I am you, you are me

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This weekend’s temple stay at Beomeosa Temple was a pretty cool experience.  Jon found it quite spiritual.  I, basically lacking all spirituality (I do feel something akin to spiritual when I am in nature, but never as a connection to a higher being) found it less so.  That didn’t detract from the experience for me though, because it was still a very unique and illuminating two days.  And the surrounding nature was awesome.  I loved this tree.  I have about eight photos of this tree!

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Buddhism was brought to Korea from China and India in the 3rd century.  Korea claims itself as the place where traditional Buddhism is still practiced in its’ purest form.  Knowing nothing of Buddhism, but a fair bit of Korea, I have reason to doubt this claim.  Regardless, it has been in Korea for a very long time and is a big part of Korean heritage.

The first thing we learned at the temple stay was proper ‘mindful’ hand placement and how to do prostrations (bows).  I tell you, those bows are not as easy as they look!  Especially once you start doing them in the hundreds…but I get ahead of myself.  The monks use either a bamboo clapper or a hand bell shaped like a fish to signify various timings in the bowing process such as when to start, when to come up, and when to do your final bow (which is slightly different).  The fish shaped wooden hand bell is a fish to represent the fact that fish’ eyes never close, even in rest, to remind us to keep our minds always open, always awake.

We took a tour of the temple’s museum, led by one of the monks and translated by a volunteer who spent the weekend with us, and it was one of the drier parts of the temple stay for me.  We learned about some of the famous Korean monks –  all male, in case you were wondering – and we saw a couple pieces of really old and enjoyable art on the Buddhist versions of hell.

Our first Su Nim

Our first Su Nim

Though the monks normally eat in a specific four bowl ceremonial manner, we simply ate in a room from a sort of buffet.  The food was quite good, for the most part, and since it was vegan I especially enjoyed all of the choices.  Su nim (the Korean word for monk, and what we called ours) was very kind and told us to eat as much as we needed to feel satisfied, up to and including seconds, but was sure to repeat that we were expected to eat everything that touched our plate.  Nothing was to be left, and in fact, we would all happily sit and wait if someone needed additional time to finish.  I liked this because I think we should all be mindful of waste, and fortunately it never came down to waiting on someone to shove their last bites in. 😉

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At 6:30 each night, just after dark at this time of year, a drum ceremony signals the start of the evening service.  Some of the monks go up to the drum area (I couldn’t get a great photo, unfortunately, because of the low light) and play the large, leather drum for at least ten minutes.  They switch off because it is intense.  In an awesome, awe-inspiring, really wonderful way.  Such a performance!   First, the leather drum to guide the sentient beings of the Earth.  Apparently in the morning the drum is played from softer to louder, to awaken the day.  In the evening it was played from louder to softer, to close the day.  Then the metal cloud shaped bell is played briefly to guide the sentient beings of the sky, then the wooden fish shaped bell to guide the sentient beings of the sea, and finally the large iron bell to guide the souls of all sentient beings in hell.  (I may have gotten some of those confused with their respective bell types…forgive me!  And let me know if you know better!)  But seriously, if you get a chance to go to Beomeosa Temple for any reason, plan to be there for the drum ceremony.  It blew us away.

Now, you may have picked up on the fact that the first drum is leather.  Yet Buddhism encourages all living things, including insects, to be treated with care and not to be intentionally harmed.  Soooo….didn’t a cow die for that drum and every other drum like it?  I asked the monk why this was tolerated, when we had just finished a vegan meal.  He basically, and honestly, told me that it was wrong but that it was done anyways.  The leather was from a female cow, hard working and at the end of her life.  Apparently the female cow piece is important, as they make better sounding drums…??  I wanted to ask more questions (as you can imagine) but just didn’t feel like getting into a translated argument with a monk 🙂

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Immediately following the drums, we went to the Main Buddha Hall to join the monks for evening service.  Another incredible moment in our stay!  We bowed and chanted (more like sang) with the monks.  Well, we didn’t really chant, but we listened and felt the place rumble with it all.  It was a pretty neat experience to be there with them and feel their energy.  Jon especially felt this part of the stay resonated with him, because at the very least one could not escape the spirituality of the monks and the intensity of their devotion to their beliefs in that moment.  It was pretty neat that they let us be part of that and witness to it.  Not totally dissimilar to a church service, but more heartfelt than my experiences with most church services.  And of course, a lot more bowing!

