Category Archives: South Korea (2011)

I’m still here.

It is such a nice feeling walking out of the school dining hall, out onto the steps, taking in two lungfuls of the brisk, clean air and looking up at the branches of autumn trees forking across a very bold blue sky. Lunch was good, in fact it’s always good. Well, 95% of the time it’s good. Students and teachers alike eat the same meal, and it’s a bloody good feed. And of course it puts the school dinners back in England to shame; although to be fair, it has been some time since I sat down with my old classmates for school dinner – but I’ve seen Jamie Oliver’s crusading TV shows! It’s now been more or less ten weeks since I started teaching here on Jeju island, and so far things have gone pretty well. And in general, life on the island has been great; full of interesting encounters, gorgeous views, hazy nights out, new tastes, new experiences, and of course… new friends.

To say this is even ‘lukewarm off the press’ would be an outright lie!  It’s cold.  But it is off the press.  And yes, it’s a short novel I’m afraid.  You don’t have to read all of it, I won’t be testing you or anything.  You can just look at the pictures if you want.  This isn’t what I say to my students by the way, although it’s pretty much what a lot of them do anyway!    I actually started writing this months ago, and I’ve been making irregular additions to this post as I strived to complete it!  But, I never got up to date.  So, I decided to cut it off at new year.  So when you come across sentences like ‘I’m fast closing in on my 20th week‘ – I’m not!  That’s just when I originally wrote it.  Oh you get the idea.  Anyway, the last four or five months will have to wait till another time… is anyone really bothered though?!  On with the story…

So there I was, standing in from of a class of very smiley, very curious, and very wide eyed, first grade high school girls and boys. Only fifteen minutes earlier, I had been sat with the headmaster (Mr Bu Sang-Ho), the vice head and my main co-teacher (Miss Jean Yang) in the head’s office. Mr Bu’s English was actually pretty good and we were able to chat about all manner of things. He’s a big, cheery man with a loveable manner. We didn’t get to chat for that long though, as it was time for a staff meeting, but I did leave Mr Bu smiling from ear-to-ear after I placed a bottle of whisky in his hands. The staff meeting came and went in a blur (nothing to do with whisky I assure you), I managed to say a few words in Korean, got a round of applause and was then soon whisked off to this, my first class.

The lesson went really well – it was just an introduction to me, but even so, the kids stayed focused and asked lots of questions – a lot of them about my hair and whether I had a girlfriend! There were also questions about my height and my blood type, both big factors in knowing your place in society here in Korea! And there were frequent comments about my face…”Teacher, your face is small!” And this apparently is a very good thing here. I did get one unwelcome surprise that week though. I still hadn’t got to grips fully with my timetable, but from what I’d been told in that first meeting with my co-teacher (a few days earlier in Jeju-si), I had only to teach my introduction lesson in each class for the first week. Easy stuff. So on Wednesday, I start my lesson again, when suddenly…. “Teacher, we did this!”

It had only been just over a week, when I had my first evening out with the Sehwa school staff. This was also my first taste of Samgyeopsal, and boy, oh boy – it’s good stuff! Barbecued pork, large strips of it – fat and all.
Sam (삼) three; gyeop (겹) layered; sal (살) flesh. Around twenty of us teachers took up a large section of a restaurant fairly close to the city centre, our shoes were off, and we were all sat cross-legged on the wooden floors, cracking open bottles of Soju, pouring each other’s drinks (as is tradition), making speeches, and turning over strips of pork on the barbecue grill in the middle of our table. Around the table are small dishes of chopped pumpkin, seaweed, anchovies, garlic cloves, onion, samjang (a tasty chilli paste) and the ultimate grilled pig dip… gireumjang (a mix of salt and sesame oil), and of course kimchi! Also there were baskets stacked with lettuce leafs, and perilla leafs. The meal is eaten by making a small wrap with a leaf. Take a little pork (now cut up into bite size pieces), dip it into the gireumjang, take a clove of garlic (dip into the ssamjang), add a little barbecued onion, wrap, consume… close eyes… savour. In some roundabout way I’ve managed to challenge one particular pre-conception held by my co-teachers on us Brits, the eating of spicy food. Those teachers sat around me would all look at me, with chopsticks, food and leaf held in mid-air, lips parted, eyes wide, waiting for my reaction – which when they saw it, aroused a mixture of disappointment and pleasant surprise. I get the feeling that some of them were looking forward to me racing for the jug of water. When I explained that one of the most popular foods for us Brits is curry, be it Thai or Indian, then they got it.
Comments were made to my adherence to the drinking customs, but even as I write this now (more than 6 months on), I’m still learning slight nuances to the practice.

Samgyeopsal… delicious!

After the meal, I was invited out for more drinks with three of the teachers, and we drank late into the night. I made it into work just fine the next day, but I wasn’t surprised to see that one of teachers from our little group was nursing a sore head. There was a good reason for this – for each glass of beer the three of us consumed, he worked his way through a bottle of soju! And we had four beers after the meal!

At another staff dinner the week after, Mr Bu (the headmaster) presented an English translation of one of his Korean poems. Something was definitely lost in the translation, but it was still a wonderful gesture and I felt pretty humbled.

It was the weekend again, and it was Island Stone where we found ourselves. Don’t we always!? For the past couple of weeks (and for a long time to come) this was the start of many nights out. The vibe in this place is so good (I’ve mentioned this before) and tonight was no different… well, except for the crazy lady who suddenly switched from Miss Sweet to Miss Satan in a heartbeat. I had come to Island Stone with some friends, enjoyed Stone’s cocktail show, took some photos, drank some beer and was sat at the bar, ignoring the gang, but chatting to a Korean guy and his girlfriend. All three of us were haphazardly chatting for a while, and seemed to be getting on great. I turn away, order a drink, turn back and she’s in my face! Prodding and pushing me in the shoulder, shouting something I didn’t understand. Her boyfriend is trying to calm her down, an arm across her chest, holding her back from what I imagine is a brewing slap! I’m calm and remain perched on my bar stool, waiting for my change. I’m not entirely sure what I’d done. Stone steps in to defend me, and the boyfriend continues holding her back. After another minute or so, she eventually leaves the bar – her boyfriend in tow. I asked Stone what the fuss was all about, and apparently she was asking (rather loudly) why I was on Jeju – a subject I thought we’d already discussed!  But, for whatever reason, she was suspicious of me. Once someone explained to her that I really was a teacher, and that I’d only been here a couple of weeks so, she got embarrassed and ran off. The fresh air must have calmed her down because she came back, a little wobbly on her feet, and apologised. It was then all smiles, more drinks were ordered, more drinks were finished, and Jane’s Groove was about to get some more customers.

Gyoung Min Kim (Stone) doing one of the things he does best… putting on a damn good show!

That Sunday I walked down to the port to get a meal… seafood of course.  Jeju island has many things going for it, one of them being the abundance and variety of sea-faring creatures that you can stick down your gullet.    The quayside in Jeju city has many restaurants all situated next to each other, and of course they all want your custom, and your won.  So far though, this is the only place I’ve seen in Korea where a member of the staff is standing outside the restaurant, greeting passers-by.  But there is never any pressure to eat at certain places, and you’ll never get badgered or sweet talked, a simple ‘hello’ and ‘good evening’ is all you might get as you walk past.  Perhaps an invite to look at the menu.  I chose one place, ordered, and sat up on some decking overlooking the sea, and the sunset.  I enjoyed a slap up fish and shellfish soup, with all the trimmings for only 10,000 won (about £5).  Result.

