Wednesday, August 08, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

Living and teaching in Seoul

Namdaemun (Great South Gate) [Enlarge]

Okay, recap: we've paused on our RTW odyssey to have a break from the tourist thing and to recharge our bank account. We've done the maths and as long as we're careful and save most of what we earn this year in our jobs as English conversation teachers, we can re-coup everything we've spent on the trip so far plus a little more!

So what have we been doing since we arrived in Seoul? Here's an update.

7–24 June: Just working!

We were told that our first month would be quiet. Newbies always start off with just a few classes to teach, so that they are not overloaded and also to to see if they're any good. But actually, the company was quite busy and so we soon picked up on the number of lessons we were teaching. We need to teach as much as possible because we get paid by the class.

Teaching took some getting used to, but already we're getting into the swing of it. The job is quite good fun and involves absolutely no stress. We mainly teach business people and professionals, but there are a few students and housewives, and Glenn's office has loads of kids too. Yes, we're at different offices but they're only about a seven-minute walk apart. Anyway it would be a bit weird working together.

The group size ranges from individuals up to classes of ten to twelve. The hours are tiring: our busiest times are 06:45 to 09:00 and 18:45 to 21:00, and then we have a liberal sprinkling of work during the day. The hours are certainly having the desired effect of stopping us spending any money!

You may remember Glenn saying that one of the reasons why we're doing this job is so that he can get over his fear of public speaking. Well, not only has he got over it, but he has given a week-long presentation skills course to Koreans (and they and he loved it). We'll call that a success.

25 June–13 July—Korean lessons and a birthday.

In the past we always tried to learn some of the language before we visited a country, even if it was just how to say 'thank you'. That went out of the window on our round-the-world trip because we didn't know where we would be going in advance and also because if we'd tried, our heads would have exploded.

But we're planning to be in Korea until 7 June 2008 and that's a long time to spend looking puzzled and apologetic. So we've started taking Korean lessons, twice a week for ninety minutes a time. Because we're studying in our own language school we get the lessons at cost (i.e. we only have to pay the instructor's fee) and we're taking the class with two of our colleagues. It's costing us each KRW 14,000 (GBP 7.45 / USD 15.18) per week.

Korean is very different from most of the languages we've learned before, but the structure is similar to Japanese, which we did a beginners' course in a few years ago. So we're not starting from absolute zero. We've got the hang of the Hangul alphabet, which is much easier than it looks. It is actually a syllabary, not an alphabet—each character is one syllable. We can now have a basic conversation in Korean in a shop or restaurant, or give directions to a taxi driver, so we're pleased.

Korean language lessons have been one break from the pattern of teaching and sleeping. Another was Isla's thirtieth birthday. We celebrated with a meal in a Mexican Restaurant called Casa Loca in the Yeouido area of Seoul. The meal was OK (Seoul is not great for cuisine unfortunately), but the margaritas were excellent! So now we're both in our thirties. Yuck.

14–30 July: bank holidays and apartment hunting.

Korea has a lot of bank holidays. They make up for the fact that people here get virtually no time off work otherwise. We had an enforced rest day on July 17, Constitution Day. Unfortunately it was also an income-free day, but it was welcome nonetheless.

Our employer puts new teachers up in a company apartment for the first three months, so by the end of July it was time to start looking for our own place. Our goal was to find somewhere modern (or at least clean), close to work, and cheap enough that the company's accommodation allowance would pay for the rent and the bills. We soon found that 'modern' and 'close to work' and 'cheap' were mutually exclusive concepts. The only place in central Seoul where we found anywhere meeting our aims was in the foreigners' ghetto: Haebangchon—known to its residents as 'The Chon'.

The Chon is not a bad area, it's just that it's not very Korean. The US 8th Army base is nearby so a kind of mini-America grew up there. As the army has begun to pull out, so they have been replaced by language teachers and foreign company workers. Koreans don't particularly want to live here (although plenty of them do), and there is a high resident turnover, so the rent is low. On the plus side the real estate agents speak some (if only a little) English, and are used to dealing with Westerners who want to pay a monthly rent instead of using the more common Korean jeonse system. Under this system the tenant deposits a huge sum of money with the landlord (around half the property's value), who then invests it and takes the income in lieu of rent. At the end of the contract the original deposit is returned. Why Koreans don't just use their huge lump sum as a deposit against buying their own place we don't fully understand.

That's all the furniture we own (except a Korean mattress), right there. [IMG_3005]
Our new apartment [Enlarge]

Isla's schedule was lighter than Glenn's in July so she went and looked at half a dozen places of varying styles and prices, and found one particular agent with a selection of the right kind of thing. We then went back together the following day and viewed a small (but very spacious for Seoul), newly constructed, one bedroom apartment. It has a good view at the front and there are no extra management charges. A snip at KRW 500,000 per month (GBP 266 / USD 542). Not bad for the centre of a capital city, and well inside our budget. There are only two drawbacks: it's totally unfurnished, and it's at the top of an infeasibly steep hill. Still, it was what we were looking for so we grabbed it while we could. More photos are here.