So You’re Heading To Korea — A 10 Point Checklist

•August 17, 2008 • 5 Comments

Soon I am going to be in the surreal situation of knowing over a half dozen folks in Korea from my high school and college days: Alex, Chris, Nick, Raj, John, and Russ will all be here in less than 10 days from now.  Crazy.

Given that, I’ve been leaned on for advice more than a few times over the last couple of weeks, and though I love to help people get adjusted, I sometimes worry that I’ll forget something important. Then I realized that there is really no singular post online from a reputable source (that source being myself, appointed by… myself) that prepares prospective hagwon teachers for some of the essential things you only learn when you get here.

Here’s a checklist of the top 10 things you need to know before living in Korea as a hagwon teacher for a year.

1. Don’t panic.

Korea is an industrialized country, which means in most places Western amenities, food, and even books and literature are available for your purchasing pleasure.

Former teacher Shawn Roe had this excellent advice: “everything costs about as much as you would pay in America – everything except American imports and Korean products that you can only get in Korea.”  For example, soju, the Korean liquor of choice, runs about $1 for a 12 oz bottle (40 proof).  A can of Budweiser runs you $3.  A steak at Outback is $35.  Adjust your expectations accordingly.

2. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you will just ship some of your stuff later.

I got burned on this last winter.  One Navy P-Coat in the cheapest possible shipping method: $105.  It’s not worth it to ship.  Instead, bring everything you can fathom needing in Korea (non-replaceable items, unique items, music equipment [not guitars] if you are into that) and eat the overweight charge on the airplane.  Trust me, it’s the right call.  While 50 lbs cost me $50 on United, that would easily run you into the upper hundreds/lower thousands to ship to Korea, never mind the 4-6 week delay, if the package actually ever arrives.

Speaking of which, Korean weather is subject to the 4 seasons, meaning despite global warming hype the winters here are more bitterly cold than Bea Arthur after a one night stand.  And the summers are more humid than Seth Rogan’s armpit after he runs a 10k.

3. If you are a guy bring a year’s supply of shaving cream and deodorant.  If you are a girl bring a year’s supply of tampons and deodorant.

This is essential.  Not only are these items harder to find, they run at quadruple the price and are of course totally necessary to every day living.  Of course, if you are hypochondriacally inclined, you may use the opportunity to go au’ natural to simultaneously lower your risk of getting Alzheimer’s and of getting laid.

Thinking about going mountain man?  Though it provides the benefit of helping you not look like a G.I. (there’s a lot of distrust and tension here among the locals due to equal parts accidents that killed little girls and irrational xenophobia), Korean women (and kids, apparentlyhate facial hair.  It’s not a dealbreaker though I went 2 months without a date here and suddenly got 3 out of nowhere the moment I shaved my Menonite beard thing off (Justin has now appropriated it, good luck to you sir).

4. Learn a few phrases to get you jump-started.

Thank you = Kahm-sahm-ni-da

Please give me “X.” =  “X”  joo-sey-yo.

Hello (literally ‘are you at peace?‘) = Ann-young-hah-sey-yo.

Goodbye (when you are leaving) = Ann-young-i-gyeh-sey-yo.

Also, learn the Korean alphabet, hangeul, as soon as you get here.  Reading will take you a long way here, especially in terms of ordering food and avoiding the ingestion of rat poison.  Don’t worry it’s really easy and will probably take you about a week before you become a readin’ fiend (not to mention the unexpected joy of being surprised when you read something and understand it.  One of the few opportunities to feel like you are 3 again.)

5. Korean food is spicy.

In fact, 75% of the more delicious dishes are red (do you like how I say ‘in fact’ specifically before a completely arbitrary number?).  If you have a weak stomach (or are Canadian), then prepare for some serious discomfort.  However, I’ve yet to find a dish that is too spicy to eat, and if you are just a little adventurous you’ll quickly adjust to the spice level and even start getting a bit offended when the restauranteur checks to see if you can handle spice or not (it’s not really worse than Cajun food, and is definitely less intense than the worst India has to offer).

