The Hagwon Racket – Teaching English in Korea

Criminals, social abstracts, and travelers: these are the types of people that generally make the decision to travel across the planet to teach English in Asia. It was my greatest hope upon arrival that I fit into the later of these categories.

The début of Teacher Justin

The recent clamp down on Korean immigration has come mostly in direct response from the English teacher Interpol finally tracked down in Bangkok after he decided to leave a large amount of child pornographic testimonial online from his sojourns in Cambodia. Drug dealers, ex-cons, and general miscreants on the run from the law, all seem to find themselves wandering the terminals of Asia looking for a way out, a new beginning, or both.

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, was an imperative operator of a large marijuana ring in southern California. Things got hot quickly, and the realization that his name was ticker-taped on most of the key documents in the office of his pot-den apartment required urgent action. He went up in smoke and booked a quick flight from LAX to Seoul, where it had been rumored English teachers get paid a fair sum with little questions. “Peace out America,” he said slightly jocularly as he set off to start his new life.

Whether or not all people deserve a second chance is purely an opinioned conclusion. However, once on foreign soil, the overwhelming majority of expatriates will become engulfed in the English teaching racket. Most entry-level positions will consist of teaching English to kids around the age of seven. My old coworker was great with the kids, yet the paper used to print his criminal record in America could be enough to shred a whole sakura blossom field.  His record ranged a gauntlet of misdeeds, including DUI, assault, burglary, grand theft auto, breaking and entering, and possession. Basically, everything after-school specials are made of. Although visibly rough around the edges, he was genuinely pure and professional with the kids – a great teacher with passion for his work, and six figures worth of lawyer fees.

Korea has since instituted new laws as of November 07 that have been in place in Japan for some years requiring a background check and drug test for all incoming English teachers; a law that has yet to be enforced throughout most of Asia including destinations of high expatriate activity such as Thailand, Indonesia, and China. Perhaps people deserve a second chance; unfortunately they will not be getting it in Korea or Japan anytime soon.

Arrrghh! Teach me!

Hagwon Hell

Teaching at hagwons (private language institutes) in Korea is the first of countless culture shocks that collide with the wandering expatriate. My initial experience at my first hagwon was very positive because of the first night my boss had treated me to. Things didn’t get shifty until a week or so later.

The first rule of hagwons is that contracts are only as good as your employer. Which meant that in my case, the new school that I was working at – which had just opened – would need to bring in many new students, or else it would have to be forced to make some minor cuts here and there.

Curriculum opsso (curriculum no have!) are the words that reverberated in my mind for nearly six months. With little funds to accompany us – the foreign minority English professionals – with overtime, we were left to complete an entire set of tests and schedule our own curriculum for three grade levels pro bono.

Wangjangnim style

Wangjangnim is the general title for your managing boss in the Korean workforce. It is a revered title that has come to mean the person with the most respect and power, literally translating to something like ‘king-person of high respect,’ but to an expatriate just entering the society it translates to something like ‘absolute monarch whom you better not say no to.’

Reading time

About a month in, we had naturally adjusted to our routine and the fact that our afternoon classes ended with 10 minutes to spare allowing us prep. time for the next class. One day, we got our students ready and packed up, and were told to wait for five more minutes by our staff assistant. This little wait has now become a permanent change. Apparently it is common custom to change things without any notice, because as long as the Wangjangnim says so, our contract is about as valuable as toilet paper.

Whether it was truly custom or a fear of the language barrier (that’s right, our boss’s English sucked), major changes were usually made without any verbal discussion. A week later, when the five minutes we had been reduced to was stripped away, things started getting heated. Luckily my co-worker had a big enough mouth to coerce our miniscule five minutes of prep. time back into the line-up.

My shoe gets better reception than yours

Despite the absurdities and pitfalls of the hagwon life, teaching little kids who are truly engrossed in the subject material is a gift I won’t soon forget. Whether it was their pressuring parents or the simple fact that their will to learn English was far beyond my comprehension, I’ll never know.

My background in writing led my Wangjangnim to insisting I help create rubrics for my seven-year-old students to write essays. Within three months, half of my students were writing three bodied, coherent essays on given topics. Try and think what you were learning when you were seven. Although most of the topics were about Transformers or food, the extent to which these seven-year-old Korean kids could communicate in a language that is so foreign to their native tongue is awe inspiring to say the least.

Eric, John, Kevin, David and Brian

My English kindergarten class of seven-year-olds was by far the most intelligent and wealthiest students I have ever come across. John was born in London while his father was working abroad for Samsung Investment, and Brain’s dad is a surgeon. They all wore Beanpole clothes, which I had never heard of before going to Korea (a simple Beanpole polo will run you about $85 USD), and lived in the wealthiest and tallest high-rise apartments modern Seoul had to offer.

My second grade class was smart, but not nearly as keen. John is the only student that really comes to mind. As per custom, any changes in the school – despite their catastrophic effect on your professional etiquette – were made by the Wangjangnim without your knowledge.

One day, at the entrance to my classroom, I was greeted by a new 10-year-old student who was looking up at me with the largest set of Urkel glasses I’ve seen off-screen. He awkwardly stared at me for a moment and asked me with disturbing sincerity, “Who are you?” The class exploded in laughter as I told him to take a seat. Half way through that first class he asked me once again with awkward sincerity, “Do you have pizza?” to which I quickly replied, “What?! Where would I be hiding it?”

John was certainly a unique kid. He was the kind of Korean kid who was doomed to an adolescence spent in PC gaming rooms drinking red bull and forced to study English by some foreigner who would surely lose his mind every time he had to speak with him.

One faithful day, John came in without his homework as per usual. It wasn’t uncommon for John to take some serious coma-like naps in my class – to which the other students would quickly point out. I would then have him step outside or reprimanded by the Korean assistants, but little things changed because his parents never checked-up on the poor kid.

After waking him one day, I asked him what he did the past weekend. With no hint of surprise he told me he stayed in and played some videogames. A minute into my new lesson I heard him speaking Korean, a rule never to be broken in English class, and as I turned around my peripheral caught him with his foot to his ear.

By this stage, I have had an accord with John. I don’t understand him, and he doesn’t understand me – that’s our accord. I decided to play along and asked him who he was taking to on his apparent shoe phone.

“Bad guys,” John replies in a robot voice – a voice I later let him perfect in reading class next week. “Why did you call the bad guys John?”

“They called me … beep,beep,” John replies. John, the robotic, Korean-Urkel – it was getting time to travel again.

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