Monday, June 29, 2009

Job Placement and Visa Processing Times for South Korea

Here's the question:

I was just wondering about the average time it takes from first applying for teaching jobs in korea to actually going there? i'm 100% keen on going to south korea but first i'll be in the USA from aug 6th to sept 14th and i'm hoping to get to korea hopefully no more than 2/3 months after i return to england. Will it soon enough if i start applying straight after coming back from the USA or do i need to start applying for jobs now with the intention of leaving in november time?

There is no set time frame, however, there are some things that you can do to get the ball moving. First of all, request your criminal background check now. Do it while you're still in the UK. Secondly, get your medical check done now as well. Once you have all of your required documents, the actual processing time is pretty fast, so preparing that stuff BEFORE heading to the US is helpful.

Both of those things are simple enough to get done before you leave for the US. While you're in the US, start talking to recruiters and considering who and where you want to teach. Don't do any serious looking until you're about to return to the UK though. By chatting with recruiters via email or telephone, you'll be able to get a better idea of what the market is like and how fast you'll be placed. Once in the UK, you can get serious with recruiters/schools, interview with the consulate and start saying your goodbyes.

As I said, there is no set time frame, but if you do it right, I'd say from the moment you seriously start talking with recruiters to touch-down in Korea, five to six weeks would have passed which fits in your aforemention time frame.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Luggage Weight Limitations for your Flight to South Korea

Here's the question:

ive just got a job in a public school in seoul in korea, im due to travel on the 23rd of august from the UK. i was wondering what the weight restrictions for luggage are?, your help would be greatly appreciated.

This question gets asked all the time on my Facebook group and no one really ever gets a solid answer. Why not? Well, weight restrictions typically depend on the airline. Some are more lenient than others. I would recommend contacting your airline and asking them. You should also consider that limitations and restrictions change so often that it would not be wise of me to offer advice. Typically, they will allow for a little more weight if you let them know you're going to be abroad for a year. There's a helpful website called "Luggage Guide" that gets updated semi-regularly and has a lot of good links, so drop by there and see what they think.

Rather than worrying about how much you can pack and whether you can push the limits, I would suggest packing as light as possible. Skimp on a few things. Many people get stressed about packing and try to cram everything in when they first come to Korea. This is not necessary. Take a look at my "What to Pack" post and start crossing some stuff off the list. You'll be happy that you did. Remember, South Korea is not a summer camp where you must rely on the canteen for supplies, much of what you need is here.
And if you did forget a thing or two, well you can always ask your parents to send you a package from home or you can ask me where to find it and I'll try my best to help out.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Scuba Diving in South Korea

Here's the question:

I was wondering if you knew of anywhere in Korea that would be good for gaining a diving license. I have nothing at the moment and would need to start from scratch. Also I don't live in Seoul so if there was something on the south coast or in Busan that would be great.

While generally not seen as a popular pastimes among Koreans, Scuba diving is gaining some momentum these days. Just as with other watersports (pun intended), Koreans are warming up to the water and trying out some more leisurely pursuits. Personally I am not into diving as the initial costs deter me from starting, but there does appear to be a couple expat resources.

Scuba in Korea, based out of Daejon, offers some pretty decent info. They've got everything from courses and dive sites to underwater photography and shark diving info.

* Aquatic Frontier, based out of Osan, makes the claim to be the only "USFK Approved Diving" club in Korea. They also offer courses and have a pretty active calendar.

* Deep Blue Quest also offers courses.

* Wet ROK Diving out of Daegu has got some courses and by the looks of it, they seem to offer the cheapest courses.

* Big Blue 33 is the number one dive resource for Jeju and it appears to be doing quite well. Its prices are reasonable as well.

I'm sure there might be some other smaller groups or clubs out there, but if you get connected with any of these organizations I'm sure you'll be able to get into the sport.

Any divers out there have any recs?

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

2 New Podcasts: "Teacher Training" and "K-Bloggers"

Remember that I'm also answering questions on the podcast, Musings Over Makgeolli...

On Teacher Training:

Dear Expat,

Is it normal for hagwons not to really train their teachers for the work they’re supposed to do? My training was 2 days of observation for teaching classes. We are also writing the textbooks (which we sell to the kids and other schools). For that I was trained in an “as-you-go” kind of way. I have been here almost three months and still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing with the textbooks! I have tried to express this to my supervisor, but to no avail. He seems to think I have been sufficiently trained and keeps saying it would be worse at other schools. Is this true? Is this normal hagwon behavior and “training”? Is there a better situation out there?

Podcast here.

And one on K-Bloggers:

I stumbled upon your blog and have followed your links to all the other South Korea-related blogs. It’s a little intimidating though. How am I supposed to sort through the good ones from the bad one’s. There seem to be thousands!

Does everyone write a blog who goes to teach in Korea? If I were to write one, would anybody care?

Podcast here.

Water Parks, Spas and Resorts in South Korea

Here's the question:

I have searched all over the net for this but am not getting good results. Is there a list of waterparks/resorts for all over Korea? So far I am only getting caribbean Bay and Ocean Park. I have heard there are tons more but they are not showing up in my searches.

With all the serious and heavy questions I've been getting lately, I was thrilled to see this one. Thanks. Caribbean Bay and Ocean World easily get the most exposure (thanks in part to Lee Hyori), but there are more. Korean Water Parks are actually getting some pretty positive press, so I would encourage everybody to take a weekend and stop by some of them. The Korea Sparkling site has info on the big ones, but I'll list them here as well as a few lesser-known spots.

* Caribbean Bay

* Termeden

* Tiger World

* Sealala Spa & Water Park

* Seorak Waterpia

* Ocean World

* Spa Castle

* Asan Spavis

* Spa Valley

* Ocean Castle

Most of those are water parks and/or spas. I thought about writing a review for each, but I would just be copying and pasting, so I figured you could click on the links yourself. I should also add that this list is by no means all of the spas and resorts on the peninsula. There are plenty more. For a nation of non-swimmers (not really), I think they're doing a pretty good job! Enjoy!

Update 6/26/09: Brian's got a good one of water parks in Jeollanam-do.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Abortions in South Korea: Legality, Morality and Public Opinion

Here's the question:
I know that in the Korean age system, there is a year added because they count the time Koreans are in their mother's womb as 1 year (at least, this is what one of my Korean co-workers has told me). My question is, what do Koreans in general think of abortion? Can a woman get an abortion here? My thinking is that since they count the age from conception (plus a few months), abortion must seem more barbaric than in Canada.

You're generally right about the age thing. Many Koreans do start counting age at conception. Many other eastern Asian nations follow similar patterns. However, it has no effect on the morality or legality of abortion. The politically charged abortion debate in America and some other Western nations does not really exist in Korea. I've talked with students before who were genuinely confused as to why so much emotion surrounded the issue. That was a difficult one to answer without railing into the loons of American conservatism, so I deflected as well as I could. As much as I loathe dislike some aspects of American politics, I try not to give anymore ammunition to the world.

The abortion debate in Korea is not really centered around women's rights, nor is it debated as a privacy law. In fact, the morality of it is not usually brought into question. You will not hear arguments like "Hands off my body!" or "It's a woman's choice." You also will not hear people calling a doctor who performs an abortion "A Baby Killer." It simply does not arouse the kind of manufactured emotion as it does in the West (or at least America).

Koreans generally see abortion as an unfortunate means of birth control. No one in Korea likes abortion. It's messy and can be embarrassing, but typically you won't hear many "life starts at conception" arguments or people walking around shouting "murderers!" The reasons why Korean abort is just the same as in any country: something in their life was not conducive for raising a child.