Next came the hard part.  We made our 108 prayer beads, which meant 108 full prostrations.  All the way down and all the way back up.  After the down part, we would quickly string a bead, then rise all the way up and then back down again.  It was very fast paced and quite the workout!  We were all sweating and huffing by the end.  The idea with the prayer beads is actually quite nice – with each bead strung, you are to make a wish for your happiness.  I gathered that it could be specific or more general.  I tried to spend my praying time just pondering how we become, create, and maintain happiness (since I do not pray).  Unfortunately, they had us bowing and stringing at such a speed that a lot of the potential for deep thought and connection to the moment we were in was lost while trying to do everything quickly enough to keep up.  However, we do each have our very own prayer beads now.  And our legs are still sore from the workout!

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I was curious to know why the 108 prayer beads – where did 108 come from?  So I asked Su Nim and this is what he said:  We sense the world with 6 organs – eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands (touch), and mind.  We can feel those in 3 ways – like, dislike or neutral.  That gives us 6 x 3 for 18.  Then that is multiplied by 3 again for the past, present, and future.  Now we have 54.  Times 2 for the choice we have to accept or deny everything.  And there is 108!  Phew, eh?  Also, at the end of our prayer beads are 4 beads of mercy.  The monks will pull off a bead of mercy and throw it over a dead animal, should they come across one, as a prayer that their soul finds a better life elsewhere (I think – translations can be hard).

All of the girls slept in a room together and all of the boys slept in a different room together.  This was easily the worst part of the entire experience.  People. Are. So. Inconsiderate.  AGH.  Suffice to say that if you decide to do a temple stay, bring a sleep mask and ear plugs and avoid caffeine after lunch that day.  Lights are out at 10pm and you’re up at 3 or 5am, depending on your stay.  Koreans seem to function on about 2 hours of cell-phone free sleep a night and will keep you awake without regard.   If you are not the same way and want some shuteye, go prepared!

At least the morning view was cheering :)

At least the morning view was cheering 🙂

The next morning we had a short morning service and meditation, breakfast (very similar to dinner), and enjoyed a group walk up to a hermitage.  I didn’t know what that was, so don’t feel bad if you don’t either!  It turns out hermitages are like satellite temples spanning the area directly around the ‘mother’ temple.  They tend to just be more intimate, and sometimes more quiet.  This one was both of those things as it sat higher up in the mountain and saw way less visitors.  We sat for a while and chitter chattered a bit and just enjoyed the silence.

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When we went back down, we had a two hour tea ceremony and that was our time to ask Su Nim questions.  He also asked us questions.  Mostly, people wanted to know how to find inner peace from our emotions.  Su Nim basically said that practice makes perfect.  He suggested treating your feelings as outside of yourself, acknowledging them, setting them apart from you, realizing they aren’t special from other people’s feelings (we all have struggles), and then actively letting them go.  There are pieces of that which make a lot of sense to me and the reminder was a good one.

Second Su Nim

Second Su Nim

Jon was our tea master.  He poured that tea like a champ!

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After that, it was a short closing ceremony and reflection, and we were off.  We certainly learned a lot about Korean Buddhism and it was fun to learn how to do bows and make prayer beads.  I had personally hoped for just a touch more meditation time, maybe a little more quiet, but the experience was overall a good one and one of our better experiences in Korea.  I recommend you give it a try if you have never had a temple stay experience before!

Buddhism is, unsurprisingly, not for me.  At least not the Korean variety.  I saw worship to a deity (or dead person) and male importance similar to those I have found in other religions,  and which always leaves me cold.  Also, bits of hypocrisy (remember the animal skin drum?)  and a belief in heaven and hell, and subsequently an afterlife in which you are judged, are not for me.  Still so glad we did it.  Some of the people there were Hindu, others maybe a little Christian (though I don’t think practicing), some atheist or agnostic, some Buddhist, and some likely undecided.  There was a real mixture so whatever your faith (or lack of), I think there is probably something to be gained regardless.

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Here is the English website for Beomeosa if you are interested in their programs.  We did the Resting Rest stay, which is apparently one of the calmer and less “full” options.  http://www.beomeo.kr/eng_templestay/idt.php

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An art-full day

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An art-full day

We left the house this weekend, so I’m gonna go ahead and put that in the ‘win’ category.  What with our impending departure and lack of plan after Korea, we’ve been laying low and stocking the coffers, so to speak.  Anyhoo, we left the house and ended up having  a wonderful, art-filled day.  The weather was fine and it also happened to be the opening weekend of Busan’s Sea Art Festival 2013 held at Songdo Beach (very near to us), so we hopped on the bike and set out to discover it.  As an added bonus, we also finally found Taegukdo, or the “art village in the hills”.  Major score!

