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This page will answer question, concerns and general queries you may have concerning working in Korea. The following information was created by myself and a teacher who is now working in Japan - Jeffery A. Hawkins.


How do I get a job?

You need to be a native speaker of English. You need a bachelors degree or better from a legitimate university, a valid passport, four recent passport sized pictures, and a resume. Anyone with the above can find a job in Korea. When you are applying for a TESL position it's a really good idea to include a good picture of yourself (with a big smile). This may seems a little strange to you, but even in our Western culture employers can tell if they will hire a potential candidate within the first 30 seconds of the interview.

What about recruiters or "headhunter" agencies?

I'd advise against them if possible. Of course there are reputable agencies out there but buyer beware. Number one, they are making so much money that many will fabricate information to get you to sign with a school. Recruiters usually receive a large sum of money to 'find' you. Don't pay a dime to a recruiter and make sure you get the phone number of the school he/she is setting you up with. Sometimes they will try to block all communication between you and the school until he/she is paid - which is usually after you have arrived.

An other way to find jobs in Korea is to get a copy of the Korea Times or The Korea Herald. Look for job advertisements and do the paperwork yourself. Look in your country's major newspapers for advertisements directly from schools. I praise the Internet for finding both my jobs here in Korea and they have both been experiences I wouldn't trade the world for.

If you are able, come to Korea. If you really want to work here, it will be a great investment. Visit several schools. First visit the director and inquire about a job. Then try to talk to the teachers working there. They will be able to tell you the going rate for that area, and sometimes even point you in the right direction for a good job. Also, everyone you talk with seems to know someone working in Korea. Get their address and phone number; send them your resume; make yourself known. Most teachers are happy to submit a resume in for a fellow foreigner.

How much can I earn?

Well, that's a good question. The Korean economy is going through some HUGE changes. For more information go back to the main page and click on the Exchange Converter. You should be receiving free living accomidations, free medical and free air fare. If you not, then don't sign the contract. Also, private lessons are an excellent source of income.

Working Life:

Many Koreans work 12 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. Some of the directors expect you to do the same. Some schools pay little and expect a lot. Some pay more and expect little. The best situations offer 5 days a week, 5 hours a day, no split shifts, and two weeks paid vacation. The worst want split shifts, six days a week, and you must fight for unpaid vacation time. However, the vacation issue is not as bad as it sounds. Usually, teachers get the weekends off, and the Korean calender is FILLED with national holidays. You'll have a 3 or 4 day weekend every month or so.

I had it good. Near the end of my first contract I was working only 18 hours a week, I had no morning classes, and I had weekends off; but I only had 4 days of vacation. Now, (at the university) I work maximum 18 hours a week, and every 7 weeks I get a 16 day paid vacation.

I have heard horror stories about some of these schools. Are they true?

Yes. I don't want to scare you, but I do want to prepare you. Some schools really make efforts to meet you half-way on the cultural exchange. Their directors speak English well and will listen and try to help you adjust. They also provide decent living conditions and respect and follow your contract.

A lot of schools mean no harm, but have no idea how to make you feel at home. They will often fail to provide you with certain items because they arbitrarily decide that you don't need them. Another problem is that directors often copy contracts from other schools because they can't read or write English themselves. In my experience, my director did not know he was to pay my air fare or that his foreign teachers even had a vacation period. But once he was informed of this he was very accommodating.

Now some schools will actively use your confusion to take advantage of you. They will refuse to provide even basic items in your contract. I have even heard of one school that kept a key to a teacher's apartment and would come in unannounced snooping around when she wasn't there.

If you do get stuck in a bad situation like this simply leave. TAKE A STAND!! This is the number one problem with foreigners - we let ourselves get walked on. You can make or break a school. If you tell your students that you are leaving they may leave also. This is a lot of lost revenue for the school. Even if you boss is being really nice, do not continue teaching.

The most important thing is to make friends with as many foreigners as possible. We're all in the same boat and will look out for each other. I know of two guys who were being shafted at their schools so they left. They stayed in a Yawguan for a few months, taught privates and tended bar. As it turns out they were working 1/3 their former hours and made almost double what they were earning at the school.

Hints:

When you buy your plane ticket buy it 'round trip' and hold on to the return ticket.

Most schools will attempt to take your return ticket, and understandably so. They want a guarantee that if you get homesick, you won't wait for payday and then bugger off. If you decide to leave without notice, you could have destroyed the school and possibly the director's livelihood. Simply neglect to bring in your return ticket and they will eventually forget all about it.

