Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Korea - What to Say?

So, in a couple of hours I will be off to advise some girl, who is somehow connected to my new Aunt, and reassure her mother about teaching English in Korea.

What in god's name am I going to say?

I mean, I love Korea, as evidenced by the fact that I'm off for my third contract. I have totally fallen in love with Seoul. There are so many reasons not to love Seoul, but I do anyway. The expat scene is a ton of fun and you meet some amazingly cool people. Dating is hysterically funny and random. There are cool touristy things to do and take fantastic photos of. There is the Konglish to admire and mock. There is the opportunity to get a little bit inside a very different culture and make some amazing Korean friends. Asia is incredible for travelling. And frankly, if you want to get drunk it will cost you a whole lot less than Toronto, especially on Thursdays!

Next, we have teaching. I happen to really like it. I think Candace's advice to avoid kindergarten is still good - in a first time contract, I'd be wary. If you turn out not to like teaching, then kindie kids might just put you over the edge. They are a lot of work and you will be tired. Also, teaching kindie often involves longer hours. I think it's wise to avoid that in a first time contract, but I also say this as someone who hasn't ever taken a contract that had kindie in it. So I'm mostly basing this on what I've heard and observed. Also, teaching is not a cakewalk, even if you are doing it in Korea. But it's not hard either. But then, I am sure this all depends on your personality and aptitudes. So, again, who knows. I seem to have advised one person rather badly on this particular set of points, as she certainly isn't liking it.

Then, there is the picking of a school. What to say about that? Basically, you look for warning signs and cross your fingers. There isn't much more to say. I didn't mind Poly, in fact I think they might be a very good first-time school. Again, my friend apparently disagrees quite strongly. But I would also only advise the evening shift. My second school I wouldn't recommend in a million years. All I've got to say is that they paid on time and fairly. The only part of the contract they really broke was the sick days. But then, you only get three. But you will need far more because the Korean cough is legendary and most people seem to get cold after cold after cold. I am a trend-breaker in that I prefer to get bronchitis. Gives me way more streetcred. The general rule is to avoid recruiters - but the market has changed remarkably since I first started job-hunting myself, and I'm trying out the recruiter thing this time. We'll see how that goes. They say to watch out for illegal stuff - like not paying pension, etc. Well, again, that might be a bad sign, it might not. It's very hard to tell. My policy with Poly was that they told me up front how they intended to fuck me over and indeed, everything else was fine. With Heritage, it was merely that my boss was a jerk. You are advised (and really should) email teachers at the school you are looking at. Problem is that there is only so much they can say because they know it might get back to the school and they have to work there. I personally think that the best sign ever is that a teacher has gone back for more than one contract.

Then, housing. It's small. Often it's just one room and a bathroom. You are very unlikely to have an oven - almost no one in Korea does. Microwaves, couches, dryers are also unlikely. Go dumpster diving for more furniture or hope the last teacher did. My first apartment had cockroaches and my experience with that is basically that you'd be surprised how quickly that sort of thing stops bothering you. And I'm generally quite squeamish about bugs. My second apartment had been on fire a week before I arrived - a lot of extra cleaning for me and damn was it bare. I had to do a lot of fighting with my boss trying to get the "furnished" part of my contract enforced. Not a great way to start off with one's boss, definitely. I never did get curtains, but since I happen to love sunlight and can sleep right on through it, that wasn't a problem.

So what do I tell this girl? Humourous travelling stories? All about the time I almost got killed shopping at Costco? Where the best bars are? All about teaching? Who knows?

Basically, I think both teaching and Korea are not for everyone. I was very lucky to skip culture shock - I had already lived overseas, I was fairly immune to most homesickness. And I have the ability to ignore the parts of Korean culture I don't like - my Zen bubble theory (except when it came to Mr. Joo. That man pissed me off just by existing.) I love living in big cities (and that is another wise piece of advice I was given - work in Seoul for your first contract. If you end up culture shocked, hating Korean food, unable to pick up the language, etc. you will want to be in the only city that has a lot of western luxuries.) If you tend to be the type of person who can roll with the punches, you will be fine. If you like to always understand the reasons for everything, you might not. And you want to try and avoid apply North American ideas of politeness to Korean culture. Yep, people will bud in front of you and shove you on the subway. It isn't really rude - everybody does it! But people will also do some extraordinarily nice things for you too, far above and beyond what people in North America would. Go with the flow and everything is good. And learn to use your elbows to take up more space and make it harder for people to push in front of you ;)

I read in some book somewhere that everything you do in a foreign country is more exhausting because you are always having to negotiate the culture and it simply is more work. You have to constantly make an effort to read body language because it isn't all the same as the body language in the culture you grew up in. You do a lot of guessing if you can't read/understand the langauge every time you leave the house. Friendships are more work as you have to do even more work at understanding the different cultural contexts you come from and act in. I think this is all very true, though I find my time in Korea more relaxing. I don't feel the same pressure to keep up with things - to read the newspaper and know all about current events, to have seen the latest film everyone is talking about, and so on. I also find that in general, I am quite chill. If plans don't work out, or I get lost looking for something, I find that whatever else happens instead is usually just as fun.

PS - for the moment, the plan to go private has been put on hold due to my extreme laziness. Since I am blogging so little, no reason to do that privately!

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