The self-proclaimed art village is an area of Busan, up in the hills above Toseong-dong, offering a side of the city often missed.  (For more info on the area and how to get there, check out this link).  The streets are winding and narrow, and the boxy homes a variety of colours with meandering alleyways between them.  It’s fun and funky, with cute coffee houses and paintings on walls and the odd bit of sculptural art.  It’s also quite quiet and filled to the brim with old people.  Which is awesome.  It seems that it used to be more of an artists’ enclave but is less so nowadays.  No doubt because of the semi-tourist attraction it has become.  Regardless, the art is kept up and they offer you a decent amount of cutesy kitsch at no cost, so it’s a good time.  Here are some of my favourite photos from Taeguk Village:

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It's an illuuuuussiioon

It’s an illuuuuussiioon

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Next, we headed to Songdo Beach to check out the art exhibit.  Apparently the Sea Art Festival is an annual Busan event, and the art was of the sculptural variety.  Sculptural art plus a walk on the beach?!  Suits me just fine!  I wasn’t expecting much, honestly, but it piqued my curiousity and man am I glad we went.  There were some really beautiful, thoughtful installations.  See some of my favourites (and/or better photos!) below.  Wherever possible, I have recounted a bit from the signs explaining each artists’ intent or vision for their piece (some are a bit paraphrased in the name of grammar).

This first piece “addresses the transformation which has taken place at Songdo over time…in the form of a rainbow-hued tornado…the work serves as a symbol of past devastation, change, and the hope that such devastations may ultimately lead to a brighter future”.

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I did not catch the sign for this one…but I feel confident that it is a representation of Busan…

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This was my favourite installation.  Dragonflies and bees, made with many shiny materials.  Difficult to capture the beauty in photos – they threw fractured light and looked as though they were glittering – and they made soft tinkling and whirring noises.  Per the artist’s plate: “Lee’s work aspires to create harmony between the natural and human environment and to unravel stories about the sound of nature and natural energies in the air.”

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      This is a cello.  I think. 🙂

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“‘Choppy Castle’ collapses past and present in abstract form.  Giving shape to the past and to ephemeral memories in our present time and space, Cho uses the color blue to express a diversity of experiences, individual memories, and a multiplicity of lived lives.”

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      This was Jon’s favourite installation.  The picture didn’t capture how wonderful it really was.  “Resonating Forest invites viewers into a complex sensory environment.  Audiences hear not only various bell sounds, voices and the sound of wind, but also encounter a space filled with soft sand and the scents of the sea, creating an experience that activates multiple senses.”

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“Sally” – a classic Korean animated robot character, popular from the ’70s to the ’90s. “It is an image of the future, rooted in the past, recreated and experienced in our present moment.”

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      A robot fist smashing into the ground.  They’re trying to tell us it’s to do with a child’s dreams…sounds terrifying to me.

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“‘Wind horse’ refers to the fate of people, floating around like a wind.  It is conducive to convey and fulfill the desire of the god.  It is a banner of luck.”

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A mechanical body builder.

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“A sculpted tree hung with thousands of wind chimes.  The work offers a moving message, one that combines hope and melancholy, growth and loss.”

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There were a lot more, but these were the ones I fancied the most 🙂  It’s definitely worth checking out if you happen to be in Busan.  The festival runs until October 13, 2014.

Which is your favourite from our day of art!?

Kickin’ it in Malaysia

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Kickin’ it in Malaysia

How rad is my life that I can go for a quick jaunt to Malaysia?! I mean, really, that’s awesome. Jon and I knew we had a very small window when he would not yet be back at his University job and that still gave me enough time to give notice of holidays, so we booked the time and figured we’d grab a flight somewhere. Which is what we did. Six days before our scheduled departure. We have our reasons (sort of), but in the end we just picked the flight that was cheapest (outside of Korea and Japan – Korea because duh and Japan because costs are so high there that it’s not worth a slightly cheaper flight cost-wise) and Malaysia was the winner. Not by a lot. It just beat out the Philippines but because of our slacking, we were already in for a lot more for the flights than we had intended. Oops!

We grabbed a domestic fight from Kuala Lumpur and headed to the Perhentian Islands. According to our harried and totally incomplete research, that was the place to go for rest and relaxation if you are poor. And all told, it worked out quite well for all of those reasons. We *did* find ourselves in a slight accommodation pickle initially because, though high season was officially over, it was in fact not over. And most of the places on the islands don’t take advance bookings because they don’t have internet or reliable electricity. So that makes sense. And as such we assumed it would be no big deal. And it wasn’t. Really. Unless you count spending twice our approximate budget on a hovel. I mean shack. Ok, hovel.

Here’s the abode. Don’t let the sunshine trick you. It was pretty dire. We were not put off, though! Who needs nice wooden floorboards when broken floorboards will do!? Who needs doors without holes when you can certainly just utilize the cage doors over top!? Who needs a shower without spider webs!?! Not us! Not us!

