EU Mobile Data : An Informative Rant

While WiFi is becoming more common, and the EU recently passed the free roaming rules, getting mobile data as a non-EU resident is more challenging than it needs to be. I read a lot of blogs before I went and no one really seemed to know what I should do. If you’re an EU citizen, it’s great, because you can travel anywhere in the EU and use your home plan without paying more. As a tourist, it gets … complicated.

Some people (mostly older than me) may wonder why I’m so data dependent. It is really a convenient way to combine your travel guide, phrasebook, map, and camera in one little device. Sure, paper can’t “break down” but it can be heavy to carry all of those things, and they can be lost or damaged, too. I just like being able to look up any and all necessary info on the go while traveling. How and where to get my SIM card is one of the most critical parts of preparing for a trip.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris:

I arrived in the airport quite late at night and all the shops that might have had SIM cards were closed. Instead, I got my first SIM card the following morning at a little neighborhood shop. I opted to use LycaMobile as my service provider.

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I bought a month worth of data thinking it would work all over Europe. I was wrong. I can’t tell you what you should buy for an EU trip starting in Paris, but I advise that whatever company you chose, start with the minimum purchase and add more GB later if it works. That way if it stops working when you cross a border, you don’t loose as much. Oh, and don’t expect to be able to add data or minutes using any online form of payment unless you’re a resident of the country you bought the SIM card in since they don’t let foreign bank accounts pay online!


Belgium:
My mobile data stopped working as soon as the bus crossed the France-Belgium border. It said I was running with 3G but refused to load anything. I tried to fix it but nothing worked. Brussels has a lot of free WiFi so I survived my arrival, but the smaller towns were not so convenient.

I was stuck going to Ghent without data because it was the only time I could see St. Bavo’s, but the next day back in Brussels I tried to find the LycaMobile shop, thinking maybe they could get my SIM card from France to work.

I walked around aimlessly because I just could not orient myself on the map without mobile data to fill in the blanks. I used to read paper maps, I feel like I’m usually good at maps, but for some reason the streets of downtown Brussels were confusing as heck to me.


Finally I found it and it turned out to be two dudes in a tiny room with one fan and one desk and a lot of people in line. (That photo is from Google Maps, the day I went it was sunny and there were WAY more people in line, but this is about what it looked like.) The line was short when I walked up but it grew fast. LycaMobile is the cheap phone service of choice in the EU which is why I picked it, but I was not the only person having problems. In Belgium you have to register your sim card at an authorized shop and there aren’t many of them. The only other white people in the line were also backpackers.

The guy who helped me really did his best. He tried everything to get it to work and when he couldn’t he took it to his boss. In the end the answer was definitive: LycaMobile France and LycaMobile Belgium aren’t really the same company, just owned by the same company, so this isn’t really our product.

I don’t blame the guys at the shop (well maybe the one in Paris who should have known this was going to be a problem), but I must recommend AGAINST LycaMobile for non-EU residents who want to do multiple countries. They get good reviews online which is why I chose them, but when I went back and looked later, all the good reviews were from EU citizens.
Orange had some bad reviews from non-EU citizens that were basically once they got your pre-paid money, they don’t care if your service works.

Proximus looked like my best option so I went to find the one in the train station. The line was long again but it was a real retail store and not some shady looking box with two guys at one desk in front of a roll up security door the way LycaMobile had been. (this photo is from Proxiumus’ website, but you get the idea)

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When it was my turn the sales person helped me to understand the way the card worked as well as how to top up. For 10€ I got the card and 500Mb. It doesn’t seem like much but they’re is a lot of free WiFi around, so it is enough if you’re careful about uploading and streaming. I asked the sales clerk about the Netherlands and she said she thought it should work but urged me not to buy too much data just in case (refreshing to be urged to spend less!).