Not bad at all for 10,000 won.

The sun going down, from the quayside in Jeju city.

Halla-san (Halla Mountain) is South Korea’s highest peak and it sits smack bang in the middle of the island, the place from which the rest of this island was spewed forth. It last erupted back in 1007, and shows no sign of rising from its slumber anytime soon!  Sam (my neighbour) and I caught the early morning bus, and jumped out at the start of the 9.6km Seongpanak trail.  As mentioned, it’s been dormant for the last ten centuries, and so it’s well vegetated – providing plenty of cover from sun.  At 1,950 m, it is twice the height of Snowdon, but it is roughly half that of of Mount Fuji, and only a third of Mount Kilimanjaro.   So yes, it’s high, but it’s not gonna win any prizes, or ever be bestowed with a notorious or legendary status.

Now, I really enjoy walking,  but to be honest only in places that are off the beaten track a bit.  Places where I can exercise some freedom (as well my muscles) and follow my instinct, letting interest dictate where I head to next – letting nothing except the terrain (or perhaps a sign saying ‘military testing ground – keep out!’) deter me.    Which was why I found the walk up Halla-san so tiresome… confined paths, countless people, hold-ups, wooden decking, the only thing that wasn’t there to ruin the experience, were a series of speakers piping out music and greetings in four different languages.  No, they save that for Sunrise Peak!  Oh, the great outdoors!

In fairness though, it is worth mentioning that it was the Chuseok holiday, so there were more people out walking the trails than usual!  Hiking is taken very seriously here; and the island is covered in trails and paths (called Olle) and they are seldom empty – even on rainy days.  It is taken so seriously, that you’ll find an abundance (possibly an over-abundance) of hiking stores here on Jeju island!   So, while I turned up in an old scruffy t-shirt, cargo shorts, a weathered hat, and a well travelled ruck sack (and Sam wasn’t much different), everyone else seemed to have just walked out of the changing room of their favourite store!

At one point, a couple of kilometres from the top, I left Sam behind and scampered up the path – I had a reserve of energy that I just had to burn off!  The view over the island was obscured by clouds, but that didn’t bother me too much – there is something rather majestic about walking up into clouds.  As it’s rather dangerous to be caught up on the mountain (and signs advising you aren’t enough apparently), there are wardens who actually shoo you off by a certain time.  So, after twenty minutes or so at the top, it was time to take the walk down again.  We decided to take the shorter, but much harder trail down, the Gwaneumsa trail – and thankfully there was much less decking on this path.    All in all though, the experience felt unfulfilling, as if the walk was detached from the land somehow.  It’s hard to describe.  I imagine 20 years ago it was probably a better better place to go trekking up.  I’d had a good day for sure, and it was a pleasant walk and a good work out, but le Cirque de Mafate it wasn’t!

Me and Sam somewhere on Halla mountain!

A less often photographed part of Halla san.

After about three weeks into my stay in Jeju, I got an email from the POE – it was good news; I had been offered the housing allowance. This meant I could now chase up an apartment close to my school. The only catch was that I could either move out in four days time, or move out in two months time. The decision wasn’t too difficult to make, but it was a bitter-sweet one. My new neighbour Sam, and I had struck up a really good friendship over the past few weeks, where it came to light that I had serious cured squid addiction! I have now managed to knock that on the head – although I am now partial to devouring a whole range of dried-out sea creatures!

So in mid September I moved out of my apartment in Jeju city and needing somewhere immediately and not having enough time to find my own digs, I moved into my friend’s spare pad in Seogwipo, the city on the south coast. Jamie and Mike had been on the orientation with me, and I had gotten on with them both right away. They’re both from the States, very much in love and both terrific company. Here on Jeju, they have a nice little set up; having moved into the same apartment, they now give up the spare apartment to visitors and vagabonds.

Seogwipo was where I ideally wanted to be when I applied for Jeju island. And being here now, it doesn’t quell my expectations of the place. As I expected, you actually feel like you’re living on an island when in this town. In Jeju city, you could be fooled into thinking you’re in any Korean city. Here though, things are a little different; more palms, fewer tall buildings and just a better vibe. Some spots reminded me very much of towns located on the Mediterranean, with their walled, twisting paths that lead past tucked-away bars and restaurants, opening up to views of the bay, and eventually leading down into little coves.

Seogwipo at night. That’s the icnonic Saeyeon bridge in the distance.

Seogwipo’s covered market.

So, my wish had been fulfilled and I was out of Jeju city, and for the moment I had an even longer commute to school; this though would be a short term inconvenience. It made a nice change to see a different part of the island on my commute, and I was impressed the first time I saw Sunrise Peak looming on the horizon. Little did I know that I’d be living in this town by the start of next week. During my stay in Seogwipo, Jamie and Mike introduced me to the batting cages, enclosed spaces where you can practice your baseball swing. I hadn’t swung a bat since a couple of softball lessons at school, and like every other British boy, I also played rounders at junior school. I remember being quite good at both, but we would see whether those skills had stuck with me. No, they hadn’t. Well, not at first. 15 balls served, 15 missed. I stuck with it though, and two nights later, I was hitting 15 for 15 and delivering into the upper net, at serve speeds of 170 km/h. I was pretty pleased, but my love affair with it was short lived. I’d just finished hitting a dozen sets or so (at 500won a set), and as I was saying goodbye to the old gentleman who runs the cages, he offers me a free set. Nice. So I put down my things, head back into the high speed bay, pick up the bat and ready myself. Crack, upper net. Crack, lower net. Crack, my face! Yep, I didn’t hit it square and it deflected into my right eye. The pain of being hit by something that hard and that fast is difficult to describe. I think the shock took the edge off it though. I collapsed to the ground, clutching my face. The old gent had heard my shout, and came over to aid me. He put his hands round my face, wanting to inspect the injury. I struggled to open my eye and despite every fibre of my being telling to keep my eye closed, I did manage it. I didn’t like what I what I saw, or didn’t see! A blurry, hazy mess populated by grey splodges. I was already convinced that my right eye was royally screwed. The ball had got me square in it. The old gent helped me back to his shack, and there, he and his wife looked after me. Giving me wet flannels, to tend the intense pain. I had noticed some improvement after ten minutes, and so now, being able to see a little better, I asked for a mirror. My eye was a mess, bloodshot and puffy. There was some bruising starting to show around the socket, where the ball had been halted from squashing my eyeball any further into my skull. I thanked them for their assistance and haphazardly made my way back to the apartment, all the way testing my eyesight. Every bright light source was now flaring, with a very noticeable halo around it. Damn. Later that evening, the bruising came out some more. I was thankful in part for the bruising though, as there was a case of pink eye going around the school, and so at least the students would realise that my bloodshot eye was down to other reasons! Of course on the flip side, the other assumed reason was that I’d been fighting!  The bruising was only around for a few days, but it was a couple of weeks till my vision was back to normal.

Having the free set in the batting cage reminds me that I should mention ‘service’, this is the term used for anything that is given away free. Many of the small convenience stores (especially privately run ones) will give you free stuff. You might have spent a lot of money, perhaps you’ve made a nice impression, or maybe you’re just a valued, recognisable customer. There’s no exact protocol for it, and it should never simply be expected.