In most cases, abortion is illegal in South Korea. (Of course, prostitution is too, but we all know how that goes.) Sean Hayes of the Korean Law Blog covers the legality of the issue in detail, so I'll leave that aspect of it to him. Since it is "illegal" to get an abortion in Korea, young women and couples must be going somewhere to get them done, right? Due to the illegal nature of abortion, the operations must be done secretly. There's no back-alley thing going on, but doctors often risk having their practice shut-down (or going to jail) in order to perform the pricey procedure. That risk means that they are going to jack up the price. In fact, I've heard that many doctors make the lions share of their income from abortion procedures.

You also must consider how contraception is viewed in Korea. We all know that Korea is a sexually conservative country (in public). This mentality has a direct affect on sexual behavior and, in particular, the practice of safe sex. Sure, you can find condoms at 711 and birth control pills at the pharmacy, but that does not mean the average Korean is using them. Stats do suggest that sales (and I would assume use) have been increasing over the past few years and that is good (although there is no way to confirm that). However, they appear to be increasing not because of disease, but more out of fear of having children in an economically volatile climate (or because of the North Korea threat).

Buying condoms or getting birth control pills can be embarrassing for people all over the world, but in Korea it is particularly so. For women, it's essentially an admission that they're having sex and for unmarried women, it's simply not worth it. Typically, women put the responsibility of contraceptive on men which of course drastically reduces the chances that protection will be used. It also should be noted that the increase in condom use is only occurring within the younger generation though. The older generation continually opts for other methods.

It is not at all unusual to meet a mother in her forties with three kids who has had an abortion. I have been surprised by the candidness of some of my older male and female students who openly share their abortion stories in class. I had one man in his fifties who told the class that he and his wife had three abortions when they were younger. He now wished he hadn't aborted them, but that's not the point. His admission was totally unprovoked and after telling his story, the rest of the class was unaffected. There were no scoffs or back-handed comments. They identified with his feelings of remorse, but there was no discussion of morality or legality. They simply understood the grief he felt for not having more children.

Luckily for Korea, teen pregnancy isn't a problem. In fact, its rate is the lowest among OECD nations. Is it that low because being pregnant as a teenager is tremendously shaming in Korea and carrying the baby to term is almost not an option or is that Korean teenagers are mostly so busy and sexually inactive that pregnancy is not even possible? Well, I'd say it's a little of both, but more the latter.

On top of that, many Koreans are shockingly naive when it comes to sex. Example: I have two very quiet 20 year old girls who are in one of my social issues classes. The class was talking about Korean films and one student brought up the new film "Thirst" (박쥐). Most of the students had seen it, including the two girls. Another student asked if they liked it, they said, "No. It was too erotic." The film is not that erotic and for a young twenty-something, it shouldn't be. But to these young Koreans, it was.

In short, age-counting in Korea typically begins at conception, in the minds of Koreans there is a very big disconnect between that date and the beginning of life. Koreans get abortions for the same reasons everyone does: health concerns or the timing is wrong. The main difference is that conservative politicians in Korea aren't turning it into a way of cashing in on votes. Getting an abortion here might be illegal, but it is being done in tons of clinics all across the nation. Is it more barbaric due to the age-counting system? Your call.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Bringing American DVDs (Region 1) to Korea: Will they work?

Here's the question:
Should I bring my US Region 1 NTSC DVDs to Korea? I thought I could use them not only as time killers when I'm bored, but also use them for class lessons for conversation class.I understand that South Korea is Region 3 and PAL.

Man, I wish I knew about this stuff when I first came over. I brought all of my Arrested Development DVDs with the same idea you have: that if I was bored or needed something familiar in a new country, all I had to do was pop in a DVD and I would be okay. Well, if you're bringing a computer from home, then you'll have no problems viewing the DVDs from its player. However, once here you'll realize that there are scores of DVD bootleggers on the streets selling decent quality movies and TV shows (4 or 5 for 10 bucks) and you're probably going to buy those and want to watch them. There's your problem.

I presume everyone knows what the topic is here, but just in case, each DVD is coded with a region in which they can be viewed. If you are from the US or Canada, you are in "Region 1" (UK: 2, AUS: 3, SA: 4). If you have a stand-alone DVD player, you should be able to change the regional setting with the remote control. If you're using you computer, then it is a little harder. You will either need to bring DVDs that are "Region 0" or try to hack the computer and change the configuration on the hard drive. Some computers allow you to change the region on your hard drive up to five times. Or you can just burn the DVD (and therefore add all regions) and watch them on any player. Most of my DVDs that I bought here play anywhere.

So, yeah. There's no reason not to bring them over. You will feel better if you have them and fail then if you don't have them at all.

As far as teaching a conversation class with them, I guess that would be fine depending on the topic and vulgarity of the movie, but simply giving examples of those expressions would suffice. Some students might appreciate the effort, but others will feel like you're doing something that many conversation teachers tend to do: teach their own life and experiences.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Korean Men: Flirting or Friendly

Here's the question:

Let's say you are an expat woman, and a Korean man is being very... friendly. So friendly that, if you were back home, you would think said Korean was hitting on you, but you just want to be friends. Are there certain signs to look for to tell the difference between being friendly and hitting on you in Korean culture? I have heard that Korean men are used to having to work hard for a Korean woman, because they like to play games and make a guy work for it.

First of all, many Korean men are shy with women (or at least not as forward as some Western men), so I must congratulate your friend on that. Unfortunately for him, it doesn't sound like it's getting him anywhere.

While I have heard that some Korean women play games (my wife didn't luckily), I think this one can be summed up by The Korean. In short he says, "Korean men are men BEFORE they are Korean." If they are flirting with you and you're getting the same vibe you did at home, well, then chances are they're into you.

Some Koreans like to talk about the "cultural differences" when it comes to interracial relationships if they were so stark that even considering such a relationship would be foolish. (There are reasons for this, but that is not the question, so I will not address that now.) My wife is Korean and while I can admit there are some "differences" that have arisen, they are not nearly as toxic as some Koreans would like you to think.

Additionally, I think I should briefly mention the amount of pressure young Korean men and women feel to get married. If they are single and nearing the age of 30, this pressure kicks into overdrive. This is something to consider if you were to get involved with the man in question. He might want (or need) to move much faster than you would like. It sounds like you want to be friends, so it might be best to tell him that. However, it could lead to an almost immediate end of the friendship if you don't do it right. He might be embarrassed by the rejection or it might be that having a playful and flirtatious relationship with a non-Korean "girl-friend" (and I mean friend-girl) is not something that his next serious girlfriend is going to tolerate, especially if she's Korean.

Not the greatest place to be in, but just treat it as you would if he was from the West and you should be fine.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Is it Nunchi or Fear of Confrontation?

That's what I briefly talked about on today's podcast.

A Hagwon Acting Like a Hagwon

Here's the question:

I finished a year contract with a large hagwon in Jangsan (Busan) at the end of March this year. I received my final pay check and severance (it was short a hundred thousand won or so, but I didn't think it was worth making a fuss about), but I have not yet received money for my airfare. According to my contract, the employer either buys my ticket home or pays me the equivalent in cash, and since I have remained in Korea (I have signed a new contract with a different school and am still in Jangsan, Busan), I asked for the cash, which I was told may take a few weeks to process. Since I left the school, I have had no correspondence with them, and have written to them twice (I've included a copy of the emails, sent May 28th, and today, June 16th, below). I have the feeling they are trying to just ignore me until I "go away" so they get out of paying the airfare. I'm not a confrontational person, and this could be a simple matter, but I'm worried they will make it into a big deal. In short, I would really appreciate your advice about what I should do. How long should I wait before I contact them again? If they refuse to pay my airfare or continue to ignore me, what are my options? I do not want to cause trouble, I just want what is owed to me.

