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When I was in Korea I knew that I wanted to try eating dog for the experience, but that I was apprehensive to do so. So one day when my director said to my co-worker and I that he would take us to eat dog, I was more than a little nervous.

He took us to what he said was a particularly good restaurant for dog which was located in a small town near to mine which seems to almost deserted, something which only added to the surreality of the situation. We went down a run-down, narrow alley way and into a little courtyard where we knocked on a dirty screen door. A little old ajumma let us in, casting a sideways glance at us foreigners.

Boshintang (which is where the dog-meat is cooked in a stew) was simply listed as “tang” (or soup) on the menu. As we waited for the stew to arrive we noticed that the proprietor’s husband had only one arm, something which made us wonder whether it was he himself that slaughtered the dogs and that he had on one occasion been on the receiving end of a particularly vicious cocker-spaniel’s manifested desire to live. To make things worse, there was a mangy cat sitting outside with a contented look on its face.

At last the food arrived and, with hesitation, we got stuck in. The meat was tender, and tasted a lot like beef. It was, I must admit, pretty good. The problem was that with every chew, all I could hear in my head was “dog, dog, dog, dog, dog”. I ate maybe a third of the stew, but my co-worker faired much better, finishing most of his. My director ate with much gusto and had finished his before very long at all. We left and I felt a greasy, queasiness in my stomach for the rest of the day, though whether that was to do with the meat or the knowledge that I had eaten dog remains to be seen. I can say with certainty that I did not feel anymore energetic because of eating it.

Today, both the sale and the procurement of dog-meat (known as GaeGogi) is illegal in Korea, but it is not policed with any stringency. It is estimated that around 9.000 tons are consumed in around 6,500 restaurants every year. When Seoul hosted the Olympic games in 1988, the government urged its citizens to cease the consumption of dog so as to save national face in front of the international press.

It would be easy to look down on the consumption dog meat from a western perspective. But is that simply because we have grown accustomed to viewing dogs as pets than as dinner? Opinion polls amongst younger Koreans certainly indicate an aversion to dog meat based on these grounds. It seems logical to assume that this attitude goes hand in hand with the rise in dog-as-a-pet ownership in Korea over the last decade or so.

A Korean friend was telling me recently that the traditional reason for eating dog was essentially down to a lack of cattle and other farm animals in the past. If you have the choice – he said- between eating dog and starving, what would you do? That this attitude does not translate to modern times because of the freely-available abundance of other meats is, I think, a moot point. If you remove the attitude of dogs as pets from the equation then there really is little other reason not to eat dog if you are perfectly willing to eat other (sometimes more intelligent) animals such as pigs. I remember realising even as I ate dog that my slight sense of repulsion was massively hypocritical.

This is true also about the rumoured nature of how the dogs are killed-they are beaten to death with a bat (supposedly so as to tenderise the meat). The official national line on this is that it doesn’t happen anymore, but then eating dog is meant to be illegal anyway. It would surprise me greatly if this practice had been entirely stamped out. But even then, if the dogs are slaughtered in this horrific manner, is that still a just reason to not eat dog, but to continue eating other animals? We are all aware of the conditions at most intensive farms in the west, and the suffering of the animals there, but we persist with the illusion that it is somehow necessary, or at least, that it is easy enough to disenfranchise ourselves from the meat-making process without breaking out in too much of a moral sweat.

In all likelihood the consumption of dog meat in Korea will continue to decline in the near future as younger generations brought up in prosperity and with the notion of dogs as being pets will reject their traditional heritage. For the time being however, perhaps attitudes towards the consumption of dog-meat serve as an interesting counterpoint to the majority attitude in the west towards meat in general.

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Today I went on my first field trip. It was…a little underwhelming. Me and three Korean teachers took around 30 kids to SK park in Ulsan where there is a butterfly sanctuary, an insect museum and a petting zoo.

We climbed into the minibuses at around 10 and I was shocked to notice that they didn’t have seatbelts. The kids were left to stand up on the seats and generally muck about which seemed insane given that a) Korean drivers are scary, and b) we’re in Korea. After we (safely) arrived, we whizzed around the butterfly sanctuary (within which we saw exactly one butterfly) and then headed over to the marginally more exciting insect exhibition (at one point I had to stop a student from crushing a beetle with her fist).

After that we made our way to the petting zoo, which unless it contained invisible animals, appeared to be closed for the winter. At which point it began to rain. This brought an immediate cessation to the day’s activities as we headed back to school almost immediately.

That said it was a fun experience. The kids were very well behaved (apart from one girl who almost gave me a heart attack my pretending to eat a marble). And on the Brightside, I got to have a 2 and a half hour lunch break. I wonder where we’ll travel to next month on the Wonderland magical mystery tourbus….

1. Public School Vs Private school (hagwon)

I should point out straight away that I don’t and never have taught in a Public school. The information here is based on what public school teachers have told me, so make of it what you will.

The benefits of public school teaching are that you get longer holidays, more job stability, and that you’ll probably be in a program where you’ll meet tons of other foreigners at the orientation.