Important to note, that while the SIM must be purchased in a regulated shop and registered, top up cards are all over the place. I was told you can only top up online with a Belgian credit card, so once I leave Belgium won’t be able to get more. I was going to be in Belgium technically 2 weeks, one in Brussels and the other in Lanaken, the small town near Maastricht, Netherlands where my Airbnb was located just on the Belgian side of the border. During that week I’d be going across to The Netherlands and Germany, and I figured if the data worked I could buy lots before finally leaving Belgium for good.

One more thing I noticed, when I got LycaMobile in France I had to activate roaming on my phone for it to work… even though I was in France. I thought it was weird but also thought maybe it was a feature of the global plan that it was just always roaming.
My Belgian plan looked like normal data, no roaming needed in Belgium which is more in line with my expectations.

Later that week, on my way to Antwerp, I had another mobile mishap. I didn’t realize I needed the PIN code to restart my phone, sooooo I accidentally locked myself out for the day (the PIN was in my hotel room and I was already at the train station!) In addendum to recommending Proximus, I would urge users to carry their SIM pin on them in case the phone resets.


The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway

Proximus worked smoothly across Lanaken (Brussels), Maastricht (Netherlands) and Aachen (Germany). I decided to buy what I hoped was enough data for the rest of my trip through Germany since I thought I would not be able to top up once I left Belgium.

I had zero issues all throughout the Netherlands (Den Haag, Amsterdam), crossing back into Belgium (Leige), and in Hamburg, Germany. The Proximus service occasionally took a few minutes to adjust to crossing a border while it searched for a new network but it operated exactly as advertised.

I also discovered the happiest of circumstances while in Germany. I accidentally forgot to use my WiFi to upload photos and it ate all my data. I had been told that it would not be possible to purchase top ups outside Belgium without a Belgian bank account, however, the Proximus website had a PayPal option!!!!! I was able to top up my account from Germany using my Korean PayPal. Plus, buying top-ups came with free Mb, so it was actually a very good deal financially. I was able to stop worrying about hoarding my data bytes and just enjoy the trip for the rest of the EU countries.

TDLR? LycaMobile BAD. Proximus GOOD!

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Moscow

I heard that there was tons of free WiFi all over Moscow, so I decided that my 20 hour layover didn’t require a SIM card. I regret this decision.

I was able to use the WiFi in my hostel with no issue, but when I tried to log into the free WiFi at the metro station, I could not get anything to load.

During lunch, I asked the staff of the hotel restaurant if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant. The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number.

Wi-Fi has already been rolled out on six of the metro's 12 lines.

Eventually, I was able to figure out the public WiFi on the metro; however, two things: it only worked IN the subway cars (not on the platform or in the station), and the internet access was severely limited, allowing me to use Google Search and Google Maps, but not Facebook or Instagram. It did help a little, but it was hard because the service would also stop every time the cars pulled into a station!

So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi they are both right and wrong. Depending on when your helpful adviser was last in Moscow, there may have been an abundance of free public WiFi. However, just like the EU is changing it’s roaming rules, the Kremlin is kracking down on anonymous internet use. In 2014 the government began to implement laws requiring netizens to have some kind of ID to get online. I’m assuming this is why you have to be a guest at a hotel to use their wifi (the hotel collects your ID), or you have to get your confirmation code via text to a phone number that is also matched to your ID somewhere.

The WiFi is still free to use in the sense that it doesn’t cost money, but you can’t use it without some kind of ID. If I had known, I would have made getting a SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!


I didn’t receive any kickback for reviewing any of the companies above. This is just my experience and opinion in the hopes that my trial and error may help out a fellow traveler some day. Also, as I noticed myself, the times they are a’changin’, so if you’re reading this post in the distant future, please double check that these policies are still in effect for the time of your trip.

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.

Malay Peninsula 1: Singapore Gardens & Supertrees

This was not an idyllic holiday in sunny weather full of umbrella drinks and relaxing by the sea. It could have been, and maybe one day I’ll take one of those, but this was not that vacation. As I wrote this, sitting in my cold office the day before students returned from winter break, I could not help but feel a little nostalgia for the warm evenings I enjoyed a walk after my shower, but the twinge in my foot and the weakness in my limbs reminded me that this adventure was a physically and emotionally taxing one.