The weekend of moving into my new apartment in Seongsan, was an enjoyable and very fortuitous one. First off, Jamie and Mike would be helping me, and then spending the afternoon in the seaside town with me.  So, with three pairs of hands, we made light work of loading my stuff onto the bus. And then after an hour and a half bus journey, we rolled into Seongsan, told the bus driver (who wanted us to get off) that I lived two stops on (the fare is the same) and soon we rolling past the looming volcanic crater, then out the other side of the town. I could see the stop ahead, we got up, made our way to the front of the bus, but he didn’t stop, and just zoomed by. So, we had a little walk back to get to the apartment. I couldn’t have done the move alone, well definitely not without spending some money on a long taxi journey! My belongings had swelled a bit since arriving in Jeju, so I was very thankful for Mike and Jamie’s help. My new place was a little cottage, a pension (a guesthouse) with a small and very lush garden outside, and the sea was located a mere 30 metres from my front door.  Result!

The garden of my new place in Seongsan.

Seongsan Ichulbong (Sunrise Peak). This is my view:)

We dumped my stuff, I paid the management, and then we headed back up the road to Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong). We spent the day on the peak and down in the cove, observing the Haenyo, fisher-women who dive without gear, prising up catch from the rocks, sometimes up to twenty metres below the waves.  The majority of them are elderly, as the later generations were much less inclined to follow the tradition.   We ate some of their catch, raw of course. And it was pretty good. You don’t get much closer to tasting the sea, until you watch your food getting plucked from it, and then chopped onto a plate in front of you.   We spent some time just strolling the beach and taking lots of photos. Dusk came on quickly, and it was soon time for Jamie and Mike to head back. It had been a good day.

A Hanyeo (diver woman) and part of her catch.

A view of Seongsan from the peak.

The lovely Jamie and Mike.

Back at my place, I soon realised just how incredibly kitschy it was inside (the island is very popular with honeymooners) and I tried to reduce the sensory insult as much as possible. Without much of a kitchen, and having no food in – I went across the road to a restaurant. My grasp on Korean at this point still wasn’t good enough to pick out more from a menu aside from the beers, so I had learnt the Korean for ‘What can you recommend?”  But, I obviously wasn’t saying it right, and soon found myself struggling. However, a couple from Seoul came to the rescue and I was soon sitting with them enjoying some delicious food, and some good company. I mentioned at one point that I looked forward to getting some surfing in, and we talked about the surf here on Jeju. And we were soon discussing why windsurfing and kite boarding were preferred options here; not many swells, but plenty of wind! As it turned out, Joe and Mina were both here for some kiteboarding, and I was chuffed to discover that on the following weekend there was to be kite boarding festival and competition held right on my doorstep.

So, a week went by, and I met up with Joe the following weekend at the kite boarding festival.  There he introduced me to his friend Mike. Like Joe, he was a Californian native, living and working in Seoul, and escaping to Jeju for some kiting. Mike had been living in Korea for 14 years, having come over initially to teach English.  He eventually found other work though after getting to grips with the language.  He now works as a voice actor for educational English books, but he has also had some success with getting on to Korean soap operas!  I would have the pleasure of Mike’s company on more than a few occasions over the next few months.
Back to today though – despite having some equipment (courtesy of some very generous Korean gentleman), I had no experience kiting, and so I just shot away with my camera for the whole weekend. I was looking forward to getting stuck into this new sport, however the weather quickly turned, and within a fortnight, it got noticeably colder. And it was fairly apparent that winter was closing in quickly. The Sunday of the event was in itself very cold, and so to remedy this, Joe suggested we hit the sauna.  Within the hour we both sat stark-bollock naked in the spa of the nearby Phoenix resort.

Joe and Mike at the Jeju Kiteboarding festival.

Mentioning the menu issue just now reminds me that I should write a little about the language.  What at first looks like indecipherable nonsense to most westerners, is in actual fact a very easy script to read and write .  It is a phonemic alphabet – with each block of letters forming a syllable sound. The difficulty comes (of course) when you try to take some meaning from what you’ve read!   Hangul (Korean) was developed by the very much revered King Sejong sometime in the middle of the 15th century.  The Korean language had of course been round for a long time, but it did not exist in written form.  Those who could read and write, used Chinese, and learning that language was only ever an opportunity offered to the privileged few.  It’s said that King Sejong spent about ten years (in secret apparently – away from his counsellors) developing a written form of Korean that even the most dimwitted of peasants could understand and learn.  It has gone through some changes over the centuries, but is still more or less the script.  One of the most significant changes (a shift in formatting really) occurred as recent as the 1970s and 80s, when the popularity of writing left to right in rows really took off.  Before then, writing in columns and right to left (akin to a traditional Chinese layout) was much more prevalent.

There are just 24 characters to learn – 14 consonants and 10 vowels.  The  consonant shapes are based on articulatory phonetics – the shapes your mouth has to make for certain sounds.  Imagine (in X-ray profile) the whereabouts of your tongue and teeth when pronouncing the consonants.  Double consonants are simply aspirated.

The vowel character shapes are less scientific in their origin, and are inspired by lofty yin and yang principals.  These are all then combined into syllable blocks, which when sounded out, form the words of Korean.  There you go.

12 basic consonants
(and 5 doubled)
10 basic vowels
(there is no Y consonant)
11 diphthong
ㄱ (g)
ㄴ (n)
ㄷ (d)
ㄹ (l/r)
ㅁ (m)
ㅂ (b)
ㅅ (s)
ㅇ (-/ng)
ㅈ (j)
ㅊ (ch)
ㅋ (k)
ㅌ (t)
ㅍ (p)
ㅎ (h)
ㄲ (kk)

ㄸ (tt)

ㅃ (pp)
ㅆ (ss)

ㅉ (jj)
ㅏ (a)
ㅓ (eo, ŏ)
ㅗ (o)
ㅜ (u)

ㅡ (eu, ŭ)
ㅣ (i)
ㅑ (ya)
ㅕ (yeo, yŏ)
ㅛ (yo)
ㅠ (yu)
ㅐ (ae)
ㅒ (yae)
ㅔ (e / é)
ㅖ (yé)
ㅘ (wa)
ㅙ (wae)
ㅚ (oe)
ㅝ (wŏ)
ㅞ (wé)
ㅟ (wi)
ㅢ (ŭi)

So, to make the syllable “da, you’d write…

The syllable “ta“…

The name “Dan” which is only one syllable of course can be written as…

If the syllable doesn’t have a starting consonant, you’d start with the null character: ㅇ
Thus, the syllable “al“, is written as…

The syllable “ŭl“, would be written as…

My name “Adam“, is two syllables, so you need two blocks.  And the first syllable doesn’t start with a consonant, so it’s written as…


…although most Koreans pronounce my name as…


Okay, now with that little knowledge, try reading the name of a regular side dish…


A fairly potent (and sneaky) Korean tipple…


Now, something a little more difficult – the name of a delicious Korean meal…


Occasionally, you’ll find yourself reading something and then it’ll dawn on you that it’s actually an English word.  So, here the first word you might not know, but you’ll recognise the second.  And when you recognise that, you can easily take a guess at the meaning of the Korean word.

