Tag Archives: esl

Hagwons, Heli-Tiger Moms and Korean Suicide

When it comes to children and their quality of life, the heli-tiger hagwon moms never fail to amaze me in their seeming indifference toward the suffering of their children.

Working in the industry, I’ve seen firsthand the spirit-crushing results of their insatiable demand for more education: Long hours in hagwons; even longer hours of homework; kids passing out from lack of sleep; kids who have just stopped trying; kids who only put effort into cheating. I even had one student tell me she wished she had never been born because her life was a constant cycle of homework and test prep.

For the hapless hagwon owner, interactions with the heli-tiger moms are a regular, if slightly irritating, occurrence.  “My kid doesn’t have enough homework,” or “My child should be in a higher level,” are stereotypes to anyone who’s taught in a hagwon for a couple of months.  At my previous job, a mother had her kid secretly time teachers with a stopwatch, then asked for (and received!) a discount based on time not spent teaching.  All of these are perhaps justifiable.

After what I heard today, perhaps “seeming indifference” is giving too much credit to some of these moms.  We received a complaint over the phone that two fourth-grade children in a class together are coming home in “too good of a mood.”  Apparently we aren’t doing a good job as a hagwon because children are still happy after three hours in our classrooms.  (I’m as surprised as they are.)

Think of it:  The mothers of these two boys sat down at Tom n’ Tom’s for cappucinos and made a joint decision that their boys’ light-hearted moods warranted intervention.  How does this even come up in conversation?

Mom A: “Have you noticed anything odd about your boy, lately?”

Mom B: “I’ve noticed that he smiles when he comes home from academy. I think something might be wrong with his education. What kind of teacher leaves children in a good mood?  And what kind of academy allows such teaching methods to continue unchecked?”

Mom A: “It’s like you’re reading my mind!  Tuesdays and Thursdays, my boy’s got a hop in his step and a twinkle in his eye — unbecoming traits for the future CEO of Samsung.  I thought maybe I was doing something wrong at home, but clearly it’s the fault of his academy.  I will call them when I get home.  Happiness is all well and good for an executive at Doosan, but we’re not paying first-tier money for second-tier employment.  If nothing else, maybe we can get a discount.

In stroke of serendipity, Ask a Korean! is discussing the country’s notoriously high suicide rate this week, and that extends to youths as well.  I know correlation does not equal causation, but there’s enough evidence to put the theory forward.

–Daniel Daugherty



Filed under Culture Shock, Students

Why Would Anyone Go Back to the US?

Ever since our arrival, Jen and I have basically planned on doing two years here. We’re half way through and I’m beginning to think about what to do a year from now.  A lot of people I know have gone back home to the States, and it seems like plenty of other people are planning to leave.  Why?  The more I think about it, moving back to the US would be a huge financial risk.dollar bill in a mousetrap

I plan to have ~$10,000 saved up by the end of my next contract. As soon as I arrive in the US, it will begin to disappear. The first thing I’ll have to do is buy a car, because you can’t get a job in the US without one. A car means extra financial costs like gasoline, insurance and maintenance, plus a lot of extra stress. Then I’ll have to plunk down a deposit for an apartment and start paying rent.

Then I have to hope I land a job with a reasonable salary. With a car and the fact that I have to pay for my own apartment, I estimate I’ll need to make 50 percent more per year than I do in Korea. Yeah, I spend like a rock star here, but I also don’t have to pay for my housing or a car. Transportation, internet and doctor visits are all very cheap here. Going back into credit card debt looks like a very real possibility, even if I have a job.

Let me also re-emphasize the sobering fact that, thanks to a bunch of loud-mouths at town hall meetings and the distressingly ineffective government who does what they say, I won’t have easy, affordable access to doctors and dentists. This means everything I do becomes a risk. Playing sports? I’m pushing 30 and have seen more than one friend tear an ACL during casual athletic activities. Car accident? “Don’t take me in the ambulance, I can only afford to hitchhike.” Candy at the movies? I’d better not risk a cavity.Jesus Told me Public Health care is wrong

Meanwhile, I really don’t want to make a career out of ESL. Especially not in Korea, where none of my experience counts for anything outside of the country.

