A Day in the life of an Englisheee Teacher in South Korea!

It’s just after 7, and the alarm rather rudely wakes me. Even with the fan, which has been going all night ( I would much rather risk the infamous Korean ‘fan death’ than drown in my own sweat) and the fact that  it’s still relatively early, I can feel the heat and humidity starting to build. Its summer in Korea, and while it never gets incredibly hot (30 degrees C is pretty standard) the humidity is a killer. You don’t so much as walk down the road as you do swim through the atmosphere that is incredibly thick and muggy.

While I prepare myself for another day, I put on the TV to BBC News. It’s vaguely reassuring to hear the familiar English drone in the background, and to catch up on the previous days news. A simple, western style breakfast of toast and juice, and its out the door for another day as an expat Enrisheee teacher just outside of Seoul, South Korea.

Mercifully, the walk to work takes all of two minutes. After far too many wasted hours spent commuting in Johannesburg, I really appreciate the fact that the door to door commute takes less time than it does to eat my breakfast. Yet, even on such a short work, I am exhausted by the time I reach my office. And it’s nothing to do with the weather.

As a minor celebrity (as are most foreigners in Korea) I lose count of how many ‘Hello teacher” and “Hi’s” I respond to, of how many high fives are handed out and how many children try climb me like a regular jungle gym. Teaching Elementary school is not for the faint hearted.

And it’s straight into it for me. Before school officially starts, I begin my tour round the Grade 1 and 2 classes, spending barely 10 minutes with a couple of classes per day. At that age (7&8 years old) is mostly chants, songs and clapping, a very familiar theme that will run through the rest of the teaching day.

My English Room

Classes start at 9, and first up, a Grade 5 class. Today we’re doing actions and verbs, so we run through a list of vocab (swimming, hiking, skating etc) before we learn our daily song complete with clapping and actions. This working environment could not be further from the previous job at a financial consulting company, and for the change alone I’m grateful. My school is fortunate enough to have two large English rooms, complete with posters of iconic monuments from across the western World, and everywhere you look are posters and pictures with English written on them. The point is total immersion in English as a language and culture, which is why I happen to be standing in the room. Unfortunately, my co teacher for this particular class is always rather quick to switch into Korean when that familiar look of confusion crosses the kids faces, but it’s well worth it to have her in the room with me. You try explaining the difference between swim and swimming to 35 11-year-old Korean children without using just a little Korean… go on, I dare you.

More of the English room

Anyway, the morning flies by in a blur of flash cards, clapping and song time, and before I know it, it Luncheeeee time!! Now, unlike back at home, free time at lunch is not free time here in Korea. At least not public schools. The whole English staff troops off together down to the Vice principal’s office where all the staff who do not have a home room eat every day. The rather unfortunate home room teachers (in my opinion at least) eat lunch with their class in the classroom,meaning no break for them

Thankfully, I love Korean food. And just as well. Every day is an adventure, never not quite knowing what I’m going to find. these meals are heavily subsidised, and cost me almost nothing. They’re a great way for me to try to discover new Korean dishes, and not having to prepare any lunch for work is a great boon for me. The previous foreign English teacher that I replaced apparently was not a big fan of Korean food, so my Korean colleagues are often quite surprised by how much I enjoy their food. Although, my chopstick skills do leave a lot to be desired, especially with the wicked round style metal chopsticks that are much more slippery than the traditional wooden ones. While my skills they have improved over time, disaster does still strike occasionally, sending them into fits of laughter.

Lunch: Rice and Kimchi (as usual) plus noodle soup and diced veggies.

Afternoons are reserved for prep time, with the occasional extra lesson or focus class meaning more time back in the classroom. For the most part, this is mostly free time for me and most foreigners in the Korean public school system. With very limited Korean ability, and no home room class to administer, admin is mercifully almost non-existent.

This time is devoted to reading, writing, planning my next weeknd jaunt, or the upcoming trip to Vietnam. Also, folks back home are just waking up and starting their days, so it’s a good time to contact those back at home. Add in some English lessons with my principal, prepping some of the kids for an upcoming speech competition, and the odd game of soccer with some of the kids before the head off to their hawgwons, and it’s usually a pretty relaxing afternoon.

