It’s been three months now since we have lived in Korea! We have (for the most part) settled back into life in rainy Seattle. Jobs have been obtained, routines established, and sleep patterns are all back on track (for cats and humans). That’s a win in our books!
We left Korea wanting more of it, which we take as a good sign. We miss Korea a lot, and think about it often. There are so many inside jokes, fun memories, and crazy times we reflect on all the time. We miss the food insanely! We still don’t crave the restaurant food here, but we are at least enjoying our cooking. We haven’t been able to buy meat here yet. When we saw the actual size of a real chicken breast in Korea (no hormones or anything!) and then saw the size of chicken breasts at Costco, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it. We are now on the hunt for a farm to table butcher shop where we can get our meat. The coffee in Seattle is still amazing, and we are back into our weekend tradition of planning trips at coffee shops and trying to figure out the next place we should take a vacation (Which has been decided! We will be doing a marathon in England! So stay tuned!).
We miss our kids A LOT! Who would have known? We really had zero experience with kids before we left. They were a mystery and quite scary to us really. Now we miss their questions, their bright happy faces, their need to please, their want to learn, their constant improvement, their little hugs, their funny jokes, their spontaneous ideas, and their energy!
So what is it like teaching in Korea? It’s amazing! It’s crazy! It’s fun! It is rewarding! BUT…….IT IS HARD! Well, I guess I should back up. I guess you could put zero preparation into your classes and take the easy route, but with the less prep you do, the more stressful your classes will be. We were at school from 9:30 - 6:45 MWF and 9:30 - 7:15 T TH. We had an hour of prep each day, just to give you an idea on how this works. I feel like if you’re at work that long, you might as well make the best of it. And when you think about it, these kids need to learn English to be able to compete in their job market later in life, and their parents are trusting you to provide a real English education to these kids. And we sincerely want these kids to succeed. We want them to think back to our class and be happy they were there and find motivation to continue studying.
So, in order to help any future ESL adventurers, we decided to put together a list of things that helped us in the classroom and a list of things we could think of that helped us get through everyday life. Hopefully it helps somebody out a little.
We were at a Hagwon, which we really enjoyed. Just a side note, a Hagwon is a private school of some sort. Cleary, ours was an English Hagwon. Life at a Hagwon is busy, but there is a huge benefit (at least in our eyes) to teaching at a Hagwon instead of the public school system. We got to see lots of kids with various English levels and kids of all ages. We got to see our classes anywhere from 2-5 times a week (so we really got to know our kids). Classes are smaller, and we didn't do any desk warming. Also, by working at a Hagwon, we got to see what age groups and English levels we liked to teach. That way, when you go onto your next contract you can be a bit pickier. There are Hagwons that just cater to specific age ranges and English levels. Our Hagwon had it all, and surprisingly, I (and I think WE) ended up loving Kindergarten the most. BUT, just so you know, the first 2-3 months with brand new none English speaking kindergarteners/preschoolers is an absolutely…Ummmm..how to put this nicely… an absolute shit show! Think about it, it is the little ones first time in a school setting, first time interacting with a foreigner, first time being somewhere for 5 hours straight (kinder kids we had 4-5 hours a day) and on top of that, it’s a school in their non-native language. Talk about an adjustment! There are tears, frustrations, breakdowns, you name it….but OMG when things start to click it’s amazing. Casey was absolutely marvelous with the young kids. One morning, his little preschoolers started marching down the hall just shouting “Hana, duel, set (1, 2, 3 in Korean), NO! One, two, three, YES!” These kids did this forever and after that, Casey’s little preschool class started getting traction, and before we knew it, our little preschool and kinder classes were giving speeches about their sea animals in front of their parents for Parent Day. Casey also had a 6th grade girl’s class of advanced English speakers who were very interactive learners. He would probably speak highly about that level of English class as well. Sorry, jeez, I have diverted! Let’s get back on track and away from my sentimental memories.
