Saturday, December 26, 2009

2nd Week of Training and Christmas

So we finished our second week of training on Thursday. My school decided they wanted me to teach TOEFL prep so I had a week of that. Because there are only 5 of us left, our class sizes were tiny. My class was just me! It feels good to be done again though. I've been living in a hotel for 2 weeks now which means it has been 2 weeks since I've done laundry, unpacked, or cooked.

But that should all change soon because I now have my branch assignment: Pyeongchon, which means I can go apartment hunting. I'm meeting with the realtor on Monday and I start teaching on Tuesday. For the first two weeks I'll just be substituting, and then I'll get my own classes. I picked up my books today at the branch and had a look around the neighborhood. It's pretty suburban, but there is a main street and a large stripmall so it should be OK. There are also some pretty mountains in the background and I saw a few people with ski/hiking gear.

Oh yeah, and it snowed on Christmas!!! Yes, it was just a few flakes. No, it didn't collect. And no, I wasn't able to capture it on camera. But still, it snowed on Christmas! It was my first time witnessing snowing in action and it was awesome....until it got in my eye and then it was marginally less awesome.

Today was super cold (18 F) and I think it's supposed to snow again next week. Today and tomorrow I'll be prepping for my first class, and on Monday I'm going back out to Pyeongchon to look for housing and have orientation for the non-TOEFL classes I'll be teaching.

As for Christmas, the gang and I decided to go traditional: We hit up a burger joint called Smokey Saloon and then went to the mall. Apparently that's what they do here in Korea because Coex mall was packed (I could probably devote an entire post to Coex, which includes within its walls a Megabox movie theater, an aquarium, a casino, and a kimchi museum, in addition to hundreds of stores and restaurants). I also watched a classic Christmas movie, Grosse Pointe Blank. All in all, I'd say it was a pretty successful Noel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009


There are flurries today! Hopefully, it's a mock snowfall so that it will be ready for Christmas. Snow!!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

End of Week 1

Training is over! After the most intense four days I think I’ve ever been through, I am so ready to relax and explore the city. All week, we attended orientation from 9:30-3:30 and then went back to the hotel for another 6-8 hours of studying and practice mocking. We were responsible for knowing about 8 lessons and we spent most of the days Wednesday and Thursday practice mocking at the training center with our trainers. On Friday we had our final mocks while our prospective bosses watched us through CCTV.

At the end, we found out that fourteen of the fifteen people in training passed, including two of the three in my group (Eagle). As soon as our finals were over, we had to disperse to our locations, so it was kind of a bittersweet moment as we found out that we passed but then had to say goodbye to each other. We’re all hoping to meet up for Christmas next Friday.

The four of us who are going to be in Seoul moved from our hotel to another hotel, and we still don’t know at which branch we’ll be located yet. Apparently we have another week of training, albeit less intensive, and that means yet another week in a hotel room. At least they’re paying for the hotel and training next week will also be paid. I can’t wait to find out my location and move into my apartment though. Also, the longer it takes us to finally start, the later our contract gets moved so the 12-month contract that was originally supposed to go from August 2009 to August 2010 is looking more like January 2009 to January 2010.

Today we went to the Coex Mall, a huge shopping center with an aquarium, movie theater, and hotel in it. We watched Avatar, which was kind of like Pocohantas meets Star Wars.

I think tonight a couple of people want to go to Itaewon, the foreigner neighborhood in Seoul, to go to a couple of “waygook” bars and clubs. Seeing as it’s like twenty degrees outside and will only get colder tonight, I’m not sure if I’m up for a nighttime expedition.

Which leads me to the weather. It is freaking cold, around fifteen to twenty degrees Fahrenheit (-9 to -6 Celsius). My face and fingers hurt from the cold, and I find it difficult to speak when I’m outside because my lips turn numb. I’m hoping it won’t get too much colder in January or that I’ll get used to it because otherwise I am not going outside until spring or at least when it's less cold. Maybe I should use the word "cold" again. Cold.

Our new hotel is located in Gangnam, which is the ritziest neighborhood, and business district, of Seoul. We’re right along the main road and there are some truly beautiful Christmas lights out. I’m hoping to take some pictures tonight (if I can handle the cold).