Which is not to say I did not have amazing times or enjoy myself, but the trekking nature of my plan meant that I was forced to push myself in new ways, to absorb not only beautiful and wonderful new experiences, but also painful, difficult, and challenging ones. Then again, I suppose that’s why I call myself an adventurer and not a vacationer. Whatever the holiday looks like later on, I hope you’ll find the first installment to be as wistful and enchanting as I did.


Singapore

I decided to model my holiday after a tour package I found online but was unable to join due to conflicting dates. Their schedule was only 10 days and covered more places, I had 12 days and was doing (theoretically) less, so I figured I had plenty of time. My starting point was Singapore.

Coming from winter in Busan with temperatures often below freezing, the shock of Singapore weather was something else. Even dressed in light, summer clothes, I was sweating the minute I stepped out of the AC. The first morning in the hostel, just walking from my dorm room to the lobby gave me a stark reminder that equatorial temperatures are no joke. Although I set off in search of coffee, the hostel’s beverage dispenser included something called Teh Tarik, which I decided to try instead and immediately fell in love with. It’s a strong hot, sweet milk tea but despite being made of common ingredients, I had never had anything like it before.

After my tea, I headed out to try to catch the tram to the Gardens by the Bay, a popular and beautiful botanical garden area that also includes the Super Trees (one of my top to-dos while in Singapore). While I was staring at my map app trying to figure out the best way to go, a nice man asked if I needed help. He turned out to work for the Nigerian Embassy in Singapore and helped me find my way toward the gardens, walking and chatting with me until he had to turn off the main road. I love friendly people!

One of the nice things about walking in Singapore (and indeed most of Malaysia) are the plethora of covered walkways that help keep the sun (and rain) off of the pedestrians. I had my “sunbrella” but found I didn’t need it very often.

20170117_093334Shortly after parting ways with the helpful Nigerian, I walked past what appeared to be a large open air food court. There was a roof and fans circulating air, but the entryways were wide open. There were dozens of food stalls from different nationalities, and tables to sit at between them. I went to one stall to get a fried oyster omelette and another for an iced coffee, then sat down to enjoy them. The omelette was a bit odd. In addition to eggs, vegetables and oysters, it turns out this dish is cooked with a variable amount of tapioca, potato, and/or rice starch. This just goes to prove I should have read more about the food before going, because the gooey texture combined with the heavy oil meant that I only ate about ¼ of the dish before I couldn’t eat any more. The coffee, on the other hand, was intense and amazing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Malaysian style coffee is different from other coffees around the world. I’ll explain more when I get to Ipoh, but for now, suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised.

20170117_100820After breakfast, I passed by all the tall financial buildings and came to the Marina. This beautiful stretch of waterfront goes on for ages with a wide and clean walking path. I came across a shopping mall on my way and decided to head inside for the AC and maybe a restroom. The Nigerian man I’d met advised me that if I ever felt too hot in Singapore, I could just walk inside any building to get some cold air. The mall was nearly empty, which is not surprising for a weekday morning, and I managed to find a 7-11 to get a cheap sim card (less than half of the airport prices). I also got called in to have a sample at two separate skin care shops. The first was a supernaturally charming young man who probably got nearly every woman he met to spend too much money on his skin care products. We chatted and tried out the product and eventually I had to demure from purchase, but he was gracious about it and said he’d had fun talking with me. The second shop was a Malaysian woman who was wonderful and gracious and kind until it became clear to her that I had really meant it when I said I wasn’t buying anything, and then she turned rather sour. Both shops products were in the hundreds of dollars range. It was somewhere around here that Singapore started to remind me of Dubai.

