The Risky Business Of Teaching

by Ian Douglas, Oct 14, 2001 | Destinations: Korea, S / Seoul

The hermit Kingdom, as Korea has been known for so long, has become over the last two decades, something of a Mecca for language teachers. As the curtains of poverty and dictatorship fell away, Koreans began looking overseas and knew one thing: they needed to speak English! A tidal wave of reform wedged the country firmly between Japan and the rest of Asia in the economic league of nations. Wages were significantly above average for the Far East, while the cost of living was a lot cheaper than sky-high Japan. As the language industry rocketed, the demand for Caucasians spiraled. Basically anyone with a degree and a white face could fall through the sliding doors of Kimpo airport on a Monday and start teaching on a Tuesday.

This dovetailed neatly into another boom in the Orient. Hordes of western backpackers were dropping out in South East Asia in ever increasing numbers. But what to do when the pocket money ran out? Hey, anyone can teach right? A few months in Korea working your butt off could refuel the monetary reserves for another season on the beaches of Thailand and Indonesia. A teaching stint in Korea has almost become as necessary part of the Asian tour as Koh Samui and Bali!

Sadly not all that glitters is gold. The path of teaching English in Korea is strewn with hidden landmines. Put your foot in the wrong place and it could blow up in your face. On the other hand there are pleasures too. What follows is both a personal account, and one reflecting the experiences of a lot of westerners teaching in South Korea.

One Teacher's Nightmare.

Jonathon's Story

I arrived in South Korea having accomplished a certificate of Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The Land of the Morning Calm, as Koreans call it, was to be my first posting. I was eager and naïve in the extreme.

The fierce winter blowing across from mainland China covered the city of Seoul with an icy sparkle. The smell of traffic exhaust mingled with the steamy aromas of hot, spicy food. I checked into the second cheapest yogwan (hotel) in town. I had a little wooden room, tatami style, but with that most wonderful of Korean inventions, ondol, basically hot water pipes under the floor. Having flown direct from the UK, jet lag knocked me out and several days were spent snuggling into the blankets on the warm floor, watching American army TV, and experimenting with Soju, Korea's own brand of rice wine, (they say it's a main component of NASA's rocket fuel, but don't believe that).

Eventually plucking up courage I set out into the city to find a job. I had a list of language schools registered with the UK TEFL association and foolishly assumed that was something of a guarantee. A phone call led me to a interview with a hogwan (private educational institute) I am going to call The Hell-Hole Institute. This small, modest school operated from a floor over a convenience store in Shinsa-dong, an up-market part of town. A young American was winding up his time there and the hogwan owner, Mr. Kim, even allowed me some time alone with this guy.

"So, you do get paid here, there aren't any problems?" I asked him. "Oh sure." He said, lying through his teeth. So I signed the contract. There were some odd clauses in this contract, like if they shortchanged my salary and I didn't notice in 3 days they got to keep it. Likewise, if I left before completing a full year I had to pay Mr. Kim bucket-loads of cash. But there was no small print. Or so I thought! The fact was the small print was so small you'd need an electron microscope to read it. Korea is a Confucianist culture. Women obey men. Young people obey their elders. Workers, especially foreign ones, must obey their bosses. To Mr. Kim that meant he could do the hell whatever he wanted with me and I had to smile and say ' kamsamnida' (thank you).

Back then in Mr. Kim's office as I inked the contract and he stamped it with the Chinese seal I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

Korean law called for me to leave the country and apply for a work permit overseas. A wild month followed in Hong Kong full of adventures and even a job as a film extra in a Jet Li movie. Then there I was again back in Seoul.

Second time around and the spring was thawing the icy streets. Back in the same guesthouse I made instant friends with an assorted bunch of backpackers working for the teacher's dollar. Spending the evening on a bar crawl, who should I bump into but that same young American man. Now he told me a different story, one of bitter arguments between him and Mr. Kim, missing pay cheques, corruption and exploitation. Oh! How simply wonderful.

The next three months were a nightmare for me. Despite his word of honour that he would give me six hours of teaching a day, (they pay you by the hour) Mr. Kim only gave me ONE! Hence I was barely earning enough to pay the rent at the second cheapest dive in Seoul. No way could I make enough for food, savings, a plane ticket home, etc. As I had arrived in Seoul totally broke I was forced to run up a credit card bill that still haunts me today. Yes there were irregularities in my pay-cheques too.

Now all this could have been fixed. All Mr. Kim had to do was allow me to take a second job. He refused and spoke of prison sentences for permit violations. Yes, I tried taking on jobs, secretly, but of course, all the hogwan owners know each other. Every time I accepted a part time lucrative job, Mr. Kim would come up with just a one hour a week class, forcing me to withdraw. And every time that one-hour-a-week lesson Mr. Kim had promised would never actually happen.

Totally penniless I spent day after day stuck in the guesthouse staring through a crack in the roof at the sky above. At the same time scores of fresh faced westerners with NO teaching qualifications were checking in and signing up for ILLEGAL (no work permit) jobs. This galled me!

There I was, a qualified teacher who had done the right thing and paid for a work visa (Mr. Kim still owes me for that), and here were all these unqualified backpackers working illegally and making a mint. Thirty hours a week, forty hours a week, there seemed no end to the money you could make as long as you were illegal. Technically illegal that is, (as long as you didn't upset any policemen they turned a blind eye). I had no choice but to take the advice of all the illegal teachers rooming at the guesthouse. After three months, things were not going to improve. I had signed a contract with Mr. Kim promising to pay him a year's salary if I did not complete the contract. So this is what I did.

