Do You Agree Or Disagree With The Following Statement?

The desk is cluttered. TOEFL scripts are scattered among ungraded essays and year-old report cards. Manila file folders stacked on the desk follow through on the promises advertised on their covers; their bent corners and torn spines add new meaning to “made out of recycled materials.” Who knows how long these folders have been here? They bear the names of all of the assistant teachers who have worked at the hagwon over the past five years. I cross out “David” and write my name on the cover of one of the folders. David had done the same to Mike. Mike had done the same to Audrey.

The chair feels nice. I can see how David was able to sneak in so many naps in between classes when he was teaching. What I don’t yet understand is how he was able to log so much time writing on his blog, surfing Youtube, and reading the news at work while he had so many high level classes. The classes he had taught all involved older, motivated students, and he created the curriculum for the class. And now, I have those classes. They require preparation. For me, teaching is an all or nothing affair—you’re either really prepared for a class and able to coax some smiles out of the kids by showing them that learning can actually be entertaining, or you crash and burn and the kids’ eyes glaze over from boredom and sleep deprivation.

Twelve minutes until my last TOEFL writing class. I’ll miss those students, I think to myself. It’s a shame I have to lose all the classes I’ve had for so long to take on all of David’s old classes.

I look under the desk and see stacks of old papers standing where my feet should be resting. Like the manila file folders, they also trace the history of everyone who has sat at the desk. Most of the papers are things that former teachers didn’t need anymore, but for whatever reason, didn’t want to throw away. I understand the pack-rat sentimentality perfectly; I catch myself salvaging partially used legal pads.

I stumble upon a goldmine. Jerry had never sat at this desk, but I inexplicably find a folder full of assignments he had given his students and never graded. Jerry was a funny guy, a fact I am reminded of when I start flipping through student essays that had been written on the topic: “What would happen if Alex and Jovan got married?” Alex and Jovan were teachers at the hagwon in 2008. All of the essays invariably focused on the students’ perception of the teachers’ most distinctive physical qualities; every student described Alex’s hair and Jovan’s freckles.

Nine minutes until TOEFL writing. The independent topic is yet another agree/disagree question: “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Universities should give the same amount of money to their students’ sports activities ad they give to their university libraries. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.”

“What if Jovan and Alex marry? I think that if Jovan and Alex get married, I think that they will make an academy and be a teacher there. Also they would call all the friends in the United States of America. And then they would ask to work at their Academy. Additionally, when Jovan get a baby, it would have a lot of freckles and have many leg hairs and all kinds of things. When the Jovan’s baby goes to school, many other kids would nickname him as a King Kong. And Jovan and Alex were so angry that they teach the child by themselves. And therefore they always fight because baby is stupid, so they get a divorce. —SAD ENDING—”

“There was a one family comprised with Alex Pollack, Jovan Pollack, and Anna Banana Pollack. Anna Banana was Alex and Jovan’s daughter. She has many brown hairs and freckles. One day, they went to zoo. There was many people and animals. Mr and Mrs. Pollack and Anna rushed all the place in zoo. Suddenly, Anna runned to tigers and lions and went into their cage. Hungry tigers and lions sprang at her. “AAAAAAHH!!”, she screamed. “BWOANG!”, and then she fart, because she strength her stomach when she scream. Tigers and lions faint with purple face. Pollack couple quickly took out her from the cage. “Oh! That cloth is so cute!”, Jovan went to cloth mall, and Alex went to monkeys’ cage with Anna. Monkeys stared at Alex and Anna. Abruptly, one monkey said “Oockackacoocka,” and showed his back, and Alex started to touch monkey’s furs. Jovan came to there with 8 big shopping bags, “What re you doing, Alex?” “Shhhh, I’m communicating with my old friend Jorge,” he answered with a frowned face. “Where is Jorge?” she asked. “Here,” pointing big monkey waving his hand to Jovan. “Hi!! Nice to meet you! I’m Alex’s wife. That monkey costume looks like real monkey!” Jovan said. After that events, they walked around the zoo again, and went to their home.”

“If Alex and Jovan marry…Alex and Jovan loved each other, and one day they married. They lived in a very small house in Texas, because they were so poor. 1 year later, they got a baby girl. She (the baby) grew up really fast, but there was no food and money left in their house. So Jovan yelled at Alex “Go out and get a job!”. Alex could do nothing except writing. So instead of getting a job, he wrote stores about how he got married to Jovan, how much he liked her, and finally their stores about their baby and their lives. He named it ‘Bla’ and published. Soon, the book became popular. Millions of copies were sold in the world, and in a crack, Alex and his wife became wealthy and popular. They lived happily until Jovan died when she was 50. Alex was very sad so he suicided.”

Student essays from the younger kids never get old. I place the assignments aside, away from the recycling bin. One student had attached illustrations to her essay.

America Illustration

America Illustration

Korea Illustration

Korea Illustration

So here are the essential differences between Korea and America in the eyes of a twelve-year-old. America’s a land of blonde-haired cowboy sheriffs. The sheriffs brandish their guns, wafting Pigpen-esque smells in the process. They dance wildly in an arid desert full of cacti as their tense, grimacing faces strike fear into the nearby, shapeless onlookers. Korea’s a land of traditionally dressed, happy, upstanding citizens. They celebrate life in vivacious groves of healthy trees and grasses. Citizens welcome you with open arms in this land of plenty. People are having picnics outside all the time.

Five minutes until TOEFL class. Agree/Disagree question. It’s either/or; you have to pick a side because there are only two options. Clearly pick a side in the first few sentences of your response. It’s easier to write a strong essay if you pick one side or the other than if you attempt to navigate a more neutral position. The twelve-year-old understands—she can do the same thing the writing topics require the older students to do. This is the method; it is the way the kids are taught to think.

