Basic Manners - Table Manners - How to Dress - Bosses - Dating - Alcohol - Accepting vs. Agreeing
If you're like most people, the first thing you did when you started thinking about teaching in Korea was check out the web. So you've probably seen some of the negative blogs and websites. The details vary, but they generally come down to "I taught in Korea for a year and all I got was ripped off."
Well, Margaret didn't. She had great relationships with her hagwon director, the other teachers, and her students. Everywhere she went, Koreans treated her, as she says, "like gold." She made lots of Korean friends. She still keeps in touch with several of them. So what made the difference?
A couple of things. First, Margaret's basically pretty optimistic. She came to Korea expecting to enjoy the country and to be treated well. She trusted Koreans and expected the best of them. They delivered.
Margaret is also interested in other cultures. She's read about them (especially Asian ones) and had already traveled some before she went to Korea. Instead of wondering how she'd cope with all the differences, she started off keen to learn more about Korean culture.
She really wanted Koreans to like her and be comfortable around her. So she did some extra studying before she left home, to get familiar with the major issues (most of which you'll read here).
It worked. She didn't avoid all the cultural difference traps, but the ones she fell into were pretty minor. And once her Korean friends had told her what the problem was, she didn't repeat that mistake.
She had a wonderful time.
So, is Margaret a rare case? I don't think so. Since the mid-1990s, when the laws regulating private teaching were relaxed, probably hundreds of thousands of westerners have taught in Korea. I suspect that most of them are fairly well satisfied. You don't hear from them much because they're busy working and enjoying life, and don't have time to write about their experiences.
Anger is a powerful motivator. These days it's pretty easy to throw up a quick website on one of the ad-supported servers, and that's why you get a lot of negative hits when you type "Korea English Teaching" into a search engine.
That's not to say that unpleasant things never happen. Sometimes teachers just run into bad situations or bad employers. This could happen anywhere, but in a foreign country the language barrier makes the situation worse.
And while I don't want to get into a round of "blame the victim" here, I think that some of the teachers who come home hating Korea are just incompatible with working overseas.
Remember I said that Margaret expected to enjoy Korea? Some westerners come here with the exact opposite idea. They think it's a backward country, full of poorly educated, primitive people with no manners. I don't know where they get that idea, or why on earth they come to Korea if they think that, but apparently they do.
For whatever reason, these people seem to be convinced that their culture and their country is the absolute best in the world, and that Korea can't have anything worthwhile to offer. Nothing can change their minds. They don't have much interest in either learning or practicing Korea's cultural rules. I've literally heard them say, "I'm a foreigner -- they shouldn't expect me to act like a Korean." Koreans read this attitude as condescending. They're right -- it is.
Koreans are pretty tolerant of foreigners who don't know their social codes. What Koreans don't tolerate well is foreigners who won't learn those codes. This usually surprises these westerners, even though they'd probably be some of the first to raise a fuss if a foreigner came to their country and refused to adapt to their culture.
In order to succeed in a different culture, you have to at least try to live by its rules, even if you think yours are better.
People who have a history of getting in trouble at home or in school, and those with an "attitude," may not be quite ready to apply themselves to this. If that describes you, I suggest that you wait a few years more before trying English teaching overseas. Give yourself some time to settle down and mellow out. Take a few vacations in Asia and/or Europe. Discover how to be happy. Develop a perspective on your place in the world. Then think again about teaching overseas.
Korea definitely doesn't need or want people who'll look down on the country, its culture, or its people. But if:
In western society we have rules for getting along that we all learn as kids (or at least we're supposed to).
These western conventions are still important, but maybe not quite as rigid as they were 50 years ago. The rules of behavior in Korea and other Asian nations have also softened in recent years. And since they share some common ground with ours -- like the points I named above -- it's tempting to think the rules are more similar than they really are.
OK, to some extent the differences are less than they used to be. Korea is becoming more westernized. But you're going to see the effects of that mostly in younger people -- in their teens and twenties. And probably your boss will be older. He will not be thrilled if you treat him like a western boss. So listen up and take notes, because the final's coming up -- it's your job.