Cloud Forest

20170117_121123I walked more dockside paths and came across a science museum, more flowers than you can sneeze at, and finally some signs pointing to the garden path that was lined with sculpture, topiary and colorful blossoms. Although the Super Trees were my main goal, by the time I arrived at the park’s center, I was hot and tired. I noticed a cool breeze coming from the doors of one particular building and resolved to go inside that. The building was one of the two indoor gardens, this one called Cloud Forest (the other was closed for renovations). It was a massive greenhouse designed to house the ecosystem of a cloud forest, and so not only had pathways winding through beautiful flowers at ground level, it had a miniature mountain in the center that one could ascend and walk around via a series of skywalks that simulated viewing the forest from cloud level and treetop level.

The cool air was not freon induced air conditioning, but a creative cooling system that involved the movement of water and air. The whole thing is designed to be as ecologically conservative as possible. Nonetheless, when I stepped inside from the intense January heat, it was a blissful release to walk in cool air.

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I expected to spend an hour or so inside, but ended up spending 3! The waterfall that greeted us at the entrance was a major photo point, but by no means the only one. Spectacular tropical flowers were in bloom all around, and driftwood sculptures of dragons hid among the foliage making for an interesting game of find the dragon. After walking all around the base, I headed up the mini mountain. At the very top was another tropical garden with a reflecting pond as well as the highest skywalk. At set times, this skywalk produces “clouds” that help water the fragile orchids, and provide a magical mist through which to view the scenery below. It was not cloud time when I set out, so I enjoyed a clear view both down the mountainside and out to the grounds beyond the glass.

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Descending further, there were more walkways inside the mountain structure, another skywalk, and a kind of cave reconstruction where stalactites and stalagmites had been installed around the room with mirrors and informative signs. I hope that given the conservation efforts of the park that these were already broken by some quarrying effort that predated the preservation laws.

20170117_140641The time of clouding was approaching by then, and although the main path did not lead back upward, it wasn’t crowded, so I hopped into the elevator and rode back to the top. I get the impression that in more crowded times, the elevators might be more strictly regulated for the disabled, and the paths through the greenhouse lead firmly one way, but it wasn’t crowded and no one seemed to care if we went the opposite direction. Shortly after 2pm, the skywalk began to issue forth a mist as I set out for my second walk on the sky bridge and was able to enjoy the altogether different view as the fog enshrouded the walkway and the mountainside below.

I thought then I must have seen everything there was to see inside, and so I headed back down through the other skywalk and cave room, but instead of letting us back out at ground level, the path led even further down into a large screening room that played a movie about the dangers of climate change, and an interesting 3-d display of the engineering behind the cloud forest, super trees and other aspects of the gardens.

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After the educational displays, there was one more “secret garden” where a smaller waterfall cooled the air and tiny micro orchids were on display behind magnifying lenses. I took more pictures in that garden than any 2-3 other places combined on the rest of the trip. The flowers were so stunning, and because of the cooling process, the air is comfortable and it’s easy to lose track of time.

Otters?

I had intended to see more of the outdoor gardens, but it was after 3pm by the time I left the Cloud Forest, and my tiny breakfast had completely worn off. Although there were many restaurants near the center of the park, they all seemed somewhat pricey, and so I struck out for the one food area that was described in the park brochure/map as “affordable”. It was another of the “many food stalls under one roof”, but was a bit of a trek from the cloud forest. 20170117_150617Nonetheless, the entire area of the marina is beautiful to walk through. I spotted some otter crossing signs, which are apparently no joke. The environmental reconstruction along the marina has enabled the local otter population to bounce back and they are often seen on the shores near the walking paths in the evenings. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any that day.

I also walked past the Children’s garden, which was a playful garden with animal sculptures and topiary along with a large outdoor fountain/mini water park. Scouting for places to take my niece and nephew that aren’t just another amusement park and this one seemed to pass the grade.

SuperTree Grove

20170117_161628After lunch, I decided i should go find the super trees. It was getting on in the afternoon, and I still had to get across town to the Night Safari for my 7:15 ticket. Although the tall and unique structures can be seen from nearly anywhere in the park, it took a little effort to find the right walking paths to get to them. There are two groves of supertrees, the smaller has only three, which at the time were undergoing a pre-lunar new year makeover.