Anyway, Casey and I put a lot of prep time into our classes. It made our classes go smooth. Sure, you get books, but literally the kids have seen these style of books since they were 5. They know the drill, they know how to get through the books, even if they don’t quite understand the content. We had to find different ways to test the kids without making it super stressful. We figured out how to make spelling tests fun, how to make fun games with words and sentences, how to incorporate drawing into lessons, and when to dump the lesson and just let them talk in English about a big event that happened. For example, when BTS dropped their new song on an award show, our kids couldn’t sit still, they just wanted to talk about it. So you know what, we learned to let it happen. This was one of those times were the kids were speaking to each other and us in English and it was way more beneficial than teaching what was in the book that day. Plus, the kids always caught up. So on days like this, we learned to facilitate a conversation, whether it be about the KPOP group that is taking over the world, or something as simple as the Jumanji movie that came out.
The first three months in the classroom was hard though! Kids of all ages WILL test you! How much can they get away with? Will you really punish them if they don’t do their homework? Will you really send a kid out of the classroom? They want to know and we really can’t blame them. Within a month Casey and I both incorporated a rule in our classroom; our classrooms were an English only setting. The past teachers didn’t put this rule into action and adjusting to this rule was VERY HARD for some kids. Yes, there were some tears, there was some push back, but as a teacher you have to realize it’s your classroom, and if you really want your kids to learn English, having English only in the classroom is a huge must. To help the kids out, we implemented a three-strike rule. They got three chances to slip up and say something in Korean. After three strikes the kid lost two stickers. These stickers were gold. At the end of the semester they could turn these stickers in for “money” and when we had our market day they could go buy anything from pencils to KPOP posters. Stickers were always given for great spelling tests, homework competition and just other random accomplishments.
Our kids settled into our English only classrooms pretty quickly and our classes started to become really fun. It became super rare that strikes were given for somebody speaking in Korean. And lots of time, if somebody spoke in Korean, it was a simple slip up, nothing intentional. Before we knew it our kids were participating, they wanted to read, they wanted to write and it was rare we had kids missing classes. AND the most important thing….we could hear their English improving! So, of course, you have to reward the little guys for all their effort. You can start sliding games in and putting aside 10 minutes of class to do something fun. It is when you hit this point within your classrooms that teaching ESL is FUN!
Anyway we wanted to pass on some information we thought that might be helpful to think about when you get your first classroom in Korea.
Tips and Tricks For The Classroom
1. Immediately enforce the English only rule in your classroom. It will stop kids from insulting each other in Korean (which you won’t know is happening until somebody bursts out in tears), and it puts you in control, because guess what, you are going to be the best English speaker. It makes the kids listen better, because they aren’t distracting trying to talk to friends. It really turns the classroom around, and the kids will respect you for it. They don’t know their attitude changes but it does, and it’s for the better. Before you know it, kids aren’t only speaking to you in English but to their friends as well! When that starts happening the kid’s learning takes off! It’s incredible!
2. Two words; seating chart. Uggg the kids hate seating charts, but for a lot of classes, especially the younger ones, it’s a must. A lot of your Korean co-teachers will create a seating chart, so you can just use their seating chart for your class too. I had a class or two where the kids had a seating chart for my class, and not for the Korean teacher’s class. Sure, the kids complained at the beginning, but guess what, they got used to it.
3. The books should be used as a secondary tool. We ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS gave their workbooks as homework. It makes them see the material we learned in class again. It takes the kids anywhere from 4-7 times to see something before it becomes second nature to them. Try to build in past lessons into your current lessons. For my classes I always tried to do warm ups that incorporated my previous class materials. Yes, creating these warm ups take time, but you can usually recycle the ideas. So once you have the template for a game or worksheet, you can re-use that same exercise (just with updated information) every few classes or even with different classes. As long as it’s not the same warm up template every class, the kids don't seem to mind.