Most of the possible disadvantages that I can think of are subjective ones. For example, teachers in Public schools work with a Korean teacher in the classroom. This might be to some people’s taste, others not so much. I think I’d personally feel a little restrained by the presence of a Korean (adult) in my classroom. It also depends whether they are a good co-teacher or a bad one. Experiences seem to differ greatly. Also, in public schools the class sizes tend to be huge-usually over 30 students per class-and I can imagine this making it hard to connect and bond with the students in the same way that you can in a hagwon where the class sizes are much smaller. One more thing is that hours that you will work. Public school teachers tend to work public school hours, i.e 8.30-3 or 4, while hagwons tend to start and finish later (I used to work 2pm-9 pm). Again, whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage will depend on the individual.

It would be difficult to sumamrise the merits and drawbacks of Hagwon teaching because they vary so much in so many ways. In fact, the unpredictability of hagwons is probably their main disadvantage, Good hagwons incorporate a good general atmosphere, good Korean/western/student relations and a reliable director. The negative features of hagwons can be things like being paid late (or not at all in some cases), being fired on a whim by a mercurial boss, suffering the various impulses of said boss, having to teach kids who’ve already been to school once that day already, a colossal deficit of communication (though I think this might be a facet of public school teaching and by extension, of Korea in general), the inflexibility of holiday times and (if in a small hagwon) living with the possibility of a sudden closure of the school.

2. Check if the school has been black-listed on the internet

Seeing as how teaching in Korea is so popular amongst westerners, it’s no surprise that there are websites (www.ratemyhagwon.com) and facebook groups devoted to telling the world not to teach at certain schools. The lists are by no means exhaustive, but they could be helpful if a school you are considering turns up on one of them.  Another potential way of discerning the good from the bad is to speak to a teacher who is or was at the school before. They may not be totally honest, but they should hopefully give you a good idea about the place. You should be able to request their email address from your contact person.

It’s a sad fact that there are many bad schools to work for in Korea, and there is really little way of finding out which ones not to work for. The directors of the schools will often lie pretty blatantly about their schools, so to get a more balanced opinion it’s certainly a good idea to do some research.

3. Where you’ll be living and where you’ll be working

One of the biggest decisions to make is where you’re going to live. Asides from the obvious question of specific city/town, it’s worthwhile checking on the area of the city you’ll be living in. Ulsan, where I live, is huge, and naturally there are fun areas and not-so-fun areas.

Because the big Korean cities are so large, it’s easy to think you’d be getting all the benefits city life when in reality you could be miles away from anywhere even remotely decent. As an example, my old school advertises itself as being in Busan when in fact it was a 20 minute bus ride just to the very outside of Busan and another 40 minutes to an hour to go anywhere interesting. It’s important that you should research online the areas that you want to live in and stick to your guns.

Always check that your school and house is where you want it to be and don’t take your contact person’s word for it (I find Google Earth is a good way of ascertaining the exact location of the school.

On top of all that, it’s worthwhile asking not only about where the school is but where your house will be. Just because your school is in one area, it doesn’t necessarily entail that your house will be in the same one. Commutes aren’t a huge irritation because public transport is good in Korea, but it would be a disappointment to think that you were living in an area that you’d specifically chosen, only to find out that you’re somewhere else entirely.

4. Holiday Allowance in Hagwons

One of the only gripes I had with my school last year was over the holiday allowance. In my contract it said that I was entitled to 10 holiday days per year in addition to the ten or so public holidays that everyone has off.  I had assumed that I could choose the dates of my holiday. However when I asked my director if I could have a week off in June when my parents were visiting, he said ‘Ohhhh I don’t know about that, I’ll let you know’.

In fact, it took a month of wheedling and persistence to get him to allow me to have 3 days off. His argument was that the holiday days mentioned in the contract are set by the school as 3 days in the summer and 3 days in the winter, plus bonus extra days that were only partially of my choosing. This was debateable. He also said that the school would not be able to cope with losing a teacher for that long.

This system seems to be employed throughout the hagwon system, with different degrees of leniency shown by different directors. To some extent I can sympathise, especially given the paucity of the time Korean workers are given off (http://www.newser.com/story/82094/south-korea-to-workers-take-a-vacation-already.html). However to a westerner who has come out to Korea not merely to work but also to explore Asia, this can be disappointing.

Holiday allowance might seem a trivial thing to base your choice of school on, but it is important to consider if you want to do more in your year in Korea than teach-especially if you live in a drab city. Having the freedom to take time off when you want means you can take proper holidays and maybe even head home to see the family for a while. It’s definitely something worth explicitly asking about before you sign up for anything.

5General

This list has gone on far too long already so I’ll do a condensed version of my other tips

Age Group. Do you really want to teach kindergarteners? Really? Because they’re tiny. I mean, just really small. I speak from experience.

Number of Foreign teachers at the school. Social life is made a lot easier by the presence of other foreign teachers at the school. Work life improves as well as you have someone to talk to (and complain to).

Pay (Average seems to be 2.2 million per month.

School Size Like I mentioned above, very small hagwons (say under 100 students) are more liable to sudden bankruptcy. If this happens you leave with nothing….

