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My Korean TV Debut

9 Jun

Whilst downtown one Sunday in February with some friends, nursing a hangover and having lunch in Travelers, a Korean TV programme broadcast on SBS asked us if we would mind being filmed as part of the show…

The programme is about unusual and interesting Koreans, and that week it was about a 76-year-old ajumma (old woman) who left school at 12 and has since taught herself English. All we had to do was chat to her for 5 minutes in English then give our reactions to her speaking ability, all scripted of course. And before we knew it, we had made it on to Korean TV!

Being the shy, introverted person that I am, I told all the teachers and students at school about my starring role and told them all to watch the show at 8pm on Thursday. The kids were all suitably impressed with the new ‘celeb status’ of their teacher, but surprisingly they declined my offer of an autograph…

Chocolate eggs no more

25 May

Since I was almost at the legal drinking age, and the chocolate eggs were no more, Easter Sunday meant bank holiday Monday, and therefore you could find me ‘religiously’ sitting in a beer garden with my friends, enjoying a drink or two… But not this year! Easter Sunday started with a 6am rise to make it to downtown to the 10k start line.

Posing for a photo with some ‘fans’ after the race

It was HOT, and despite my training, I can assure you no personal best was recorded! Done by 9.30am, me and my cousin headed back to my apartment to paint our boiled eggs and head up Palgongsan* (Daegu’s biggest mountain) to roll them down.

Ready for the mountain!

This was not the sole reason for going up the mountain. I had been wanting to visit Donghwasa Temple for a while. I’d heard about the large standing buddha, and along with the many colourful lanterns decorating the temple in preparation for Buddha’s birthday at the end May, we weren’t disappointed.

BIG Buddha at Donghwasa Temple

A monk on a bike!

Lanterns decorate the temple for Buddha’s birthday


I have a weird fascination with the eves of temples….

*How to get to Palgongsan: Take the red subway line to Ayanggyo, then take the number 1 bus. It should cost about 1,200 won, and after about 40 minutes Palgongsan is the last stop.

Gies a joab!

13 May

English translation: ‘Give me a job’

Me with the Kindergarten

Since I’ve been in Korea a number of friends from home have asked me how I went about getting a job in South Korea and each time I find myself copying and pasting the same links into an email with the same chat. So I thought if I write a wee blog post, I can direct folk to that instead of getting repetitive strain injury from typing the same speel each time.

Basic requirements
You must have a degree (in any field) and be from one of these 7 recognised native English speaking countries: UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada and South Africa. When you arrive in Korea you’ll have a full medical including blood and urine tests and if you have HIV or any trace of illegal drugs in your system you’ll be on the first plane home at your own expense.

Although not compulsory to get a teaching job abroad, having NO teaching experience whatsoever, I found my TEFL course really useful as a starters guide to things like lesson planning and class control. I did the 100 hour online and in-class course with TEFL Scotland, and if you’re lucky enough to be Scottish, you can apply for an Individual Learning Account (ILA) to pay for most of it. Win.

South Korea v  Japan
When I was deciding where to go, I narrowed it down to Japan and South Korea, based on standard of living, potential money earned and benefits with the job. You make more money in Japan but the cost of living is super expensive so you come home with about the same at the end of the day. Not that i’m biased, but here’s a good blog post that weighs up the pros and cons of both countries.

Lucky for me, my friend Ellen had already been working in Korea for 6 months, so she pointed me in the right direction. There are a lot of good recruiting companies that can help you get placed, and upon Ellen’s recommendation I registered with  Flying Cows. They were great through the whole process, from my initial application to my arrival in Korea, and I know a fair few people over here that have used them as well with good reviews.

Public v Private
From there, ESL Starter contacted me about applying for EPIK – the public school programme. And this was the initial route I went down.

Benefits of public school: Extensive training/ orientation, less teaching hours, more vacation, job security.
Downsides: 30-40 kids in a class, less money than private, no say in your location.

To cut a long story short I was rejected from that programme about a month before I was due to leave the country, after which ESL Starter dropped me like a hotcake. Cheers. But not one to be put off so easily, I got back in touch with Flying Cows and they arranged telephone interviews with several private schools (hagwons). And within a few weeks I had been offered several jobs and accepted one at a private English academy in Daegu.