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It really was that bad, but actually, we kind of loved it. Once we got over the initial sticker shock (we paid RM 80 per night). It’s the kind of place you expect to be staying for free, after all. But it was fun. Electricity only came on after 5pm and we had no hot water. Not to worry, because the bathroom was so depressing we weren’t about to lounge around in it anyways. However…and this is a good however…THIS was our little balcony. See what’s just right there beyond, nearly beneath it? Crystal clear, turquoise waters. Aaahhhhhh. Give me a hovel and that view any day of the week.

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One of our larger visitors

One of our larger visitors

The next 3.5 days were spent doing nearly nothing. Or at least, the same things. Wake up with the sun and lollygag in bed until it was too hot and/or light out. Put on beach clothes and copious amounts of sunscreen. Head for food. Spend a long time waiting for food because “ya man, it’s Malaysia” (they sound Jamaican – no word of a lie). Head to the beach. Read in the rising sun until it’s hot and you’re thirsty. Get a beer and some chips. Lay in the sun and soak in the turqoise sea until you’re starting to feel crispy. Seek lunch in the shade. Head back to the sun or wander around aimlessly for a while. Grab a cold shower and a nap. Head for some beers and BBQ fish on the beach. Watch the sun go down over the water. Play some Uno. Read a bit. Bed by 10pm.

Jon's happy place

Jon’s happy place

My happy place

My happy place

That was literally what we did. The only deviations from that schedule were the two afternoons of snorkelling. Yes, I snorkelled. I have snorkelled in the past (if you can call it that because I am a terrified baby and may have only been in the water for minutes) but never like this. Which, refer to the last comment, means I stayed in the water. FOR HOURS. Impressed!? I swam with fishies! Big and little ones. Zebra striped ones and neon purple and yellow ones and big mother of pearl ones and black ones! I saw regular coral reef and shark’s tooth coral reef! Jon saw a baby shark and I did not have a panic attack and die right there next to him in the water! (I froze and started swimming backwards while fishtailing hoping to catch a glimpse from a extreme reasonable distance.) I saw a ginormous turtle! Like, Discovery Channel enormous. It was amazing. The thing swam at me twice. Was he lured by my bright pink bikini bottoms or just trying to escape the hoards of jerky snorkellers trying to touch his shell? I’ll never tell…

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So ya, it was wonderful. I read three books in as many days. The only downside, and not even a real one at that, was the lack of booze. Malaysia is largely Islamic and as such, the restaurants tend not to serve any alcohol. You can bring your own, but being on that little island didn’t afford a lot of choice. That’s fine though, you know? It was too relaxing to even care that I couldn’t get a glass of wine. And we had been somewhat prepared on that front and brought duty-free alcy so we sipped on that with our BBQ dinners or had a beer. I mean, ya. By the way, the Malaysians do a BBQ in a wonderful way. I don’t know the secret entirely but I think they build the fire up, make a hole, and stick the foiled fish (HA-HA!) inside the hole for like an hour or more. It comes out cooked to absolute BBQ-y perfection.

Our view each evening while we waited for our BBQ

Our view each evening while we waited for our BBQ

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Friday morn we grabbed the early boat back to the mainland, grabbed a taxi to the airport, grabbed a plane to Kuala Lumpur, and grabbed a shuttle bus to the actual city, and a measly 8 hours later (owing to some nasty traffic into KL) we were there :). Our hotel in KL was really nice and Jon had done an excellent job of getting us set up right in the heart of the action. We were minutes from the square, Little India, and Chinatown.

As is becoming our travel trademark, however, we were unprepared and did not realize that it was Malaysia’s Independence Day. No we did not. And as such, being downtown in the midst of the fray, we had not bargained for masses of people and fireworks and parades. And all of this would have been fine, too, if not for the NOISE MAKERS. Like the kind of horns at hockey games, type noise makers. Noise makers from hell. Outside of our hotel. For HOURS, literal hours, nonstop, ear-deafening noise for hours. It’s funny now. A little. Because we are always so unprepared and unaware these days. But at the time, it was horrifying. There was no reprieve! Honk-honk-ho-ho-ho-hooooonk. Over and over. Without end. Did I mention that part yet? They did eventually, blissfully stop at about 1am and we were able to finally catch some shuteye.

1Malaysia Day.  Flags everywhere.

1Malaysia Day. Flags everywhere.

