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Teaching English and Living in Korea

Take a Camp Job for a Month to Check it Out

The big step to move abroad to teach, live, travel and learn a new culture is a tricky one. One of the easiest places to start your adventure is South Korea. It is also a snap to land a teaching job in China, Japan, or Taiwan, but Korea is a good choice for a variety of reasons, and I think are they good ones. If you time it properly, you can take a month and see what you think of it before you make any commitments.

I recommend getting a job at one of the numerous camps that take place in Korea in the summer (mid-July to mid-August) or winter (unfortunately, many of these usually start on Dec. 29th and run to mid-February). The summer camps usually last a month, and if you do it right you can squeeze in two camps while you are there. Winter camps tend to last from two weeks up to a month. The good thing about summer is that the school session is about to start, so they are dying for teachers. You are in high demand.

Some of the positions don’t even require a university diploma but most of them do. Some want a TEFL Certificate, but I assure you it is not necessary. You can typically make anywhere from 2,500,000-3,000,000 won for a month- long camp. Do the calculation—it’s not too shabby (www.xe.com/ucc/). You will get free accommodation and food while you work at the camp. Be absolutely sure to ask questions about the accommodation- don’t take anything for granted! A friend of mine was stuck in the woods in a little cabin with no heat in the middle of winter.

Do not be fooled by offers that seem to good to be true. I applied for a job this past winter that advertised a salary on the high end plus flight reimbursement. Upon further clarification and adamant perseverance on my part I discovered that is was not at all a reimbursement but merely a deduction from my final salary. I wrote a feisty letter explaining the difference in semantics and declined the job. They changed their ad very shortly afterwards.

You really cannot be too careful. A lot of the camps are run by private companies and sometimes they will try to cheat you out of your final salary. Ask lots of questions and negotiate your salary—they need you.

As far as the winter camps go…well, you may have to celebrate New Year’s with a bunch of screaming kids but you will get paid more. The demand for teachers is much higher in winter as most people don’t want to give up their holidays and it is expensive to fly during that time. You can find lots of camp jobs and other longer term jobs on www.eslcafe.com, www.hiteacher.com, www.englishspectrum.com, www.eslemployment.com, and one of my favorites www.koreabridge.com/classifieds. Koreabridge breaks down jobs by location and includes a lot of other helpful information like language exchange, cultural classes, and apartments for rent. The other big benefit of getting a camp job first is that once you have it and start the job hunt many of the schools, hogwans, and language school will pay for you to fly to Japan to get a work visa. The camp jobs will allow you to get up to a 90-day temporary visa -- a good start but you will require a different visa in order to remain longer, as I will explain later.

Job Choices

For full time jobs the choices come down to these: public or private schools ranging from kindergarten to high school; hogwans, which are privately run institutions (money-making pits); and the coveted university jobs. One of the best things about working in Korea is that if you are careful in choosing your job you can get nice accommodations for free, allowing you to save a lot more money. The cost of living in Japan is outrageous; I know, I lived there for over three years and it is very rare to have free accommodations as part of the deal. In contrast, you can save heaps of money in Korea if you are not running wild in the streets of Seoul every weekend. Nearly all contracts are for a year, and if you work for a public school or university you will get long holidays. And while Korea doesn’t have that exotic ring like Japan or China, you will have a larger assortment of jobs to choose from.

The Country and the People

It is a lovely country despite the biting cold winters and sauna-like summers. The people are truly hospitable and extremely friendly. I have never had so many offers of help. One young gentleman helped my find my very well-hidden hotel at 2 a.m. Once when some friends and I were looking for a particular temple and our bus driver realized he had passed our stop and did what amounted to a 20-point turn on a very narrow mountain road so he could take us back to where we were meant to get off. Then some very friendly Koreans drove us in their car to the temple, which was a bit out of the way. I could go on and on, but on so many different occasions I have found Koreans to be unusually helpful and friendly.