One thing’s for sure:  I’m going to have to start taking some risks in the not-too-distant future.


Filed under Daily Life

Feeling Wanted: Searching for ESL Jobs in Korea

Job searches suck for the same reason that some people hate being single. It’s a lot of effort with no guaranteed results and a better-than-average chance of destroying your self-esteem.  You gotta spiff up your resumé — always uplifting — read through hundreds of listings, write original cover letters, hope you actually get called back and — depending on the job and how badly you need a paycheck — feign enthusiasm during your interview.

search for "job"

Finding work in Korea is almost this easy.

Of course, you’re lucky if you even get called back.  After a couple weeks with nothing to show for your efforts, this routine  can decrease one’s sense of self worth — or increase one’s sense of self loathing.

When you finally get an offer, you’re so desperate to end this cycle of rejection that you quickly settle for yet another job that will probably fail to fulfill your personal needs and ambitions but successfully reinforces what you took away from your college readings of Marx and Gramsci.

For me, though, the job-search blues are a thing of the past. I am an ESL teacher in Korea and I’ve never felt more important.

Not to have a big head about it, but I am a pretty desirable candidate for most hagwon jobs. In Korea, white privilege benefits even more than it has in the US. But besides being white and green-eyed, I possess a Master’s degree and have a year of experience living and working in a hagwon.  This makes me:

a) Marketable to parents who want their children taught by Americans who value education

b) Less of a gamble for the hagwon owners

The first one is marketing but the second one is smart spending.  Foreign teachers are the highest paid employees with the best benefits, but we’re also high-risk employees. Why take a chance on some foreigner who’s never been to Korea and has a legit chance of quitting mid-contract because he/she doesn’t like the food or know how to get along in Korean culture?  It’s much safer to roll with someone who’s already completed a yearlong contract.

The result for me has been same-day responses from recruiting companies and hagwons. I’ve gotten so many replies that I lost track of who I’d been in touch with and the details of each job.  I’ve even gotten calls and emails from recruiters who I’ve never contacted.  Now I know what it’s like to be a large-breasted female on MySpace.

The downside is that job interviews have monopolized most of my free time.  The upside is that I’ve been offered a position on upwards of 90 percent of them, usually the same day of the interview.

With most of them I’m glad I didn’t accept.  Online communities like theyeogiyo.com and Dave’s ESL Cafe were helpful places to get information about the companies and branch offices  I applied to.  After learning about their reputations or specific instances of employee abuse, I declined interviews with several potential employers.  Other jobs were previously held by friends and acquaintances I’ve met here in Bundang.  Two jobs that seemed really promising during the interview looked a lot different after getting an insider’s perspective.

As of this posting, I seem to have a good gig lined up, teaching at a kindergarten in Jukjeon.  Now I’m just waiting to hear back about getting a furnished apartment.  Between that and my salary demands, they may decide I’m too expensive.  Stay tuned.

Daniel Daugherty


Filed under Employment Details

Delay of Game Penalty: Watching the NFL in Korea

Alongside banking and worrying about the food, one of my chief concerns before coming to Korea was how I’d watch NFL games.  While I really don’t care much about other sports, I’m a huge fan of the NFL.  Not only do I hate missing my favorite team, I run pick ’em pools, play in fantasy leagues, and throw down the odd wager when I see a point spread I like.  I reserve Sundays from September through January for going to a bar, getting drunk and gorging myself on wings while surrounded by TVs.

For an American in Korea, the challenges to maintaining a commitment to NFL fandom are three-fold.  Overcoming any one of them means you’ll have to sacrifice time, money, convenience or employment status.

The first problem is time zones.  Games begin at 2a.m. in Korea (3a.m. once clocks are switched in the US) and pretty much all ESL teachers have to work on Mondays.  Staying awake all night long isn’t really an option if you care about your job.

Supposing you’re willing and able to stay awake all night watching football, you are presented with the problem of finding a live broadcast.  While bars close at varying hours in Korea, I doubt you’ll find many who broadcast live NFL games.  While I’m told a bar like this exists, I’ve never seen it and it’s certainly not in my city, Bundang.

