A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about tips and tricks

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)

A Beginner's Guide to Getting Scammed


There are all kinds of scams when you're traveling.

You get hassled to come look at your tuk-tuk driver's friend's tailor shop.
You spend all day on a trip that is made as uncomfortable as possible to ensure that you will stay at the "right" hotel.
And if you're naive, and you don't watch it, you will be overcharged like crazy.

That being said, I have never fallen prey to any MAJOR scamming. I'm almost positive that I've paid a bit too much for a bag, or a book, or even a bottle of water. A few cents here and there is no problem...traveling in Southeast Asia, I know that these people need the money more than I do.

To an extent.

Crossing the Thai border into Cambodia at PoiPet (from the Eastern island Koh Chang), we were overcharged for our bus (my companion paid 600Baht, I paid 700, and everyone coming from Bangkok, much farther away, was charged 400). When we reached Poi Pet, we were taken to a "travel agency" that was going to help us with our Cambodian visas. In every guidebook, from every traveler, we knew that the visa would cost $20USD. That's 600 Thai Baht. We started filling out the form and a woman told us that it would cost 2400 Baht each.

That's right...they wanted to charge us not double, not triple, but FOUR TIMES what it actually cost.

When we started questioning them, they made it very obvious that this was a scam and that the jig was up. The woman became very rude and muttered that we should have started the visa process 3 days ago in Bangkok...because without their help, that's how long it would take. "1...or...2...or 3 days." Another man actually raised his voice and started shouting. We continued to refuse to pay the inflated prices, and they continued to be nasty.

Eventually we made it to the "courtyard of shame," where there about 10 other people who were willing to take their chances at the border. We were branded with yellow stickers, while the "suckers", as I like to call them, were given pieces of red tape.

It all worked out in the end...we ended up paying 1000 Baht for the visas, but at least we were extorted by the Cambodian government who did it with a smile.
- AND we were on the same bus going over the same endless bumps and covered by the same dust from the road as the red-sticker suckers. We all spent the same 4 hours at the Thailand-Cambodia border. The road was terrible, but we made it Siem Reap...a little wiser, a little dirtier...but with 1400 extra Baht in our pockets toward the high Angkor Wat fee.

Which is totally worth it.

Posted by lrbergen 23:54 Archived in Cambodia Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (1)

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