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Namsan, South of Gyeongju

March 14, 2012

The small city of Gyeongju (not to be confused with the city of Gwangju in the south) was the capital of the Unified Silla Kingdom (668 CE – 935 CE), so it’s a tourist destination for anyone interested in Buddhist artifacts.  If you go to the city, definitely make a trip to the south of the city to Namsan (not to be confused with Namsan in central Seoul).  Namsan is a mountain covered with statues and relief carvings from the Silla period.  It’s awe inspiring to see the artwork, and know that it’s been sitting there for 1300 years.


Some of the Buddhas had lost their heads over the years, but most of the artwork was in remarkably good condition.  Despite the day being rainy and cold, the mountain was crowded with Korean hikers.  Some of the hikers stopped at the temples and Buddha statues to pray, while others took pictures in front of the statues with goofy poses.  There were many relief carvings directly on the natural rock of the mountain.  After over 1000 years, they have weathered a bit.




We (my mother and I, who came to visit Korea) got considerably more stares than I’m used to Seoul, since there’s not a lot of foreigners outside of the big cities.  One park ranger talked to us for a while, I think mostly because he wanted to practice his English.  He seemed surprised that I had heard of this mountain  (“Why are you here?  Are you interested in Buddhism?”).  Afterwards, he wanted a picture made with us.  I’m not used to my presence being quite so strange and novel for Koreans.


It’s really wonderful to see historical artifacts like these outside of the context of a museum.  It feels more real.  If you’re in Korea, I’d highly recommend going.

How to get there:

From Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal:

-Cross the main street, and take one of the 500 buses.  Do not try to take the #10 or #11 buses as some bloggers say, because they don’t actually go to Namsan.  There’s a little tourist info booth outside of the bus terminal where you can get a map of Namsan, so you can see all the hiking routes.

-If you find the bus system in Gyeongju confusing, as I did, you can just hop in a cab and say “Namsan Samneung” and he’ll take you to the main trail on the mountain for about 6000 won.  There’s lots of other trails back down from the top, so if you’re adventurous pick a different route back down to see more statues and temples.  There are hundreds of artifacts all over the mountain.  I’d really like to go back and take a few different routes.




How to find a job at a Hagwon (pt. 1)

February 20, 2012

This post is about how to gather documents together (for Americans, I’m not really sure how it works for everyone else) and start the application process for getting an English teaching job at a hagwon in South Korea.  Don’t know what a hagwon is?  Look here first.  Public school jobs for foreign teachers are getting phased out in Seoul over the next few years, so if you want to live in Seoul, a hagwon job is probably your best option.  This post will be pretty dry and boring unless you are an American thinking about teaching in South Korea.

I’m writing this because I remember that I had a hard time finding consolidated information on exactly what documents I needed, and how to obtain them, when I was trying to apply to teach in South Korea.  The rules for documentation changed relatively recently, so a lot of the available information is out of date.  Because of this, I’m hoping that this post will draw at least half as many Google searchers to my blog as those who search for “why do Koreans eat live octopus” and “SNSD sailor uniforms.”

Later, I’ll write another post about how to choose a decent hagwon out of the ones that make you job offers.

You need to start gathering documents at least four months ahead of the time when you want to start teaching.  You definitely need an accredited university degree and a passport, of course.

Step 1: E-mail some recruiters

Recruiters are the link between you and the Korean hagwon.  You do not have to pay recruiters.  They get paid by the schools for finding you. (If a recruiter asks for payment from you, something sketchy is going on). Send an e-mail to a couple different recruiters, expressing your interest in teaching, and see what they say.  Some recruiters will start looking for jobs for you immediately, but others will want to wait until you have all of your documents ready.  Feel free to be specific about what kind of job you are looking for (age group of students, location, etc.)  Stick with the recruiters who seem like they are actually taking your stated preferences into account.  There are a lot of hagwons and a lot of recruiters, so you can be choosy.  Most recruiters won’t be seriously looking for a position for you until you have all of your documents together, but it’s helpful to start a good relationship with a recruiter early on.


Step 2: FBI Criminal background check

This one is really time consuming.  First, you should go to your local police station and have a set of fingerprints made.  Next, you should mail the fingerprints, application form, payment, and a note requesting that a division officer signs and seals the document, for obtaining an apostille.  If you don’t get them to actually sign it, you can’t get the apostille on the background check, and you will have wasted a lot of time.  More details, and the application form, here.  Mail it to:

FBI CJIS Division – Record Request
1000 Custer Hollow Road
Clarksburg, WV 26306


Step 3: University transcripts and notarized copy of your degree with Apostille.

