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, apparently) hate 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.
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.
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.