Don’t be that guy/gal that just eats kim bap and mandu; explore a little bit.  (But bring the Tums just in case.)

6. Korea is much more socially conservative than America.

I guess this is mostly directed at the guys: basically the kinds of things that are friendly in the United States — i.e. giving a girl a hug when you say goodbye, kissing on the first date even on the cheek — is likely to make members of the opposite sex extremely uncomfortable here if unsolicited.

However, as with any culture there are exceptions to the rule, women who either don’t care about the social conventions or who spent significant time studying in an English speaking country. As for the gals, don’t be surprised if you get funny looks when you show a little cleavage (though legs seem to be ok, even in the winter women here wear mini-skirts and high heels sometimes).

Corollary: For as awkward as physical interaction with strangers of the opposite sex may be, you might be taken aback by the extreme level of closeness and affection members of the same sex share.  It’s very common for girls to hold each other’s hands as well as for guys to come up from behind you, put their arms around your shoulder and look at what you are doing with their face in uncomfortable proximity to yours.  Don’t worry, no one is coming on to you (I mean, probably), it’s just a cultural thing.

7. Get your fill of Mexican food and the restaurant Chili’s before you come.

I’m honestly not a Chili’s-nut like many of my buddies here, but a common refrain is “When I go back I am going to eat the hell out of the bottomless chips and salsa.”  As for Mexican food, they just don’t have the right cheeses here, which as you can imagine, makes for a very Velveeta experience.  Just don’t eat it before the plane.  (Buffalo Wings are also hard to come by here as well, in case you are a wing-nut like me.)

New Development: There is apparently an On The Border in the COEX mall.  Since it’s a chain there’s a good chance the ingredients might be right, though I’m not holding my breath.

8. If you are arriving soon before September 13 or Chinese New Year, bring an extra $1000 to plan a vacation.  Make that plan immediately after you arrive here.

One of the drawbacks to hagwon instructing is that the vacation times are shorter compared to public schools (of course, the hours can also be shorter and we don’t generally have to go into work until the afternoon, if you are a late-riser type).  That means on the big holidays you really need to have something planned or at least the capital to make something happen so you don’t miss out on these essential holidays.  Sept 13 is Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), and Chinese New Year is Lunar New Year here, which are both long national holidays.

Unfortunately, if you are stuck without plans, there is pretty much nothing to do in Korea during those times as most people use the opportunity to take vacations.  So meet up with people coming here, people you already know here, or contact some of the foreign teachers at your school and see if you can hop on their plans.  Tickets sell out really fast, as EVERYONE is leaving at the same time (unless you choose a destination Koreans don’t typically care for).

Additional Advice: Were you like me when I first got here, and ‘bringing an extra $1000’ seemed more laughable than practical?  Ask your hagwon for an advance, they’ll generally understand that you only have a few chances to travel.

I personally recommend Seong Jong Ho and Tourjoy as the best travel agencies.  I also booked a trip with Wystan Kang, who speaks great English and seemed fine, though I know a few people who’ve been burned by him forgetting to submit Visa information in a timely manner.

Want to travel on the cheap?  A train from Seoul to Busan and a boat from Busan to Fukuoka, Japan is only about $250 round trip.  Alex, Jason, Yong, and I did that in March and it was a blast.  Except for Alex who got lost.

9.  Shoes.

If you have an average size foot, male or female, just go ahead and get your shoe shopping done back at home.  I have a hard time finding size 11, and they just laugh at Jason when he asks for a size 13.

That goes for clothes too.  Basically Itaewon is the best place to shop for foreigners if only because of size availability.  It’s not a lost cause if you are bigger, it’s just that your options are very limited.

10. Regardless of what your recruiter says, bring at least $1000 to get you started before your first pay check.

You will want to go out, and you will want to buy things for your apartment.  It’s good to have some breathing room.

