So now that you have met Granger, I’ll return to May of 1996 and finish up how my wife at the time and I wound up in Gongju.
By mid-May, Better Resource had gotten us university jobs in the small town of Gongju which 2 hours by bus from Seoul and an hour from Daejeon another fairly large city. The job also was only 20 hours of teaching/week vs 30 in the hogwon and we thought we would be teaching university credit courses (that was a small lie). So, on June 24, 1996, 6 weeks after the wife had gotten her MA, we were off to South Korea. We would live in Korea until the end of 2013 working in a variety of jobs in a number of cities eventually settling in Seoul in 2004.
In the ensuing year, while we were in Gongju, we would wind up helping several people there who we having trouble with their working conditions. We would primarily help them do midnight runs (leaving a job without telling your employer you were quitting ) as what the US Embassy had said about hogwons was pretty much true. We would also sometimes provide financial help to people who have not gotten paid or needed a little help getting that plane ticket home. That help we provided people then would then become a part of our mantra there to help our fellow expats and return the help people provided us during the first few weeks which were very rough.
We had run low on money, a neighbor loaned us some. I had gotten horribly sick with some sort of nasty cold or bronchitis after 2 weeks there our neighbor got me to a doctor just to name a few things. We both got terribly homesick and our fellow expat teacher showed us around and introduced us to people. We helped several expats in Gongju who were in horrible situations. For example, one person had been hit by her boss in front of me for calling in sick. We would continue to do this during our entire time there. Even now 5 years after leaving Korea, I stay in touch with people there and provide help to people in need.
So there you go. The story about how a flyer on a bulletin board at a university in Alpine, Texas led me on a 20-year odyssey through Asia.
I’ll return to how the story of how my now ex-wife and I wound up in Korea back in 1996, but first let me introduce Granger my cat and the story of the greatest souvenir of my travels.
My friend Sandra has an interior design blog and she asked people to post about how they decorate their places with travel souvenirs. So here is my story.
I lived in South Korea for 15 years, China for a year and a half, during that time I traveled throughout Southeast Asia. I have picked up a number of interesting souvenirs throughout that time that has decorated the places I’ve lived in. But, the best souvenir I have in my house is the one I picked up in China last year. My cat Granger.
I was wandering around downtown Chongqing one Saturday afternoon and I saw all these very cute kittens and dogs on a street that I thought was for adoption. I did a little research and found out it wasn’t a humane society; rather these were puppy and kitten mills selling them. Via some friends on WeChat, I was put in contact with a group that fosters and adopts pets in Chongqing. Next thing I know, somebody had a cat that needed a home and four days later, Granger, as I decided to name him, was mine.
We have been through a lot in the past eighteen months. First, he had to spend a week in the hospital with an intestinal blockage which was touch and go. We then moved to Shanghai for 6 months and in February came to my present home in Raleigh. Granger loves his new home and being a friend to my 2 adorable nephews. Yeah, he is definitely the best souvenir I ever got.
We also began to play around with the internet and began to discover several new things. One was that there was an increasing amount of information about teaching ESL in Asia. Second, a new site called Dave’s ESL Café ( www.eslcafe.com) had postings about the bad (and good) schools in Korea, people’s experiences in Korea, resources for teachers along with job postings and links to other sites that were called “blacklists” for bad schools and “whitelists” for good schools. As a result, we found a recruiter out in Los Angeles called Better Resource which dealt with primarily universities which were where we wanted to teach. Second, we also found out that the recruiter our friend was pushing Korea Services Group had a horrendous reputation. There were posts complaining about how they had ripped people off and that the schools they were placed in were horrible in things like not paying on time, horrendous living conditions to name just two things.
DANGER WILL ROBINSON!!!!!
A flag had gone up for us about them even before we saw these posts. The contract they faxed us contracts that had several things we were not told about including a lower salary than promised “a probationary 3-month salary” was their explanation, that bothered us. Then there was a $300/person non-refundable “promise fee” that they said covered some of their expenses. What we were told from our research was that recruiters were not supposed to charge us any fees except for some small shipping fees.
Money, money, money
The deal breaker for us was we had to pay our own airfare over to Korea with the promise we would be reimbursed when we got there. For us, that meant over $2,000 in upfront expenses between airfare and the promise fees with the hope we would get $1600 back. That combined with the stories we had read about Korea Services Group along with what they said in their own brochure encouraging teachers to break Korean law by teaching private lessons when not working. This, fortunately, led us to say “no thanks” to Korea Services Group. Which led us to…
We really knew little about South Korea except what we knew from the TV show M*A*S*H and that they held the Olympics in Seoul back in 1988. The good news was that the Korean National Tourist Organization had offices in the US and sent us a huge packet of maps, brochures about almost every region. It looked nice, so we said sure, let’s go for it.
Things were not what they appeared to be
What we found out was that things were not exactly as they appeared to be. The US Embassy in Seoul flat out told us that not to come because they got at least one call/day from an American citizen who had been lied to, cheated on, not paid, you name it by Korean hogwon owners. They pointed out that the embassy could not help you if you got cheated. They did though send us a brochure about teaching English in South Korea explaining the various places you could teach in Korea.
How about teaching at one of these places???
Besides hogwons, we found out that there were other places to work besides those. These include places like companies, public schools amongst other places. The Korean government was just starting the what is now called the English Program in Korea (EPIK) where the government would place you in a school which we applied to and were accepted into. However, the one that intrigued us we’re universities. At that time, if you had a master’s degree in anything you could teach the now required freshman English courses. There was also the chance to teach non-credit English courses through either what was called “Foreign Language Centers”. These were like hogwons but run by universities. University jobs were considered the best jobs in Korea. They tended to follow the contract to the letter, you were paid on time and treated fairly well while the privately run hogwon’s were a crapshoot at best.
So after thinking about it, we decided to take a look at teaching in Asia. This is part 2 of how we went from Alpine, Texas to South Korea.
A job with only a degree? Do tell…
So with the flyer in hand, we went down to the Education placement office to find out about what kind of jobs there were and how we could go about landing one. Turns out at the time in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan getting a teaching job was easy, and there were plenty of jobs. All you needed was a bachelor’s degree in anything, a valid passport and a willingness to commit to a year’s contract and the job was yours. Even better was that the school would provide you with a furnished place to live and plane tickets to and from Asia. We were very interested in this, to say the least.
The jobs paid well enough you could save money and for us given our debts from credit cards and student loans that looked promising. The actual teaching load was actually only 30 hours a week which compared to a 40-hour grind here sounded nice. Our families thought we were a little crazy but for us that was normal. They thought it was crazy to be out in small-town West Texas for grad school, now head to Asia?
Research, Research, Research
So we started the process of looking into things and eventually given the money, low cost of living we settled on teaching in South Korea and began our research and started making phone calls. This included a lot of expensive overseas calls as there was no such thing as Skype. Also, the internet was just becoming popular so not a lot of information was available online, unlike today. The person in the placement office, a grad student there was also looking at Korea and found the name of a recruiter based in Portland Oregon, Korea Services Group who placed people in private language institutes (known as hogwons in Korean) in the southern part of South Korea. He thought they were a great and advised us to contact them