Korean ideals derive mainly from Confucian traditions. I don't want to turn this into a lecture on Confucianism, but I think it's worth looking at the Five Codes and the Three Bonds or Principles. These define relationships among people.
The Five Ethical Codes (Oryun):
You might think of it as taking the parent-child relationship and extending it out into all of society. Older folks, teachers, government officials, and hosts are the parents. Younger people, students, citizens, and guests are the kids. As you'll see, even though you're nominally a teacher, your status as a guest in Korea and as - probably - a young person matters more.
This idea of protector / protected and parent / child is an invisible hand which always rules Korean relationships. Like any other social system, it has both good and bad effects.
For example, if you're a Korean in trouble, you can count on your older family members (or even an older mate from your university) to help out - even if you're in the wrong. And a person of higher status - your boss, a cop, the president - is always right, even when he's doing something illegal. See what I mean?
These relationship rules developed during the Choson Dynasty, a period when Korean Confucianism took a radical direction, The Chosun Dynasty ended in 1910 (not exactly in a positive way; that's when Japan occupied Korea) and today Korean society is much more open and relaxed. But the fundamental principles of Confucianism still influence people's behavior.
Koreans will sometimes introduce themselves to you by not just their names, but their job titles and employers. If they're students, they'll be sure to tell you the names of their universities, the departments, and their years. What you're seeing is the Confucian emphasis on status and order, or jang yu yuseo.
There are all kinds of rules of order:
The rules of social conduct are related to status, and the respect that people of lower status have to pay to those of higher status. In the west, status doesn't mean such rigorous rules. Also, to be blunt, western status is mostly related to things -- what you own, where you live, how big your house is, what kind of car you drive, how you dress, how much money you throw around. Well, those are also important in Korea -- but age, marriage, number of children, and job authority are at least as important.
And sex. That's a big one. Remember that Oryun code, "distinction between husband and wife"? That's sexism in action. Confucius pretty much institutionalized sexism. In his world, men always had higher status than women.
In the Chosun Dynasty days, almost a century ago, it got pretty bad. Men literally locked up their women in the family compounds. They let them out once a year to visit their birth families, and that was about it.
Women have made tremendous progress in Korea in recent years, but men still have higher status. The glass ceiling is very thick in Korea, and women don't often rise above middle management in the professions. They're still seen mainly as wives and mothers, although nowadays their husbands think they ought to get a job in addition to their chores at home (sound familiar?).
Teachers are highly regarded (because education is). But hagwon teaching is thought of more as a profession, so it carries lower status. That status hit is one reason that so many Korean hagwon instructors are women. On the other hand, if you're old enough, you may be able to score "status points" on your age. (Not that your first grade kids will behave any better for this.) Also, if you're American, you're automatically bumped up a few notches because your home nation is wealthy and influential (or at least used to be).
Within a few days of your arrival in Korea, you're pretty likely to be surprised -- make that shocked -- when a new Korean acquaintance begins asking questions that you might consider pretty personal. What's your job? How much money do you make? Are you married? If not, why not? Do you have children? If not, why not? How many are boys?
Personal questions? Not in Korea. The grilling is part of the way your new friend figures out how to behave toward you. You're expected to ask the same questions of him or her. If you don't, how will you know how you're supposed to act? You may actually make your friend uncomfortable by not asking.
Of course your relationship with your hagwon director will be very different from what you'd expect with a boss at home. More on that later.
This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, but let's make a start:
Bowing: Learn to bow. Koreans bow when they meet and when they part. They also bow when they conduct business. (One morning we saw two rows of employees outside an insurance building, bowing customers inside -- a Korean version of the Wal-Mart greeter, I guess.)