Schools in Korea are paranoid about the possibility of someone coming to teach based on a “fake degree,” so you have to jump through some hoops to show that you really went to college.  Request that your school sends you at least two sealed copies of your transcript to you, through your university registrar.  Next, you need to get a copy of your degree notarized and stamped with an apostille (these are not the same thing).

A notary simply affirms that a copy is genuine.  Usually, your local FedEx/Kinko’s will have a notary around.  You should take your original university degree to the copy shop, make a copy, and get the notary to sign, affirming that you didn’t photoshop a college education for yourself.

Once you have the notarized copy of your degree, you should mail it off to get an apostille.  You should mail the copy (not the original degree) to the Apostille office in your state capital, with an application fee and form.  Google “Apostille [your state]” and you should be able to find it.  Within a few weeks, the state will mail you back a lovely notarized, apostille’d degree copy.

Step 4 -FBI, pt. 2

By now, maybe the FBI has mailed you back a clean (hopefully) criminal background check.  It took them about two months to get back to me.  Unbelievably, when you get the background check in the mail, you have immediately send it back to Washington DC to get a Federal government apostille on the background check.  Make a few photocopies of it before you send it out again, in case it gets lost.

Send the signed FBI criminal background check, application form, and $8 to:

U.S. Department of State
Authentications Office
518 23rd Street, NW  SA-1
Columbia Plaza
Washington, DC 20520

I had to wait about two more months until I finally received the criminal background check in the mail again, with the apostille stamp, bringing the total waiting time for this one document to four months.

But now that you have it, recruiters will seriously try to sell you to different schools.  You’ll need a few more things to send off to your school after you get hired (passport photos, etc) but these can be obtained in a day or two.  Next time I’ll write about how to pick a decent one.

South Korea’s Made-up Holidays

February 7, 2012

It’s almost Valentine’s Day.  Which means, if you are in Korea, you should probably know how Koreans celebrate Valentine’s Day.

In the US, Valentine’s Day is a big deal for couples.  I don’t mean to be too heteronormative, but it’s usually construed as a day when a guy is supposed to do something impressive for a girl (take her to dinner, buy her chocolates, buy her flowers, etc.)  If he fails or forgets, it’s a big mistake.

In Korea, the holiday is much more low-key, but the expectation is the opposite: girls are supposed to buy chocolate for guys, and guys aren’t really expected to do anything.

Seem unfair?  Well, Korea has lots of recently made-up but still widely practiced holiday solutions just for you:

White Day, March 14th:  One month after Valentine’s Day, guys are supposed to buy some candy or chocolate for their girlfriends.

Black Day, April 14th:  One month after White Day, Koreans celebrate “Black Day” in which single people go out and eat jjajangmyeon, black bean noodles.  (Jjajangmyeon is served at Chinese restaurants in Korea, but the food actually originated here.  Just like the US has “Chinese food” that is not really like the food actually eaten in China, Korea has different “Chinese food” that is not really Chinese food.)  I think that “Chinese takeout” has the same sort of singleness connotations here as back in the States.  Some people dress in all black on this occasion.  I think that people are much more likely to go do this with their other single friends than go do it mopey and alone, though.  I wonder if people wearing all black eating jjajangmyeon get hit on by other people wearing all black eating jjajangmyeon?

짜장면 맜있다


Pepero Day, November 11th:  On Pepero Day, people give each other Pepero.  Back in November, my students gave me Pepero, and I gave them Pepero.  A good holiday.  I wonder who made it up?

Pepero Day



K-pop in America

February 3, 2012

You may wonder when this blog started being more about K-pop than going on adventures and climbing mountains.  The answer: when it got really, really cold outside.  I’ll hide inside until March.

A while ago, I wrote about K-pop’s dominance in Japan and South East Asia, and how the next natural progression was to the West.   And now, here’s Girls’ Generation on David Letterman from a few days ago, singing in English.  This is one of my least favorite K-pop songs, and it sounds more awkward in English, but fans of highly choreographed dancing or Korean girls rapping should watch the video.