Of interesting note (to me), Malaysia is our first mostly Islamic country. As Wikipedia so helpfully supplies…“The constitution declares Islam the state religion while protecting freedom of religion.” We didn’t make it into a mosque (we weren’t dressed appropriately and our plans to return failed us), but we did see some and they were beautiful. And it was interesting to hear the calls for prayer. Also, about 80% of Malaysian women (that’s my own estimation) wear hijab and a much smaller percent (maybe 2%) wear full burka. So that was really strange for us to see. As Jon remarked once, “it’s weird to see some young dude all decked out in name brands with a sideways hat and then, it must be his wife or maybe his sister, wearing a burka next to him”. Weird indeed. There’s also a huge Indian population in Malaysia and it was extremely common to see women dressed in wonderful, colourful saris. Actually, all of the women, regardless of ethnicity or religion (with the exception of the black burkas) were dressed really colourfully. I loved it. The people in general struck us both as apathetic. No one smiled much or went out of their way to be friendly, but everyone was quite kind. Things were generally quite organized, reliable, and very consistent. We could bargain but we never felt we were being swindled. Cabs charged set fees that were spelled out ahead of time and consistent time and again. I mention it because it can make a huge difference when travelling to not feel swindled somewhere. Go to Malaysia, if you need a break from all that.

Mosque

Mosque

The next day we kicked around and had a nice time. We checked out Little India and enjoyed some street Indian food (heavenly!). We puttered through Chinatown and tried durian and jackfruit (awful!). Durian, in case you didn’t know, is a Malaysian fruit that is renowned as the stinkiest food out there. It’s hard to even describe the smell. It took me a bit to even recognize what I was smelling repeatedly. It’s kind of like smelly feet, with a whiff of restaurant garbage. But not as pungent, more like a wafting yucky. And it’s banned from tons of Asian airports and hotels for that very reason. The Malaysians swear it tastes good (they eat it on its own and as fruit juice) but we don’t see how. It was plain disgusting, with a warm, soft, sickly texture. The jackfruit was barely any better. We also hung out in the Central Market and shopped and got massages. We bought pashminas and checked out some Batik art and found some neat wooden postcards, of all things.

Little India

Little India

Shiskabob, anyone?

Shiskabob, anyone?

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That was it! We finished our last night in Malaysia with a ginormous Indian feast – vegetarian and for less than 20 bucks. It was a fabulous break and while I would have liked more time there, it’s the kind of place (small, basically) that leaves me feeling I still got a pretty good sense of it in a week. Recommended, if not the first place I might suggest.

* To get to the Perhentian Islands seems tricky from trolling the webosphere, but it’s actually really simple. If you fly into Kota Bharu, find the taxi stands inside the airport. Tell them you are going to the islands and they will help you sort everything out. You pay Malaysian Ringgit(RM)78 for the taxi each way. And you pay RM35 for the boat trip each way. Pay for the return boat trip ahead of time, but not the taxi. They will just assume this. The taxi ride is one hour to the boat jetty, then a 30 minute speedboat ride from there. And voila! Enjoy. Your hotel can help schedule a boat to pick you up when you’re ready to leave the islands.

* Some general costs in Malaysia are as follows: Beer for RM7-10, hotel for RM80+ (can be lower in low season), 30 minute taxi ride for RM55, one hour taxi ride for RM80, street food for RM1-2, restaurant meal for RM10+

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On choosing to teach English in South Korea

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On choosing to teach English in South Korea

So you’re thinking about teaching English abroad and you’ve started to consider Korea. Now what!?

I had a hard time finding comprehensive (and up-to-date!) information on the real deal about living and teaching in South Korea. So, after nearly a year here, a post to help those who might come after me (and for anyone else who’s interested). This post will deal mostly with the teaching and the pay aspects, with a bit on the day-to-day. Most of that is better found elsewhere throughout this blog, however you can also check out my post on the cost of living here. It should be noted that I can only speak with any real knowledge about teaching in Busan, but I don’t think that tooooo much is different in other parts of the country (strictly speaking to working conditions and for the most part, pay).

Average monthly salary for an English teacher ranges from 2 million won to about 2.5 million won. It is possible to earn significantly more. But let me be clear that you are probably not going to earn more than 2.3 your first year here unless you have a Masters degree and even then, maybe not.

Let me elaborate further. There are, as I see it, four options for an English teacher in Korea, which I will illustrate in depth below:

1. Public School Job

Anticipated Pay: 2.0 – 2.3 million won per month. One month’s severance at end of contract, round trip airfare, housing or housing stipend, shared pension and health care costs.

Teaching Hours: Teaching or desk warming for most of a 40 hour work week, though occasionally (over holidays) not having to desk warm for all or some of the time (in other words, extra vacay days!).

Pros: Stable, timely pay, schools honour their contracts, earlier days (usually more of a 9-5 schedule), you share the class planning (to varying degrees) with a Korean co-teacher, someone always available to help with the difficulties of settling in a new place with a new language

Cons: Very tied to one school (dependent for work, pay, housing, etc), not allowed contractually to tutor (though some people do anyways), day time shifts (a con if you are a night owl), you may or may not get along with your co-teacher but you will have to spend a lot of time with them.