20170117_164839Eventually, I found the main grove and purchased my ticket for the sky walk. This is a little walkway that is accessed through an elevator in the “trunk” of the trees and lets you walk around the super trees at a good height to both admire them and the overall view of the gardens below. I had a nice walk and an even better view as well as some pleasant conversation with another traveler. No matter how nice the view is, I think my favorite part of traveling is meeting cool people.

20170117_170845The super trees aren’t really trees. They’re man-made structures that sort of look like giant alien trees. They run on solar power and support a large amount of plant and animal life. Plus they light up at night, which is pretty. The super trees are urban art, but more than that, they are a way of combining city and nature and of providing a space for the plants and animals that would otherwise have been disrupted, or even endangered by the urbanization of their homes to have a place. The super tree grove helps to act as a greenspace, cooling and cleaning the air naturally, as well as collecting solar energy and rainwater that are used in running the indoor gardens. It’s basically a big experiment to see if a city can be a modern urban environment AND maintain a natural ecosystem in an economically sustainable way. I hope it catches on. More cities should have giant trees, beautiful flowers, and river otters.


This is but the first of many installments in the Malay Peninsula adventure of 2017. I took so many pictures that day, I can’t possibly hope to show them all off here. Please check out the albums (yes, plural) on Facebook for all the beauty: Around Singapore, Cloud Forest, Flowers of Singapore, and Supertree Grove. Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Bureaucracy Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SIM

As some of you may know from reading my previous posts about bureaucracy: The Visa Saga or Clash of the Bureaucracies, I tend to wait until the situation has become ludicrous bordering on the the Kafkaesque, a feat of clerical confounding that would make Orwell or Gilliam reach for the typewriter with pure inspiration before I type it into a blog story. Well, it’s finally happened again. I cannot fit all of the absurdity and frustration of this event into a mere facebook post any longer.

Let me begin with the Iqama.

This is the Saudi equivalent of a green card. It is a national identification card that you will use for everything while living here. It will take you at least three months to get this once you move here. For me, the Iqama journey started the day after I landed, back in early September. My first full day in Saudi I was driven to a medical clinic where they took some samples, asked for my passport and the 6 passport photos I’d been told to bring, and (supposedly) began the Iqama application process.

They returned my passport and sent me on my way. I thought this was odd, because everyone told me that the government would need to keep my passport while the Iqama was processed, but that this didn’t matter too much since I couldn’t leave the country until then anyway.

So then at the end of September, weeks later, I come to find out that they should not have returned the passport, and have not started processing the Iqama yet. But, now it’s Eid (a two week holiday when all the government offices will be closed) so they won’t get to it until the second week of October.

Ok. mafi mushkela. Deep breath. Keep waiting, Inshallah they will hurry and you will have it in only six weeks.

Why is this a problem? Well, because you can’t do anything without the Iqama. You can’t get a SIM card, cell phone or bank account. So it’s not just about leaving the country, but about getting off this cheap pre-paid dumb phone my boss has purchased on her Iqama for me to use in emergencies, and about being able to pay my US bills with my Saudi salary, cause it’s doing me no good accumulating in my lingerie drawer.

So, after much fuss and pestering, I finally get my Iqama on November 10th, a little over 2 months after I arrived, so really, despite the bad start, not too bad. Time to get a real phone! (check out the phone buying adventure/disaster in Smart Phone, Dumb Dating) In addition to the skeezy guy hitting on me as I got my SIM card set up, there was some serious confusion about the payment options. I was initially issued a pre-paid card, then issued a second post-paid card.

Now, in the US pre-paid is usually more expensive per minute and more limiting in data. Contracts where you agree to pay a certain amount per month tend to be a better deal. So, I thought that was likely to be the same. Silly me. More on that later, however, because now we get to the real reason I need a SIM card of my very own, the bank account.

You need a SIM to open a bank account, and you need and Iqama to get a SIM. So, Iqama: check, SIM: check… time to go to the bank, right?

Oh, no.

