There’ve been a few questions on the (still-beta) Ask Metafilter that I’ve answered with some variation ‘why not teach in Korea?’ (goddamn the pusher man), and I realized that there was no place of which I was aware that served as a no-bullsh-t comprehensive introduction to the White Slave Trade. So I’ve written this, in an attempt to atone for my earlier Presidential Porn. Versatile, ain’t I?
Truth : I have been working on (OK, thinking about) writing a book in the inimitable wonderchicken style, one digging into the topics whose merest surface I scratch here, and one that also answers some of the million questions of general survival (“Oh sweet jesus, where do I get real cheese?” “When my male adult student just told me he loves me, what did he mean, exactly?”) that loom large in the minds of newbies in Korea. A few thousand people a year show up here to teach, at a minimum — there’s gotta be a market for a book like that.
(If any of you, dear readers, might know someone who might know someone who might be interested in paying me massive (or non-massive) quantities of cash for such a tome, well, you know, point ’em my way. But please warn them that I do tend to swear a bit. Heh.)
So here it is, hot off the keyboard, so that in the future I can answer questions about teaching in Korea with a hyperlink rather than repeating myself all the damn time :
The Skinny
It’s pretty often the case that Teaching English in Korea involves very little teaching and not a whole lot of English. This is perhaps the most important thing about all this that nobody ever tells the newbies. In other words, for a very large proportion of people coming to Korea thinking they’ll be teaching the English language, the reality is that they probably won’t, really. If they have been hired by a kiddie hakwon (variously romanized, a ‘hakwon’ is a private cram school, and every city, town, village, hamlet and roadside rest stop has 2 or more in any given building), they may well end up in reality as a babysitter, thrown like human chum into the toothy screeching kindy shark pool with no guidance whatsoever from management and no means of self-defense. The actual English teaching that gets done in this situation may be minimal, while the neophyte teacher is busy struggling for survival. These teachers, with no training and no idea of what’s expected, end up relegated to the position of entertainers. Many, having had no experience teaching, are completely OK with this.
Some do end up actually teaching, and teaching older children, or university students (who, in Korea, have for the most part an emotional age of about 13, from the western perspective, except that the boys are required to interrupt their schooling to do military service for more than two years, which bumps them up to the level of, say, extremely sullen abused 16 year olds, perhaps, on their return), or even adults. Whatever the age, these students are for the most part veterans of the hakwon churn, and if they’ve studied English for any length of time, have seen a rotating cast of wide-eyed foreigners go through the Korea Newbie Cycle :
1) Wide-eyed wonder
2) Blissful confusion, pleasant buzzy disorientation
3) The three-month barrier : missing home, missing food, missing easy conversation
4) Unblissful confusion, culture shock, isolation
5) Resentment of Korea as personified by one’s boss, xenophobia, alcohol abuse, ranting
6) …
The next stages depend on the person.
Not a few freak out entirely, experience a psychotic break, and go wobbly. This is sometimes a permanent condition. Many of those who flip their noodles leave Korea, either suddenly or at the end of their contract, broken and dull-eyed or raving and newly-racist. Of that group, many nonetheless return, finding themselves unable to function properly back home. A self-perpetuating cycle of odd activity (which finds little to no censure in Korea, as most Koreans expect foreign devils to behave in inexplicable and aberrant ways anyway, and most expats tend to have a degree of quirkiness already, and are unwilling to criticize others in their small groups as there are so few around) begins, the end result of which is Freaky Waeguk-in (”way-goog-in” – Korean for “foreigner”) Syndrome. This is epidemic.
Some, after going a bit loopy temporarily, settle down, get a grip, and fall into one of two general patterns. They go native, learn the language, marry a Korean, and in a range of different ways further their isolation (or not, and try to maintain a balance) from their countrymen and mothertongue siblings, or they shrug, accept, and learn to enjoy the chaos, ferment, stares and prejudices and insults, and take it all with a sense of humour. Some of these stay for a while, some go elsewhere, or back home, after a year, or two, or three. If they’ve been cautious, they’ve been able to pay off their student loans, if they had them, and more. It is commonplace, although illegal (if caught, you will be at least fined and at most fined and deported), to teach private lessons at rates ranging from $30 an hour on up. I do not personally do this, but most people I know do, and you can double your income quite easily this way. I’ve known some people who have left Korea after 5 years with enough cash to buy a house back home. How they dealt with issues of taxation on their return was their business.
But that may not be what most people are reading this for, especially if they’ve arrived on the wings of Google. You probably want to know what the deal is with working in Korea, in one handy, pre-packaged essay. The dirt, the skinny, the Good Oil. You’re probably in your 20’s, and you probably have student loans to pay off. You might be looking a first adventure overseas, or you may be an old hand at the backpacker trail, and need some ready cash.
OK, here’s the story, in a very very small nutshell.
You will be offered the following, with some variations.