A Korean bow is sometimes not much more than a bob of the head, but how deeply you should bow depends on the status of the other person (this is one reason Koreans ask so many questions when they first meet you). When it's a shopkeeper, taxi driver, or other service provider, just duck your head and shoulders a little. Bow more from the waist for older people and rich business people. Elderly men get the deepest bows -- if you ever meet a Korean friend's grandfather, you might want to hit the floor. Seriously.
I know, "all men are created equal." That's not even really true in America, and this is Confucian Korea. Deal with it.
Names: Don't call anyone by his or her first name unless you're long-time friends (as in years). Here are some rules for addressing people in social situations:
Excuse me (not): We westerners seem to have bubbles around us, the way strangers stay away. You always see people in lines standing a few (or several) feet apart. Put us in a situation where we can't keep our distance and we get oddly quiet (witness standard elevator behavior). We don't even have to bump into someone to say "excuse me." Just pass someone too closely and you mumble it automatically.
Not in Korea. Koreans elbow their way through crowds and cut in line without a word. In fact they usually don't bother to form lines at all. You never hear "excuse me" (chaesong hahmnidah).
So why don't they apologize? Ask a Korean, and he'll probably say that Korea is crowded, and nobody wants to have to excuse himself every few seconds. He might also point out that Koreans, like Japanese, are taught not to reveal their emotions to strangers. (Just how this squares with bus and taxi drivers' behavior will be left as an exercise for the reader!) Ask a western behavioral psychologist and he'll probably tell you that it's because strangers don't fit into any of the five oryun, so effectively they don't exist and don't have to be acknowledged. None of these reasons quite rings true for me, but I don't have a better one, so take your choice.
The good news is that Koreans don't expect anything different from us. After a while you'll learn to push and jostle as well as they do. You may even get used to not apologizing.
That doesn't mean that anything goes, though. You'll run into some Koreans (almost always men) who sneeze or belch or fart in public without a word. I do not recommend that you imitate them.
Closeness: Be ready to accept less "personal space." It's pretty common for Koreans of the same sex to stand close together when talking or walking. On the other hand, Koreans aren't too comfortable yet with PDAs (public displays of affection) between men and women. You'll see a few college-age kids holding hands, but married couples almost never kiss or hold hands in public. If you want to keep the respect of your boss, save your cuddling for the bideo bang [video parlor, where lovers who still live with their parents go to make out).
Curiously, Koreans are surprisingly uninhibited about touching other people of the same sex. Holding hands is normal for friends, often female and sometimes male. If you're a woman, don't be surprised if one of your adult female students, or one of your Korean friends, takes your hand when the two of you are walking down the street.
It's also not that uncommon for Koreans of the same sex to compliment you on your skin or hair, maybe even stroke them or marvel at them. They're not gay, and they're not hitting on you. They're just curious and uninhibited. Especially in smaller towns and rural areas, where there aren't all that many tourists, Koreans are fascinated by us and the ways we look different from them. Add in poor English skills, and, well, you might get the wrong impression. Please don't over-react to this.
Speaking of such things: most Koreans, especially older ones, declare flatly that there are no gay Koreans.
I think that, ironically, this belief frees them to behave in ways that relatively uptight Americans never do (see above).
For the present, I'd have to say that if you're gay and teaching in Korea, you're probably better off to stay in the closet, or else be very discreet. Westerners stand out in Korea. Especially in the smaller towns, any "misbehavior" on your part is almost sure to get back to your boss. Hagwon directors have been known to sack women teachers whom they decided were too promiscuous. They're unlikely to treat you any better.
However, Korean attitudes toward gays are gradually changing. Since 2000 a few prominent Korean entertainers have "come out," notably comedian Hong Suk-chon. Korean films are starting to deal with the subject, often in surprisingly open ways. From 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (a title which should dispel any remaining doubt that Korea needs English teachers ;-) looked at a gay relationship and Korean society's reactions to it. And 2002's Road Movie is even more explicit and daring. It opens with one of the rawest (though dimly lit) gay sex scenes you're ever likely to see in mainstream cinema. (Completely apart from the subject matter, Road Movie is also an outstanding film that shows how far Korean cinema, regardless of sexuality, has progressed in recent years.)