You also need a bank letter. This is a letter from your employer (who sponsored your Iqama) saying that you are employed and earning a salary. I’m not really sure why this isn’t obvious by the fact that I have an employer sponsored Iqama, but I need another piece of paper, so I ask my boss about this paper. Riyadh is working on it.

Why? I ask, did they not just send it with the Iqama? It’s not like getting a bank account is optional for me. The company requires me to get one so they can direct deposit my paycheck. Up to this point, they have been depositing it in my boss’s account and having her give it to me in cash… which we both dislike. So the company knows I need a bank letter whether I want the account for any personal reasons or not. So, why wait until I’ve received the Iqama (FedEx, btw) to start processing this letter (which also will be sent FedEx)????? Why not just start processing it as soon as possible and send them together?

My boss’s answer: because that would make sense. You see why I like her.

Sixteen days later, the bank letter arrives. It is now Wednesday November 26th. But I can’t go to the bank immediately. Bank hours are the same as school hours, so I have to leave school to go to the bank. Fortunately it is in my contract that the school must give me paid leave time to do this in. However, when any teacher is absent, their class is split among the remaining 2 teachers, so if possible, some forewarning and planning is appreciated by all. Thursday is quiz day. Friday and Saturday the banks will be closed. Sunday is the first day of the week and not a great day for me to miss class. So Monday or Tuesday it will be.

I leave as early as is reasonable, about halfway through my second class. Assuring the students I will be back for class three after lunch (and this is why we say Inshallah instead of committing to anything). We drive …

My driver has been having some attitude and entitlement issues of late. He stops at a couple of gas stations on the way. This is not ok. He’s been told to fill up the tank either before he picks us up or after he drops us off. And I’m trying to get to the bank and back to school in time to scarf some food before class three! So I text the SD, who has the AA call and tell him not to waste time (in Arabic).. while I’m still in the car. So natch, the driver gets mad at me for ratting him out. How hard is it to just do your job?

I go into the bank and take a number and sit down to wait my turn. It is a very long queue. I continue texting with the SD to remonstrate him for getting the driver mad at me. Whereupon, he apparently calls the driver and bawls him out (which I hear about much later). Next thing I know the driver has come into the bank and started demanding someone who speaks English to come and help me (even though it is not my turn).

This works. Not surprising really since so much in Saudi is about who you can get to listen. They take my Iqama to begin the process.

No, we cannot open account for you.

Turns out my name is spelled wrong in Arabic on the Iqama. I feel like my face is going to split and peel off in frustration at this point. I call my AA to help with some translation, because the driver has something to say but has very limited English.

He says we can go to (Arabic word I can’t recall) office and get them to change the Iqama there. No problem. Women can’t go into the building, but it’s ok, he’ll handle it, I can wait in the car. We arrive at the building just as Duhr prayer begins, so we have to sit it out. After about 30 minutes (did I mention this is the one day I decided to leave my water bottle in my office?), he can enter the building.

He comes back and asks me to go with him. So I go in, the only woman, feeling very conspicuous. We shuffle from one unmarked office to another. There are no numbers or names or departmental descriptions on these doors, just halls and halls of doors. (what did I say about the absurdity?). If nothing else, his impatience pays off here because he just keeps bothering people until we get to the right office.

He comes back out of the office unsuccessful and gestures me to follow him back to the car and to call my AA for translation. It turns out that they won’t allow him to make any changes on my behalf unless he has a stamped letter from my employer processed through Riyadh. And they won’t let me make any changes on my behalf unless I have a penis.

So, the Iqama must go back to Riyadh to be fixed. Oh, it gets better. I’ve already made plans to go to Dubai for my birthday in December, and you need to use your bank account to pay for your exit visa. But I can’t get a bank account. So I can’t pay for my exit visa. Because my name is spelled wrong on my Iqama.

