Why would I want to teach in Korea?
What are the requirements?
Where could I teach?
What's a hagwon?
Why does Korea have so many hagwons?
What's so important about English?
What kind of money can I earn?
What about private teaching?
Isn't Korea expensive?
Can I send money home?
Will I have a normal work week?
What about vacations?
Would I have to stay in Korea for a year?
Is Korea's standard of living bad?
Tell me more about the teaching contract.
How will I get to Korea?
Where will I live?
Can I get decent Internet service?
Will my cell phone work in Korea?
I was born in France, but I speak good English.
 
I'm a minority. Will I do OK?
What if I have physical challenges?
I don't speak any Korean. What will I do?
What are Koreans like?
I'm a woman. What are Korean men like?
What about Korean food?
Do they really eat dogs?
I hear Koreans smoke a lot.
Will I be safe?
What about North Korea?
Is there a lot of anti-Americanism?
Isn't Korea a poor country?
What about medical care?
What if I have to go to the hospital?
Will I need any shots before I go?
What should I pack?
I hear the pollution's pretty bad.
I see teachers complaining on discussion forums.
How do I avoid problems with cultural differences?
What really causes job problems?
How should I look for a job?

Why would I want to teach in Korea?

Everybody has different reasons, and some are better than others. I think the best one is that it's a chance to get to know another culture and nation really well. Obviously you're immersed in the culture every day, and you'll most likely have a good 3 or 4 dozen weekends to explore and travel other parts of the country.

In the west in recent years, there's been a growing interest in Asian culture. This tends to be focused on China and Japan, but for some folks, Korea might be a better introduction to Asia. It's way more affordable and accessible than Japan, and frankly more welcoming to foreigners. Unlike China, it has a democratic government. It's more prosperous and modern than Thailand or Vietnam, or even China for that matter, which means you'll have more of the comforts of home.

And (this is your mom speaking ;-) I think it's good for you. While Korea isn't as relentlessly communitarian as Japan (where, as they say, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down"), Korean society is still more focused on the public good and less on the individual than most western ones. While I'm not sure I'd want to live my whole life that way, I think we westerners could stand to absorb at least a little of that ideal.

Then there's history. If that's your interest, Korea has five thousand years of it for you to study. Korea's traditional architecture, art, and music are very different from what we're used to. Just wait 'til you see a Buddhist temple in the mountains, or hear a Samulnori band. Both will take your breath away, for very different reasons.

Korea is a study in contrasts, with traditional culture right next to the most modern. At least for now, more traditional culture survives here than in most other developed Asian nations (but don't just sit there; it's going fast). And while the scenery isn't always spectacular, it's surprisingly good once you get out of the big cities. Take a hike in the mountains and you'll see what I mean.

Oh yeah, the pay. It is a job, after all. While you won't get rich, you'll be reasonably well paid, and your expenses in Korea are apt be pretty low. More on that subject later.

What are the basic requirements?

You have two kinds of hoops to jump through, the Korean government's, and your potential employer's.

What the Korean goverment wants:

  1. A passport from one of the following nations (only): the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, or South Africa. Even if you've spoken English your entire life, if you don't have a passport from one of these 7 nations, forget it. Sorry, I don't make the rules. Make sure your passport is valid through the time you expect to stay in Korea (probably a year, but possibly more).

  2. A degree from an English-speaking high school, and at least a bachelor's degree (in any subject) from an English-speaking college or university. Yes, you have to prove that you got your education in English. You do not need an education degree or an EFL/ESL certificate.

  3. A personal interview at the Korean embassy in your country. The idea is to get some idea of your character and reasons you want to teach in Korea. They prefer that you appear at the embassy in person. If it's too much of a hardship for you to travel that far (Korea apparently has finally realized that some western countries are bigger than theirs), you can have a webcam interview via internet. Your employer may be able to pull some strings for you on this.

What your employer really wants:

  1. Mainstream English. They want it totally intelligible, with standard pronunciation, usage, and diction. Think NPR, BBC, or CBC news readers. A strong regional or ethnic accent will be a strike against you, so try to tone it down. Don't talk too fast.

  2. Western looks. If you're Asian-American or Asian-Canadian or Asian-anything, they don't see that as a plus. They want you to be instantly recognizable as Western when parents arrive for a visit. No fair, I know, but this is Korea, where that kind of discrimination isn't illegal.

  3. Not too young, not too old. Hagwon owners usually seem to want teachers in their mid 20s to mid 30s. Because of Korea's age-based status, it's pretty unlikely that you'll get hired if you're older than your boss. Margaret was in her early 40s when she applied and she had no problems, but her director was about her age or a little older.
  4. Clean-cut appearance. They'll want your picture, so get a haircut or style. If you're female, put on a conservative business dress. If you're male, lose the earring(s), shave -- in Korea, beards and mustaches are for old men -- and wear a jacket and tie. Either sex, undecorate any piercings and cover up any tattoos.

  5. A woman. They'll take a man if they have to, though. Koreans say they prefer women teachers because female voices are higher and easier to understand. I say it's because most hagwon directors are men. Make of that what you will. Yes, this is discriminatory. Sorry, again, that's Korea. By the way, more Western men than women apply to teach in Korea. For women, this is called a buyer's market.

Now for the paperwork. Except where I note otherwise, this all goes to your employer once you've landed a job. In most cases, that employer will have plenty of experience in this, and can walk you through it.

  1. Two copies of your employment contract, signed and dated.

  2. Two photocopies of the first page of your passport.

  3. Your college diploma. Yes, the original. With luck you'll get it back. If you no longer have it, get an official copy from your college or university. It has to be notarized and Apostille certified (your notary will know what that means, or should).

  4. An additional photocopy of your diploma. This one doesn't have to be notarized or certified. You use this when you apply for your E-2 visa at the Korean embassy in your country.

  5. Two copies of your official grade transcript from your university or college. They must be in two separate sealed official envelopes from the institution with official university stickers, stamps, or embossed seals on each envelope's seal. One is for the bureaucrats in Korea. The other goes to the Korean embassy in your home country when you apply for your visa.

  6. A criminal background check. You can usually get this from your local police. It has to be notarized. If you're from the US, UK, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, or South Africa, it also has to be Apostille certified (again, ask your notary about this).

    If Canada is your homebase, ask the local police or RCMP to include a Vulnerable Sector Search. "Vulnerable" refers to groups such as children and elderly people. This requirement brings in both your local constable and the RCMP, no matter which one you go to. Since Canada doesn't have an Apostille agreement with Korea, once you have the sealed and notarized documents, you'll have to take them, still sealed, to your nearest Korean embassy so they can certify them.

    Warning - a background check can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Once it's done, it's good for up to 6 months. So you probably want to take care of this about the time you start looking for a teaching gig.

  7. An extra photocopy of your criminal background check. This copy doesn't have to be notarized or Apostille certified).

  8. A health certification. This is actually nothing more than a self assessment form which your employer is supposed to provide, and which you fill out yourself.

    Once you see the form, you may not take this seriously. That would be a mistake. You're going to have to pass an actual, in-person physical exam within a month after you get to Korea. If there are any serious discrepancies between what you filled out and what the Korean docs find, they'll bounce you home. Thus it's not a bad idea to get a physical exam from your doctor and use that to fill out the form. If you take any prescription drugs that are apt to show up positive in a drug screening test, better list them on the form. Ask your doctor.

    The Korean exam includes screening for HIV and a laundry list of narcotics and opiates, including heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and PCP. It does not detect marijuana. My understanding is that the Korean government specifically doesn't require a weed test -- right now. I suggest you stay clean anyway.

    It also doesn't include a tuberculosis test. That rumor floated round the ESL forums for a while. It seems to have come from their use of a TBPE (Tetra-Bromophenol-Phthalein Ethylester) urine test for illegal drug screening.

  9. Finally, a notarial certificate from your notary.

NOTES:

  1. All the above stuff has to be sent by courier (FedEx, DHL, UPS) to your employer. They're supposed to process it for you before you arrive in Korea.

  2. Be absolutely sure your name matches perfectly on all the documents above. Even something as trivial as having your middle initial on one and your full middle name on another can cause delays or even get you rejected.

  3. I weep for Korea's lost 20th century innocence. So will you when you have to cough up the cash for all this paperwork. Everybody involved from the local police station to the Korean embassy will have his hand out for fees. These range from a few dollars to some tens of dollars. Then you have to send it by courier, which will cost $50-75. You're broke? Better get a local job and come back when you're not.

Final thoughts: First, I think the embassy interview might be a good thing. In the past, hagwon owners and recruiters have been less than spectacularly successful in judging the character of the teachers they were hiring. Some haven't even tried. Now and then, "teachers" who probably should've stayed in their parents' basements have gotten hagwon jobs, with, um, less than optimal results.

Second, this is a lot of running around and paperwork, way more than what Margaret had to do. It's not much different from what a lot of countries require when you're applying for permanent residency. This is not something you do casually. You have to really want to go to Korea. Do you?

Where could I teach?

Businesses, public schools, universities, and hagwons all are looking for native English EFL/ESL teachers. The most common jobs are in universities and hagwons.

University jobs have great hours and benefits, but they're harder to get. Most of the universities require EFL/ESL instruction degrees and/or an advanced degree. Usually they expect teaching experience, too, preferably in Korea. In fact most universities tend to hire native English teachers that are already in Korea, rather than flying them over.

So, most beginning English teachers work in hagwons. The pay is lower and the hours are longer, but the requirements are less and the jobs are plentiful.

What's a hagwon?

It's a private, commercial academy. The Hangul (Korean writing) for it is . You'll see it spelled in English as hagwan, hogwon, hagwon, and hakwon (there's supposed to be a standard for Romanizing Korean, but in practice it varies a lot). Though I'm no expert in pronunciation, I suggest "hah-GWAHN" -- add a bit of a "k" sound to the g. That should get you somewhere in the neighborhood.