Giggles: If a Korean friend laughs or giggles and seems embarrassed, smile and gently laugh along. This is your friend's way of apologizing for his social faux pas, and by joining him you're in effect accepting his apology.
Gestures: Don't point at anyone. Just as mom said, it's impolite, but even more so in Korea. If you want to beckon someone to come to you, don't use the usual western gesture. That's the way Koreans call their dogs! Instead, hold your hand palm down with the fingers bent downward, and sort of flap your fingers toward you. I know this sounds weird, but trust me, after you see someone do it, it'll make sense.
Speaking of gestures, some Koreans habitually point (at objects) with the digit that Westerners usually reserve for a rude one. Repeat after me: "Cultural difference. " If you're interested, your students will no doubt be quite willing to demonstrate Korea's equivalent rude gesture for you.
Offering: When handing something to a Korean, offer it with both hands. Never offer anything with the left hand (even if you're left-handed). That's rude. Again. (Sigh.) This includes payment at shops and restaurants. When you're offered something by an older person or one of higher status, such as your hagwon director, always accept it with both hands. (Someday I'm going to research the origins of this custom.)
Hosting: Koreans are gradually getting the idea of "going Dutch," but it's still pretty rare. Usually you'll be either host or guest, especially with Koreans older than their 20s. In theory, the person doing the inviting pays the bill. In practice, you'll make brownie points if you're the youngest in the bunch (or pair) and you insist on paying, even if you weren't the one who invited. When you first arrive in Korea, your new Korean friends will be downright eager to treat you for the first month or two. You're expected to return the favor later. Don't forget.
Refusal: If this has an actual official name, I don't know it, so I call it the "Double Refusal Rule." It works like this. Any time a Korean offers you something, gives you an invitation, or extends some kind of courtesy, you're supposed to decline at least twice (3 times is better). If your friend offers one more time after that (a total of 3 or 4), then, and only then, can you accept.
This could be a co-worker offering you a gift, one of your students inviting you to join him on a trip to a norae-bang, the boss asking you to sit down in his office -- whatever. If you say no once or twice and your friend doesn't follow up, that means he was just being polite, but didn't really mean the invitation.
If you accept the invitation right away and don't decline 2-3 times, the other person pretty much has to follow through. But he will not be happy, and you may lose him as a friend.
This is what's going on when you compliment someone else's clothing or jewelry, and the person offers to give it to you. Westerners marvel whent Koreans do this. Get a clue: you're not supposed to really take it! You're supposed to say "Oh, thank you, but I couldn't," or something similar. Usually it ends right there. The offer was just a polite gesture, not something your friend really meant. You accepted the gift? Oops.
Of course, you're expected to make offers with the very same convoluted code of behavior. (And you wonder why westerners sometimes have trouble understanding manners in Korea!)
Status: When you're in a group entering a room or a building, the person of highest status (probably the oldest) should enter first. The oldest person present at a meal gets to start first (and finish first). Don't drink around an older person, or your boss, unless you turn your head and shield your mouth with a hand (watch your Korean friends to see how this is done). Don't smoke or wear sunglasses around an older person or your boss. (The smoking I can understand, but I have no idea why wearing sunglasses is such a big deal.)
Introductions: If a friend arrives while you're with a group, you're obliged to introduce him to everyone present unless he's already known to them. But after you introduce him, don't be too surprised if you're the only person he talks to. The rules about who can talk with whom are complex, and some people will ignore other people in a group situation. They're not being rude; they just don't know each other well enough for conversation to be socially acceptable.
Compliments: If someone pays you a compliment, refute it. As in Japan, modesty and self-deprecation score politeness points.
Colds: Don't blow your nose in front of anyone else. This is considered terribly rude. Excuse yourself and find a restroom, or at least a private corner. Like the Japanese, some Koreans wear paper face masks when they have colds. This is supposed to protect others from catching the cold.
