From High on Hog to HakwonAfter Michael Thorpe graduated from college in his native New Zealand in 1991, he joined the yuppie ranks of London by taking a job with the investment bank J.P. Morgan. He armored himself in wrinkle-free suits, his weapon of choice was his laptop, he power-dined in fine restaurants and spent weekends zipping around Europe in a sports car.
A couple of months ago, fed up with the business world, the 30-something Mr. Thorpe landed in Korea among the peninsula's expat-bohemian ranks. Working as an English teacher, he dresses in corduroy pants, totes a backpack, hangs out at the local chicken joint, and travels to the countryside. In 2000, the immigration office gave visas to 11,449 English teachers, the latest figure available. The number does not include those teaching privately.
On this recent day, Michael Thorpe has arrived at Seoul's southern suburb of Bundang, to the Park Jeong Language Institute, a hakwon or educational study center, where 800 elementary to high school students come after their regular school day ends to improve their English skills or hone other subjects.
Mr. Thorpe works on the third floor of a gray building. He enters the teachers' room, nodding to a few other teachers, all women, who lecture in math and science.
Before his first class of the evening begins, Mr. Thorpe takes out his lesson plan and stashes his backpack next to his desk. While his students are at public school, Mr. Thorpe prepares the day's lessons for his middle school students, who practice essay writing for standardized English competency tests.
"The money at J.P. Morgan was great, but the job was unsatisfying," Mr. Thorpe says, after scribbling suggestions on each of a few student essays. Before teaching he took a stab at filmmaking. While still in London he wrote a screenplay, then sold his dream car, a white Porsche 911 Turbo, for $40,000, then returned home to New Zealand.
He points at a poster of the movie he eventually made back in New Zealand. "With a cast of 150 and a crew of 25, I shot a film, doing the editing in my parents' living room," he explains. The rough cut of "The Lunatics' Ball," shown to the New Zealand Film Commission, won him a grant of 400,000 New Zealand dollars ($166,760) which covered post-production costs. The film went to festivals in Cannes in 1999, Shanghai in 1999, and Pyeongyang in 2000.
Once the fervor died down, though, Mr. Thorpe realized he had neither a handsome salary nor any more valuable toys to sell. "I had an outline for my next film, but no money," he says. He tossed the idea of returning to banking and opted to teach English instead.
"I was searching the Web, and I came across www.eslcafe.com," he says. On the site he found a job but the recruiter told him he had to be in Korea in two days.
Sure enough, half an hour later Mr. Thorpe had a plane ticket and two days later he was in Korea.
Mr. Thorpe now teaches four 45-minute classes every evening except Sunday, starting at 6:15 and ending at 9:30. He counts himself lucky to have such a consolidated schedule.
Indeed, the bane of English teachers is split shifts, which often require teachers to begin their days at 6 a.m. and end at 10 p.m.
A bell rings, and Mr. Thorpe gathers his material and walks to classroom 303. He hands out marked assignments to two students while gathering homework. Four others trickle in late. He turns the lights off and shows on an overhead projector the structure of writing a good essay.
He reads the first essay example question: "Should Korean school children spend more time playing games?" The students are silent, some looking down. "Think of an example. How about Lego?" Still no response.
When the bell goes off, Mr. Thorpe quickly walks out and complains about the complications he faces. "Half the class is new and the other half is old," he says. "Do I start them from ground zero? It's like trying to teach two classes at once. I repeat key fundamental ideas, and try to pay individual attention to each of them." Mr. Thorpe walks up to the fourth floor for his next class. He turns off the light, shows the same overhead, and gives a similar lecture to five students. This time, he sounds more confident. Next door, a cassette tape plays a song for elementary-age students. "Dizzy, dizzy, dizzy!" goes the recorded voice.
By the end of the day, Mr. Thorpe has shown the overhead to each class, in addition to reading aloud an excerpt from Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" for his more advanced students. "Because public school exam time is near," he says, "I never know how many of my students will show up every day."
