Monthly Archives: March 2008

Books! Glorious books!

My wife and I went to Bandi & Luni’s bookstore in Coex Mall in Seoul yesterday. It was awesome! We both had a wad of cash that we wanted to spend, and spend we did. I picked up three Terry Pratchetts, and my wife a couple of more highbrow books. And all together it came out to about R550. R550 for seven books! That’s cheap! In SA I’d be lucky to get away with R700.

The selection was fantastic. I was expecting a range of English bestsellers, but not much depth. I was pleasantly surprised to see shelves and shelves of English books – from classics to the latest Oprah bookclub favourites. In fact it had a better selection than most of the Expensive… I mean Exclusive… book stores in SA. And they also have a free club card which gives you discounts on your purchases. How much, I’m not sure, but it looked like between 10 and 20% to me. I’m definitely heading back there next month.

This really brought home the lack of choice we have in SA when it comes to books. I spent five years working for Expensive Books. Exploitive Crooks. Dammit! EXCLUSIVE BOOKS. They had a decent range of books, but the selection was always the same. And you could go to any bookstore in SA and see the same books. But here I go to a bookstore in South Korea, where the VAST majority of people don’t read English, and see a far better selection of books at better prices. Why is that? The average paperback at Bandi&Lundi’s was about R80, but in SA it comes closer to R120. I found most of my favourite authors, and they even had a Sci-Fi/Fantasy section that would put most Exclusive Book branches to shame.

I think we’re getting taken for a ride in SA. I guess I’m just going to have to stock up while I’m here.

Will work for travel money

Now that I’ve been here a couple of weeks, now is the time to start planning what I want to do this year and where I want to travel. My experience while living in Cape Town over the past few years has given me a lot of impetus to PLAN, PLAN, PLAN. Otherwise you keep on talking about going to see this place and that place, and next thing you know you are on your way to somewhere new and you haven’t seen any of these places

So my better half and I are now planning to visit Beijing just before the Olympics. I think there is going to be a great buzz, even if the prices will probably be a bit higher than when I last visited the city. But this time the visit gets to be pure tourism. Great Wall, here we come!

We are also looking to do some serious shopping. Some things in Korea are way too expensive, so I’m looking forward to some bargain hunting in Beijing, and I’m brushing up on some of my rusty Chinese.

Our experiences with this will be posted on the Travel page, so keep an eye out for it. This is a new page for any travel related info for South Africans in Korea, including flights between SA and Korea, visa issues for visiting nearby countries, and similar issues. Enjoy!

Sorting out my pension fund payments

A couple of months ago I stumbled upon the fact that South Africans are exempt from making pension fund payments in Korea. Of all the nationalities allowed to teach English here, we are the only ones that get this nice little perk. Some of the other nationalities get refunded their contributions when they leave, but most don’t, so I’m pretty grateful that I can save these bucks.

Now, the only problem has been convincing my school of the fact that I’m exempt. I don’t seem to be alone in this. I’ve seen a couple of people post similar problems on Dave’s ESL and on Facebook. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I came across a nice little guide that the Korean pension service put together to help foreigners understand their pension fund obligations. However, the pension service seems determined to keep this guide hidden away in some obscure part of their website. I came across this document purely by chance, and I’m really glad that I saved it to my harddrive. I’m sure some bureaucrat chuckles every time someone searches for that document.

In any case, earlier this week I was trying to convince my school that I don’t have to pay pension, and I was getting nowhere with them. It doesn’t help that they seem to think that I’m EXACTLY the same as their previous native English teacher. I’m not. He didn’t need a sofa. I do. He didn’t need a cellphone. I do. He was British. I’m SOUTH AFRICAN. We are NOT the same. We even had a war about this. Luckily for me, I had this guide from the National Pension Service, which is conveniently written in several languages, with the Korean and English versions on the first two pages. And SA is listed first under the section outlining which countries are exempt from paying pension. Thank goodness. You can check it out here, in the downloads section.

I printed this document out (just the relevant pages – I don’t like wasting paper), gave it to my co-teacher, she spoke to the admin people, who presumably checked with the National Pension Service, and about 15 minutes later they told me that I don’t have to pay pension. Yes. I know. Thanks for taking my word on it. But at least it is now all sorted out, and hopefully the word is spreading about our exemption from the pension fund. Viva, South Africa, viva!

I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien

Yes, that’s right. I’m a legal alien. I got my Alien Registration Card (ARC) at the end of last week, and it was certainly not as painful as it could have been. All it involved was taking a trip to the immigration office (in my case the one in Uijeongbu), filling out a form (which even had some English on it!), handing in my medical forms and some documents from my school, paying my W10,000, and then getting the ARC posted to me. It took less than a week. In fact, I applied on the Monday afternoon, and received the card on Friday morning. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The postage was extra, but definitely worth the couple of thousand won that it cost. It would have cost me more to get to the immigration office in person. I also went for a multiple-entry visa (you could apply on the same form as for your alien registration), and this cost an extra W50,000. This is a bit steep, but at least I can do some travelling now. The annoying thing is that my original E-2 was not cheap, but in South Africa the Korean embassy does NOT issue multiple entry E-2 visas. Other nationalities can get a multiple entry visa for just a little more than for the normal E-2. So I paid twice as much in the end for a multiple entry visa. Oh well.