Ooooh and it might snow on Friday….for Christmas!!!! Eeeeek!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Training really begins

Today we had our first real day of training and it was a doozy. We went from 9:30-3:30, but there's just so much information to process and tonight we're supposed to have about 7 hours of homework. While there are 15 of us doing training this week, we have all been split up depending on which program we're doing. There are the "April Institute" trainees who will be teaching the tiny tots, the trainees doing elementary and middle school, and then those of us doing middle and high school. I found out today that I'll be teaching the advanced group, which means that the material itself is pretty tough. (Funny side note: Koreans are obsessed with golf; there are golf stores, virtual golf places, and even golfing games in gyms everywhere. It may come as no surprise, therefore, that the class levels at Chung Dahm are split up into golf terms, so the beginners are "Par," next up is "Birdie," then "Eagle," which is the level I'll be teaching, and the highest levels are Albatross and Albatross+ which have nothing to do with golf but I suppose they couldn't exactly call them "Hole in One" and "Hole in One+").

Cool Korean Cultural Facts learned today:

1. It is customary for someone sitting (say, on the subway) to hold the belongings of someone standing. While we were taking the subway back from the training center, an elderly man sitting in one of the seats took my friend Alisa's binder from her hands and put it on his lap. We all stared incredulously wondering what the heck he was doing, but apparently he was just being polite. It's actually really sweet when you think about it.

2. You are never supposed to pour your own drink...let's say, water, because it makes you seem lonely. We've been practicing this whenever we go out and try to pour each other's....water.

So we have two more days of training and then on Friday is the big test. We have to pass two class structure tests and then do a mock lesson in front of our small classes, the trainers, and CCTV where our supervisors will be watching from behind a camera. Creepy? Yep.

After (if?) I pass on Friday, I will be told to which location I shall be headed in Seoul and then I'll go there. This is the only part of this whole deal that has worried me because many people already know where they are going, but a few of us are still unsure. None of us know exactly how we're supposed to get to our locations either, so Friday will be a nerve-wracking day.

Let's see, it's almost 6 PM, so if we start studying now we should be done by 1 AM. Ugh. Good night.

Monday, December 14, 2009

1st Day of Training + Medical Exam

This morning at 10:15 AM a call van came to pick us up from the hotel to take us to our first day of training. It was just a basic orientation, followed by four tests (which I passed! yay!) and then the van took us to the hospital for a medical exam. We were weighed and measured, then our eyes and ears were tested, next a chest x-ray, a blood test, and urine test, and we were done for the day.

The entire time we were at the training center and from now on whenever we're the training building, we have to wear these face masks so as not to infect the Koreans with our awful Western diseases. We aren't even allowed to mingle with the "domestic" trainees while we're there. The masks aren't too uncomfortable, but it's funny watching people with glasses wear them because it makes them all fogged up.

Starting tomorrow we'll have to find our own way back to the hotel from the training center via subway so I'm glad we got a head start on that.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Subway, Shopping and Soju, oh my!

Our first full day in Seoul, we decided to venture out of the neighborhood of our hotel. After asking the receptionist what was nice to see around here, and receiving a "not much" shrug, we threw caution to the wind and went out on our own. We walked rather aimlessly for about thirty minutes and finally stumbled into a hotel called Friend Hotel and asked someone there how to get to the shopping area. He told us to take the subway to Chungmuro. The subway??!! By ourselves??!!

So we did it! And it was easy! The ticket vending machine was in English and it cost $1 for a one-way ticket. The subway was so clean and efficient and even had TV screens for our viewing pleasure.

 We ended up in this HUGE outdoor shopping area. It was like the Champs Élysées on steroids. They had everything: Zara, Adidas, Forever 21, Timberland, Fubu. The place was pretty crowded when we got there, it being a Saturday around noon, but when we left in the late afternoon it was nigh impossible to walk. I guess Koreans like to sleep in on Saturdays, which is perfectly fine by me.

We stopped into this huge department store called Lotte which had 11 floors including an entire story devoted to a food court. There were dozens of food options to choose from: Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, even a Mr. Pizza.

                                         Here's what I ordered.                                      This is what it looked like, yum.

We had some lunch and then headed back to the hotel to take a nap. Of course, on our way back we got woefully lost and wandered around looking for the landmark that told us we were close to the hotel, a giant crab, which we never found.

After a two-hour nap, we went out for dinner and some drinks. Michelle and I met up with Quinn and Richard, and about eight other people working for Chungdahm and staying in the same hotel. One of the guys was Korean and was our tour guide for the night. He took us to this Chinese restaurant where we had a ton of food for super cheap.