즐거운   크리쓰마쓰

Well done, you can now read (and write) Korean… well, the script anyway.  This is a fairly quick and loose introduction; and there is a little more to it, but I haven’t the time or the inclination!  But, if you wanna learn more, then I can’t recommend a better place than Talk to Me in Korean.  Their website has everything you need to get started, and to help you progress pretty far.  They also have a lot videos on YouTube, including ones on reading and writing  Hangul script – like this.  After eight months of exposure to the language, I have become quite good at reading and writing.  But as mentioned before, this is only the start… just like any other language, there is a whole universe of vocabulary, and a whole new syntax to get your head round.

Back to the story.  My stay at the cute but rather kitschy cottage was over.  It was difficult to get a definite reason why after one month I had to go, but I suspect they made more money from the the regular visitors and honeymooners than they did from me.  The place I was staying, even though rather overbearing on the senses, was still a fairly unique place to stay when compared to the more regular pensions.   Still I’d have expected more than four days notice! The first I knew about it was my co-teacher telling me she’d had a phone call. That was last thing on Thursday afternoon. They wanted me out Sunday night. So after school, I had a quick and meaningless chat with the owner of the pension, his English was about as good as my Korean! There was some pointing at the calendar, some alien words were spoken and I knew I had a definite problem. There was one possible solution though. I headed across the road to the restaurant where I’d met Joe and Mina a few weeks ago. Not only was it a restaurant, but a pension also.  There are only four rooms, and they’re all very nice, minimalistic ones too – and it would make a great replacement for the kitschy place I was getting kicked out of.  The place was run by Mr Park, a jolly fellow, who would often give me extra dishes (and sometimes free beer) when I ate at his tables.  His son also went to Sehwa high school.  Mr Park doesn’t speak much English, but his father had spent a number of years as a cook in San Fransisco, so his English was pretty good.  After mentioning my problem, there was a quick phone call across the road, I had got an extra week to get sorted, as well as a room here at Headamsol (해담솔).  Great.

One of the perks about living where I do is the lovely scenery to go running through. Across the road from me is an oreum. One of several hundred volcanic cones which litter the island. Find here a relief Google map of Jeju island, and you’ll see that I mean.  It’s one of the smallest I’ve seen on the island, and so it’s not far to the top, but that’s not too bad when you’re running up it.

Looking back up the road towards the oreum and my apartment.

Just 15 minutes walk down the road from me is the port. From here you can take a ferry out to Udo island. A sleepy place, where for a pretty reasonable cost of 25,000won, it’s possible to hire a quad bike and whip round the coast. It was here, half way round the island that I stopped, and discovered my love for barbecued shell fish. Amazing.   I really have fallen for Korean food, it took a while for me to appreciate just how good it is, and I know it would have been very unlikely that I would have ever tasted it, had I not visited this country.  Of course it isn’t as popular as Chinese, Thai or Japanese food is in the UK, but I will definitely be making an effort to seek it out on my return to England. I won’t be making any effort to seek out the beers though. Except some lucky micro brewery finds here on Jeju, there isn’t much to miss.

The weeks of teaching went by fairly quickly, and I’m fast closing in on my 20th week. The last few have been so easy. It’s been speaking tests and end of year exams, so I’ve had no lessons to plan for three weeks, then there was a week solely for exam revision, and then I can sit back for another week or so while the exams are on, five very easy weeks. The speaking tests themselves were great… okay, maybe the majority of the results weren’t, but it did give me a chance to talk to some of the more quiet students. My girls classes are always better than my boys classes (it does seem that girls no matter where they are in the world, have a better affinity for languages), and in those classes are some very good speakers indeed. One girl in particular though has managed to really surprise me. Her name is Ka Hae and she has remained fairly quiet throughout all my lessons over the last few months. I’ve seen small glimmers of ability from her but nothing that would prepare me for what I discovered. In preparation for the speaking test that I had to conduct with the all the first and second years,  I had revision lessons where the student could write out and plan responses to five questions based around five particular themes we’d covered.    But Ka Hae astounded me when I got her to read what she was preparing.  When I asked her about her English ability, I expected her to say she’d spent time abroad, or that her parents spoke English, but no. And in pretty accurate and well pronounced English, she told that she ‘fell in love’ with the language at Elementary school and tried to study and speak it in her spare time. It showed. I had no doubt that she would ace the test, so I got her helping some of the students around her. A big smile appeared on her face, and she got stuck into her friends.  Around this time also, the third graders took their end of year exams.  Outside in a seating area in front of the school entrance, were tied hundreds of good luck ribbons – all written by the students.

The ‘good luck’ ribbons being examined by one of my students.

With Christmas just around the corner, and being so far from home – I thought it’d be a nice gesture to arrange a party for all my friends here on Jeju, and perhaps to hold it at the Reggae Bar – which had plenty of room, lots of tables and nice long bar on which we can set up the dishes. I haven’t wrote about the Reggae Bar yet; this was a new bar in town, one which I’d helped my friend Max get off the ground. I did some of the interiors and knocked up some flyers, and generally helped out with the place – including jumping behind the bar when it got busy.  Being a big fan of reggae, and having spent a few months in West Africa soaking up the vibe, I was in a good position to assist. And the bar quickly became the new starting point for many of us waygooks having a night-out in Jeju-si.  Back to the party plan though… I had mentioned it to a few people, but a solid plan was still eluding me. Then one day in early December, on Facebook a message went up about organising a party… and then my name cropped up!

A light fluttering of snow came down on Xmas morning; not nearly enough to settle, but just enough to give a little sparkle. I had a big day ahead, and despite all the planning with Zach and Sam, there was still a lot to get done before the party could kick off. There was still music and films to sort out, mulled wine syrup to mix, and that was before having to open the bar with Max. We also had to make sure that everyone who was coming (we were expecting close to 50) paid up their 10,000won, so that we could then head out and pay for 16 whole roast chickens we’d ordered. I left the Backpackers hostel in Jeju-si, where I had spent the night, and made my way to the bar in the hope it was already open. It wasn’t. So, with some heavy bags, I made my way up ‘Mount Ido’ to Sam’s place. We stuck on the Blackadder Christmas Special and got to work preparing our food and drink. I had a barrel of mulled wine to prepare – around 15 litres of the delicious stuff. I had traipsed all over Jeju-si trying to find the ingredients for the mulled wine syrup, and had pretty much got all of them. If you’re interested, I used the Jamie Oliver recipe – a tried and very well tested one:) Click here for it. Star-anise was a difficult one to find here, though I did find it, it was in catering size proportions and was pretty expensive! So sadly, that was missing in the final thing. Bay leaves also came in a catering size tub, but thankfully it was pretty cheap, about 6000won. Guess what I’ll be using in all my meals for the next 6 months! Oh and where better a place to source your oranges, than here on Jeju island?!

Just before setting off from Sam’s place, our friend Harold showed up at the apartment, spreading some Christmas cheer. Sadly, because he lived out on Chuja island, and that he had to start teaching winter camp on Boxing day (like most of us), he couldn’t hang around for the party. So, soon after wishing us a ‘Merry Xmas’, and trying a little of the mulled wine, he was then saying goodbye. So, it was a nice surprise to see him come through the door of the Reggae bar later that day – his ferry had been cancelled.
Now let’s clear something up… I might very well be a card carrying atheist, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to impose my beliefs (or lack of them – depending on where you’re coming from!) on other people at this special time of the year… so yeah with that in mind, the day’s playlist included church choirs, Bing Crosby and Wham:)

The day was a resounding success. The spread of food was impressive. The 16 whole roast chickens we ordered from Baghdad Cafe turned up tandoori of course, but that was okay – nobody complained – they were too busy devouring it! The White Elephant gift exchange was a laugh. And there was a ruck load of food left over at the end, and I think nearly everyone helped clear up by taking something home. And of course, it was no surprise that all the mulled wine got drunk! It was nice witnessing the reactions of people who had never tried it before… “Wow! It’s like Christmas in my mouth!”