I slipped a letter under the door of The Hell Hole Institute on a bank holiday Monday. I forget the exact words but I do remember the bit threatening bodily violence to Mr. Kim if he ever crossed my path again. Then I took the express train to the port of Pusan. I caught the overnight ferry to Japan. This invalidated my work permit. I recall the lady immigration officer grilling me as to why I was leaving so soon. When I told her how much Mr. Kim had paid me, she stamped my passport with a smirk. The next day I woke up in Japan and had a deeply moving trip to Hiroshima. By bullet train back to the ferry, a second night on the seas, and I woke up back in Pusan. I re-entered Korea, this time on a three-month tourist visa.

So began a year of teaching. I was always illegal, along with lots of others. I worked in all manner of respectable educational joints. Often I was clocking up forty, even fifty hours per week in the class. I made a small fortune which, at regular periods I had to change into American dollars on the black market. Mrs. Lee's Lingerie shop was my favorite. There was always a small queue of illegal teachers, off duty GIs, Africans and Asians, and, yes at least once, a Korean policeman, lining up to change money. Mrs. Lee sat surrounded by dustbin bags stuffed with dollars, yen, and won. She was efficient and fair. She even gave you a receipt! Despite the presence of some serious collections of currency, I never saw any protection.

As I was now an illegal, along with countless other foreign teachers, I was obliged to smuggle my cash earnings out of the country. I did this by hiding it down my crotch. I used to joke I had the most valuably crotch on the Korean peninsula.

The golden rule I learned was this: If you are on a work visa you are open to exploitation. If you work without one, you can walk out the door any time you like, and therefore are LESS exploitable.

My experience was echoed by many others. I knew of a school for children where only the illegal teaches were being paid. The work permit teachers hadn't been paid for months. The owner even compelled them to sign an agreement that they'd work for free for the good of his company. Their situation was desperate as they couldn't afford to walk out, but they couldn't afford to stay! In a meeting they surprised the owner with a legal paper declaring the huge sum he owed them. They bullied him into signing it. He then changed his mind and tried to snatch it back. Several teachers, mostly female, jumped on their boss, wrestled him to the floor (while his bodyguards were too embarrassed to intervene) and seized the precious piece of paper. The outraged owner then chased the teacher with the paper up and down the school corridors and through several classrooms. Who knows what the children made of all this! The head teacher was a Canadian Korean. At one time the owner threatened his infant daughter with the Korean Mafia. The poor man accepted the loss of nearly a year's earnings and resigned.

Another high profile school was managed by a blond, blue eyed American Mormon. Although he seemed to the world a lovely boy, secretly he had one vice: gambling! To finance his trips to the casinos on Walker Hill he routinely borrowed from the teachers' wages without the teachers? knowledge. If he won, he paid it back the next day. If he lost, which was far more common, he simply borrowed from another teachers wage packet. His shenanigans got out of hand from time to time, so the unlucky teacher would find the Mormon missing every time he called to pick up his pay. Any complaints and you were out of a job.

The good things about teaching in Korea

Best of all are the students! Confucianism values education above all things. Korean people bring a gusto to the classroom that can make teaching a lot of fun. Unlike their Japanese neighbors, they are not culturally obliged to keep quiet before the teacher. Speaking classes can turn into riotously enjoyable chat sessions. Foreign teachers working forty or fifty hours per week in the classroom say despite this grueling schedule, the energy of their students kept them buoyant from Monday through to Sunday.

Here are some helpful tips passed on by a number of foreigners:

1. Losing face is a big social horror to Korean people. Their culture dictates that women must not make men look small in front of their peers. This can be difficult for female foreign teachers. A stuffy businessman may correct a female teacher's English pronunciation rather than admit he was wrong. Try to learn a strategy for gently rebuffing stubborn students. Know when to back off.

2. Traditional Confucianism abhors contact between the sexes but reinforces the comradely spirit. A few centuries of such socialization means that young people, and even oldies, may squirm and die with embarrassment if you ask them to pair up with a member of the opposite sex for a classroom activity. Shy young men have been known to hide under the table!

On the other hand, intimacy between males is normal, appropriate and very heterosexual. Hence, you may see soldiers, policemen, not to mention university students, all male, canoodling in street doorways, cuddling on the subway, whispering sweet nothings. IT'S NOT WHAT YOU THINK! Well, not usually. So if you are a man, and a male student asks you out for dinner, or the ubiquitous karaoke night, don't be offended when he slips his arm around your waist, into your pocket, or simply rests it on your thigh. We repeat, this is heterosexual behavior. Ask a Korean man if he's gay and he's likely to punch you. Try politely explaining that in your culture, touching is not common. Its very unlikely a female student will ask you out unless she has decided to marry you!

3. Dress, dress, dress! Koreans know a good teacher when they see one because he or she will be dressed well. Smart suits, clean-shaven chins and neatly groomed hair for the men. Sensible office dresses or power suits for the women. Scruffy individualism is strictly out!

4. If the Korean passion for nationalism grates on your western palate, try reading up on their history. Japanese colonization, the Korean War, dictatorships, the threat from the north, 'occupation' by American armed forces, suppression of unions and other human rights abuses. Well, the Korean people have been through a lot of tragedies. Maybe a pride in Korea's success helps them deal with all that emotional baggage.

5. Reflecting the dominance of the USA in South Korea, most students want to learn American English. This may cause headaches for the Brits, Kiwis, Aussies, and other assorted nationalities. Feel free to Americanize your accent if this doesn't offend you! One French teacher got by pretending to be French Canadian.

6. Koreans have an up-front directness, refreshing after the civility of their Asian counterparts. This can come across as rudeness. Get over it!

As well as the joys of teaching Korean people, Korea has a tremendous architectural heritage of temples, fantastic traditional arts and crafts, beautiful, hikeable mountains, and a whole host of cultural experiences. And most of all, there's always the soju!