Month: November 2017

Leaving South Korea

Leaving South Korea

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”- John Steinbeck

A lot has changed for me since the blog post in August, and it has taken me some time to process it all. In September I received an email from USAID stating that, due to a change in staffing needs, the Foreign Service Officer position I had been selected (and waiting) for was officially cancelled. The original plan was to teach in Korea until the FSO job with USAID started. Now, there was no plan.

I had been teaching in South Korea long enough to know that I was not providing the impact I had hoped, and consequently not receiving adequate job satisfaction to justify staying. I knew I wanted to look for something else, but struggled with the decision for a few reasons. Though the teaching system wasn’t ideal for me, living in South Korea had been an exciting experience. I also loved the people I worked with, and had made friends that I would be sad to leave. But when considering the work I enjoy doing, and intend to be involved with, it was apparent to me I needed to figure something else out soon.

I began looking into other international work options, which led me to come to terms with the fact there is a lot more I don’t know about international relations than what I do. The truth is I could use more knowledge and experience to be effectively involved in the type of work and change I envision, and I needed a plan to achieve both. The knowledge part has led me to applying to International Affairs grad school programs. The experience part led me back to Peace Corps. The plan part led me back to Ecuador.

I try not to get too worked up over the dream job with USAID falling through. My Grandma used to tell me “when life gives you chicken shit, you better just go ahead and make chicken soup.” Also said as making lemonade out of lemons. My gracious parents, since the news from USAID, knew that I have been stressed on what to do next. They suggested I come back to Ecuador for the holidays and give myself some space to figure it out. Remembering the beach and tropical weather, it was an offer I was happy to take. As it happens, lemonade is easier to appreciate on the Ecuadorian coast.

I arrived in Ecuador a few days ago and will be studying for the GRE during December. I take the test the first week in January. With any luck I’ll have some direction by April on which Master’s program I can start next fall. In between now and then the plan is to do some more international development work through Peace Corps early next year. I use the word plan lightly, however, as recent events have shown it’s best not to rely too heavily on them.

The title of my blog is really hitting home these days. Finding long term work to match the life I envision may take more preparation and time than originally projected. As frustrating as life’s setbacks can be, we can’t stop moving; and I won’t stop aiming towards A Life Worth Chasing.

Living in South Korea

Living in South Korea

One of the greatest things about my teaching experience in South Korea was living in Seoul. Over 10 million people strong, Seoul is an expansive city with much to offer. This was my first time living in a huge metropolis – where endless skyscrapers, high-tech subways and pop culture are brought together with street markets, Buddhist temples and palaces of the past. Seoul brings a unique energy and vibe that I don’t think you can find anywhere else. Following are some of the highlights and curiosities I observed during my time in this electric city.

The Food

I could write a whole separate post on Korean food, and indeed many have! Korean food by far is one of the highlights of living in Seoul. My favorites were:

Kimchi – A simple yet savory cabbage dish that pairs well with just about anything. If you go to Korea and don’t have some Kimchi, I’m not sure you can say you’ve actually been!

Traditional Korean BBQ – usually with various cuts of pork, you are in charge of cooking this meal. This, and most meals, come with a plethora of all you can eat side dishes, including kimchi! Korean BBQ is always best with Soju, a traditional Korean liquor staple.

Fried chicken – there is something special about how Koreans prepare fried chicken, and it is by far better than fried chicken I’ve had anywhere else. Regularly paired with beer, the combo is known as Chimaek (Chicken + Maekju)

Bibimbap – probably the most recognized dish after Korean barbeque, bibimbap is a rice bowl mixed with sautéed roots, marinated beef, chili paste and a fried egg in a hot stone pot. (Also rumored to be Michael Jackson’s favorite dish!) This is easily made without meat, and still very tasty, being a good option for vegetarians.

Unique Flavors – ranging from coleslaw popcorn to shrimp chips, you can find unique flavors of just about anything. A good place to check out the selections are at the GS25 or CU convenience stores, which actually give the word its meaning – there is one on nearly every corner.

