mean I was s.o.l. I’ve heard my roomie who works for an airline say this often enough. But in Saudi, Inshallah, I can still get on the plane. And I did. It was a convoluted story involving several airline employees moving me from place to place, through security, from one gate to another, and finally hand writing a boarding pass for me, but I got on the plane, and I got back to Tabuk. Ilhamdulillah (thank God). I don’t think I can live by it in America the way people do here, because the whole society supports it, but I’m hoping it helps lower my blood pressure anyway.

The Shrinking To-Do List

Because of the way that everything is so casual about when it happens, you spend a lot of time waiting here. Whether you’re waiting in line at the store, or waiting at home for some news or for your driver, or for prayer to be over so you can go out… there’s a lot of waiting. I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that some of the worst time in the world is time spent waiting that you could be doing something fun or useful. I spent some time in the beginning waiting in that state. Then I realized no one but me expected me to do as much with my day as I had done in the states. I could spend hours watching tv while slowly doing my laundry (cause that takes forever) or take an hour to do a self pedicure a couple times a week, or just talk to my mom for 3 hours. I didn’t have to get anything much done, and more importantly, I didn’t have to feel guilty about not accomplishing everything.

I’m not laying around all day every day, mind you. I still teach 5 days a week and go on adventures whenever I can, plus each one of these posts usually represents a solid afternoon’s work. Before, I treated down-time like any of my other mandatory health maintenance tools (like doing yoga, fixing healthy meals, brushing my teeth etc), I knew I needed it to stay healthy, but that was the only way I could “justify” spending an afternoon lounging around in my PJs marathon watching “Dexter”. Since coming to Saudi, I’ve learned that I don’t need to justify it. My to-do list doesn’t have to include a million and one activities just to look full or avoid “wasting time”, it needs to include the things that I genuinely want and need to get done, and if one of those is break out the Shisha and catch up on facebook gossip, that’s ok.

Happier and Happier

The last time I lived abroad for so long, I was still reeling from some pretty bad life experiences that I’m still not quite ready to publicly discuss. Suffice it to say, I was not emotionally/mentally healthy. So, I went through some pretty extreme emotional roller coasters caused in part by my own state, but in large part by culture shock. I felt bi-polar. I was actually really worried I was going crazy at the time, until I found out that it’s fairly normal to react to culture shock this way. (in later years I had a friend who went completely off the deep end within a few days of arriving in China and only managed to not fly home instantly because I could explain this phenomenon over a beer and convince him we could work through it). I would go through phases of loving everything and hating everything. I’d want to go out every day, or I’d want to hide inside and watch tv. I missed the people in Seattle so badly it was a physical ache. I had a six week break for the winter there and decided to go back to visit. Returning to China may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

So when I was getting ready to come to Saudi, I reviewed these experiences and sort of braced myself to have some serious emotional roller coaster-ness. What I didn’t take into account was that I’d been actively learning the art and science of happiness since about the fall of 2012 (I swear, I’m going to write about that someday). I’d started from the basic idea that my main goal in life from thence forth was to be happy. I learned a lot about how to make that happen since then. And it seems to have made a big impact on how I experience culture shock.

To start with, the extreme mood swings simply don’t exist. I’d expected to have the new place euphoria for about 2-3 months and then maybe a slump, and that happened, but neither was as big as it had been in China. Moreover, the slump coincided with some very real-world causes for sadness such as the one year deathiversary of my friend, my first experience being censored, a very serious fever/flu, a new class of absolute hellions (which I did eventually figure out how to relate to and now love), and the impending holiday season in a place where such things are illegal. But even with all those things combined with the anticipated culture shock slump, it really only lasted a couple of weeks, and I was able to find center again as the events that contributed to the icky feelings passed or were resolved.

Secondly, while I think of my friends in America often, and miss them, it’s more like fondly remembering the past and quietly anticipating a future where we are reunited. It isn’t an ache or pain. This might change if I didn’t get to chat with them online or stalk them on facebook, so I’m grateful for all the internet has to offer, but I also recognize the change from needing these people daily to bring me out of depression and looking forward to talking with them or seeing them so I can share the happy times. Mental health win!

When you like Islam, the terrorists loose.

I can’t/don’t want to go into all of the things I’ve learned about Islam while living here in this post. I’m still working on my own understanding both of the culture here and of how my feelings are changing in response. I do want to say that before I came here, I had a solid intellectual understanding that Islam does not equal terrorism. I used to try to correct people’s misconceptions, and would say things about it that I’d learned in a book somewhere, mostly because I don’t like fear, hatred or ignorance about anything. But living here, making real emotional connections with my co-workers and students and seeing how they live inside their religion, and how the fear, hate and ignorance are hurting them has really caused me a deep shift in my emotional understanding.