The Xmas party at the Reggae bar was a resounding success.

The following week it was New Year, and I was living in the best place on Jeju to enjoy the last night of 2011… right next to the peak. A big festival was on the cards, with live music, a massive bonfire, and plenty of fireworks. My plan to only house four or five people comfortably at my place soon disintegrated; we could have saved some money the previous week and just held the Xmas party at my apartment too, ha! But seriously though, it was a lot of fun. A few of us met up at the earthen bar down the road, a place called Siwanagne (시와나그네) or ”The Poetry and the Wanderer’  – a place I will talk about more next time.  But, check it out if you find yourself on this side of the island:)
While everyone was busy with their drinks, I rushed back to welcome the next bus load. Within the hour, we were all settled down on the floor in my place drinking copious amounts, playing silly party games, listening to music, watching videos, sharing more than a few anecdotes, and generally laughing our butts off. I was able to keep the Xmas vibe going by filling the air with the smell of more mulled wine, as it brewed away on the hob.

The peak lit up for new year.

The morning after.

The entertainment at the site itself was fantastic, a huge bonfire was lit by a fireball that sailed down from the top of the peak. Then started one of the most impressive firework displays I’ve ever seen. More drink was drunk and the dawn approached. A few of us more hardy and drink-resilient ones walked to the top of the peak to catch the sunrise. The more sensible ones among us went back to my place, the soupy sky was not going to clear up.  So yes, I spent the first morning of 2012 watching the sky turn from one shade of grey, into another.

I don’t want to leave this on a dismal note – I’d had an excellent night, with some excellent friends.  And just thinking back to that night now makes me smile.

First weekend on Jeju-do

After a short flight, the team landed in Jeju-si – the main city on the north coast of the island.  In fact, it was so short a flight, that we hardly had time to rest after our hectic dash for it.  After landing, it then took several hours to get to our apartments, but that was only partly due to distance factors; the major factor was how much paperwork there was still to do…

The first port of call after the airport was the language institute where we would be meeting our co-teachers for the first time.  The room was populated with around 40 desks, with one or more Korean teachers sat around each one.  As we gave our names and were claimed by a particular desk, it started to feel more and more like an orphanage as we were each claimed, it felt even more so when it transpired that there was no one there to claim me – the troublesome one.  Eventually though, my co-teacher arrived.  Her name was Jean and we got on really well right away after chatting about Manchester United – she’s a massive fan.  Ji Sung Park has been my favourite player for quite a few years now, so being able to rattle off some of his best goals has come in useful here in Korea.   I will have seven co-teachers in total.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints, that was about all we talked about – I only got to spend about five minutes with her – there were a lot of questions I wanted to ask but I just didn’t get a chance to, still it wouldn’t be long till I was in the school in Sehwa, where I’d get ample opportunity to ask those questions.

The next stop was the immigration office, outside which we were parked for a good hour while we waited to be seen.  I haven’t mentioned so far that it was raining, and to be honest it was a refreshing welcome actually.  Once the wait was over, it didn’t take long for all of us to be processed.  This involved the usual document checks and then bio-metric fingerprint scans.  Oh well, it looks like the system got me in the end!  We spent longer waiting on the coach than we did inside getting processed, and we were soon on our way to a little restaurant for dinner.  This was my first proper Korean meal, bibimbap – literally ‘mixed meal’ – it was lovely.  The ceremony of taking your shoes (well, flip-flops on this occasion) off and sitting cross-legged at a table for dinner was a nice one, and one I could get used to.

After dinner, the coach pulled off again and soon, five of us were taken to our apartments further inside the city.  We were more or less shoved off the coach, our belongings quickly off-loaded in the pouring rain, and we were then hurried into the Ido building, I was on floor 4, well floor F.  Read here for more on that.

Later that evening a few of us new guys headed into town to grab a bite to eat and seek out a bar!  Anna, Sam, Matt and I traipsed some way to the harbour with the hope of getting a drink somewhere.  It was good to get to know my new neighbours, as despite spending ten day at the orientation with them all, we hadn’t really moved in the same circles.  After reaching the sea and taking a look around the harbour and realising we had unfortunately missed an evening of live music, we started heading back.  Matt departed, leaving Anna, Sam and myself to venture and find a bar.  We struggled actually, and just as we thought we’d hit the jackpot, it transpired that all was not what it seemed.  This particular bright and inviting street we were on was devoid of anyone.  Having been in similar situations before, a sneaking suspicion was growing in my mind.  It was then confirmed when the three of us ventured up into one of the ‘bars’.  As we walked through the doors, two hostesses suddenly stood up from the couch – okay, here I was walking in with two girls and yes, into a ‘massage’ parlour, this must look odd.  We said a quick thank you and goodbye, and were soon on the street again.  We ventured a little further and bumped into three lads who helped us find what we were looking for…. “Beer?  Soju?” They pointed, and as it turned out it was on the next street up, back toward our apartment.  This street which I will refer to as the ‘main strip’ from now on, was a hustling, bustling neon flooded stream of bars and clubs.  We were spoilt for choice.  Oddly though, we crashed at what proclaimed to be an ‘Irish bar’ – it wasn’t, and aside from serving Guinness (which they had run out of) this was quite possibly one of the least ‘Irish’ bars I have ever been in.  There were other beers, so we all sat outside, ordered and relaxed with Cafri beer (not Caffrey’s) as the street got busier.  It had only been a few minutes, when a TV crew were sticking a camera in our faces!  They wanted us to shout “Jeju beer is number one!” or something like that along with smiles and the cute-V sign.  We just weren’t getting it right though, and our lack of enthusiasm seemed to perplex the very flamboyant and soon-to-be annoying director!  We tried to explain that we tired from travelling (this was our first time relaxing on our own time and terms in over 12 hours) and the walk to and from the harbour, but the words and mimes fell on confused ears and blind eyes.  It wasn’t long till I had actually necked my drink due to all the re-takes, and in the end we shooed them away.  The camera operator tried to film us drinking from a distance, and really rubbed me up the wrong way – especially because my glass was now empty.  This wasn’t a good introduction to Jeju.  After shaking my head at the cameraman several times, he finally gave up trying and went inside.  It appeared though that our disapproval with their tactics paid off, the waiter brought out three fresh beers – which the crew had bought.  That seemed to smooth things over, and thankfully they didn’t bother us again.  I promise I won’t cover every encounter over the last eight weeks in that much detail, it just seemed appropriate as this was one of the first.

After the Irish bar, we stopped off in one more… Island Stone.  This was soon to become the usual haunt and initial meeting point for many nights out to come.  I liked the place right away, the vibe was cool and the staff were too.  Me and the bar owner (Gyoung Min or simply – Stone) got on well right away. We didn’t stay long though, and were soon heading up Mount Ido (the name of the street we Ido apartment dwellers coined fairly quickly) towards home.  I crashed.