Anywhere from a bottom end of 1,700,000 won per month to a high end of 2,100,000 or more (this being winter 2003), usually for a contact-time workload of 25-35 hours per week. If you have any teaching qualifications, you should be able to negotiate your way towards the upper end of that salary range, but there is no guarantee. Some people make more than this without qualifications, and some less, I am aware. University positions, for which the required qualifications are sometimes MA degrees, but more frequently BA/BSc degrees with 3 or more years experience (in Korea), usually pay at the low end of the scale, but often have very generous holidays (12-16 weeks per year) and low contact hours (12 – 18 hours) per week. There are growing numbers of exceptions to this rule of thumb as Korean universities become ‘hakwonized’ and cash-flow oriented. Many university teachers are asked to ‘teach’ children these days, and are working as hard for their salaries as hakwon teachers.
Although some teachers will fly into a foaming frenzy of resentment if it is suggested, it is nonetheless true (again as a generalization) that there is a hierarchy of job desireability in Korea, which may be different for different individuals, depending on factors like how much they like children, how important free time is to them, how much money they want to make, or how professional a teacher they consider themselves. It does exist, in general terms, nonetheless. Remember, success and relationships in Korea are all about hierarchy, and assessing hierarchy requires assignment of status. You may not like it, but it is the reality of the situation.
At the bottom of the scrum are the kiddie hakwons, and the elementary/middle-schooler hakwons. These make up the vast bulk of teaching opportunities in Korea, and as a newbie, chances are this will be the kind of job you are offered. There are good schools and bad, and good bosses and (very, very) bad. Whether you get a good one or a bad one is often a matter of sheer, dumb luck. If you get a personal recommendation about a school, that makes all the difference, although it is not unknown for people to talk up a school in order to find their own replacement, nor is it unknown for people to keep the names of good schools to themselves and their circle of friends incountry. The best jobs are frequently not advertised, as in many industries.
Next up are the more reputable chain schools (which often have individual branches that are hellholes, so being part of a chain is no guarantee of quality), where you may teach kids, university students, and/or adults. Adult classes almost invariably mean an early start (before they go to work) or a late finish (after they finish work) or, in the most horripilating of cases, both. Split shifts — where you work from, say, 6:30 am to 9 am and then again from 6 pm to 9 pm — are less common than they once were, but still almost the rule in adult hakwons. This kind of schedule may well drive you insane, even if you are allowed to go home and sleep during the day, if you do it for any length of time. Some of these hakwon jobs are good, and some lucky new srrivals find great bosses or great salaries, or truly love teaching kids, and stay at the hakwons for many years. Some.
For many, the next step up the food chain is getting a university position. The workload is easy, the students are, if not motivated, at least generally quite pleasant, and although the money isn’t great, such a position leaves plenty of time for travel, writing, study, drinking, or whatever. At my last university position I worked four hour days four days a week, with four months paid holiday (plus national holidays etc), and made in the lower mid-range of the salaries quoted above.
Top of the heap for many is corporate jobs, teaching, editing, proofreading, developing curricula, and so on. These positions are few and far between, and unless you’ve been incountry for a number of years and have a great deal of experience with teaching Koreans and knowledge of Korean cultural norms, you might not even get an interview. There are exceptions, but they are few. Your alma mater means almost as much in this situation, as it does for Koreans, as anything else.
You will pay tax, healthcare and pension from this. For Americans and Canadians, it is law that your employer must deduct 4.5% of your salary for pension, and kick in an additional 4.5%. This money will be refunded (but you must apply) on departure from Korea. After a year, it will be somewhat more than a month’s salary. Antipodeans may not be able to reclaim their pension — the law may be changing there. Some universities use a private pension plan, so your contribution may vary.
Income tax will be deducted, at a rate that should not exceed 5%. Healthcare should be provided through the employer, and deductions will be on the order of 50,000 won per month, perhaps less. You will receive a paper healthcare booklet with a plastic sheath that you must take to clinics and hospitals to receive coverage.
You will often be promised training when you are offered a hakwon job, but there is a 90-100% chance you will not receive any. This is a cruel joke, but every time someone new to Korea complains about it, I am compelled to laugh nastily, mostly because I’m a complete bastard. Buy a book or two before you come, is my best advice, if you’ve never taught.
You will be offered accommodation, and you will in almost all situations be required to pay utilities for your apartment. Gas, water and electricity can be very expensive here. If you consume them to the same degree you’re used to in North America or Australia (or…) you will probably be paying between 100,000 and 200,000 won per month. Your accommodation may be single or shared, and this is something you should verify up-front. Many schools, understanding the preference of many for single housing, are offering it these days. Asking for pictures of your housing may be a good idea – it will in many cases be incredibly tiny, old and dingy. This is by no means always the case – it is increasingly common for good schools and universities to offer quite attractive, modern housing – but it is something to look out for. Nothing will depress you faster than a dim, mildewy closet to go back home to after an exhausting day of teaching.