I’ve found myself having much more emotion-driven responses to Islamaphobic media, and defending Islam and Saudi with much more feeling than I had done in the past. I don’t think I’m going to convert or anything, but I’m extremely grateful to be allowed to see and feel things from this point of view. Sorry, I can’t really get into details until I’m back in the land of free speech, because while my overall intention is positive and supportive, it’s not all roses and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers while I am a guest in this country. Maybe when it’s all over, I’ll be able to write more about what this has meant to me and how the transition has happened as well as list out all the good and bad things I see here with new eyes, but for now, I just want to say that I can feel myself changing, growing and deepening as a result of connecting with the people here.

Islamaphobia sucks. There’s some theories that terrorist groups are actually trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims so the (large majority of) non-violent Muslims are further isolated and driven toward the terrorists for comfort and support. So, piss of a terrorist and be tolerant of Islam!

What’s Next?

Well, now that I’ve gotten my feet under me, and jumped some of the biggest cultural hurdles, I have another semester to look forward to starting in a little over a week. My last real vacation is in just a few days, and I’m planning to get some stunning pics of two Nabatean Ruins and some parts of Dubai I missed last time.

I’m looking forward to the new semester in some ways and not in others. We’ve all learned a lot about the program and each other. We’re hopeful that a new batch of students means a fresh start to avoid our previous mistakes and improve on our successes. But I’m sad because so much of what went wrong this semester means that there’s a crackdown on rules like bathroom breaks and coffee in the classroom. I’m pretty darn tired of feeling like a prison warden when my students are grown adult women, some of whom are married with children of their own. But, since I don’t have any real control over it, I’ll take what I’ve learned from the first semester and just focus on doing what I can in a positive way.

The next semester doesn’t have any breaks for 22 weeks, oh and it’s an extra week long because Ramadan will fall at the end of the semester, shortening our days but lengthening our weeks to balance the hours. I have a few weekend trips I’m hoping to take, however (Inshallah) and I’m interested to see how Ramadan goes in an all Muslim country. I’ve gotten a lot of disparaging comments from the other non-Muslim expats around, but that happens fairly often, so I take it with a grain of salt. I’m sure if this country didn’t pay us so well, 80% of them wouldn’t be here. Besides, by then I’ll be happily planning my summer adventures!

So stay tuned readers, as we continue to travel, seek, teach and learn together 🙂

 

My First Week in Saudi

Well, I made it. Wheels touched down in Riyadh one week ago. You all got to read about the incredible journey, so now lets take a look at the first week of life in the Magic Kingdom.

If you want to see more pictures about this week, please visit and like my facebook page, and check out the album, This Week in Tabuk.

THE JOB

This of course takes up most of my time. My first day of work was Sunday, by the way. I landed in Tabuk on Saturday, and started work on Sunday. No break at all. Oh, and also no training. The supposed online training site I was supposed to have access to all summer where I could watch videos and fill out worksheets for feedback (which was a seriously appealing prospect and part of the reason I took the job) was broken all summer, or maybe is just wishful thinking that hasn’t ever worked. Like the toilets… (more later). And the pre-term training that was supposed to start in late August, I couldn’t attend because they took so darn long getting me a visa and a plane ticket that I actually arrived in the second week of school.

IMG_0034So, Sunday morning at 6:40 am, I come downstairs to the van-pool and head to the school. I have an hour before class starts, which is nice, I can check my email, look over my plan for the day, drink my coffee, etc. But on this first day, I did none of this. I stared in confusion at the perfectly symmetrical, identical geometric patterns of the building wondering how I would ever find anything. I talked to the site director about what I should do and got shown a huge amount of paperwork. I collected my students and invented a lesson entirely on the fly.

As it turns out — the internet didn’t work, the a/c was barely working, the toilets didn’t flush, and there was no copy machine because there was “no toner in all of Tabuk”.

Additionally, although the school administered placement tests for the students, someone decided that they should not have a level A-0 class and so split the three groups into A-1, A-1+, and A-2. This might not be a big deal if the teaching method I was sold in the job interview was true, but alas, like so many other things, it was not. I won’t say they meant to lie, but it seems there was a new policy implemented just this school year, so at very least it is no longer true.