Bring a copy of your contract as modified.

Even in the good schools, there will be many problems. It is a lot easier to argue with the director's signature right in front of him or her.

Don't give an inch.

You flew 8000 miles based on that contract. Tell your director that right up front. If you intend to fulfill your end of the contract, there is no excuse for any slack on their end. This kind of stance is uncommon in Korea, and will likely piss the director off.

Contacts:

  • The Korean Ministry of Labour: Help with all labour issues at (02) 500-5624.
  • The Pusan Ministry of Labour: A southern office at (051) 467-0009.
  • The Legal center for Migrant workers: (023) 476-8082 --Yes, (023) is not a typo. Dial 5 when you connect to get to the right office.
  • Mike Duffy, President of Pusan-KoTESL: This is not an official "help" organization, but is a good source of info if you treat them well.
    Work: 051-200-7054
    Home: 051-248-4080
  • Get the telephone, fax, and address of your nearest embassy. If there is one in your town, a taxi can probably get you there for less than 10,000 won. Large hotels have fax services. Note. When you arrive in Korea, your embassy will want you to sign some sort of form incase you need to be evacuated for some weird reason. Hmmm... can you say "out of country taxes?" Anyhow, when was the last time you trusted any government?


Are there any special difficulties for minorities?

Unfortunately yes. There is so much prejudice thrown around here that I am not sure how much worse western minorities have it than others. (Probably because we are all minorities here.) Even though the Korean schools value Caucasian teachers, not everyone is accommodating to foreigners. I have had to pull my hat down over my face on many occasions in order to catch a cab. During the last decade especially, Koreans have become more and more frustrated with the American military (who are 37000 strong in South Korea). Most of the younger generations would like to see them kicked out of the country (remember Okinawa?). So, here's Doug's hint: grow you hair. The older Koreans may not like longer hair (past your ears) but it will make your life easier by not being mistaken for a G.I. On the whole, Koreans are envious of "whites". They even have a cream which bleaches the skin (similar to Michael Jackson's). They also walk around in the summer with umbrellas on the sunniest day of the year so they will not tan. As a Caucasian you will be compared to Brad Pitt, Keaneau Reeves, Mr. Bean, Homer Simpson, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullok etc. etc. etc. This fascination the Korean people have with Hollywood contributes to their cultural stereotypes. This is to say that they like movies where Brad Pitt (a good looking guy) saves the day with Meg Ryan (a good looking girl). Then they watch a Spike Lee film dealing with gangs, crime, and social injustice in the inner city - and they are appalled. Thus 20th century prejudice is born or reinforced from utter fear. They are actually afraid of 'blacks' and this is translated into their hiring policies. In my experience, less than 5% of the teachers are (of what we Canadians and Americans would call) 'visual minorities'.

Food:

The food is a paradise for meat eaters and semi-vegetarians alike. This is because Koreans couldn't afford meat for much of recent history... Many wonderful dishes have evolved around the plentiful local vegetables. There has always been a class that could afford meat however, and the ancient marinades and recipes of Kings has come to the general population in their newfound affluence.

For the carnivores:

Flame broiled meats are the order of choice for carnivores in Korea. There is a beautiful selection too. The best part is how it is cooked. If it is done right, a pot of hot coals will be put in the center of your table. A brass grill will be placed over these, and the meat will be served raw onto the grill.

If you look closely at the grill, you will notice that the bars are not round, but rather they are troughs. The juice of the meat runs down the troughs around the edge of the grill. As the meat becomes done, it is pulled off the grill into these juices. Dozens of side dishes are included, many of which are meant to dip the meat into. Wasabe, soy sauce, sesame oil, onion and red-pepper salad, and much more.

Bul-gogi and other gogi

Gogi simply means meat. There are a dozen varieties and different recipes for each. Usually when you order bul-gogi or one of the other gogi, it will be a plain cut. The taste is marvelous, being cooked fresh over charcoal. This will have a milder flavour than some other varieties of meat, as it is usually not marinated.

Duaiji-kalbi and other Kalbi

Kalbi just means ribs. The translation is bad though, as this is usually meat cut from around the ribs, rather than the ribs themselves.. The marinade is usually better, with garlic, soy, some kind of sugar, and many other tastes I can not identify. Of this type of food, I have only heard of Duaji-kalbi and So-kalbi, but am sure others exist.