And while not a common food for most, the live octopus is a must try while in Korea. Dipped in sesame oil and salt, it’s an intense culinary experience you won’t get anywhere else! (You can watch my attempt at trying this here)

The Transportation

Public transportation in South Korea is amazing. Using a T-Money card allows you to easily pay for your fare and transfer between subway, bus, and taxi without ever using cash or dealing with change. With minimal walking, the sophisticated metro and bus systems can get you nearly anywhere you need to be.

The subway map for Seoul – don’t get lost! 🙂

Paired with apps like CityMapper, Kakao Bus and Subway Korea, which help time and map your routes, I had no problem getting around the initially intimidating city expanse. People are generally orderly and considerate on the transportation, less the occasional instance of groups pushing on to the subway as you are trying to get off. Kept clean, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, it seems the public transportation system in Seoul should be a model for cities around the world.

Places to See

With seemingly endless places to go and things to see, some of the best are:

Bukhansan National Park – The best (and only) national park within Seoul’s city limits, Bukhansan’s three towering peaks are punctuated by crystal clear streams, creating a perfect harmony between the mountains and water. The park is very popular with hikers, offering trails suited to every level of experience, from gentle slopes to steep rugged tracks. The ever-changing scenery each season makes it a great place to checkout anytime you visit Korea.

One peak of Buhansan
Bukhansan in fall…one of my favorite places in Korea

Seoul Tower/Namsan Park – This is one of my favorite landmarks in Seoul, offering some of the best views from all directions atop of Namsan Mountain. I would love starting my days with a hike up to the tower through Namsan Park in the mornings, and enjoy the electric and changing neon glow of the tower at night. The tower also reminds me of connection. Initially built as a general radio wave tower in 1969, connecting TV and radio broadcasting to the greater Seoul area, it now also provides a place for people to symbolize their connections through locks linked together all around its base.

Seoul Tower at night, with some connecting locks of love

DMZ/JSA – N. Korea Border – by far one of the most interesting places I went during my time in Korea. Most tours offer a good amount of history and insight into the current situation between the divided country, and you can actually feel the tension at the Joint Security Area (JSA) or Panmunjom village, where I was able to stand in North Korea from the north side of the UN peace keeping building. This was a much easier feat than the North Korean soldier faced, who recently escaped over the border to the South.

The famous blue buildings that cross the borders between N. & S.
Me in the blue building – on the N. Korea side! A different world just right outside that door…

Temples – Korea has a 1,700-year Buddhist history and more than 900 traditional Buddhist temples, with centuries-old architecture tucked among the country’s numerous mountains. Gagwonsa, Bongeunsa and Haedong Yonggung are notable ones. Most also offer temple stays, where visitors can spend two days experiencing daily monastic life. Programs include tea ceremonies, Buddhist services, zen meditations…and temple uniforms.

The temple stay uniforms ARE required, not suggested 😉
In front of some prayer notes with bestie Jenni – Happy we got to experience a bit of Korea together!

Palaces – Gyeongbok Palace is probably Korea’s most famous royal palace. It was built in the late 1300s, and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. It’s tough to miss given its location at the northern end of Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, a stone’s throw from the Blue House (the President’s residence) and the U.S embassy.

Shopping – Although I didn’t do much, I got the sense that shopping is on point in South Korea. Claimed to be one of the best and most famous shopping destinations in Asia, South Korea presents a plethora of shopping unique shopping districts. Most recommended are Myeongdong, Dongdaemum Market, Hongdae and Insadong.

Myeongdong – like a mini Vegas/5th avenue in Korea

Jeju Isand – the Hawaii of Korea! I had the opportunity to check out this beautiful island with my brother during his October visit – it does not disappoint! Jeju is known for its beach resorts and volcanic landscape of craters and cavelike lava tubes. Hallasan Mountain, a dormant volcano, also features hiking trails, a crater lake at the 1,950m summit and nearby Gwaneumsa Temple. It’s a short flight from Seoul and highly recommended!

View from the top of a volcano on Jeju
A beach on Jeju Island with the Broski

The Nightlife

Korean culture seems to be very much work-hard, play-hard – and coupled with low taxi fares and even lower crime rates, means that Korean nightlife can easily extend into the early morning. In popular areas such as Gangnam, Hongdae, Dongdaemun and Itaewon, bars, cafes, restaurants, spas, shopping centers and fast food chains can be found open any hour of any night. Hongdae attracts university students and a generally younger crowd, while Itaewon caters specifically to Seoul’s expat population.