A hagwon trying to cheat someone out of cash? You don't say. That's what hagwons do. They are money making enterprises and care about little else. Understanding that is important as it will help you while working there and trying to comprehend the logic behind management decision-making (or lack thereof), but that's only half the battle. Dealing with one that is trying to get away with something after you have left is a whole other ball game.

When you get down to the brass tacks, the purpose of the hagwon is not education. It's not about providing top-notch anything. It's about making as much money as possible and many of them do pretty damn well. Those of us who have worked in one know this better than the rest. Cutting corners, paying late and skirting laws are all common practice in hagwons. And while many expats can coast in and out of these places with relative ease, some good and honest teachers get caught.

So, let's get into this now. You mentioned you are unconfrontational. Well, that's going to hurt you in this case. You must be persistent as hell. If you relent one bit, then you can kiss your cash good-bye. In my experience, Korean bosses are infinitely unconfrontational. We could argue why, but some of it certainly stems from what Koreans call "nunchi". I call it tact. The problem is that Koreans view "tact" in terms of avoiding embarrassment and respecting status. This obsession with status and shame can create problems for Westerners as many of us try to meet a problem head-on regardless of who or what said problem might be. This is in direct conflict with Korean interaction which some might come to view as inaction. It is more important for a Korean to maintain nunchi so that han can be avoided, but I digress. Bottom line is that there is a deeply rooted culture of avoidance of direct confrontation. Calling an individual out is not common practice. Therefore, you must be the one to act because they certainly will not. (I'll be telling a related story on the podcast this evening.)

First, you gotta go there as much as possible. They're really hoping that you'll disappear or "go away" as you mentioned, but you need to show up there in the morning, afternoon and evening. Give them a call and try to make an appointment. Be professional. If they give you the run around, then you'll just need to stop by. Perhaps getting in contact with a current teacher there for some inside info about when the director is in his/her office might help. Let management know that you have not and will not forget about the money that is owed to you. Their dislike of direct confrontation will play against them in this case and if you are relentless enough, then they will cave. Being relentless is a must, but you should approach your director in a way that respects their system (nunchi) while being forceful. Start out friendly with all of your paperwork (make copies) in hand and then, if they are still being difficult, give them the old "Well, the Labor Board will be contacting you soon."

However, nothing is full-proof in a situation like this. Since you have done very well and kept all the emails and contracts, you have one last option that won't cost you anything. Just as you threatened: go to the Labor Board. File a claim with them or give them a ring and see what they have to say. The link I provided lists numbers and even lawyer numbers. Use it. Now, don't think that the Labor Board is going to spend that much time on your case. They probably won't, but typically the shady hagwons are the ones who are cheating teachers and if they cheat one or are shady in one area, chances are that they are shady in another area. Often times, a simple threat is enough to get a school moving. After all, if all they want is to make money, then paying a teacher what is owed is much cheaper than being investigated or closed down by the authorities.

Take it slow at first, but always be strong and forceful. Let them know that you WILL be recieving that money one way or another. The second they flinch, jump on it.

Does anybody have personal experience with back air-travel pay?

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gay Koreans: Flamboyant or Straight-Laced?

Here's the question:

From personal experience with Korean (Americans) in the US, most Korean gays are well, a little flamboyant and out there. Is this generally the case with the places you mentioned? Or does being in such a conservative country kind of repress this side of them a little bit? Like I said before, Im not worried about stares or gazes, but safety. What would be the typical reaction to say a gay couple holding hands or kissing in public?

This one is a little tricky for me. I knew very few Korean-Americans when I lived in the US and know zero gay Koreans in Korea, so much of this is going to be speculation. If any readers can chime in, I would be quite grateful.

As I learned via Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, Oprah said, "You teach people how to treat you." That's true of course and I think the gay community in Korea might be the same. Koreans go to great lengths to hide their homosexuality, so people will treat it as if it was extremely odd. By hiding their homosexuality, they're teaching the rest of the community just how rare homosexuality is among Koreans. And so, you will almost never see openly gay couples on the streets of Seoul. Perhaps late at night in a gay-friendly area (Hongdae, Itaewon) you might think you see a gay couple, but you really won't be able to tell for sure. If you have what they call "gaydar" in the US, well, you'll need to upgrade because it's almost impossible to spot a gay man (let alone a couple) in Seoul. The average Korean will certainly not be able to tell. It's not uncommon to see older drunk businessmen holding hands or young high school boys massaging each other. All of those things happen in public and, in my case, I used to make sure to mention to my wife, "that's gay". Her response: "No, they're just Korean."

The concept of homosexuality, for the most part, is not the same as Western homosexuality.

From The Koreans post of homosexuality, Foreign/er Joy said...

Do the LGBT's here in Korea express their gayness the same as Western gays? For one I think they are both gay/lesbian and Korean. So being conservative about your gayness shouldn't be so shocking. It is disappointing to hear that westerners thought the Korean gay pride parade to be not the spectacle they expected.

While the more flamboyant characters do seem to be making appearances at the increasingly popular Gay Pride Parades, most of the gay men in Korea are totally protective of their sexuality. Even Chris (who took pictures of the event) blurred out the faces. Would he have done that in the West? Doubt it. He understands the culture here and does not want to be responsible for any unwanted "outings".

I can't find it now, but I remember reading a thread that was written by a gay expat who had just spent the evening in a gay sauna with a Korean guy. When the expat asked the Korean if he wanted to exchange numbers, the Korean replied, "I'm not gay." I'm not here to argue what makes someone "gay", but in Korea, protection and denial seems to be the modus operandi for many men. That said, seeing a gay Korean or interracial couple kissing on the street is something that I have never ever seen and I doubt that anyone else has seen it either, so there is no "typical" reaction that I could predict. I don't imagine it would be a violent reaction, but the deeply felt shame or "han" the Korean would most likely feel if someone saw them in public pretty much ensures that such a sight is extremely rare.

Yet, the gay clubs are filled and there are many gay Koreans dating expats, so there appears to be something else going on here. In another email, you mentioned some details which I will severely paraphrase.

Anyway things were going good between me and [name withheld], but he asked me to *** into a *** and ***** it into his ****. What the cranberries?!?!?! Are acts like this common in gay Korea? Even though I did it for [name withheld], I dont wanna do this freaky-deaky stuff all the time. SO whats the general MO with the Korean community? Freek-a-Leek or Straight Laced?

Let's go with another quote. "You are what you eat." Forgive me for the immaturity of that, but -and I do wish that someone would chime in because this is all opinion- it seems to be that race has nothing to do with how people act behind closed doors. [Name withheld] is a Korean-American and has probably been with American men before. The gay culture in America has evolved more than its Korean counterpart. He might have happened to be with some more *cough* experimental men than you, so he liked his sex a little more -ummm- unbridled. Same goes for peninsular Korean men. If they have been with only Korean men, the above act probably would not happen. However, if an individual has been with a wider range of men from more open or developed gay cultures, then he possibly could be more apt to want some *** on his ****.

I'm honestly not sure if I covered this topic too well, so let me give you some quick answers.

Are gay Koreans flamboyant? Not really.

Does being in such a conservative country kind of repress this side of them a little bit? Yes.

What would be the typical reaction to say a gay couple holding hands or kissing in public? It would not be accepting in the least which is why it really doesn't happen.

I hope I helped a little. Again, anybody want to add something?