After the last class Mr. Thorpe walks to his office and grabs his backpack. "I get out of here as fast as I can," he says. He heads for the "Danish Chicken Shop" to meet some friends. He met one of them, an expatriate, at a local Internet cafe. "You have to make an effort to make friends here," he says. "I've met other people through her, and I've met other expats out on the street."
Does he have a good social life? On the weekends he goes to Itaewon to either of two bars: "Geckos" or "Hollywood." He also ventures out to the Sinchon nightlife area, where college-age Koreans wax Dionysian. Sometimes his boss takes the teachers on outings, he says, and last weekend he and six other English teachers went to Mount Seorak.
The next morning, he will wake at 9 a.m., work on his screenplay for a couple of hours, then play badminton or go for a run before walking to work. "I have a sense of purpose now," he says. "What I'm doing is what I really want to do."
Teaching English can be a bumpy ride. Here are some pointers to help you keep a smooth course.
Have someone who understands Korean take a close look at the contract before you come to Korea. "When I first got to Korea, the wonjang or principal kept promising me a contract, but it never materialized," said Greg Cross, a teacher from New Zealand. "After six months, I left." He also related stories about friends who signed two contracts, one in English, another in Korean, only to be told later that the Korean contract, with different fine print, was the only valid one.
You can save some money, but you will not become a millionaire. The average institute pays between 1.3 million won ($1,000) and 2 million won per month. "And it's not easy money," said one teacher.
Many are able to save 1 million won a month. About 5 percent of your income goes to transportation and 10 percent to phone bills. "Obviously, I'm making a few international calls," said one teacher. Another 5 percent goes to utilities. The rest goes to food and entertainment expenses, including trips around the countryside.
"I have a student whose mother insists that I come eat with them on weekends," said Dane Anthony Richards, a teacher from the United States. "Plus my host is generous enough to grant me the privilege of eating lunch and dinner with them every workday, so my food expenses are minimal."
Most institutes pay for housing. If you're lucky, and get along well with management, the principal may throw in such extras as a cell phone, a television, a VCR and maybe even a car.
"I expect to have at least $13,000 by the time I leave, or maybe a little less, and that would be in just 15 months," boasted one teacher who has been in Korea for six months.
Know your legal rights and bring extra money. "If after coming to Korea you find yourself not being paid, in some uncomfortable situation and needing to get out of the country quickly, an open return ticket out of Korea is also a good idea," one teacher advised.
Pack deodorant. Deodorant seems to be the No. 1 item on many "must pack" lists. You have to look hard to find deodorant in Seoul, and if you are outside of Seoul, good luck.
To keep your students from falling asleep, keep them busy. You have to captivate them. Make classes interactive. Be firm with your students.
Don't take the conduct of Korean parents personally. It's easy to get confused when one parent says you're a bad teacher and another says you're a good teacher. It gets even worse when parents start complaining about grades. "It got to a point where I was afraid to hand out anything lower than a B," one teacher said.
When your stay at your institute nears the 10- or 11-month mark, be on your best behavior. After you fulfill a year of your contract, the company is legally bound to pay you a month's pay as severance. "I know a lot of people who got themselves fired at 11 and a half months," said one teacher.
Make friends with at least one native Korean. To survive in any new country, it helps to know the locals. Learning the language will also make your stay more pleasant and rewarding. "Most Koreans love making foreign friends, both to learn English and to satisfy their curiosity about other cultures," said one teacher.
As there is no real organized expat support network in Korea, it also helps to get to know an experienced teacher.
English, English, Everybody Wants to Learn English
By Lee Jung-kyu
"Parry; parry...to evade or turn aside something..."
"Jaded; jaded means worn out by overwork or abuse."
The notebook of Nam Soon-kie, a 28-year-old man who received his master's degree in civil engineering in Korea last year, was filled with highlighted vocabulary words he often missed in trials for the standardized tests that must be taken before entering graduate schools in the United States.
