Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Should you be worried about MERS?

Unless you've been spending a lot of time with Middle Eastern camels or tending to sick people in hospitals, then...


Why not?

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Day In The Life of a Hagwon Teacher

I decided to make the big leap from the 'safety' of public school to the 'high risk' environment of hagwons. All my research on Korea led me to blacklists of hagwons, and chipper Epik blogs, which led me to believe that a public school would be paradise and hagwons would exploit me and forbid me to use their bathrooms and kitchens, charge me to use the textbooks they provide, refuse to pay me on time and in full, and so on.

Well, actually, those last three things happened to a public school friend of mine.

As for me... My public school experience was average. Sure, I got a nutso main co-teacher, but I had 5 or 6 other co-teachers who were marvellous. I made friends with the staff, had lovely students, and generally enjoyed myself. My main problem with public school was actually the same thing that had drawn me to it in the first place. I went into public school thinking that the Epik program would protect me from the exploitation and screw-overs that permeate the private sector. Instead, it was the office of education (who employ the Epik teachers) that made it awful. They took what was a god job and slowly but surely stripped all the joy out of it; forcing us to do pointless extra work for no pay during vacation time where we otherwise spend 10% of it planning a year's worth of lessons and 90% of it learning fancy origami from youtube videos and counting our own freckles. The most diligent of us would spend that free time getting masters degrees or completing endless MOOCs, or doing creative work, but for the most part that didn't happen. Then they started cutting the budget because of politics, and cutting EPIK jobs, and suddenly people who joined it because they thought it was safer than Hagwons ended up being treated exactly the same way, or worse than the blacklisted hagwons we've heard about online.

Ranty rant rant... Anyway. I moved to a hagwon.

It's part of a mid-range franchise, in a suburb on the outskirts of Ulsan. Because of the franchise, each month or so there's a directors' meeting which means the school gets shut down and I get the day off. That's nice.

I did my research on this job, and got in touch with the teacher I replaced. She even made a 'how-to' manual for the textbooks we use, although it's mostly pretty self-explanatory.

Maybe the best way to give you an idea of what it's like is to give you a 'day in the life' kind of thing:

A Day In The Life of a Hagwon Teacher
7:30am - Still asleep.
9:00am - Alarm goes off. Reach for kindle and relax, catching up on your reading. Maybe doze off a little.
10:00am - Second alarm goes off. Wake up, work out, make breakfast and so on. Maybe go for a walk if the weather is nice. Do laundry. Banking. Go to the doctor. All those other things that are hard for a public school person to do.
1:00pm - Start getting ready for school. Pack stuff into a bag, including snacks.
1:30-2pm - Cycle to work along the riverside bike path. Ogle the cherry blossoms. Avoid people who are standing in the middle of the path, ogling cherry blossoms. Get to work.
2:00 - Fill out the daily 'log book' - including things like which classes are doing which chapter of which book, using the schedule made by the very kind and hard-working director. Ask co-teachers for clarification on homework in the books you share with them. Sing 90s songs with the teacher who sits next to you. Share snacks with the other ladies.
2:20-3:00 - First class. Teaching Colin the ABCs. He's so cute, and he just joined the school, so he's having 1-on-1 classes to catch up to the phonics class. But it means you have to find a way to keep him interested in flash cards for 45 minutes. Take advantage of the break before the next class to eat your snacks as 'lunch'
3:40-4:20 - Teaching elementary school kids from the text book. It may involve singing, dancing, rapping, miming, or even origami. Who knows what will happen? Keep 'em laughing, and keep them from murdering each other.
4:20-5:00 - Younger middle schoolers arrive. Three of them tell you how pretty you are. They clearly haven't done their homework. One of them bribes you with candy. Accept the bribe and then make them do the homework anyway.
5:00 - 5:40 - mark some tests and write some comments about the kids. You know their names and their quirks and are able to write in-depth, personalised comments about each of them, using a lot of euphemisms for the ones who "have a lot of character" or "tend to get distracted by friends".
5:40 - 6:20 - Middle schoolers who you see twice a week. This time it's their writing class, and you get to teach them about strong and weak verbs, and encourage them to think outside the box and use their own words. You are a real teacher. Embrace it.
6:20 - 7:00 - This class is having a test. Give them the papers, read out the listening parts, send them to the computer room and call them back for individual interviews. It's so much better than sitting in a cold wintery corridor twice a year, getting 90 seconds with each student and trying to remember their names. This time you know them; you know that Annie has dyslexia or Susan had a bad week and might need some easy questions to get her through this, or Dylan is a pro and you should push him with some tougher ones.
7:00 - 7:40 Third grade middle schoolers. It's their last year of fun before the hell of high school begins. They discipline each other, with 500 won fines for things ranging from forgetting homework to not having the correct stationery. Their book is full of interesting articles, and while the moan and groan about having to do the work, they think you're the coolest and they have their own opinions. They're not used to being asked what they think. You look forward to their class, and you get to teach them three times a week. It's the highlight of your week.
7:40 - 8:00 - Wrapping up time. Note in the logbook who was absent, what homework was assigned, and whether there were any behaviour problems you need to discuss with the korean 'homeroom' teachers. Discuss the weekend plans.
8:20 - Leave school. Cycle home.
9:00 - have dinner.
2am - go to bed.

