A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about living abroad

Year 8


This year, I turned 30. Quite a milestone, yes? I had to renew my passport because it expired. Yet another milestone. And I got to thinking about another landmark in my life and it gave me pause. As of this month, August 2013, I have been living abroad and teaching English for 8 years.

8 YEARS!!!!!!!!!!

That includes Mexico and Korea.

So what have I learned?

  • Don't really trust your Korean boss. I've been duped into it a couple of times with mildly to horribly frustrating and disappointing results.
  • When given something to eat that you don't know, at least try a bite. More often than not, it's actually good, and it always makes for a great story.
  • Wherever you go, pack lightly. Read up ahead of time to see if you're going to a place that doesn't have, say, tampons (I can safely say most of SE Asia does NOT carry these). Do you really want to be the one tied down to a rolling suitcase? Do you really want to wait at baggage claim because you brought too much stuff? It's so satisfying to get off the plane, go through immigration, and leave the airport.
  • There are trade-offs to everything. You might get a great job with awesome pay, but there will always be something that is not so great. Always. I love my life, but I don't have a house or car or husband or children. Trade-off.
  • Learn to roll with the changes. I am not good at this. I usually take it as a personal affront if there are last-minute changes at my job, but I do somewhat okay outside of that. If you live in another country, you'll have to deal with a lot of difficulties in your everyday life...setting up a cell phone, going to the doctor, figuring out immigration...at least in Korea, no policy ever stays the same. So. There's that.
  • Learn at least a little bit of the local language. I have really slacked off on this in recent years, but on my backpacking trip in Vietnam, I learned a lot of basic phrases and important words. While it wasn't essential to basic communication (a LOT of people there speak English in the more touristy towns), it was just...nice. My Korean is terrible, but I mostly know how to communicate in my everyday life, and that is very helpful.
  • You NEED vacation. You do. I have a friend who didn't take a real vacation for more than a year and I can't for the life of me understand how he did it. I have learned that I need to get out of the country on this vacation, but not everyone can or needs to. I actually just got back after a week from the Philippines and I honestly feel I am much better for it. It's Korean culture, however, to work long periods of time with no vacation. WHY?!
  • Don't keep working at a job you hate. Of course it's hard to get out of it and get a new one, and your life will get upset for a while, but in the end it's worth it. I know teaching here is most of my life. I've quit 3 jobs because there is no reason to be miserable.
  • Change can be really good.
  • But so can routines.
  • It's a bit easy to get desensitized to beauty and wonder and excitement.
  • *This post was written in August 2013. It is now September 2014! Oops!

Posted by lrbergen 04:50 Archived in South Korea Tagged tips_and_tricks living_abroad Comments (0)

On Teaching in Korea

a how-to guide....kinda

UPDATED 2/14/2015!

I've been asked by many a friend, or friend of a friend, or random person that someone kinda knows about teaching in Korea. I'm always happy to give answers to any questions, but for someone who has never been here or taught abroad, there are usually just too many. So usually I write e-mails full of as much information as I can think of....but I usually end up forgetting lots of stuff. I've written a lot of these e-mails, so now it's time to put it down in blog form. What follows is as much as I can offer about teaching in Korea.

There are a few options of teaching in Korea, but in this post I'm going to talk about the three options that I've done: after-school hagwons (privately run, for-profit businesses), public school, and after-school public school jobs. I've done all three, and there are pros and cons for both, as you can imagine.
(There are also universities, international schools, and institutes where you would teach adults, but I've never done those!)

The similarities between all three are:
- your airfare and apartment are paid for by the school+
- your school sponsors your E-2 visa
- you will receive a month's pay extra after finishing your contract
as a severance bonus++
- if your school is on the level, you will be paying into the national pension fund and they will match it...at the end of your time in Korea, you get all of that money back! (Per year, it comes out to roughly 1 month's salary.)+++