Update 7/19/2009: Korea Beat translated an article from the Chosun Ilbo about lesbian bars in Hongdae.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reactions to Big Dogs in South Korea

Here's the paraphrased question:

I would like to move to [Seoul] South Korea in the fall, and I would need to bring my dog with me, as I do not know anyone who can watch her for a year and I am not going to leave her with a stranger. She is a 50 pound mutt (I understand that larger dogs and mutts are not viewed as positively in Korea), though I think she could pass for some sort of imaginary pure breed based on her look. She lives with me in a small apartment now in a city and she is not a barker or high-strung. Is this just a horrible idea (in your opinion)? I have attempted to research this and received mixed feedback from others. Some of the feedback has been quite negative. Would I be setting me and my doggie up for disaster if we moved to Seoul, or are some people just over exaggerating? What could I reasonably expect? Will people be yelling at me multiple times every day when I am out with the dog, or is it not as common an occurrence (a few times a week)?

As you know, the Internet is THE place for people to vent and unleash whatever tirade they choose without having to own up or defend anything. That's why we love it, but you really shouldn't listen to what you read on anonymous forums. Most of the time, they'll be severely biased and, in the case of Korea, they'll almost be exclusively biased. Even in the case of big dogs, you're certain to find a handful of expats using a simple question like "Where can I buy a big dog?" as a chance to rail into Koreans for their preference for toy dogs, dog meat, xenophobia and a laundry list of other typical expat complaints. Rob has a good write-up about why expats in Korea complain so much. Make sure you check that out.

I would never be able to suggest that someone should separate from their dog. No way! That would be a horrible experience with both of you being miserable. Bring your dog. You'll be much happier as both of you would be adjusting together. However, you and your dog must be ready for a few changes.

Korea, and especially Seoul, is a tight, cramped place with high population density and overly crowded streets. If you're in a location with a lot of foot traffic, walking your dog is going to be an interesting experience. To truly understand public perception of dogs, we must first look at what Koreans view as pets. Koreans are not that pet-friendly to start with. Some of them have hamsters, fish or cats, but it is not a majority. Not even close. As for dogs, any non-toy dog is essentially not a pet. Rather, they are animals that live on the farm or in the country side. You will see a few here and there, but the idea is that big dogs are not cute or stuffed animal-like, so why have them? With apartments the size they are and easy access to outdoors areas limited, having a big dog in Seoul is overwhelmingly uncommon. I say that, but it doesn't mean you and your dog will be screamed at or chastised. Let me offer this story.

I have a puppy. He's a brown jindo-lab mutt that looks totally harmless and acts just as any other puppy would. He's curious, chases birds in the park, eats shoes and wants to play with everyone. When I take him out to go to the bathroom and am patiently waiting for him to squeeze out a few drops or drop a nice one, many people walk by -young women, old men, students, you name it and they pass by without so much as a glance. I have even had a few kids at the park run so fast when seeing my PUPPY that you would think a wolf was chasing them. Most of the time, the initial reaction is to fear it. That's right. My little three month old puppy strikes fear in the heart of some Koreans. But why? Well, since Koreans only have toy dogs, they only know how those breeds react to humans. A big dog is viewed just the same as a small unknown breed: with suspicion. Sure, a bigger one might scare them a little more, but it has more to do with unpredictability rather than size. Fear of the unknown, right?

When I walk my dog, most people look at him with interest, but they always keep a safe distance. Rarely will I have people walk up and pet him. This, however, is more of a blessing than you might think. If your dog was being pet by every person, she would start becoming more irritable on the walks, get less exercise and, of course, you would hate walking her because it would take much longer than usual.

I don't think you have decided on where in Seoul to live yet, but staying away from busy areas (Gangnam, Apgujeong, Jungno, Hongdae, Itaewon) might be a wise decision. Furthermore, heading to an area with easy-access to mountains, water or a park would enhance you and your dog's enjoyment while here. I'd be happy to recommend where some good, more natural locations are if you would like. Let me know.

To wrap it up, bring your dog. Both of you would be miserable without the other, so there's no reason to even consider that. Koreans might do a double-take and will even take a few steps out of the way to avoid crossing paths with you two, but there will be no screaming. Keep him on a leash and as long as he's not barking, destroying your apartment or biting the people he does happen to encounter, then you two will have a great time in Korea.

Here's a podcast on the subject.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Musings Over Makgeolli

Make sure to check out the podcasts and stay tuned for the next episodes...

June 18th: This Week in Korea...

June 19th: Weekly Blog Wrap-up

June 20th: Nightlife in Seoul...

June 21st: Sunday Politics

Open Classes for ESL Teachers in South Korea

Here's the question:

I just arrived in Gimje about two weeks ago and I'm the only native English teacher at my school. I was just told that I have to do an open class next week. I have no idea what to do and since I don't have much experience yet, I'm really worried. I don't even know all my students' names yet!!! Any advice for a new teacher?
Thanks a million.

First of all, I had to look up Gimje. I had never heard of it before. And judging by its size, I'm not at all surprised that you're the only NET at the school. Okay, well it sucks that you're being thrown into an open class already. Usually schools give new teachers plenty of time to get comfortable standing in front of a class before sending in the mothers. In this case, I wonder if the teacher you replaced was not very good or had some problems which angered some mothers and so now the director is putting a lot of faith in you to carry the class and make the mothers happy again. I know you don't want to hear that and I'm sure it only ups the ante, but if you know why you're being put in that situation, it should help.

Open Class is something that most of us have to deal with at one point or another. To a new teacher, the thought of them can be terrifying and there's nothing I can say that will make that initial fear go away. However, I can offer a few tips.

Open Class is not an impromptu lecture that you conjure up during the actual class. It is a practiced, staged exhibition designed to appease mothers and make them believe their little Johnny Seung-ju is just as good better than the rest. In most cases, teachers will suspend regular classes and focus almost exclusively on the material that will be presented in open class. Every aspect of the open class is essentially manufactured. From the excitement and hand raising to your jokes and segues, all of it is totally scripted and ready for the mothers to eat up.

Now, don't be foolish enough to think that the mothers aren't onto this trick. They know it, but still treasure rote memorization and any opportunity to elevate themselves though their children. However, it is the mothers who truly define whether or not your open class was a success. The best way to ensure that is to carefully craft the class and manage your time so that each student gets to speak for roughly the same amount of time. Bribery and favoritism is rampant in Korean education and if a mother sees that her son/daughter is not the teachers favorite, then she will complain that the teacher ignored her child. Do yourself a favor and balance it all out. They don't expect their child to answer every question or even get them correct, but they do expect you to call on them.

The term "dancing monkey" often gets tossed around playfully among teachers on the peninsula. Another personal favorite would be the "biological tape recorder". Well, for open class, being a dancing monkey (especially with the young ones) is something that is almost expected. While we might view it as insulting, degrading or just plain embarrassing, parents view it as energetic, enthusiastic and caring. I never was too great at dancing around. Singing songs and having the kids repeat after you is always a solid route and a pretty good time-killer. I would just try and smile, laugh and pretend that I hadn't practiced the same routine for the past two weeks. I had a friend who was the perfect stereotype of the dancing monkey. He had greasy hair, was slightly overweight, would run into the wall and fall on the ground and do anything he could to make the mothers like him. It worked too. You might discover your inner-monkey. Also, since you don't know your students names yet, go around the room and ask the to spell their names. As they write them on the board, intentionally misspell them. They laugh, the parents laugh and you win (or die inside).

Your hagwon or school expects a few things of you as well. They want you to make sure all the kids are well-behaved, have their books out and are comfortable with you. You should dress smart and at least look presentable. Remember, most private school directors do not care about education. They care about money and a successful open class or demo class is easy and effective advertisement. Perception is king in Korea and knowing how to tune into that ideology will save you time and stress. Good luck!

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Things to Consider When Buying a Dog in South Korea

Here's the question:

I'm kind of confused. So what is the best way to buy a puppy that's healthy, and more. I really want a healthy puppy that loves me and I want to love him/her. I really don't want to always take it to the vet, like you did. I'm so sorry to hear that, though...
Please... Help me!
P.S. I'm going to buy a puppy in Korea when I move there...

