Tag Archives: EPIK

Big Winners

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, my coteacher and I won 2nd place in the Korean national teaching competition at the end of last year. Last week we went to Seoul, with an entire fifth grade class in tow, to receive an award and demonstrate our concept class in front of hundreds of teachers and school administrators from around the country.

I didn’t realize just how big of a deal this competition was until we walked into the auditorium in which the ceremony and demonstrations were to take place. In fact, nobody even bothered to tell me that all of the hard work I did last year was for a competition. After the fifth time we demonstrated our concept class in front of a huge group of teachers, I asked why we were doing the same thing over and over. That’s when I learned we were heading to the semi-finals of the competition.

2013 Korean National Teaching Competition

My coteacher receiving the 2nd place award.

In the auditorium, there was a TV crew and a couple of news crews setting up on the stage an hour before the show. We set up a booth with information about our class and then sat down to watch the ceremony.

They called all of the teachers up to to the stage one-by-one. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to be recognized for my hard work. I wish I could say that I didn’t mind, but the truth is that I was a little upset. As the only foreign teacher in the top ten, there was little doubt as to why I was snubbed. Despite being a little butt-hurt, I kept a smile on my face and did my best when it was our turn to perform.

After our demonstration, a man walked up to me and addressed me by name. In perfect English, he thanked me for my hard work and gave me a gift bag. I found out later that he some big shot from the Korean Ministry of Education.

Once we loaded all of the students onto the bus, I opened the gift bag. I was surprised to find a new camera – not the normal gift of snacks and hand cream.

Sony DSC-WX300 Digital Camera gift seoul Korea

It’s nice to know that somebody noticed and cared enough to let me know I was appreciated. This kind gesture made a huge difference in the way I felt about the whole event.

Until next time.


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Koreans are Busy!

Within two weeks of arriving in Korea, I learned that Koreans are always busy. My students studied all day long – usually more than twelve hours on weekdays. My fellow teachers rush through the halls, frantically playing catch-up. My Korean friends – mostly grad students and young professionals – are perpetually too busy or tired to hang out.

For my first six months here, I operated under the impression that Koreans are the busiest and hardest working people on earth. At some point during my first semester, that illusion fell apart.

In the west, image is important. But we’re taught that being dependable and producing quality work are the way to cultivate a positive image at the office. In Korea, image is everything. Quality of work and efficiency are relatively unimportant here. Convincing others think that you are a hard worker is far more important than actually working hard.

A recent post on an expat teaching forum perfectly articulated what I’ve come to understand about working an studying in Korea.

[Korean kids] “study” a lot. But the way they define studying is very different… Sitting at a desk is “studying” in Korea, no matter what you’re doing. You could be sleeping, playing games, texting, talking, staring off into space – it matters not. If you are sitting at a desk and there are books in the vicinity then you are a master “studyer”. It’s the same with work here…Sleep at your desk all day and occasionally wake up and run around with your arms flailing screaming, “SO BUSY!”.  Koreans are very good at making things look much harder than they really are.  -Source

EPIK coteacher sleeping in school

My coteacher last year was always busy. Fortunately, he found time in his busy schedule for morning and afternoon naps.

As I prepare to leave Korea, my thoughts are filled with all of the things that I will miss when I return to the US. This isn’t one of them. I look forward to working in a place where I’m judged by the quality and consistency of my contribution and not my ability to look busy.

Until next time.


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Questions About Teaching and Visas

I received an email from Brian in Pennsylvania today. He asked some great questions about teaching in Korea. Brian is currently an undergraduate student who wants to teach biology in Korea. Though these questions are specific to Brian’s situation, the answers may be helpful to someone else.

Should I finish my bachelor’s in the USA, or should I drop everything now, and just go straight to Korea?

Do not drop out of a US university to study in Korea. A degree from a US university will be far more valuable in the US and in Korea than one from a Korean university. Despite the high rankings of Korea’s high school education system, their university rankings are surprisingly low. Here is an article with much more information.

Do I need a master’s or PhD [to teach middle or high school biology]? Can I just learn the language and teach with a bachelor’s?