Pens: Don't write anyone's name in red ink. That would mean the person is dead. Death is a highly emotional issue in Korea. It's probably best to just avoid red pens entirely.
Numbers: The number four sounds like the word for death. Younger Koreans don't make such a big deal of it, but some buildings still don't have fourth floors. (Before you sneer at this, remember that some US buildings don't have thirteenth floors.) Also, nothing comes in fours. The sets of four place settings of dishes or silverware that we expect in the west just don't exist in Korea.
Invitations: Don't enter anyone's home or office (including your supervisor's) until you've been invited in. Don't sit down until you're invited to do so. It's not a bad idea to say "no thanks," and let your host invite you 3 or 4 times before you actually do enter or sit.
Gifts: When visiting, you're expected to bring a small gift. A few pieces of fruit or flowers will be fine. Little trinkets or household items from your homeland usually make a hit. Remember to present your gift to the host with both hands, never the left.
Don't go overboard. If you give too valuable a gift, you'll create an obligation in your host to repay you. That makes him or her uncomfortable.
Don't be too surprised if your host puts your gift away or sets it aside without opening it. This is a polite way to spare you embarassment in case your gift is too small. You should do the same if someone gives you a gift.
Compliments: It's all right to remark casually on your host's belongings, but don't admire them too much -- he or she may feel obliged to give them to you. Seriously.
Cards: Koreans like to exchange business cards. If your hagwon doesn't give you any, have a hundred or two printed by a local printer. Don't keep your business cards in your back pocket (that is, don't sit on them). When you exchange cards with someone, offer your card with both hands, just like anything else. Accept the other person's card with both hands, just like anything else. Study it for a few moments (even if you have no idea what it says). Don't write on it. Don't put it in your back pocket, and don't put it in your wallet if you will put the wallet in your back pocket.
Seating: Western tables are getting more common, but you're likely to still encounter the short tables which require you to sit on the floor. Most people sit with their legs crossed, but sitting on your knees with your legs under you and your feet behind you is apparently considered more formal. Women may sit with their legs to the side, and men can sit that way for a break from cramping. Don't stretch your legs out under the table.
Older folks and people of higher status (your boss) sit first.
Tableware: You'll get a metal spoon and metal chopsticks (some restaurants use disposable wooden ones like those in US Chinese restaurants). The spoon is for your soup or stew. Korea's custom differs from Japan's -- Koreans sometimes use the spoon for their rice, and they don't pick up their rice bowls while eating from them. If you find that you can't get the rice to your mouth with chopsticks, use the spoon.
You may also want to carry a pair of wooden chopsticks with you: they're easier for most westerners to use. These will be all right in restaurants, but you should probably use the metal ones provided if you're in someone's home. You might be tempted to tell your host that wooden chopsticks are easier for you to use. Don't. Your host will then be obligated to find some for you, no matter how long it takes.
On the table: There's generally a main dish and several side dishes. Except for rice and soup or stew, which are served in bowls to each diner, the dishes are used communally. Consequently you should be aware of how you use those chopsticks. Just as you were taught when you were a kid, if you touch it, you eat it.
If you pass a dish or item, use your right hand. Put your left hand under your right forearm or wrist. Use the same pose when pouring drinks (see below).
Chopsticks, spoons and fingers: When you're not using your chopsticks, place them across a dish. When you've had your fill, placing them on the table indicates that you're finished. Never stick them in the rice -- that's the way rice is served when making symbolic offerings to one's dead ancestors. (Koreans are very touchy about anything suggesting death.)
Koreans seldom eat with their hands. Even when they dine on Western-style burgers, they hold the sandwich by its paper wrapper. This means you use chopsticks for everything except soup or stew and possibly rice, for which the spoon is acceptable. (It's OK to use your chopsticks to pick the solid stuff out of your soup.) Watch your Korean companions for cues. You'll be absolutely amazed at what they can do with those chopsticks (and at what you can do with them, after some practice).
