Tag Archives: epik


It’s not enough that I moved to a foreign country and started a totally new career. Now, six months later, I’m starting another new job and moving again. Same country, and same career, but I hope a totally better situation. I will say this now that I am out of the range of EPIK retribution, but that program…leaves a lot to be desired. If you found this blog while searching for information about teaching English in Korea, particularly on Jeju Island (Jeju-do), be warned. It’s a crap shoot. Some people are very happy with their teaching gigs, others, like me, not so much. I can’t speak for how the program (English Program In Korea) is administered in other provinces, as Jeju is a “Self-Governing Province,” which means, they really are an island unto themselves. Jeju is the maverick of South Korea.

But frankly, I’m tired of fretting over the ineptitude and incompetence that are the hallmarks of Jeju EPIK, so let’s move one, as I intend to do. I am moving from being a talking parrot, clown and bad cop for classes of 30-plus kids, to being an actual teacher at a hagwon (after school private academy) for classes of less than 10 kids. Right now it looks like my biggest class is 6 kids. Since housing came with the EPIK job, changing jobs also means changing housing. I am the first foreign teacher my new school has had to find housing for, and I was trying to think positively, and visualize a nice, spacious apartment with a lovely view of beautiful Jeju Harbor, or maybe snow-covered Mt. Halla. At the very least, I was praying for something not on an alley with a view of the garbage cans. It’s an odd system here in that since the school is paying for your housing, they choose it; you don’t get a say in approving or rejecting. My school director said I could look on my own, but without being able to read the classified ads, that’s kind of difficult. There is no Craigslist! I had to be out of my EPIK apartment by Feb. 28th, and as the date approached I got increasingly nervous. Finally, last week he announced he had found my apartment. Oh joy!
Well….there are no garbage cans, but yeah, I am on the first floor, next to the front door and the driveway, of a really crappy ‘60s vintage apartment building. In a studio, with possibly the worst decorating scheme ever. The kitchen cabinets are dark turquoise, adjacent to a large wall covered with large, red poppy wallpaper. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement as he lay dying in a cheap Parisian hotel: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” I can so relate to his dark humor.

While that is pulling your eyeballs out of your head in one direction, the bathroom is vying for attention in the other direction. All the fixtures are dark maroon. But worst of all, the ONLY windows in the place are in an enclosed patio. They have bars on them and are all frosted glass. Poor Sammy. Not only forced to be an indoor cat, but now denied even a daily view of the outdoors. The only way to see daylight at all is to open the windows; which don’t have screens. In another month I might as well hang out a sign saying “mosquito bloodfest this way!” Wait, how do you say that in Korean? Basically, it’s like a basement apartment on Capitol Hill, without the Bohemian factor and good coffeeshops.

I moved in last Saturday, and on my second day I had a visit from my upstairs neighbor, who apparently has some mental issues. When I answered the door I noted her blouse was held together with one large, jaunty safety pin. She barged in and gestured “sleep” and pointed at the ceiling. I took this to mean she lived upstairs. She prattled on, while I tried to convey that I don’t speak Korean. Undeterred, she then began inspecting the place. I grabbed my phone to call my director, to see if he could tell what she wanted. When she opened my closet doors my limited Korean kicked in and I yelled “ANYEO!!ANYEO!!” which means “NO!” I got her out without further incident. Nice welcoming committee.

It was supposed to be a 5-10 minute walk to my new school, but I tried walking it the first day and could not find a route that was less than 20 minutes, half of that steeply uphill. There is no direct route or shortcut, as the neighborhood runs helter skelter across the hillside. That may not sound like much, but the summers here are intensely hot and humid. And I already know how bitterly cold the winters are.

So, it’s not the apartment of my dreams, but I am doing what I can to make it “mine.” I bought an area rug to cover the hideous beige linoleum, and am putting up posters to cover the poppies. I’m going to send home for curtains, as Korean draperies would only add to the gaudiness. My director agreed to buy a double bed, so Sammy and I are enjoying that, after 6 months in a single bed. I do have internet, although it’s not always reliable. And maybe it’s a good thing to not get too comfortable here. Korea is not my home and it never will be. This is just another stop on my road of life. I signed a one year contract which I will do my best to honor. After that, who knows. I have a craving lately for baklava…

Teacha, do you like Kimchi?