2. Private School (Hagwon) Job

Anticipated Pay: 2.0 – 2.3 million won. One month’s severance at end of contract, round trip airfare, housing or housing stipend, shared pension and health care costs.

*Be warned that if you come to Korea before signing a contract, they will likely only help cover the costs of your visa run to Japan and not your actual flight over. Learned that one the hard way! They will, however, still provide your airfare home*

Teaching Hours: Varies greatly. Usually up to 30 (with additional time to be used for planning). Many will expect something close to a 40 hour work week from you.

Pros: Easy to acquire, potential for less teaching hours than some public school jobs, later working hours may be a pro for you (often 1-9 or similar), depending on the school you may have to plan none or all of your classes, you have more choice and control over which age groups you are willing to teach (by choosing the hagwon accordingly)

Cons: Very tied to one school (dependent for work, pay, housing, etc), not allowed contractually to tutor (though some people do anyways), some hagwons have trouble paying on time or might alter your terms without notice, occasional horror stories of someone being fired before end of contract so the hagwon could avoid paying severance and airfare, later working hours (a con for some, a pro for others), depending on the school you may have to plan none or all of your classes, only 5-10 vacation days (and they may not all be used at your own discretion), some of these jobs can be a bit of a joke but that might mean ‘easy’ and thus might suit you – it’s such a mix

3. University Job

Anticipated Pay: 1.8 – 2.5 million won per month

Teaching Hours: 8 – 20

Pros: These seem to be, for most foreigners, the sweet spot in terms of English teaching gigs. Did I mention the 2-4 months of paid vacation per year?

Cons: Ummmm…they can be hard to get, you won’t get airfare or severance, and well that’s it. These are good jobs.

The Catch: You need a Masters degree, something you can convince them is equivalent, someone on the inside or – most likely – some combination of these things.

4. Part Time Jobs

Anticipated Pay: Potentially limitless but let’s say 1.5 – 4.0 million won. Roughly 25,000 – 35,000 won per hour. Tutoring gigs can run as high as 50,000 per hour.

Teaching Hours: Varies greatly but for the above pay about 15-30 per week

Pros: You can somewhat determine your own schedule, you have the maximum control over your own earning potential, more free time to write that novel you started five years ago

Cons: Potentially frustrating scheduling conflicts, different bosses = different expectations, payday may be inconsistent, no “perks” like airfare or severance or housing or health care, your job can change or alter your hours (and will) whenever they want to

The Catch: This one is pretty well impossible to set up until you are here, and can take months to get to a full pay cheque. But if you have the time, float money, and energy to do so, it can be a real money maker. The tricky part comes into the legalities, though. If you want to keep things above board (and you might have to, to get the better jobs), you need one job to be your sponsor and then each job thereafter can only have a decreasing portion of the hours you’ve been sponsored for. This can get tricky. Many schools are willing to fudge the amount of hours you really work and say you work less, but you may still reach a point where you cannot add another school to your immigration documents and then you are either stuck at that number of hours, or reliant on being able to find gigs that will pay under the table. Which is a possibility, of course, but it might make things harder on you.

What about the rest?

The best job for you really will depend on what you’re coming to Korea to accomplish. If you’re coming to save money, your choice will likely be different than if you are coming to take it easy and check out a new culture. Then again, maybe you can have it all! I chat more about the possibility for savings here, so be sure to check it out if you’re interested.

Working in Korea can be a real challenge, culturally. A lot harder than I anticipated. The work environment can be frustrating, exhausting, and plain confusing on a near-daily basis. But the students are – nearly across the board – smart and well behaved. That can go a long way 🙂 The rest of my blog has more information on my day-to-day ups and downs so I won’t get into that here.

In terms of location, that varies a ton as well. I would recommend making two lists. First, your top three job “deal breakers” – the things you need to have to be okay going to work each day. That will help narrow down the above options. Then, in terms of location, make another list. Do you need quick access to the beach? How comfortable are you being stared at? What if someone were to pick through your garbage? Do you love to hike? Are you hoping for a big community of expats?

When you decide what those things are, you might have to search around a little bit more because I don’t know enough about all of Korea to tell you any more. Suffice to say that the big cities and the smaller towns are going to be vastly different experiences – though I would think still rewarding in their own ways.

I will tell you that Busan has a huge, amazing expat community, good jobs can be competitive (so pay can be lower), the beaches and mountains are great but sometimes really crowded, the Koreans here are considered by some (me!) to be the least friendly in the country, English (spoken and written) and Western food are prevalent, the shopping is great and diverse, location within the city is important because of it’s size, and it offers easy access to Japan.

The biggest expat forum in Korea is http://www.koreabridge.net. It is well used and loved in Busan, with posts to jobs, common questions, classified ads, etc. I recommend checking it out to get a sense of the roles and extra curricular options in a potential city.