Saturday was spent mostly catching up on emails in the various internet cafes dotted all around the main strip.  It does seem that the economy of  Jeju-si relies on not much more than coffee houses, mobile franchise stores and hiking shops.  Oh and an abundance (and I mean abundance) of convenience stores!  You can’t walk more than 50 meters without walking past a GS25, Family Mart or 7/11.  They are everywhere, and not just here on Jeju, but all across Korea that seems to be the norm.  How so many of them stay in business astounds me.

In the evening a gang of us hit Island Stone again, and I can’t recall much of the night aside from the very cool cocktail mixing display that Stone put on.  I’ve seen a couple of cocktails shows, but this was definitely one of the best – I’ll try to post pictures and video soon.

On the Sunday of my first weekend on Jeju I was unwell.  I think spending a great chunk of the Saturday catching up on emails while sat underneath air conditioners had lowered my core temperature, and then walking outside in the heat and sun just ended up knocking me about.   I felt pretty horrible,  and today I was planning on finding my way to my school out on the east coast.  After walking half way across Jeju city in the heat, looking for the bus terminal, I decided to sit down with a bottle of chilled Jeju three stream water and and get some strength back – it really had been a long walk.  ‘Look out for what looks like a dinosaur museum.’ One helpful English teacher had said.  I had seen nothing like that, and here I was in Shin Jeju (new Jeju city) – I must have missed something.  As I was sat in the shade, in a patch of green space, I was joined by a Nepalese guy called Bijay.  Luckily for me his English was better than my Nepalese and so was his Korean!  He worked at a steel works somewhere just outside the city with two of his fellow countrymen. He was kind and helpful and was able to steer me on to a bus.  I thanked him, waved goodbye and then I headed toward what was admittedly a dinosaur museum / bus terminal; a large green building covered in white, wavey, bone like mesh extrusions.  You would half expect a T-Rex to be peering down at you as you walk into the gloom.  My eyes adjusted from the brightness outside though and I was soon purchasing a ticket for Sehwa – the town where I would be teaching.

The bus services in Jeju are pretty good, even if it did take me a little time to work out the system, and to eventually differentiate between the cross-island and the inner city buses!  I made that mistake a couple of time.   One of the nice things about the buses here is that they have automated announcements of the current and the approaching stops in English as well as Korean.  It took me an hour and a half to get out to Sehwa, which wasn’t great.  I stepped off the bus and took a look around; the school is located just outside the main town, across the coastal road inland.  To the north, south and west there is very little around to obscure the views of the countryside. And to the east, the rich blue sea stretches into the horizon to meet the beautifully blue sky.  Above the sun was shining, and despite not feeling too well and having travelled quite a way, I was happy I had landed this school.  The school itself was shut today and so I just had a look around the outside.  It seemed quite quaint, maybe in need of a little restoration (in fact it looked like some was going on already), and it wasn’t as large as I had expected. It still hadn’t hit home that come tomorrow I would be working here.

I didn’t stay long though and was soon on a bus back to Jeju-si, and after getting back, I went to an internet cafe and wrote up an email for Sunny, the POE for Jeju – to ask about housing allowance.  If I had to face three hours of commuting each day to and from my apartment, then I would start to get very peeved!  In fact, that was starting to show already!   Being unnecessarily inconvenienced does rub me up the wrong way – especially knowing I’d have to put up with it for whole year.  It may come across that up till this point I was a little unhappy, but far from it.  I was so happy to have finally made it to Jeju, and despite some initial setbacks, I knew these would only be temporary and with some ‘sheer diligence and tenacity’ (as my friend Sam put it), things would fall into place just fine.  And in the style of Douglas Adams, I’ll skip ahead – they did work out fine.  But I’ll get to the details later.

Seoul – Orientation, August 2011

Okay a few words…
This is essentially my attempt at trying a very different type of travel blog – for me anyway.  I get a feeling that this won’t be as exciting or as full of the life and colour that so saturated previous continental sojourns.  My trip to Asia and Korea was direct (sadly) and of course I’m in Korea to work, and although there will be some colourful experiences (there have been already), this is still a fairly easy-to-adapt to culture, chock full in equal measure of many things both good and bad that I’d expect back in the UK.  Having said that, there are also many, many differences.

So with that out of the way, where to begin? I suppose I could go back to earlier in the year, when this plan began to form, or perhaps a little later as I battled through the paperwork, but perhaps most of you know about this already so I’ll spare your eyeballs.  So, the airport seems like a good place…

This (unlike a few of my previous long hauls) was a rather uneventful flight, no sudden striking cabin crew, no transfer transport problems, and no David Dickinson.  Emirates were very good, although I didn’t rate the food, but then again, how often do you get a great meal in economy class? Managed to catch up on a few films while on the flights, all the ones I chose had a distinct medievel olde England theme about them – read into that what you will.  On the flip side I also checked out Tron Legcay too, didn’t rate it and only managed half before falling asleep – nice tunes though! Anyhow, I couldn’t quite believe how much entertainment there was to choose from in the Emirates archive, so top marks there.  After a change in Dubai, I arrived at Incheon airport after almost 20 hours of constant transit.  For those who don’t know, Incheon is a city on the outskirts of Seoul, although it has essentially become part of Seoul, but more on this later.  I came through arrivals with my huge rucksack on my back, man-bag over my shoulder and my guitar in hand – it must have been quite a sight! Claire and Phil from the ESL Starter group were there waiting, and they were as friendly and helpful as I expected them to be.  I had a good chat with Claire, and then I soon was over at the EPIK desk getting some info about my bus trip to the orientation at the NIIED (National Institute for International Education) college.  Claire soon had to go back to the arrivals entrance to welcome more ESL Starter applicants, but company didn’t take long to form, and within 15 minutes I was joined by about a dozen other EPIK teachers and lots of conversation.  Soon though it was time to move out, and a long line of teachers and trolleys began moving.  I took a brief minute to say farewell to Claire and to talk with Phil.  The procession though did not wait, and I realised I would have to play catch-up.  Phil was good enough to help me with my luggage, and we quickly attempted to rejoin the group, but they were gone.  The terminal was big and the group had quickly left the buidling and were out across the road into a car park at their bus…  somewhere.  Despite what the map from EPIK indicated, the bus and the group were nowhere to be found.  But that was okay as I knew the buses were hourly, and I knew it was a long journey – so I was rather pleased and could sit down for a bit and relaxed.  I had also bumped into a girl named Jo, also lugging a guitar and also trying to find the bus, and who was to become a good friend during the orientation.  In the end we all returned to the EPIK desk, I said farewell to Phil and then finally sat down and chatted with Jo till it was time for the next bus.

And the rest of the trip went smoothly…

Okay, it didn’t.  A few minutes into the bus journey, I realised I’d left my document wallet in the tray of the of the luggage trolley, ya know, the part of the trolley that sometimes has a little sign saying, ‘don’t leave personal items in the tray’! So yes, I lost my my passport, credit cards, 800,000 KRW cash, driving license and several other important things.  Luckily, after a phone call back to the EPIK team, it was found by the staff and everything turned out okay.  There, that was dealt with rather easily for you I hope.  I won’t dwell on it, and I’ll spare you the details of 4 minutes of gut curdling frantic realisation, the 40 minutes of ‘ces’t le vie’ reflection, and the dream world time of blissful resolution.  Alex, if you’re reading this by any chance, then I still owe you a night of un-ending soju shots! Thank you.  Hopefully, that will turn out to be my stupidest error and lowest moment in South Korea.  As my busload had arrived late, we were informed that we were not allowed to eat or drink as we all had to report for a medical in 12 hours time! Well, I wish they’d told us this before, but no matter.  A good night’s rest was all I wanted.  That came in the form of a two man dorm room, my room-mate Paul was a nice chap from South Carolina, and we got on well right away.
The medical the next day went quickly enough, full of the usual things you’d expect, height, weight, eyesight, hearing, dental, urine and blood tests.  Results to follow in a week.  And then finally, a bite to eat.