See, there’s a book, but we don’t use the book, and the students don’t have the book. The book is a guideline of skills the students should learn and be tested on in each level. Normally, and A-0 is considered someone who has zero English. But they decided A-0 would be learning the material in chapters 1-8. The problem being that this doesn’t start with the alphabet and “Hello, my name is” which is how zero English speakers have to start. It starts with a basic assumption that you have the letters and a small vocabulary, along with a basic understanding of the S.V.O. sentence structure/word order of English.

Ok. So this is fine, I don’t really care what you call them, I care what they know coming to my class, and what I’m expected to help them learn. But A-1’s are supposed to be chapters 9-16, so if they haven’t really got a grip on 1-8, this is not gonna fly.

By the end of the week we have marginally better A/C, some toner for the copy machine (so I can make handouts!), and I’ve convinced them to take my best students up to the A-1+ class, let me take her remedial ones and actually teach to their level A-0, but the toilets still don’t flush…

THE STUDENTS & STAFF

On the plus side, the students are really sweet. Not just mine, but even the random ones I run into in the halls. Its easy for them to see I’m not Saudi, so they like to try out their English on me. Some girls in the elevator struck up a basic conversation, hello, what’s your name, nice to meet you. Of course I responded like a cheerful textbook, but they were so happy. As I left on my floor they waved goodbye and told me I was very nice.

Others don’t speak English but are still curious. One group asked if I spoke Arabic. I replied ‘not very well’, but as we pressed our floor buttons,  I pressed 2, and one of the girls said ‘two’ in English, so I said ‘ithnaan’, which is 2 in Arabic. The girls exploded into giggles and began to compliment my Arabic. I couldn’t help but laugh with them, since the whole thing was so silly, and as I was leaving, I added, ‘shukran’ which means thank you, and sent them into fresh peals of giggling.

These girls show up to school looking like a flock of crows, black abayas, hijabs and niqabs covering everything but their eyes. But once inside, they transform into peacocks. Security checks their outfits at the door, so everyone must have at least calf length skirts and 3/4 length sleeves, no cleavage. But they definitely color it up, add a lot of bling, enough make-up to make any 5 Mary Kay ladies’ yearly commission, and hairspray that has time traveled from the 80’s.

They have a habit of bleaching all or part of the natural eyebrow and drawing a preferred shape back in.  Now, American girls pluck all the time, despite the great pioneering work of Ingrid Bergman in Cassablanca. However, the preferred American drawn on eyebrow is generally thin, high and well separated and looks something like this.

american eyebrow

Whereas the preferred Saudi eyebrow is thick, dark, and creeping together in the middle, giving the impression of a scowl all the time. Now, the picture here is even a little sedate compared to some of the students and staff at the school, so just try to imagine it even thicker towards the bridge of the nose.

saudi eyebrow

And the HAIR. I have to imagine they get to school hours early because there is no way those up-dos could ever go under a hijab. Honestly, I’m not even sure how they got them to stay up. I’ve seen less complicated and more mobile hairstyles in anime. There is also a lot of bleach and henna around. Less than half of them have kept their natural black.

But basically, they’re college girls. I think this may be the only place outside their homes that they can dress and talk with any freedom and no fear of being heard or seen by a man. It really is nice to be able to see them like this.

The expat staff are nearly all nice. My SD is very friendly, patient and supportive. The other two teachers have been with the company longer, even though they only moved to Tabuk this year, so the wonder has worn off, and now they’re just frustrated they can’t do their jobs properly. For [redacted], this seems like a fairly mild kind of oh-well-I-guess-I’ll-cope frustration, but [redacted] is really a very angry, miserable lady. Honestly, I have no idea why she’s still working at this company if it makes her so unhappy, so I think she may just be a chronically unhappy person. I will try not to let it get me down, while trying to keep my optimism to myself as much as possible.

The Saudi staff are also lovely ladies. They always smile when they see me, which makes me smile. One morning, the lady at the student check in desk ran out to us with date cookies. And I got my first real Saudi greeting from [redacted], who keeps all our attendance (teachers and students) and liaises with us if we need copies or supplies other than what our SD provides, or if we have any trouble communicating non-lesson related (clerical or schedule change) information to the students. After our first couple days of the more distant Western handshake, she leaned in and we exchanged two air kisses, Saudi style.

THE HOTEL

In case you didn’t hear, I’m living in a hotel. Not temporarily housed until we find me something else, but living for the year in this hotel. Don’t be fooled by the pictures they’ve posted, those are the deluxe suites. Mine is much smaller. Oh, I could upgrade, and maybe eventually I will, but its more expensive and its not like I need that much space being just me.