Benefits of private schools: generally more money than public, max 12 students per class, choose your city/area, work alongside other foreign teachers.
Downsides: little or no training, only 10 days vacation, more teaching hours, lots of dodgy hagwons out there.

On a field trip to a sweet potato farm with the kindergarten

I just want to point out that private schools are a much bigger gamble than public. A quick search online and you’ll come across an abundance of horror stories about hagwons mistreating foreign teachers. But for every disreputable hagwon out there, there are a dozen decent ones. The best advice I can give you, if you decide to go down the hagwon route, is to speak with the current foreign teacher at the school and ask them any and all the questions you can think of, and if that doesn’t put your mind at rest, then go with your gut and decline the job.

As well as dodgy hagwons, there are several dodgy recruitment agencies too, who don’t give a hoot about your preferences or what school you’re placed in, all they care about is the placement fee. So be wary, use your head. I registered with several agencies to begin with to keep my options open, then I narrowed it down when the interviews and job offers were coming through (this is when you can tell which companies actually listen to you and try their best to match your preferences).

A few other reputable agencies off the top of my head are, AclipseKorvia and Korean Horizons. Although I don’t have any personal experience with them, I know people who have had good experiences with them and they all have excellent information on any given topic about South Korea and teaching abroad.

So, you’ve accepted a teaching position, now your faced with the epic task of gathering all your documents to apply for your working Visa. This is not for the faint hearted.

Documents needed:

  • Degree certificates (notarised and apostilled) – anything from £30-£60 a document
  • Criminal Record Check/ Disclosure Scotland – £20 (notorised and apostilled) – an extra £30-£60
  • School contract – signed copy
  • Health Statement – signed copy
  • 2 x passport photos

(This is only for private schools, you need more documents for public!)

Now for the most important part, the mulla!
You don’t need any savings to teach abroad, except enough to see you through to your first pay check. The school will pay your return flights and also your accommodation for the length of your contract. The only money I spent before hand was on getting the visa documents ready (about £200) and my vaccinations (rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis B, Polio, Diphtheria and Tetanus £300) most of which I didn’t even need! My monthly salary is 2.1 million won (£1,100 approx) and from that I can easily save about 1.4 million won a month. It’s easy to live cheaply in Korea.

It may seem like a laborious process, but it’s worth it in the end. If you are like me and you want to travel but lack the funds, this is the ideal solution! So get your finger out and get practicing your chopstick skills!

Blue and white army!

18 Mar

Teams: Daegu FC v Incheon United
Stadium: Daegu Stadium (Capacity: 66, 442, today’s crowd: around 5,000)
Admission: 5,000 won (about £3)

On the same day as my home team Kilmarnock FC play Celtic in the Scottish Communities League Cup final at Hampden, I went to my first Korean fitba match. I’m gutted I can’t be at Hampden today to support the boys but I know they’ll do me proud! So my first trip to watch Daegu FC was a very small consolation.


Daegu Stadium in the sun

Today was Daegu’s 3rd match of the season against Incheon United (a city near Seoul where Korea’s main airport is situated). Daegu have got off to a decent start drawing their first game at home 1 a piece with FC Seoul. Having only formed in 2002, they can be forgiven for not having any major successes. But the fact that they play in the same colours as Kilmarnock is good enough for me!


Daegu FC strip

To give the football fans a bit of background on the K-League – there are 16 teams that play each other twice between March and November. The top six teams at the end of the regular season have playoffs to decide the champions and the final standings for the season. As it is the only professional league in South Korea there is no official promotion or relegation system… strange huh?

Daegu FC play between two stadiums, but today they were at Daegu Stadium – an impressive stadium at that. It holds around 66,000 and is the third biggest stadium in Korea. Built in 2001, it was one of the stadiums used in the 2002 World Cup and was most recently used for the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Athletics which were televised in the UK last August/ September.


The mascot from the 2011 IAAF World Championships

Back to the game, having three Brazilians in the team, I expected some sexy soccer from Daegu FC, but if I’m honest the standard of football I saw today was on a par with the SPL. There’s not much more I can say about that. Nonetheless, Daegu won the game 1-0, scoring in the 35th minute. They deserved to get a goal in the first half, as they were the more dominant team and created the most chances, but in the second half I was surprised Incheon didn’t get a goal. They came out and playing a more attacking game and Daegu were forced to defend instead of creating more chances. But at the end of the day, a win’s a win, and my team won!

