Tag Archives: South Korea

Where have the last 9 months gone?

28 Jun

Snowboarding at High1 Resort, Korea, December 2011

I remember arriving in Korea last September scared and anxious, sad to leave my family and  friends back home, hoping I’d like it enough to stay the year.

Well I can now honestly say it was better than I could have ever anticipated! I met amazing people, I tried new things, I went on lots of adventures and most importantly to me, I learned to adapt in a country entirely different to Scotland. I taught English to children, even though I’d never taught a class before in my life, I made friends with people who don’t speak the same language, I tried so much new food to remember and I even learned to read Korean!

I’ve had lots of ‘firsts’: my first taekwondo class, my first baseball game, my first time on a snowboard, my first time at a shooting range, my first taste of roller derby and my first sailing lesson. I reckon I’m the first ‘Derval lassie’ to visit North Korea, I went to a Buddhist funeral and  I appeared on Korean TV. I ran a 10k race in a different continent and I was lucky to have 3 people come visit me whilst I was in Korea. I learned how to converse with the crazy Korean taxi drivers, I can order 600 grams of pork at a Korean bbq. I’ve tried roasted silk worms, chicken feet and pigs lungs, but sadly no dog. And even though my time in Korea was cut short and I didn’t get to do all the things I wanted to do (I was going to see the Stone Roses at a Korean music festival, cake myself in mud at Mudfest, jump off a tower and lie on the famous white beach in the Philippines) I’m grateful for every new friend I made in Korea, every new experience I had and everything I’ve learned in the past 9 months. I can confidently say I gave it my all.

Sailing course in Busan, May 2012

So I’ve been back home in Scotland for 5 days now and I’m about to embark on a new ‘adventure’. Sure cancer is terrifying, I might loose my hair and I might not be able to have kids, but trying to think positively, it’ll be interesting to see what I’ll learn about myself and how I’ll view the world differently when I come out the other end.

Wish me luck!

My Virtual Wedding

16 May

Teaching abroad for a year, I was gutted that I couldn’t make it home for one of my best friend’s weddings on Sunday. But with technology these days and the best friends ever, I was still able to be a part of the wedding day celebrations.

Thank you Skype!

Check out my virtual take on Mr and Mrs Alexander’s Big Day: My Virtual Wedding

Me and the Newlyweds

Here’s to the newlyweds!

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!

The day I went to North Korea

18 Apr

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea and how little the rest of the world know about it. I’m both fascinated and saddened by what I read, and since coming to South Korea my curiosity has only increased.

A South Korean soldier keeps watch over North Korea

Having done some research before I left Scotland, I knew that you could only visit the North as part of an expensive organised tour where you had to be accompanied by a government official the whole time (except when in your hotel room) and the tour guide only told you what they wanted to tell you. This option didn’t appeal to me. The only other way you can visit North Korea is by going to the Joint Security Area (JSA), or Panmunjon as it’s also known.

Hanging out at the DMZ


The JSA is the jointly controlled truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. The DMZ is a strip of land that runs across the whole 160 mile (25okm) breadth of the Koreas. At 2.5 miles (4km) wide, it  acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea and it has been in place since the cease-fire in 1953. Technically the countries are still at war since no peace treaty was ever signed, which is why it is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Exciting stuff.

The Tour

After much deliberation in deciding which tour to do, I booked the combined tour run by TourDMZ for myself, my cousin, and two friends, and at 120,000 won (about £70) for a full day tour – it was well worth the money! The  tour  included the 3rd infiltration tunnel, the Dora Observatory, Dorasan Train Station, Imjingak (Freedom bridge), the JSA and the Bridge of No Return’…. and not forgetting the lovely Laura – our English speaking tour guide. She was a cracker!

Point to note: you need to book 4 days advance incase your nationality is on the restricted list and additional background checks are needed.
Continue reading

How high?

27 Feb

Warning: Serious post

First of all apologies for the seriousness of this post,  but this week I’ve set one of my classes a homework topic about teen suicide, and it got me thinking about the issue that affects so many teens in Korea. Teen suicide rates in South Korea are amongst the highest in the world and it is the leading cause of death in 15-24 years olds in Korea. (www.voicesofyouth.org)

One of my classes where learning is still fun

Academic pressure

South Korean children are under the utmost pressure at all times to achieve academic excellence. This is without doubt the main factor in teen suicide. It’s hard to convey just how much pressure these students are under. They are at school almost 12 hours a day, if not at public school, then they are at one of the various private academies (hagwons) that their parents have saved their whole lives to send them to. Be it English, maths, science, piano or taekwondo – Korean children rarely get any free time to be children.

Just last month, a student at a near-by school, who was also a student of my friend, took his own life by jumping in front of a subway train.The school that I work at isn’t much better in terms of the extreme workload and pressure to ‘be the best’. Thankfully I’ve not known any kid at my school to take such drastic action either recently nor before my time. But the school’s high levels of expectations, being rushed through levels, and allowing the parents to decide what’s best for their children, doesn’t help matters, nor does it ease the pressure put on these kids.

