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Friday, March 25, 2011

I've been trapped in Kim Jong Il's Basement OR What it's like in Korea

So it's been a couple months.  I'm very bad with blogs, what can I say.  The good news is I've been productive on other things, mainly writing of course, and getting more and more into an easy working groove.  So I guess it'd be useful for anybody perusing this blog now or in the future to know what it's like living and working in Korea.  So I'll answer some basic questions for you.

How did you get to work in Korea?

It wasn't too hard.  I went to and filled out the basic information, and wasn't an idiot.  The very kind and always helpful Mr. Choi helped with everything else.

What do I need in order to teach English in Korea?

You need to come from a country that has English as it's native language, a college degree in ANYTHING, a clean criminal record, and not be a moron.  Really, that's about it.  You do not have to speak one iota of Korean, have any educational background, or history teaching English.  You should be a pretty good speaker and be decent at writing and not having to lean on spellcheck though.

What kind of work would I be doing?

Chances are you're going to get hired by a hagwon.  A hagwon is an after-school center that specializes in a particular subject (i.e. Tae Kwon Do, Math, Science, Guitar, and of course, English).  Hagwons cater to a wide array of students, from kindergarten to high school kids.

Hagwons have weird hours, as they're after school centers.  You can probably count on working between 2:30 and 10:00.  some start sooner and get out earlier, some start later and end later.  Not all of that is work though.  I arrive at my hagwon at about 2:30 PM, leave at 9:50 PM, but only actually work about 3-4 hours of that.

It's kind of like college in that you have different classes on different days, and breaks between classes.  Even the really busy foreign teachers at my hagwon don't work more than 4-5 hours a day.

When you're in the classroom, you're following a book.  a lot of it is conversational, so there's a lot of questions and answers, though the content of that obviously varies with what age group you're with.  For my little kids, we play games and repeat basic sentences.  My older kids have long, complex conversations with me about current events and the like.  It's really, really easy, even if you have negative one hundred experience in teaching.

What's the pay like?

You can expect about 1.8-2.7 million won (about $1,700-$2,500 depending on current exchange rates) paid directly to a bank account the school creates for you once a month.  The school will also set you up with an apartment, rent free.  I only pay for electricity, water, and internet in my apartment.  That costs me about 70,000\ ($65) a month for all that.  My internet bill back home by itself was over $50.

Also, since you're not a Korean citizen, you pay next to no taxes.  I pay about 3% in taxes.  Nothing.  You also get decent health insurance.  I've been here about 5 months and I've got just under $10,000 (from $0 when I arrived) without really trying to save at all.

What if I don't want to work at a hagwon?

There's a LOT more opportunities once you get here.  There are regular schools you can work for, even universities (though universities require a bit more in the way of qualifications, like prior teaching experience, a degree in English or English related field (i.e. Literature, writing, etc), maybe a TEFL certificate, or a Master's.  Some of the high end universities require all of these AND more.  However I've also seen a job at Ulsan University that had the same requirements as my hagwon, so it depends.  The regular schools have roughly the same requirements as the hagwons.

I'm afraid of North Korea!

North Korea usually just bares it's teeth once or twice a year and does something stupid and things quiet down.  I was here when they shot the island off the coast of Incheon in November of 2010, and the attitude of most Koreans was that the North was crazy, and they went about their day as per usual.  If they're not worried, I'm not worried.

What do you like about Korea?

The food is amazing.  Lots of pork, beef, rice, and vegetables.  It's also really cheap.  I highly recommend you try shabu shabu, sam gyeop sal, bi bim bap, dong kas, chamchi kimbap, and, well, everything really.

The people will stare at you, but it's out of curiosity, not disrespect.  They're mostly polite.  there are some jack asses, but every country has those.  If you make a faux pas, they'll politely correct you, or usually just ignore it, and dismiss the social error as you being a foreigner and not knowing and they're cool with it.  You'll get a lot of random Korean people shouting "Hello!" at you.  They're mostly very friendly and sweet.

I also like that in the city, everything is in walking distance.  I can get most any place worth getting to in 15 minutes or less of walking, including work.  If I have to take a taxi, they're very reasonable and the cabbies are usually friendly.

What don't you like about Korea?

The traffic is insane.  I am never buying or renting a car here.  To hell with that.

Some of the things they do to western style food is a culinary crime.  You should not be allowed to put mayonnaise, corn, and shrimp on a pizza and be allowed to operate a restaurant.  Also, fried chicken is NOT Mexican food.

The television here is truly awful.  Every Korean show is about women crying and sad violin music playing.  Sometimes there is incest or gender swapping.  I don't even know.

That's really it.  This country's pretty great and I got used to it absurdly fast.  I still miss home, but Korea's a really swell place to live for a while.

Would you recommend teaching and living in Korea to others?

If you've got an open mind, aren't pants-on-head retarded, aren't a whining baby about things that are different, and want to experience another culture, absolutely.  I've already decided I want to spend another year here, maybe two more.  If you got more questions, post 'em in the comments area.


  1. Hello, I just graduated from college. I am looking for a teaching job here in Texas, but I am struggling to solidify a stable job. I was wondering what kind of advise would you have that you may have not mentioned in this post.

    1. Not much else really. If you go through a recruiter you're bound to find a stable job with decent benefits. You might also consider going through the EPIK organization.