It was a fun, cheap day out helped by the spring sunshine. I got to watch the match in my t-shirt and sunglasses – which is how you should watch football – not hunched over trying to shelter yourself from horizontal rain and trying to avoid getting piles! My ticket cost me 5,000 (about £3) and I spent 3,000 (£2) buying some half-time scran – I have to admit though, it wasn’t a patch on a Killie pie!


Half time scran - Kimbap

Wakey wakey!

17 Mar

I had hoped that I might get invited to a wedding whilst in Korea, but never did I think I’d be asked to a wake…

Thankfully it was no one I knew directly, but the father of my favourite Korean teacher, Lynn. I was told he had been ill and bed-ridden for some 20 years so his passing came as a blessing to the family. And as seems to be the way in Korea, everyone and their granny is invited!

I got a phone call late on the Friday night from my vice director at the school who told me the news and asked myself and the other foreign teacher if we would accompany them to the funeral tomorrow (Saturday) – what do you say to that? Another phone call on saturday morning informed us that it’s custom to give MONEY at a funeral – 30,000 won as standard – which is near enough 20 quid! So before we knew it, we were dressed in black and on our way to the hospital to pay our respects, not quite knowing what to expect, but hoping the buffet would be worth the money.

My kids: Joey, Lucy and Jemma in their Hanboks for the Lunar New Year

I didn’t know this until afterwards, but the family are Buddhists, which is quite uncommon in Korea. But that meant the whole affair wasn’t as morbid as it might have been if they had been Christian. Following the directors’ lead, we were lead into a room which had a shrine to the deceased, as the family stood at the side dressed in black hanboks (traditional Korean dress – see the photo above for an idea). We bowed twice to a photo of the departed and once to the family. After that we were ushered to a table, told to sit on the ground, ate squid and seaweed, drank beer and had a good ol’ natter. Overall a more pleasant afternoon out than I had anticipated.

It turns out i’m pretty handy with a 9mm

19 Jan

Well that’s the festivities over for another year, just in time for the Lunar (Chinese) New Year this weekend, and a long weekend at that – cheers Korea!

Around a quarter of Koreans are Christian, so Christmas isn’t  as big as it is in the Western world, it’s mainly for small kids and couples. So if it wasn’t for Christmas day falling on a Sunday this year I have no doubt I would be working it. We did get 4 days off over New Year which was nice.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard being away from family and friends over the holidays, but I was lucky to have the boyfriend over from Ireland for 3 weeks, and it was great to have someone new to show them the sights and do touristy things with.

Skyping the Family on Christmas day: My great aunt, my aunt, my wee cousin and my nephew

On the first day of vacation (it kills me that this Americanism has crept into my everyday vocabulary – if I say it back in Scotland someone please hit me) we went to Spa Elybaden (we got the subway to Wolchon on the red line and then used the map in the Daegu Compass to direct the taxi driver to it). It’s not your typical relaxing spa, but more like a water park, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking to chill out! It cost around 9,000 won each (about £5) and that was access all areas. We were given electronic wristbands and these could be used to hire inflatable rings and floats for the water, to hire swim caps and goggles and also for the cafe – it was a handy way to get around the place.

Practising my aim at the Daegu Shooting Range

During the day on New Years Eve we went to the Daegu Shooting Range, more for the boy than me, but I was happy enough to tag along. It’s in the Chilgok area of Daegu, which is a few miles North of the city so we had to take a taxi which cost about 10,000 won I think (£5.50). At the shooting range you could have a shot at clay pigeon shooting, rifles and hand guns. And for 28,000 won (£15) we tried all three – under the instruction and supervision of the professionals! The clay pigeon shooting was scarier than I thought – the force of the shotgun on your shoulder when it fires the capsules can be sore if you’re not holding the gun properly – which I wasn’t! So the boy won that round – I think he hit about 3 to my zero.

The hand guns were also quite scary (i’m just a big fearty really), but after some pointers from the expert it turns out I’m pretty handy with a 9mm and I hit 70/100 compared to the boy’s 48/100. I liked the rifles the most, you could have a seat whilst firing them and they were gas operated so they hardly made a sound – the gun for fearties.