Good luck with your decision! If you have more specific questions, you can leave a comment below or email me at gitanalife@gmail.com and I will do my best to help out!

Cost of Living: South Korean Edition

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Cost of Living: South Korean Edition

It can be hard to get a real sense of how much you might spend in a new place. Even more difficult is that we all spend differently and my priorities are not going to be the same as yours. That being said, I am putting together this post for those who may come after me because I would have loved to find something similar to this before I arrived. I will do my best to represent everything honestly, but keep in mind that so many of these things come down to how you choose to spend.

At the bottom you can find “a month in the life of”, or my synopsis on what two people spend living a “normal”, comfortable life in South Korea over a one month period. I find that can be a little more helpful than just all of these numbers of random items 🙂

*For the sake of ease, if you are Canadian or American, you can generally assume about 1,000 KRW(₩) equals about $1.00 but be sure to check current conversion rates for the full picture.

*Everything has been neatly rounded up or down, but it shakes out in the wash (I figure).

FOOD
Street food meal: less than ₩5,000
Restaurant meal – Korean restaurant: averages ₩4,000 – 7,000
Restaurant meal – Korean BBQ:  ₩10,000 per person and up
Restaurant meal – Western restaurant:  ₩10,000 and up

Eggs/dozen: ₩2,000
Milk/1L:  ₩5,000
White rice/2 kg: ₩10,000
Dry beans/1 kg: ₩5,000
Zucchini: ₩1,500
Bell peppers/2 – ₩2,500
Apples/5: ₩10,000
Bananas/bunch(8+): ₩2,500

Bottle of water: ₩500 – 1,000

* Fruit and vegetables are very seasonal here, and the fruit especially can be quite expensive. You can only get a handful of different fruits at any given time (if that). I listed apples and bananas because they are the most consistently available. The vegetable situation is a bit better, but you might pay for the privilege of variety.

* We don’t buy meat in our household, largely because it is more expensive in the grocery stores than it is at restaurants.  If you are an avid meat consumer, expect to pay more than you are used to, or plan to eat it out of the house.

Street vendors are usually, but not always, the cheapest.

Street vendors are usually, but not always, the cheapest.

APARTMENT COSTS (based on two bedroom, two person occupancy)
Rent *: free – ₩500,000 –> SO many factors here – scroll to bottom of post for a better description
Key money*:  ₩1,000,000 – 20,000,000 –> again, so many factors – scroll to bottom of post for a detailed description of how deposits and rents work in Korea
Apartment/condo fees: ₩100,000 per month (this is what we pay, including garbage and doorman – it could easily vary)
Internet : ₩40,000 per month
Cell phone:  ₩10,000 – 70,000 per month (cheap flip phone at the low end, smart phone at the high end) *this does not include the cost of the phone*
Gas (heat/hot water): ₩30,000 – 100,000 depending on the month (winter costs more, naturally)

TRANSPORTATION
Bus fare: ₩1,200 with one transfer
Train fare: ₩1,200 plus ₩200 more for each additional section
Cab fare: starts at ₩2,800 (a 30 minute cab ride might land you at about ₩20,000)
Inter-city bus (approx 2 hour trip): ₩10,000 – 12,000

LIFESTYLE

Americano in coffee shop: ₩2,500 and up
Local beer in a supermarket: ₩1,500
Premium beer in a supermarket: ₩3,000 and up
Beer at a pub with English on the menu: ₩3,000 and up
Bottle of wine in a supermarket: ₩10,000 and up
Bottle of wine in a restaurant: ₩30,000 and up

CLOTHING
This one, of course, varies the most. There are name brands like Gap, Lacoste, etc at hugely inflated prices. There are Korean brands (with bigger sizes!) like Uniqlo at mid-range prices. And there are street vendors and shops, where you can find almost anything for ₩5,000 -20,000. Granted, the quality is not going to be great. But really, the cost of clothing is not bad at all, given all the choices. The trickier part will be finding your sizes (unless you are fortunate enough to be of teeny stature). If you are like me (and therefore NOT of teeny stature), there will still be options and the hardest part will be convincing yourself that you do not, in fact, need another $5 t-shirt…or dress…or leggings…or tank or….

SAVINGS/SENDING MONEY HOME
I imagine the cost of sending money home is different for each person/bank/country. I send money back to Canada each month and it costs me, once all is said and done, roughly ₩80,000 – 100,000. That cost covers the fees that each bank charges me (my Korean bank and my Canadian bank), and what is lost in the transition from KRW to CDN. Of course the larger the chunk, the more the cost, but that gives you a rough idea.