Let me talk about the phonemes of Arabic. My last name starts with a hard CH sound. Arabic does not have this phoneme. The sound does not exist in the language. Words like “chocolate” and “sandwich” are pronounced with a soft “shh” sound. So when you want some Pringles, it sounds like you’re asking for a woolly grazer that goes “baaa”. They CAN’T spell my name “right” in Arabic. So this is semantic. They want a different incorrect spelling of my name.

We can do this! We find out how to enable my boss to use her bank account to pay for my visa and I give her the cash. So at least the trip isn’t ruined. And I turn over my Iqama expecting the new one to be back by the time I am. Not so much. A few days ago, the company informs us that they cannot fix the Iqama without the Passport, which my boss tells them they are not getting until I get back from Dubai. I did mention I like her, right?

Then, this Sunday (remember that’s the first day of the workweek), while I am sitting locked out of my office (cause my boss has my key) I discover that my mobile data is not working on my phone. Neither is my text, or calling. Looking at the date, I realize it has now been one month exactly since I signed up for my new phone, and because I have no bank account, I have not been able to pay the bill, so the service has (probably) been cut off.

When I get home, I try to log on to the website, thinking I will just pay the bill online and all will be well. However, the website tells me that “in order to protect me” I will be sent a text message with a secret code to log in on a new machine…. But, they’ve turned the phone off, and I can’t receive text messages.

So I download the app, thinking that if I’m logging in FROM the phone, this should prove I have the phone in my hand as effectively as a text message PIN. Right? Right? Nope. The app in the phone wants to send me a text too… I can’t even.

Ok! Well, I’ve logged in from my office computer before so it should be in the system, I’ll just deal with it in the morning before class. Nope. Still wants to send me a text. So, I meander over to my boss’s office over lunch to commiserate, and let her know that I’m not able to get calls/texts cause that’s actually work related news, and that I’m going to try to go into the shop the next day to pay the bill in person.

This moment is one of the things about Saudi I may never get used to. Advice here is infinite and contradictory. All the people who give you advice are well meaning. And I’m sure that each one of them is truthfully telling you what worked best for them. The problem is, that nothing seems to work the same way twice. It’s like there is an irrational number of possible methods to accomplish anything here. Infinite and non-repeating. So, when I mention the post-pay to my boss, she asks, why are you doing it that way?

Remember back at the beginning of this story I said it works different here? Turns out pre-paid is the better deal 9 times of 10. Especially for data plans. My post paid plan was 200 SAR/month for 2GB of data and unlimited in-network calls. To be honest, I felt like I was back in 2001, limited data and “in-network” calling? who does that anymore? But, I figured, hey, they didn’t even get camera phones until 2004, obviously they’re behind the times on the phone thing.

Pre-paid plans offer unlimited data plans for a decreasing cost in bulk amount. A year is 1500 SAR (breaks down to 125/mo, way cheaper and unlimited). Then you pay for calls by the minute. But since I hardly ever call anyone (sometimes call the driver to say I’m finished… usually less than a minute), and can communicate with the other teachers on WhatsApp or email, I don’t actually need calling minutes as much as I need data.

Awesome! I’ll just pay off this bill and leave the post paid deactivated, switch back to the pre-paid and get on the unlimited data bandwagon. Only a few problems with this.

One, I don’t have my Iqama. My boss handed it over to be shipped off to Riyadh to be “fixed”.

Two, I can’t find the other SIM card. !!!. I distinctly remember putting the teeny tiny SIM card into a little jewelry box, then putting that box inside the box my phone came in with all the warranty junk and receipts so I would have all the phone stuff in one place that was hard to loose.

Oh safe places. You know the ones I mean. The safe places that are so safe you can’t ever find them again? I turned my entire (small) apartment upsidedown looking for that box. I could see it in my mind. I looked in every drawer and cupboard. I got a flashlight and looked under the couch. I got the wobbly chair and looked on top of the wardrobe. I moved all the couch cushions and found a pencil I thought I’d lost forever.

Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to get a new pre-paid SIM card. But for this I would need my Iqama for sure. But I could call or text the SD who had it. And I couldn’t call or text my driver to cancel the afternoon trip to the store. So, using the internet alone, I What’sApped my boss, to explain the situation and ask her to contact the other SD to arrange to get my Iqama and reschedule the driver.