It’s the way most people are raised to think. College teaches you to explode those binaries, to think beyond simple either/ors. And with good reason—after all, we’re not all blonde gun-wielding cowboys in America. Give us some credit; we’re a lot more diverse than that.

We’re brown-haired cowboys. We’re red-haired cowboys. A lot of us are cowgirls. But yeah, I suppose we all have a little Clint Eastwood running through our veins.

One Year In

In three days, I’ll celebrate my one year anniversary of my arrival to Korea. As the lack of blog posts in recent months might indicate, that time has passed incredibly quickly. Life is fast here. Days are seconds; weeks, minutes. Thoughts of the previous weekend cannot be processed until the following Friday; the events of the weekdays have been just as exciting as those of the weekend, and by the time I have a moment to stop and think, it’s already Saturday again. Everything is perpetually in fast forward.

A friend in America writes on my Facebook wall; my parents have been contacting him because it’s been weeks since I have called them, and they’re starting to wonder if I’m still alive. A friend here in Korea sorts through all the photos taken of us in our time here and notices how much older we look compared to when we got here. I tell the U.S. federal government I need an extension to file my taxes because I’m in another country. They understand; the extension is approved. I open a desk drawer and sift through the physical traces of my last several months in Korea to find a pen or a marker; I have to push aside airplane tickets, promotional fliers, socks, an athletic mouth guard, a MIDI controller, photographs, and coins from East and Southeast Asia before I find what I need.

My room is littered with random slips of paper upon which I’ve jotted random thoughts about my days. Comfortable with the rapid pulse of Seoul life, I’ve lacked the motivation to transform the notes into sensible blog posts for others to read. My attention has been constantly focused on the present, and if my faculties have ever had a moment when they were not too overloaded to process that, they might have time to consider the very immediate future. When you’re constantly experiencing new things, there is little time to anticipate your future, much less reflect on your past.

But every now and then, something will snap me out of my dreamlike, fast-paced existence and remind me of how much I’ve experienced here. I’ve been having a lot of brief moments of perspective for the last several weeks—mostly due to the fact that David and Jason, friends and co-patriarchs of the family of foreigner teachers at my hagwon, have recently left Korea. It is strange living in Korea without them; they were instrumental in creating my amazing experience here. I miss them, and adding to the feeling of weirdness inspired by their absence is my recent realization that, of the foreigner teachers currently employed by my hagwon, I have been around the longest. Excepting me, the hagwon has seen a complete rotation of foreigner teachers. How fast does life move here? Fast enough that being employed for twelve months qualifies you as a veteran.

And like any good veteran, I’ve got my share of longwinded observations fueled by some sense of perspective. In the coming weeks, I’ll try to use that perspective to transform some of these scraps of paper at my feet into something tangible and understandable.

So You Want To Teach In South Korea

A number of friends have contacted me in order to inquire about what exactly I’m doing in Korea. It looks like I may be somewhat responsible for a few people coming over in the near future. Since I’ve already written a lot of answers to general questions about life and work in Korea, I figured it’d be wise to post that information here as a quick way of directing any other friends who might be considering a teaching position in Korea.

I write this post for those who aren’t really sure about what they think about the prospect of teaching in Korea. If you’re already set on coming over, you should first check out this great FAQ posted by Alex Pollack, especially if you’re interested in teaching in Bundang. Those who have made the decision to come over should read this ten point list created by David Ogles.

Please keep in mind that everything in this post really only applies to Seoul. I can’t really offer much advice about teaching in areas outside of the Seoul metro area.

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Life in Korea: Why Come Over?

Everyone has their own reasons for teaching overseas. But why choose Korea? What’s Korea got that other places lack?

Advantages
• Cash. For about the last ten years, Korea has been able to offer the highest paycheck-to-living expenses ratio for English teachers out of any Asian country. If you want to teach on this side of the world, it can be a financially lucrative option.
• Language: Compared to Chinese or Japanese, Korean’s a pretty easy language to learn. I’ve been remiss in my studies of late, but to give you some sense of perspective, consider this: it’s possible to learn the Korean alphabet in one to two weeks. That’s not to say that learning Korean is a walk in the park, but to be able to pronounce words that you see on a menu or on the subway inside of one month of being in Korea is pretty huge. Those interested in learning the language proper will find ample opportunity to do so.
• Food. Good lord, Korean food is amazing. That said, most Korean foods are considered by foreigners to be spicy, so if that’s not your bag of tea, perhaps you won’t like it so much.
• Wide variety of teaching options. I will go into more detail when I describe the difference between public and private schools below; for now, just know that teachers in Korea have the potential to be very selective about where and whom they teach.
• Transportation. If you’re in Seoul, you’ll probably find that you won’t miss driving at all. Thanks to the excellent subway system, reliable buses, and comparatively (to large American cities, anyway) cheap taxis, it’s easy to get around. In my entire life, I have never been so excited about public transportation. I can literally say I will miss the subway and bus system from Seoul whenever I leave…it’s that awesome.
• Travel opportunities: location, location, location. Korea’s situated in a pretty sweet spot. Japan, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the eastern side of Russia are all fairly accessible. This point isn’t unique to South Korea, but it’s something to consider in general if you are still having a hard time making up your mind.
• The lack of crime. You have to go to pretty far lengths to put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation here. Like any city that’s as massive as Seoul, there are certain places you probably don’t want to be at five in the morning, but for the most part, the potential for running into trouble is pretty slim. I have never felt threatened during my time here. Realistically, drunken fights comprise the most likely source of criminal danger for foreigners, and all the scraps I’ve heard of could have easily been avoided. Whereas I had to take the occasional peek over my shoulder in Charleston, South Carolina for the last four years, I feel as if I could walk backwards through Seoul with a blindfold on and still be safe.