In 2000, the Korean government said there were about 3,000 English hagwons in South Korea. By 2013, it was 17,000 - an increase of 467%! Hagwons come in all sizes, from tiny mom-and-pop operations to huge enterprises teaching as many students as a small-town US elementary school. There are even corporate chains that run hagwons in multiple cities. Some hagwons actually look like schools from the outside, but most are housed in ordinary downtown buildings that could just as well be home to accounting firms or export brokerages.

A hagwon doesn't have to teach English. You'll find that many of your students also go to computer hagwons and math hagwons. Some of the large hagwons teach multiple subjects.

Why does Korea have so many hagwons?

For the same reason that some people want to build more private schools in the US -- Koreans think their educational system isn't good enough.

They may be right, and I think it's because they're so focused on proficiency tests. Korean kids make some of the world's highest scores on them. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA 2000) tests against other members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Korea took first place in science and second in math. But all that proves is that they do well at taking standardized tests. (Besides, Korea came in sixth in reading, and everything I've seen suggests that they are not a nation of readers.) Ironically, as proficiency testing has caught on in the US, Korea has begun to realize that their proficiency tests may be hurting their kids' ability to learn much beyond how to pass the tests.

The Confucian principles which make up the core of Korea's culture really emphasize education. This is partly because during the Choson (Joseon) Dynasty, aceing the civil service test was the best route to a cushy job. However, Koreans have been unhappy with their public school system for as long as I can remember. Private teaching is thus nothing new. But when Korea's former military dictator Chun Doo Hwan came to power in 1980, he banned all private teaching. He said it was inegalitarian.

In one way, he was right. The best-educated kids get the best jobs. If private schools give the best education, and only wealthy people can afford private schools, then poor kids tend to get shut out of the system. But fixing inequality is easy if you equalize everybody downward, and that's pretty much what banning private teaching did. It certainly didn't do anything to fix the public schools. It didn't actually stop the private teaching, either; it just drove it underground.

So finally in 1991 the government gave in, and legalized hagwons. They kept them tightly regulated, though, still concerned about undermining public education and worried that low-income Koreans would lose their shirts to huge education costs. Then, in the mid-1990s, they relaxed the laws further, and the number of hagwons ballooned. In 1996, Korean parents spent US$25 billion in private education -- fifty percent more than the nation's entire public education budget! By 1997, surveys showed that 70 percent of elementary school children and half of middle and high school students were involved in some kind of private education.

The Korean government regulates hagwon fees in an effort to keep it more or less affordable. Hagwon fees thus depend on what the hagwon can convince the regulators their expenses are. However, that doesn't mean that hagwon education is cheap. Published monthly hagwon rates per student typically range from around 75,000 won to around 300,000 won.

Some hagwons get away with charging more than their official limit, sometimes much more. In 2008, Korean officials caught a southern Seoul hagwon charging almost 13 times what it was allowed to charge. They were asking a staggering 6 million won per student per month. What's more remarkable is that parents were paying it.

As far as I know, Best Language Institute never cheated on their fees, at least not in the time Mrs Kim owned it. In fact I remember Margaret mentioning her complaints about other hagwons getting away with overcharging. In 2000, when Margaret was teaching, Best's posted rate was 85,000 won (about US$75). In 2003 it was bumped up to 120,000 won (about US$110), probably because they'd moved to a ritzier neighborhood with higher rent and operating expenses. Someone else owns Best now, and I have no idea what they charge today.

Even the most reasonable hagwon fees can be tough to handle. The typical Korean family spends over 10 percent of its household budget on private education. In 2008, the total spent reached 18.7 trillion won (US$15 billion). It was about the same in 2012. In 2014, the average hagwon tuition per student hit 242,000 won per month -- close to 3 million a year.

Parents pay these fees, many times for two or three children at two or three hagwons, because they think that if they don't send their kids to private school, they're not doing their best for the kids. The family's honor is at stake.

Of course the kids are the ones attending the schools. Between hagwon and public school, they spend anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day in classrooms, Monday through Friday. Korean law says they're supposed to be out of class by 10pm, but even that isn't absolute. Some hagwons pull down blackout shades and slog on into the night. That's mostly OK with parents. It's all about the college entrance exams, and they tell the kids "sleep five hours a night and fail; sleep four hours and pass." In fact the average Korean high school student sleeps only about 5.5 hours per night, and student suicides go up every year around exam time.

But why English? What's so important about it?

Easy. Money talks, and it speaks English.

For better and/or worse, America is the holy grail of free-market capitalism. If you want to play with the big kids, you really should be able to speak their language, and that's English. So English has been taught in most major European and Asian countries for years. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 350 million people worldwide now speak English as a second language. That's 28 million more than those who speak it as their native language. A European Union poll found that 70% of Europeans believe that "everyone should speak English." I'd guess that at least as many Koreans feel that way.

English is also fashionable. Korean entertainment often has American overtones. Many K-pop tunes include verses or phrases in English. English is widely used (sometimes mis-used) in advertising.

Then there are the high school and college entrance exams. College entrance exams especially are huge in Korea. How huge? Let's look at the exam Korea gave on the 17th of November 2016.

Over 600,000 students took the test. The Korean government moved heaven and earth (well, Korea anyway) to make sure they did well. They changed the opening times of businesses, government offices, and the stock exchange to 10am, so that any kids who were running late had a better chance to make the 9am exam start. In the afternoon, when it was time for the language listening test, they shut down work at construction sites, routed large trucks around the exams, and even banned airplane takeoffs and landings at airports.

Can you imagine any of that happening in the US? Do you still wonder why Korea's education is rated #1 in the world, while the US's is rated 14th?

The entrance exams determine how good a university students get into. Students who don't do well end up in second-rate (or worse) colleges. A second-rate college means a second-rate job. This can even affect who the kid marries, and how well hubby and wife can care for the parents in their old age. Now you know why parents go to temples and churches to pray for their kids on exam day.

The English proficiency test is only one part of the exams. But it's a big one, and sometimes a high English score alone can land a second-rate student in a first-tier school.

See why all the pressure? See why they send the kids to hagwons?

In theory, they shouldn't need English hagwons. All Korean children study English in public school, starting in third grade. Public school English is taught by Korean-born instructors. They mostly teach simple vocabulary and emphasize exercises. There's not much chance for the students to actually use English in conversation.

This is why hagwons are so keen to have native English speakers: they want you to push the students to speak real world English, teach them to hold their own in an English conversation. Also, with so many hagwons in business, the competition is intense. Hagwons without native English speakers just don't survive.

What kind of money can I earn?

I'll answer this is an second, but first a couple of comments.

First point: If you skipped over everything else above to get to this question, you might be looking into Korea for the wrong reason. Korea is almost as aggressively capitalist as the US, and Korean business people take their profit seriously. No offense, but you probably don't have the language skills and cultural background to play the game their way on their home turf. You can earn a decent salary teaching English in Korea, but if your main objective is to rake in lots of cash in a hurry, trust me -- you'll be happier (and more successful) somewhere else.

Second point: If you're looking into teaching English in Korea because you're unemployed and broke, forget it. Flying halfway round the world to take a job you know almost nothing about at a school you've never seen with a boss you've never met is risky enough. If you do this with no money in your pocket and no way to get home if things go sour, you're just asking for trouble.

Lately US neoliberal business writers have been hyperventilating over tales of 7-figure US$ salaries for English tutors. They seem to think that's some kind of new normal. OK, such things do happen, but your chances of raking in that kind of dough are about as good as mine. A typical hagwon salary runs 18 to 30 million won per year (roughly US$16,000 to US$27,000). As of 2013, around 25 million won (about US$23,000) was a fairly typical starting rate in the larger cities. When you figure in Korea's cost of living and low taxes, I estimate that this can be worth as much as a US salary of $30,000 - $32,000.

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I've heard that the real money is in private teaching.

Some of the teachers' websites and blogs talk about how much you can earn this way. It's true that "privates" can easily bring in more than your hagwon salary.

The problem is that private teaching is risky. It falls into a grey area of the law. Many hagwon contracts say you're not allowed to teach outside the hagwon. Your visa is based on the terms of your contract, so breaking your contract can get you deported if you're caught.

Some teachers get away with it. But I've heard rumors of immigration officials posing as potential clients, trying to trap foreign teachers by offering to pay them for privates. Personally, I'd rather take a hagwon salary, spend my spare time sightseeing and relaxing, and not have to look over my shoulder all the time. It's up to you. Just make sure you know what you're getting into.

Isn't Korea expensive? A friend of mine spent his vacation in Seoul, and he said everything cost almost as much as in Tokyo!

Yeah, I've heard that too. These guys must be in some alternate universe.

I guess if you stay at 4-star hotels, go to fancy Western restaurants, and drink American booze in the Itaewon bars, you probably can spend hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars a day in Seoul. As I've said here before, Koreans are shrewd business people and unabashed capitalists. They know about corporate expense accounts.

But that's a Korea carefully aimed at an executive audience, the folks who always fly business class. Step a little way off that cushy red carpet and you find a much more affordable Korea. Based on my own limited experience staying in travel-agent hotels and dining at random restaurants, I'd say that the real-world middle-manager Seoul is roughly comparable to a midrange American city -- St Louis or Tampa, maybe.

I don't know what kind of luxury you insist on, but back off a little further and the cost really tumbles. That's where you'll find us. When Margaret was sightseeing around Korea on the weekends, she mostly stayed in yagwons (motels), ate in Korean restaurants, and didon't drink anything but tea.

Yagwons can be as cheap as 25,000 to 30,000 won, but the going rate as of 2015 is more like 40,000 to 50,000 won. Midsize cities fall toward the low end of that range, and Seoul and Incheon rise toward the top.

Don't pass up the "love motels." The idea may sound kind of sketchy -- a motel you can rent by the hour -- but in our experience, these places are totally safe. The ones we've stayed at have been comfortable, reasonably attractive, and (thank goodness) quiet. About the only hint we were in someplace a little different was the generous (nominally illegal) soft-porn video library on each floor. (Well, that and certain decor elements. I'll have to tell you about that sometime.) We paid the daily rate, which was pretty reasonable for what we got.