One of the advantages of Korean metal chopsticks over Japanese and Chinese wooden ones is that they have a narrow edge. Although they're not exactly knives, it's actually possible to hack at things with them. However, kitchen scissors, usually wielded by a waiter or your host, are much more effective for processing excessively large hunks of meat or whatnot. Otherwise, if you find yourself struggling with the quantity you've seized in your chopsticks, lay it on top of your rice or noodles and deal with it there.
During the meal:
Let the folks with higher status (your host, your boss, anyone older) start eating first. It goes in order from highest status to lowest. Don't pick up your chopsticks until it's your turn. Don't eat too fast; they're supposed to finish first, too.
Yes, this means you need to know your place in the pecking order. Now you know why Koreans ask you so many questions about your age, job, and marital status. I know, this isn't habit for you. Do your best. Your Korean friends will be forgiving and helpful as long as you at least make some effort.
Don't force too much conversation; let things proceed naturally. The guidebooks say that Koreans eat faster and talk less than westerners during a meal. Maybe our Korean friends are unusually chatty, but we found they were about as conversational as anyone we know anywhere. Remember that speaking English is extra effort for them, so don't be offended if much of the table talk is in Korean.
Surprises: Your Korean companion will slurp his noodles or suck the meat off the stew bones and spit them on the table. He'll probably pick up his soup bowl and drink from it, too. These aren't considered bad manners in Korea. Go ahead, you can do it too. Have fun.
Koreans don't eat as much meat as most westerners (though their consumption is increasing), but when they do eat an animal, they generally don't waste any part. You'll see chickens fried whole. Yes, head and all! They serve chicken feet the way we serve chicken wings. You may get a whole fish or other creature, again complete with head, staring at you. Yummy. Your Korean friends will tell you that the head and eyes are the best parts. I think they really mean it. They sure don't hesitate to eat them.
This may not sound too appetizing, but Koreans don't suffer any ill effects, so I doubt that it will hurt you. As mom used to say, just eat a bit to be polite. Then you can pass it over. No one is going to force you to eat anything. Korean meals usually have such a variety of dishes that you can't possibly go hungry.
Miss Manners: Korean meal etiquette is probably a product of times during and after the war when almost nobody had enough to eat. The objective is to stuff the guest to the gills -- it's standard for your host to invite you to manhi duseyo (eat much). He means it.
But! Warning! If you finish something, your host almost has to refill it, by Korea's rules of etiquette. Scraping the bottom of the dish may be a compliment some places in the west, but in Korea, it's almost an insult. You're implying that your host didn't give you enough to eat. Always "leave a bit for Miss Manners." And be sure to tell your host jal mogoss, sumnidah (thank you, I've eaten well).
Drinks: Fairly often with a traditional Korean meal you'll get barley tea (pohri-cha) right at the start. Black tea (hong-cha) or coffee, if you get it, comes at the end -- that's dessert. Some Koreans, especially the men, drink soju (rice liquor) or makkoli (rice wine), with their meals.
When someone offers you a drink, take it with both hands (do you see a pattern emerging here?). The Korean way with booze is much like their way with food: never allow your companion's glass to be empty. You fill the other person's soju or makkoli glass by holding the bottle with your right hand, with the left hand grasping the right forearm or wrist. He'll fill yours. You don't fill your own glass or you'll look like a greedy boor.
In climate, Korea is a lot like the midwestern US -- hot, humid summers (particularly in the south) and moderately cold winters. Temperatures will sometimes exceed 35 deg Celsius (95 deg F) in the summer and drop below -10 deg Celsius (15 deg F) in the winter. Take clothes you can layer. Air conditioning is more common than it used to be, but it isn't yet universal. You will sweat. Pack deodorant. It tends to be expensive and somewhat hard to find; I guess Koreans must not sweat as much as we do. You might also want to take along 100% cotton bedsheets -- you'll want them in July and August, and they can be hard to find in Korea.