Another option for the night owl is streaming games live online.  This is realistic for Sunday and Monday night games, which usually start at 9:30a.m.(10:30 after the clock switch).  You can have beer for breakfast and get your live football fix.  For this I suggest doing a Google search and downloading Sopcast Player.  The only downside is you’ll be watching a Chinese broadcast — better brush up on your Mandarin.

Okay, so maybe you prefer watching games in the evening, over beers, with English commentary and other human beings.  You’re willing to make some sacrifices.  Where do you view NFL games from the previous day?  Expat bars are the obvious place to check.  Traveler’s Bar & Grill in Seohyeon shows six games a week, three on Monday night and three on Tuesday night.  I go for wing night every Tuesday.  Pub 210, also in Seohyeon, has shown games for me when I asked ahead of time.  It’s worth shooting ’em a Facebook message.

Still, this isn’t always reliable.  What if your local expat-oriented watering hole isn’t showing the game you want to see?  What if you just don’t wanna drop 30,000 won weekly?  What if you don’t live near an expat bar?  The cheap, mostly convenient solution is downloading videos with your bit torrent client.  I’ve done this most of the season.  I won’t share the exact URL but you should be able to find a tracker if you Google search for “NFL torrents” or something similar.

Of course, if you are serious about live football games, or reliable access to taped games, you can pay for NFL GamePass.  To me this is a little expensive (~US$300) but you could find some buddies to split it with.  The downside to splitting is that access is limited to one IP address at a time.  No problem.  You’ve got an excuse for a weekly NFL party.  This is what I’m doing for the playoffs and I think it might be as close to the ideal as we can get.  The playoff package costs ~US$70.  I can now watch all post-season games on demand without commercial interruption.

Even when you pay a premium, there’s one last problem:  Spoilers.  One week, I waited two days to see what was the biggest game of the season to that point, Patriots-Jets, for the inside track on the division championship.  I avoided all NFL-related blogs and news, Facebook and even my fantasy team’s results.  All my friends and family had been instructed to keep it the result to themselves.  Amazingly, I went to the bar completely ignorant of the game’s outcome.

As I sat down with my beer and my knock-off Tedy Bruschi jersey at Pub 210, a drunk girl at another table asked if I was there to see the big game.  “Don’t bother,” she said.  “The Patriots win in a blow-out.”

-Daniel Daugherty


Filed under Daily Life

Money Management in Korea

foreign money

Editor’s Note: A while back, Daniel posted with questions about banking and money management.  Visitors to this site frequently find us after searching for related search terms.  Here’s an update on his banking experience in Korea.

Even on a good day, it’s easy for Western expats to bitch about Korea.  People rush onto elevators and subway cars without letting others off first; ajosshis will shout and treat you like a child if you speak too loudly on the bus; most Korean websites are optimized for Internet Explorer 6.0 and incompatible with Firefox.  Little frustrations are always just around the corner.

However, Korea gets some things right, too.  They have yeogiyo buttons — roughly translated as “Please come here” — on your restaurant table for summoning waiters; an excellent public transit system; an ambitious, nationwide recycling and composting program.  All three of these things put the US to shame.  The one thing that really stands out, though, is banking.

First off, pretty much everyone is  paid with direct deposit.  This means far fewer trips to the bank and if I want my salary itemized  I can go online to view and print all the details.

Within a week of arriving, my hagwon’s office managertook me to the bank and held my hand through all the paperwork.  They even made my ATM card on premise and handed it to me within minutes of setting up the account.  Other banks don’t do it that way, I’m told.  In case you want to know, I use Korea Exchange Bank, known for their red and blue logo that says “KEB.”

If you’re like me, too lazy to balance your checkbook once a week, you’ll have no more excuses in Korea.  Along with the bank card, they gave me a book for balancing my account.  I insert it into a special slot on the ATM and it works just like a bank card in that I can access my account.  It also updates the balance information and prints it into the book.  The machine even flips the pages(!) to continue printing.