Disadvantages:
• The current economy. When I came to Korea in July of 2008, the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Korean won was 1 U.S. dollar: 1080 Korean won. In mid-January 2009, that ratio currently sits at 1 U.S. dollar: 1390 Korean won. If you think about it (I try not to) I have essentially experienced a thirty percent pay cut in my time here. The last several months have been a really wild ride for the Korean won; the exchange rate has been fluctuating between 1:1150 and 1:1500 for the last several months. Of course, the global economy does have something to do with this; everyone’s hurting. I recommend that anyone considering teaching over here to watch the exchange rate closely in order to be able to make an informed decision about whether or not a teaching venture is financially viable.
• Social conservatism. I love living in Korea. However, there are a few entrenched social values here that are at odds with things that many foreigners hold dear. I could write a whole treatise on this one because I’m a philosophy nut, but I’ll be brief and make a long story short: if you’re not a person who is prepared to try new things and make some compromises, then you’re probably not going to enjoy living here. I have little tolerance for people who get their feathers ruffled over this one, but if you want a more specific look at what I am describing, there’s plenty of disgruntled folks on the forums at Dave’s ESL Café that will tell you…at great length…whether you want to hear it or not…just what kind of problems they have.
• If you want to get around, you have to learn some Korean. Personally, I think this one’s a plus. Plenty of foreigners live in Seoul for a year or two without learning even basic words and phrases, but if you really want to open up Korea, you need to make an attempt to learn basic Korean vocabulary and grammar. Most people are overjoyed if you make a legitimate effort to speak their language.

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Teaching in Korea: Public or Private?

There are two options for teaching in Korea: public and private. Private schools are called academies or, in Korean, hagwons. Basically, after students finish their normal 9-5 public school, they go to hagwons. Music hagwons, math hagwons, sports hagwons…and of course, English instruction hagwons. To become hired at a public school, you generally have to go through a giant recruitment agency like SMOE, EPIK, or GEPIK. SMOE is the recruiter that deals with Seoul. Recruiters exist for those looking to work in a hagwon as well; however, it is possible to contact a hagwon directly and get a job.

Most people go through recruiters to get their positions. I didn’t have to because my friend David is a pretty big deal at my hagwon, and the school accepted his recommendation of me with little argument. As far as recruiters go, my friend Rhett went through SMOE and met a lot of really cool people, and the organization seems to take care of its recruits.

There’s plenty of resources on the web that can help you find jobs over here. If you couldn’t tell already, I’m not the biggest fan of Dave’s ESL Café. That place is filled with people who flame up threads just to moan about how much they hate Korea. I haven’t had to look for another job, but these websites seem to have some pretty helpful resources:
Hi! Teacher
ESL Agent
English Spectrum

If there’s one golden rule I could give to those interested in choosing a school, it is this: when entering into negotiation with schools, always assume that “a better option than this one probably exists,” because one probably does. Demand for teachers in Korea is still incredibly high, which means there’s a huge number of schools all scrounging for a comparatively small amount of teachers. If you ever think a school is being shady about something–maybe a certain part of the contract is unclear or something–draw their attention to it, and see how they react. If they react in an unacceptable way, walk away and start looking for a different school. You’re in charge; even with the unfavorable economy right now, there are plenty of teaching jobs to go around.

Similarly, the timing of entry into Korea can be flexible. If you work for a hagwon, you can come at any time; there’s really no such thing as a “school year” for a hagwon. Whenever there’s an open spot in a hagwon, the administrators find a way to fill it. Public schools are different. You can basically only come over in July or December if you want to work for them. There are exceptions to this, though; sometimes, people break their contracts and leave a void that must be filled. You’d have to talk to a recruiter about this to find out more information.

Here’s a quick description of the general differences between public school work and hagwon work. For the sake of comprehensiveness (but at the risk of being repetitive), I am going to print the advantages and disadvantages for working in public schools and private schools.

Public school advantages:
• Guaranteed work. Your job is backed by the national government of Korea. Assuming you don’t do something really stupid, the contract you sign with a public school is pretty reliable. Your school cannot fire you for something trivial.
• Long vacation periods. Public school teachers have the benefit of enjoying month-long vacation periods at the conclusion of the fall and spring terms.
• Little to no grading. When you work at a public school, you usually have a Korean co-teacher who helps you grade students’ work.
• The school dictates your curriculum. They give you a book, and you teach it to the class. It’s pretty simple and straightforward. Teachers can bring in supplemental materials if they wish.

Public school disadvantages:
• You will probably be the only foreigner at your school. Sometimes this can be hard on new teachers.
• Your class sizes will probably be pretty large. It’s very feasible that, at a public school, you will be responsible for teaching more than six hundred unique students per week. You will have them in groups of fifty or so. Much class time will be spent preserving order.
• Pay is less than hagwon pay. The average public school teacher makes around 200,000 fewer won per month than the average hagwon teacher.
• Since you’re going through a recruiter, you probably have very little say-so in where you will be placed. If you’re looking to live in a specific kind of place, this feature of public school teaching can be a real pain.

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Private school (hagwon) advantages:
• Small class sizes, and students you’ll come to care about. The most students I’ve ever had in a single classroom: 18. I see no more than 100 unique students per week. I know them by name. They know who I am. It’s easy to preserve order in a classroom, and I spend very little time “babysitting.” The students have an impact on me, and I feel like I actually have a tangible influence on their lives. For all those who are skeptical about the value of this one, don’t be—you’d be surprised what this can do for your morale.
• Higher pay. The average hagwon teacher makes about 200,000 more won per month than the average public school teacher.
• Specialized curriculum. At an ideal hagwon, you have the possibility of having some really fun classes. For the past three months, I’ve been teaching the verbal section of the SAT to amazing high school-aged students two to three times a week, and it’s an absolute blast. It definitely beats “See Spot Run” and all that jazz. If you like an intellectual challenge, hagwon work has good potential to keep you interested.
• Sweet hours. When students get out of their public school, they go to hagwons. Thus, most hagwons have working hours in the afternoon, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have several off periods throughout the day. For ten out of the twelve months of the year, the earliest I ever have to go to work is 4 PM, and I leave no later than 11 PM. For someone who just graduated from college, these are most excellent hours. I work for about four hours on Saturday, but this is definitely not the norm; it’s really the only big disadvantage of my particular hagwon.