One week later…
It’s been a busy week with little time for anything but catching the bus in the morning, being at school all day, riding the bus, actually two, home again, slurping down a bowl of noodles and reading myself to sleep.
So to back up:
I was not able to take a hot shower when I moved into my apartment Sunday morning, nor for several days, as again, the gas had been turned off when the tenant moved out, and not turned back on. I ended up taking a shower at K’s, but it’s just not the same as your own! These dorms/apartments are big by Korean standards, about 450 square feet, with full-sized bathtubs. Although the building is on the grounds of the Foreign Language High School the residents are all foreign teachers, only two of whom work at the school.
This week has been so crammed full of experiences it’s hard to know where to begin.

Maybe with the schools: I have been assigned to teach at two schools, a small primary on Mondays and Thursdays and a larger one on the other days. At the smaller school I have just one class of about 25 students in each grade. I teach English to each grade once a week. At the bigger school I have three or four classes of about 40 students each in every grade. To get to the schools I have to take a bus into town, which takes a half hour, then transfer to another bus for another half hour ride. There is much grumbling among EPIK teachers about the fact that there is no attempt to give teachers housing near their schools. One administrator assigns the schools while another assigns the housing, and ne’er the twain shall meet. They offer the choices of either living in housing they provide, or taking a $300 a month housing allowance. However, it’s nearly impossible to secure your own rental housing from outside Korea, and they know that. Or they should.
While the teachers gave me detailed bus schedules, there is apparently no map of bus routes, so I didn’t know where to get off the bus once I got on. As the bus left the urban area and wound into ever more rural terrain, I worried that I would end up abandoned in some tangerine orchard in the hinterlands. At least I wouldn’t starve. The bus finally stopped at the end of the line, and after much hand gesturing and repeating of the school name on my part the driver finally figured out where I was going. Fortunately it was only two stops back down the road.
I still made it to school on time, and was ushered in by my co-teacher who gave me a pair of guest slippers and introduced me to the staff, none of whom spoke any English. Yes, I know I am in a foreign country, but with their mania for teaching English to the students, you would think the teachers would have picked up a few words. Not even a “good morning.” They were, however, very impressed by my attempts at Korean greetings.
After introducing myself to the staff we all went out to the dirt playfield where the students assembled in straight rows, arms stiffly at their sides. There was an ominous metal platform in front of the students, perfect for a lynching, I thought to myself. I was close. My co-teacher interpreted the principal’s gesturing toward me to mean that I was to climb the steps of the platform, take the microphone and introduce myself. How do you say “fear of public speaking” in Korean?
As I started to say my name a giggle rippled through the files of students. I’m going to assume they were just laughing at my “accent.” I spent the rest of the day repeating that introduction to individual classes.
The next day at  Big School I was again trotted out before the assembled students, on a vast and barren playfield which I couldn’t help but think looked like Tianemen Square, particularly from the high steps of the building. This address to the troops went so well that the principal decided I should give a speech EVERY Wednesday morning. “Just two or three minutes,” my co-teacher assured me. Great. Do you know how long two or three minutes is when speaking to a crowd that doesn’t understand anything beyond “How are you?” Maybe that’s a good thing, since it means I can say virtually anything to my captive audience.
The week at Big School was disappointing, as I spent the majority of it sitting in the office “lesson planning.” That meant sitting me down in front of a computer with a stack of the awful English curriculum books, and no guidance whatsoever. It was a futile exercise in spinning straw into gold. I tried to explain to my co-teacher – who was busy teaching her own classes all day – that I had NO teaching experience and that it was impossible to plan anything with no materials and no idea of the students’ skill levels. There seemed to be no materials left behind by the previous teacher. It was as if she had never been there for the past year.
But, as no one was monitoring me, I had lots of time to surf the broadband Internet and write emails home. The education department has put a ton of money into the schools, sparing no expense on technology. The classes are taught with high tech audio visual equipment and DVDs to complement every text book. (In a side note, while the country is crazy about technology, the sewer system is not designed to handle toilet paper. Used paper is supposed to be disposed of in wastebaskets next to the toilet – which is likely to be an electronically-controlled bidet.)
Finally, on Friday I was told I would be team-teaching in the English classroom on the fourth floor. The anxiety that had been gnawing at my gut all week subsided a bit, as there I discovered the mother lode of the previous teacher’s materials. Worksheets, games, flashcards, everything I had needed all week to plan lessons, but didn’t get!
The English curriculum is heavily based on a single set of books which all the native speakers (foreigners) agree are awful. The students spend a month on a single concept, such as possessives, with no more than 10 vocabulary words. The units have headings like, “Whose boat is this?” and “I like apples.” These sentences and their responses are repeated a million times in unison by the students, most of whom really have no idea what they are saying. Volume is also an important component. The teachers urge the students to repeat the lines at maximum volume, as if to better penetrate the cranium.
While every school uses the same insane, inane books, they all approach it differently. Some schools give the foreign co-teachers free rein to lead the classes, while others use them simply to parrot back the lines so the students can hear “real” English. We are supposed to be teaching conversational English, not grammar, but this is ridiculous. The principal at my big school was adamant that the Korean teacher was the lead teacher and I was to be the assistant. Meanwhile, the Korean teacher speaks almost entirely in Korean during class, so the students don’t even try to figure out the English. They just wait for her to explain it. Oh well.
Over the course of the week I have learned the top three questions students ask in the “getting to know you” interview of the foreign teacher are: Where are you from, do you have children and how old are you? My age is a constant source of amazement to students and adults alike. In Korea, to be 50 and traveling the globe, let alone even still alive, is a weird novelty. In the 6th grade class yesterday I asked them to guess my age, just to see what their perspective on age was, and they first guessed the impossibly old age of 30. Guess again. 40? Higher. 45??? Higher. 50?!?!?!?!? One child then piped up with “Do you have grandchildren?” There’s one in every crowd.