Most schools offer airfare, either upfront or on a reimbursement basis. None will pay your return airfare if you break your contract, and if you notify them that you are quitting early, rather than just disappearing (as many do, which makes the level of trust for the rest of us grind down another notch), the school may well try to deduct the inbound airfare from your salary. Some school have begun withholding a portion of the first few months’ pay as a kind of insurance policy, usually because they’ve had teachers to a Midnight Run before. This is technically illegal, but if you sign a contract that mentions it, you really can’t complain too much. Read your contract carefully before you sign it, is the lesson here.
Most schools offer a contract completion bonus, usually equivalent to one month’s salary. This is sometimes finessed by claiming that the bonus was built in to the salary, and paid in installments. This is a scam, but a common one, and needs to be verified up front.
Korean hakwon owners are almost universally reviled, and with good reason. The vast majority are entirely unconcerned with education per se, and obsessed with making (and scrimping to save) money. That’s why they got into the business, in almost all cases, and it is a lucrative one, if they play their cards right. There are horror-stories galore available around the net, and many of them are true, so I won’t bother getting lurid here, but a warning : caution is advisable. Treat your boss with deference and respect, and never disagree with him (chances approach 100% that it will be a ‘him’) in public. Don’t trust him until you’re sure you can, but not in a negative way, until you’re given reason. Just be sensibly cautious. Buy a book like ‘Ugly Americans, Ugly Koreans’ to learn about some norms of behaviour and how accidental offense happens in both directions, before you come. It is better to err on the side of overcaution and over-solicitiousness than to give offense, because once you do it, you may well be cast into the ‘waeguk-in who will never understand Korea’ bin, never to be recycled. Koreans love to label others, as do most folks, but their labels can be very sticky indeed.
That said, your Korean boss may just be a total psycho. It really isn’t that uncommon.
Do not assume that your director is cheating you by default, but have a clear understanding of what your mutual responsibilities are, and be vigilant (in a polite and professional way) to ensure that if you are upholding yours, he is similarly upholding his. Never accuse him of anything to the contrary in public, unless you have gotten to the bridge-burning stage. Try and remain calm in the face of apoplectic bluster, rather than giving back as good as you get. Korean men are brought up to believe that temper tantrums are an effective and acceptable means of dealing with confrontation and frustration, particularly with those who they perceive to be beneath them in the social, Confucian strata.
Confucian ideas are an important substrate to dealing with people here, particularly older males. Understand (even if you don’t agree), and try to leverage the fact that your only hook into the hierarchy (especially if you are young, female, and foreign, or any combination of the three) is that you are a teacher, and teachers are to be given respect. At least when they behave in a manner deserving of respect, where people can see ’em.
You will be asked for originals of your qualifications and other paperwork, if you get to the contract signing stage. This paperwork is sometimes lost. Korean immigration recently lost my original university diploma. Yeah, I know. It happens, but these things can be replaced, although it generally does cost. Once immigration approves you and you have signed a contract, one of two things will happen — you will either be sent a document which authorizes the local Korean consulate to issue you an E-2 Teacher visa, good for one year, or you will be told to fly to Korea (no visa is required for most nationalities to enter as a tourist) and, once here, be sent to Japan to get the visa. The school should pay for both trips, although many schools try to refuse, often successfully. Be aware that if you teach after arrival in Korea and before you have that E-2 in your passport, you are breaking the law, and can be fined or deported.
To start a job at a new employer, you must receive your E-2 outside of Korea. Signing a new contract with the same employer only requires a trip to the local immigration office.
The Dave’s ESL Cafe Korean Jobs list, which is probably the single best resource for finding a job for people both outside Korea and already incountry, has been swamped in the last year or so with recruiter ads. “We have best jobs! All wonderful happy time fun! Beautiful city most good living in Korea!” and so on. The community is divided on recruiters – some have had positive experiences, and experienced no problems in finding jobs through them. My first job in Korea was through a recruiter, although I did not realize it at the time, and in many ways the job was a good one. But there are many who will tell you to never, ever use a recruiter, just because of the sheer number of unscrupulous, unprofessional agencies out there. I tend to agree, but if you take care, you may get lucky.
I recommend dealing with a school directly. The fewer intermediaries there are between you and the person you’re actually going to be working for, the better. Recruiters receive a payout for every warm body they deliver to a school, and sometimes a cut of the salary paid, which inclines them to push candidates toward positions regardless of the quality of that position, which is not a situation that should inspire trust. Using a recruiter may make your job search easier, but that is not necessarily a good thing.
Contracts and their importance (or lack thereof)