I talked about this before and that post should cover most of it.

I'd like to add a couple more things though. Adopting a dog (or pet) in Korea is not the same as in the West. Many of the dogs that are sold in vets, legit pet stores and animal hospitals are small, toy dogs that a vast majority of expats might not be interested in. I certainly wasn't and have actually been shocked by the responses that I get in public when I am walking my mutt.

Mutts or "똥개" (dong-gae: "shit dog") are not viewed in a positive light in Korea. Just like with cars and clothes, Koreans treasure "quality" (mostly because of perception) and a mutt equates more to a used car or second-hand clothes rather than a good, presentable dog. In most cases, your average Korean will buy a small, white pure-bred toy dog. Of course, they love their dog just as much as I love mine, but the point is that thousands and thousands of mutts are born each year and sometimes finding a home for them is difficult.

Let me offer this quick story. My wife and I were walking our dog last week and a motorcycle delivery guy drove past us, slowed down and pointed at our dog saying, "That mutt." Apparently, the shock of seeing a mutt being cared for was so much that he felt like he had to slow down and make a comment. This type of exchange has happened several times in the two months that I've had my puppy and it's a testament to how mutts are viewed.

That said, when a vet or animal hospital is housing a non-pure-bred, they typically try to make them as desirable as possible, so they can get rid of them. (Regardless of taste, no one wants to put a dog to sleep.) So often times, these pups will be sold at a very low price or even given away WITH its shots already underway. You can get a great puppy.

Another thing to consider when getting a dog in Korea is your living space. My wife and I have a lot of space. Our dog is not living in one room, nor is he confined to a concrete jungle when we take him on a walk. Way too many well-intentioned expats buy a puppy here for one reason or another and end of condemning their new pet to tiny quarters with limited face-time. Make sure you have appropriate housing and space for a dog before starting to look.

The last thing I'd like to mention is illnesses. Unlike the West, Korea still has problems with serious puppy diseases and viruses. Parvo virus is rampant in Korea and distemper is still causing serious problems. If you do buy a young puppy, make sure they have started their shots, but more importantly, don't take your puppy outside or around other dogs until they have finished their fourth round of shots. Some vets will tell you to wait until all five rounds have been administered and they're not being overly paranoid. I know it's tempting to take your new puppy to the park to chase butterflies, but play it safe.

It's great that your getting a dog once you arrive it Korea. As long as you plan on keeping it when you leave Korea; have enough space and time for it; buy a mutt (your choice); get all of its shots on-time and are prepared to keep it indoors for a couple months while it's building up its immune system, then I suggest heading over to Animal Rescue Korea to take a look at the dogs they have up for adoption.

Here's a podcast on the subject.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Korean Animal Sounds or Sounds that Animals Make in the Korean Language

Here's the question:

I was wondering if you knew the sounds that animals made in Korean? Like a pig says "Oink, Oink" in English, how about Korean?
This is a fun one. I remember asking the same question to a Chinese exchange student while I was in college. I was aware of only a few animal sounds, so I had to ask my wife. Forgive the possibly inaccurate romanization. I'll also include the English for a little comparison.

Bee: boong-boong (English: bzzzz)

Bird: jek jek (tweet)

Cat: ya-ong (meow)

Chicken: gogode koko (chick chick)

Chicks: ppi-yak-ppi-yak (peep peep)

Cow: um-muuuu (moo~)

Crow: kka-ak-kka-ak (caw caw)

Dog: meong-meong (ruff ruff)

Duck: kkoyk-kkoyk (quack quack)

Frog: gae-gul gae-gul (ribbet ribbet)

Goat: um-mee~ (baaah)

Horse: hee-hing (nay)

Owl: buung-buung (hoo)

Pig: kkool-kkool (oink oink)

Sheep: mee~ (baah)

That took longer than you might think. Most of those work for me, but a few of the Korean sounds make no sense. The sound a bee makes in English is from the sound its wings make when flying at full-speed. The Korean "boong-boong" apparently is the sound their wings make when flapping slowly, but do bees flap slowly. I don't think applying logic to something like this is worth it though. I'm also not sure I've ever heard a horse say "hee-hing" and I'm certain that owls do not say "buung-buung", but then again do frogs really say "ribbet"?

If anyone has something to add (or correct), please leave it in the comments and I'll add it to the list. I thought about getting into other sounds like car horns and motorcycles, but that list might get out of hand.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Internet Censorship, Free Speech and Miranda Rights in South Korea

Here's the question:

You mentioned that some gay sites are blocked or filtered in Korea. Does that mean that web activity is monitored, big-brother style? Are there Miranda Rights in Korea? (e.g. Right to remain silent, right to an attorney, etc...)

...and his second question:
What's the deal with needing a registration number to access Korean websites? I understand this is how a blogger was caught and arrested for blogging about North Korea. Also, I heard that gay themed websites and porn sites are censored. South Korea seems more and more fascist to me as I learn more about it.

First of all, I must say that Korea is very far from fascist. Some left-wing fringe groups like to make that claim, but they usually do so for political gain. It appears the information you're finding is not very accurate, so let me try to give you some reliable links and information.

There are some sites that are banned in Korea. Some pornographic sites have made it on the list, but for the most part, you'll find that a handful of sites on North Korea have been banned. When a site it banned, you'll usually see this banner.

It pretty much says that the site you're trying to connect to contains some illegal material. I don't know if your IP address is reported or it just denies access, but if you see that message, chances are you will not be able to access that site. (Try it for yourself. If you click here in Korea, you'll be denied, but I assume if you click it anywhere outside the peninsula, you'll be allowed access.) It is a little Big Brother-ish, but South Korea has dealt with spies, assassins, international taekwondo groups and other sympathizers from the North for decades, so blocking North Korean sites is kind of a necessary evil. Blocking porno is pretty bad, but considering how sexuality is viewed in Korea, it's not a surprise. That said, Koreans are among the world's highest consumers of internet porn (HT Brian), so to say that it's totally or even partially blocked is very misleading.

You'll read a lot about how Koreans value national and communal solidarity over personal freedoms (I disagree) and even when preparing to travel to South Korea, the guide books warn not to bring in (among other things) porno and North Korean literature. That's more for show, but there is an increasingly touchy issue that is getting more traction these days and that is the monitoring and criminalization of netizen dissent.

Korean public opinion is very easily manufactured, manipulated and can change very quickly. President Lee Myung-bak won the election by a large margin and less than five months after taking office, the beef protests were in full-swing. The government tends to blame the internet. Just like people all over the world, tens of millions of Koreans rely on the internet for their news. The difference is that here, they don't trust anything they see on TV (save for PD Notebook), so the internet is their best bet. Of course, that creates the current culture we have now where one guy can alter the public opinion of millions, encourage the implementation of misguided laws (see Minerva and "Real Name System") and cause the government to panic and acquit jail someone for voicing his opinion.

As you probably know, free speech doesn't have a long history in Korea (neither does true democracy) and even after the pro-democratic movements of the 80's, we still see limits on how far said speech can go. Much of it is over-sensationalized on Daum and Naver forums, but it does highlight the fact that the Korean government has yet to come up with an effective way to handle online dissent. They appear to be under the impression that by banning key words, phrases, individuals or groups from the web will end their problems, but so far no results have come from it. Korea needs a little time to work out the kinks, but in the end, all of this censorship and mudslinging is a direct result from political posturing and manipulation of public opinion for petty gain. I will say that Korea is not Iran and is certainly not China when it comes to this. Nowhere close.

