Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #9: Last Exit to Bucheon – South Korea

Last Exit to Bucheon
April 2003

The end was as swift as it was unexpected. Two days after returning from Thailand, I was informed that due to ‘downsizing’ I was to be let go. Apparently my hagwon wanted female teachers for kindergarten. I had 6 weeks left in the ‘school’ before I had to pack my bags. Although my contract didn’t finish until the middle of May, and it was the school that was breaking the contract, I had no comeback.

I was informed the other Korean teachers were angry that I didn’t accompany them on their Friday night booze fests. Apparently I wasn’t enough of a ‘team player’. The prospect of joining my fellow teachers for a four hour piss up every week was not, I admit, appealing. I once did partake, only to have to listen to bitter, drunken rants in broken English, followed by a session of nasal screeching in the local ‘noraebang’ (singing room).

My boss also made it clear I wouldn’t be receiving any severance pay, as I would not be seeing out my contract. The fact that it was he who had broken the contract didn’t seem to occur to him. Luckily, the unprofessionalism of my hagwon worked in my favour. I knew they weren’t paying all their taxes so I simply photocopied all the class registers and threatened to go to the authorities. Suddenly I was to be given my severance pay, my deposit and my airfare. In the end the whole episode was a blessing in disguise. I got a new job within a week, with better money, less hours and all teaching would be done via the internet. The episode illustrated the worthlessness of contracts in the ESL industry in Korea. They are literally not worth the paper they are written on. And unfortunately for many prospective teachers coming over to Korea, there is no real way of knowing what sort of hagwon you are walking into.

There are, however, some simple precautions you can take to make sure your new employers aren’t complete wankers.

Before you go:
Research the area you will be moving to. Too many recruiters claim that your apartment is 35 minutes from Seoul. This is mostly bullshit. Find out how far you are from the local subway station. Put up a post on one of the various English teacher discussion boards asking how long it takes from your local station to the centre of Seoul. Make sure you get current teachers’ email addresses so you can get more information about your prospective school.

However, don’t trust the other foreign teachers at the school…

Before you come to Korea you will probably have to do a phone teacher with one of the westerners at the school. They will always talk up the school. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Their bosses are listening in on the call.
  • They want to leave the school ASAP and can’t until they find a replacement. If you’re the replacement, well you figure it out.
  • They have been institutionalized. Late payments, sudden shift changes, split shifts; all of these have been going on for so long at their hagwon that it seems normal. It isn’t. Don’t accept it and beware of any teacher who has been in the same hagwon for more than two years.

First impressions matter. The day you arrive in Korea is often a good indicator of how you will be treated throughout the contract. Myself and a friend arrived to Incheon, only to be brought straight to the school where we were expected to view classes immediately. The Koreans seem to have no concept of jetlag and thought we would have no problem with this arrangement. After laughing in their faces we walked out of the school and told them to bring us to our respective apartments. Eventually they agreed but alas, they only had one apartment ready, so could we share? We agreed and headed to our temporary home. It was completely unfurnished apart from a solitary mattress in the corner. We kicked up a fuss and eventually another bed and some furniture were brought. The problems continued right up until Christmas. So, if they treat you like shit on day one, they are more than likely to treat you like shit on day 100.

And while it may be daunting for many on arrival in Korea, don’t put up with any shit. There are too many pathetic individuals in the ESL industry who would sleep in a public toilet if their boss asked them to. The school will swear that X teacher did the same last year without complaint, and so many feel obliged to do so as well. Too many Westerners, brainwashed by their ‘Guide to Korean Etiquette’ book they read on the plane, believe they will lose face if they complain. Again, if you let yourself be walked over on day
one, you will be walked over on day 100.

Don’t try and change the world. More than likely the Korean teachers at your school won’t be able to speak English properly. Therefore they won’t be able to teach it either. You will more than likely come across countless mistakes in work they have corrected. Ignore it. This is not your problem. If the children’s parents want to offload their kids to a second rate English school, let them. By pointing out these mistakes you will not be winning any friends in the office, so why bother? While this may seem like seem like extreme cynicism on my part, the English teaching industry in Korea is so fucked up, that irregular interventions on your part will make sod all difference in the long run.

Luckily for me, my ‘sacking’ meant I was able to leave the urban nightmare that is Bucheon. This satellite town on the eastern outskirts of Seoul is a vile, vile place. Unfortunately my hagwon was located in the worst part of it; Sosa-Dong. Sosa is a throwback to the early eighties, a rainbow of yellow and grey. Every morning I would sidestep the dry vomit and dog shit on the way to school. There was an incessant smell of sewage, garbage would be strewn about the streets, often for days on end. Stares were a constant part of day-to-day life. The locals acted like they had never seen a foreigner before. Drunks would shout abuse at us. Kids would shout ‘migook saram’ (American person) while their parents laughed and looked away. Taxi drivers, also assuming us to be American, would launch into anti-US rhetoric in broken Korean before proclaiming Korea to have invented the newspaper as well as the four seasons. That’s if they stopped. Many drivers would slow down only to speed up when they saw we were not Koreans.

This constant differentiation on the basis of the colour of your skin soon becomes wearing. It is all too easy to resort to the local expat bar every night of the week to wallow in self pity and rant on bitterly about Korea. Luckily the local western bar in Bucheon is of such low quality, that this is one temptation the English teachers of Bucheon can easily avoid. The entire population of Sosa seemed to consist of cartoonish youngsters and old, hunchback women moving cardboard around in wheelbarrows. This streetscape soon became repetitive and my ejection from the hagwon was a blessing in disguise.

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