Sometimes I get lazy and don't do anything before noon. But I'm getting better at that. I've settled into a nice routine, and I love that there is clear and open communication in the office about planning. The Korean teachers help each other out, and offer advice, and show their weaknesses and their strengths. The director keeps on top of things and actually gives a crap about everything. The facilities are clean, modern and work. I haven't made a single powerpoint presentation and don't use a computer during the class.

My coworkers are friendly and fun, and I've socialised with them outside of school. We spend most of the day laughing.

My apartment (which was not provided by the school, but which I found online) is huge and comfortable and I have a bathtub and a real kitchen.

My daily commute is spectacular. 

Life is good and I feel like this is the best decision I've ever made.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Travel Hacking Your Way Around The World

Travel Hacking is gaming the system, using completely fair, ethical and legal ways to minimise your travel costs so you can have your amazing dream vacation on a budget.

The most effective way to do this is by racking up frequent flyer miles. Most people don't realise that you can earn more frequent flyer miles on the ground than you do by actually flying. Airlines have partnerships with each other, with hotels, car rental companies, credit cards, and more. I even earned about 300 miles yesterday by doing some free online surveys.

The credit card thing is risky if you don't know what you're doing. I recommend reading this book, and joining the Travel Hacking Cartel. If you use my referral link, we each get some miles for free!

I'm just starting out in this, but once I've scoped it out and hit 10000 miles I'll write a more in-depth post about how to do it, specifically while living in Korea.

In the meantime, join the cartel and read the book to get started. You get a free  14-day trial for just $1.

Join the Travel Hacking Cartel

Monday, February 16, 2015

Weight Watchers in Korea

Well, it happened. The rice and chocopies and McDelivery and 찜닭 have taken their toll. I'm bigger now than I was when I got here, and while I could go to a diet center, the idea of it horrifies me. I've tried herbalife as well, and don't want to doom myself to a lifetime of expensive powedered shakes.

But I need to do something, and simply trying to eat right and move more clearly isn't enough for my lazy and indulgent self. So, after seeing it work for friends and family, I'm giving Weight Watchers a go. I could do MyFitnessPal or SparkPeople, but having tried them in the past, I want something that doesn't treat calories as equal but rather encourages me to eat healthily. Plus, I think if you've already joined Weight Watchers back home it might be hard to find information to help you continue it here, so I'd like to gather it in one place.

There are some small problems with doing Weight Watchers here. Firstly, like racial discrimination, homophobia, mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases,  and instant mac & cheese, Weight Watchers doesn't exist in South Korea.

