Maddy Evancie (my beloved college roommate!) graduated from UCSB in June 2013 with a bachelors of science in Microbiology. She is 22, from Auburn, California, and has been teaching English in South Korea for 6 months.
On Moving to Korea: As a Microbiology student, there is no apparent reason why I decided to move halfway across the world to teach English in South Korea to elementary-aged kids. When I made the decision, senior year of college was coming to an end. I wasn’t interested in going back to grad school right away and the thought of starting out as a lowly lab technician was not enticing either. Combining my love of travel with a job somewhat out of my comfort zone was a far more thrilling prospect than starting a job hunt in the depressed US economy. I just kind of thought, why not? I now work full time (and then some) teaching English to Korean elementary school students of varying ages. I work in Seoul at a hagwon, or a private language academy, that students attend after their regular public school during the week. I have a year-long contract with Avalon English, a large company that runs hagwons all over Korea.
On Korea’s Emphasis on Education: Hagwons are a very important part of the Korean educational system, and “getting ahead” drives the entire nation and its people. This mentality begins with education, as universities are extremely competitive in Korea. Students dream of getting into one of the top three universities in Seoul: Seoul National, Korea University, and Yonsei University. For college admission, English proficiency is imperative. The SAT pales in comparison to the preparation and stress Korean students undergo to attempt a good score on the university entrance exam. Students across the country take the test simultaneously. To add to the pressure, all flights are grounded during the English listening section, and most offices begin the day later in order to ease traffic congestion and ensure students can get to the test location on time. Three-quarters of students attend private lessons after school, and it is not uncommon for my students to tell me they attend anywhere from between 4-7 academies. These range from piano, Taekwondo, math, violin, history, and even one-on-one lessons with private tutors. Granted, most of these students are from well-off families, but so much value is placed on education, any family will make tremendous sacrifices to ensure their children are competing at the same level as their peers. It makes me sad to go to the park on the weekend and see mostly old men and women using the exercise equipment. Most kids have no weekend—they attend still more academies on the weekends.
On Teaching Contracts: Contracts are not followed here like they are in the US. Breaks, lunch hours, overtime, and vacation from the same contract can vary based on the specific campus and who is in charge. I have been frustrated with the way certain situations are handled, but I am thankful for my job and I know that others have had it worse. I also know it will only be for a year, so that’s something that motivates me to do my job despite my grievances (that and a great severance package).
I get paid 2.1 million KRW or just under $2000 a month, and work 40+ hours a week. My beautiful single apartment and my round trip airfare were completely paid for by my school. In addition, I have health insurance, pension, and severance pay. I get 10 vacation days a year (which include Christmas Day and Lunar New Year), 5 of which I can choose the days so long as my director agrees to them. Some positive aspects of working for a big company are the benefits. We got a $300 New Year’s bonus to encourage us to work harder. We get random lunches given to us. Headquarters pays for the office (16 people) to go out to dinner about once a term. All of the school supplies are paid for, and the office is always a comfortable place to work.
On Sick Leave: One thing that doesn’t really exist despite it being in the contract is sick time off. In the winter, snotty-nosed children were passing around germs and everyone in the office was hacking and coughing. But no one stays home. Especially if you are a Korean teacher, you would be put on a mental bad list and secretly punished for being lazy if you go to the doctor for a note. My friend who is a foreign teacher at our campus had the flu for nearly two weeks. The doctor wrote that he was extremely contagious and should not be at work. Not to mention, he was miserable and could barely walk. The director made him come to work and sit at his desk while a substitute from headquarters taught his classes. I think it was a mix of punishment and assurance he wasn’t jetting off to the beach for the weekend. The kids’ parents also send them to school severely ill. There is just way more focus on suffering and productivity rather than health and sanity.
On Big Brother: One strange thing about my school is there is CCTV in all of the classrooms. All of our classes are recorded, so they can be watched later in case of an incident. The director of our campus or anyone at Avalon headquarters can monitor our classes at any time. Big brother is always watching. It was something I thought about more when I first started, and was a weird presence in the classroom. Now it’s completely irrelevant. I sort of have the general sense that they’ve seen it all – nosebleeds, peeing of pants, fire extinguishers being pulled, elementary jokes at genitalia, being groped, “teacher, he said f*ck you,” fights, sobbing children, and general hysteria.
On Hierarchy: There is a lot of value placed on hierarchy and respect of authority and one’s elders. One of the most difficult aspects of learning the Korean language involves memorizing honorifics that must be used when speaking to someone older than you. In the workplace, hierarchy is of the utmost importance and you must never go over someone’s head in business matters. For example, our campus has a head teacher and a Korean director who runs the campus. I would rarely speak directly to the director unless he asked me to chat. Anything I need to bring up, I bring up to the head teacher, who then passes it on to the director. This adds some frustrating miscommunications and complications to my job, but it is just the norm in Korean culture. I like that things have a logical order, but most of all I love the respect that my students show me. Having a tiny child bow to me and say, “Bye bye, see you next time” is quite possibly my favorite thing in the world.
On Animal Cafés: Koreans love everything “cute,” so they have perfected the animal café experience. You just pay for an overpriced drink and you can sit in the café for as long as you want petting and laughing at cats, dogs, sheep, etc., depending on the particular café. There is always an employee walking around constantly wiping up pee.