As for dining, a typical meal at a family-owned Korean restaurant usually runs us about 4,000 to 6,000 won each. Again, meal prices are a little higher in Seoul, but we've seldom spent over 20,000 won on a Korean dinner for the two of us. We did drop a good bit more than that on some really great dim sum once, and the touristy Seoul temple-food restaurant Sanchon was a bracing 35,000 won per person -- again, once. But those are exceptions.

So, sure, Korea can be expensive if you live as if you were rich. What country isn't?

Can I send money home?

Sure. Go to a bank and have them cut you a bank draft in dollars, or whatever your currency is. They'll look at your passport and charge you a few thousand won. Mail it home. Done.

Some banks will stamp your passport if you wave more than about a million won at them. Like the US, Korea has laws that require banks to notify the guys in blue when someone is moving around large fistfuls of cash -- the idea being that it might be drug money, I suppose. If that bothers you, you might try spreading your transactions out to different days and different banks. I definitely recommend this strategy if you're teaching a lot of (illegal) private lessons (see above).

You can also bank your money in Korea and take it home with you after you leave your job. There's no longer a legal limit on how much cash you can take out of Korea, but you'll have to declare large sums to customs at both ends. It's US$10,000 when you enter the US; I don't know what the threshold is for Korea. Just be aware that, with the current legal climate in the US, entering the country with a large cache of cash may generate some questions, not to mention the risks of driving through many US states with cash in your car.

You were saying something about working less than 40 hours a week ...

What, you don't like to work? ;-)

Thirty to 35 teaching hours a week isn't too uncommon, and I've heard of a few teachers working 25 hour weeks. I hope these folks realize how lucky they are. Although Korea now officially has a 40 hour work week, when Margaret was there, the standard was 44 hours (half a day on Saturday). The 40-hour law has leaky loopholes, and lots of Koreans still work more.

Some hagwons will make you work six-day weeks, including Saturdays. That's one more reason not to take the first job that comes along. On the other hand, I'd rather work 40 hours or even 6 days a week for a director I really liked, than 25 or 30 hours a week for one I hated. But that's me.

Your contract will specify the length of your work week (though that's not necessarily the final word -- more on this later). But don't get too excited over a contact that says you'll teach for 30 or 35 hours a week. That's teaching time. As I said above, some hagwons don't pay you for your time preparing lesson plans or grading papers, so you can easily end up with a 40-hour (or more) week after all.

You should expect your work schedule to change, maybe often. If a recruiter or director tells you otherwise, don't believe him. Every hagwon's enrollment changes from week to week.

You also want to find out whether the school expects you to work "split shifts." Because many hagwons teach both children and adults, you could find yourself working part of your hours in the morning or afternoon, and part in the evening. You may even get split shifts in a hagwon which teaches only kids. Worse, you could end up teaching adults in the early morning before they go to work, and again in the evening after they're done for the day.

Some teachers hate split shifts. Others aren't much bothered. A few actually like having a break in the middle of the day. Just make sure you understand what your hagwon expects before you sign on the dotted line.

What about vacation time?

Most hagwons teach year-round. You probably won't be able to get enough consecutive vacation days to make a trip back home. You might be able to get out of Korea, but you should plan to stay in Asia for your entire year.

That said, you'll get the major Korean holidays off. Usually, there are twelve, one for each month of the year. But note that they might not be paid holidays for you. Korean law doesn't actually require that employers provide paid holidays for folks who work less than 40 hours per week, and remember what I said are typical classroom hours.

At least two holidays are long ones (3-4 days): Solnal, or Lunar New Year, is in January or February; Chusok (or Chuseok), Korea's equivalent of Thanksgiving, falls in September or October.

If you want to travel in Asia or nearby during Korean holidays, make sure you get a multiple re-entry visa when you apply for your alien registration (this seems to be the standard visa for most US residents). If you plan to go anywhere in Korea over a major holiday, also keep in mind that most Koreans go back to their ancestral homes then. You'll need to make your travel reservations several months ahead. Instead of taking the bus, try to make train or airline reservations if you possibly can (no traffic delays). Whatever you do, don't try to go anywhere by car on holidays. Traffic slows to a crawl with all those people on the road.

If you decide to renew your contract, I suggest that you make time off between contracts a negotiating point. A few weeks back at home before you jump in again can give you new energy (and empty your pockets). Also, depending on how desperate your boss is, you might also be able to get some extra vacation days added to the renewal.

Universities usually require more formal ESL education. But if you're successful in hagwon teaching, even without an ESL degree, one of the smaller and less prestigious local universities may head-hunt you near the end of your contract. This happened to Margaret.

Give it some thought. University teaching is a different world. The hours are better (usually less than 30 per week) and the vacation WAY better (4-6 weeks a year).

Would I really have to stay in Korea for a year?

I guess if the hagwon's really desperate, you might be able to get a shorter term. But it's not likely.

They put you under a one-year contract because you're expensive. The hagwon has to cover recruiting costs, immigration paperwork, airfare, and possibly apartment key money (a gigantic cash deposit with the landlord). Break-even point for them usually comes about 5 or 6 months into your contract. This is why, if you break your contract and leave early, they'll make you pay part or all of your airfare, which would otherwise be free. Some hagwons even hold part of your first paycheck, to offset the ticket cost in case you do split early -- another reason not to go to Korea with empty pockets.

Before you start looking for a hagwon job, stop and think: Are you ready to spend that much time in Korea? If you've never been out of your home country before, I suggest that you take a 2-3 week vacation first. If you can't go to Korea, go anywhere overseas.

This goes double if you're an American. I say this because the US lifestyle is unique. Once you've been outside the US, you've seen how the rest of the world lives, so you're more prepared for what you'll live with for your year or more in Korea.

So is Korea's standard of living that much worse that America's?

Actually, it's pretty good. It's just that it's -- well, different from what Americans are used to.

For one thing, the US is a big nation with lots of wide-open spaces. Hardly anybody else in the world lives that way. When Asians and Europeans see the US for the first time, the usual reaction is "OMG, everything's so HUGE!" 'Tis true. Houses, vehicles, roads, supermarkets, refrigerators, and schools are all bigger. Even our pets are. Even we are. Other places, the scale is smaller.

And yes, the US is more affluent. Our GDP is the world's largest. Korea is 13th.

So if you haven't travelled internationally before, you'll need a little time to recalibrate.

I want to come back to the Korean standard of living, but first tell me more about the contract.

This sample contract is similar to the one Margaret signed. Yours will probably contain other provisions. Do I need to tell you again to read it carefully before you sign? Also, make sure your hagwon director has read it and remembers what's in it. This is not a joke! There've been cases in which a foreign teacher pointed out a contract provision the director had no clue was there.

I'd be wary of a hagwon that wants you to sign a contract written in Korean. At the very least get a third party to translate it for you first. Even if you also sign an English contract, the Korean one supersedes it. Know what you're signing.

Also, understand that the term "contract" has different meanings to Koreans and Westerners. Most Korean employers consider the contract a starting point more than an ending point. Your contract may spell out the number of hours in your work week, for example, but if your school's director later asks you to take on more work (for more pay, we hope), that doesn't necessarily mean that he's trying to cheat you. The director sees this as normal "enhancement" of your agreement. But should you want some changes to the contract, good luck! Is this a double standard? You bet. So it goes.

Contract disputes are one of Western teachers' biggest complaints with hagwons. I suspect that at least some of these problems arise because hagwon directors (surprise) often don't have as good a command of English as you'd hope. You've read about Asian honor and pride? Well, this is a point of honor. They can't admit they don't understand without losing face. So you'll be discussing a contract "enhancement" and your director is nodding and making affirmative little noises. You think he understands your answer to his proposals. Later he acts like you've betrayed him. He gets upset, you get upset. The relationship is damaged, maybe fatally.

This can be avoided. When your hagwon director wants to tweak your contract, don't assume anything. Bring in a friend or fellow teacher with good translation skills. At the end of the negotiations, get your director's revised expectations on paper. This may not totally prevent misunderstanding, but it could make the difference between a decent working relationship and irreconcilable differences.

I know there are some teachers who say "Never give an inch." I don't agree. Koreans are used to respectful negotiation, but they also value cooperation and harmony in relationships. It can be a good strategy to swallow your pride and quietly accept a few minor contract changes. I'm not saying you should give up everything on major issues. I'm suggesting that you look for things you can say "yes" to. You'll build up "brownie points" that will help later when you have to negotiate something really important.

How will I get to Korea?

The hagwon will usually buy you an economy-class air ticket, or else give you a transportation allowance. Once you've signed the contract and waded through the immigration paperwork, you should be packed and ready to leave, because they'll probably want you there as soon as they can book passage for you.

This is because a hagwon director without a native English speaking teacher on his staff has parents on his case about when the new teacher will arrive. He's losing students and income, so he needs you yesterday. There've actually been cases where instructors were taken right from the airport to the classroom (not exactly an auspicious beginning to the experience). Hagwon directors who haven't flown halfway round the world the way you just did don't have a clue about jet lag. Margaret at least got to take a nap before Mrs Kim threw her to the pre-school wolves.

Where will I live?

In the city where you work. Duh. (Sorry.)

Almost all hagwons will put you up as part of the package. It's usually one of three arrangements: a small private apartment, a larger house or apartment shared with other teachers, or (rarely) homestay with a Korean family, usually another hagwon employee. Some of the big hagwons and chains have their own apartments.

Most teachers think they want their own private places right away. But keep in mind that living with someone who already knows his or her way around can really help you get up to speed in Korea.

If you're sure you want to go it alone, maybe your best bet is to negotiate a housing allowance in your contract. This means you're completely on your own, including finding your own place to live. Unless your Korean is really, really good, you'll need a trustworthy Korean friend to help you make the arrangements.