4. Make mistakes on the board and see if kids catch it and reward them! The younger kids will stay more involved, because guess what, when you start giving stickers out (or whatever your school uses for “money”) kids will become super attentive. Every child wants to boast they have the most stickers on Market Day. I'm telling you, these things are magic! Also, if nobody catches an error, you will know something might need to be reviewed.
5. Do your research on games before you go! My younger kids loved it when I incorporating drawing into their lesson. So, I’d do vocab exercises where they got to draw their new words. Our kids LOVED hidden pictures and word finds. Also, for our older classes, our kids loved what we called the lyrics game. We would find an English song that was hip but spoke pretty slow, and would cut up the lyrics into sentences or groups of three sentences (depending on the level) and then you play the song over a speaker and the kids put the lyrics in order on a table. You usually have to play the song 3-5 times, but the kids loved it! I usually did this the class after a test, or if everybody finished a test early. I would like to add, if you can bring a small travel size blue tooth speaker with you, do it. I used my computer but would definitely bring a blue tooth speaker if I did it again. Also, my kindergarten class loved listening to music during art time, so I could have used it then as well.
6. Bring a gift for your co-teachers and other people at your Hagwon. We asked our director how many people were there and just brought Theo Chocolate (chocolate made in Seattle) for all out co-teachers and admin workers (PS most of our co-teachers were really excited about the mint flavor). It doesn’t have to be anything special, but it gets things going on the right foot.
7. We each brought our own computer with us to use during prep time, but NEVER stick a USB into your computer that has been in one of your school’s computers. There are so many viruses in the school’s computers it’s insane!
Life In Korea
Ok, so now here are some things that we would suggest to make your life in Korea a little easier.
1. Get an international driver’s license! You can get one through AAA for $20. The only confusing part about renting a car in Korea is setting up an account on your rental car company of choice. After you get an account set up though, renting a car is a breeze. We used Lotte Rental Car because they had an English website and English customer support. Lotte was nice to use because we could get car insurance through them. We used rental cars to get to a lot of the remote places that would take awhile to get to by public transit. I would also suggest getting a CityPass card. This will get you on all the subways and buses in Korea. You just preload it at a station then you scan it either on the bus or at the train station and away you go! Ohh, and as long as your bank card has a Visa/Mastercard symbol on it, you can use it for a transit card as well. But, it's always nice to have a back up.
2. Check the expiration date on all of your bankcards! It is really tough (pretty much next to impossible) to get a US debit card sent to Korea. Our debit card expired out last month in Korea, which really wasn’t a big deal since we had establish our Korean banking at this point, but if something happened with our Korean bank account, we would have been limited to our credit card (hello forex fees!).
3. Bring an unlocked cellphone! We brought our unlocked Iphones over and used them. We got a contract through Kimchi Moble who specialize in providing contracts to English teachers. They provide 1 year contracts and at a super discounted price (~$40 a month each). We had unlimited data and it worked everywhere! They can mail you your SIM card (once you are in Korea) and everything! Plus, THEY SPEAK ENGLISH! I had friends who went directly through the cellphone companies but they had to enter a 24 month contract (minimum) and buy a phone, plus their data plans were more expensive. AND if they didn't fulfill the contract, they had to pay termination fees. I would highly suggest Kimchi Mobile. It was just so simple! Here is the link to Kimchi Mobile!
4. Limit the shoes you pack. At your work place you will only wear slippers. I never needed a nice pair of shoes. But, if you are a woman with size 8+/man +11, you might take heed to this piece of advice. Finding large shoes in Korea can be challenging. I’m lucky, we both have small feet, so if we did need to find shoes in Korea, it wasn’t an issue. Lots of my friends complained of it being very difficult to find shoes over size 8.