My social life
Yes, I do have one. Thanks to the Internet, before I even got the job I was able to hook into a message board expressly for foreigners living on Jeju, rhymeswithjeju on Yahoo. It offers a wealth of information, and I met several people on there that I have now met in person. There is even a subset of older foreign teachers that I have met and hope to do things with on a regular basis. Even though we come from disparate backgrounds and locales, teaching English in Korea gives us a unique commonality. One week and I already have more friends than after eight years in chilly Seattle! Plus I have K, the other teachers in this building, and random “waygooks” (foreigners) I’ve met on buses and in stores.
Last night I went to dinner with a group of women around my age, as one was celebrating her 47th birthday. I won’t name her here, but she is a local icon. She’s been here four years and knows every nook and cranny of Jeju, as well as how to get around culturally. One evening with her was worth a month of orientation. Her best advice: get a Korea friend to help navigate the bureaucracy, and learn to read Hangul, the Korean script. The language itself is very difficult to learn in its entirety, but I hope to learn enough to get around town. One of my new friends said Korean is supposed to be the most difficult language to learn, after Turkish. His take on that – Hey, it’s only the SECOND most difficult! Thanks, Tommy.

“Do you like kimchi?” This is another popular question, usually asked right after, “Do you like Korean food?” Um, sure, what’s not to like about chicken knuckles smothered in red pepper paste, stir fried, whole tiny fish, and limp, dead, pickled cold cabbage smothered in red pepper sauce, served with sticky white rice? That’s an actual menu from the school cafeteria. The staff at the big school has “generously” agreed to pay for my lunch every day, thereby obligating me to eat what is served. To refuse food or not eat it is insulting. Kimchi is not just a food, it’s a national source of pride. Foreigners politely say it’s an acquired taste.
Soju is another unique Korean item, but one I quickly became fond of. It’s a type of distilled rice (or sweet potato) liquor with about a 20 percent alcohol content. It’s clear like vodka, but the taste is very mild. It’s deceptively available in six packs, but drinking an entire bottle would be like drinking a six pack of beer. One bottle is about $1.50 and it’s available everywhere, including the convenience store on the way home from the bus stop. I can’t wait to experiment making “sojutinis.”

Here are a few photos of my apartment building from the road and the neighbor I see very morning weeding her patch.

Welcome to the pen

Welcome to the pen

This small farm is directly across from my apartment.

This small farm is directly across from my apartment.

I will post more photos soon, of my schools, the adorable students and the fascinating world that is my new home.