Next we went to a bar called Tree Hof (there are a lot of "hofs" around here and my theory is that it's short for "hofbrau"). We had beer and flavored soju which tasted more like grape, peach, and pomegranate punch. Delicious! We were there for a while, mingling, and it was so awesome that we're all from such varied places. Here's what I've gathered so far: we've got 2 Canadians (both from Toronto), 4 Michiganders, 1 Floridian, 1 D.C.-er, 1 Texan, a New Yorker, I think a Pennsylvanian, and a New Zealander. Pretty cool, huh? Oooh and a Californian! I can't believe I'm the only one!

A couple of people went out clubbing but the rest of us headed back to the hotel for a late night grammar session. Yep, that's right. Nice and buzzed, we decided to discuss adverbial clauses.

I finally made it to bed around 3:30 and then woke up at 8 this morning. Today is the last day before training so I think we're all going to stay in and study for the test tomorrow.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


I made it here alive! After boarding a United airlines flight at SFO, watching 500 Days of Summer, and sleeping for 11 hours, I arrived in Seoul at 6:30 PM local time. The flight went pretty smoothly and we actually got in about an hour early. At the airport, I grabbed my bags, then made my way outside to take a bus from Incheon to the Seoul City Air Terminal. Even at 8 PM, there was tons of traffic and the journey took about an hour and a half. While on the bus, a girl asked if I was with ChungDahm (my school) and it turns out she will be teaching there as well. Her name is Michelle and she is from Michigan. Once we got to Seoul, we called a taxi which took us to our hotel, COATEL. On the way, we passed such American cultural icons as On the Border Mexican Restaurant, Bennigan's, Dunkin Donuts, and Hooters. We also passed about a dozen Starbucks', a few 7-11s and plenty of places with American-sounding names I've never heard of.

We checked in at the hotel and were handed our room keys and thermometers. Yep, thermometers (apparently our health will be closely monitored by our school during training). The man at the front desk escorted us to our room where we already had a roommate, another ChungDahm teacher named LaToya who is from Florida. Within a few minutes of settling in, we received an email from other fellow ChungDahm teachers also staying in our hotel. We sent them our room number and two guys, Quinn and Richard, came up. Quinn is from Idaho and Richard is Canadian, eh. The five of us decided to go out for some dinner at 11PM.

Seoul must be the city that never sleeps. At 11PM the streets were still jam-packed. Like Manhattan busy. Everything was open and we picked a restaurant based on flashiness of lights and colorfulness of signage. The restaurant was packed and looked really nice. We couldn't read the menu, but it did have pictures so we picked three things that looked reasonably delicious; the five of us shared a Korean "sushi" dish, a stir-fry beef dish, and a pizza. There were also these free appetizer thingies that looked and tasted kind of like salty gummy worms. The whole meal was pretty cheap, I think we each only paid $6.

This morning when I woke up, we had a fourth roommate, named Elisa who is from D.C. It's pretty cool to think that all of us are from vastly different parts of the country, but we're all here to do the same thing. Everyone is super nice and laid-back so far, and when we went to eat breakfast in the hotel lobby we met a few other ChungDahm teachers. Training starts Monday and until then we'll be doing some exploring and probably a lot of studying for our upcoming quizzes next week.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Teaching English abroad

"Why did you choose Korea?" I get this question a lot, but I can no longer remember the answer so I'll instead explain how I got the job.

First, I applied to a recruitment agency. I didn't do a lot of shopping around because I assumed they were all the same. I've heard, though I can't confirm, that certain recruiters are better than others. The names I've heard thrown around are:


I applied and was accepted by the latter two and I've been very impressed by both. I didn't know about Footprints until after I had already accepted my job, but everyone on Dave's ESL Cafe seems to love them.

The application process was pretty easy and I received emails setting up interviews within a week or so of applying. The interviews were exactly what I expected. They asked why I wanted to teach English, why Korea, and then had me do a mock lesson. They were pretty easy and laid back. Within a few days I had been accepted to both and then I just had to wait for my diploma.

The reason I ended up going with Aclipse was because they found me a job before I even got my diploma. They sent a contract, and then asked for some additional materials. I had to write an easy 200 word essay and send in some photos and other stuff.