Honorable mentions: I’ve heard the pill is pretty hard to get here as well.  Stock up on your contraceptive of choice. (I apparently heard wrong, thank you anonymous yet slightly undiplomatic commenter!) Also, go ahead and forget about those dreams of paying back your student loans unless you dedicate yourself to a tight budget early on.  The urge to go out at night and eat delicious grilled meats over cheap Korean beer is irresistible and if you start borrowing money from the first month just to subsidize your social habits (no value judgment, just saying if your priority is saving), you’ll find yourself digging out of that initial debt your entire stay here.


Three Chord (Cigarette, Nicotine, Caffeine Induced) Love Song

•July 24, 2008 • 4 Comments

Ok, ok, I realize that I haven’t been telling stories lately.  Trust me, what with Snyder being here now, discovering a new side to Hongdae, and JUSTICE coming in early August (not to mention my upcoming Malaysian and Singaporean prison stays) I’ll have plenty to talk about later.  

For now, here’s a demo of what I wrote last night:

Three Chord (cigarette, nicotine, caffeine induced) Love Song

I’ll be posting more as soon as I record ’em.

Poor Quality Demo Exposing My Strange Obsession With Grandmas

•July 8, 2008 • 2 Comments

Those of you who are die-hard Manus Evil fans (and that list would include precisely my mom) might remember that I’ve already featured the ubiquitous Grandma Jean in my song John Locke Must Be Spinning In His Grave.  We’ll she’s back – in playground form.  I whipped this together quickly on my Mac microphone so the quality is arse but you’ll get the idea if you just turn it up a bit.


Can’t Speak For Grandma


Let me know what ya think in the comments.

David goes to the hospital: More Proof American Health Care Is Broken

•May 18, 2008 • 3 Comments

Going to a hospital in a foreign country has to be one of the top 10 most frightening experiences I can imagine while traveling (what’s that snake for? Doc? DOC?!?!).  That’s why you can understand my anxiety in going to seek medical care here in Korea not once, but twice in the last week.  Luckily, my fears proved not just to be unfounded, but opened my eyes in a lot of ways to the kind of treatment we should expect back in America.

I’m not alone, I suspect, in my distrust of physicians when it comes to common illnesses.  When I was in my teens, my family sought out a half-dozen practitioners of different specialties to figure out what was causing my chronic, persistent cough.  A few said I had a lung disease, one diagnosed me with asthma, it was even speculated that I had tuberculosis or the whooping cough! (perhaps cause for a second opinion)  It wasn’t until a pediatrician named Dr. McCormick (Mr. McCormick’s wife) identified pollen and dust, not a pernicious virus, as the culprit that I found relief from the often-painful coughing spasms that would wake me up in the middle of the night.  

Now obviously, medicine is an art, and not an exact science.  I don’t really blame doctors for getting it wrong, even though it should have been obvious to all of us that the spring phenomenon of every car looking like it just received a yellow paint job in Carrollton was a sign that maybe allergies were the cause for my malady.  The issue is that their misdiagnosis came with a heavy cost; even though my parents had state insurance, the co-payments and the time it takes to find appointments were debilitating to say the least.  And that was back in 1998.  

Well, my first run-in with the Korean version of quackery was in Jeju.  I developed indigestion and started getting hot flashes and a nasty cough, pretty much out of nowhere on the last day of the trip.  Virus-time baby.  Jin insisted that I stop in a hospital, a solution that seemed a bit drastic for symptoms that in college, I would normally just suffer through and instead drink orange juice (maybe take some DayQuil if I had the cash).  I wasn’t dying, it was going to go away by itself in a few days.  

But by chance we passed a local, government-run hospital, and Eunjin assured me that it was going to be ok.  She’d translate for me after all, and she’s lived 26 years attending these kinds of practices.  Clearly, nothing terrible was going to happen.

I walk into the office, head swimming, and take off my shoes (oh yeah, you have to do that basically everywhere).  I sit down and try to concentrate on what Eunjin and the lady doctor were saying.  She asks for my national ID number.  I give it to her but, oop, not registering on her computer!  Great.

