Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

blue dot
Aug
22
2014
Culture 

Obama speaking Korean – a history

obama in korea

Note: I originally wrote this a few months ago, and it was going fine until I discovered that in President Obama’s most recent visit, he used the word “애도” – condolences – when expressing his sympathy for the victims of the Sewol disaster. That took away all my enthusiasm for this otherwise fairly light-hearted post. So, I’ll just note that he said it, he said it fine, and pass up the opportunity to link it.

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You might assume that the President of the United States would have little time to devote himself to the study of East Asian languages. In the case of Barrack Obama, all evidence suggests that you would be correct in this assumption.

Despite this, on a surprising number of occasions, Obama has managed to memorize, more or less, a short Korean phrase and drop it in to a speech.

Here is a complete history of Barrack Obama speaking Korean, or at least all the examples I could find. If I’ve missed some, please let me know. Read more

blue dot
Jul
21
2014
Culture Stories 

Some lesser-known bows

There are many guides to Korean bowing etiquette on the internet. This won’t be another.

(As for those guides, most aren’t very useful. The ones written by foreigners tend to lack detail or be inaccurate, while the ones put out by Koreans tend to suffer from a typical problem: they talk about Korean culture as it ideally should be, or perhaps as it was in the distant past, but not how it is lived today.

However, if you’re not familiar with the basics, this video guide from Seoulistic is pretty good.)

Bowing in Korea is not all that complex. Actually, until I came to write this post I had never looked at any of those guides to bowing in Korea.

Before I came to Korea, I suppose I thought of the East Asian bow (if I thought about it at all) as something a little grovelling and demeaning; something I wouldn’t enjoy. In actuality, it came naturally and quickly, and it isn’t unpleasant. Read more

blue dot
Jun
24
2014
Teaching 

How competitive is EPIK? An answer

One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How difficult is it to get in to the EPIK program?” I even wrote a long post about this, doing my best to infer the answer from economic data and Google Insights. My conclusion, broadly, was that it was not as hard to get into EPIK as people often suggested.

But it was impossible to say for sure, because while EPIK regularly reveals how many teachers it places in schools each semester, they’ve been coy about how many applicants they receive.

So I was very surprised when I received the latest edition of the EPIK newsletter, which contained this interesting revelation: Read more

blue dot
Apr
22
2014
Culture 

What not to say about the Sewol disaster

The extent to which we are personally affected by news of a tragedy is proportionate to how close we feel to its victims. So a disaster in some far-off part of the world has less of an emotional impact than one in your own country, and one in a distant city is less emotional than one affecting your neighbours.

That’s natural, and so I can understand if the Sewol tragedy is not something that greatly affected you. But for me it has been heart-wrenching. I feel a genuine sense of grief about it.

Partly this is because the details are so horrible; partly it is because of the immediacy of the video footage and the constancy of the television coverage of it here. But mostly it is because I have taught so many classes of Korean students. And so I feel like I know those kids. They could have been my students. While I’ve never taught high school, the first students I taught in Korea are now in high school; many more will enter high school next year; and the first-year university students I am teaching now are only recently graduated.

I do know those kids. I know their dreams for their future, their interests, how they acted with their friends, their teachers, the opposite sex. I know how they worked hard and how they goofed off.

But I will understand if their deaths do not affect you in quite the same way. With one exception: if, being vaguely familiar with Korea, it occurs to you to make the following speculation:

Like other Asian nations, South Korean society is based on a neo-Confucian culture which emphasises obedience to authority figures and deference to elders … “Obedient” students on the ship are among the missing, while “disobedient” students survived.

…then take a deep breath, think for a moment, and please – just shut the fuck up. Read more

blue dot
Jan
31
2014
Culture Best-of Stories 

A trip to a hostess bar

In about a month I’ll return to Korea. When I do I’ll be living in Jeollanam-do, quite close to one of my best Korean friends, KH. This makes me glad. In the past I’ve only been able to see him once or twice a year, but it’s usually been a memorable time when we have caught up.

I originally met KH in Australia, of all places. I was taking CELTA in Sydney, and he was one of the crash test dummy students who got free English lessons in exchange for being taught by incompetents. At that time he was taking a post-army, mid-university gap year, theoretically to learn English in Australia. Actually he was learning a bunch of laid-back Australian habits – marijuana, sick days, overuse of the word “mate” – that would leave him forever dissatisfied with the obligations of Korean society.