Contracts are a mixed bag in Korea. Some are stuffed with pages and pages of badly-written minutiae, all inserted, in most cases, because some previous employee behaved badly or performed poorly or drank too much or something of the kind, and the school is trying to close loopholes that might allow such things. Some contracts will have clauses that are outright illegal in Canada or America (or…), and these can be argued against but will rarely be changed. They are for the most part left unenforced, anyway, but when it is in the school’s interest, your director will not hesitate to point out the letter of the contract, and demand compliance. In no uncertain terms.
The other side of this is that with many Korean employers, the relationship between the parties to a contract is more important than the agreement on paper. This happens not only at the level we’re talking about, but manifests itself in the frustration that many western business people experience when negotiating with their Korean counterparts – Koreans frequently want to revisit language and conditions of an agreement long after, from the perspective of the westerner, all pertinent discussion has been finished, and the agreement has been ‘put to bed’.
This puts the employee into a difficult situation : when making a complaint about conditions of employment that appear to breach the agreement signed, many Korean directors will explain that ‘that’s not way do in Korea,’ and attempt to get out of their responsibilities, which the teacher assumes, rightly, are legally binding. On the other hand, when a teacher does or requests something that is outside the contract language, the director may turn around and say that ‘sorry, that’s not in contract’ as a reason to refuse the request or censure the activity. It can be maddening.
The EFL-law website is a great resource of last resort in this situation, but it must be said that in 9 cases out of 10 pushing a dispute to the point where legal or human rights recourse is necessary will mean that the foreigner loses. Not that you can’t win, but that you probably won’t. You should be aware that the system is strongly weighted in favour of your boss, and chances of prevailing are not good.
Which means that you should do everything possible to avoid getting to the point where conflict is inevitable. Flexibility, sensitivity to the concept of ‘face’, reasonable and professional behaviour in the workplace, and care to develop a positive relationship with your employer, on their terms, will help this. It’s a cultural minefield, but if you learn the rules of the game upfront, almost all conflict can be avoided before it occurs.
Your job
The failings of the Korean education system are manifold, but with regard to language teaching, they are quite specific. In the past, and to a large degree in the present as well, many people studied English with people who couldn’t speak it. They studied in the ‘traditional’ Korean style, which is firmly in the model of ‘teacher as source of knowledge and wisdom’, lecturing. They studied grammar, translated passages with dictionaries, were taught incorrect pronunciation and in many cases incorrect idioms and grammatical constructs (older Koreans without fail use ‘as possible as’ when they mean ‘as much as possible’ as a result of the former being nominated as the correct formation and taught as such in the all-important university entrance exams for years, for example), by Korean teachers of English.
As a result, most students, at most levels, need practice speaking, and listening to a lesser degree. Getting Koreans to speak in class, though, is frequently an exercise in frustration, as the learning style they have had beaten into them over years or decades is in complete opposition to the idea of speaking up in class. Asking questions of one’s teacher is considered, traditionally, as a challenge and a sign of disrespect.
New teachers believe their students to be taciturn and sullen — in fact, in most cases, they’re just showing respect in the only way they’ve been taught to do so in the educational context, by attentive silence.
So strategies must be devised to overcome the pedagogical catch-22. Each teacher approaches it different ways, and those ways vary with different student ages, but providing structure and clear examples to model expectations so that the student’s chances of failure are minimized is a good start, and is a wise strategy at all levels of language teaching. It’s all the more important in the Korean context.
Although many teachers in Korea — most, perhaps — make an avocation of complaining bitterly about the country and the people, and some leave with anger and a sense of relief at having ‘escaped’, a lot of those same people miss the Korean people and their nation, and inevitably return. Some others just settle in, bitching all the while, broken expat records, and they can be annoying to have a beer with, and are best avoided. Others choose their targets a bit better.
It seems to be the lot of foreigners living here to have a love-hate relationship with Korea, and with Korean people, who can be so xenophobic and yet so hospitable and kind, so abrasive and impolite yet so conscious and careful of the niceties and minutiae of feeling and mood, so puritanical but so boozy and sexy and free, so group-focussed yet so individualistic, so backwards but so modern. The contradictions never cease to fascinate, and for a foreigner who makes even a cursory attempt to understand the old, odd, and ornate monoculture he or she is leaping into, and to read and understand a modicum of the nation’s history, and to make an attempt to learn a little of the language, the rewards are great.
I won’t lie — it’s hard as hell to live in Korea, perhaps harder than anywhere else in the world with a similarly high standard of living, for the westerner. But it’s equally hard, once you’ve gotten under the surface a bit, to leave it behind. And if you’re young, and looking at a Nametag Nation job back home, the money, once you’ve added in all the benefits, is undeniably great.