No problem, Eunjin says, I’ll just put it on my insurance.  Are you kidding me?  I’m incredulous at this point, both that they’d allow my care on someone else’s insurance plan, but also that she would eat the cost and drive up her own premium.  Little did I know that the favor amounted to less than buying me a Coke at a convenience store.

After asking for my symptoms, (목 앞아요!  머리 앞아요! or – My neck hurts!  My head hurts! I’ve got the expressive ability of a two year old.  And yeah, here throat, neck same difference.) she goes off and starts collecting pills and whatnot while I sit there looking/feeling miserable.

She comes back and Jin starts explaining directions that I honestly can’t even focus on.  Luckily, in Korea instead of giving you multiple pill bottles with different instructions and different purposes, they instead give you cocktails (similar to what you’d find at a nursing home) that ensure the proper dose each time it’s time for you to take the medicine.  This is done to ensure you don’t accidentally take more than one dose of the same bottle and prevents the need to memorize instructions, as well as to make it easy to carry doses in your pocket.  So she gives me about 12 packets of these things, totalling over 80 pills to treat my fever, my stomach, my cough, and one to relieve the side effects.  

Then she starts calculating the price and I brace myself.  Damn, I really should have just waited this out, I’m going to spend so much of my vacation fund on this.

900 won, she says.  

900 won?  You mean… 90 cents?  

Yeah, 900 won.

Oh. My. God.

After I returned from Jeju-do, I woke up the following Wednesday feeling like absolute garbage.  I had developed a deep, nasty miner’s cough (Who’s winning the match, pop?).  I’ll let you imagine the details.  Luckily, the symptoms the other physician treated had gone away, but now it was just all in my throat and chest.  I thought again that it would just go away, but I woke up the next morning with even worse conditions.  Thankfully, my classes were all cancelled for the day so I was able to look forward to rest… but what about the following Friday or Saturday?  I needed to act to nip this in the bud.

Again at the prodding of my girlfriend, I went to the local clinic, one specializing in Ear, Nose, and Throat medicine.  This time, however, I was on my own with no translator.  

So I walk in to the stunningly nice lobby of the clinic and walk up to the secretaries.  My listening is still pretty poor in Korean so I had trouble understanding what they wanted me to do, until I realized they just wanted me to fill out a form they printed out in English for me.  After filling out the quarter-sheet of paper with literally 5 entries (name, address, ID number, insurance number, whether you were there for ear, nose, or throat) they asked me to wait for 20 minutes.  20 minutes with no appointment?  Seriously?  Even at Emory’s student clinic I expected 90 minute to 2 hour waits on a walk-in.  

In less time than it took to read 3 pages in the book I brought with me, I was called into the doctor’s office as I was frantically looking up the necessary words on the Engilsh-Korean dictionary on my cellphone.

“So, David, looks like you have a problem with your nose and throat… would you mind describing your symptoms?”  the doctor inquired in perfect, accent-less English.  

I was a little more than surprised for two reasons: First, I was immediately treated by the doctor, not the nurse.  He was actually sitting in there waiting on me. No weight/blood pressure/height measurements (its a specialized clinic, why would those things matter anyway if I already kind of know what’s wrong with me?), no impatient questions from the nurse with answers that I’d have to just later repeat to the doctor.  Immediate care from a Ph.d in less than 20 minutes.  Amazing.

Secondly, he spoke perfect, midwestern English with no trouble navigating through technical language.  This probably shouldn’t have been surprising, as many Koreans do post-graduate studies in the US (more than from any other country, even China with 50 times the population).  I searched for the degree on the wall: UCLA Medical School.  Damn.

The doctor was efficient and sympathetic.  He was also competent.  “Hey I’m sorry I have to do this, but I’m going to prescribe you some antibiotics.  I know, I know you don’t want to build up a resistance the the drug, and they aren’t very convenient.  But you have an intermediate stage bronchitis, and I don’t want it to spread deeper in your lungs where it might become a chronic condition.  I know this because you have a phlegmy cough, your tonsils are swollen, and the symptoms you’ve described match perfectly with the virus people have been coming in here with over the last 3 weeks.  All those patients end up with bronchitis.  So, please avoid liquor and smoky environments.  And drink lots of water!  Ok, the nurse is going to take you out, just come back on Tuesday if the symptoms persist.  Feel better.”