Two nighttime must do’s while in Korea are a visit to a noraebang and jjimjilbang. Noraebangs are a place for Korea’s version of karaoke. Taken a bit more seriously than a western-style bar karaoke, noraebangs are private rooms, just for you and your friends or coworkers, to play videos with music and lyric captions. You can adjust tempos and tones to find your perfect K-Pop voice – but be warned, singers are given a score at the end of each song!

A typical Noraebang – let your inner pop star out!

Jjimjilbangs are traditional Korean spas, quite literally bathhouses, where gender-segregated areas allow you to let it all hang out in various pools, tubs, and saunas. You can also have a full body scrub, where someone removes any and ALL dead skin from your body through vigorous scrubbing (seemed a little too intense for me) before cleaning and grooming yourself back to perfection. Outside of the gender-segregated areas there are coed common areas, where things are more clothed, and you can meet with friends or significant others. Here there are usually various other saunas or healing rooms to experience together. It’s an extremely relaxing Korean experience. Open 24 hours, and for less than $15, a great way to unwind after a long day.

The “Ice Sauna” room at a Jjimilbang with Oliver. He assured me the towel hats were traditional and necessary…

The People and Culture

Confucianism had a major influence in early Korean culture, bringing its defined conservative roles and interactions between men and women, bosses and workers, and the young and old. While the younger generations seem to be more lax around these traditions, they are still evident and expected in much of present Korean society.

Korea is also, well, very Korean. There is not a lot of racial diversity, and you can often find yourself being the only non-Korean looking person around – especially in areas outside of Itaewon/Seoul. And while I think it’s safe to say most Koreans understand far more English than visa-versa, many will not speak it. Luckily the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is said to be among the easiest in the world to learn. I learned the basics in a few hours and was able to sound out most words. Of course, I generally didn’t know what the words meant, but occasionally something spelled in Hangul will sound out the English word – this is especially helpful on menus!

Hangul. Easy as bucket, door, gun!

Koreans have a largely independent culture, with surprisingly minimal western pop culture influences. In my opinion they have done a great job at offering a Korean version of anything American. From their own pop stars and movie stars (K-Pop and K-Drama) to their own version of Google and Whatsapp (Naver and Kakao), you can go days without hearing or seeing anything familiarly American. (Except Starbucks, Starbucks are everywhere) Indeed, it looks like it’s actually K-Pop that may be starting to influence America!

K-Pop group BTS made waves at the recent AMA’s, and then ended up on Ellen!

This is just a small sampling of what South Korea has to offer. No matter how much I write, or how much of Korean culture becomes global, you’ll still want to make a trip to fully enjoy the inimitability of everything Korean – it’s a truly remarkable place.

Teaching in South Korea

Teaching in South Korea

This post is primarily for anyone who may be thinking about teaching English in Korea, shedding some light on the work part of my experience, and perhaps even more so, to help me process it all. As with most recent things in my life, there is the good, the bad, and the WTF am I doing here parts.

I worked for Chungdahm, which is a hagwon (private language academy), and is a different experience than working with a Korean public education program (like EPIK). There are many different hagwons, and even the branches within Chungdahm vary greatly. Although I believe some observations I’ve made are consistent throughout the private academy system, my experience is also just that and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Good

The application process was straight forward and relatively painless. I applied through Aclipse, which is a US based recruiter for Chungdahm.

I believe the benefits of teaching English in Korea are among the highest of international English teaching options out there, especially considering prior teaching experience is not required.

Standard benefits include the flight over, housing, health insurance and enough of a salary for you to live comfortably and still put away some decent savings.

Chungdahm also provides some training, which is helpful, and you teach from pre-determined curriculums and lesson plans. It is nice not having to come up with lesson plans. (Although some prep is still necessary to effectively teach the lessons.)

The kids. I spent many an afternoon laughing with them and wondering if I was ever as crazy as they are. I’m guessing I most certainly was, and it was fun interacting with kids to hear their ideas and stories of life at that age…it’s been a long time since I was that young and carefree.

The “aha” moments – watching your students who try actually improve. This is what I came for, and although it didn’t happen as much as I hoped, the times it does are significant.