Private school (hagwon) disadvantages:
• Limited vacation time. Compared to public schools, hagwons offer pretty limited vacation time. Most of the “vacations” at my hagwon consist of four day weekends. “But what about those breaks that students have after the fall and spring semesters?” you might ask. Well, unfortunately…
• …You will probably be teaching more hours in January and July (the public school vacation months). Why? Because many parents like sending their students to hagwons for additional instruction during the supposed “student vacation” months. At my hagwon, we call January and July the “busy season” months. For four weeks, we could potentially be at the hagwon from 9:30 AM until 8:30 PM at night. The nature of busy season varies from hagwon to hagwon.
• Hagwons are private enterprises. The implications of this are manifold. First and foremost, you obviously have less job security at a private operation than a public school. Generally speaking, a contract with a private school doesn’t really amount to much legally. There are plenty of horror stories on the internet that address all the potential harms a hagwon can do to a teacher.
• Paperwork. Again, this varies by hagwon, but most of the time you will be grading whatever assignments the school says you must give your students. At my hagwon, every student has to write at least two essays per month.
• Parents rule. As a hagwon teacher, your goal is keeping the parents happy…no matter how absurd their demands. Depending on the wherewithal of your particular hagwon, you may be faced with a situation where a complaint from a parent of a lone student from a class of fifteen causes you to change a substantial part of the class.
• You may be responsible for creating curriculum. This is something you are going to want to ask each hagwon you’re considering. Hagwons have varying degrees of curriculum management. Some give you very strictly defined schedules for you to stick to, and others require you to create an entire curriculum out of thin air.

Important note: Most of my description of private school work comes from my experience at my particular hagwon. My perception is definitely biased, as I think my hagwon is awesome. Remember, the details vary widely with hagwons. There are really no “general rules” regarding hagwons; they run the gamut from nightmarish, piss-poor businesses only looking to make a quick buck to really high-class institutions of considerable merit. You really have to do your research when scoping out a hagwon. Some of the advantages I described might not even exist at particularly shady hagwons.

That being said, I think private school education in Korea provides the best experience assuming one lands in a good hagwon. Of course, it all depends on what you’re looking for. When I arrived at my hagwon with ten other foreigner teachers, I had a solid network of people whom I could ask for help if necessary. Teaching with other foreigners offers an experience akin to a study abroad program in college; you become pretty tight with your coworkers. The vacation time thing isn’t bothersome; I’ve already visited Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand with the vacation time offered to me. Besides, I’m already in Korea; simply living here is vacation enough for me. As long as you’re a good teacher, you don’t have to worry about complaints from parents. Busy season doesn’t bother me either; I feel the overtime pay you receive for those strenuous hours is pretty sweet compensation. Creating curriculum can be a pain, but depending on the class, it can also be fun. I look forward to preparing for my high-level classes because I know the students genuinely appreciate it.

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A Brief Look at Finances

Pretty much every school covers the cost of your monthly rent while you work in Korea. Utility costs are usually left to the teacher. The usual hagwon monthly gross for first year teachers is between 2.0 million and 2.3 million won per month. First year public school teachers gross somewhere between 1.7 million and 1.9 million won per month.

Mandatory expenses to deduct monthly: utilities, medical insurance, pension, and assorted taxes. For me, these figures total to about 300,000 won. You get all of the money you pay into pension back at the end of your time in Korea. Most people want a cell phone; just like anywhere else, you can pay for a wide variety of services if you want them. 25,000 won a month will get most people just about everything they need as far as cell services go. It’s not uncommon for schools to take some money out of your paycheck as a room deposit for the first few months you are working.

Miscellaneous financial notes:
• When looking for work in Korea, don’t trust any figure that’s given to you in U.S. dollars. Ask how much won you will be grossing per month.
• If you pursue TOEFL or TEFL certification in the United States, you can parlay that certificate into a raise. I hear it is worth about 100,000 extra won per month, but your mileage may vary.
• Did you go to an Ivy League School? That diploma is the mother of all bargaining chips. It doesn’t matter if you barely passed. An Ivy League diploma can be used to request for better classes, higher pay, even a nicer apartment.
• Do not worry about how complicated your taxes are going to look. While other governmental offices are plagued by terribly inefficient bureaucracy, the IRS has developed a pretty streamlined way to take your money; everything you need is easily accessible from their website.
• Different people save different amounts of money. Know that it is quite easy to save money if that’s what you’re looking to do.