Probably the most persuasive case that’s been made to me on any subject, it was almost like he was completing a geometric proof or something.  There was nothing for me to protest, no reason to doubt his judgement.  Basically, I felt cared for.

After the nurse took me to a very pleasant humidifier room that loosened up some of the goop in me, I headed back to the receptionist.  They handed me a bill and a prescription list (printed out, not in handwriting) for the pharmacist downstairs.  The bill was 4,200 won.  $4.20.

The pharmacy was a similarly pleasant experience.  They did the pills in the exact way as the doctor from Jeju, separated by dose, repeating the instructions the doctor gave me about eating, no drinking and how often to take them.  They also gave me what looked like a Gatorade bottle full of cough suppressant syrup that would probably take me a year to get through (new product idea: Green Mountain Phlegm).  Total cost of antibiotics plus cough suppressant: $6.60.  Where the hell am I?

So to recap, I went to the hospital and visited not nurses, but doctors twice, and received in total a liter of cough syrup and over 160 pills.  Grand total in the United States (before deductible is met, or if you don’t have insurance): $350.  Easily.  Grand total in Korea, even for a foreigner: $11.70.

Am I saying that America should follow Korea’s model?  Not necessarily, this is a country 1/6 the population of the US and smaller than Indiana.  The patent laws are also incredibly loose here, meaning that generic drugs come to market quicker (many times unethically exploiting the research and development of American firms existing copyrights and patents, as the Korean pharmaceutical industry is far from impressive).  Major surgeries also tend to have longer waiting lines and Korea faces a growing problem of over-specialization, meaning that there is a shortage of general practitioners and emergency room doctors.

However, my experience has opened my eyes in that the American health care system really does encourage people to be sick and falls on its face in terms of preventative care.  Sure, my bronchitis could have gone away on its own… but what if it developed into a more serious condition?  What if in my weakness I became more prone to catching a contagious disease, or pneumonia if I got caught in the rain?  Let alone the productivity costs to my employer if I needed to start taking days off of work, or got my students sick.  

Add to that the fact that I was treated with respect and compassion through every step of the process, my care was immediate in one place and took only 20 minutes in a crowded waiting room, and it has become clear to me that something more fundamental than whether employer mandates (Democratic plan) or the market (McCain’s plan) provide the care needs serious revision. American health care, as everyone knows, is too expensive and too much of a hassle.  That’s probably why when a Korean co-worker just casually says, “yeah, I went to the hospital today,” we Americans totally flip and probably even scare her with condolences and expressions of over-bearing concern.

Maybe its the Korean co-worker that should be concerned for us when we go back to the United States.

Pictures, Pictures, Pictures!

•May 16, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Now that Facebook allows the public sharing of photo albums, let’s give this a try rather than attempting to parse through the best ones and put them on the blog.  Here are some photos from my vacations to Beijing, Fukuoka, the Cherry Blossom Festival in Jinhye, and my recent trip to Jeju Island.  

Please comment if the public links don’t work for you so I can think of another work around.


Getting a Korean Driver’s License (or: May God Have Mercy On Us All)

•May 15, 2008 • 7 Comments

After just having returned from the beautiful Jeju Island just south of mainland Korea with Eunjin (pictures in a forthcoming post), I felt compelled to share with everyone a source of great sadness and frustration to most visitors of Korea: driving.

Now, I’m sure you’ll say, drivers are bad everywhere.  You are from Atlanta for chrissakes Ogles!  But in Atlanta I feel like I contribute to the problem so it’s difficult for me to really criticize other drivers that like to go faster than the people in the other lanes.  Trust me when I say that Korean traffic is an entirely different beast.