Two things:

(1) I got a job working at a hagwon, which is a private language institute. It's basically an after school English class which runs from 4-10PM. Korean kids usually go to regular school from 7 or 8AM until 3 or 4PM and then go to an English school until the evening. (Then they go home and study until about midnight, it's crazy). Anywho, there seem to be a few big differences between hagwons and jobs working for EPIK, the Korean government's program for English teachers to work at Korean public schools.

Late hours (+)
High pay (+)
Strict lesson plans devised by school (?)
Only teacher in the classroom (-)
No vacation (-)
Possibly unreliable/inconsistent employer (-) (*but keeps fingers crossed)
Have to work weekends (-)

Public Schools
Normal school hours and days (-/+)
Have to be at school for full 8 hours regardless of whether teaching or not (-)
Often don't have to teach at all and can sit around and go on Facebook for hours at a time (+)
Korean co-teacher in the classroom at all times (+)
Low pay (-)
Fairly reliable since run by government (oxymoronic though it may sound) (+)
Lots of vacation (+)
Field trips (+)
Have to run summer and winter camps for students (-)
Come up with own lesson plans (?)

That's all I can think of for now, and it's entirely based on hearsay from the aforementioned Dave's ESL Cafe.

(2) I'm on an hourly contract, whereas most teaching jobs have a monthly contract. This means that I get paid, yup, hourly with a minimum of 96 hours per month and an average of 120 (so, about 30 hours a week). It does not come with an apartment like the monthly contracts do, but I believe I make more money in the long run. Let's do some math and find out (I've proportionally fudged the numbers).

Monthly Contract
$1,800 monthly salary
-$600 living expenses

Hourly Contract
$3,500 (120 hours/month)
-$1,300 living expenses with rent

So I make almost double on the hourly contract. Yay math. Hopefully it works out and they do, in fact, pay me. I've heard horror stories where hagwon employers refusing to pay their teachers. Adventure!

More on the visa process later.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Teaching English Abroad, part 2

Before I could go over to Korea to start my new job, I had to get an E-2 work visa. Here's what I needed:

1. College diploma, in its original format: Yup, I sent my original diploma to South Korea. Why doesn't a copy suffice? Why do they need the diploma and not just transcripts and/or a certificate of completion? And what was I thinking blindly sending a complete stranger my original college diploma? Good questions all.

2. Criminal background check* (presumably a clean one): This was kind of cool, I got to get fingerprinted and then received a lovely letter from the Department of Justice in Sacramento stating that I was a fugitive and had a warrant out for my arrest. Just kidding, I believe the letter had one line: "No record found." Sweeeeeet!

3. Passport photos: I don't know why they needed pictures, but this seems to be a trend. When I originally applied, the recruitment agency quickly accepted me after a 5-minute interview, however, as they searched for a job for me they demanded pictures. I sent them a picture of myself standing atop a sand dune, shoes in hand, which I thought made me seem adventurous, laid-back, and cosmopolitan. The agency sent me a quick "nuh-uh," they needed additional pictures of my face. Apparently ugly people need not apply. Fortunately for me, after I sent a few more pics they found me a job pretty quickly.

4. Visa code from your South Korean employer: This was the kicker. You'd think that securing a job in May would allow said employer ample time to process my visa code by August, but you'd be wrong. It took a very long time for them to send this to me and my August start date got pushed back to October, then November, and then finally December.

Next, you make an appointment at the Korean consulate**, drop by with all the aforementioned items, and fill out some forms. It takes just a couple of days for them to process it all.

*You actually have to get this notarized and apostillized. Notarizing something is easy and can be done at many postal stores, but getting an apostille is a bitch and a half. An apostille is kind of like a fancy certification done by the State Secretary, and if you know anything about capitals or California you'll know that our State Secretary is located in Sacramento. Do you have to go all the way to Sacramento to get an apostille? Nay, fortunately they have two branches in L.A. and San Francisco, however if you use one of these branches you have to do the additional step of having the notarization certified by the county. So, first I got the criminal background check (that letter with one line) notarized at a local notary public, then I took that to the county clerk's office to get it...I dunno, clerk-ized, and then I finally went to the State Secretary's office in San Francisco to get an apostille affixed to it. By the end, that one-page, one-line letter became three pages with three different seals.

**I lucked out,  the nearest Korean consulate happened to be in San Francisco. They only have a few locations across the country, however, and the San Francisco branch serves those located in California, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.