The coworkers. The quality of your students and coworkers are going to be crucial. I’ve heard stories from other teachers about coworkers who were terrible or kids who are entitled nightmares. This is the part I think may be the hardest to plan for, and also one of the most important to an overall positive experience. I was extremely lucky with the branch I worked at. Having amazing coworkers, both other foreign teachers and local Korean staff, made all the difference in my experience teaching.

The gang. The best foreign teachers/friends I could have worked with!
Celebrating our Boss’s Bday with the Korean staff – all fun and hard working ladies…I miss them!

The Bad

Hagwons are more businesses than schools. Profit is the bottom line, and in a lot of cases this goes against the students’ (and teacher’s) best interest. Some examples:

  • Students can get moved up to the next “level” even though their English doesn’t justify this. They get moved at their parents’ request, who would likely move their kids to another hagwon if they weren’t moved up. Or they are moved up because they would repeat material from a prior term if they stayed at the same level. Either reason produces the same problem, where students are now completely lost in the material at the higher level and unable to complete tasks on par with the other students at the correct level.
  • As most areas have many hagwons for parents to choose from, there is a lot of emphasis on keeping the kids happy during class. Of course most students don’t want to be there, and if kids tell their parents they don’t like it, parents call threatening to move their kid to another hagwon; this leads to less emphasis on learning, and more emphasis on making sure the kids don’t complain to their parents.

At Chungdahm, classes were 3 hours. Even the best students have a hard time focusing for 3 hours. And teaching uninterested ones for 3 hours? Let’s just say there’s a reason many English teachers in Korea go drinking after work.

The Chungdahm curriculum is also outdated, in some cases referencing “current” events and statistics from five or ten years ago. This is not lost on the students.

Most of the curriculum teaches to test taking “strategies,” stressing tricks that students can use to find correct answers on language tests over actual English comprehension and conversation. Rote vocabulary memorization is also stressed, which is usually forgotten after being crammed in the minutes before the quiz or test.

During lessons where test taking strategies are not being taught, odd Western topics such as “The history of public education in America” are used to teach English comprehension. When the understanding of English is not at the appropriate level for comprehension, topics like this make it even harder.

Try to know some Korean, it helps. Classroom management is much easier if you know what is being said around you. Are kids actually talking about the work and trying to complete their assignment, like they tell you they are, or are they talking about the latest K-Pop group?

Don’t get sick. Well, you can be sick, but calling in sick is a taboo. The kids go to school sick, you’re expected to work sick. But hey, at least you can wear a mask!

WTF am I doing here?

I think the most important thing to determine when teaching in Korea is what you are going for. Are you going because you hope to get job satisfaction from teaching eager students how to communicate better in English? Or are you coming to experience a new culture, meet some fun new people and save some money, with the caveat you will also need to provide some “edutainment” to Korean kids. If it’s the former, I’d recommend thinking twice about your decision to teach in Korea. (This is not to say job satisfaction can’t be found, it just was not my experience or that of other teachers I knew.) If it’s the latter, this is probably a great opportunity for you to do just that!

When I came, I think I had an understanding it would be more of the latter; however, I also had an exit plan with a job that would give me the impact and job satisfaction I am looking for. After getting notified that my next job was officially annulled, I could not reconcile any higher-level value that I could offer or receive by continuing to teach in this environment. For me, the teaching system provided very little opportunity for impact or job satisfaction, and I knew I wanted to get myself moving towards something different ASAP.

The average age of foreign teachers seems to be early to mid-twenties, and I think that would have been the opportune time for me to have an experience like this. As I am getting older, impact and job satisfaction are becoming more important to me than lifestyle or convenience, both of which were the highlights of my time teaching here. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to teach and live in South Korea, and recognize it was a unique one. I also believe it’s important I pay attention to my WTF voice, and make moves when needed to get me headed back in the direction I want to go.

In sum, there are plenty of pros to teaching in Korea; but for me intrinsic and professional needs were not being met, and as my situation changed, I was left to wonder: WTF am I doing here? This question eventually led to my decision to leave South KoreaOf course, questioning why I am somewhere, doesn’t necessarily mean I know where else I should be… 😉