On Love Motels: Another Korean gem is the love motel. These are pay-by-the hour motels for secret rendez-vous with that certain someone. To the best of my knowledge, they are most frequented by Korean businessmen and teeneagers who can’t get any privacy at home (since Koreans typically live with their parents until they are married). I was (un)lucky enough to live at one for my first two weeks in Seoul, while I was waiting for my apartment to be vacated. You can always spot them by long plastic flaps covering the entrance, which help protect the identity of the person getting out of the car.
On Drinking Culture: It is completely normal to dodge piles of vomit on the sidewalks on a Saturday or Sunday morning. There is a huge drinking culture in Korea, especially among businessmen. A Korean brand of soju, the potent distilled, vodka-like, rice liquor of Korea, is the most sold alcoholic beverage in the world. The group of people I most often see stumbling down the street, being helped by their friends, or trying to start a drunken fight are not teenagers or young 20-somethings, but Korean businessmen dressed in suits.
Plugged In: In Korea you can get onto a crowded subway car and be met by complete silence because everyone has their headphones in and their eyes glued to their smart phones. Korea is the world’s sixth most wired country, based on Internet subscribers out of the total population. The U.S. ranks fifteenth.
On Food: One of my favorite meals was eating fresh seafood in a food tent on the beach in Busan, Korea’s southern coastal city. We cooked the fresh shellfish in large shells over the flame at our table. In Jeonju, I tried live octopus. This is quite a delicacy but it is genuinely terrifying. They come over with a plate, a squirming octopus, and a pair of scissors. They start hacking at the octopus’s tentacles, which fall wriggling onto the plate. Then you pick them up and try not to think about the fact that they’re moving as you chew and swallow. I must admit it actually tasted quite good once I got over my fear. I still want to try dog—just because it’s Korea, and you can. However, one thing I never wish to eat or smell again is beondegi, the popular snack of boiled silkworm pupae.
On Travel: I have loved my excursions outside of Seoul. For Lunar New Year, we had a long weekend and 15 friends and I rented a penthouse on Haeundae Beach in Busan. We enjoyed the warm weather in the middle of winter and our view from the 16th floor of our beautiful accommodations. I have particularly enjoyed visiting temples throughout Korea, especially Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan since it was right on the ocean.
Recently, a friend and I took the ferry (incredibly cheap after May’s tragedy) to an island 50 kilometers west of Seoul called Deokjeokdo. We stayed in a pension and had the island almost completely to ourselves. We borrowed bikes and cruised around, and discovered the only restaurant open on the whole island. (Needless to say, we enjoyed our fair share of jjamppong, spicy seafood stew.) That was one of my favorite experiences in Korea—nothing like having an island shrouded in mist to yourself.
On Language: Unfortunately I know hardly any Korean. If I had plans to stay more than a year, I would try to study or take classes. All of the resources for learning are very accessible and usually free, but knowing my departure date is a great inhibitor. I have a repertoire of useful words, but I cannot make sentences or carry on a conversation.
Knowing Korean would make my job a lot easier since I would be able to communicate with my students when their limited English isn’t enough to get an important need across. I would also love to understand my students’ banter. However, even just knowing the alphabet is amazingly useful since I know what sounds their language has, and thus what they will naturally struggle with in English. For example, the English “r” and “l” sounds are combined in a single Korean character, ㄹ. Some students can distinguish the sounds and others are hopeless. I am used to having students tell me they ate “lice” for dinner. The same thing goes with the “b” and “p” sounds. There are no “f” “z” or “v” sounds in Korean, so these end up being substituted with “p” “j” and “b” respectively. This makes reading Konglish extremely funny. I start out sounding out a word thinking it might be Korean and a mystery to me, only to find out it is an English word with a few substitutions and syllables thrown in. Christmas is “keh-ree-seh-mah-seh.” Funny errors are “crap” instead of “crab” or “smoody” for “smoothie.” One that bothers me the most is kids calling a cell phone a “hand pone.” My days are never boring.
On Tensions with North Korea: I forget that I live several kilometers from one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. It is an easy thing to forget living in a city like Seoul. I have every convenience and it is mind-boggling to think about how far the South has come in sixty years. It is a very proud country but I don’t think it is trying to forget its past, especially since the past is very connected to the present political situation. I just don’t think the tensions with the North are on most people’s minds often here in Seoul. Every time there is a show of dominance by the North, it is in the news, but it isn’t talked about as a pressing issue. I think people, especially the younger generation, are too content with their lives to think much about their relatives in the North. Most of the people who still remember a time when there was just one Korea are aging and their numbers fall everyday.
The military is a big presence here, both American and Korean. Many of the subways have large crates of gas masks and some entrances are labeled as “shelters,” but seeing those things don’t fill me with ominous dread. It’s more of a far-away threat that has faded into the background.
On Safety: I have never felt safer in my life. I can walk alone at night on an abandoned street with my iPod playing without fear. I can leave my purse or wallet on the table or anywhere in a crowded place and not worry about it being stolen. I heard someone lost their wallet in a busy park, came back the next day and found it exactly where they left it with nothing stolen. I may have become overly trusting as a result, but I can’t overemphasize how safe I feel in Korea.
Thanks so much, Maddy! Teaching English in South Korea sounds like a trip, in every sense of the word. I miss you like crazy, and would do anything to pet sheep in a Korean café with you!
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