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Actually Getting Here

Let’s say you’ve made up your mind: you want to come to Korea. Again, any school worth its salt will agree to pay for your round-trip plane ticket. But what do you need to complete in terms of paperwork? Again, your recruiter or the school who is bringing you over should brief you on all of this, but here is a rough idea of what an American looking to teach in Korea will need:

• A passport. You’ll most likely have to fax a few copies of it to your school.
• A college diploma. Yes, you need the real thing. Schools really want to make sure you graduated from college, and they will require you to send it to them. Don’t bother buying insurance for it when you mail it; paper is paper, and mailing agencies will only insure it for a couple of bucks.
• Criminal background check with your state’s apostille seal. Basically, you need to get a state background check. Call your local police department and see what you need to do to obtain this. Once you get your criminal background check, you must send it to your state’s secretary of state and have an apostille seal put on it to verify that it is legitimate.
• Sealed official college transcript.
• Resume. Of course, you will want to emphasize teaching or tutoring experience if you have it. Less obvious mentions include test scores; if you have high test scores in anything–AP exams, SAT, ACT, graduate school exams, etc, you should list them. The Korean educational system places a lot of emphasis on test scores for its students. If your test scores are short of stellar, don’t sweat it. You’re still going to get the job.
• Several passport-sized photos. I’d recommend you to go ahead and get about 8-12 of these guys taken. Keep them on hand. You will need them for various documents.
• A signed contract. You will be signing a contract with whatever school you’re working with.
• E-2 Health Statement. Korean schools make you fill out this one to two page form that asks you some basic health questions. It takes no more than ten minutes to complete.
• Having all of the above gets you the primary thing you need to teach in Korea: an E-2 visa. Visa rules for South Korea have been changing over the last few years. Before a Korean consulate can give you a visa, you need to have an interview with your region’s consulate. Do not delay on this. Now, there are those who come over on tourist visas and then make a hop over to Japan or somewhere else to apply for their work visa for Korea–it’s called a “visa run.” In this manner, these individuals find a way to fit in a quick vacation to another country…whether you choose to get your visa for South Korea in America or in another country, just know that you must have an E-2 visa before you are allowed to work here. Visit this page to find your region’s South Korean consulate.

These are the basic things you need to know if you want to teach in Korea. Don’t forget to check out these links; Alex and David have done a pretty good job of offering their own perspective of what you will need to know before coming over.

Alex’s Q&A about Teaching in Bundang
David’s Checklist of Things to Bring

The Crowded Subway Platform: The Drunken Brawler’s Arena of Choice

I’ve been in Korea for about five months now. I’m comfortable; on most days, the things I experience feel pretty natural. Between practicing Kyokushin at the dojo, learning Korean at another hagwon, and going to work at my school in the afternoons, I’ve shaped a routine that provides a pretty reliable sense of normalcy.

But every now and then—thankfully—Korea will throw me a curveball.

Being a part of the Kyokushin dojo in Seongnam has been an excellent experience. While I do not get to interact with many of the fighters there due to the fact that I have to train when most Koreans are working, training at the dojo still makes me feel like I’m a part of something greater than myself. Everything we do in the dojo, from rules of etiquette to basic movements, works together to establish a sense of ritual. Being familiar with the ritual automatically connects me to others who share the passion I’ve only recently cultivated. I find it comparable to religion; the dojo, like a church, fosters the growth of a community by maintaining the importance of ritual. I even feel guilty if I skip a scheduled training day, and if the testimonies of my Catholic friends have any truth to them, then the connection between church and dojo seem pretty strong. Like church, Kyokushin connects people regardless of differences in language, culture, or background. It also fosters some of the healthiest human interaction I’ve ever seen.

As one of the few foreigners at our dojo, most of the other fighters instantly recognize me even if they have never talked to me. I have been stopped on the street by a fellow fighter and saluted with the Kyokushin greeting of “osu!”. I have been in a diner at four in the morning and heard the same greeting chanted from a few tables down. In both instances, I dropped whatever I was doing and reciprocated with the greeting. Regardless of the language barriers that usually separate me from a Korean fighter, we both try to communicate with one another. Our conversation mostly consists of exaggerated gestures and whatever simple words and phrases we know from the other party’s language, but no awkwardness is felt; we are all too happy to hazard an attempt at dialogue because we both recognize that we share something.

Bundang’s a pretty big place, yet I’ve run into people connected to the Seongnam dojo several times. Perhaps that was by pure luck, perhaps it’s because people pay a white guy walking around with a rolled-up karate gi tucked in his arm more attention than other passers-by, but whatever the case, my frequent run-ins with fellow Kyokushin fighters has caused me to assume that the people on the street who start a conversation with me must know me from the dojo in Seongnam.

Last Wednesday shattered that assumption. It began as a typical Wednesday; I woke up at 11:00, ate breakfast, and hustled through the cold winter air to the subway so I could get to the dojo by noon. I had to transfer at the station in Moran. My eyes focused on a list of vocabulary words for my Korean class, I walked towards the stairs leading to the transfer platform after exiting my first train. Before reaching the stairwell, I heard someone say “American?” in Korean.

I looked over my piece of paper to see a Korean man in his late thirties staring at me with a big smile on his face. He swayed from side to side, but he didn’t reek of alcohol. His baseball cap hid what I imagined was a prematurely balding head of hair.

“American?” he repeated.

I tried speaking in Korean by telling him that yes, I was an American, and I asked him if he knew English. He lifted his hand and shook it from side to side to indicate that he did not. He looked at me for a few seconds before speaking again. In English.

“American, very good!” he said. He pointed to himself. “Korean, very good!” He pointed to the subway tracks. “Russia, very good!

I hadn’t heard anything about the tracks being produced in Russia, but then the man clarified everything. “China, bad.” He frowned and pointed his thumb towards the floor. “Japan, bad. Mongol, bad.” He was declaring his political allegiances and prejudices.

“Iraq?” he asked. I started to say something, but then he pointed at something in the distance. “My son. Iraq.” Then, he pointed to himself, and said, “Me, Bosnia.”

Now, South Korean troops have been stationed in Iraq. In fact, effective December 5, Korean troops have begun their withdrawal from the country. But the Bosnian War? I wasn’t so sure about that one. But then, my new acquaintance convinced me once again by clarifying his story.

“Me, sniper.” He extended his arms as if he were holding a rifle. “Dragunov, you know?”

I did know. The Dragunov sniper rifle was developed in the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, and it uses 7.62 mm rounds. Thanks, video games.