Lots of people have written about whether K-pop (and, specifically, this K-pop group) will be successful in the States.  The detractors say that Americans will just be confused.  Why are there so many of them?  And, of course, any aegyo behavior from them would be completely baffling.

However, I think that Girls’ Generation has a decent shot at gaining a foothold in the US pop market.  The material that they are trying to market in the States isn’t very different from US pop music.  The writer for The Atlantic (linked above) thinks that it has a chance if it’s marketed towards young teenagers, which seems reasonable.  But I think that the “Americans will just be confused” arguments underestimate the level of irony in US pop music consumption, especially among people my age.  After all, Ke$ha’s “Tic Tok” became the most popular song ever released by a female artist (!) not because Americans thought it was a good song, but because everyone thought it was funny.  It would be a very different sort of irony, but I could definitely see SNSD’s novelty (there are nine of them!) being embraced with a smirk by someone like Stephen Colbert.  Their strangeness could be an asset.

What do you think?  (I’m not really trying to think of this from a aesthetic perspective, but just a “will this make money and be successful” perspective).

Also, it should be noted that if I could hang out with Bill Murray and Girls’ Generation at the same time, I would be really happy.  Dave doesn’t know how lucky he is.  Nice job on saying 감사함니다 pretty well, though.

Going to the Doctor in Korea

January 25, 2012

Another adventure in Korea, but not a fun one:

I got back from a really great snowboarding trip at Pheonix Park in Gangwan-do last night, and I was supposed to go back to work today.  I had some extra time off for Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year holiday.

However, right after I woke up this morning, I threw up.  Ten minutes later, I threw up again.  Ten minutes later, yet again.  Then, I started shaking and sweating.  This sort of thing has happened to me before in Korea, but it wasn’t nearly this bad last time.  I don’t think it was something I ate, because I talked to the people I was with yesterday, and they were all ok.

My hagwon has a “you better come in to work unless you are practically dying” sick leave policy, but I called in sick anyway.  I specifically remember thinking “The worst they can do is fire me, and that would be better than trying to teach six classes of kids today.”

At first I was reluctant to go see a doctor, but after the OTC stomach medicine I had failed to do anything, I realized I had to go.  Also, any time I drank any water, I immediately threw it back up again, and I was starting to feel really dehydrated.

I knew how to say most of my symptoms in Korean, but I was nervous that I would mess up the pronunciation, so I wrote them out on a piece of paper:

나는 앤드류 이에요. 나는 정말 아퍼요.  아침에 5 번 토했어요.  두통더 있어요.  나는 의료보함 있어요.  감사함니다.

It’s a little bit rough, but it got the point across.  Luckily, there’s a hospital only a few blocks away from my apartment.  I walked over, but at this point I was feeling really weak.

I handed the note to the receptionist, and she smiled and led me to a nurse, who said a few things to me in Korean that I didn’t understand.  But then, she led me to a doctor who was fluent in English.  I was talking to the doctor within five minutes of arriving at the hospital.

After talking to the doctor for a while, he said he didn’t just want to give me medicine and send me back home, because I was extremely dehydrated, and because I was obviously dizzy.  He said that he wanted to hook me up to an IV for a few hours so that I could get rehydrated.  Maybe there was also some kind of medication in the IV drip, but I’m not actually sure because he was a little bit hard to understand.

So, I walked up to the patient rooms, and took off my shoes, and got hooked up to an IV for about four hours.  I mostly just zoned out and stared out the window, but I also tried to understand the older Koreans’ conversation beside me, who had a really long discussion about pizza.

Later, the nurse came and took the IV out, and then got me to hold onto the bandage.  Then, she walked away without saying anything.  I lied there for about five more minutes, and I tried to think of how to say “Can I go now?” in Korean, but I couldn’t remember.  I remembered 지금 가야 해요? or, “should I go now?” and decided that was close enough.  But, the nurse didn’t come back for awhile, so, on impulse, I just got up and walked out of the hospital.  I wouldn’t have done this in a more normal state of mind, but I think it was ok.  No one seemed to question me, anyway.

At the hospital, I had to pay 7,500 won, or about $6.50 US dollars.  At the pharmacy, I had to pay 2,000 won, or about $1.75, for three days of medication.  My half day in the hospital and my drugs for three days cost me less than $10.