This may give you a little more privacy, but don't count on the same level that you get at home. Your landlord will know who you work for. Not to scare you, but if you get into a tiff with your boss, you might expect the landlord to take your side since you're paying him. Good luck with that. Your hagwon director may not be paying the rent directly, but he's your boss, and he has higher Korean status than you do. If he wants to get into your apartment to snoop or see if you're hiding out, most likely the landlord will hand him the key without a second thought. So, encrypt and password your computer and smartphone. Keep important papers with you.

And now a word about Korean apartments. That word is "small." Like Japan, Korea is a crowded nation. It packs 50 million people -- roughly the populations of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania put together -- into a country about the size of Indiana. Your apartment will be smaller than what you have at home. What Americans would call an efficiency or studio apartment is typical, particularly in larger cities such as Seoul and Pusan, where housing costs are high.

Can I get decent Internet service?

Well, that depends on your definition of decent. You can definitely get fast Internet. As of 2013, Korea had the world's fastest average speed (21 mbps). They're the world's leader in installing high-speed fiber, and they actually have more wireless Internet connections than they have people.

However, Korea is also one of the world's leaders in Internet censorship. Reporters Without Borders compares it to Russia's. So your fast service will not be free (as in freedom). [Details]

Will my mobile (cellular) phone work in Korea?

Maybe, if it's the right kind, but probably not the minute (or day) you get off the plane.

Korea isn't like Europe, where you can buy a SIM and a top-up in the airport, plug it into your phone, and start talking. Korean law says you can't activate a SIM or mobile phone until you've been in Korea for at least 3 days. This is how long it takes your immigration data to wend its way through the Korean government's bowels, so that your name and other data can be irrevocably associated with that SIM. In Korea, anonymity is illegal (seriously).

For your phone to work in Korea, it has to:

  • Be SIM-unlocked
  • Support WCDMA at 2100 mHz for voice
  • Support HSDPA at 2100 mHz for data

Your current mobile company should be able to tell you whether your phone will work, and unlock it for you. Tell them you're going to be spending a year in Korea. If they say "no dice," you might consider buying an unlocked international phone that will work before you leave. Buying a new phone from the Korean mobile carriers is expensive.

Once you've done 3-4 phoneless days in Korea, pocket your passport and around 100,000 won. Find another teacher at your hagwon who knows where to find an Olleh (KT Telecom) company store and is willing to go with you. Olleh claims that at least some of their Seoul store clerks speak English. Don't believe them.

Once there, buy a prepaid SIM (I paid 11,000 Won in 2014 but Olleh seem to run random specials). Also get a voice/text top-up. As of 2015, voice uses about 300 Won per minute and SMS cost 22 won each, so don't be too frugal. Add a data pack; that will cost another 5,500 to 38,500 Won. Make sure your phone is working before you leave the store.

With what's left of your 100,000 Won (if anything), buy your friend a meal or a drink.

Your SIM will work for 90 days, as long as you top it up regularly. To make it last for your whole stay, you'll have to make yet another trip to the Olleh store. Once you've gotten your Alien Registration Card (ARC), haul your trusty translator back there and have them re-activate your phone with your alien registration number. Then you can keep using your phone until your visa expires, as long as you keep topping it up. Don't forget to buy your translator friend another meal or drink.

Voice top-ups expire in anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on how much money you've put down. Data packs are separate and expire in 30 days, whether you use the data or not. You can get top-ups and data packs at convenience stores, or set up automatic monthly top-up through Olleh. See Olleh's English Service Guide for the details.

Just to be clear, I'm not endorsing Olleh here. Korea has 2 other networks, SK Telecom and LG-U+. But Olleh is the one I used, and the one most other foreigners seem to use, mainly because they at least have good English information on the web. And to tell the truth, I haven't heard of any foreigners getting prepaid service from SK. You're welcome to try, though.

As for LG-U+, their service doesn't speak WCDMA or HSPA. It might work for you if your phone supports LTE at 850 mHz (band 5) or 2100 mHz (band 1), but I don't know for sure. You're on your own. If you try either SK or LG, drop me a line and let me know how it works out.

Prepaid voice is pricey, but frankly it's about your only practical choice. Postpaid requires a Korean bank account and/or a Korean credit card. Even if you manage that, the contract period won't sync up with a one-year hagwon contract, because you won't be able to start it as soon as you arrive.

Some foreign teachers used to have Korean friends get postpaid phones for them. You might still get away with that if you have a really good and trusting friend (he's going to be responsible for the bill), but to add a new wrinkle to things, it's now illegal for your friend to sign for you. See what I said above about anonymity.

However, you can probably cut your phone costs by using your home wifi with Skype or a SIP client and account. You can chat with your Korean friends via Kakao, the social network that 97% of Korea's smartphone owners use.

You could also try Elle Crook's method, and sign up for an "Olleh Egg." This is a pocket-size mi-fi hotspot. Olleh now calls it WiBro (Wireless Broadband). She says hers was $80; I see $120. As I write this in 2015, Olleh has a no-contract deal for data topups at 11,000 Won for 10gb, which is pretty reasonable by world standards.

One caution: make sure your Olleh Egg (or whatever they're calling it this year) will work with Skype or SIP before you buy it. Korea's wireless companies have a history of blocking the competition on their cellular data services.

I was born in France (Italy, Norway, Taiwan, etc.) but I speak excellent English. Will I have trouble finding a job?

Sorry to say that it doesn't matter how good your English is, if you don't at least have a passport from the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, or South Africa, you're out of luck. About the only thing you can do is enter under a tourist visa and try to get some illegal private tutoring gigs. That's pretty risky and I don't recommend it. I wish I had better news for you, but that's the way it is. See the requirements above for more information.

I'm an American, but a minority. Will I do OK?

What I'd like to answer is, "In Korea we're all minorities." This is true, strictly speaking. Korea is gradually becoming more diverse, but basically it's a homogenous society, so historically they haven't much had to deal with anyone who looked or acted very different. As in Japan, the word for foreigner, weiguk, means "outsider."

The "outsiders" they've had the most dealings with have been white Europeans and Americans. Those are the ones they're most comfortable with, and the ones they mostly want teaching their kids English. If you're of African descent, you'll for sure have more challenges, but they're not insurmountable. If you have a thick skin and plenty of patience, you can find a hagwon teaching job.

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I have some physical challenges. What can I expect?

Well, the bad news first: a lot of hagwon directors aren't going to want to deal with your challenges. They'll pass you over for other candidates, even ones who are less qualified. This kind of discrimination isn't illegal in Korea. Not that it's impossible to find a job, but you're likely to have an uphill slog.

The good news is that -- at least publicly -- since 2000 Korea has become a lot more accommodating of folks with disabilities. So if you're going for a visit, your mobility will be less of a challenge.

Back when Margaret was teaching, Koreans with disabilities mostly stayed out of sight. The public image of disability was the blind subway beggar, sweeping his cane through the Metro cars with his cheap tape player warbling hymns. While you'll still see a few such sad people, today Korea generally does better by the physically challenged.

Mst cities and destinations finally have curb cuts, for example, though they're not always smooth. Neither are the sidewalks in some smaller cities. Seoul is pretty good for this, though. Watch out for motor scooters on the sidewalks.

Supposedly there are a few hundred accessible (van) taxis in Seoul. That's not nearly enough. You're unlikely to see many roaming the streets, and the regular taxis don't have room for your chair in the trunk, thanks to their LP gas tanks there. Thus, taxi drivers will pass you right by. It's not personal, they just can't help you.

If you have the time to wait, your Korean friends can call a van taxi for you. They may need to request it 24 hours in advance, however.

Soooo, I suggest you take the bus instead; or, in Seoul, the Metro (subway).

Seoul claims half of their buses have wheelchair ramps. I've seen a fair number in other cities, too, though I don't know what the percentage is. The accessible doors are the ones in the middle of the bus's side, not at the front. Be aware that bus drivers aren't always careful about pulling right up to the curb.

Accessible buses should have at least one chair locking point. You may have to lift a seat to find it.

The Seoul Metro trains themselves are pretty good. Every train has several wheelchair accessible cars with locking spots. The few cars that don't claim accessibility still are level with the platform. Be careful you don't try to push into an over-crowded car and end up stuck in the doors! Chair locking points are at the end of the car where you'd find seats reserved for the elderly. Koreans are very good about keeping these areas open. They'll jump to make room when they see you coming.

Many Metro stations now have street level elevators to take you to the ticketing level. Look for the big glass boxes. You may have to wander a while to find the elevator at the big, block-long stations.

Once you're inside the station, ticketing is a problem. The standing-height ticket windows with real people are long gone. Electronic kiosks replaced them. You'd think Seoul could have built at least some of them at chair height, but in 2014, I didn't see a single one.

Then there's getting to the tracks. The Metro stations weren't designed for elevators, so the elevators to the tracks have been tucked in wherever they fit, usually in out of the way corners. You might follow a universal two-arrow elevator sign, only to find that the elevator takes you to the tracks for the direction you don't want to go. The right one is there somewhere, but good luck finding it.

Seoul claims that "most stations" have these elevators, but in 2014 I still saw a lot of the old stair lifts. For those you have to get on an intercom and call for help (they understand English). In a few minutes an operator will show up. Your leisurely ride will be accompanied by a sad little electronic rendition of the early 19th century American tune Home Sweet Home: "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." Indeed.

The Metro turnstiles are your next challenge. Head for the far right or left and the wheelchair gate. It may swing toward you, which will require some maneuvering if no one's with you.

Outside of Seoul, you should be able to find accessible buses, but that's about it. However, Korea's love affair with big vehicles means that your Korean friends are likely to have minivans or SUVs, with lots of room for a chair.

Building accessibility has improved. However, you have to realize that, like most European cities, Korea is mostly vertical. A lot of places you'll want to go will be on upper floors. Newer buildings have elevators, and they've been shoehorned into a few older ones; but for the most part, anything but ground floor access will be a struggle.