Flipping through "Word Smart," an English vocabulary book, Mr. Nam said, "I have this much to master before I take the exam next month. I've been preparing for GRE tests for several months to get my Ph. D. in the States." The man, who wishes to become an engineering professor, said he would have a better chance to become one once he gets a diploma from the United States. "I guess schools in the states have better lab facilities and all that," he said. "Most importantly, I'll have the English proficiency that Korean universities really look at when they select professors."
Mr. Nam was among some 100 students who were mumbling while soaking up English vocabulary at a GRE classroom at Park Jeong Language Institute chain in Seoul.
In another classroom, a high school girl from Gyeonggi province, who asked to be identified only as Lee, was reviewing idioms she had just learned. Rubbing sleep out of her eyes, she said she had been waking up every day at 6 a.m. during the summer to get to the school by 7.
The girl, who hopes to enter Cornell University's hotel management school, attends three classes daily to prepare for both the TOEFL and the SAT. The time and expense that go into her English lessons are huge, she said. "During winter and summer breaks, I study for the tests from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, paying more than 1.5 million won [$1,150] per month," she said.
According to Cho Seong-jun, an official at the language institute, the school has about 4,000 students enrolled who are preparing for various standardized English tests.
English fever is higher than ever now in Korea as more and more people wish to go to foreign countries for degrees to better prepare themselves for college entrance and employment. Advertisements for various English study books, education institutes and English learning methods cover newspapers every day. Businessmen attend English conversation classes provided by their companies, while college students organize study groups to prepare for standardized tests.
According to the Sisa Language Institute, owned by YBM Education Inc., the number of people who register for its English classes has increased every year by 15 to 20 percent since 1993. It now has more than 700,000 children and adults attending conversation, grammar and test preparation classes at its institutes. The number of those planning to take standardized English tests in order to be admitted to colleges or graduate schools in the United States or in Korea, or to enter companies, has expanded greatly. Since the TOEIC test was introduced in the country in 1982, the number of people taking it has skyrocketed, from 1,379 in 1982 to 112,000 in 1993 and 767,000 last year.
The English study book industry is also expanding in step with the language institutes.
According to Choi Hoon, a section chief at Daekyo Co. Ltd., one of the four major study book companies in the country, Koreans spend more than 800 billion won every year on English grammar and conversation practice books. Since the company was established in 1991, the annual sales of Daekyo's English study books have risen from 1.9 billion won to 14 billion won.
The biggest English study book company in the country is Yoon's English Academy, which had revenues of more than 250 billion won last year.
A different type of English school is emerging as more people seek out language education. Pick-up Phone Co. introduced a system in 1990 that provides English conversation lessons over the phone. Since its inception, it has averaged yearly sales of 6 billion won. The company also offers online education to people who want to get their English fix on the Web.
"We occupy 70 percent of the phone conversation market, so we estimate that the total sales of the phone conversation industry amount to 8.5 billion won per year," said Lee Soo-min, a company official.
Kang Ho-young, a manager at YBM Education Inc., said he expected the "English boom" to continue for quite a while.
"After the financial crisis in 1997," Mr. Kang said, "more people keenly felt the necessity of possessing English proficiency." As more foreign companies land in Korea and domestic companies form connections with foreign ones, most people need to have some level of English skills, he said.
Also, in this era when the Internet seems to rule the world, having English ability has become a necessity if you want to have access to the Web's wide array of information and knowledge, he added.
Mr. Cho at Park Jeong Institute mentioned similar reasons for the expansion of the English industry in Korea.
"Not only colleges but also companies and government institutes want employees who can speak and write English well as they open their doors to the forces of globalization," Mr. Cho said.
According to the school administrator, the government is also planning to include TOEFL or TOEIC scores in its selection criteria for judicial apprentices starting in 2004. Without a doubt, the fever to learn English will keep getting higher.
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