Overall, my experience with the Korean health care system was really good.  The doctor took an extra step in giving me the IV, instead of just writing me a prescription and sending me home.  It was really cheap, and everything was done competently.  Besides the misunderstanding between the nurse and I at the end, everything went smoothly.  For health insurance, I get 60,000 won taken out of my paycheck every month into the single payer system, which seems really reasonable given the quality of care and low direct cost.  If you are interested in reading about exactly how the Korean health care system works, and why it’s inexpensive, look here.

Here are some tips for any expat readers about going to the doctor in Korea:

1.  If you are sick, go to the doctor: The first time I got sick in Korea, I didn’t go to the doctor because I didn’t think I needed to.  This time, if I just tried to wait it out, I probably would have gotten more dehydrated and could have had much more serious problems.  It’s not expensive, so you don’t really have anything to lose.

2. Know at least a little Korean to describe what is wrong: The doctor you come in contact with will almost certainly be fluent in English, but most of the other hospital staff won’t be. Here are some useful phrases:


I am sick – 나는 아퍼요-na-neun a-peo-yo

I threw up earlier – 아까 토했어요-akka toe-haesseo-yo

I have health insurance – 의료보험 있어요 – euee-ryo-bo-ham i-sseo-yo

I have a fever – 나는 열이 있어요 – na-neun yeol-i i-sseo-yo

I hurt my leg/arm/head – 다리/팔/머리 아파요 – dali/pal/meori a-pa-yo


It might not be a bad idea to write down some of these phrases, and keep them in a card in your wallet in case you have some sort of urgent medical problem.  But don’t worry too much, because your actual doctor will speak to you in English.  Also remember: call 119 in an emergency, not 911.


January 11, 2012

Physical appearance is really important in Korean culture, and people generally don’t shy away from making direct comments about it.  Kids, especially, tend to just say whatever they think, so I’ve gotten some strange comments from my students over my few months of teaching.  I thought about what it would look like if I combined all of the comments from kids together:

“Yellow hair, very big eyes, weird green eyes, big nose, yogurt face.”

The last two have hints of mild racism, but coming from kids I’m not at all offended.  (An old Korean racist term for white people roughly translates as “noser” or “nosie.”)  I never really noticed until recently, but most Koreans have small noses.

About a week ago, one of my students raised her hand and said “Teacher, do you eat lots of yogurt?” and then started giggling.

“Umm…I eat yogurt sometimes.”

“I think you eat lots of yogurt.  You…yogurt face.”

Though she was struggling with her English, she was trying to say that I eat lots of yogurt, and that’s why my face is white.  Later she called me “Yogurt Teacher,” which I had to put a stop to.  I thought the whole thing was pretty funny, though.

One of the reasons why I wanted to teach kids, though, is that they are usually ridiculous and surprising and uninhibited.  Recently, in one of my classes, a 3rd grade girl randomly stood up in the middle of the class, and started singing this song and doing the exact same dance that they do in this video.  It took be a long time to stop laughing and regain enough composure to get the class under control again.*



*(I originally had a different video and song here, but I’ve changed it.  I thought about it, and my “It’s not offensive because it doesn’t even make any sense” argument doesn’t really make any sense, because I wouldn’t have posted the video if it was using cultural elements from a group I am personally more familiar with.  So, new song, new anecdote.  The internet is nice because you can change your mind.)

Learning Korean with Comics

January 2, 2012

from the very popular Korean comic (and movie, and musical, and tv series) The Great Catsby

At my hagwon, we teach the kids new vocabulary using storybooks.  We read a storybook together, and I give them a vocabulary list of all of the words and phrases that they are probably unfamiliar with, with Korean translations.

I’ve been wanting to do something similar for studying Korean, because I’ve been getting bored just reading the dialogs in my Korean textbook.  Joon Hwa talking to Hyun Joon about how he forgot to bring a present to Min Sol’s birthday party is not exactly enthralling.  정말 제미없어.

Luckily, I found this .  It’s a free app that lets you read lots of Manhwa (Korean comics) in English and Korean, and it’s designed as a tool to help foreigners learn the language and experience Korean culture.  It will certainly be a lot of work to understand all of the vocabulary, even with English translations, but I think it will be a lot more interesting than some of the other study methods I’ve tried so far.  There are a few hundred comics on the app, and they’re all free.  I will definitely stick to the simplest ones I can find.

These really silly comics written by a Canadian are also helpful:, though you definitely have to know hangeul and basic Korean grammar first.