If they DID operate in Korea, I'd probably throw money at them. As they don't, I had to figure out how to do it on my own. So I needed three things:

1. The system. 
Information about how to calculate the points you're allowed and so on is available online. However, the formula is patented and I don't want to get cease and desist letters, so let me google that for you. 

2. A way to conveniently track it. 
I fiddled around with various for-free and for-money apps from the android store and ended up with these two that I'll be using mostly:

Tracking, food database, compatible with USA,UK and Australian systems

food database based on restaurants. 
I felt better paying for the apps once than I might have paying a monthly subscription. The official Weight Watchers app does not work on Korean phones (unless you find a workaround).

3. Accountability and Support
One of the main parts of the success of the Weight Watchers program is the community support. Luckily for me, I already have a strong fitness community online, and a couple of friends in the same boat here who can help me to hold myself accountable.

So now the only thing holding me back is lack of information. I decided to make my own Korean food list, as a google doc that I can edit from my phone as I encounter foods. I'll link it here for you to reference.

I made it by learning to read nutritional information on Korean packaging and plugging it into the Weight Watchers points formula (again, available online and I won't post it here).  One problem is that fiber (식이섬유) is not required to be listed on the packaging, although they are making changes there. 

To get nutritional information about foods in Korea, you can use these resources:

Naver: click 영양/다이어트 and search with hangul.
MyFitnessPal:  and plug that information into the points formula above.
Chris Backe's article: and again, plug the info into a calculator.
My list: where I've done all the heavy lifting for you. It's a work in progress so it may take some time for me to complete it.

I hope that helps. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Taxes and How to save a LOT of money

So this week we're dealing with the tax nightmare that happens when the government increases taxes and then takes the difference out of one paycheck. We're looking at a chunk of about 300-400 000 won being removed before you even see your paycheck.


If you use your debit card or credit card to pay for a lot of stuff, then you have probably worked up a large deductible amount. I sat down with my co-teacher and she did it all for me on the 'calculate your tax deduction' website, sent the results of that to the school administrator, and it's cut my tax payment from 300 000 to 30 000. And that is freaking amazing.

 Be sure to click each category (medical, credit card, debit card) so that the amount you spent appears, before downloading the pdf with all your info to send to the school admin. If you've had a lot of hospital care because you're a clutz, well, this is where karma is coming back to give you a hug.

I would post a tutorial here, but my co-teacher did it so fast I didn't really see what she was doing. Ask your co-teacher or a friendly co-worker to help you. All you need is your ARC number and the NEIS ID certificate or your ID certificate from your bank.

The website is here (best accessed on the dinosaur that is Internet Explorer): http://www.yesone.go.kr

So, that's how you can cut your taxes down right now. But for future planning, there's a little more you can do. There's a tax save card that most Koreans have, which you can register for. Then, every time you pay for something with cash, you swipe the tax card or provide the number (it might be tied to your phone number...?) and logs it with the tax authorities. You can then claim on that money too. That includes paying your bills and paying your rent. The (Korean only) website is here: http://www.taxsave.go.kr

Of course, if you're a smart Saffer who got a certificate of residence in SA and gave it to your school when you were hired in the first place you won't be in this situation but this might help people who are not from tax-exempt countries to at least make this a little less painful. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Severance, Exit allowance, Pension and Moving On

It's that time of year, folks. After two years in EPIK, it's time to pass GO, collect $200 and keep on going.

The DMOE sent out the following email which caused much a-fluttering:

Hi - 

If you are receiving this email, you have requested copies of the documents that are necessary to continue employment in Korea after your current contract with the DMOE has ended, or have indicated that you have secured employment elsewhere in Korea through communication with the coordinator's office. As you are probably well aware, we are not permitted to distribute the exit allowance to those NET's that continue employment in Korea after the end of their contracts, whether it be at another MOE or POE, a private institution, or university (article 11, clause 4). Essentially, if you are changing your visa while staying in Korea to reflect new employment, then you are not eligible to receive the exit allowance. At this point, we have asked our financial officer to withhold sending the total amount to your school until you are able to submit substantiating evidence that you will be leaving the country. You will need to submit a copy of an itinerary or plane ticket in your name that shows the date of departure as anytime after the end of your contract (or before, if you are using vacation days to leave early). You may feel free contact us individually if you feel you have a special circumstance that does not allow you to submit said documentation. 