OK so I have been back in Korea for almost a week now. I arrived on Sunday night after only just managing to catch the bus to Ulsan. I was picked up at the bus station by my director whose English name is Coco. She took me straight to my apartment which is in Mugeo-Dong (the University area of the city).

The apartment is just about ok. Most foreigner teachers in Korea live in studio apartments that vary in size and quality. Mine is reasonably sized, if a little dank. To get to it you have to go down a dark little alley way, and it’s on the first floor so I think cock-roaches might be a problem in the summer. Inside, the décor is a little drab but acceptable, although I’m not a fan at all of the prison-esque bars on the windows. I have a big wardrobe and a table and most importantly, a double bed. I also have a bin bag full of clothes thoughtfully left for me by the previous tenant (who was either a girl or a transvestite). She even more thoughtfully didn’t clean the place or take out the rubbish so I had to share the room with a bit of a stink for the first few days. But after a little bit of cleaning, it has scrubbed up nicely and I do feel at home here (especially now that the fridge is working properly).

Despite arriving so late on Sunday night, Coco asked me if I could work on Monday afternoon and I agreed wanting to make a good impression. This is not uncommon in Korea and I have a friend who arrived after a 17 hour flight and was told to start teaching straight away, so it could have been worse. I got to the school at around 1 o’clock and my first impressions were good. It’s quite small (around 80 students) but well appointed and with less retina damaging wall paper than my last school. Something else I noticed immediately was how disorganised the school was. Coco told me that it was because a new academic year at the school is starting in April and that this meant that things were all a bit up in the air. However, upon speaking to the other teachers at the school, I was informed that it was ever thus at Wonderland. I have decided to just go with the flow and keep my head down and hope that I don’t make too many mistakes……

Wonderland is primarily a kindergarten age school, so as you can imagine, the students tend to be of a diminutive stature. The youngest student has just turned 3 so he’s basically still a baby. Most of the students are 4 or 5 years old, something I was worried about before coming out here. But I must say that I am deeply impressed with the general standard of English that the kids have. And my, but aren’t they just the cutest things that I have ever seen….just really adorable (at least in appearance, some of them are proper little so and so’s…)

Because they are so young, it would be fair to say that childminding is part of my job description. This is to my advantage as I seem to have a lot more freedom to play games and have fun with them rather than being pushed into meeting deadlines and doing monthly tests etc etc. Even better, every Thursday is an activity day where the kids either go on field trips, do some cooking, do situational role plays or have theme days. This Thursday, the kids spent the day learning about frogs. They did some colouring and made some origami frogs. After that I read them the story of the princess and the frog (although in the Korean version the princess transforms the frog by throwing him away rather than kissing him, thus neatly side-stepping the moral point of the tale). Finally I organised a frog racing competition where the kids had to hop across the floor as quickly as they could. All in all it was jolly good fun. I’m certainly looking forward to my first field-trip.

So far it’s been great being back in Korea and in particular getting to practice my Korean! On Friday night we went out to a Korean bar and ended up making friends with the proprietors which was great fun, although apparently I’m now obliged to be friends with their son. I’ll be getting some photos put up this week of my apartment and the school.

So tomorrow night I will be leaving to return to Korea. After much hand-wringing over whether my visa would arrive on time, I received it this morning, much to my relief.

It was a close shave last year as well, and much of the reason for this can be attributed to the complexity of the visa application process. Admittedly the process has been significantly easier this time around, given that I now have experience of it.

As I have not yet left for Korea, it seems inappropriate to go into too much cultural depth just yet. So for now, I have some advice for prospective English teachers in Korea regarding the pre-Korea stage of a Korean adventure.

As I said, the visa process can be daunting at first, especially given that it must be done piece-meal over a course of at least a month. However, there are a number of websites out there that outline the process more fully and accurately than I could possibly do here. I would recommend using the agency Flying Cows (www.flying-cows.com) who helped me to organise my first trip. If you sign up (free of charge) you gain full access to their member’s area and their team of support staff. They are based in England, but their advice and support has proved to be invaluable.

Towards the end of my time last year in Korea, I was already planning my return. Given that I would have a year of experience on the resume I was working on the assumption that it would be easy to get a good job (and a good salary) this time around. After my return, this quickly proved to be a naïve way of thinking. I guess I had not been banking on how much the economic problems in the west may have affected people’s desire to get away. The Hagwon job market seemed absolutely saturated and I didn’t receive a single offer for over 2 weeks. My second piece of advice is, therefore, to apply to as many agencies that you can find (I tracked down over 40) and badger them ceaselessly about getting you a job. Dave’s ESL café (http://www.eslcafe.com/) is the place to start, but a simple Google search will turn up countless other agents desperate to place you in schools (whether the schools want you or not…). Most of these people will be Koreans with varying degrees of English, but as most of the contact is done via email, this shouldn’t prove to be too much of a problem.

Right, I’m off to pack. Next post will be live from Korea with some photos of my new home.

In other news, Portuguese Pensioner romps with dresser….This is why I love Korea. http://www.newser.com/story/82935/korean-man-marries-pillow.html