Thursday, December 11, 2008

the devil in the details

when lisa and i first decided to teach english in korea, i spent a lot of time on dave's ESL cafe, a forum for english teachers worldwide. there is a large korea presence on the site, and a korea-specific forum, so it was a great source of information on just about everything. there is also a section for job postings, which are usually from individual hagwons - private schools - around seoul. i had heard from jefferson and read in a lot of forum posts that working for a hagwon is pretty much a giant crapshoot. many of them are shady organizations that just try to give you the run-around and stiff you here and there on your pay. some of them are OK, but there's no way to know until you've signed your contract and are already working for them. there are several hagwon blacklist sites that try to notify potential employees of the complaints against particular schools, with descriptions of their crimes, but there are so many hagwons to choose from. it would be impossible to vet all of them before choosing one.

in april or may, lisa came up from VA beach to attend a career workshop at the peace corps headquarters in DC (a quarterly workshop that i had attended back in january). the final evening of the workshop is reserved for a job fair, and RPCV-friendly employers attend. one of the employers was from a recruiting agency that placed teachers in korea, particularly with a large private franchised school called CDI. we talked for a while and he encouraged us to apply. neither of us wanted to leave the country right away (lisa wanted to stay stateside for the summer at least, and i had recently started work at the mobility agenda), so we took his card and told him we'd be in touch.

eventually lisa got a job at peace corps headquarters in DC and moved up here with me. she would be working for a political appointee - the director of one of peace corps' larger branches - and we figured that late january, as a new president is sworn in, would be a convenient time to depart. conveniently, in july, my boss informed me that she had taken another position in cincinnati and would be leaving in january as well. since she pretty much IS the organization, it was a sign that time would be ripe for a change.

so with our timeline fairly well set, we set about looking for a place to teach. CDI remained an attractive option to me - higher pay than most, evening classes, cookie cutter lesson plans, and good teacher supports - but we kept searching. posters on dave's ESL cafe ripped on CDI often, charging that they were extremely strict and offered practically no vacation time (one week of unpaid vacation per year, compared with almost a month of paid vacation at public schools), but i took the criticism with a grain of salt. most of the people who spend their days posting to forums like that are bitter and jaded and have little good to say in the first place. the teachers who enjoy their jobs and their lives tend to be outside living them.

in october we spent an awesome long weekend in denver with some fellow RPCVs from kenya. as it turned out, good friends of ours - another couple - had decided independently to teach in korea at the same time. they had already applied to EPIK (English Program in Korea), a government-run program to get native english teachers into public schools. i had heard of it, but had looked into it only briefly - the pay was much less, which was a sticking point for me at the time. i have student loans to pay off, and would rather get it done sooner than later.

but talking about it with them got us thinking, and i did more research into EPIK. the vacation and time off was much better than CDI (14 paid holidays, 14 paid sick days, and 21 days of paid vacation), which would give us more time to pursue other interests and to travel. the money thing was still an issue for me, though - CDI teachers, from what i gathered, had the potential to make $1000 more per month than their EPIK counterparts. but they would work their asses off for it.

this back-and-forth in my mind revealed a lot to me about what i wanted. much of my motivation to move to korea is the same as my original intent in going to kenya - to live simply, (relatively) free from the rampant materialism of the US and the overwhelming obsession with money. even in a year i have noticed ways in which my kenya mentality has been changing, thanks to TV, high speed internet, fast-paced advertising (and life in general), and the 24-hour political and financial news cycle. i want to get away from all of this.

i want to do more in korea than just worry about money. and i want to do more in korea besides just teach english - travel, eat, write, learn korean, travel, eat. plus, at EPIK i would have enough time off that i could tutor students outside of class if i decided the money was crucial. teachers get $25-40 per hour for tutoring. this may sound hypocritical after what i just said - but money is still necessary to live. i don't mind making money - i just don't want that to be my primary motivation to do anything.

that reminds me of a guy i met in kenya as extras on the set of a german miniseries. justin was a brit who was on the final leg of a five-year bike trip around the world. he loved biking; for him the trip was more for the joy of riding than for a love of travel, as if traveling were just a necessary afterthought of riding his bike. he said he biked until he ran out of money; then he would stop for a few months and save up until he could hit the road again. it cost him around $2,000 per year to live this lifestyle. i asked him once why he didn't just bike for a living - get sponsored or try out for a racing team or at least work in a bike shop. he said he didn't want to taint his love of biking with a pursuit of money. he said if he relied on biking for his income, he wouldn't love it as much anymore. he would be required to "work" even on days when he didn't feel like it, and would come to resent biking as though it were forced upon him rather than his own personal choice.

while i don't necessarily agree that it has to be that way, i understood his point. i don't want the need for money to overwhelm my desire to do something i love - to be forced into it, i suppose. that is perhaps even more true for something like teaching english, which i've never done before and which i don't know yet whether i'll love or hate. but for now, i decided, i'd rather not take that chance.

so that's how lisa and i reached the decision to go with EPIK. it took about 8 months to get to this point, but i'm not complaining. the timing will be convenient for us, and we've had a good time in DC to date. it will be nice to be in the area for obama's inauguration as well, though i'm sure the swarm of 4 million in the city will quickly convince me that it's about time to go again...

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