He laughed. “Russian Dragunov, very good. Ukraine Dragunov, very bad.” Ukraine just doesn’t make them like Mother Russia, I suppose.

At this point, I realized I was going to be late to the dojo if I stayed with this guy for much longer. I wanted to go, but my curiosity was piqued. This guy looked like someone who would be Duke Moon potential.

He pointed to himself again. “L.A. SWAT, I like. Me, second dan.” Something clicked in my brain. Dan is a ranking system used in martial arts, so I figured this guy knew me from the dojo. People who have reached the level of dan wear black belts in most martial arts. Disregarding his praise for the fine men and women of the Los Angeles SWAT team or perhaps that godawful movie with Colin Farrell and Samuel L. Jackson, I reached inside of my backpack to show him my orange belt from the dojo in the hopes of provoking more conversation.

Instead, I was given a roundhouse kick to my right thigh. Then, my sniping, black belt friend said, “Me second dan, you beginner.” He put his hands up, and he started kicking. He scored two or three more kicks on my thighs. I blocked a punch or two before I eventually punched him in the shoulder. He stopped.

“Heheheheheheh,” he chuckled to himself. “Punch,” he said, and he gave me a thumbs-up.

Moran is a busy subway station, and people were looking at us quizzically. I can only imagine what it looked like from their perspective. Some Korean mother of two was probably just trying to go somewhere for lunch. She didn’t have a care in the world—Korea’s subway is one of the safest and cleanest in the world—and here comes a disheveled adult Korean man who starts throwing low kicks at a twenty-something white guy who looks like Harry Potter with a serious case of bed head.

As Nick would later put it, “Dude, that only happens in video games! That’s level one, where you have to fight a random guy from the streets before you can fight the masters.” Awesome, my life is now Mortal Kombat 3.

mortalkombat31

Anyways, my opponent then shook hands with me. “You, me, drink. Now.” He pointed to the stairwell that led to the main street of Moran, which is flanked by bars and hofs for a solid kilometer. I told him, “Dojo, I go.” He shook his hand in midair again. “No. Drink.” I shook my head, and I insisted I had to go. It was only a few minutes before noon. How dedicated of a drinker was this guy? He must have simply stayed up all night; I don’t imagine he actively made the choice to wake up before noon to go drinking. But I also didn’t imagine I’d be taking a few roundhouse kicks in the legs before I actually got to the dojo, so who knows?

“OK,” he finally said as he relented. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his jacket, and he handed one to me. “Here,” he said. He shook my hand again, a big smile still spread across his face. I said goodbye, and I turned and walked towards the transfer line.

Part of me wishes I had hung out with him just to pursue a story, but ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t. Most martial arts have rules against starting an unprovoked fight in public—even if it’s only in drunken jest—so if he was a black belt, the guy wasn’t a very good representative of his style. Thus, even if I were to toss aside the myriad of other reasons why it wouldn’t have been a good idea to go have a few lunchtime drinks with the guy, I’m not losing any sleep over the missed opportunity. David posed a great hypothetical question that provided me all the closure I needed to feel satisfied about last Wednesday’s strange events:

“That’s crazy. What do you think would have happened if you met that guy and you hadn’t been training in Karate?”

The Boseong Road Trip And My First Brush With Culture Shock

In the first weekend of September, David, having recently been awarded a Korean driver’s license, drove us all the way down to the southern coast of Korea on what I hope will be the first of a few road trips. We left on a Saturday evening. We had to teach on Monday at 4 PM. Some might think that traveling within such a short timeframe is a raw deal, but I’ve come to enjoy it; everyone on a two day “vacation” is usually a lot more adventurous when they realize their vacation will end soon. You’re also more willing to push yourself to do crazy things. Case in point: David ended up driving for something like 15 out of the 36 hours we had for our trip. Definitely something normal people wouldn’t want to do after a six day work week.

I got to be navigator for the vast majority of the driving hours. Armed with a detailed road map of Korea and a compass, I charted our course and asked David to confirm it whenever we took a break at a rest stop. Navigating through Korea couldn’t be easier; all the major highways are clearly marked—in English as well as Korean, thanks in large part due to South Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which fought in the early 2000s to require all road signs to be translated into a revised Romanization of Korean. Go globalization!

Our destination was Boseong, a county famous for its green tea plantations. On the way down, however, we thought we’d stop halfway in the city of Jeonju to sample the nightlife there and find a place to crash on Saturday night. We also wanted to try Jeonju’s bibimbap; in Korea, different regions are popular for different foods, and it just so happens that Jeonju is known for its bibimbap, one of Korea’s most popular dishes among foreigners.

Jeonju’s urban layout is not unlike other Korean cities. Businesses of all kinds are nested together in 5-7 story buildings. Central hallways wind through the buildings in a seemingly impossible effort to connect a disparate mess of bars, restaurants, hofs (Korean bar-restaurants), dentist offices, hagwons, optometrists, whorehouses, cell phone providers, and PC bangs.

After consuming a delicious variety of street foods, we twist and turn through these hallways looking for something to do. Dodging drunken businessmen and college students, I find myself running all the way up the stairs of a building to the top floor of a building in search of a bathroom while my four friends are wandering the streets. I find a club instead, and I hear the usual American top 40 pop and rap hits being blasted. Then I hear a beatmatched crossfade between two tracks; awesome, there’s a DJ present. I take the elevator back down to find my friends.

We return as a group, and a bouncer shoves a slip of paper into my hand. It has a number; “for a table,” I think to myself.

But something’s not quite right; there’s plenty of open tables around the bar area. I am confused. As I notice that we are the only foreigners in a club full of about a hundred people, I play it safe; I sit at the bar and order a drink to buy some time to survey my surroundings.