Want to fit in? Dress neatly. Koreans usually do. Jeans are OK for a hike in the mountains, but chuck the ones with holes in the knees. Sweaters are fine. T-shirts are mostly for kids, and no matter how you may feel, you're not a kid any more.
If you're a woman, go with fairly conservative business attire. Tops that expose your shoulders are considered racy and unprofessional, so no tank tops at work. Bare midriffs are right out. Very short skirts are thought of as the mark of a "loose" woman, but skin-tight pants seem to be acceptable (no clue why). Wear skirts of modest length for teaching. Pantsuits are probably OK too, but check with your hagwon director.
If you're a man, take dress shirts, neckties, and jackets. I mean it! Your hagwon may not require you to wear them, but don't be surprised if they do. Korean men wear suits anytime and anywhere, yea verily even on the beach. Nice khakis, sport shirts, and sweaters will do for less formal situations.
If you're about average size, you can probably pack lightly. Western clothes are easy to find. At the department stores quality is high and so are prices (for her birthday, one of Margaret's Korean friends gave her a fancy-store slip priced at 28,500 won -- about US$24). But at the traditional markets and street vendors you can get pretty much the same clothes you'd find at Target or Sears in the US, at comparable or even lower prices. As for fit, younger Koreans are taller these days thanks to more meat in the Korean diet, so it's easier than it used to be to get the right sizes. If you're unusually tall or large, though, you may still have to shop in the expensive boutiques in Itaewon (the Seoul military and foreigner's district).
Men: If you usually wear an earring, leave it at home. If you have a beard or mustache, get rid of it. Koreans aren't used to anyone but old men (and sometimes blue-collar workers) wearing beards. Clean-shaven == business success.
Korea is often called a "we" society. Koreans consider the good of the group more important than that of an individual. As in Japan, social harmony trumps innovation. You might want to keep this in mind if you're considering making a suggestion to your hagwon director.
Personal rapport is more important to a Korean boss than legal agreements. This means that contracts in Korea are a starting point, not an ending one, as American business people have discovered again and again (to their annoyance and chagrin). You can fully expect that your director will ask you to do things that aren't in the contract. Some teachers will say "Never give an inch." That doesn't fit the Korean way. Unlike western employers, they won't respect you (not even grudgingly) for standing on your contract.
So what can you do? Especially if it's fairly minor, agree to at least part of what your director is asking for. Meet him halfway. Compile those brownie points. This will build up your relationship with the director. Maintaining that relationship will repay you later, when you have to negotiate something that's much more important to you.
When you're in those discussions, realize that your director's silence doesn't necessarily mean "OK." Sometimes it means the director doesn't understand, but doesn't want to lose face by admitting it. Prevent this by taking along a Korean friend with excellent English. It could even be one of the hagwon's Korean teachers. Tell your director that the other person is there to help negotiate, not as a translator, so you don't imply that the boss's English stinks.
Don't forget to bow, even if you're not 100% happy with the outcome. Use all the gestures of respect we've talked about. No smoking! No sunglasses! Your boss's status is higher than yours.
This is a big subject, probably bigger than I should try to deal with here. But briefly, it appears that it's more acceptable for western women to date Korean men than vice versa. That, however, has not stopped many, many male foreign teachers.
Koreans get their ideas of what Americans are like from our films, so some of them are sold on the idea that all Americans are promiscuous. This may be one reason that some Korean men are opposed to Korean women dating western men, but think that they might like to date a western woman. Can you say "double standard"? If you're a western woman and you want to date Korean men, watch out for signs of this attitude.
Whether or not it's real dating, female teachers need to be a little careful how they dress and act. (If we were talking about the west, I would never say this, but this is Korea. There are certain cultural facts of life here, and we just have to deal with them.) Coy behavior may be OK. Suggestive is not. And as mentioned above, revealing clothing can say things about you that you probably don't mean.