Come 4:30 and that’s a wrap folks. A quick stop at home to pick up my dobok, and it’s off to Taekwondo practice. Just down the road, I practice with mainly elementary students since I’m a virtual novice. Not only is it a great and new way to keep fit, it’s also quite an eye opener for me. Considering how much I struggle to learn Taekwondo when its taught to me in Korean, I am able to get a feel for what most of the kids must feel like in my classroom. Despite the language barriers,  I’ve just recent passed my first Taekwondo test, moving on from the novice’s white belt to the yellow belt. And no, I’m sure I got no special treatment at all because I’m a waeguk….

Taekwondo gear. Note the yellow belt!!

Home for a shower and then I’m off. Sometimes it’ll be a quiet night in my neighborhood, visiting the gimbap lady for dinner and trying to improve my Korean with the locals over a beer outside the convenience street. Other times I’ll be catching a bus for the 15 min trip to the nearby CBD area to meet up with a few other expats to grab some dinner. Due to the excessive humidity during the day, night-time is when things happen in the summer, and the restaurant and bars are all open late.

Just another day in the life of an Englisheeee teacher in South Korea.

Published in: on 22/07/2010 at 12:10 am  Comments (3)  
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Wide reaching effects.

We all know just what a wonderful and special man Nelson Mandela is. Specifically, we all know just how important, and indeed, absolutely vital he was to ending apartheid in SA, and ending it in a relatively bloodless way. Yet I’m not sure South Africans are always aware of just how much the rest of the world looks to him as well as a truly great man.

My example is this. At my relatively small Taekwondo school all the way over in South Korea, they give the students a monthly newsletter, usually dealing with tournament news, trips etc. This month, there was special twist. they had an article dedicated to Mandela and the 67 minute volunteer programme that gets promoted during July, the month of his birth. So, splashed across the newsletter of Hangul characters is a picture of Mandela and the South African flag, and a plea to follow his example of humility, and devoting your life to the betterment of others. I had never been prouder to be South African than when I first saw that newsletter. I wish my country was always associated with things as wonderful as him.

Mandela inspiring people around the world

Published in: on 14/07/2010 at 10:38 pm  Comments (2)  
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The fact that Korea has largely retained its local customs, tradition and language, despite the outside pressures it faces on a daily basis is an obvious boon and attraction for travellers and expats alike. Yet, the very obvious and vast differences between Korea and most western countries, one of the main attraction of Korea, can become trying at times for expats who have an extended stay in South Korea. This is where the attraction of Hongdae kicks in.

The area around Hongik University in Seoul, commonly known as Hongdae, is one of mine, and many people’s, both foreigners and locals, favourite spots in the city. Due in part to the large amount of students in the area,it is extremely arty and for Korea, rather eccentric. It also has a distinctly European flavour about it, without losing its very Korean essence. Equally, it has not become a Western ghetto area, rather like Itaewon has.

With small boutiques, flea markets, weekly artist markets and a free market on the weekend, Hongdae is at the epicentre of the ever evolving fashion and trend scene in Korea. Shoppers will find plenty to browse through, and the number of Western visitors means that you have a better chance of finding your size than you would elsewhere in the country.

When your credit card has taken enough punishment, there are more than enough coffee shops, bars and restaurants for you to take a load off, and start preparing for Hongdae’s main attraction, the nightlife.

The place to be in Seoul for a great night out, Hongdae is at the forefront of the Korean and expat musical scene. With loads of clubs, you’ll find all music tastes are catered for, usually with  myriad of choices. FF is popular with the rock set, and plays host to many live bands, a fair number of which are foreign. Fans of electronica will find their fix at Club Tool, although make sure you’re dressed to the nines, as they pride themselves on being upmarket and stylish. Tinpan is the ubiquitous ‘meat market’ but entry is free and drinks are cheap, so it’s tough not to have a good time. Try time your visit for club night, when one entry ticket will get you entry into most clubs, as well as cheap drink specials. These are held on the last Friday of every month, and allow club hopping without having to fork out around W10 000 entrance fee for each new club.

New restaurants seem to pop up and close down at an astonishing pace in Hongdae,even by Korean standards. Many of these are open 24 hours, so you’ll never need to go hungry in the area. A special mention must go to Burger B, a few hundred metres down the road from Sangsu subway stop, in the direction of the university gates. For those craving a good old-fashioned beef burger and chips, you can’t go wrong here, and the prices are reasonable as well.