Korea is very Christian. There are churches everywhere. This being the case, Korea leans towards the conservative side of things. You won’t see couples holding hands or even touching in public, but you will know they are a couple because many of them will be wearing matching gear of some sort. “Couple” sets are extremely popular in Korea.

Such idiosyncrasies aside, Seoul is a great city and extremely easy place to get around on your own. If you need a good place to stay (clean and cheap), I recommend Seoul Backpackers (www.seoulbackpackers.com). It is in a great location and there is an easy to understand map on their website. There is also a great little inn adjacent to the Seoul Backpackers run by a very sweet lady. It runs about $25 a night, but you have your own room, cable TV, free Internet access, and a little kitchen stocked with goodies that you are welcome to help yourself to. It is worth the extra cash.

God love the infrastructure that came with the Olympics. All the subway lines have signs in English and there are tourist information offices in the major subway stations like Gangnam and Itaewon.

Once you are outside of the big cities Korea is still very agricultural. My first trip to Korea started with my flying into Seoul and hopping on a bus that took me four hours across what I thought was another planet -- just rice paddies and agricultural land all around. At first you will definitely feel a little out of place. Don’t let that worry you though; as I said, Koreans are extremely friendly and will try to help you even if they can’t speak a word of English.

One other good thing is the buses. Most Koreans travel by bus and they are very cheap. For long-distance travel you could opt for the more expensive express train (KTX); it is convenient but there are nearly always buses leaving in fairly short intervals. Watch out for the names. Many cities have nearly identical names and are often spelled in multiple ways due to letter mixing of b’s, d’s, and accents. You could end up someplace that sounds the same and is even spelled the same but is not where you meant to be. Don’t be fooled by thinking that just because you showed the smiling ticket lady the map she would put you on the right bus. Looks can be deceiving.

Upon arriving in a new and completely unfamiliar place you have to go into tourist information office and ask with a meek smile “What town am I in?” The woman behind the counter will answer with a smile. You then discover you are hundreds of kilometers away from your intended destination. Hmmm, what is there to do around here?

There are a lot of great places to hike in Korea, and since it only takes about seven hours to get from the top to the bottom of Korea, all are relatively easy to access. One of the most famous national parks is Seoraksan and it is well worth the trip to get there. It is absolutely beautiful and the hiking is great. I wouldn’t recommend going on a weekend as it will be chock full of people and that will detract from the natural beauty and serenity that could be yours if your time it right. There are many great national parks scattered around South Korea and it is a great way to get out of the city, get some exercise, and enjoy all that nature has to offer.

Korean Food

Korean food sometimes gets a bad rap, but I think it is because there is a lot of fast food done Korean style that is not so great. These little mom and pop restaurants can be found just about anywhere and have pretty much a set fare menu. They offer cheap, quick, and fairly tasty meals.

Real traditional Korean food is absolutely great. The best food I had in Korea was when I went with Koreans or people who had been there for a while and had worked it out. It takes a little time and effort to find it, but when you do you will leave smiling with a belly-full of goodness.

One of my favorite dishes is Samgye-tang, a lovely soup with an entire chicken in it that is stuffed with rice, chestnuts, and flavored with ginseng. It is a hearty and satisfying meal. Another tasty treat is bulgogi, thinly sliced beef often simmered with various mushrooms, onions with a slightly sweet flavor. Korea is renowned for its barbeque. Don’t be surprised when you are handed a pair of scissors at the table to cut the meat up into bite-size bits. You also get scissors with various noodle dishes so you can chop them up into manageable bite-sized mouthfuls. Also, be prepared for the various forms of kimchi. It is true that Koreans have it with every meal. It does take a little getting used to but one can actually come to enjoy that fermented cabbage and red chili paste taste. But maybe not for breakfast.

It can be tough finding restaurants that have English menus, which will make eating out very frustrating unless you opt for McDonald’s or KFC. It will be worth the effort to immediately learn how to read the Korean script called Han-gul. Nearly all menus are in this script (www.omniglot.com/writing/korean.htm).