5. Fitted sheets are expensive in Korea! The Koreans use something more along the lines of a mattress pad in place of a fitted sheet. We really missed our fitted sheet, so we did end up buying one at EMart. The mattress pad thing wasn’t bad, but it got really hot during the summer and was too big to fit in the washing machine at home. So, if you have your heart set on using traditional western fitted sheets, either be prepared to shell out 40-50 USD for a queen size single fitted sheet or bring your own.
6. So this is a total personal preference, but we ended up bringing our own pillows and down comforter! We packed a pillow on the top of our larger roller bags, and it helped press everything nice a tight in the bags. The down comforter compacted down quite well into a 20L compression sack. The down blanket kept us so warm during the freezing winter compared to the polyester blankets we had, plus it was just so nice to have our own pillows.
7. We would suggest bringing a nice pair of winter gloves and several pairs of wool socks. BUT as for a jacket, we would highly recommend buying a down jacket there or packing your own down jacket if you own one. It saves space, and the jackets made in Korea are geared toward their winter. Our warmest jacket that we brought from Seattle wasn’t warm enough for Korea. Every English teacher we met had to buy a new jacket (including us) during their first Korea winter. So just save yourself the room and get a new, warm, padded long jacket when you get there.
8. Either pack a small bathroom towel or ask your director to get you one! The first night we arrived we had to dry off from our shower with t-shirts. Totally didn’t realize we wouldn’t have a towel. Opps!
9. If you are only going to be in Korea for a year, I would suggest bringing enought deodorant, toothpaste, cooking spices, make-up and razor blades to last the whole year. If you are going to be there longer, then, just adjust to Korean brand stuff. The Korean toothpaste is different and the deodorant is nothing like it is in the states. You can find western style toothpaste, but it is sooo expensive ($5-7 a tube). Razor blades are super-expensive there also, who knows why. Make-up is also different, and most of the time it won’t even match to your skin type. Lastly, many western spices are hard to find in Korea (especially cumin). If you plan on cooking, just bring your own. OH and another thing, we read in numerous places to bring muli-vitamins, but I swear I saw multi-vitamins at E-traders and Costco that weren’t that expensive. So unless you are loyal to a certain brand, you can get your multi-vitamins there.
10. Mentioning Costco, YES, Korea has Costco. Be sure to bring an actual membership card (not just your Costco branded credit card). Since Korea Costcos take Samsung branded credit cards, the US Costco credit card will not scan as a membership card at the register. Also, if you don't have a Samsung branded credit card, make sure you bring cash with you so you can pay. Evan a Visa debit card own't work. What's that saying, ahh yes, cash is king. Anyway, be sure to have the typical white or black Costco membership card and it won't confuse anybody. Where we were in Korea, we weren’t that close to a Costco so we usually went to E-traders, which is a Korean version of Costco. You do not need a membership to get into E-Traders. OOOO and another thing! All major food retailers are closed every other Sunday. Here is a simple website that tells you if the chain stores are open that Sunday or not.
11. When you get to Korea and get your bank account set up, ask them to help you set up internet banking at the same time. It is a bit confusing, but internet banking allows you to pay most of your bills online. You will have to install some security software on your computer and use certificate codes they give you when paying bills, but it is a bit more convent than having to go to an ATM every time to pay a bill. Now, you don’t have to get internet banking, you can pay your utility bills and transfer money at ATMs, its just more convenient to be able to do this stuff at your apartment.
12. We were unable to find a bank in the US that would allow us to transfer money from our KEB Hana bank to a US bank. We didn’t put too much effort into this, but if you don’t want to carry cash home on the airplane, you might want to go talk to US banks before you leave and see if they can receive transfers from banks in Korea. You would be surprised how hard it is to find a bank that is compatible with a Korean bank.
13. Here are some apps that will make your life easier:
14. Bring a Korea travel book. Yes, you will find Facebook groups to join and yes you will hear stuff on the news, but having an organized way to find things to do the first few months is so much easier when you have a book.