Tac-kalbi

Though this has the same ending, it is prepared very differently from the other kalbi. Tac is chicken. Tac-kalbi is usually prepared on a flat gas grill. The waitress places a whole pile of cabbage, red pepper, sliced sweet potato, green peppers, onions, garlic and of course chopped chicken on the grill (or huge wok thingy). Once the cabbage cooks and shrinks, the juices of all the other ingredients "melt" into each other. After you have eaten most of the food the waitress brings long potato noodles and mixes them into the remaining food. She also adds some more red pepper. After you have finished the noodles, out comes the rice. It too is placed on the grill and is fried with the remaining food. Tac-kalbi is my favourite food in Korea. But beware, it is HOT so drink a lot of water.

For the semi-vegetarians:

The reason I say "semi-vegetarians" is that just about everything is made with a fish broth. To avoid this, you will have to develop a liking for the many side dishes that are offered at every meal. Strict vegetarians should learn the phrase, "Gogi noh jeem ha seh yo" which means, "No meat please." Many dishes that formerly had no meat are including it these days, and it is a good precaution.

Be-Bim-Bop

This is one dish that even the strict vegetarians will be able to enjoy. It is a bowl of rice with cou-chou-jang (red-pepper sauce), big sprouts, yummy brown roots, spinach, some kind of radish that tastes more like hash browns, and an egg that can be either removed or left off by request. If you are lucky, it will come in a thick stone bowl that stays about 400 degrees for most of the time it takes to eat it.

Soon-Doo-Boo-Ji-Geh

This is soft tofu soup. It is made in a fish broth with large chunks of tofu, big sprouts (I have never seen small sprouts here), red and green peppers, and the cook's choice of additions. It comes with rice that is meant to go in the soup. I strongly advise following this tradition. Somehow the mixture is incredible. Usually a bowl of the same vegetables from be-bim-bop is included, among other side dishes.

Duen-Jong-Jee-Geh

Seafood soup. Like the above except instead of tofu, a variety of seafood is added. There is no way to predict what seafood will come in this except to ask. I have had crab, shrimp, muscles, etc. If you bite down and think they put a rock in, don't worry. I have been told it is a hard sea vegetable that you can eat, and that it is a kind of shellfish that you can eat the shell from. I think it's the latter, but most people spit out the shell whether it's edible or not.

Where are the best places to go?

There are a lot of them. This will be a really incomplete list.

Try the beaches. They are crowded and dirty, but the weather is good year round depending on your tastes. This is where variety springs up. There are expensive hotels with all sorts of foreigner oriented service, Amusement parks and midway, Night clubs, etc. Tourist areas also seem to get a wider share of development dollars, as they bring money in. The toilets are cleaner. The sidewalks exist. People are active and interesting.

Kyungju is the ancient capitol of various dynasties in Korea. Currently it is like a national museum with several historical sites. Don't try to see it all in one day... You will probably be invited to Kyungju at the first opportunity by any Korean friends you make. They will want to show you this piece of their national pride. Unfortunately, most often they will try to show you everything and you will end up seeing almost nothing due to the rush. Definitely an interesting weekend can be had in Kyungju.

Similar to Kyungju is the 1000 year old village of 'An-dong'. This village is a real life example of how people lived in 16th century traditional communities. You will be amazed at the straw roofs and ancient carvings. Andong also has a small museum which illustrates much of the Korean history during the 16th 17th and 18th century.

Let me warn you right now...Koreans love Nori-bong or singing rooms. Westerners don't sing much as a group. Koreans do. It is a cultural institution where people sing at almost all get-togethers (even in school). Many Koreans are very good singers because they have sung publicly since childhood. There are enough who can't sing very well anyway though, that an inexperienced Westerner need not feel embarrassed. It may be a hard fear to overcome if you have never sang in public before. If you try however, you will gain respect for having the guts to just do it. The Koreans in your group will love you for it too.

If you're looking for a little physical exercise there are mountains in and around most cities with miles of trails to hike. The law of the hills is international, "Be cool to other hikers." There are miniature versions of Disneyland in the several largest cities, and a big one in Seoul. You can always find a pick-up game of basketball, and soccer is common as well, as long as you don't mind playing with middle school students (or at 5:00am). But one thing you can not pass up is the opportunity to train in the various martial arts Korea has to offer. Koreans are known as the inventors and champions of T'aekwondo. Every male in Korea has his black belt. When a man finishes school and reaches a certain age he must (by law) serve two years in the Korean army. There, they train in T'aekwondo; if they don't have their black belt when they arrive, they will have it by the time they leave.


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Douglas Thompson