It took me a little while to learn how to use everything. There aren’t enough outlets for the appliances, so if you want to use the electric kettle, you have to unplug the range. And if you want to use the microwave, you have to unplug the refrigerator. I got a small washer brought to my room because I didn’t think I wanted to have to take all my clothes down to the cleaners (even though I’m told its quite cheap). I guess I like the autonomy of laundry. This may change.

It has two sides. On one side you fill it with water (in my case from the bidet hose, because its the only water source I don’t have to carry in) and add soap then it agitates it for you. The soap takes forever to rinse out. I’m trying to remember, but I think that when I had a machine like this in China, I just stopped using soap on my underthings because I didn’t want the risk of dried soap in sensitive (and sweaty) places. I’ve rinsed this load 4 times and its still sudsing.

The other side is a spinner, to spin off excess water. However, it is so tiny that it overbalances easily. If your washer at home has ever done this, you know the horrible clunk-clunk  sound it makes as the spinner tries to turn your washer into a helicopter. Usually you can fix it by redistributing the weight of the wet clothes, or at worst, taking some out and doing the spin cycle twice. Right? Not here. This spin side can only handle about one tank top or three panties worth of laundry at a time, and then only if you wring it out by hand first.

All in all, this machine is only a minor improvement over doing laundry down at the river like our great-grandmothers did, and I’m pretty sure everything but underwear is going to the laundry service from now on.

As a power saving method, the power only activates if the card key is in the slot by the door. So When I go out, and have to take the key with me, all the electricity turns off, meaning that my devices can’t charge unless I’m at home. Moreover, since my laptops second battery has gone defective, it runs only on ac power. This is a great mystery because I forgot to turn it off the first day I was here and came home to a powered down PC, but yesterday I forgot (cause I was quite sick.. more later) and came home to the PC  on and my movie even still paused where I left it.

And its a good thing I brought my country adapters. I keep bringing these things everywhere, even though most countries have started installing American style outlets, and most electronics companies now make devices and chargers that can use a world wide variety of voltage outputs. Even in Riyadh I was able to just plug my tablet charger into the wall, no adapter. But all the outlets in my hotel house look like this.IMG_0058

THE SHOPPING

The good news about this hotel thingie is that it is handy to the shops. Since I can’t drive or take a bus, if I want to go anywhere I must either walk or hire a driver. The other female teacher who lives here, apparently doesn’t like going out alone at all, but I’ve been doing it all week and haven’t had any trouble.

On our side of the street there are lots of small local shops including several restaurants, an office supply store, a computer store, the laundry, a kind of high class-ish sweets shop, a fresh juice bar and a little convenience store. At the end of a block or two on the other side of the street is a mall with a well stocked supermarket called Panda where nearly all the food labels are in both English and Arabic, which is nice.

I only explored the rest of the mall briefly last Saturday with [redacted] who decided to use greeting me as an excuse to have company to explore. The stores are mainly geared toward women, clothing, abayas, perfume, accessories, etc. There was a really nice communal play area for children in the middle. The [redacted] made a comment that he felt discriminated against because all the shops were for women and there were only tiny men’s sections way in the back. I told him it was payback for what the women had to endure everywhere else.

While we were exploring, a Saudi woman approached me and asked ‘Amrikiya?’, which I’m sure you can infer means ‘American?’, ‘Mashalla, Amrikiya in Saudi Ilhamdulilah. Doctor?’ (all these other words are praises to Allah in various forms.’ ‘La (no).’ I replied. ‘Teacher.’ ‘Mashallah. Mashalla. Welcome.’ As she walked away, [redacted] was so surprised. He had never in four years teaching in Saudi had such an experience. Maybe there are a few advantages to being a woman here after all?

I’ve been out to several of the restaurants, and one which was closed I have promised to return to on another occasion as the owners/managers made a big fuss of trying to communicate when they opened so I could come back. One restaurant I won’t go back to for two reasons: it had a women’s entrance, separate order window and seating and everything with a wall in between, and it was all horrible fried chicken fast food.

The place right next door is Shawarma, and pretty darn tasty, I might add. You can get a schawarma wrap for 7 riyals, about 2$ US, and I ordered a platter of some kind that came with what ended up being 3 meals and a snack for 20 riyals, about 6$. The other place I tried served me half a tiny but delicious roasted chicken and more saffron rice than I thought I would eat in 3 days for 13 riyals (about 4$).  The place I hope to try next has lovely pictures of vegetable dishes, which I am dying for. So much meat and rice!