I’m going to skip a lot of the hum-drum of the orientation, as each day consisted of more or less the same thing – lectures focussing on teaching in Korea.  There were some very good lectures, and some not so good, but all of it useful for sure.  It did feel a little odd at times…  sleeping in dorms, roll call over the tannoy, set breakfast time, remember to wear your name tags, hand your key in, scurry off to lectures.  Set lunch time.  Roll call.  Back to afternoon lectures.  Set dinner time.  Curfew at midnight.  To bed.  Every day for 10 days! This isn’t me.  The evenings before curfew though were usually more exciting affairs, and were spent in the nearby neon soaked streets, visiting a few of the many bars that the district had to offer.  Beer and soju are cheap.  Soju – if you are not aware of it – is the national drink here.  It tastes like weak vodka, which is essentially what it is – a fermented potato drink.  It is slightly sweet and is terribly easy to drink, and it has a nasty habit of creeping up on you and hitting you when you least expect it.  Throw into the mix a nori bar (a variation of a karaoke bar, which caters for private parties) and you’re in for a good night.

One day did break the mould though and that was when we all headed out on a day trip to the peace observatory on the Han river, which turned out to be a rather strange place.  The observatory sits atop a small hill on the edge of the Han River, on the largest of the Ganghwa-do islands, behind a patrolled demarkation line dotted with watch towers.  So essentially, this observatory looks out across a 1.8km wide stretch of water and into North Korea.  We all piled off the buses, all of us kitted out in our purple EPIK t-shirts (note: South Korean medium size is a UK small), carrying cameras, drinks and remnants of a supplied packed lunch with us – looking very much like kids on a school trip.  We were soon marching up a steep road from the car park towards the observatory, and today like most days in the South Korean summer, it was hot.  After a couple of lectures on the purpose of the observatory (which were lost on me really), along with some history and some hopes for the future, we all got the opportunity to pay for a peek through some very powerul mounted binoculars into the lands to the north.  These binoculars are like the big daddy versions you get at the seaside in the UK, these however would provide something far more intersting to the eyes than an overweight nudist eating a cheese sandwich.  Although in hindsight, that would have at least brought a smile to my face.

Unlike some of the fake towns you may have read about that were built along the DMZ by North Korea, what we were looking into were real places…  real farms, real homes, real people.  And I’ve got to say, I felt intrusive and felt rather unhappy with myself and this whole damn place.  I had no problem looking out on North Korea from a distance, but the binoculars brought this place down to the gutter level, what else l could I have expected though, the place had ‘observatory’ in the title, still it didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.  What gave any of us the right to stare into the lives of people living under harsh rule, and breaking their backs to earn a living? It cost 500 won for about 1 minute’s peeking time, and there were at least a dozen set of binoculars, with small crowds of people around each one – waiting their turn.  It was a cash cow.  Add to that a gift shop with momentos from North Korea, eg, genuine NK currency that you can exchange for your genuine SK currency.  It all felt a little exploitative.  I don’t know, perhaps I’m being too cynical, but something about it didn’t feel right.

All that aside, one nice thing did happen during the time at the observatory, Hazel, one of the South Korean EPIK co-ordinators came up to me with her iPhone, “Adam, do you know who this is?” “Ah yes, that’s Edward Norton.” “Yes, I think you look like him.” It’s never a bad day when you get compared to Edward Norton.

We spent the rest of the day weaving traditional matt cloths from dyed reeds, occasionaly breaking into song as we slaved away, and then visiting a temple complex.

I should add here, that my timekeeping has been brought into check a little.  One of the rules that was set as we disembarked the coach to visit the temple, was that the last person back on the coach, had to sing for the entire coach.  Guess who was last on?! Now, I defend my stance on this that it couldn’t be helped, and it’s not like the bus ran late, I was just the one at the back of the queue.  Anyway, they wouldn’t let it lie, so there was a quick rendition of ‘Rule Brittainia’ just for the craic of annoying some of the coach, which received a good mix of booes and appaluse, oh and slautes.  But that was rather silly, so then I volunteered a rendition of ‘Hey Jude’, which by some accounts went well, although I’m sure I was bloody awful.

I’m glad now that over the the last few months I’ve been gaining more and more confidence in singing in front of crowds, so I didn’t mind too much if I’m perfectly honest.  An hour or so later, we were back at the college.

For the next day it was back to lectures and to prepare for our demo lesson on Thursday.  Essentially, the whole orientation is catered for people who haven’t done a TEFL course, and for those who had, you could have easily slashed 5 days off the the whole program.  Anyway, part of it was to practice lesson planning.  And my partner and I did very well by all accounts.  Yawn, man this is dull stuff.  Sorry.  I’ll jump ahead.  On this day also, we finally got to meet the Jeju POE, the Provincial Officer of Education – Sunny, she was the person in charge of our placements on Jeju.  I was hoping for a placement on the south coast of the island, somewhere where I could get some surf, and enjoy what I imagined to be more of an ‘island life’ – if that makes any sense?! My placement turned out to be in a high school in Sehwa, a town on the north east coast, and my apartment was in Jeju-si, the main city situated on the north coast.  I made the decision there and then, to take steps in order to re-locate.

Friday morning, and it was time to go.  We got our medical results back – clean; it’s never a bad day when it’s confirmed you don’t have syphillis, HIV or AIDS!

Time for all of us to board buses and head off to our provinces.  Most were just going to stay on their buses, us Jeju lot though had a flight to catch too.  I only got to see a small piece of Seoul; it really is its own beast – the city is huge, but I can’t do its size justice as it’s hard to put into words just how vast a place it is.  Driving through it as we had on our day trip gave a behwildering perspective – how could we drive so far, and for so long and still be in the thick of the city? Only flying over it do you get some comprehension of it.  Looking out of the window, it is a sea of hundreds of towering white apartment blocks, which house the majority of the city’s ten million inhabitants.  Snaking roads whip around large sections of the city, spanning the Han river in many places, and dotted all over are clusters of skyscrapers.  The city definitely had an energy, as to whether I’d get to experience it further is yet to be seen, but for the moment I’m just looking forward to getting out to the island.

By this point, I hadn’t really had enough exposure to the Korean people, or their culture, and neither had I started teaching, so expect something a bit more juicy in the next update.

Certificate of Residence for UK EPIK applicants

*Amended July 5th 2012

I’ve just got off the phone with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC); in order to avoid paying tax on your earnings in South Korea, you need to get hold of a Certificate of Residence.
There is however a 6 to 8 week turnaround so get on this sharpish if you haven’t already!  To get your Certificate of Residence you need to do two things.
1. Write a letter covering these things:

  1. The country you’ll be resident in (South Korea!)
  2. The tax years you require the certificate for.  So if leaving before April, this will be the tax year you’re currently in, and the one following.
  3. The type of income – apparently you just have to mention you’re teaching English.
  4. They also mentioned that if you have a letter from EPIK or your ESL group requesting the certificate, then send a copy of that along too. Optional though.