+ - usually. Some hagwons are trying to worm their way around paying for your flight...and some of them will choose the cheapest, and often crappiest, flights they can find. In these cases, it might be best to get your own flight and then usually your school will reimburse you for most of it. Also, some schools offer a housing allowance in lieu of just providing an apartment...if they do that, make sure they can pay the "key money" (deposit - usually around $5000) and that you have a say in the apartment you'll be getting. I've been unpleasantly surprised in the past to learn I was going to live in a shoe box for a month.
++ - I thought this practice had fallen out of fashion, but it still seems perfectly legal (or at least EXTREMELY EASY to get away with) that hagwons will fire you in your 11th month to avoid paying this. Do some research on your hagwon before you accept a job there...a simple google search will generally connect you to a "blacklist" site that will have reviews by other teachers. If there is any funny business (no severance, late pay, etc.), it's best to avoid that school. In my experience, other foreigners are more trustworthy critics than any hagwon director I've ever worked for.
+++ - a lot of hagwons are getting away with contracts that omit the pension. They claim that you are an "independent contracted individual" rather than an employee, and this is a loophole that they love. I'm not sure if it's illegal, but basically they have found a way to avoid paying you money. If there is no pension listed in your contract, ask about it. If they don't offer it, it's up to you. You pay about half a month's salary over the course of a year and so does your employer. Do you want to work for a company that wants to weasel their way out of paying you? I've worked for 2 such places and in the end quit because of other reasons. But I think the pension issue is indicative of other problems.

With a hagwon:
- you will usually be working with other foreign teachers, which is often helpful when you're first starting out
- you can usually get more money +
- your class size is usually a lot smaller, and you get to know the kids a bit more
- these kids can usually speak at least a little bit of English so it's easier to communicate
- some hagwons can be disreputable: hagwons sometimes don't pay on time, fire teachers with no legal grounds, or sometimes close up
altogether leaving you stranded....among other issues
- you'll be working a bit more than at public school...often teaching 6 hours (sometimes in a row, with no break)
- vacation is usually 1-2 weeks per year...yes, per YEAR
- they hire year-round

+ - meh. I've been here since 2005 and my starting salary then was 2.1 million won ($~2000) per month. I have seen a LOT of listings that still have this as starting pay. I've made more, but it was usually at the cost of my pension. I've seen listings for less. There are also listings for a lot more money, but you'll be working around 10 hours a day in split shifts. It's really ridiculous that average salary prices haven't been raised in 10 years!

With public school:
- you are most likely to be working as the only foreign teacher in the school...this can be daunting, or a nice break depending on your
point of view (I personally didn't mind it)
- you will get paid a bit less, although if you get yourself an online TEFL certificate of more than 100 hours you can start off a bit higher....also, if you live in a rural area, they will give you a bit more money
- your class size is anywhere from 20 to 40...and depending on the size of the school, you will see every student in the school 1-3 times
a week
- don't expect much from the kids in the way of English...some of them will speak it, but the kids are separated by grade level, not
English ability
- you will always get paid on time, and you never need to worry about your contract ending early. Korea is experiencing budget cuts right
now, however, so it's not guaranteed that you'd be able to re-sign for another year. +
- there is tons of free time...you'll have to be there for 8 hours a day, but you'll get around 3 of that to yourself
- you'll be teaching a winter "camp" and summer "camp", during which you will be the only teacher and will have a lot more freedom in the way of what you teach
- if you work at an elementary school, you will have a set curriculum that you will follow...middle and high schools do not have a curriculum
- 4 weeks paid vacation. That's the big pull for public school.
- the hiring season is usually for September or March

+ - they are not hiring NEARLY as many teachers for public school, again because of budget cuts. So you can imagine, they are pretty competitive.

I have just finished working for an after-school program, which also vary wildly on what you'll get. These (from my understanding) are independently contracted companies that work with public schools to provide after school English, which is separate from what the students learn in their regular school day. Some companies are for-profit, like a hagwon, but some (like mine) are through a university. I personally worked with Hanshin University and I had nothing but good experiences with them. They are the only company I've worked for in 9 years that I would recommend.

So, what can you expect from an after-school job?
- shorter work hours. This was 100% the reason I took this job. I worked 4 hours a day, with no office hours, prep time, or desk warming. I came in 10 minutes before my class started and left when it was over. Some after-school programs are around 6 hours, including prep time, but from what I know you will still only teach 4 hours. And 6 hours is still less than 8!
- less money. I mean, it's a trade-off, right? You are working few hours a day, so you get paid less. I also got a housing allowance of $300...they would have put me in an apartment that I didn't like (because it was $300 and you get what you pay for), but I opted to pay more to have a better apartment. They did provide key money though!
- SOME after school jobs will give you permission to work part-time teaching jobs to make up the money. This is a new benefit for E2 holders. I've been working at a private kindergarten for an extra hour a day to make up the difference in money.
- it seems to be a cross between a hagwon and a public school. At least mine was. I always got paid on time, had 2 weeks vacation for the year, had pretty small classes, and was the only foreigner at my school (and quite possibly that entire neighborhood).