Similarly, old apartment buildings are generally hopeless. The newer high-rise complexes should be more accessible. I can't say how many actual apartments inside will be outfitted with what you need, though.

As for hotels, the expensive Western chains in Seoul will be accomodating. Cheaper local hotels and those in smaller cities, not so much. About the best you can expect in those is a ground floor room. You may need a personal assistant.

So while you may have to look hard and long to find a teaching job, once you find one you should be able to do reasonably well in Korea. Just as minorities do there, you'll need patience and a thick skin. However, if you think you can handle those challenges, I say go for it. Korea needs you to show them what they're missing when they discriminate.

I don't speak any Korean at all! What will I do?

Don't worry so much. Most of the recruiters will tell you not to worry at all, but in reality it does help to speak and/or read Korean - not so much in the classroom as out of it. Let me tell you, it's frustrating to walk into a restaurant and not have a clue what to order. You can't even guess, because Korean script, Hangul, is utterly unrelated to any western alphabet. It's humbling to always have to call on a Korean friend to set up your phone and internet service, tell the taxi driver your destination, describe your symptoms to the doctor, and figure out which of the cartons in the store's cooler (if any) is half-and-half. At school or at social events, sometimes you'll feel left out when the other teachers are chattering away in Korean.

So yeah, you'll have some hair-tearing moments. But you will get by. After all, you're working for an English school. Margaret's experience says that other teachers, your director, and even your older students will go to great lengths to help you. Just make sure you treat them nicely in return. Take them out to dinner, and give them small gifts as thanks now and then.

As for daily hagwon business, the Korean teachers and your director will answer the telephone and deal with parents. They'll also usually help with discipline problems. (No, Korean kids are not quiet little angels. Sorry.)

As for teaching, you'll be surprised how often you can get your point across to both children and adults with few (or no) Korean words. In fact, even if you know Korean, your hagwon director may tell you not to admit it to your students. Your job is to challenge them to speak English.

In theory, every Korean schoolchild learns English in public school, so you'd expect that most adults would know it. You'd be wrong, which is one reason Korea wants you to come over and teach English. Korea's public school English teaching system is broken. However, many business people and a surprising number of college kids speak English at some level, because they have to. Over your first few months, you'll pick up a few Korean words and phrases. Half and half Korean and English conversations sound weird, but they do work.

Carry an English-Korean dictionary with you. That way you can look up keywords and point. There are some for smartphones. I use the somewhat unfortunately named open source dictionary, Quickdic for Android. It's available at F-Droid and the Android Market).

There's also Google Translator, imperfect as it is. (Where do you think Engrish mistranslations come from?)

I also recommend that you learn the basics of Hangul before you go. Don't freak! Although some people use the words "Hangul" and "Korean" interchangeably, they're not the same thing. Korean is the language and learning it can take years. Hangul is the alphabet and it's not tough at all. It was deliberately designed in 1446 so that anybody could learn it, including Koreans with very little formal education. It has some quirks, but it's probably the world's most rational alphabet.

Learn Hangul and you'll be able to read signs and (maybe) write down words you hear. Now, granted, you won't have a clue what the signs and words mean, but at least you'll have a shot at figuring out whether the destination on the bus sign is the one you want before you get on.

You can pick up "survival Hangul" in a couple of weeks. You'll find some online Hangul resources on our weblinks page.

What are Koreans like?

Just like us. I'm not being glib. They want the same things from life that we do -- happiness, wealth, comfort, love. But they're not us. Their traditions and ours are half a world apart, so they pursue those goals differently.

If this is your first time Korea, some of those cultural differences might make you think that Koreans are rude or thoughtless. The classic example is crowd behavior. The English form nice polite queues for everything. Americans stand around somewhat impatiently. Koreans shove their way through. Try to make a line at a ticket window and there's a good chance someone will push you aside and step right up. He will not apologize.

In crowds (which you'll run into just about everywhere in Korea, since it's one of the world's most densely populated places) you're going to be jostled and bumped and pushed. No one will apologize.

This is probably considered rude where you come from. But you're not at home, and these are not westerners. Your manners and rules don't apply. Pushing and shoving is not considered rude here.

Read that again.

One more time.

Got it?

I'm constantly amazed that westerners can know this is Korean custom, and still they grouse about being jostled and pushed. Why? Get used to it! This is Korea, and they're not being rude. Nor is it rude for you to do it here. Go ahead, give as good as you get.

Same with table manners. Some westerners think Koreans are crass because they slurp up noodles, tip their soup bowls to their mouths, and suck the meat off their stew bones and spit the bones out on the table. Well, guess what -- some Koreans think we Americans are crass because we hold our McDodo-burgers in our bare hands. They hold them with the paper wrapper.

Customs differ. We're appalled at the way Koreans treat dogs, they're appalled at the way we treat old people. Be a little more broad-minded, OK? Blink twice. Think "cultural difference." Smile. There you go.

They may eat dogs, but they treat foreigners pretty well. If you look lost, an English-speaking Korean is apt to stop and ask if you need help. He may walk you to your destination even if it's out of his way, call a cab for you and tell the driver where to take you, help you buy a bus ticket and see that you get on the right bus, or even drive you to your destination in his own car. All of these have happened to us.

Your students and colleagues will take you out to dinner, invite you to their homes, and ask you along for sightseeing or hiking. They'll teach you about their culture and religions if you ask (and often if you don't). They'll tell you how proud they are of their country and its success (Korea is the 13th largest GDP in the world). All of these have happened to us.

If you let yourself, you will feel at home in Korea, I promise you. We did.

What if you're one of these people who say "I'm a foreigner, and they should expect me to act like one"?

Well, let me ask you this: what would you think of a Korean who came to live in the US, and pushed his way through crowds and cut into lines like he was back in Korea? Now guess what Koreans will think of you if you don't at least try to play by their cultural rules.

You really need to know the basics of behavior before you go. You'll make mistakes anyway. We all do. But Koreans are surprisingly tolerant of foreigners' mistakes.

If you accidentally break the social rules, most likely one of your Korean friends will take you to one side and explain how you should be acting. Believe me - this person is doing you a favor. I know, sometimes it doesn't seem that way, especially when his English isn't that great. You may feel that he's treating you like a child. Give him a break -- he probably doesn't know the more diplomatic language that you'd normally use in dealing with an adult. And he's trying to help you. You would probably do exactly the same thing for him if he were the visitor in your own country. So listen to him. If you consistently refuse to listen to your Korean friends when they give you guidance like this, you'll find that after a while you don't have Korean friends any more. Things won't go so easily for you after that. This isn't a threat, it's a fact.

If you think you can go to Korea and act like you've never left home, then do yourself -- and the rest of us -- a favor. Stay home. Trust me, Korea doesn't need you that badly, and you'll be a lot happier.

But if you're open minded, polite, thoughtful, and willing to learn, come on over. You'll do fine.

And that's all I'll say about that.

I'm a woman. What are Korean men like?

Uh, well, mostly somewhat sexist. Sorry.

Confucianism is still a guiding force in Korea, and it's just not based on equality. Quite the opposite. Confucian rules sort people into a strong column and a weak column. The weaker person is subject to the stronger one; the strong one is obligated to protect the weaker one. Women are supposed to be dominated and guarded by their fathers, boyfriends, and husbands. This is obviously very different from modern western ideals. (Understand, I'm not advocating this, just telling you how things are. Don't shoot the messenger.)

Korean women have made tremendous gains in recent years, but feminism has a long way to go in Korea. Women are just now beginning to hold positions of authority in business. They're still seen mainly as wives and mothers. A woman's status in Korean society is almost always lower than a man's. Meanwhile, a good marriage is important to a Korean man's status. There also seem to be quite a few Korean men who think that all western women are promiscuous, like the ones they see in films.

So:

  1. Korean men have higher status and rigidly defined roles, which makes it hard to be friends.
  2. Single men are in the market for nice, prestigious, quiet, submissive wives.
  3. Some of them have heard western women are easy, and they want to find out if that's true.
So if you want to just make friends with a Korean man, you sort of have 3 strikes against you from the start. But it's not hopeless; there are Korean men who are progressive enough (or Western enough). Margaret had a very good friend in her student Randy. Lo these many years later, she and Randy still chat by email now and then, and we always visit him when we're in Korea.

But date them? Marry them? Well, that depends on what you want from a relationship. In my opinion, what makes most relationships work are common interests, common background, and good communication. You're going to be lucky to get two out of three with a Korean mate. If you think western men can be uncommunicative, try adding some Confucianism and a language barrier.

So is a romantic relationship impossible? Of course not. But if you're going to Korea because you think you'll come home with a husband (or wife), I think you need to find another reason to go.

But, hey, I'm a middle-aged man and I already have a mate, so who am I to say?

What about Korean food? What's it like?

Not too subtle. They tend to go for strong flavors, including red pepper and garlic. There are very few choices for vegans, but you'll probably be OK if you can eat fish.

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Do they really eat dogs?

Yes, but you don't have to. Boshintang (dog meat stew) restaurants are usually off the beaten path and are easy to spot -- they generally have pictures of dogs on their signs. Read more here.

I hear Koreans smoke a lot.

That used to be true. In recent years, Korea has been passing laws that limit smoking in public -- a bit surprising when you realize that the government owns Korea's largest tobacco company.

Enforcement tends to vary, but the laws have definitely cut into the consumption. When Margaret was there in 2000, 35 percent of Koreans smoked, down from 40 percent in 1992 (the first year they kept track). By 2003, the rate had dropped to 29 percent. In 2009 it fell to 22 percent, and has held steady there since. That's higher than the 18 percent in the US, but much lower than China's 33 percent.