An ATM that balances your checkbook might sound overcomplicated, but they’ve streamlined everything else about banking.  If I want to buy something on Craigslist, the seller emails me his account number and the name of his banking institution, then I enter this information at the ATM and the money appears in his account instantly. As far as I can tell, there’s no fee for sending money to another bank.  (The postal service here is also worth mentioning — Jen once received a package less than 24 hours after transferring a payment through the ATM.)

Of course, I don’t just want to blow my paycheck on secondhand items I find online.  I also need to pay bills and save money using accounts back in the States.  That requires international money transfers — an expensive transaction no matter where you are.  Well, KEB has made my life easier.  They offer an international transfer account that comes with a significantly smaller transfer fee than any bank in the US, less than US$10

Low fees aren’t even the best part.  The money is usuallyin my US account the same day. Jen has K*B and her money transfers just as quickly.

As for setting up the transfer account, prior preparation will help things go easier.  Before leaving for Korea, ask someone at your local bank branch for all the information you would need to give a foreign bank to set up international money transfers.  Then make sure you have your account number written down and safely stashed until you arrive in Korea.

I’m especially impressed by KEB.  Each of the three branches I’ve used in Bundang had at least one competent English speaker on hand.

One word of warning:  When you arrive in Korea, you might not be paid for a month or longer.  Many people end up using Paypal to borrow cash from their parents.  Make sure you speak with someone at Paypal before leaving the country and have them put a note on your account that says you will be in Korea after such-and-such date.  When you log into Paypal from Korea, your account will be automatically frozen.  Just phone Paypal with Skype, then when they see your account they’ll know to unfreeze the money immediately after confirming your identity with account details.

If you do a little legwork and collect the important information ahead of time, money management should be a snap.

Daniel Daugherty


Filed under Daily Life

Racism, Robots and Marketing: TEFL in Korea

I always joke that my employer, Avalon English, is like the Fawlty Towers of educational institutions.  All matters related to product quality, education and worker efficiency eventually come down to marketing and the school’s image.  The company will fall all over itself to maintain or improve an image of quality and prestige, often sacrificing both in the process.

E-Writing is a fine example.  Some parents pay extra money for the privilege of having their children submit weekly essays via the Internet.  I am required to hand out semi-related worksheets to all students who aren’t enrolled in the program, part of a guerrilla marketing campaign to get Mom and Dad to ask “What’s this E-Writing all about?”  This is no doubt touted as a great technological whizz-bang fix-all for their child’s poor ability to organize thoughts with a pencil.  After all, it uses computers!

What parents actually pay for is the privilege for their children to type into a box and click “submit.”  There are few formatting options and the only thing that seems to matter is word count, which is automatically tracked.  There’s  not even a basic spell-check function.

After submitting, the essays are read by an anonymous, likely underpaid, individual in the Philippines.  Though I’m the writing teacher, I cannot access the essays.  You figure it out.

With that in mind, you shouldn’t be too shocked by the latest technological “advancement” coming to ESL classrooms in Korea.  Thirty ESL “robots” are now employed as teachers in Daegu.  Obligatory:  The Simpsons did it!


"No, Juho. 'Linguo IS dead.'"

The “robot” — technically, it’s a remote-controlled automotive computer shaped like a person — reflects another cultural idiosyncrasy tied to marketing:  The preference for white European features.  Like the essays I’ll never grade, it’s controlled by a teacher in the Philippines, but it displays a white female on a monitor intended to be its face.


It's only a matter of time until students throw food at Engkey.

No pun intended, here’s the money quote from Sagong Seong-Dae, a senior scientist the Korean Institute for Science and Technology:  “Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea.”

The fact of the matter is that there are ESL teachers around the world who are much more qualified than I am.  However, skin color trumps all.  Are Koreans racist against non-white people?  I’m not sure.  It’s more likely that hagwons just want to promote an image of American-ness, which they perceive as white, blonde-haired and square-chinned.

The JoongAng Daily‘s take seems to confirm my impressions:

The biggest source of the current problem with foreign teachers lies in English-teaching institutes that hire teachers without careful review. Many profit-driven institutes have been employing as many Caucasian English teachers as possible without conducting thorough checks because the marketing benefits from such practice outweigh the long-term side effects.