I get a few strange looks when I go out, its true. But I need to buy water pretty much every day, so  I usually make a trip of it and pick up some food for dinner and lunch or a sweet snack as well. So far, no bad encounters. Some guys just move away from me, a little like they’re insulted that I’m in their space. But most simply ignore me, which being from Seattle is pretty standard for strangers on the street. One guy actually greeted me in passing, and another tried (I think) to buy me a Coke while I was in the convenience store. The shop keepers are very nice to me and I don’t feel unsafe walking between my house and the mall at least. Not quite ready to go out after full dark, and not quite ready to wander around any corners where I can’t see the hotel from, but I think once I have a working cell phone, I’ll have a little more confidence and see what else I can see.

THE SICK

And finally, I got sick.

Wednesday I was a little extra tired and noticed that I was less patient with the students than I had been the rest of the week. I put it down to the new sleep schedule, the 5am call to prayer waking me every day even though my alarm didn’t go off until 6am, and the general frustration with the things discussed above in ‘the job’ section.

But when I got home and turned the power back on (the A/C doesn’t run unless I’m there) it wasn’t too long before I started to feel cold. This wasn’t entirely new. Bear in mind that since the A/C at school isn’t great, I sweat rather a lot, and so I peel off the abaya and sweaty clothes as soon as I get in, and rinse off while the A/C catches up. I’d been playing with the A/C settings since I got here trying to manage settings when there is no automatic temperature sensor to turn off the air when it gets to 70 and turn it back on at 75, I could only fiddle with the knobs until the room stayed comfortable for more than a couple hours at a time. So I turned the cold to a less cold setting.

But I was almost shivering! So I turned the A/C off, then found my yoga pants and hoodie to wear. Indoors, during the day, in Saudi, with the A/C off. Still couldn’t get warm. So I made some tea. Still shivering, now I’m achy, too. My hand brushed one of my steel earrings and I noticed how warm the metal was. I touched my face and my skin was on fire! Did I have a fever?

I rummaged in my medical kit for a thermometer (yes I travel with a medical kit, size depends on length of stay), and had a 100.6 degree temperature. So, I emailed my SD and sent in the lesson plan for Thursday’s class so someone else could take it. I only realized later that she asked me to call [redacted] to pass off my office key and so they could let the driver know not to wait for me. It wouldn’t have mattered because the temp cell phone they gave me (I can’t get my own until I have the coveted Iqama) isn’t working or at least, in my fevered state on Friday I couldn’t figure it out.

Friday morning, [redacted] comes knocking on my door asking if I’ve overslept because my SD didn’t tell anyone else (to be fair, she thought I had a working phone), so I explained I was sick and handed over my office keys and went back to bed. One one of my many awakenings to visit the toilet and get more water, I saw another email from my SD insisting that I go to a doctor that day, because otherwise it would be an unpaid sick day.

Honestly, with my temperature climbing to 101.5, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I didn’t really care about the money. I decided to go to the doctor to keep her happy, however, and agreed to have the driver pick me up when he dropped the others off from school. The other teacher kindly lent me her phone on my way out so I would have some way of calling the driver back to the clinic when I was done.

At the clinic.

The clinic was nice and clean, if not particularly modern. Although the receptionist didn’t speak any English, he found a nurse to translate and they got me into a doctor right away. The doctor was Egyptian and spoke reasonably good English. He listened to my complaints and asked some questions, but when he realized I’d only been in the country a week, he was pretty sure it was “traveller’s diarhea”. He did a little exam anyway, which was odd because I was wearing the abaya and hijab, then prescribed some antibiotics and ibuprofin. I was to get an injection in the clinic, then some pills from the pharmacy for the next few days.

The injection process was strange. The nice Filipina nurse chatted with me while she worked. I thought she must be used to fussy Saudi women because she seemed so worried when she had to inject a needle. First they did a skin test to make sure I wouldn’t have any reaction to the injected medicine. Next there was a sort of manual IV, where the nurse put an IV needle in my hand attached to a tube that was attached to a large syringe instead of an IV bag. Then she sat patiently beside me while she slowly depressed the plunger and released the medicine into my hand.

We asked all the regular questions, where are you from, how long have you been here, where is your family, etc. Her husband works in another town, but its only 90 minutes away, so they get to spend weekends together.