Perhaps one signal that the road etiquette of the people here is substandard (forgive me for a moment as this section is geared towards generating Google hits) was the ridiculously easy process of getting a license transfered from America.  As long as you have your American license (even from New Jersey!), you have to pass a physical and a written test.  Sounds daunting?

The ‘physical’ consisted of an eye test and what I like to call the “demonstrated ability to use bathroom without assistance aptitude exam.”  Or basically, they have you squat and stand back up.

The written test was thankfully in English, and required careful deliberation over questions like:

“Which of the following is NOT a proper way of loading a vehicle:
A: Secure items in trucks with rope if necessary
B: Make sure items in backseat do not obscure view
C: Carry babies and small animals in the driver’s lap


“Which of the following is NOT a proper way to change lanes”
A: Avoid changing lanes unnecessarily
B: Check your mirrors to avoid oncoming traffic
C: Accelerate and brake rapidly to punish other drivers for getting in front of you

Ok so my dad would pick choice A on that one, but I think you get the idea.  Fill out a few forms, sign your name, pay about $25 bucks, and bam Korean Driver’s License.  It’s good to be an American sometimes.

However after that challenging ordeal, you’d think I would have thought to take the opportunity to take a picture in one of the pay booths provided by the DMV to immortalize a striking, Korean license into posterity.

But instead, my cheap ass decided to use the pictures from my Chinese visa back in February.  The results, kind of a cross between Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men and a reprisal of my high school role as Prison Lesbian #3, perhaps give me cause for no small measure of regret.

Korean Driver's License

Anyways, I have a license from another country now, so that’s the important thing.  Of course this is a curse in disguise, as I was not exactly prepared for the, let’s say, liberal measures taken by Jeju city planners to control traffic.

And by that I mean that stop lights, signs, and basically stopping in general are pretty much non-existent.  I don’t think I’m alone in channeling Dennis Farina when I come across not a 4 way, not a 5 way, not even a 6 way, but a SEVEN WAY intersection with NO traffic signals.  Not to mention that none of these drivers predictably yield with any certainty.

What measures do exist are blatantly disregarded.  In Bundang, its common to see taxis and BMWs running red lights through crosswalks, with people actually crossing them.  (Driver’s calculations: If I speed up, the pedestrian probably won’t intercept me by the time I make it, as long as I can get up to 120 km/h on these city streets.  Plus, its dark so no one will be able to catch my license plate since I don’t drive with my lights on at night.  FUCK.)

In Jeju, on a half-dozen occasions drivers behind me honked wildly because I wouldn’t run through a red light on a one-lane road so that they could turn right.  Not to mention the reckless abandon that buses and the dreaded autobikes (kind of like tiny delivery motorcycles that drive on the road but also take the sidewalks when they are running late or feel like terrorizing children and old people) ignore all common sense about their own physics (buses with turning radius, autobikes with mass).

(Notice how I refer to these drivers as the machines themselves.  That’s because the notion of believing that human beings are actually operating them is both incoherent and inconsistent with observed phenomena.)

(You know it’s koreanunderground when the parenthetical statements make up 50% of the content.  And when arbitrary numbers masquerade as statistics.)

(Ok, seriously, I’ll stop now.)

Anyways, that’s not to say I’m the greatest driver.  As anyone who’s driven with me (or gone out to clubs with me, talked to ladies with me, spoken in public with me) can attest to, I’m not exactly the spitting image of smooth.  I’m the John Favreau of driving.  Ok, I’ll give myself a little credit, maybe the Jeremy Pivens.

Regardless, the whole stopping-gradually-before-the-red-light-and-accelerating-at-a-reasonable-pace-so-as-not-to-induce-motion-sickness-among-half-of-my-passengers-and-manifest-fear-soaked-paranoia-in-the-other idea hasn’t quite come around since I began driving at 17, afraid of oncoming traffic, overly-anxious of the parking lot and never quite remembering the way home…

It’s good to know that some things never change.

A new page

•April 21, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’ve created a new page to archive links to the songs I post here.  In commemoration of this groundbreaking event, why not go to the Manus Evil page, where you can hear me try not to butcher Elliot Smith.