Now I can go ahead and get my own cellphone and finish a couple of other admin things. Thank goodness. It’s great to finally have this card, even if it reminds me of having a dompas.

TB the Terrific Teacher! Or, A Day in the Life of Teacher TB

By popular demand I thought I’d write something about a typical day teaching at a middle school in Korea. By “popular demand” I mean one person asked and it seemed like a good idea. Anyway, here’s the lowdown from my few days of experience:

I catch the bus to my school every day at about 07:30, and get to school at about 07:50. Officially I don’t have to be in until about 08:20, but I find the extra 30 minutes really useful for preparing for the day, and all the other teachers are already in, so it seems only fair. They always seem quite pleased that I come in early.

Classes start at 08:50, and since I’m at a middle school they last about 45 minutes each, with ten minutes between classes. This is really short if you have a good lesson, and REALLY long if things go badly. We have about four lessons before lunch, which lasts for an hour, and then two or three lessons after lunch (depending on the day). We finish classes usually at 15:20 (though on some days at 16:10) and then the kids clean the school. Yes, that’s right, the kids clean the school. Awesome! They are usually done within 30 minutes, and then I stick around until 16:30 or 17:00, depending on how much I have to do. From next month I’ll be teaching an afterschool English class in that last hour.

I teach 22 lessons a week, so on any given day I have between four and five classes, with no more than three in a row. So far this has been fine, if a bit tiring. The trick is to do your preparation when you have breaks between classes, which is doing wonders for my time management skills. No more procrastination for me!

I’m not expected to give or mark homework, prepare or mark tests, or do any of the usual teacher stuff. All I’m meant to do is have interesting classes where the students practise their English. This is not as easy as it sounds, but I’m confident it will get easier as things go on. I’m worried about the boredom factor, since each grade has at least ten classes in it. Thus, each lesson that I prepare gets presented at least ten times. I’ve started jazzing things up in each class just to save myself from sitting through the same lesson ten times! I’m only interesting to myself up to a point.

This seems to be the norm for most public schools. However, some people teach more classes, others teach less. Some (like my wife) get their own classrooms, others (like me) don’t. At least there is some variety to this public school teacher thing!

Getting into the swing of teaching

Today I finished my third day of teaching at a girls’ middle school in Korea. I’m exhausted. Who knew that being a rockstar could be so tiring. At least now I get to be the popular new kid at school! Everywhere I go it’s “TB-uh, TB-uh! Hello!” and “TB-uh I love you!” Of course I would feel more popular if the kids knew more English. I thought they did – until I tried some fancy stuff in class. In I swaggered to my first class on Monday, all full of ideas and enthusiasm – and a kickass cool powerpoint presentation. I should have known that the connection to the TV wouldn’t work. It’s an interesting feeling standing in front of your first ever middle school class without ANY of the materials you prepared. And then the students don’t understand your accent. Or your painfully slow instructions. And then they lose interest. And the lessons have gone downhill from there…

Well, at least couple of things have become clear to me. 1) Most South Korean school kids know nothing about South Africa, 2) Charlize Theron is NOT a celebrity here (how embarrassing), 3) most Korean kids know how to spell elephant, but not cheetah, and 4) I look older than I am to most Koreans (eish).

I’m hoping the rest of the week will go better. Public schools are apparently a different ball game to hagwons, and my TEFL course did not prepare me for it. Perhaps there is a gap in the market there…

The first post from Korea

The past few weeks have been hectic, hence the lack of recent posts. We arrived in Korea last week, and have been running around arranging accommodation, cellphones, medical checks, bank accounts… you name it. I only got an internet connection sorted out last night!

I need to put in a couple of retractions. Firstly, Vodacom’s SMS Roamer does not work here. Maybe we did something wrong, but I don’t think so. So chuck that idea. Secondly, I feel that I need to mention that Dave’s ESL cafe is a wee bit misleading. I have found many of the posts and comments there to be inaccurate (and downright negative) about how things really are in Korea. It’s good for an idea of what’s happening here, but take it with a full salt shaker.

We’ve been placed in a town about an hour north of Seoul, which is pretty convenient. And I was pleasantly surprised to find pretty much anything we wanted in the supermarkets here. And from what I read I thought I’d struggle to find anything familiar! I even eat cornflakes and yoghurt in the mornings. Just like home! I even found the vitamin supplement that I take in a pharmacy here! And of course a couple of things that I left behind are sorely missed, with bedding being one of them.

Now’s the settling in period. We have landed in a town which already has two other South Africans, so a piece of home is not too far away. Let’s just hope I’ll be able to find some stronger coffee. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms are setting in!