As far as recruiting companies' reliability....it's a total crapshoot. There is literally no accountability...recruiters can (and often do) lie with no consequences. And never publicly denounce them, or you can suffer Korea's libel laws. You can get lucky, though, and have a decent one. Unfortunately, there just doesn't seem to be any way of knowing. If you want public school, I recommend Korvia.com. They were wonderful to me. As far as hagwon recruiters go...it's hard to tell. I just recently quit a job because it wasn't at all what I thought it was going to be. That's just the
way it is in Korea...

Posted by lrbergen 21:57 Archived in South Korea Tagged tips_and_tricks living_abroad Comments (0)

Foreign Country Dentistry

not the same as america.


You know the old adage "You pay for what you get"? It's true. Every time I find this statement verified, I'm surprised, though I never know why.

Teaching in public school, I have a LOT of vacation. I haven't taught a full day since December 15 (the week before Christmas, we showed "Elf" to the kids). February is full of downtime...the kids come to school for only a week and March starts the new school year. Weird, eh? That's one of the reasons why I decided to have my wisdom teeth taken out. They don't usually bother me, sometimes they're a little sore, but they haven't surfaced (I'm almost positive that's not the correct term but oh well) and they don't threaten the other teeth any more than normal. So why did I decide to torture myself this way?

A bit of background: Growing up, I never had any major problems with my teeth (I'm 27 and am going on 28 years with no cavities).....this is extremely fortunate because we always had little to no dental insurance. Teeth cleaning alone cleaned us out. I had to have dental x-rays as part of my Peace Corps application in 2005. The dentist said because the bottom ones are impacted, in the US it would be $1000 per extracted tooth. That equals $4000. FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS. For non-threatening teeth. (Ha...from that sentence, I imagine them holding little knives to my other teeth.) Obviously, I didn't go through with it.

I've had my teeth cleaned twice since I've been in Korea (it had been a looooooooong time before that first one) and because I've gone to a....luxury dentist, it's been 60,000 won, or around $60. That's the most expensive I've heard of. My friend started the wisdom tooth trend, telling me hers would be a grand total of 20,000 won. Yep. 5,000 per tooth.

$4000? or $20? Hmmmm...I listened to other stories of friends getting their wisdom teeth out (in the US or Canada) and it didn't sound like it would be all that bad. I had a whole week to recuperate...so why not?

To reiterate: I decided to get it over with because it's cheap and I had a lot of time to recover. But doing this all in Korea is VERY different than what I heard about Canada and the US. Examples follow.