If you're a smoker, you should also know about smoking and status. In Korea it's considered rude to smoke in front of someone of higher status (older, wealther, whatever). So I don't suggest lighting up in front of your boss, even if he does. Also, even if you're somewhere that smoking is allowed, don't flick that Bic until you've checked out the Koreans around you for what their status might be and what they're doing. More on status here.

By the way, if you're a woman and you smoke, you'll really stand out in Korea, and not in a good way. Only 5 percent of Korean women smoke (or at least only 5 percent admit it).

Will I be safe?

You mean crime? OK, the crime rate in Korea has risen a bit in recent years. There are actually police surveillance cameras in Seoul now. However, with the possible exception of Itaewon in Seoul, Korea is still one of the few places where you can walk pretty much anywhere, any time, and not have to worry. But don't forget to lock your doors, and watch out for drunk drivers.

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What about North Korea? Are they going to start another Korean war?

Tough question. I've had long answers here, and longer answers, and finally now a medium-short answer.

I've thought about this a lot since Margaret taught in Korea. Back then, in 2000, Kim Dae Jung was president of South Korea. He made developing better relations with his Northern neighbors a priority. A little scent of peace was in the air. We were not at all concerned about renewed war between the North and the South.

That began to change after George W Bush became the US president. He called North Korea part of an "axis of evil." I think that was reckless. To Asians, words matter.

America's actions agreed with his words. The North's dictator of the time, Kim Jong Il, drew his own conclusions from them (or maybe his military generals did). Whether their conclusions were justified, I can't say, but they led North Korea to renounce their 1994 anti-nuke treaty with the US, the Agreed Framework, and double down on nuclear weapon development.

All that said, for the first decade of the 21st century, everyday normal South Koreans mostly did what they've long done with North Korea: they ignored them. North Korea's Kims have always threatened to turn Seoul (or Tokyo, or wherever) into a lake of fire. It hasn't happened yet, so who wouldn't eventually figure out that it's just their latest dictator-diety playing to his well-off, well-fed generals and his poverty-stricken, starving hordes?

There things stayed for most of the US Obama administration's 8 years. But today things are changing, and not for the better.

First, for several years now, North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un has been stepping up his threats and staging nuclear bomb and missile tests.

Second, the US White House is now occupied by an impulsive, chaotic narcissist who may not be much more stable than Kim Jong Un -- and is probably less well-educated. Standing next to him is someone much smarter, and even more dangerous. The unsettling real power now behind the US executive branch is a strategic advisor who not only believes that another world war is imminent, he actually welcomes it.

Meanwhile, like his father Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un is convinced (or claims to be) that the US plans to invade North Korea. Nothing that the US is doing in Asia right now is likely to change his mind about that -- quite the opposite. And with a US congress full of dedicated hawks, there's less and less standing in the way of all-out war in Asia and/or the Middle East.

Our politicians promise us with every election that they'll make us safer. So why do they keep doing things that make the entire world more dangerous?

I never thought I'd say this here -- but then, a lot of things have happened in the last couple of decades that I didn't expect to happen in my lifetime. You have to decide what level of risk is OK with you, but personally, I'd think twice before I signed up to spend a full year in South Korea -- or anywhere in Asia -- right now.

I've read about anti-American demonstrations. Do they hate us?

The short answer:

  • South Korean anti-Americanism is nothing new. It runs in cycles.

  • It's nothing personal. They oppose some American policies and aren't too keen our our military, but so far they seem to like most Americans.

  • If you're polite and manage to listen more than you talk, you'll do just fine.

Isn't Korea a poor country?

Not any more. Korea has grown rapidly in the past 30 years. Their per capita income broke US$10,000 in the early 2000s, passed US$21,000 in 2007, and in 2012 was almost US$32,000. In 1990, Korea had one automobile for every 22 Koreans; in 2000, the ratio was 1:6. By 2009, Korea had one vehicle for every 2.8 people (over 17 million vehicles) and in 2012 it was one for every 2.3 people.

That said, there are plenty of Koreans below the poverty level, and a growing gap between rich and poor. There are still Korean homes without indoor plumbing. But the typical middle-class Korean owns a small modern apartment of several hundred square feet, drives a Hyundai Sonata, watches an LG (Goldstar) television, and talks on a Samsung smartphone.

Korea went through some rocky times in 1997 and 1998 because of the recession which choked all of Asia. They sold their soul to the IMF in return for a quick recovery. Since then their economic growth has been mostly respectable, if variable. But they haven't been immune to the global recession. What's more worrying is that they've used up most of their growing room.

Koreans used to be some of the world's biggest savers, with impressive savings accounts and not much debt. Today, not so much. In 1998 the Korean government encouraged Koreans to spend their savings to help bring the Korean economy out of its doldrums. They also reduced credit regulation so more people would qualify.

Koreans, at least the older ones, are pretty compliant when their government suggests something -- especially when it's as much fun as spending money. This campaign was a smashing success.

Koreans once carried around pocketfuls of cash. By the beginning of the new millenium, they were pocketing credit cards instead. When their savings were gone, they kept on spending -- on credit. From one of the world's highest savings rates (25.2 percent in 1988), Koreans plummeted to one of the world's lowest savings rates (4 percent in 2012). They also now have one of the world's highest credit default rates. Korea's 2013 household debt was an eye-opening 1,000 trillion won, close to 160 percent of individual disposable income.

So what helped Korea's economy in 1998 is harming it today. If you're thinking "so what," I'll tell you what: when Korea's economy suffers, people spend less on hagwons. Their spending on private education fell 10% in 2004. Some hagwons closed, some merged, some cut staff and expenses. Education spending has recovered since then, but the stellar growth we saw in the early 2000s is quite a bit less stellar today.

Still, I wouldn't get too worried about this. English and hagwon education are still priorities for Korean parents, and Korea is still in first place when it comes to per-capita spending on private education. Things will have to get a lot tougher before the hagwons quit hiring native English speakers.

What about medical care?

South Korea has a national single-payer medical insurance system. Either your hagwon will pay for your health insurance, or you'll split the cost with them. Figure on about 3% of your salary.

This insurance is serviceable. It's not the equal of most European national health systems, but I'd say it's roughly comparable to a low-end US private policy. It covers most medical needs, but not all. It doesn't cover cancer treatment -- for that you have to buy supplemental insurance. If you're hurt in a motor accident (Korea has lots of them), it won't cover that either, but the private auto insurance will.

Like most US plans, when you go to the doctor or the hospital, you'll cover the co-pay. This varies. It can be as high as 50 percent, but 20-30 percent is more usual. Your prescription co-pay will be 30%. That's not as much as you think though, because the Korean government regulates the price of drugs. They're much cheaper than in the US. This annoys American drug companies no end.

Between mid-2000 and the end of 2002, Korea's medical system went through an earthquake. For years, doctors had dispensed their own prescriptions, and pharmacists had given medical advice. You could buy almost any drug over the counter. A good chunk of the doctors' income came from selling drugs, so they tended to over-prescribe.

In 1999, the Korean government said "no more." Doctors would prescribe and pharmacists would dispense, just like in the US.

You have to understand that while Korean doctors make a decent living, they get paid what the Korean national health insurance allows. That's about one-fourth of what US doctors make. When their government said it was taking away their prescription drug cash cow, they, uh, had a cow. They went on strike. People died. It was not a good situation.

Finally the government let the doctors increase their fees. This put a strain on the insurance system, which is no doubt why the 2.5% of her salary that Margaret paid in 2000 is now the 3% that you'll pay today.

So is Korea's health system all better now? Well, let's see. Doctors still over-prescribe, maybe by habit or maybe because the patients are used to getting a drug for every visit. They still gripe about their incomes. Patients can't get a quick and cheap diagnosis and medicine at the pharmacy any more. Want to pick a winner? I don't see one.

One interesting footnote about Korean medical care is that your insurance will cover traditional Chinese medicine. We're talking acupuncture and medicines made from herbs and animals. A surprising number of Koreans are keen on it. Many times they'll at least try it before going to a western-style doctor. I won't say don't go there, but if you decide to, I suggest that you look into how gathering those herbal and animal preparations affects the environment first.

What if I have to go to the hospital?

I've heard some western teachers complain about Korean hospitals. We don't have any opinions one way or the other, since neither one of us has ever had to use them. I can make some guesses as to why, though.

We westerners tend to ask our doctors lots of questions. Koreans don't. This is a cultural thing. Doctors are authority figures with Confucian-tradition status. They expect their patients to listen and obey, no questions asked. They're also always in a huge hurry (ppalli, ppalli), because the more patients they see, the more they earn. Start asking questions, and they're not going to be pleased.

But then how do you know for sure that your doctor really understands your problem? Even when Korean doctors know English, their vocabulary tends to be limited in the health area (I know, it makes no sense, but there you have it). So there you are, feeling rotten, away from home, barely able to communicate with a doctor who won't answer your questions even if he (almost always he) understands them, which isn't likely.

I know, I keep saying "take along a Korean friend with good English skills." That goes double or triple here, and it should be your first call when you come down sick. If you can't reach someone like that, or don't know anybody, there's always your hagwon director. If he's smart, he'll realize that having a native English speaker out sick is going to make his students' parents edgy. His parental-protective instincts thus bolstered by his wallet-fu, you can hope he's promptly at your side.

Now on to the hospitals specifically. They're not like US hospitals. In the US, it's all professional care. In Korea, they assume that you have friends and family and expect them to help out with non-medical chores, another reason that medical care here is more affordable.

And while Korean hospitals are probably as good as any other nation's at making you well, they're maybe not quite as good at making you comfortable. You'll need to be a little stoic. The nurses will not tend to your every little need. They will probably get miffed at you if you expect them to. Buck up, bucko.

Now a word about hospital privacy. That word is "minimal." You're in Korea, where adults hang out in the altogether at (non-coed) mogyotang (public bathhouses), kids squat and pee on the sidewalks, and parents change their tots into bathing trunks on the open beach. Koreans are still kind of conservative about sex, but they don't conflate sex and nudity the way Americans tend to. Their attitude on bare skin is more like Europe's than the US's. You'll just have to check your modesty at the hospital door, because you're going to be examined and treated without much concern for curtains or who's lying in the next bed.