Please understand that this is an incredibly difficult rule to enforce on our end. While we are well aware that merely requesting copies of documents doesn't automatically mean that you will be securing employment, it is the only objective method that we can use in order to enforce this particular rule in the contract. We would appreciate your cooperation in order to give you the allowance if eligible. 

DMOE Coordinators.


1. If you are leaving the country, you get the $1300 exit allowance. If you're transferring your visa to another employer, you don't.
2. To get your $1300 (if you're eligible), send them the receipt of a ticket (plane, ferry, tuktuk, whatever) in your name, leaving the country. 

I took a closer look at our contracts and the above is in there, so there's not really any way around it. 

However, I also found this:

3. Everyone, regardless of what you're doing next, who is ending their EPIK contract, is eligible for severance pay. 

From the DMOE:

Information regarding the severance pay went out in the "end of contract details" email that we sent out when you renounced your renewal contract. I will provide you with the link again. Severance pay is roughly equivalent to 1 month's worth of salary for every year that you have completed. Note that the entire sum is taxed. Your admin office may be able to give you the exact sum total. I might suggest that you ask for a breakdown of your last payments for your records.

So let's break that down. On payday, February 25th (more or less), you should receive the following:

1. February 2015's paycheck (according to the pay scale, your usual amount).

2.1 month's salary (of the amount you were paid in your FINAL year) for each year of your previous consecutive EPIK contracts. (e.g. 2013 + 2014 = 2 months worth of 2014 paychecks)
3. (- taxes)

If you have not yet received your renewal bonus for re-signing for 2014, you should definitely remind your school about that and receive that too. 

As far as I can tell, renewal bonus and severance are NOT the same thing. If your school carried over your renewal bonus to pay it with your severance, it should NOT be deducted from your severance.

So, if you're leaving Korea, your paycheck for February should be about $5000-8000 (depending on your pay scale level and how much taxes are). If you're staying but moving to another job (not EPIK) it should be about $4000-6000. If you're moving to another POE/MOE, you should receive $4000 ~ 6000 + $300 (settlement bonus) from the new POE/MOE. 

On top of that, Australians, Canadians and Americans are eligible for a full refund of their pension payments as follows:

You have been contributing 50% to your pension fund, while the DMOE has been matching that and paying 50% as well up until now. You will be eligible to get a 100% refund ONLY if you are from Australia, Canada or U.S.A., according to the national treaties. You must physically go to the National Pension Office in person, up to one month prior to your departure from the country to request your refund. After the last day of your contract, your school will report the termination of your contract to the pension office. After the school's report and the Immigration Service's confirmation on your departure are complete, your application for the refund will be processed. Please refer to the website for the National Pension Corporation for detailed information about the Pension Plan and the application process for your refund (http://www.nps.or.kr - English website available). Also, a telephone consultation service is available at 02-2176-8702.

*Please note: while you can physically submit your application for renewal up to one month prior, your refund request can only be processed starting the day after your contract ends, and it usually takes about one to one and a half months after your departure has been confirmed by the Immigration Office for the funds to be deposited into your account.*

Required Documents
Alien Registration Card
Flight Ticket (departure date must be indicated) - flight confirmation/itinerary printed from the internet is acceptable.
Bank Account Number (domestic or international - international may require your bank's swift code)

*Please note: The DMOE does not provide pension payments. Your payments will come from the National Pension Office.*

You lucky bastards. 

I hope this is clear... If not, please go ahead and spam the coordinators' inboxes.