Nick and David start chatting up two Korean girls at the bar. I keep to myself; something is not right here. I wonder why we don’t have a table? I dismiss my thoughts by assuming the bouncer is simply reserving the tables for other Koreans, something I can handle—something I can understand.

But then it happens. The DJ kills the music after a song is up, says something I can’t understand into the microphone, and walks out of the DJ booth. The entire dance floor of about forty people flocks back to the tables around the club.

“Wait, what just happened?” I ask Jovan. Her guess is as good as mine. I turn to David, who is asking the Korean girls what happened to the music. One of the girls whips out her cell phone, starts using its dictionary to translate a phrase. She says two words I can recognize: “rest time.”

We are in a club with organized rest times. Like preschool’s nap times, except you’re relaxing your body after grinding on members of the opposite sex instead of resting after fighting with those members on the playground.

Every seat in the club is now taken. A girl even comes up to my bar stool and informs me I have taken her seat; this is one of the few bars in the world where “seat-back” actually works.

This is all happening during the conclusion of my second month of living in Korea. In my time here, I have been asked by soju-soggy men on the subway if I will be their English friend. I have been asked why I am so white. I have been surrounded by Korean schoolchildren who point and pluck at the hair on my legs. A middle-aged businesswoman has approached me with her sleeping baby in hand, pointing at her child’s face and repeating: “Teach English? Teach English?”

And until this moment, I have never experienced what people call “culture shock.” Great parents, a solid college education, and general open-mindedness have prepared me well in accepting cultural differences. But this catches me off guard; what transpires in front of me violates everything I’ve ever learned about nightlife culture.

David caught it on camera as it was happening:

But maybe it’s just this club, right? Surely, rest times cannot be a popular trend. After a few drinks at the bar, we head out in search of a change in scenery. We descend upon a club on a different street. Inside, we find a dance floor surrounded by chain link fences. A dance floor that is empty. Because everyone is sitting down. Because it is rest time.

Welcome to Korea, Mr. Snyder; here’s your obligatory serving of culture shock. Sorry it was late, the chef was really overworked tonight.

I’m not sure what’s funnier; my dramatic response to something as simple as seeing a crowd of people sit down and stand up simultaneously, or the fact that witnessing that event phased me more than what came immediately afterwards: bathing and sleeping in a Korean jimjil bang.

Jimjil bang is Korean for freezeyourentirebodyandthenboilituntil-
yourwholebodyistellingyouyou’reabouttobeburnedalivebefore-
doingitalloveragaintwentyfourhourspa. In short, it is awesome. You pay seven to ten bucks to be able to rest in pools of varying temperature. You can move back and forth among numerous different saunas. Then, you take a shower and get dressed in cultish looking clothes that are provided at the entrance. You are then permitted to enter a communal room where anyone can sleep on mats on the floor. At the particular jimjil bang we crashed at, there were cold rooms chilled to four degrees Celsius directly adjacent to the communal room. I spent a lot of time in that one.

Unfortunately, the sun was already rising by the time our party made it to the communal room, so we were only able to sleep for three or four hours before waking up to continue the road trip. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter–mainly because this is what we got to walk through on the second (and final) day of our road trip:

Boseong couldn’t be much more beautiful; its famed green tea plantations are incredibly calming, and I really don’t think my words could do any justice to the tremendous sense of peace imparted by that place. Throughout the day, we tried green tea gelatin, pigs that had been fed with green tea leaves, green tea soaps…we even hit up another jimjil bang, one that had a whole pool of bubbling, heated green tea for a nice twist on the usual spa experience.

Most people don’t get this much excitement out of their vacations. For me, this is the weekend. How did I get this lucky?

Times mistaken for Harry Potter on this trip: 1
Number of different green tea products consumed: 6
Approximate “rest periods” in clubs witnessed: 8

Escalation

If you had asked me a year ago what I saw myself doing in a year, I’m pretty sure “lying on a mat in the basement of a dojo in South Korea while a man pummels me in the stomach with a log” would probably be pretty low on the list. As it turns out, that’s just about precisely what I’m doing now. You know, in between the teaching and the adjustment to a new culture.

Ok, it’s not really a log; it’s a four-inch diameter, three-foot long cylindrical cut of smoothly sanded wood, but as I haven’t learned it’s technical name, “log” will have to suffice.

In one of my first weekends here, I had the good fortune of being introduced to Kristian, a friend of many of the teachers at my hagwon. Kristian is a Swedish-born engineer who hails from Spain, a world traveler whose current occupation has him working at a prominent firm in Seoul. He is a black belt in Kyokushin kaikan, a form of full-contact karate.

Kristian didn’t have too much trouble in convincing me to visit the local dojo a few times to see if I liked Kyokushin. It happened in the span of a five minute conversation. The setting: a big group of the teachers at my school was celebrating the departure of a teacher by taking a trip to sample the Seoul nightlife. In the early hours of the morning, we settle at a geology-inspired hookah bar in a tucked-away alley; we sit cross-legged in small artificial caves illuminated by neon green lights. The pitch: Kristian asked if I ever considered training in a martial art. I told him I was interested, that I figured Taekwondo or Hapkido seemed logical choices because they are both Korean martial arts. Kristian convinced me to try out Kyokushin, claiming it would be easier to pursue in Korea as a foreigner than either of the aforementioned Korean martial arts. And on top of that, there was actually another teacher at my school who was actually training at the Kyokushin dojo at the time. I am sold.

Having had no previous formal training in any martial art whatsoever, there’s a lot of basic things I have to learn during my first several weeks at the dojo. There’s the usual things like learning how to fold a dogi, the uniform of the Kyokushin practitioner; the rules of etiquette in a dojo; the basics of how to throw and take a punch.