If all this sounds unsettling, let me remind you again that in spite of their enthusiasm for tobacco, Koreans' life expectancy is within 1% of ours (77 vs 78 years). So while your hospital stay might not be as pleasant as it would be in the States (is any hospital stay really pleasant?), I'm guessing that your care in Korea will still be mostly OK, as long as you can clear the communication hurdles.

Will I need any shots before I go?

Not really. Korea's a pretty healthy country. However, if you're planning to travel elsewhere in Asia while you're in the neighborhood, you might consider hepatitis A and B vaccines, and maybe typhoid, tetanus, and diptheria shots.

In case you're extra cautious, here are the US CDC's recommendations for Korea.

Korea has a lot of rice paddies, also known as mosquito breeders. When Margaret was there in 2000/2001, the English newspaper, the Korea Herald, carried a few malaria alerts. These days you also have to be aware of dengue, zika, and various flavors of encephalitis.

The cities fog for mosquitoes periodically, which helps a lot. If you travel in the countryside, I suggest that you keep up with the warnings. Unfortunately I haven't found a website that's regularly updated, so probably your best bet is to do as Margaret did and keep an eye on the Herald's warnings.

Some people say you still need to boil the water in Korean cities. I've drunk it with no ill effects, but I have a pretty sturdy stomach. When in doubt, drink bottled water. Or boil the water. While you're at it, make a nice pot of tea.

What should I pack?

You can really go overboard if you're not careful. The airlines have changed, mostly not for the better, since Margaret went to Korea. She wrestled bags she could barely lift onto the airport conveyors, and nobody said a word. But these days an oversize bag can drain your wallet. That can be a disaster if you expected to live on that money during your first month in Korea. Just remember, the folks at home can always ship stuff to you if necessary.

Clothing: Take 2 or 3 outfits to wear in the classroom. By this I mean business casual or nicer. If you're a man, take a necktie and maybe a sport jacket, in case your hagwon director wants you to wear them. If you're a woman, modestly counts - no sleeveless tops, no very short shirts, no short-shorts. Strictly business.

Koreans have gotten taller and bigger in recent years, so it's now much easier to find clothes that fit in the traditional markets or even at street vendors. They sell basically the same stuff you'd get at Target at home. Just as at Target, quality varies. Caveat emptor.

Korea's downtown old-school department stores sell very nice, high quality clothing at high prices. From what I can tell, this stuff is mostly bought as gifts, presented with the price tags on in the Korean way. Midprice stuff is available at the growing number of big-box-ish stores, usually found out at the edge of the city.

If you're a man with US size 11 or 12 feet, you'll still find the shoe selection pretty limited. (Trust me, I know.) If your size is larger than that, most likely your only hope will be Itaewon, the foreigners' district in Seoul, which caters to the US military.

Bras that fit and are comfortable are a problem for western women. Take a few. (Yes, you need to wear one, sorry.)

You'll see more T-shirts and jeans than we did back in 2000, but you'll probably still be accepted better by Koreans if you also wear business casual, or something close to it, on the street. Definitely leave the T-shirts with patriotic pictures and slogans at home. They can get you noticed in the wrong way in Korea.

Toiletries: Deodorant is still hard to find and limited in selection. I guess Koreans don't sweat as much as we do. Take enough to last, or expect to have your favorite brand shipped to you. Sunscreen is also scarce.

For western women, Korea's tampon situation is a longstanding gripe. The good news is that availability is better. You used to have to ask the pharmacist for them, but these days you'll find them in some convenience stores and grocery stores. The selection of styles and absorbencies is still not wide. The most common Korean brand is called Tempo.

If you're even a little bit fussy, I suggest packing a couple months' worth of your favorite brand. Before you run out, try the Korean ones. If you don't like 'em, you can have somebody at home ship you some of the kind you prefer when you need more. International airmail takes 7-10 days, and isn't too expensive for light stuff.

If you use pads, you should have no problem at all in Korea. The convenience and grocery stores carry a pretty good variety.

Linens: Take a couple of bath towels. Korean bath towels are about the size of western face towels.

Korean washcloths are made of synthetic fiber in two types, soft and gritty, both sold in convenience stores. The gritty type are great for exfoliation, but not so great for your tender bits. The problem is that washcloths always come packed in plastic. If you can't read the Korean on the package, you'll have no clue which you're getting. It's thus not a bad idea to take a couple of your favorites from home.

Pack a set of cotton bedsheets for the dog days of summer when your air-con (if your apartment has it) has given up and it's 90 degrees F and 90% humidity at 3am.

Food: If you like to cook, I suggest you go native in Korea. If you insist on cooking just like you do at home, you'd better take your own spices. You won't find the stuff you're used to anywhere but in the expensive big-city import shops. Make sure they're in sealed freshly-bought containers to avoid uncomfortable discussions at airports.

Gifts: Having a few little trinkets from home to pass out can make you popular. You might take some T-shirts or sweatshirts with your town's or university's logo on them, or packaged food that your area is known for. Don't try to take produce or other uncooked and/or unpackaged items. Customs will just take them away from you at the border.

Electronics: A smartphone is probably all you'll need. Check here before you decide whether to take the one you're using now.

If you have extra packing room, a tablet or laptop will make your time on your own better. Computers are more expensive in Korea and they speak only Korean (I mean both the computer sales people and the computers). Plan on using wifi. You'll have enough headaches getting your phone set up without also dealing with mobile data for a computer.

Almost anything else electronic that you might want, you can probably buy in Korea at a fairly reasonable price, now that nearly every medium size city has a E-mart or something similar. Besides, some items from home will need an adapter, since Korea's household electricity is 240 volts and 50 Hertz.

Books: Don't bother. They're not worth the weight. You can always take the bus to Seoul and visit Kyobo Bookstore, which has a quite respectable selection of English titles, mostly UK editions.

Exceptions: take a map of Korea and one of Seoul. Maps in any language but Korean can be hard to find, and (at least for me) a big paper map is easier to read on the street than one on a tiny smartphone screen. You might also want a small guidebook, something like the Korea Lonely Planet Guide or their Korea Survival Kit. You'll want an English-Korean dictionary on your smartphone. A dead tree edition will work when your phone's battery is flat, but don't pack one. They're cheap and easy to find in Korea.

Money: Take at least a couple weeks' worth of cash. A month or two would be better. Also take a credit card with no balance on it (keep it that way) and a high enough credit limit to buy a full-price last-minute airline ticket home ($2000-2500, ouch). I don't mean to alarm you -- there are enough other people who will do that, thank you very much -- but as my ex-military friends say, it's always a good idea to keep your back away from the door no matter where you go.

Do NOT take: Illegal drugs or pornography. Korea is still a pretty conservative nation. Drugs will land you in prison. Pornography (DVDs, magazines) will be confiscated and can also get you in legal trouble. You won't be able to find much smut on Korea's tightly censored web, either. If you're a fan, you'll just have to do without for your year there.

Also don't take anything related to North Korea (not that you're likely to). It's hard to imagine anyone in South Korea actually wanting to defect to the starving, oppressed North. However the South's governement apparently thinks that someone might, because it has laws against publishing (web or print) anything that isn't overwhelmingly negative about the North.

Korea regrettably has no equivalent of our First Amendment.

I hear the pollution's pretty bad in Korea.

You hear right, I'm sorry to say. Korea's miraculous economic growth came with some price tags attached, and pollution is one of them.

The big push for industrial development came in the 1970s and 1980s, and the South Korean government didn't give much thought to what all this was doing to the environment until the 1990s. Since then they've clamped down on industry to some extent, but vehicles are still a big problem. A growing population of Diesel buses and trucks (and, increasingly, privately owned Diesel vehicles) belch out about 40% of the emissions.

Seoul's air is some of the world's worst, even surpassing Tokyo's. Pusan's isn't much better. Ulsan is heavily industrialized, and who knows what kind of chemical soup pours out from those factories into the air and water.

China's thick smog also drifts into Korea when the prevailing winds are unfriendly. Usually this is just a few days a year, but at times it can stick round for weeks.

If you have allergies or respiratory problems, you'll want to look for a job on the east coast. Kangwon Do (Gangwon Province), right on the East Sea, is Korea's cleanest region. There the air is about comparable to that in a medium-sized midwestern US city -- not exactly crystal clear, but tolerable.

For a little more detail on Korea's pollution problems and what's being done about them, read this.

I've been reading the discussion forums on some of the ESL websites, and I see a lot of teachers complaining about their jobs and about Koreans in general. How do you square that with Margaret's experience?

First of all, remember that hagwons are a business. Just like any other country, Korea has some business owners who will take advantage of you. Now and then, teachers end up in situations varying from unpleasant to ugly.

It's hard to tell just how widespread this is. When we first started looking into hagwon teaching in 1999, I'd have to say that most of what we read on the web was really negative. I think that was mostly because of the 20,000 or so foreign teachers then in Korea, the dissatisfied ones were most strongly motivated to post to forums and build websites.

These days social networking and blogging sites make it easier to post your experiences, so you don't have to be quite so motivated. And what do you know, there are more positive reports out there now. Make of that what you will.

That said, I do think that Margaret had one of the better situations. That was partly because of the job, and partly because of who she is.

  • She was able to communicate well with the boss. Don't dismiss this. Very, very few foreign teachers speak Korean to any extent at all, and you'd be surprised how many hagwon directors aren't that good at English. Asian honor and dignity won't let them admit to that. That nod doesn't necessarily mean you were 100% understood.

    But Margaret worked with Mrs Lee, who was married to the hagwon director's brother. Mrs Lee had lived in the US for years before she returned to Korea. Her English skills were (and are) outstanding. She also understood American culture far better than most Koreans. That made her a great advocate and translator for Margaret.