The short answer here is that you cannot teach biology at a public middle or high school as a foreigner. If you become totally fluent in Korean and have a PhD, you may land a job as a subject teacher. Korean subject teachers have to take several very difficult tests to qualify to teach students (in Korean). There is an abundance of overqualified and underemployed Koreans in the workforce now, so there is no shortage of native Korean science teachers.

The only possible exception here would be teaching at an international high school. These positions are competitive, so you will need at least a master’s degree in biology, teaching experience, and a teaching license.

What are the steps in order to become a [biology] professor in Korea? Can I obtain my degrees in USA?

As I mentioned before, degrees from US universities are more desirable than from Korean universities. In order to teach biology at the university level, you will probably need a PhD. Foreigners are generally held to a higher standard than Korean professors. Even if you manage to land a job as a biology professor at a Korean university, getting tenure may be difficult. Foreign professors are generally paid less than Korean professors for the same job.

What visas are required? Is everything organized by your work?

Currently, you won’t be eligible for anything other than a student visa. Once you finish your bachelor’s degree, you may be eligible for an E-2 (English instructor) visa. You need to have an employer (sponsor) in order to apply, so they will help you. The process is a bit complicated, so here is a breakdown.

In order to live in Korea as a foreigner permanently, how does one do it?

If you’re a foreign-born Korean, then you can apply for an F-4 visa. I’m assuming that you’re not, so the process is different for you. The short answer is that you need to live and work in Korea for at least a year before you can even apply for an F-2 Long-Term Resident visa.

If you’re interested in living in Korea, but you don’t have a PhD, then becoming an English teacher is the best way to get your foot in the door. Once you arrive and earn enough points to qualify for an F-2 visa, then more doors may open for you. Unlike in the US, a qualified foreigner simply isn’t offered the same opportunities as a native Korean. Sadly, racial discrimination is part of the work culture and is completely legal in Korea.

In the mean time, Brian, I think your best bet is to at least finish your bachelor’s degree and study Korean as much as you can. The stronger your Korean ability when you arrive, the faster doors will open for you. Good luck to you!

Until next time.


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Saving Money in Korea

This morning, I received an email from a Southerner Abroad reader with the following question:

“I will be earning an average ESL teacher salary and was wondering if you have any tips on how to maximize my savings.”

This is a common question for those planning to teach abroad. Many people want to know how to save money and how much they can save each year. The answer is – it depends. There are many factors at play here. Your income, where you live, how much you plan to travel, and how much you like to party will all affect your ability to save.

I’ll assume that you live in one a medium or large city (Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Dajeon, Etc) and that you have access to the same businesses I do in Daegu. Let’s also assume that “average ESL teacher salary” means roughly $2,000 per month (2-2.5 mil won).

In the past two years, these are the areas that have most significantly affected my bank account.


Ajumma working in kimbap shop

If you like Korean food, and can do without comfort food from home, you’re already ahead. Western food, especially from restaurants, is quite expensive. I usually eat one or two western meals per month, so this is a minor expense for me.

Every neighborhood will have at least one kimbap restaurant, which is like the Korean version of a diner in the US. The food is cheap and service is usually friendly. This is where I buy about half of my meals. You can get a lot of food for $3-$5. A small meal will only run you $1.50.

My first few months here, I bought into the myth that eating out is cheaper than cooking your own food in Korea. This is just not true. The trick is avoiding Costco and E-Mart when you buy groceries. There are plenty of bulk food stores (the kind that sell food and supplies to local restaurants) that have decent prices.


This one is simple – the less you drink, the more you will be able to save. Fortunately, it’s easy to drink on the cheap here. Soju, Korea’s most popular alcoholic drink, is ridiculously cheap. You can literally kill yourself (with soju) for about $5.

Bottle of soju on a table

Photo source – a great blog post about soju.

I am not a fan of soju, so the way I drink without spending too much is by pre-gaming at home and buying drinks from convenience stores. Many stores set up tables and chairs outside for their customers. I actually enjoy this style of drinking more than in bar during the warm months.