The strive for a flawless appearance
The ul-jjang culture is another leading factor. I’ve never known any country to be as vain and to put as much emphasis on appearance as the South Koreans. These days, the media is to mainly blame for the unrealistic image of what is beautiful in many societies, Korea has taken it one step further and fully judges a person based on appearance. It is obsessed. The strive for a flawless appearance is constant. It’s common for many teenagers to  get cosmetic surgery as a reward for doing well at school. And if you’re not a size 6 then you can forget about it. It doesn’t help that women are second class citizens here and men have unrealistic expectations of how a woman should look and behave, but that’s another issue.

What needs to change
I’ve read that the government has taken some steps to try to reduce the suicide rate, even if it was only a half-assed attempt. But it’s the parents and the teachers who need to completely change their mindsets and instil a set of values and self-worth in these children and teach them to love themselves regardless of their academic ability and appearance, and that it’s ok to fail. Then hopefully one day soon, a South Korean child’s happiness will reside over academic success.

‘The way of the hand and the foot’

21 Feb

When in Korea do as the Koreans do. And by that I mean nearly everyone and their granny does Taekwondo here! So a few months ago I was invited by the then supply teacher at my school, Jay, to try out Taekwondo.

Some background on the sport:
Taekwondo (태권도) is the national sport of South Korea. In Korean, tae means ‘to strike or break with foot’, kwon(권) means ‘to strike or break with fist’ and do (도) means ‘way’, or ‘method’, so the literal translation is ‘the way of the hand and the foot’.

These little mites have it nailed:

Jay is a black belt himself and had just started as an instructor at a nearby Taekwondo gym. He spoke to the ‘Master’ (the owner/ head taekwondo instructor at the gym) and he kindly offered myself and the other English teacher at my school, Rob, to try it out free for a month.

We thought the first night would simply be a look around the gym, but after an awkward interview with ‘the Master’, and a fitting for the white suits, we were straight into our first drill, which was met by stares and giggles and questions from the kids in the same class. Having only briefly toyed with Karate at the age of 8, it’s safe to say that martial arts doesn’t  come naturally to me. Nevertheless, the Master complemented me on my flexibility and said that I could be a black belt in 6 months! Pffffffft – I’ll crack the jokes Mr Taekwondo Master! After that, he then took, myself, Rob, Jay and his wife and another instructor all out for dinner and drinks! If only every Taekwondo class followed this pattern…

Not put off, we went along to our second class a few days later, and as fun as it was, there wasn’t so much emphasis put on skill and technique, but rather some painful stretches followed by games to entertain the kids. To be fair, it was a kids taekwondo class. The only adult classes are in the mornings, which I couldn’t make because of school. So rather than waste my money running around playing dodge ball for 100,000 won a month (around £60) I decided to jack it in and file it under ‘one for the grand kids’.

Great Scot!

17 Feb

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up.
It knows that it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle
when the sun comes up you’d better be running.” (Anon)


In an attempt to regain some kind of fitness level whilst in Korea – I’ve signed up for the Daegu 10k in April. It just so happens my cousin is visiting from down under at the same time so, being the avid triathlon participant that she is, I signed her up too! Team name: ‘Great Scots’ (before anyone questions my cousins authenticity – she was an Ayrshire lass originally).

Note to future prospective visitors: If you come and visit me, running a 10km is not mandatory! Honest. Please come visit me!

It’s now the middle of February and the race is 7 weeks on Sunday. Thankfully, I’ve already started training, I joined the gym at the end of January and have been building up my running on the treadmill, I’ve also just started swimming again, and as soon as the weather picks up I’ll get back out onto the road and start pounding the tarmac Liz McColgan style!

I would love to run it in under an hour, but realistically I don’t think I’m going to get my PB in this race. I’m more worried about the sweeper bus catching me after 1 hour 30 minutes, or worse still being overtaken by an ajumma!

A gaggle of ajummas

Note: An ajumma is a Korean granny – they are legends in their own right.

Sh*t English Teachers say in Korea…

31 Jan

I saw these tongue in cheek videos posted on a Facebook Group for ‘English Teachers in South Korea’. They sum up some of the scenarios I’ve found myself in since I’ve been in Korea, namely ‘yes I do have grey hair’, ‘do you have any western sizes?’ and ‘I love soju!’

And in this one: ‘let’s do taekwondo!’, ‘this stupid washing machine ate my clothes’, ‘do you understand ANYTHING I’m saying?’ and ‘I gotta go Skype’.

Harder, better, faster, stronger

29 Jan

One of the downsides of teaching at a private school instead of a public school is not having any lengthy vacation time. In total I get 10 vacation days – 8 of which are determined for me and 2 that I can take when I want. I must admit I’m finding this hard to accept especially when compared to my holiday entitlement I had in the UK. And even more so when my friends who teach at public schools here boast about their 6 week-long winter vacations where they are jet setting off to the likes of Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia…

However, these lucky people at the public schools aren’t let off that easily. Before they are set free to travel the rest of Asia, they have to endure 2 weeks of camp both in Winter and usually another 4 weeks in Summer. These camps are basically additional study time for the kids during their vacation – as if they don’t work hard enough! But some camps aren’t as strict and I’ve known some teachers to get creative with the kids. A friend recently pointed to one such example on YouTube of a class doing their own version of Daft Punks ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ – I don’t know about you, but I was impressed!

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!