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On Being an EPIK Ex-pat

Teaching English in South Korea

Kumsan Ginseng Festival
At the Kumsan Ginseng Festival in South Korea

For anyone considering teaching English in South Korea, one option is the EPIK program, a government-sponsored program that recruits native English-speakers from English-speaking countries to teach on a 1-year contract. (The contract is renewable up to 3 years). The required bachelor’s degree need not be in English or Education, nor is previous teaching experience required; however, if you have these qualifications, it may make your experience smoother.

Applying

To complete the application process, I had to apply at the nearest Korean Embassy, which for me, was in Los Angeles. I was interviewed by a middle-aged Korean government worker who spoke limited English, and seemed so pleased with my B.A. degree from UCLA and 1-year substitute teaching experience, that the interview was more a formality than a hard interview. He also interviewed me with his shoes off—not to imply that the process was unprofessional or this government worker was unprofessional. In Korea, the custom indoors of a house, or even school, and sometimes the office, is to remove one’s outdoor shoes, and don slippers.

The Program

The program consists of co-teaching at designated schools in the municipality you are assigned to, as well teaching English workshops to Korean English teachers of the municipality. At the time I participated, the pay was about 25 million won a year, which was a little more than two million won a month, plus a rent-free furnished apartment. Two million won is a little less than $2,000. Considering the cost of living in Korea, this was comfortable.

The Orientation

The contract begins with a 10-day orientation at a remote conference site. I attended workshops, ate cafeteria meals, and took short trips with 60 other native speakers who had been hired from the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. The workshops were crash-course training in teaching English in Korea. The orientation was an opportunity to form friendships that made the rest of my year in Korea more fun. I visited my orientation friends throughout the year and we sometimes took vacations together. My orientation consisted of a good number of second generation Koreans from America, Australia, and Canada. My orientation also included a college undergraduate who had doctored his application to get into the program, causing one meal to be interrupted by the EPIK officials taking him away and deporting him back to America. There was also a Canadian whose odd behavior prompted suspicion among many, who upon further investigation, concluded he may have been running from Canadian law. The matter was brought to the attention of the EPIK administrators who then took it into their hands to investigate further.

At the end of the orientation we were given our assignments and we were told in which town we would be living. I was given my second choice: Kumsan, a rural town in the Chung-Cho-Nam-Do province, three hours south of Seoul. Being from Los Angeles, I feared what the accommodations might be like in the Korean countryside. I have no regrets now; my experience changed my whole perspective.

Following the orientation, there was a 3-day orientation in Taejun, the major city of the Chung-Cho-Nam-Do province, attended by all recruits placed in this province. We were put up in a hotel, treated to restaurant meals, meetings with education officials, and more workshops. There were seven of us at this orientation. Finally, we were taken to our home for the next year. In the town to which we were assigned, we met the officials at the education office, then our host teacher. From this point on, individual experiences vary greatly.

Housing

The housing varies. My apartment was a 1-bedroom on the second-floor of a 3-story building at the edge of the town. It was furnished with a dining table, chairs, bed, wardrobe closet, blankets, dishware, pots, and had a bathroom and kitchen. It was about 200 square feet. The heater worked by heating the floor; it could get very warm during the cold winter in that little space. The bathroom had a toilet, sink, mirror, and washing machine, but no separate shower space; a shower hook was attached to the wall, and a removable shower head hung from it. The water would wash through the drain in the middle of the tiled bathroom floor. It was definitely the most maximized use of space I had seen. There was hot water, decent water pressure, and the bathroom was very easy to clean. The washing machine featured a unique design; it had a plastic squeezer contraption which would squeeze my clothes so efficiently as to make them almost dry when I removed it from the washer. After one night of hanging on the clothes drying rack in my apartment, my clothes would get completely dry. For drying blankets, I hung them on a clothes line on the roof of my apartment. Make no mistake, this was country living.

The Teachers

The host teacher is a Korean English teacher. Some host teachers volunteer to their supervisors to do this duty, while others are assigned to it begrudgingly. My host teacher commuted from Taejun, a 1 hour drive every morning and evening. She had a full schedule of classes and wanted to do the bare minimum in assisting me. She also spoke very limited English and many times seemed to pretend to understand me, all the while frustrated by the pressure of saving face among her peers due to her inability to understand a native English speaker. I quickly learned to speak to her only when I had to. If you go to a foreign country to teach English, one thing you need to accept right off is that you will not change their cultural mores and attitudes: it is ignorant and naïve to think you can and it is arrogant to think you should.

I fell into the company of teachers who were more welcoming. An art teacher at a school where I co-taught invited me to a teacher’s union meeting, which met every Thursday night in Kumsan. The teacher’s union in Korea is made up of the more politically active, whose members were part of the pro-democratic protests of 1988-89, or supported them. They believe in labor laws, a peaceful reunification of the two Koreas, and education reform. Every Thursday they held a meeting with the administrators of the education office. Afterward, they would socialize over dinner and drinking; this was the part they invited me to. The first night I met them, we drank soju (a rice whiskey), ate three-layered pork, barbecued at the table, dipped in hot red bean paste, sesame oil and salt, and wrapped in lettuce with green onions and garlic. They discussed education reform and politics. After eating, a teacher, to strengthen his point, recited a national poem. Another followed by singing an old folk song. It had the beatnik aura of bohemianism I used to read about in Jack Kerouac novels of people desiring a revolution or a major social change. Their passion was infectious. The group invited me to many outings throughout my stay in Korea. An elementary school teacher in the group who had studied English for a few years in Ohio did much of the translation for me.

The Students

The cultural attitude toward teachers in Korea is one of respect, and students will oftentimes bow to teachers in the hallway. If you find yourself having to pull teeth in a classroom to get students to speak, try a different method. I used group activities in which students could participate non-verbally, and where verbal participation was gradually built up through 1-word answers before becoming complete phrases. The better my teaching experiences went, the less frustration I felt.

Teaching in Korea can be a wonderful experience. Being a spa-junky, I loved my jogs to the Ginseng Hotel where I would soak in the public bath’s ginseng spa. (Public baths are common in Korea and separated by gender.) I ate delicious meals at charming restaurants dotted along the countryside. There was a coffeehouse where I would enjoy various teas in a cottage resembling a mushroom, wallpapered inside with American classic rock album covers. Then there were the people: the teachers from English-speaking countries, most at a turning point in their lives either wanting a change from their current work, or from no work, or looking to reconnect to their parents’ motherland. And there were the local people: the Korean English teachers who wanted to spend time with native English speakers to practice their English and understand American culture; for many of them it’s a culture they know only through movies, books, and articles. And the people, amidst the chance, circumstance, and change, you may find friends in, which can make the experience of teaching English in Korea also an experience in living and learning.

For More Information see their English Program in Korea (EPIK) Facebook page or the EPIK website.