The boy and the view at the top of Mt. Palgong

A few days after new year, we went up Mt Palgong, or Palgongsan as it’s known in Korea (San means mountain). It’s the biggest and most popular mountain in Daegu, and it’s about a 30 minute bus ride to get to it. I’ve heard varying reports about the time it takes to climb it, so not wanting to mess about, we took the cable car straight to the top! The views are nice (mostly just other hills), but I’ve seen better views from Ben Nevis. I think come the spring I might go back and climb it and visit some of the temples. I’d read about the ‘Love road’ on Mt. Palgong and was curious to see it. I think you’re meant to padlock two love hearts together (to represent a couple) and throw the key into the tigers mouth. If it doesn’t bite your hand as you do it, your love will last forever… apparently. Needless to say, we didn’t do it, but it was a quirky wee road nonetheless.

Woobang Tower Land
. If you haven’t been don’t bother. I used to work at a less than good theme park in Scotland (not M&Ds, the other one) and Woobang Tower Land was no better than that. For the all-inclusive price of 28,000 won (around £15) we got access to all of three mediocre roller coasters and a handful of other rides. we were there for about two and a half hours and we were bored. It was also fairly quiet, so we didn’t even waste time queuing. Some of the views across Daegu from the roller coasters were impressive, and the park itself takes its name after the Woobang Tower which is right next to it. Apparently it’s the highest tower in Asia, at 202 metres, but I’m not convinced. You can jump off it for about £20 but that’s for another day!

Me and the Woobang Tower

Pizza in a cup!

12 Dec

I’ve been in Korea almost three months now and I’ve witnessed some good, some bad and some down right ugly ‘cultural differences’…

I’ll start with ‘The Good’:

– Rock, Paper, Scissors settles EVERYTHING in Korea. From disputes in the playground to who’s doing the dishes after dinner, I’m sure even political elections and wars are settled in this way. Every country should try this ‘chance-democracy’.

– Koreans ALWAYS share their food. No matter what it is or how little they have , they will offer it around. The school kids are constantly throwing snacks at me and i’m not complaining.

– Pizza in a cup. There are all sorts of food stalls on any given street in Korea selling cheap food from anything like tubs of potatoes and kebabs to cups of bugs and hotdogs in cups. A pizza in a cup is one of these options – tasty AND practical, what more do you need?

Pizza in a cup

– Tesco is in Korea! Under the pseudonym of Homeplus that is. I can get Shredded wheat, Coco Pops, Kitkats, Campbells Soup, plum tomatoes, shortbread, Capri-suns and Lurpak! I just wish I could get some square sausage and tattie scones…

– McDonald’s deliever! I know, I know, it’s making a bad social epidemic worse – but you’ve gotta cater for your market!

McDonalds Delivery Service

– Generally you don’t put toilet paper down the toilet. It takes a bit of getting used to, to break a life long habit, but it saves on the horrible sewage plants and ruining beaches like you see in the UK.

– Tipping isn’t customary. And neither it should be. Result!

The Bad:

– Motorbikes ride on the pavements here. Mental I know.

– Running a red light is the norm/ jaywalking is not. Not good for the impatient road crossers among us.

– 90% of Koreans wear dust masks. They have been scared shitless by the government about air borne killers such as SAARS and bird flu. My pet hate is when the kids wear them in the classroom. However, they also wear them when they have colds to stop spreading the germs – which I thought that was very considerate of them.

Dust masks

– It’s not custom to pour your own drink. It’s considered impolite. Not good for people who drink like a fish.

– It is impossible to buy a single piece of fruit. I.e. no less than 15 tangerines or 10 bananas. I tend to eat about 5 and then they go off – what a waste.

– Deodorant in the form of an aerosol is hard to find and expensive when you do. Annoying to say the least.

– It’s impossible to find reasonable priced bedding. Why? I don’t know.

The Ugly:

– It’s normal to gob in the street. WTF right? It’s not uncommon to see a 80-year-old ajumma (old woman) spit out her phlegm whilst strolling past.

– Corporal punishment is still widely used in schools here. I was completely gobsmacked when I first realised this. I have to admit though it keeps the kids in line, you won’t see a Korean kid swearing at a teacher or throwing a chair at them.

– Koreans eat dog meat. Yes it’s true. It’s not as popular as I was first led to believe, but it does happen. In recent years there has been some attempts by the government to shut down the boshingtang (dog meat soup) restaurants, in order to improve the country’s “international image.”

I’ll continue to add to this list as and when I come across them – no doubt there will be many more in the months ahead. Also, foreigners in Korea – please feel free to add your own!