15. If you can learn the Korean alphabet before you go, do it! The Korean alphabet only has 24 characters and so much food and places are Konglish words. Just trust me on this one, reading Hangul, even at an elementary level, will help out significantly!
16. Negotiate a clothes dryer and dishwasher in your apartment unit if you can! Almost all apartments come with washers, but we really did miss our dishwasher (especially since we did cook in Korea quite a bit, and we both HATE washing dishes by hand). Life without a dryer wasn't that bad but there were times during the winter where our sheets didn't dry in time for bed. During these instances, we found ourselves drying the sheets...with a hair dryer.
17. Prep your US house or condo before you leave. Google search "winterizing your home" and you will find many blogs with ideas such as plugging the drains, unplug appliances, etc.
18. Netflix did work in Korea, there was just a different assortment of shows and movies offered. We knew people who got proxys and could log in and get the US version of Netflix in Korea. We never got a proxy though, so I have no idea how it works. We mainly used our Netflix account in our classes for multimedia day.
19. Start all your paperwork for Korea 4-6 months in advance. The post here talks about all the paperwork required to work in Korea.
20. If you bring your pet to Korea, start all the paperwork early. Find out if your pet’s food is available in Korea (Facebook has loads of groups that expats have set up usually based on cities. Join the group and ask questions there! People are really helpful. Also there is a pet specific Facebook I would suggest joining, message me if you want it). Find out what vets are good in the city you will be moving to. Also, start all your pet’s paperwork AT LEAST 4-6 months early. We wrote a more in depth post about getting the cats ready here.
21. Pets are really expensive in Korea. One of our cats is on a prescription food (Royal Canin UR) and our other cat is just on normal cat food (Orijen). But all cat food (and liter for that matter) is about 2X the price as it was in the states. Vet bills were surprisingly less expensive or just about the same as the states.
22. We spent 2,000 USD during our first 6 weeks in Korea before getting our first paychecks. This includes purchases to get our apartment set up (pots, pans, hangers, dishes, a table, a small couch, a bed, liter boxes, etc) and money just to live on the first month before our paychecks. Now, this is definitely on the high side. If we did it again we could probably do it on 1,000 USD (if it was winter time maybe 1,500 USD because of jackets). But also remember, this is for two people and we weren’t trying to cut any corners, we bought everything we needed upfront. Also, Daiso is an awesome store to check out! It has absolutely everything at a really descent price!
And that's a wrap! I (Brittany) have signed up for Korean classes, which are hard! We are both still obsessed with Kpop, and listen to it more than our country music. It's safe to say, that lots of habits that we picked up in Korea will stay with us for awhile. We still find ourselves awkwardly bowing when we are introduced to people, I still hand things over with two hands, public transportation here in Seattle drives us insane, and wearing shoes within the house seems like a disgusting habit now.
I was going to write about the process of taking the cats back into the states but I literally couldn't give our paperwork away in Korea, and all they wanted to see in the states was our rabies certificate, so it was super anticlimactic. I will say though, we flew Delta, and we called to make our reservations with the cats since you can't do it online. We, or course, called the US number and made the reservations. When we got to Incheon, the reservation wasn't there and they only allow four animals within the cabin at a time. Thankfully, there were no other animals, so we were fine, but I would suggest maybe having somebody call the Korean number to get the animals booked. Maybe the two systems don't talk or something. Ohhh, and when we got to Seattle, Delta agents did collect the cats right when we got off the plane. We then got them back right after we got through immigration. We had heard of this happening so we were prepared to hand them over for a bit. Anyway, thanks for all the support and love while we were gone. Let's end with this K-pop song called "Goodbye" by iKON. Wait wait wait, Casey just interjected and wants this song in as well. It's by Astro (who is playing in LA in a few weeks!) and it's called "All Night". OK ok, now we just decided on another great song by our beloved BTS. It's called "Euphoria". As they say in Korea, 안녕(Goodbye) and 사랑합니다 (love you!)