All in all, a great place to indulge in some hedonistic activities. It should go without saying that noraebang’s abound in the district, so if you can’t go for an evening without belting out some of your favourite tunes, never fear. While Hongdae may have absorbed some western tendencies and establishments, the presence of noraebangs, hofs, soju and pot noodles will ensure you’re never far from the ‘real’ Korea should you start to miss it.

Published in: on 08/07/2010 at 8:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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Temple Stay Hysterics

One of the things on most visitors “To Do List’ when the come to South Korea is a temple stay at a Buddhist temple. Regardless of your religious views, it can be a very interesting, informative and authentic immersion in the culture.

Unless of course you happened to come on a particular temple stay with us to Magoksa. It would have been a very interesting trip, but perhaps not quite as authentic and relaxing as some of the other visitors to Magoksa would have excepted.

It all started at 3:30 on the Sunday morning. I’m sure many a regretful story starts at around that time in the morning, except, unusually, this is when we were waking up, instead of just going to bed as on many weekends.

Magoksa Temple

One of the highlights of a temple stay is following the monks around on their usual everyday routines and duties. So if morning prayers start at 4:00am, you’re up praying with them. Hence the 3:30 wake up call…..

Anyway, off the whole lot of us trooped off to the temple in the pitch black of night. We were quite a diverse group of almost exclusively foreigners, with Americans and Canadians as usual forming the bulk of the group. However, we had met a couple of South African girls in the mix, and so we had a little Saffa group going on. Once we got to the temple, we found that the beautiful wooden temple was too small to hold all 80 of us for the morning bows. All 108 bows. So we weren’t to upset to stand at the back and watch the others do there bows, and get a good workout at the same time. At that’s when the trouble started.

Pitch black outside, the temple is dead quiet apart from the low chanting of the monks in front, and the smell of incense hangs heavy in the air. It’s quite a sight watching the monks, and 40 tourists, crammed in like sardines, bowing in front of the large golden Buddha. Until one of the South African girls we’d met lost her balance and fell over. Since everyone was standing so close to each other, this set off a game of human dominoes, which completely ruined the mood inside the temple. We could not contain our laughter at the back, and had to go stand outside for a little. So much for a peaceful and spiritual start to the day.

Dominoes anyone?

Next up, meditation time. We moved on to hall, and were met by a monk who was going to show us the ropes for the mediation. Showing us the lotus position and explaining the concept behind mediation, the last thing he said before we were expected to sit silently in the lotus position for 30 minute is that this would hurt. What?! Thankfully though, he gave us a lifeline. If we were feeling too sore and stiff from sitting in such an unfamiliar position for so long, we were to stand up QUIETLY for a few minutes to shake your legs out. Easy really.

Except if you’re my mate sitting to my left. Ten minutes in, and I can sense him fidgeting and struggling. Taking the easy way out, he stands up. Rather, he tries. Since his legs have gone dead from the awkward sitting position, he promptly falls over, HARD. On wooden floors, which echoed beautifully though the silent hall. Just to make sure he disturbed everyone, he also knocked over a few empty water bottles, scattering them to all corners of the hall. Meditation shattered.

Unfortunately, it does not stop their. Banished to one corner of the hall for breakfast, we were by now famished. A Buddhist breakfast is quite a process, with some very specific rules. Firstly, it’s eaten in complete silence, and what ever you dish up must be finished, including the water used to wash your dishes with afterwards. Well, that would have been good to know before we asked for extra helping of the soup (Yup, soup for breakfast). Except it appears someone switched the soup for what tasted what cold, used dishwater would taste like. This realisation very quickly led to an outbreak of giggles (I know, we sound like teenage girls here, really what was up with us) that just could not be stopped. Once again, the strict rule of silence and quiet went out the window.


So, a word of warning to anyone who is planning on going on a temple stay. Choose who you bow, meditate and eat next to very closely. It could make all the difference.

Published in: on 09/06/2010 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dance off.

So this Wednesday was local election day in South Korea. And just like most of the other things in this country, it’s a little different to most western countries.

For one thing, campaigning is confined to the two week period before the elections. Bliss, compared to the months of endless campaigning that people have to endure in many western countries, especially in the US. And while I no doubt loose a little of the messages due to my almost complete lack of Korean, it appears that the most important criteria for Korean politicians is how loud their loudspeakers are, and how co ordinated their supporters are when it comes to dancing. YES, dancing. Candidates and their supporters can be seen at busy cross roads and on the back of election trucks, dancing and singing away. For ages…. And in the event of a tie in the ballots, candidates settle the matter with a dance off, LIVE on AIR.