Claims of racist hiring practices are common among foreigners and it’s usually attributed to widespread racism among Korean people.  It doesn’t help this perception when we all have to provide photographs with our resumes.  Whether or not the racism is conscious or systemic, it’s real.  Check out this excerpted letter Khadijah Anderson received from a recruiter:

Thanks for your email. I’m a former black teacher so whenever we get black applicants I like to cut right to the chase. At the moment we only have one position in Ulsan that is open to hiring black teachers. You’ve been here a while so you know the discrimination that exists in Korea.  Once in a while we get Seoul positions for black candidates but it is a rarity.

I do think there’s a reasonable expectation of conscious individual racism here because this is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries on the planet, but this doesn’t reflect my — admittedly white — personal experience.  In my Avalon branch we peaked at eight foreign teachers.  Of those eight, four were non-white and included individuals of Japanese, Pakistani, Argentinian and black ethnic backgrounds.  Whether any of us are actually qualified to teach English is another matter.

It looks like the Korean government might be trying to lead a change toward meritocracy, though.  Per Brian Deutsch, EPIK, a program for hiring public school teachers, seeks to hire Indian foreign teachers.

Daniel Daugherty

Update: Fixed the Linguo photograph, which wasn’t loading.  I also changed the wording around Khadijah Anderson’s letter, which made it sound like she was accusing all Koreans of being racist.  To clarify, the letter was a surprise because she has had a positive personal experience as a black female in Korea.

Update 2: Corrected spelling of Ms. Anderson’s first name


Filed under Culture, Employment Details

Homebrewing in Korea

July and August have been busy months for me here.  So busy, in fact, that my contact with family members is reduced to refuting various forwarded emails concerned with Barack Obama’s religious preferences and trying to set up this year’s NFL football pool ($100 buy-in, leave a comment if you’re interested).  One of the purposes of this blog is to keep friends and family up to speed on what I’m doing, so I thought I’d get around to it.

Our homebrewing mess

Our kitchen on brew day.

My biggest development lately is that I’ve started homebrewing again.  The main reason for this is that beer in South Korea is worse than Budweiser or Miller Lite.  Dogs would rather die from dehydration than risk a sip of Cass or Hite — or as I like to call them, Ass and Shite — over-processed, nutritionally deficient  macrobrews.  Having spent a large chunk of my life in western North Carolina, I’m disappointed.  The Seoul microbrewing “scene” is not adequate for a world-class metropolis.

Meanwhile, imported beers are too expensive to take home regularly, and they don’t have many styles — it’s all pilsener.  Of all places, North Korea produces a pilsener-style beer that tastes similar to many quality German brews.  The only problem is that, as far as I know, you can’t buy it outside of the DMZ gift shops.

Now, I like cheap-ass beer for tailgating and general binge drinking, but when I’m relaxing at home or hanging out with a friend, I like savoring what I eat and drink.  So I got a buddy at work who willingly overpays for decent beers to go in with me on homebrewing equipment and last weekend we cracked open our first batch of pale ale, made from a malt extract.

Grain bed

Inside our mash cooler, grains soak in hot water to stimulate enzyme activity, converting starches into sugars. The grains are kept in mesh "tea bags" for the sake of convenience.

Given our laughably simple set-up, I thought it’d turn bad for sure, especially with the high temperature I keep in the apartment — around 77F.  The temperature did me a favor, though, causing a fast fermentation that ensured there wasn’t time for nastiness to grow in our beer.  The results were encouragingly drinkable.

Extract brewing is a little too simplistic, though, and I wanted to pick up where I left off years ago, with all-grain brewing.  After finding a free cooler in my apartment building — they run upwards of $70 for even a basic model here — we were able to go all-grain with our second batch, a wheat beer which is busily bubbling away in the living room as I type this out.

Sparge bitch

Naved, the designated sparge bitch.

Our process needs refinement, but I’m confident that we’ll get it down with practice.  Our biggest problem was not having enough hot water on hand to rinse out the grains.  Our batch is a little smaller than our five-gallon target.  Live and learn, I guess.  The next step is a keg, and maybe a cheap kimchi fridge to keep it cold.

-Daniel Daugherty

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Filed under Daily Life