  • In Canada and the US, dentists speak English. So do you. Therefore, you are told what to expect beforehand and given clear care instructions after.
  • In Korea, some dentists speak English. Mine didn't. Usually someone else working there will speak English. No one...NO ONE at my dentist spoke English. I chose this particular dentist because it's a 2-minute walk from my apartment and I thought the whole language barrier would be less frustrating than it was. It was way more frustrating than probably any other experience I've had so far. Should something have happened (it didn't), I wouldn't know what was going on. Fortunately, a very awesome friend of mine was available to translate. We spent a lot of time on the phone that day.
  • In Canada and the US, they will usually extract all of the wisdom teeth at once. This makes sense to me...why spend 2 weeks recovering when you can just spend one?
  • In Korea, they don't. When I made the appointment, the lady did a lot of miming and I understood "Which teeth do you want out?" I responded "All 4." She said OK. I came back the next week for the procedure, and as I was sitting in the chair, they mimed that they would only take out one side at a time, with 2 weeks in between procedures. We called my friend, he confirmed. I kind of already knew this was common beforehand, but because of that blasted language barrier, I thought they were making an exception when I made the appointment. Nope. That's not how they roll.
  • In Canada and the US, they sometimes put you completely under. They sometimes only give you local anesthesia. It just depends.
  • In Korea, they only give you local. You can prepare yourself mentally beforehand if your dentist speaks English and tells you how it's going to be. Mine of course didn't, so I brought along a friend who could make sure I got home okay in case they put me under. It was nice having him there anyway. For those of you who have never had this done, they stick a big needle into your gums. It sounds (and looks) scarier than it is. (And it's really odd that I freak out when getting poked by a medical needle, since I have 6 tattoos...and counting.) Eventually, your lip will go numb and you will start to feel like you're drunk (though...that may have just been mental). At some point, the dentist will come back in and he'll start. (All the waiting was due to the fact that there was ONE dentist on duty and several other patients that he had to attend to...also, I'm sure he's making sure you're completely numb before he starts.) Here's the thing though...you can't feel most of the pain, but you can definitely feel that something is going on. It's standard procedure that they break the bottom wisdom tooth and remove the pieces. You definitely can tell when he's doing this. You feel pressure, and it sucks feeling that someone is trying to literally break part of you. In Korea, they put a cloth over your face (with a hole for your nose and mouth) for most procedures (even cleaning) so you can't see what's going on (or into your mouth). I am really thankful for this, because I'm sure seeing it all would have made it worse.
  • In Canada and the US, I'm guessing if they give you local anesthesia, they give it to you all at once and do all of the teeth at once? I don't know, really. I do know that the whole thing is really fast.
  • In Korea, at my dentist, they numbed the bottom, took out the bottom tooth, injected the top, then took out the top. In between all of these things, they waited a loooooooooong time. That's why I was there for 3 hours. The actual procedures didn't take that long (the bottom took about 15-20 min and the top around ...5-10). It felt like I was there forever.
  • In Canada and the US, they put in dissolvable stitches, so you don't have to go back and get them removed.
  • In Korea, they don't. I have to go get mine out today, a week later. The bottom ones have already pretty much come out though (and are just kind of...there) and it's pretty annoying. Not painful, but annoying.
  • In Canada and the US, they realize that they are breaking part of you and removing it. It doesn't feel good. So they give you pretty strong painkillers as to make it bearable.
  • In Korea, they give you motrin. I'll let that sink in. MOTRIN. This is what I take for my menstrual cramps, not having teeth taken out of my skull. After all was said and done, I had to bite on that gauze for 2 hours before I could take it out. I was in...pain. Not excruciating...not the worst I've ever felt in my life, but definite, REAL pain. I had to wait 2 hours to take my pain medication, which I thought was stronger than your ordinary run-of-the-mill motrin. After 20 minutes of taking it and feeling it was doing nothing, we googled it. (Korean medications have different names than back home.) "MOTRIN?! Where's the vicodin? The codeine? The lovely little pill that is going to get me through this?" We actually packed it up and went back to the dentist. They said they don't give anything stronger for just wisdom teeth. Policy in Korea. If I was in too much pain, I could go to the 3rd floor doctor and get a shot. Fine! We went down and sat there while he finished up a phone call. I went in and described my pain (the dude speaks a bit of English) and asked for whatever he could give me. He told me I was being impatient and needed to wait the 2 hours it takes for the drugs to kick in. Wait...it takes TWO HOURS to kick in? So I'm sitting there, unmedicated and bleeding, for a full 4 hours? This has to be a joke. A very cruel...sick...joke. I think this was the worst part of the whole thing, because it really did feel like they couldn't care less about how I was feeling, about my pain.

[Sidenote: I hear it's common to under-medicate for pain here. We were wondering...is it because of the...war? Like...Koreans (and, whatever...I guess foreigners too) are expected to be stronger because they've been through so much? Or...kimchi helps? Or...the West just over-medicates? I don't know, and I don't care. When I know I need it, I want it available.]
[Sidnote #2: The motrin is really all I needed after the first day. I wasn't in too much pain for the rest of the week.]

There were a lot of tears on this day. My friend, who was coming to support me, and I had miscommunicated about where to meet and then he couldn't find it right away, so when I thought he wasn't coming... that was upsetting. I came in scared but, I thought, prepared and when nothing, no nothing, was how I expected it to be, that was upsetting. The bottom tooth came out and I was freaked out, but for me the top (and easier to remove) tooth was horrible. There was way more pressure and I completely tensed up, started shaking, started crying. Then, when I found out I'd be in pretty bad pain and there's nothing that anyone could (or in my mind, would) do about it, I cried. Maybe I had just needed a good cry.

This scared me probably way more than it should have. People get this done all the time. I always think I'm so strong, but when it comes to this I'm a huge baby. I'm supposed to go back and get it done all over again next Monday. But...I don't want to. Yes, I'm scared, even though I know what to expect. Maybe if I could get some better painkillers for the first day, I might consider it. Or maybe if they put me under, I might. As it is, the right side can stay put for now. Indefinitely.

Posted by lrbergen 19:27 Archived in South Korea Tagged dentistry living_abroad life_in_korea Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 3 of 3) Page [1]