Join the conversation! 17 Comments

  1. “They studied grammar, translated passages with dictionaries, were taught incorrect pronunciation and in many cases incorrect idioms and grammatical constructs (older Koreans without fail use ‘as possible as’ when they mean ‘as much as possible’ as a result of the former being nominated as the correct formation and taught as such in the all-important university entrance exams for years, for example), by Korean teachers of English.”
    It’s interesting you raise ‘idioms’ and ‘grammatical constructs’, yet cite ‘as possible as’ as your case in point. The word combination ‘as much as possible’ is neither. Idioms are metaphorical, expressing ideas and meanings in terms of illustrative images. Grammatical constructs are the ways in which words are ordered or structured according to rules that have been deduced from spoken or written language.
    Language is grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar (probably the most essential point in all of English teaching). So ‘as much as possible’ is a collocation. Although grammarians could see [‘as’ + ADVERB/QUANTIFIER + ‘as’ + ADJECTIVE] as some sort of adverbial (there’s often not universal agreement on these issues), the fact remains that teaching it as a ‘grammatical construct’ distinct from [‘as’ + ADJECTIVE + ‘as’ + _____] deflects attention away from a combination of words as a ‘meaning unit’.
    Koreans haven’t been taught the wrong grammatical construct; rather, they haven’t been instructed adequately as to the collocation that accords most agreeably with the notion they wish to get across. The whole language-studying thing got off to a wrong-headed start when they hung their pointy hats on the kingpins of GRAMMAR.
    “But,” I hear you cry, “that is such a subtle distinction, a matter of semantics only, you knew what I meant!” So if I heard right, here’s a link you might find interesting:
    If I heard wrong, it’s possibly because your post (an informative and well-written one, I’m pleased to say) is written to an audience of would-be newbies who have never considered these nuances of teaching and, in most cases, will never care less! So party on, thanks for a great post!

