At a hagwon, what you see probably won’t be what you getMost private language institutes in Korea offer their foreign teachers housing as part of their compensation package, and tales abound of mildew-infested basement rooms with no windows or rooftop studios that are drafty in the winter and become giant brick ovens in the summer. Any teacher who stays here long enough will have a housing horror story.
Mine began in late summer 1997, when I decided I would take an English teaching gig at an institute, or hagwon. After a few interviews, I narrowed it down to a couple of possible places. The pay was about the same, the locations equally undesirable and the school directors equally shifty. So, I chose the job that offered the best apartment. Or so I thought.
I asked to see the apartment before signing the contract and was shown a bright, cozy studio on the top floor of a decent building. Off I went to Japan to get my teaching visa. But when I returned I was told there was a “problem” with the apartment I had been shown. When I saw the place I would actually be living in, I seriously considered telling the school my dog had died and I had to return to the States immediately. It had a tiny window that let in almost no light and I was warned repeatedly against flushing even one square of single-ply toilet paper (a warning that I should have heeded). For reasons I can no longer recall, I stayed.
Although I wasn’t happy with the apartment bait-and-switch, the job was going fairly well. I liked my co-workers and most of my students. One day my afternoon housewives class was canceled. So, with three hours to kill before my next class, I went home for lunch.
I arrived at my hovel and immediately noticed something out of sync: two pairs of pointy-toed high heels. I slipped my shoes off and ambled in to the room to find the owners of the shoes snoozing in my bed. I felt like one of the three bears. I cleared my throat, waking one of the raven-haired Goldilocks. She screeched, rousing her friend, and they started blabbering incomprehensibly (at least to me). I went back outside to make sure I was in the right place. I was. But were they? I never got a chance to ask. As I headed back in they bowed several times and made their exit. Too bad. I was hoping they would stick around.
I later found out that they were “hostesses” at a nearby karaoke bar that my school’s owner also co-owned. They worked from about 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. every day. I began classes at 6:30 a.m. and would normally stay at school until 8 p.m., so the hagwon’s owner told them they could sleep there once I had left for work. Of course he never told me about it.
Eventually, the school moved me to a better place. The first thing I did when I moved in: change the locks.
The writer, an American, teaches high school in Seoul.
by Dylan Alford