Dancing politicians

(OK, so I made the last bit up, but the rest is true!!)

On a slightly more serious note, the ruling GNP party lost serious ground during the elections, with the main opposition Democratic Party coming out of Wednesday in a strong position. The results are a major blow for incumbent President Lee. It remains to be seen whether this is a good or a bad thing when it comes to the latest tensions on the Korean peninsula…

Published in: on 04/06/2010 at 7:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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Monday Picture

Beomeosa Temple.

Situated high above the South Korean port of Busan is the Buddhist temple of Beomeosa, whose mountanious setting is a real drawcard to visitors. Visit the temple around Buddha’s birthday to see it in all it’s glory.

Published in: on 24/05/2010 at 10:43 pm  Comments (2)  
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Living vs travelling

Any expat will tell you that living in a country is very different to breezing through a country while on holiday. This has both its good and bad points.

Admin is still a headache, no matter what country you’re in. Dishes still need to be washed. Sooner or later, you’ll curse you bank. You HAVE to open a new bank account, come to that. Noisy neighbors are noisy neighbors, no matter what language they’re shouting at 3:00 am. Yet, it’s these exact things that can make living in a foreign country so enjoyable and rewarding.

Grocery shopping in South Korea is one such experience. Browsing the markets is loads of fun, especially when they’re packing with things like dried squid and silkworm larvae (but more on that later). But living here requires the occasional ‘normal’ shop for mundane things like soap, milk, rice, ordinary humdrum things.

So, off I toddle to my nearest supermarket, HomePlus. A three storey grocery/home supply store, it’s as if Korea tried to combine a modern supermarket with its ancient street market culture. I’m sorry, did I say tried, I meant succeeded. Every aisle has one, sometimes two middle aged Korean woman (ajummas) giving away free samples of food, or shouting in their microphone about the latest special or two for one. At least that’s what I think they’re saying. Walking past these ladies can be quite nerve wracking at times. The free food sample ladies are OK, because they’re giving away free snacks. Obviously. But the shouting ladies…they will come up to you, with a big smile on there faces, and gently (gently by Korean standards at least) steer you towards their special/two for one/whatever it is they’re shouting about and try cajole you into picking it up. After exhausting all you Korean vocab (in about 3 seconds) you’re left standing there while she continues to shout at the top of her voice in Korean. Communication fail. Again

An American I know living here in SK described it perfectly, “Sometimes it feels like you’ve escaped from a special need class, and every Korean knows it. They’re just trying really hard to help you until you get back.” That’s what grocery shopping feels like sometimes.

Some of the Konglish waiting to be discovered on the goods makes grocery shopping feel a little like treasure hunting. Absolute classics such as a loaf of bread labelled “Fresh peanut sand” and “Chicken draft beer” on the orange juice…Or the kids T-shirt that proudly proclaims “Ape Bathing Here Done.” It’s enough to reduce me to tears of laughter at times, which did not happen when grocery shopping at home. Sober shopping at least. (The Pick n Pay in Grahamstown saw its fair share of comedic situations, but that’s for another time.)

But it does not stop there. Once these ladies have been navigated, you’ve passed the greeters/bowers at the front of the stall, navigated the till (yes, or ‘ne’ for bags, no or ‘aniyo” for when they ask for a bonus card) made it to the bus stop, dragged her groceries home and up the three flights of stairs to your apartment does the real fun begin.

For whatever reason, things are WRAPPED in Korea. No, one layer of plastic wrapping in not enough. Make it two, and chuck a big cardboard box around it to make the shape indistinguishable from the outside. And lets just put writing on the outside, no picture; it’ll confuse the waeguks who can’t speak/read Korean. So, you open your cereal the next morning, unwrap the two plastic layers, only to finds you’ve bought biscuits. Individually wrapped biscuits….bother. Still, at least you didn’t confuse tuna with tins of silkworm larvae, because that would be a really nasty surprise.

So, it’s chocolate biscuits for breakfast this morning, and not cornflakes. On second thoughts, that’s a fair trade off….



Told you so!

Published in: on 14/05/2010 at 3:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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