  2. Er, yeah : what he said. Next time I’ll write second draft**.

    (**No, no I probably won’t.)

  3. Except the fact, which I perhaps didn’t explain clearly enough, that “as possible as” was taught for years, and tested, and when students marked it as incorrect on their university entrance exams, they were penalized, and that massive mistake could for many have quite possibly meant the difference between getting into a ‘first-rank’ university (which would guarantee their social and economic position in Korea for the rest of their lives) or not, a distinction resting entirely on exam scores, and one that for the losers who sneeze at the wrong time ends in suicides each and every autumn.
    So, you know, my point wasn’t the grammar, here.

  4. Interesting essay, Stav. (Even though I have no intention of ever teaching — at home or abroad — I read it with interest.) Didn’t you once link to someone’s site that was essentially a long and very detailed description of their hellish teaching experience, with pictures? It was fascinating to read.

  5. A very good read and a good intro for people thinking about going abroad. I’m impressed. Certainly going to keep this one handy.

  6. Yeah, I did, Vidiot. I tried for about 3 seconds to find the link when I posted this, then gave up. Heh. I’ll dig it up after I have my coffee…

  7. Great essay, but you forgot to mention that the racism goes both ways in regard to the salary. A 2nd generation Korean-American, born in the states and raised with English as the first language can expect to make 1/2 as much as the Caucasian with the exact same credentials, because the teachers must look like a foreigner. This is true in the “lower end” Hakwon bracket referred to in your essay.

  8. Stav,
    You describe split shifts as the pits but, compared to the Roman Colliseum that is a classroom full of kids, I regularly requested them. Besids, it gives you time off in the middle of the day when things are happening (I had the chance to take Korean classes, to essentially no effect except a great understanding of my students fallibility).

  9. Both good points. If I ever do get that book written, both are things that I’d definitely include (though here, I didn’t bother)…

  10. ESL Abroad

    Over at EmptyBottle.Org we have a pretty insightful post regarding teaching English abroad. I have juggled the possibilities of myself going over to teach in either Korea or Japan (there is a difference that’s for sure) and I have been

  11. I read on a Korean law site that employment contracts need to be in Korean language in order to be enforceable in Immigration Court (mine is, as well as that of my friends in financial/my field as well, but never heard of a teaching contract in Korean).
    Is this true?

  12. I can’t tell you categorically, James, but that sounds pretty much correct to me. That said, I’ve never signed a contract here in Korea that wasn’t written first in Korean and then haphazardly translated into English, which also needed to be signed, until my current job with one of the multinationals. That contract was written in clear and perfect English, and had definitely had the once-over by lawyerly types before I ever saw it.
    Chaebols are permitted to make their own rules about most things, of course, but that does make me think that there may be latitude there.
    The helpful people at can probably answer your question, if it’s important.


  14. What will happen to me in Korea? has scary things to say about the effects on a Westerner’s mental health of a prolonged visit to Korea: Not a few freak out entirely, experience a psychotic break, and go wobbly. This is sometimes a permanent condition. Many…

  15. What will happen to me in Korea? has scary things to say about the effects on a Westerner’s mental health of a prolonged visit to Korea: Not a few freak out entirely, experience a psychotic break, and go wobbly. This is sometimes a permanent condition. Many…

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