While discussing the internet, you also mentioned a registration number. You can access Korean websites without a number, but sometimes you can't purchase items from them without a national Korean ID. That is a separate issue that I will discuss in another post.

Also, the blogger that was arrested for blogging about North Korea sounds made-up. There are tons of (in-country) K-bloggers out there blogging about North Korea and many of them constantly rail into the South Korean government with absolutely no concern of legal retribution. Being critical of the government's North Korea policy is pretty safe since Koreans themselves are highly divided on the subject.

Miranda Rights in Korea is something that I have no experience with, so I'll have to rely on the words of others. According to EFL-Law, there are Miranda Rights in Korea and you do have the right to remain silent and not incriminate yourself. However, as an expat in Korea, the law tends to break in favor of Koreans as The Metropolitician discovered a couple years ago.

I think that once you arrive in Korea, you'll discover that many of your concerns have no real effect on you. As a new teacher in Korea, it's great to be informed, but sometimes searching too much before you have any perspective can lead you in the wrong direction, i.e., "South Korea seems more and more fascist." Sure, Korean journalists might be awful and the government might not control its people well, but once you're here, you should have no problem looking at North Korean porno while criticising the government for not doing enough to keep Nork spies from telling South Korean kids to kill themselves.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Teachers, Love Motels and an Interesting Welcome to South Korea

Here's the question:

I'm getting ready to move to Seoul and am worried about my apartment. I was told that I have one waiting for me, but when I asked to see pictures, they didn't respond. Yesterday, I talked to one of the teachers and they said that I'll be staying in a motel for a week. What's going on? Am I going to get screwed? Should I change schools?

I have been waiting for a love motel question for awhile. Let me kick this one off with a comment Brian left on a post about Jet Lag and Settling-in Time.

"I went from the airport to the hagwon to be shown around, and started teaching the next day. Actually, besides going to school right off the plane I also experienced something common for first-timers on their first night: I was put up in a love motel. Don't get me wrong, love motels rule. It was a weird introduction to Korea, and when the director said "your apartment isn't ready" all the horror stories entered my mind. But it was all right."

What Brian experienced many years ago is still in practice. Sometimes, the apartment is not ready as some schools recruit new teachers BEFORE the old teacher leaves in order to give the new recruit some observation time and maybe a little settling-in time. There's also the possibility (especially with Pagoda, Direct English, YBM etc...) that you will be put up in a love motel for a couple days while you and the director/apartment manager search for the new place. It appears that's what's happening and you really have nothing to fear. It's pretty common practice in the industry.

Now, let's get to the juicy part of the post. In the question, you simply called it a 'motel' and that's totally normal. After all, it is just a motel. However, a motel in Korea is not place you stop for the night when you can't keep your eyes open and on the road. The motel in Korea is called a 'love motel' and, for the most part, it's sole purpose is to house sex. Perhaps that might sound a little surprising since Korea often claims to be a conservative nation, but the truth of the matter is that even though Koreans might not talk about it or display it in public, it's going on all day and night.

Take this question The Korean answered last year:

Why is Korea so conservative about sex? Women go to great lengths to remain (or pretend to remain) virgins or thereabouts until marriage or Very Serious Long-Term Relationship With Certain Future Husband. But there is a Love Motel down every alley, filled with sexual activity all hours of the day. So what's the big secret?

The questioner was dead-on. There really is a love motel on every street and most of the time, they are filled with men and women doing it. Sometimes it's young lovers who didn't have anywhere else to be alone and other times it's a businessman who just offered a little under-the-table cash to his favorite girl at the room salon. If you want to read about some of the seedy-underbelly in Seoul, check out this, this, this, this and this. Brian has written a lot on love motels and hotels in his area as well. The gist of is it that they're ridiculously prevalent and no matter who much they try to claim they're for travelers, it's pretty clear what's going on there.

My wife and I have stayed at these places many times while traveling around the peninsula for the same reason that hagwons put new teachers up there: they're cheap. The cost is usually between 20 and 40 bucks and you can almost always get a room. The rooms aren'y that bad either. I could go on about it, but Brian has already taken a pretty good look at it, so I would suggest taking a peak at what he has to say. (On a side note, it seems that Brian writes more about Korean Love Motels than anyone else on the web. I'm glad someone took the time.)

In conclusion, don't be worried in the least about being shacked up in the love motels for a couple days while you wait for your place to be ready. They're comfortable, free, convenient and -between us- make sure you flip through ALL THE CHANNELS. It's kind of like a strange welcoming gift.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Will I be blacklisted from getting a new E2 visa for breaking a contract?

Here's the question:

I have been in Korea and have been screwed by 2 hagwons. I am signing with my third but do not plan on finishing my contract. I just signed last week and plan on leaving in 4 months. I make tons of money by teaching kindergarten in the mornings and doing privates so I would like to come back to Korea and teach at a later date. I'm leaving because I've been here for almost a year and miss my family and I need a vacation. My question is......if I run and then go back to the US for 3 months and have a vacation (which Koreans don't seem to respect), can I get another VISA when I am ready to come back to Korea and make more money? Or will Immigration blacklist me when I reapply?

I seem to be getting a lot of 'midnight run' questions these days. Sorry to hear about the bad hagwons. Have you taken the time to add them to ESLBlacklist, yet? If so, you should. I would also suggest that you stay away from hagwons. You seem to have a knack for finding the bad ones.

Pulling a midnight run and leaving the visa early is really not that big of a deal. It does, however, perpetuate a nasty stereotype and you would be screwing the school and your fellow teachers for a week or two, but in the end, the school will be fine and your tenure there would be nothing more than a bad memory. However, since the school didn't pay for your flight tickets or recruiter fee (since you were already in Korea), I would suggest that you tell them a month ahead of time. If you want, make up an excuse, but there is no need to do the late night sneak away.

Typically, the school will cancel your visa pretty quickly once it's discovered that you have left and in most cases they will not try to "blacklist" you. If you trash your apartment or get an advance the day before you flee, then they will try something, but there really isn't any clear evidence that hagwons have the authority to get your name on a blacklist. After all, you're not a criminal. You just left the country. Brian linked a Korea Times article that suggests Immigration "does not retain data on foreign nationals who have had work experience [in Korea]."

Technically, you should be fine to bail after four months and return on a new visa, but again, there is no risk in telling your new school that you've gotta leave either. Sometimes things happen at home and, if you're open and honest with them, then you should be fine.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Born in Russia, but a Canadian Citizen: Can I still teach English in South Korea?

Here's the question:
Hey expat I was wondering what exactly is a native English speaker? I was born in Moscow, Russia and my parents emigrated when I was 6 years old. They were both English teachers so it was fairly common around the house before I even started school in Canada. I am a Canadian citizen who has lived here since the age of 6 and attended everything from elementary school to university. Are they going to hold it against me if I wasn't born here even though I have spoken English and grew up here since childhood?

Interesting question with a simple answer. A native English speaker is
a person who has a passport from an English-speaking country (US, Canada,
UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ, Scotland or South Africa) and, in most cases, a degree from an English-speaking country. As long as you have a passport (and therefore citizenship) in Canada and your degree, then Korean Immigration would have no reason to question your "qualifications". It appears that you meet the minimum requirements for E2 eligibilty, so you should be ready to start the process

I also talk about non-native speakers here and here.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

"What Sub" Beer and Liquor Bar in Gangnam

Here's the question:

How exactly do you get to What Sub? I know where Castle Praha is since it's on the main street but those little side streets are so confusing.

I've actually gotten three questions about "What Sub" since my failed attempt to convince a fellow expat to give Korea a chance before running back home. Managing the side streets of Gangnam is a pain. Everything looks the same and after a few drinks, patience for searching usually runs thin pretty quickly. I remember a couple years ago we were searching for "Woodstock 2" and ended up spending over an hour walking in circles on the same two roads. We never found it either. That doesn't need to happen and since I live in the area, I can offer simple directions to "What Sub".