KEY MONEY
If your job does not come with paid housing, you may need to provide a deposit, or what Koreans call “key money” before you can secure a place to rent. The deposits do not work like they do in North America. For most landlords here, the more you are willing to give in terms of a deposit, the less they will charge you in monthly rent. That being said, to find anywhere willing to come lower than ₩5,000,000 in key money is a rarity. You will, fortunately, get it all back at the end. You can think of it as a long-term savings investment! 🙂

To illustrate further, we have friends who put down ₩20,000,000 key money and now only pay ₩100,000 per month for a three story house. Yes. That’s about $100 for numerous rooms and lots of space. But that’s a lot of money they had to part with for now, as well. Other friends went the other route and paid minimal key money but pay ₩500,000 per month for rent (albeit in a sought-after neighbourhood) for a 1.5 bedroom apartment.

Each situation will be different, but if you’re coming without work, it’s best to plan for at least ₩5,000,000 key money so that you’ll be able to have more choice in your preferred accommodations.

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A MONTH IN THE LIFE OF

Jon and I are not what you would call ‘frugal’ by any stretch of the word. We like to eat and drink comfortably. Plus, Jon could easily out-eat professional athletes, if you catch my drift 😉 On the other hand, we are not out every night getting drunk (though we are IN most nights having some drinks) and we try to keep our cab rides to a minimum.

Here’s a rough idea of how it shakes out, monthly (two people, two person and one pug occupancy, two bedroom apartment):

Rent/bills/utilities: ₩350,000 (our housing is not entirely free, so 150,000 of this is rent)
Groceries: ₩450,000 (we order a couple of expensive, hard-to-find items online that account for some of this)
Gas for the motorbike: ₩80,000
Cell phones: ₩80,000
Cab fare: ₩80,000
Transit: ₩70,000
Restaurants: ₩400,000
Alcohol: ₩200,000
Clothes: ₩150,000
Entertainment/Coffee/Misc: ₩400,000

If you do the math, you will see that before factoring in things like trips or weekends away, we end up spending about ₩2,200,000 on regular living expenses (or what we consider ” regular”).  It means that we can afford some trips and send money home, but we aren’t squirrelling away as much as we had planned or hoped to. Granted, as I said above, we do not work overly hard at saving. We like to eat and drink and do things.  If you are coming debt free and don’t have to send money home, you should be able to live very comfortably and travel and still save.

It IS worth noting that the first few months we were here, our costs were a bit higher (and those utilities really creep up in winter, too).  We hadn’t found a lot of Korean food places we could eat at yet, we didn’t know where to get the cheaper groceries, and we didn’t realize how much money we could save by turning the hot water on and off each time we used it.  This breakdown is after many months of figuring stuff out.  If you do the ‘sorting’ a little faster, you’ll be in better shape.

Also important: the small, family-run local grocery shops tend to have less variety but their prices are usually lower than or comparable to the big chains (that might seem counter-intuitive to some Westerners, as it did to us).  Do NOT under any circumstances, buy your groceries from the Lotte store…unless you want to be begging for food money by the time payday rolls around 😉

I hope that about covers it!  Let me know if I missed anything or if you have any specific cost/daily life questions.  I’m happy to help!

Boryeong Mud Festival

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Boryeong Mud Festival

The Boryeong Mud Festival is an annual event to celebrate – you guessed it – mud.  The hype is that this mud does wonders for your skin.  And I don’t doubt that a large part of the event’s success is because it’s just fun to smear mud all over your body and wander around in public.

It also turns out it’s a great excuse for everyone to show up in various stages of undress, get muddy, get drunk, and generally do things (in a combination) that one would probably not do the other 364 days of the year.  Or maybe you would.  I don’t know your life.

To put it succinctly, it’s the Korean spring break.  For foreigners.

Naturally, I was game.  Of course when we signed on, we didn’t know about the spring break comparison.  But I wanted to roll around in some mud!  I mean, how do you pass that up!?  I wasn’t stoked on the recommendations that you should book a tour rather than risk it alone, but I felt it was worth it.

Boy was I wrong.  We booked our trip through EnjoyKorea.Asia and basically from the moment they had our money, things went down hill.  At first, it was just a little annoyance that communication sort of dropped right off until about a week out from the event.  Then, though I had clarified the point before paying and booking, they would not accommodate a private room for us (even for additional money!).  We did not know what time the buses were leaving until less than 48 hours before the event.  We were never told where the pensions were going to be and were not informed that it was ONDOL sleeping arrangements (are you f-ing kidding me!?  so what am I paying the premium price tag for!?).

This is ondol.  It's a fancy way of saying floor.  With only a blanket.  No foam or padding.  And this room slept four of us.

This is ondol. It’s a fancy way of saying floor. With only a blanket. No foam or padding. And this room slept four of us.

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