This one is simple – ride the bus. For some reason, I was nervous about taking buses my first year. I only used the subway and taxis. I was worried about getting on the wrong bus or missing my stop. Once someone introduced me to a smart phone app (Daegu Bus) that shows all the bus routes and tracks your current location, I started riding the bus often.

The savings were immediate. Instead of $3-$10 for a taxi ride, I could pay about $1 for a bus ride anywhere in the city. Most cities even offer discounts if you transfer from one bus to another (or from a bus to the subway) within 30 minutes. After a few weeks, I didn’t even need the app. I know all of the local bus routes by heart.


This is my big financial downfall. I spend a lot of time travelling around Korea, which can get expensive quickly. Fortunately, there are some ways to save money.

KTX (Korea’s express train) is fast and convenient, but it’s not the cheapest option. You can save 20-50% on transportation costs by taking a slower train or  an inter-city bus.

If you stay overnight, look for a guesthouse. Korean guesthouses (or hostels) are generally much nicer than what you find in Europe. It’s a relatively new trend here, so most are new. You can get a shared room for $15-$30 per night or a private room for as low as $45.

There are plenty of other ways to save money in Korea, but they’re all basically the same as any western country. Depending on where you live and how frugal you can be, it’s possible to save upwards of $8,000 each year. I send $700 (or more) home each month to pay off loans and I still live comfortably.

If you’re from the US, Canada or Australia, you receive a 100% refund on your government pension. If your employer contributes to your national pension account, this means an extra $2,000+ per year (but you can’t access it until you leave).

I hope this helps. If you have any other questions, feel free to shoot me a message via the questions page.

Until next time.


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Living On The Edge

I’ll get right to the point…I’m pretty much a Grade-A badass. I live for danger. Most thrill-seekers live on the edge by engaging in dangerous hobbies like drag racing or base jumping. These are too tame for me, so I decided to go extreme. I bought an electric fan!

Korea is full of cultural quirks, but the one that intrigues me most is the widely held belief that electric fans are potentially lethal. The idea is that if you sleep in a room with poor ventilation (windows and doors closed) and leave a fan running directly over your body, you may die.

Korean Fan Death - my fan

At first I thought Korean Fan Death (yes, it has a name) was an old superstition that only existed among people who grew up in the pre-war Korea. To my surprise, this misconception doesn’t seem to have lost any steam since South Korea became one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. Many of my university-educated, intelligent friends have no doubt that fans pose serious risks to users. In fact, many Koreans even refuse to use air conditioning without first opening a window.

I’ve spoken to several dozen Koreans about Fan Death. Any time I’m able to squeeze the subject into a conversation with a believer, I ask them to explain how Fan Death works. Nearly all of the explanations fit into of three categories:

  1. Hypothermia: The wind from the fan blows (cool) air across your body, causing sweat to evaporate more quickly than in stagnant air. This rapid evaporation cools the body until hypothermia sets in, freezing the victim to death.
  2. Low Pressure: The fast-moving wind from a fan pointed at the victim’s face creates a low-pressure system (Bernoulli’s Principle) that makes it difficult to breathe or simply sucks the oxygen out of their lungs.
  3. Super-Sharp Blades: The blades from the fan, when moving at high speeds, chop the air molecules and render them unusable by the lungs. This can either simply destroy the molecules or (worse yet) create carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide.

These fears are so deeply ingrained in Korean society for many reasons, not the least of which is that the government and media have helped spread the myth. Each summer, there are several news reports claiming that people died from using fans, despite a total lack of scientific or medical evidence. The Korean Consumer Protection Board has released multiple warnings about the dangers of electric fans in summertime. Fans are first on their list of the Top 5 Recurring Summertime Accidents.

South Korea’s largest fan manufacturer, Shinil Industrial Company, still attaches the following warning to all of its electric fans: “This product may cause suffocation or hypothermia.” It is nearly impossible to find a fan that isn’t equipped with an oscillation option and a timer.

Fan Base - Korean Fan Death

In recent years, there have been many attempts to prove that Fan Death is real. Some claim that electric fans in an enclosed room can create a convection effect that overheats the body, leading to dehydration. This explanation is significantly less silly than the others, but I’m still not convinced. What are your thoughts?

Until next time.


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