Looks hard, right. All you gotta do is walk out Gangnam Station exit 7. Go straight until you reach the McDonald's and City Theatre on your right. Just past McDonald's there's a small road that runs into the main drag. Walk up the hill. You'll reach a small side road running parallel to the main road. Cross it and keep walking up the hill. Once you cross that little road, start looking up and to your right. "What Sub" is about the 4th building on your right.

Once you see the building, the door is on the right.

The bar is on the third floor. Enjoy!

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Is Western Medicine Available in South Korea?

Here's the question:

I've read online that some over-the-counter drugs in the U.S. would require a prescription in Korea.

Do you have a resource that tells U.S. expats what is NOT available in Korea or anything that would require extra "work" or extra cost to get? (e.g. prescription drugs, certain foods, toiletries, electronics, etc...etc...)

Medicine in Korea is a little different. For the most part, when you go to a pharmacy (because that's where almost all medicine is sold), there will be very little medicine within reach. By that I mean that you will have to tell the pharmacist what's ailing you and they will make the selection for you. The medicine they give you will not be a bottle of cough medicine or a bottle of pills. Rather, it will be individual packets filled with powder (or something else). The amount is going to be enough only for you to complete your course. They will not give you more than you need.

There's not really an official resource since most over-the-counters in the US don't exist here. There's no need either. Koreans prefer their way and, in all honesty, I actually recover much quicker here than I did in the US.

As for the other part of the question, I think I should refer you to my "What to Pack" and "Western Food" posts. For available food check out EZShop Korea. Those links cover most of that in detail.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Shipping things to Korea

Here's the question:

Do you have any info on shipping things to Korea? I found a resource online that says one has up to 6 months to ship household goods. But would you know how to go about it? Companies to use? Etc...

Shipping things to Korea is not really difficult at all. You have a few options and, aside from the slow boat (which takes about two months), everything should arrive within a couple weeks. There are a few companies that ship abroad, butFedex is the most efficient method and since there are Fedex's all over Korea, I would recommend using it. My parents usually ship things to me via USPS and it always arrives within 10 days in perfect condition. Shipping things to Korea is not an issue. The only thing that you want to consider is weight and time. Other than that, there should be no problems.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

How to Make your stay in Korea a little better...

Here's the question:

I think I can narrow down my request to a simple topic, but I feel like I'm in more need of a pep talk than anything else. I have been in Seoul for 3 1/2 weeks now and I am trying to get adjusted. The hagwon that I work for just notified us that they will be closing in three weeks, but we might be merging with a larger hagwon, Avalon. I'm still waiting to hear the final details, but in the meantime, I am debating what I should do.

I have been told that the first couple of months are the toughest. I came from a large social circle at home so coming here and knowing nary a soul has been a challenge. Do you have any recommendations on social meetings/gatherings or websites that can point me in the right direction (to meet people)? I really don't want to give up on Seoul just yet, but I can see myself going home in three weeks if I can't find a reason to stay. As it is, if the school does merge with Avalon, I will be out of work for 3 weeks while they remodel and I won't really begin teaching for another month after that. My pay will be cut in half while the school is closed and I'm not sure if it's worth it.

I know you can't make my decision for me. I'm pretty much reaching out. However, if you know any good meetup websites, I would appreciate the information.

Thank you,

Adjusting to a new country is never easy. As you said, the first few months can be the hardest as well. Let's look at the phases of culture shock and see if we can figure out where you might be.

Honeymoon Phase - During this period the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light, wonderful and new. For example, in moving to a new country, an individual might love the new foods, the pace of the life, the people's habits, the buildings and so on.

Negotiation Phase - After some time (usually weeks), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. One may long for food the way it is prepared in one's native country, may find the pace of life too fast or slow, may find the people's habits annoying, disgusting, and irritating etc. This phase is often marked by mood swings caused by minor issues or without apparent reason. Depression is not uncommon.

Adjustment Phase - Again, after some time (usually 6 – 12 months), one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more "normal".

It looks like you're already in the second phase which of course, is the hard one. You mentioned that your work is proving to be a little unsteady as well and that makes an already difficult situation even harder. So, let me offer a little advice.

While you are here to work and make money, I assume that working was not the real reason you decided to come abroad. You need to rediscover that feeling you had before coming to Korea and the best way to do that is to ignore work. Ignore it. Do a good job while you're there, but don't treat it as if it were your career. It's probably not anyways. Work life in Korea is never smooth and trying to make it that way consumes way too much time and often proves to be fruitless.

You sent me a second email as well.

I just left the restaurant business after 14 years so I do like going out for a drink and I also love music and dancing. I have a deep interest in history, so cultural outings always intrigue me and I am always open to new experiences. I love to travel, so seeing more of Seoul and the surrounding areas is a priority.

Let's take this one interest at a time. You were in the restaurant business for over a decade, so I think you need to go with that. There are numerous food blogs that cover some really neat restaurants in the area. Make it a point to try and check a few places out every week.

* Seoul Eats is arguably the best food blog in the K-blogosphere and is regularly updated with new pics, restaurants and reviews.

* Fat Man Seoul
* Zen Kimchi
* Seoul Style
* The Korean Vegan

Those are in no way all of the food sites though. If you click on any of the above links, they will have several resources linked on their sites as well. You also mentioned you like going for drinks. Well, I don't really have to go into detail on that front since Koreans are heavy drinkers and the prevalence of hofs and bars attests to that, but where to go is another question.

You mentioned that you lived in Seocho, so you're just south of the River. Most of the high-traffic establishments are to the north, but you have options nearby.


Besides all the great restaurants in the area, there are some great bars as well. Personally, I like four or five bars in the area. In the Gangnam area, I prefer a small dive called "What Sub". It's a Korean bar, mostly frequented by Koreans, but the drinks are cheap (2 dollar shots) and the atmosphere is relaxed. There are also two bars called Woodstock in the area. The main Woodstock or "Woodstock 1" is smaller, more popular and heavily frequented by English teachers. They offer good music (It's a request system, so it can get bad), but the prices have gone up a lot (2000cc for 13,000 won). Woodstock 2 is a quieter, basement bar that sells mostly beer (sometimes they have Jager) and plays exclusively classic rock. There's also Castle Praha. I like this place because it's huge and you can get non-Korean beer. Here's a map.

In Apgujeong, I would recommend Monkey Beach. Cheap drinks, nice people and it even has a nightly fire show. I assume you know the other party areas of Seoul like Itaewon and Hongdae, so aside from a link, I shouldn't have to go into detail.

You mentioned you like dancing and music. Dancing can be found at just about any place in the city, but good live music is sometimes a stretch. I have written about this before and have tried to come up with a pretty comprehensive list of where you can find some good music. It depends on taste though. Drop by Expat-Advisory as well. They've got a lot of good stuff up there for you.

You mention history as well. Well, Seoul has a bunch of really great museums, not to mention a ton of historical sites throughout the city. I always suggest that people new to Korea go and pick up Michael Breen's book "The Koreans". Not only is it a fun read, but it also delves into a little history which is something you would like. You can find it at Kyobo Bookstore and just about all of the other ones.

Your next interest is where I will really be able to give some advice. You like to travel. That's perfect and is the best way to meet people. I should offer the official Korea Sparkling site for some ideas, but the real place to meet some good people who are in need to something more than the late-night benders is at Adventure Korea. They take great trips year around and give people the chance to make close friends. I always point people in their direction because everyone always finds something there. If you're into travel, then this is something you should jump on. Also, Ask Now is organizing a huge group of people for this years Mud Festival. That's something you should consider as well.