The whole visit cost 145 riyals, 40 for the doctor and 105 for the medicine. That comes in under 40$ without insurance, by the way. And the school will reimburse me. The pharmacy bill came to about  15$, same deal.

The After Clinic Challenge

Here’s where it gets challenging.  The whole reason I went (although, now I’m glad I did, cause the fever is all gone!) was to make the school happy. To be happy, the school needs a doctors note. I asked the doctor for this, of course, and he told me to send my driver back in 4 hours to pick it up after it had been signed by the clinic manager.

Ok. Just one problem, [redacted], the driver, doesn’t speak English. Actually, I’m starting to think that he uses this as an excuse not to do any “extra work” even though he is paid for many more hours of driving a day than he actually does. So we get home and I have at least managed to communicate that I have something else to say, so he comes inside in the hopes that the hotel clerk can help with the translation.

[redacted] is a nice young man [redacted] who mans the front desk in the afternoon. His English is pretty good and I enjoy talking to him. He was very helpful in getting my washer set up, and fixing the two non-working outlets in my room. I explain to him that I need [redacted] to drive back to the hospital after 4 hours to get the note. This does not work.

At this point, [redacted] and [redacted] come into the lobby because they need to go back out with [redacted] on another errand. Quickly they too are roped into helping in the translation effort. We’re using Google Translate, hand gestures, and a live interpreter (whose first language is Egyptian, by the way, very different from Saudi Arabic) to try to explain that all he has to do is go back to the clinic and pick up a note.

We finally believe we have communicated this, and move on to the pharmacy issue. See, the pharmacy was closed for prayer when I left the clinic so we couldn’t go right away, and all I wanted to do was go back to bed at this point, still sick and feverish as I was. This at least was a task the driver understood, so I handed over the prescription and some money agreeing that he could call my room when he returned.

Around 6:30 pm, my doorbell rings. Its [redacted]. He says the driver has called him from the lobby and keeps asking for me. Its still an hour before the doctor said the note would be ready, so I’m really surprised. I’m also exhausted,  but there’s nothing for it but to throw on my abaya again, wrap my hair up under the hijab and head downstairs.

Where ensued the worst multi-lingual comedy of errors ever. I was sick and it still made me laugh. Or maybe I just laughed to keep from crying.

Good news, he’d gone to the pharmacy, so I wasn’t called down for nothing. I knew I needed the receipt for the school to reimburse me, so I asked for it. [redacted] knew the Arabic and repeated the one word request. After about 5 minutes of gestures and Google Translate, I finally got the receipt, whereupon the driver realized he had to turn over the change as well. I’m not sure he would have given it to me if I hadn’t been insisting on the receipt so much, which is pretty obnoxious since I sent him with 200 riyals and the meds were only 60.

Then we’re back to the doctor’s note. Its too early to go yet, because the doctor said 4 hours. The driver insists the clinic will be closed by that time, and wants to get it on Sunday instead (remember the weekend here is Friday/Saturday). I’m not convinced, since the doctor told me to send the driver in four hours, not the next day, and that would be odd if the clinic were closing before that time. And on top of that, Sunday is too late, since I need to give everything to the school on Sunday when I come back to work.

Finally, we get across that Saturday is the latest it can be done, and the driver knows there is a big teacher dinner he has to drive us to on Saturday, so he indicates that he will take the others to the dinner, and me to the clinic. NO! we all say together. He simply refuses to go alongside the idea that I don’t have to go with him to get this stupid note.

On top of this, he asked for and subsequently kept my receipt for the doctors visit. I’m sure this conversation was just as frustrating for him as the other was for me, because after the pharmacy receipt issue he started asking me for the doctor receipt, but I couldn’t imagine why he would want it, so I thought perhaps he was asking if that was the paper I needed from the clinic.

When I finally produced the receipt from my bag, he was clearly expressing the Arabic for something like ‘finally!’, and he took it with him.

So, another email to the SD explaining that the note is still at the clinic and the driver has one of my receipts. Hopefully we’ll get it resolved in the next few days.

*****

In the mean time, either the medicine is working or it was the shortest flu ever, because I’ve been up since 5am making up for all the time I missed while passed out Wed and Thurs. My fever is gone and my brain is working again, so things are looking more manageable. I got my syllabus for the rest of the term outlined, and wrote my lesson plans for next week. In a little bit, I’ll go for my afternoon stroll out for food and water and tmorrow, hopefully I’ll enjoy a nice evening out with the staff at whatever fancy restaurant they’ve arranged to take us to.