  • She had a woman hagwon director. Sexist statement? Maybe, but I really think that Mrs Kim was more compassionate and thoughful than many male hagwon directors.

  • She worked in a smaller city. Kangnung (Gangneung) is a friendlier place than Seoul, Pusan (Busan), or Ulsan. It also has fewer foreigners, but more on that later.

  • She was older than most foreign teachers. Most folks jump in not long after college graduation, before they've had much work experience or many bosses. Margaret was in her early 40s, with lots of work and boss experience, and the patience and perspective that come with those extra 15 or so years.

  • Margaret made friends with Koreans. One thing that really strikes me about most other foreign teachers' websites and blogs is how much they write about the time they spend with other foreigners, and how few of their pictures have Koreans in them.

  • She's sociable, but she's also good at coping with being alone. She didn't object to spending an evening reading quietly, or a weekend traveling on her own.

  • Margaret's fairly open to new ideas. She jumped head first into Korean culture, instead of resisting it. She learned to like Korean food, no mean feat for someone who avoided hot pepper for years. She read the Korea Herald. She traveled most weekends, went to cultural festivals, visited historic sites. She didn't expect (or even want) Korea to be just like home. That's called realistic expectations.
Realistic expectations. You need them too. Hagwon teaching is not some kind of foreign exchange program. It's a job. Your boss isn't flying you to Korea so you can learn about Korean culture (though you will). He's trying to make a living in a cutthroat business. He's spending a couple grand to hire you, he's paying you more than his Korean teachers, and he's putting in extra time and effort looking after you in this unfamiliar country. He does all this so he can get a competitive edge. No, not even that; he's hiring you because the hagwon down the street has a native English speaker and they're taking his business away.

His customers are the kids' parents. They, like your director, don't care whether you teach your students the American (Canadian, English, Australian, New Zealand, etc.) way. They want their kids to learn the language. They're paying somewhere between US$100 and US$300 every month for every kid, so their offspring will ace the English part of the high school and college entrance exams, get good jobs, marry some nice Korean boy or girl, give them a couple of cute grandkids, and support them generously in their old age.

And of course some of the misunderstandings between foreign teachers and hagwon directors are simple cultural differences. Korea is becoming very westernized very fast, but the changes are mostly among younger Koreans. There are still major differences for the earlier generations (that would be your hagwon director). This makes for cultural pitfalls for the unwary, but most of them aren't really all that hard to avoid.

OK, how do I avoid problems with cultural differences?

Learn something about Korean culture before you go. You don't have to make a career of it, but you really do need at least an introduction. Start by reading our Westerners' Guide to Korean Culture and Approximately Correct Social Behavior.

You might also try reading a few handbooks for doing business in Korea -- after all, that's a hagwon is. Look in the business publications section of large bookstores. Most of what you find will probably be somewhat dated, but what they say is generally pretty valid, at least for dealing with Koreans in their 30s and older.

Before she left the States, Margaret read Min Byoung-chul's little paperback Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans. It was based on a Korea Herald series published back in the 1990s. It's a quick and easy read. Alas, it's out of print. As I write this, though, a few Amazon Marketplace sellers have used copies to offer. You also might luck out and find a copy gathering dust in the English section of a Korean bookstore.

Culture Shock Korea, by Vegdahl and Hur (Cavendish) is maybe too comprehensive, but it's the best replacement for Min's book I've found so far. It's also more up to date.

For a painless way to pick up on basic customs and courtesy, watch a few Korean films. Try Darcy's Korean Film Page for reviews and top-whatever lists.

I don't do Netflix, so I don't know what they have, but if you live in a big city with a sizable Korean population you can probably find DVD rentals in the Korean neighborhoods. If you can't find any rentals, you can order Korean DVDs from Yesasia or K2DVD. Prices are typically $15-30. The lower end of this range are Hong Kong "export editions" with English and Chinese subtitles. These aren't quite as clear and sharp as the original Korean editions, but they're OK.

You can also get Korean DVDs on Ebay. The prices are about the same.

Most DVDs from Korea and Hong Kong are region code 3, so you'll need a region free DVD player. If your laptop or desktop computer is one of the few that still have DVD drives, you can play Region 3 DVDs on it with vlc.

No matter how you do it, take the time to study Korea's customs before you go there. Dig down a little so you understand why they're customs and what they mean. Then do your absolute best to live by them. Knowing the culture and trying to live by it is one of the most important differences between the teachers who have a great time in Korea and the ones who hate the place. It's not that tough, and it's worth it, believe me.

It sounds like you're suggesting that most job problems are caused by teachers, not hagwon directors.

Well, no. I don't have those kinds of numbers.

But I do think that we shouldn't give the teachers an automatic pass, just because they speak and write our language better than the hagwon directors do. While I've met some great westerners teaching English in Korea, I've also met a few losers. I don't just mean the obvious dregs of society -- the boozers, the addicts, the child molesters. The screening that Korea now requires should keep those derelicts out. I'm talking mostly about self-centered, thoughtless, culturally ignorant people.

These folks aren't in Korea because they're interested in the country or the people. They're there because they heard there were lots of jobs and you could make good money without working very hard. If hagwons weren't so desperate for native English speakers, they'd still be at home, unemployed, or maybe working at jobs where having an attitude doesn't cause too much trouble.

I don't have a lot of sympathy for these people. They hurt not only themselves, but all of us. A hagwon director who gets a few of these types is going to get the idea that we're all like that.

But if you've read this far, chances are you're not one of them.

So you should know that yes, there are hagwon directors who range from clueless to criminal. Some have been known to rip off foreigners, hit on women teachers (or worse), and invade their employees' privacy. Most of these scumbuckets treat their Korean and foreign employees about the same, not that that's either an excuse for them or a comfort for you.

A really good hagwon director treats all the teachers decently, honestly, and fairly. They're out there. Let's see if we can help you find one.

  • I'm amazed that some westerners will sign contracts for a year with supervisors they've never met, in schools they've never seen. Don't go into your job blind! Interview your director as closely as he or she interviews you. If possible, get a friend with good translation skills to help. Go to Korea and visit the place if you possibly can.

  • Get the name and contact information for a current or former Western employee of the hagwon, and talk to that teacher. Note: former is better, because a former teacher is more likely to speak freely about the hagwon. A current teacher may be concerned about his or her job or working conditions. Unfortunately, ESL teachers move around quite a bit, and the hagwon may honestly not know how to contact any former teachers. If you have to speak with a current employee, at least make sure you call her or him at home, not at work. Most will have to watch what they say with the hagwon director nearby. If the hagwon won't put you in touch with anyone, present or past, move along.

  • Ask the director how much the hagwon charges in tuition. Does it make sense? A small city hagwon might charge 100,000 or 120,000 won. In some areas of Seoul it might be 300,000 won. If he's charging much more than that, I think there's some chance that your prospective employer is breaking the law and overcharging. If he's overcharging parents, don't you think he's apt to underpay you?

  • Give extra consideration to a hagwon where at least one of the Korean teachers or (better yet) the director has lived in the west, preferably your country. There aren't too many, but if you luck out, you'll probably find somebody like that more likely to understand your language and your expectations.

  • Look for a hagwon director of your own sex. I'll go even farther and suggest you look for a woman director. For women teachers, the advantage is obvious. Again, they're scarce in this male-dominated society. But in our admittedly limited experience, it appears to us that the teachers who've been happiest -- regardless of sex -- have been the ones working for women-run hagwons.

  • Though I can't back it up with hard evidence, I think the honest and fair hagwons are easier to find in the smaller cities. Seoul and Pusan (Busan) are exciting places to live, but they may not be the best places to teach.

  • Watch out for paid recruiters. I don't doubt that many of them are reputable and want you to love your job. But others collect their fee from the hagwon and vanish. Get references, or get away.

  • Don't leave home without a valid credit card with a generous credit limit. Keep the balance on that card at zero. That's your escape ticket. Chances are, you won't have to use it. But just having it available, along with a few hundred thousand won or so in cash carefully hidden, will give you the confidence you need to handle just about anything.

If I shouldn't use a recruiter, then how should I look for a job?

I think the best way to get a Korean teaching job is on direct reference from a current or former teacher at a good hagwon.

If you don't know one, do plenty of research on the internet. One good place to start is Dave's ESL Cafe, which always has quite a few job listings. There are blacklists and greylists on the internet too, but I don't know how much you can count on them. A lot of the posts in them seem pretty old, and the hagwons may have since changed owners and/or directors.

Work up a short list of candidate schools. Ideally you'd fly to Korea on a tourist visa and visit each one. Obviously this isn't cheap. Bare-bones airfare these days typically is $1200-1500, depending on the season, fuel costs, and competition. It can go way up from there if you're in a hurry or don't have a flexible schedule. This is another reason I say that if you don't have some cash in the bank already, Korea probably isn't for you.

Don't assume that the lowest ticket prices will always be on the internet. Try a travel agency that specializes in Korea. (Yes, they still exist.) Look in Korean newspapers, if you can find someone to help you read them. Check the newsstands and convenience stores in Korean neighborhoods for ads and posters.

If you can't manage a trip, but you're still burning to try teaching English in Korea, you might see if you qualify for one of the sponsored teaching outfits. Organizations such as EPIK and the Fulbright ETA Program usually pay less, but they're more structured. While they can't guarantee a good experience, they usually have teacher advocate systems which can help if things go sour.

Above all, trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right about your interview with the hagwon director or the foreign teacher reference(s), move along. Don't let anyone pressure you - there are plenty more hagwon jobs.

Now the last word. I know I said this just above, but it's really important, so I'll say it again. If you take a job anywhere overseas, don't leave home without an emergency credit card and enough cash to live for a month or two. If you're so broke that you can't afford to do this, don't go to Korea. Don't go anywhere. Stay home, get a job, bank some cash. When you have enough saved up to live for at least a month without a salary, and also to buy a return airline ticket if things don't work out, then you're ready to consider working overseas. Not before.

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