He’s a bright guy; he’s also funny. In Australia, he worked as a removalist and enjoyed subverting customers’ stereotypes about both Koreans and removalists.

“Don’t Koreans eat dog?” a customer once asked him.

“Sometimes,” he said. Slyly, he then asked them if they had a dog. They conceded they did.

“What’s it’s name?” KH asked.

“Honey.”

“Mm,” KH said; I imagine somewhat wistfully, with a slight smile. “Perfect.”

Another appealing quality of KH’s, particularly to an introvert such as myself, is that he is one of those people who enjoys bringing friends from different social circles together and then seeing what happens. A night with KH usually involves him making and receiving a number of phone calls and moving around the city from place to place, rendezvousing and separating from groups of people that he knows. Making friends with Koreans isn’t easy, so I’ll be glad to have a friend like that close by when I am back in Korea.

But one time when I visited him there were no other friends to be found. Read more

blue dot
Jan
14
2014
Teaching 

The future of teaching English in Korea, part 2: Current and future trends

Students walking away

This is the second and final part of my look at the future of teaching English in Korea. Part 1, looking at how competitive it has become to find a public school job in Korea, is here.

One of the things that started me thinking about these posts was this article on the “Golden Age” of teaching English in Korea. The other inspiration was my own effort to find something a little more permanent for myself in Korea; something beyond the endless series of one-year contracts and one-room apartments offered by the public school system. Read more

blue dot
Dec
09
2013
Teaching 

The future of teaching English in Korea, part 1: How competitive is it to find a public school job?

“Positions in Korean public schools are becoming increasingly competitive.”

This is something you hear a lot; I’ve written it myself on here a few times. Sometimes you will hear even more alarmist things. “GEPIK is finished.” “The recruiters all have waiting lists.” “There are ten applicants for every EPIK position.” “In five years, there won’t be any native teachers at public schools in Korea.”

But what is the truth of all this? Official figures are hard to find, and much of it seems to exist only on the ever-rampant, never-terribly-reliable foreigner community grapevine. Read more

blue dot
Nov
29
2013
Teaching 

A university job

I got a university job. Barring some sort of calamity – a possibility I am trying not to think about too much – I will be working at a small, private university in Jeollanam-do from the beginning of March. Listen carefully and you can probably hear my excited yell from way over here in Australia. Read more

blue dot
Nov
18
2013
Living 

What to do in your first year in Korea

A minority of people who come to teach English in Korea are, I suppose, just economic refugees: unable to get a job at home, and in Korea for the money. But I don’t think this is true for most people. For most people it is a chance to do something different with their lives; to live overseas for a year or more, to experience another culture and hopefully change and develop as a person.

And yet for many people who come to Korea, this idea seems to go awry at some point. At first, they drink and find it all exciting, then they drink and find it all frustrating and hostile and alien, and eventually they go home with not much to show for it but some stories of cheap alcohol, clubbing in Seoul, and Koreans always telling them things at the last minute.

Why is this? I don’t always have the highest opinion of many of my fellow waegukin. Often, the problem is with the people themselves. For some, particularly the less mature ones, this really is what they had in mind by “exploring another culture” – seeing some beaches and temples and getting drunk in them. Meeting people from other countries, and sleeping with them. A sort of post-university gap year. I’m not making a moral judgment, because I was young once, too, and almost everyone goes through a period of acting up when they first get here – more on that later – but the people who come here only seeking that sort of experience can give everyone here a bad name, and leave a lot of damage behind when they go home. So I’m not going to defend them, either. I can understand wanting to have those experiences, but expecting to be paid for them is a bit much. Read more

blue dot
Nov
01
2013
Living 

Coming home, and going back

My university work is finished. Excluding something really dramatic, like nuclear war or the administration office losing their record of my fee payments, I’ll graduate in December with a Masters of Education (TESOL). Small – very small – applause, please.

I’ve done well, too. Since I’ve been back I’ve had nothing but high distinctions for everything I’ve had graded, and I think my final essays will also get very good grades. I’ve had the luxury of time to work on them, and I’ve been able to get engaged with researching and writing them. My professors seem to think I write well. Perhaps even smaller applause for that one; I once wanted to be a writer, you know.

In other ways, being back in Australia has been a sort of enveloping, unchallenging nothingness. Read more