Whew!

Then I sat down and spotted the box.

I took out the pre-paid SIM and installed it in the phone. But I decided it was still probably better to go ahead and get the Iqama and go to the store the next day after all the hubbub and confusion.

Finally, today, the day I went to the store to pay the bill and get the unlimited data plan. My driver picks me up at 4, after Asr prayer, and we drive and drive. Apparently its a long way away. I go into the store, same as last time I was there, but am shooed away and told to go in the other door.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because last time I had a man with me or what. But the “other door” led into a tiny white room with a tiny square hole at about face height. There was a big standing advert blocking my view of the main store (although I’m sure it was meant to be blocking the men’s view of me), and a little bell to allow me to summon a clerk.

In broken English, we establish that I am a current customer, that I have two numbers, that I want to pay a bill and recharge a card.

He goes away. He comes back. I can pay the bill with ATM. I explain I do not have such a thing, I do not have a bank account, I only have cash.

He goes away. He comes back. I cannot pay with cash. But I can recharge the pre-paid phone with cash… Soooo, this place is set up to handle cash. I paid for my SIMs originally in cash. The man who was with me at the time was told he could not pay for his router with a card, and had to pay in cash. But I can’t pay my bill with cash?

He goes away. He comes back. Nope, no cash. He tells me I can pay at a bank. I explain again I cannot pay with a card. I switch to broken Arabic: Iqama mushkela, mafi bank. There is a problem with my Iqama, I don’t have a bank. Inshallah, maybe one month I will have a bank and can pay. Finally, he is able to express that I can take cash into a bank and pay the bill through the bank even without an account. I remain skeptical, but this is irrelevant because banks are only open during school hours and I’m not taking more time off school to pay this bill. They can wait.

Ok. Ok. But what about the pre-paid card. I explain the offer on the website of unlimited data, and he says but not all phone numbers, maybe yours.

He goes away. He comes back. Ok. Your phone number ok. So I explain I would like to pay for the data plan and also put some additional money on the Sawa (the money used for pay by the minute calling). I hand him the money.

He goes away. He comes back. No. Finished. He cannot process the request, despite having told me earlier in our conversation that they could take cash for pre-paid. And he can’t really explain why, because the poor man’s English is just not that good.

I have learned some things about Saudi behavior by interacting with my students. These last seven weeks of emotional displays and demands for explanations of every policy or decision coming from women with limited English has given me a very direct and visceral understanding of how they react to unwanted situations, how they are culturally programmed to react. So, I channel my students. Why?! I demand, voice warbling into a higher tone, approaching the whine threshold.

I turn away, I raise my hands, tears well in my eyes as I continue to plead for assistance. He tries to tell me I can go to Extra or Panda (other stores) to buy a Sawa recharge, but I don’t know how to do this either, and I don’t see how it will help with the data plan, since all I know of Sawa is the pre-paid minutes aspect.

Perhaps I should be ashamed of my adopted histrionics. In the US, when confronted with something this frustrating, I would have calmly thanked the clerk, then left the store and screamed in the privacy of my own car while banging on the steering wheel to release tension before finding a new solution. But here, it’s actually rewarding to channel that frustration into an emotional display.

The clerk then offered to come outside to explain to my driver (in Arabic) what needed to be done. The driver then took the cash and I sat down in the waiting room and was brought a cup of sweet Turkish coffee to enjoy while I waited.

About 30 minutes later, the clerk came in with the receipts my driver had brought back, and then programmed all the credit into my phone, and signed me up for the internet plan I wanted. And, apparently for buying so much Sawa at once, I got like an extra 100 SAR credit on my phone too! Looks like I shouldn’t have to worry about paying for anything on the phone for at least the next 6 months.

To be sure the Bureaucracy Wars aren’t over yet, but I’m closing this chapter with a win. SIM card and Data Plan – achievement unlocked.