In the end, most people get frustrated in a new country because they haven't made any solid friends and they miss that connection. It's totally normal. There are endless social groups and organizations out there and all it takes is a little effort.

Fellow K-Blogger, Roboseyo, also offers some advice on "How to love the heck out of Korea." He's a little sugary, but sometimes that's what we need.

For my personal advice, don't give up yet. You came here for an experience and I know you would be letting yourself down if you gave up this early. There is so much amazing history, culture and natural beauty to see on the peninsula and so little time to see it all. You need to get out, break down any barriers you have set around yourself and be free. This is your year to rediscover what you love about life. Don't let the stress of work get in your way. You're not here to work and sleep, so don't let that happen. Contact Adventure Korea, go to a museum, dance to the music and just let it go. Very few people have the opportunity that you have right now. You get to leave the routine of life behind and just break free in a new country and a new world. And when the time does come for you to leave Korea, you will be a much richer person because of what you did. Don't give up. Your adventure has only just begun.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Midnight Run or Letter of Release? How do I get out of a bad school?

Here's the question:

I am looking for advice about E2's. My 2 friends are at a shit korean kindergarten (not hagwon, but a korean school that thought it would be cool to have English teachers but have no idea how things work). things have not worked out and they have agreed to give them release letters. they have been there 4 months and have agreed to pay back the flight here. The school is now telling them they must pay back the recruiter fee too since the recruiter is not agreeing to pay it back himself. as we know this is bullocks!

My questions are 1) can they just do a runner (and pay back the flight by working the last month free) and still get a new E2 for with a new school? or do they have to wait for their year to be up on the original visa? 2) if they get the release letter do they have to go to Japan to get a new E2 or can it just transfer over to their new schools?

thank you in advance.


This is one of those stories that everybody reads about on countless sites and blacklists. There are a couple ways to approach such a situation, but each must be done done well and with relative calm and finesse.

This is total advice since there is no proven formula for a painless exit from a bad school.

Technically speaking, your friends "shit kindergarten" has every right to demand repayment of the flight tickets and it's not at all uncommon for them to demand recruiter repayment as well. A lot of schools will dock fifty or so bucks from each paycheck for the first six months as a safety net in case a teacher doesn't work out or decides to pull a midnight run. So unless this school has a deduction system in place, they will try to get that money from them. Since contracts in Korea are not binding in the least, they have very little ground to stand on.

The Runner

You ask if they can do a "runner". Of course, you're referring to the infamous "midnight run" where a disgruntled English teacher bent on sticking it to the man picks up in the middle of the night, catches the red eye and laughs all the way home. I don't recommend this option in most cases (and especially not in public), but in all honesty, your friends are going to lose a lot more if they don't. If they run, then they need to do it sooner than later. Ethics aside, there is no reason to continue showing up to work if they are going to surrender all of their wages to the boss for repayment. They should quietly pack up, store their stuff at a friends place and hop on a cheap flight to Japan. Their absence at school will obviously be noticed and once the school discovers that their apartments have been abandoned (but don't trash it as that presents other problems), they will cancel the visa within a few days. Schools do not want the responsibility of having sponsored teachers MIA and wondering the countryside. That said, it is important to be out of the country by that time and/or be in contact with a new recruiter.

Once the school has cancelled the visa (and their new recruiter will know if it has been done), they can start the process over again, totally new and unknown to the unorganized and unmotivated immigration officials. All they need to have is their documents (diploma, criminal background check, transcripts, health exam...) and be out of the country to get another E2 visa. Some say that a midnight runner must remain out of the country until their previous contract expires, but the contract has little to do with the visa itself and should not be a problem.

I recommend this, but I don't really like it. It'll save your friends a heap of money, but it might screw a fellow teacher. And like always, they might have to deal with some unforeseen song and dance with immigration.

The Release

The release would be the safest option, but it looks like it's going to cost them. Traditionally, they would not have to fly to Japan since E2 sponsorship would simply to transferred, but if their current school is playing hardball and doesn't want to issue the letters until all debts have been repaid, then it would make a smooth transfer difficult.

It's a difficult situation to be in really and one that could be so much easier if their current school was being just a little bit more cooperative with the recruiter fees. Personally, I would get in contact with a recruiter, be honest with them about the situation, take a boat to Japan, save some of that repayment cash and start over at a well-researched and established school. Publicly, I would press for the letter of release as soon as possible and move on with as little hassle as possible.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I want to teach in South Korea, BUT I'm worried about North Korea. Any advice?

Here's the (increasingly common) question:

I'm leaving to teach in South Korea in mid-July, but my family is becoming worried about the situation with North Korea and is pretty much demanding me to stay in the US. I really want to go, but I am also getting worried. What should I tell them?


I have gotten so many questions about North Korea recently which doesn't really come as much of a surprise considering the recent tests and subsequent tension, but offering advice on this issue is not an easy one.

There's nothing I can tell you that will really calm a concerned family down. There is no key phrase or unknown facts that I can present to you here. Rather, I can only point you to where I get my information, so you can have a better understanding of what's going on. In the end, it is you and only you who can make the decision on whether to come to Korea or not.

Let me start by recommending a few solid resources. As usual, I'll send you to one of my personal favorites, ROKDrop. He has a very solid, clear and realistic grasp on North Korean issues. Being a career military man, he offers more than the posturing pundits and politicians who are way too visible when it comes to something many of them know little about.

While GI Korea over at ROKDrop has his shit together, he doesn't exclusively cover North Korean issues. One Free Korea, on the other hand, does. He has several updates everyday and once you start reading, you know he's been around and knows what he's talking about.

DPRK Studies is another excellent one. The main author has a long relationship with Korea and has spent years observing and studying the inner-workings of North Korean politics, history, security and society. It's a must-read in my opinion.

To get a fuller picture of the entire situation in the North, you must know everything and that's where North Korean Economy Watch steps in. This is an excellent resource for some of the information that you might not see posted on the other three. On top of that, they have been doing some amazing mapping work with Google Earth on North Korea. ROK Drop mentioned that it was featured on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Those four blogs kind of work in conjunction with each other. They all support the other and if you spent a few days reading them, then you would have a much better understanding of what's going on with North Korea.
For a solid news resource, check out Asia Times.
That's the information I can offer, but that doesn't really explain how I feel or how the average Korean feels about the north. Of course, there are fringe groups on both sides that remain vocal. Some are out protesting Kim Jong-il's provocations while others are protesting South Korean policy. That's what you see in the news, however, the average Korean suffers from North Korea Fatigue. That fatigue can manifest itself in a few different ways.

Many Koreans are like this man:
“We sent them food, fertilizer, factories, more than we give our own poor people,” said the South Korean, Lee Soon-hwan, a 30-year-old office worker. “And all they pay us back with is this nuclear test.”

He's like many Koreans who always had hoped that a peaceful reunification could be reached through economic aid and mutual development and while that may still be a very viable option, many are losing patience.
“The nuclear test has made people feel that North Korea has gone too far, and it’s high time for us to be tough on North Korea.”

There is no reason for me to go on and on about what could or should happen with North Korea as the bloggers above are world's more qualified and versed on the subject, but I can say that like many Koreans, seasoned expats have also reached a certain level of complacency. We have become immune to the weekly (and now daily) reports of North Korean discontent and aggression, so concern of an attack or serious emergency has been seriously dwindled.

I have been telling my family about these patterns with North Korea for years now and although they understand how North Korea acts, they still show genuine concern for my safety. That's what a family is supposed to do. So, my advice would be to read up on as much North Korean information as you can for yourself. You will not be able to magically calm your family, but you can calm yourself a bit.

On a side note, there are evacuation plans in the case of such an emergency.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.