And all of that learning is happening—gradually. But on the first day, Kristian let me spar with him, throwing punches and kicks at his body for a good twenty minutes. It was invigorating. It was also incredibly refreshing; swayed by a popular sentiment that currently deems any form of fighting that is not Brazilian Jiu-itsu or Muay Thai or another similarly “practical” martial art is inferior, I assumed that Kyokushin might be rooted in a lot of swinging at air, might not challenge me as strenuously as I had hoped.

I knew I had assumed wrong when I heard Kristian utter a word I recognized: kumite.

Kumite is sparring. It is where your training is put into practice. And for Kyokushin, that training mostly revolves around the study of how best to strike a standing opponent and bring that opponent to the ground.

What does that mean? Watching a fight is really the best way to illustrate the intensity of the martial art:

As you can see, there’s lots of pretty intense stuff to keep anyone’s interest. Kyokushin is a strike- and endurance-based martial art; the goal is to beat your opponent until he (or she; there’s a yellow belt at my dojo who has some wicked backspin kicks) falls to the mat. You’ll notice that many of the fights in the video don’t last too long; this is primarily due to one detail I haven’t mentioned yet: kicks to the head are legal.

Kicks to the head. Are legal.

Awesome.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a really interesting mental and philosophical side to martial arts I’m discovering as well, but for now, I’m still overcome by one thing: kicks to the head. Well, two things, really: kicks to the head, and the pain of being struck repeatedly in the stomach and chest with a log by the master of the dojo last Friday, a pain that made me think I had suffered internal organ damage when I walked into my classroom on Saturday and realized I was short of breath and dizzy.

Lesson learned: don’t get pummeled for the first time in your life on a Friday and then have a night out on the town until 6 in the morning. The combination of dehydration, exhaustion, and gold ole’ fashioned pain is a bit overwhelming.

Student Profile: ChokeSlam

No matter what kind of work I’m pursuing, I find I have an enduring interest in people and things that I associate with my first day on the job. Teaching in Korea has been no exception. The associations can be as significant as the kinds of memories that are created by meeting people for the first time, or they can be the most inane, minute details that just happen to engrain themselves into my brain for reasons unknown. I’m sure others who have been in comparable circumstances remember lasting impressions from their first day, even through the haze of jet lag and a complete change in diet.

My strongest first-day-lasting-impression was left by a student named ChokeSlam.

ChokeSlam was in a class that I would be taking over from a teacher who was leaving Korea to head home to America a week after I arrived. It so happened that all five of the students in the class needed to have impromptu speaking tests. They finished early, and the teacher decided to play a speaking game with them for the remaining ten minutes of class.

The game was Snake: one player tells a story, and when they say the word “snake,” the other players have to perform a physical gesture determined by the teacher. Whoever is last to perform the gesture is the next player who tells a story. The game requires spontaneity and improvisation in storytelling.

“Once upon a time,” one girl began, “there was a soccer player named…snake!” Immediately, the students in the class stood up and clapped their hands – the gesture determined by the teacher.

“Um, good job,” the teacher said to the student. “Everyone, from now on, let’s try to say at least four sentences before saying the word ‘snake.’” New rules were established. I didn’t know if the students were up to the task.

“Ok, ChokeSlam, you stood up last, so it is your turn to tell a story,” the teacher said.

ChokeSlam is twelve years old. He stands at about five-foot-two, and by Korean standards, he’s a little big-boned for his age. He often wears long t-shirts that advertise the devil-may-care swagger of adolescents from the late 90’s. In large, neon-colored fonts, they ask threatening questions like “Can you take the heat?” or “Do you smell what the Rock is cookin’?” I cannot recall what he was wearing on this day; my lasting impression comes from what he said.

“Once upon a time, there was a great wrestler named Shawn Michaels,” he began. “Shawn Michaels was known as the Heartbreak Kid. He was the greatest wrestler of his time. No one could beat him in the ring. He would…” ChokeSlam paused momentarily, counted how many sentences he had spoken. “Snake,” he said in the same deadpan, monotone voice he used when describing the main character of his story. The students jumped to perform whatever physical gesture the teacher had indicated.

As the game progressed, the students told all sorts of stories. However, they were all brief, self-contained anecdotes. One student sought something more. He sought to create a longer, more involved narrative. He was ChokeSlam.

“So, the Heartbreak Kid could be compared to the greatest wrestlers, like Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker,” ChokeSlam resumed when it was his turn again. “But the Heartbreak Kid was the greatest. He had a great record in the WWF. He would win many championships. One time, he…” ChokeSlam trailed off again, and his eyes looked to the ceiling as he began mouthing numbers in Korean to himself. The students’ leg muscles tightened in anticipation.

“Um, snake,” ChokeSlam muttered. The class jumped out of their chairs and put their hands on their head. The bell rang. Class was over.

It has now been a little over a month since that first day of observing classes, yet my memories of ChokeSlam remain. Of course, the fact that I get to teach him two times a week certainly helps; his antics did not stop after the first day. Last week, I was teaching the class the difference between facts and opinions, and given my history with debate and argument, I decided to assign homework that would cause the students to look at facts and opinions in a very rhetorical way. The assignment: write one opinion, and then write three facts that could be used to warrant that opinion.

Again, the class picked fairly basic topics. Opinion: Watching movies is fun. Opinion: Cats make the best pets. Opinion: Soccer is the best sport in the Olympics (all of Korea was going through “Olympic fever” at the time).

But not ChokeSlam. He was going to continue his narrative. Opinion: The Heartbreak Kid is the greatest wrestler who ever lived.” And ChokeSlam really wanted to persuade his readers. He offered not three, not four or five, but six facts in an attempt to convince readers of the veracity of his opinion, and he provided supporting illustrations to further demonstrate his point.

He does not relent. He does not give up. He will tell the saga of the Heartbreak Kid, for he is ChokeSlam, now and forever.