Spending too much time alone with a Korean man can lead people, including your hagwon director, to question your virtue. I know, it should be none of th boss's business, but this is Confucian Korea. Your director, especially if he's a man, will think of himself as your parent. That's the Confucian way. And don't think he won't find out what you do in your off hours. You're a foreigner. You stand out. Sometimes it seems as if the entire city is watching you, and it probably is. Someone will blab to your director.
The good news is that this attitude is changing fast. Koreans used to be very matter-of-fact about marital sex and rather prudish about premarital sex. That's not so true any more. In the 2000s, Korea is going through something not entirely unlike the US sexual revolution of the late 1960s. In 2001, the Chollian Internet Service asked its users what they thought of living together before marriage. At the time you'd have had to say that Internet users weren't necessarily representative of the entire Korean population. Still, the vast majority -- 85% of men, and 90% of women -- said they thought it (that is, unmarried couples living together) was a good idea.
In the early 2000s, other surveys reported that over 10 percent of high school students had had sex. (I haven't seen any updated figures, but I'd just about bet it's higher now.) This may seem low compared to the US and most European nations, but it's high for Korea. Because of this, the Korean goverment launched an expanded sex education program while Margaret was there, hoping to at least get these kids using contraception.
So, OK, western influence is changing Korean society. But one thing hasn't changed much, and that's how Korean men deal with other men and their girlfriends and wives. (I guess the dating section isn't the best place to talk about this, but I haven't thought of a better one.)
Basically, watch yourself. They can be intensely jealous. If you're a man, just don't be alone with a married Korean woman. You may also want to stay away from public situations that would look like a date. Most exasperating of all, when her husband is present, you're supposed to pay more attention to him than to her. She's your friend and he isn't? Sorry, that doesn't matter. By Cunfucian standards he rates more. This isn't easy to do but it's important, so try.
Speaking of marriage, you also should be aware that, for most Koreans, marriage is a very big deal and a major life goal. A Korean who's over 25, male or female, is most likely looking for a permanent relationship. If you aren't, be careful.
Drinking is a major part of Korean social life. Especially if you're a man, you'll be invited to a bar with other male teachers, your male students, or even your boss.
If you like to party, watch yourself. You want to avoid those ugly situations you've read about on the other web sites. Drunken men can be pretty unstable, and Korea's off and on gripes with US military personnel can make things worse. Just as in any foreign country, losing your temper and socking a Korean is not a good way to make yourself welcome.
If a fight breaks out, the police will get involved. Korean police are helpful to foreigners in many situations, but this isn't one of them. You're subject to Korean law, which usually doesn't work like western law. Besides, you can't count on being run in by officers who speak good (or even any) English. You can bet that the Korean(s) you scrapped with will tell the police their side of the story, but unless you're lucky enough to have a policeman with good English (or you're really fluent in Korean), you'll be hard-pressed to defend yourself against their claims. So getting into a fight in Korea could not only land you in a hospital, it could also get you fined and/or deported -- even if it wasn't your fault.
The best way to stay away from these risky situations is to just stay away -- that is, don't go drinking. But as I said above it's pretty much expected of you, at least if you're a man. Or maybe you just like to go out with friends on Saturday night, and where's the harm in that? So drink lightly and stay calm. Make sure at least some of the people in your party are Koreans. They'll be able to sense potential trouble, and help you defuse situations before they get out of hand.
I'm giving you all these suggestions here on how to behave in Korea. I don't mean to suggest that you have to adopt Korea's values, or even agree with them. But I think you need to understand how those values differ from ours and how they affect life in Korea. That's the only way you can live for a year or two, following their social code, without violating your own principles.
I'm not saying you should leave behind your own western ideals about sexual equality, for example. But remember, you're a guest in Korea. Bend your own rules as much as you can, without being mean about it. And for goodness sake don't make critical comments about Korea's customs. They are what they are, and you're not going to change them in your year or two in Korea.
Regardless of the situation -- listen, nod, and make neutral agreeable-sounding noises. Save the debates for after you get back home. For that matter, if you're a chronically cranky, argumentative, aggressive person, you're probably better off just staying at home. But that's the way it is anywhere in the world.