Short-Term Visa (Camps Only C-4)

It is important to understand the rules of the visa. Unfortunately, it seems they are always changing. Each embassy has its own way of doing things. I was in Korea this winter and got my visa at the Korean Embassy here in Bangkok. I phoned up to find out exactly what paperwork I needed to get my visa and was told by the very friendly lady that I needed my original diploma, paperwork from my prospective employer, and the equivalent of $40. I had heard that we also needed original transcripts took them just in case. I arrived at the embassy and noticed first that the guy in front of me was being denied his visa because he didn’t have original transcripts with him. He too had phoned and even come by a month earlier just to “make sure” only to be denied his visa at the last moment. Another friend from Ireland got his visa in the same office and was sent to the Irish Embassy to get his diploma stamped which meant authenticated for the whopping fee of 50 pounds plus the additional visa processing fee. I did my best to smile and put my paperwork in order and hoped for the best. The nice lady processed my paperwork and said in a whisper, “Next time make sure these are sealed” and pointed to my opened transcripts. At the same time the unfortunate guy who had gone before me was trying to get the supervisor on the phone to plead his case. As he was screaming and cursing I am fairly certain that he was denied his visa. It never pays to yell at someone who could help you if they wanted to. Also, yelling at a Korean is never going to get you what you want. Smiling and asking nicely and even letting them give you a good talking to for something or another and apologizing is a far better course of action and more likely to get you what you need.

For camps you will need an E-2 visa. Once you have all the required paperwork you can pop into the embassy or consulate nearest you and should have your visa in three business days. The only problem is these camps they are notorious procrastinators and you may well find your self begging at the embassy door trying to explain that you just got the documents and that you have already purchased your airline ticket. My best advice is start looking for the camp jobs early, and after you get one you think looks good bug the crap out of them to get you the paperwork. It may work. I have been very pesky in the past and still did not get the paperwork till Christmas Day and spent the entire day in the embassy. They don’t celebrate Christmas in Japan so for them it was just another day.

You will have to pay the cost of the visa yourself and it varies by country but usually runs about $30 to $50. You can request up to 90 days, but depending on the mood of the person issuing your visa you may get exactly what you need or a bit more. Always ask for 90 and see what you get. In the past if your visa was long enough you could fit in two camps (usually just summer because the school break is longer) but it has all gotten a bit sticky in the past year. It all depends on if they write the name of your camp on the visa you receive. For example, at the Tokyo consulate they always do this but in Osaka they do not. You can work more than one camp if your visa is from Osaka and not Tokyo. Unless of course this changes. Again, each embassy/consulate does it differently. There is no actual information in black and white about this. Some people have had to fly to Japan at their own expense because their visa had the camp name on it. Immigration is tough on these camps as they are usually run by private organizations and are seen to be elitist, as only rich kids get the chance to attend them. They have been known to “raid” the camps, and if the paperwork is not in order some poor souls have been ordered to leave the country and the camp can be fined heavily.

Long-Term Work Visa (E-2 Visa)

Once you land a longer contract and get your visa (outside the country) there are some things you should be aware of. Your visa is tied to the company you work for -- think of it as an umbilical cord. If you change jobs you have to get an entirely new visa, which means a trip to Japan. You are restricted from working additional jobs without the permission, in writing, from your parent company. They are strict about this. You can easily get another visa if you change jobs but you may have to pay for your flight. The good thing is flights are cheap and they may even pick up the tab. It depends on how badly they need you. Always negotiate. They will always initially say no, but be stern and they will come around. Business is business and they have a lot more money then you do. Koreans have taken to capitalism and they can be quite ruthless when it comes to money and profit.

Don’t let any of this deter you. You can make a nice chunk of money but just be a little careful. If you don’t want to stick around Korea you’ll have a few grand in your hands and can travel in South East Asia for a while on that. All in all, Korea is a good place to live, travel, and work.