Include your name of course, address and your National Insurance number.
You can include a forwarding address for the certificate if you want – which is useful for me as there is a good chance I will already be in South Korea when it gets posted.

Send the letter to:

HM Revenue & Customs
Pay As You Earn
PO Box 1970
L75 1WX(Your local tax office might be able to assist though, so it’s worth calling them)

2.  Complete a P85 form:
You need to post off to the same address a completed P85 form (link here) and your latest P45.

3.  The certificate:
It really is nothing more than a letter.  You must bring this letter with you to Korea, the original.  It might be a good idea to keep a photocopy for yourself.  Once you are settled in your province, you should be given a month’s tax free grace.  In which time, you must get this letter to the EPIK education office in your province.  They will keep it.
If you don’t hand it in, then expect to be taxed as normal, and expect to be taxed double in your second month’s wage slip – to account for that initial  grace period.

Hope this helps.

EPIK application

Amends made 7th March 2012 – links, CRC and FCO apostille costs changed.

This post is a summary of the EPIK application procedure – for UK residents specifically but a lot of this will apply for other nationalities too.   I’ve been applying through ESL Starter, who have been brilliant – they were able to answer any question I had, and were very punctual with their correspondence.

In a nutshell, this is the procedure:  Apply for a post via an ESL group.  You may have a telephone interview with them. Your group should then send you a Word document EPIK application form.  Fill it all out and email back to the group with two scanned references. You’ll then have an interview (which you’ll pass of course!) and then you need to send off your final bundle of documents.

It’s important to point out from the start that there is a lot of paperwork, so get started on applying for references and background checks etc as soon as you can.
You may have heard about the apostille process for two of your documents, and I recommend getting on to this right away.  See here for the procedure (link).  Of course there is a chance you might not pass your interview, so only do this right away if you feel pretty confident.

A list of the paperwork you need to gather:

  • One Academic reference
  • One Professional reference
  • A Criminal Record Check (CRC)
  • Your Degree course transcripts (course module scores)
  • Your University degree certificate
  • A TEFL certificate or Proof of Enrolment letter *
  • Some passport photos.

The references must have ink signatures – so they have to be posted to you.
For information on the CRC, certification, notarisation and apostillisation process, click here.
The degree course transcripts must come in a sealed envelope, and the seal must be stamped or signed by the University.  Be sure to mention this to the University if you call/email them.

* A TEFL qualification isn’t compulsory for South Korea, but having a 100+ hour certificate, will put an extra 100,000 won into your pay cheque.  So, if you have a TEFL certificate – great.  Get it.  If you’re currently on a TEFL course, then get on to your TEFL group for a Proof of Enrolment letter as soon as possible.  The TEFL Proof of Enrolment letter must also have an ink signature.

Cost breakdown

This here details the costs incurred by me to get my documentation together and shipped.  I hadn’t lost my degree certificate, but I thought it was useful to write in how much it would approximately cost to replace.  My ESL group is based in Thailand so that’s where my package went intially before being passed onto EPIK.  They also wanted it shipped via courier.

  • Criminal Record Check – £25
  • Degree course transcripts – varies, cost me £30 for 5 copies
  • University degree certificate – varies, roughly £35 (to replace if you’ve lost your original)
  • Ceritification, notarisation and apostille – doing it yourself will cost you around £80.  The price will vary considerably if you apply through a specialist firm.  For more info on this… (link).
  • UPS 2 day shipment of final documentation – varies, but from UK to Thailand cost me £55.
  • As well as some variance, expect costs to go upwards as time goes on!

Application stage 1 breakdown.

Express interest with an ESL group offereing South Korea as a destination.

You may then have a telephone interview with them.

You’ll then receive in an email a Word doc for the EPIK 2011 application.  You need to fill all this in, and insert a scanned passport photo into the relevant section.
Hopefully you’ll have now got your two recent references (one academic, one professional) so scan those in, and save out as hi-res image or PDF document.

You now need to send all this off to your ESL group who will then check over it.

Your initial submission to the ESL group:

  • EPIK application Word document filled in, and with passport photo inserted digitally.
  • Scan of your professional reference.
  • Scan of your academic reference.

So once your ESL group is happy, they will arrange an interview for you…

The interview.

Your ESL group will give you at least a few days warning of your interview time.  The interview will be conducted by an English speaking EPIK representative in South Korea – so be prepared for a 7am interview – that’s what time mine was!  It lasted about 25 minutes and despite my preparation, I was still caught out a couple of times, but the key is not to panic and remain calm and composed.  Have some answers and key words maybe written up in front of you – definitely worth doing as this is being done over the telephone.

Here are the questions I was asked:

  • Why did you choose to apply for South Korea?
  • What do you know of South Korean life?
  • What’s the most important quality an EPIK teacher shoud have?
  • How would I deal with a large class in which the ability varies?
  • How would I deal with the culture shock?
  • What were my thoughts on co-teaching?
  • How would you describe yourself / your qualities?
  • What things could set you aside from other applicants?

Also, these two questions sometimes come up:

  • How do you motivate students who do not want to learn English?
  • How would you deal with an unruly student/class?

They said I should hear back in two or three days, in fact I heard back in three hours:)

Application stage 2 breakdown.

After a successful interview, you need to submit your documents to EPIK – usually via your ESL group.  Now, this is where things can get tricky – all becasue of the CRC and and degree photocopy notarisation and apostillation.  It is a drawn out process so get on the case right away.  See here for the procedure (link).
EPIK want hard copies, so this stage cannot be done by email.  You will need to print off a few forms.
My ESL group required me to send my application via courier, it is more secure and it’s quicker.  They advised against using DHL as there were a few reports about them opening and inspecting the packages and the sealed transcripts – I can’t substantiate this of course but it might just be worth me pointing out.  I went with UPS.  They were really quick and and in two days time, the ESL group who are based in Thailand received it.  Between FedEx and UPS, UPS were definitely the easier and more straight-forward to arrange the shipping with.

Just a note about UPS:
If UPS are coming to your house to pick up, be sure you’ve got a printer attached so you can print your package sticker.  You can save it as an XPS file and print out later though.  But you only get one chance at saving and printing.  I couldn’t find an option anywhere to display the label again – odd.  So it might be worth printing twice just in case. And save it, LOL!

Here is a list of the documents you need to put together:

  • An Apostilled photocopy of your original Bachelor’s degree certificate PLUS photocopy of this document. You should bring the original certificate to South Korea with you.
  • 2 Passport Photos (4cm X 3cm)
  • 2 Photocopies of the Picture Page of your passport and also, where applicable, photocopies of past E2 Visas
  • 2 Letters of Recommendation (must be the original versions of the ones that you emailed with your initial application).  The signatures between the scans and the origianls must match exactly – it can lead to issues otherwise.
  • Original Apostilled Criminal Record Check PLUS a photocopy of this document.
  • Original signed application form (making sure you replace the three digital signatures for your ink one) PLUS a photocopy of this document.
  • One Sealed Set of University Transcripts (a breakdown of your University course modular scores) – these must remain sealed in an official university envelope.
  • Sworn Declaration of EPIK contract (your ESL group should send this to you).
  • Proof of TEFL enrolment letter –  this letter needs to be done by your TEFL course provider, ink signed. You will then need to bring the original TEFL certificate to Korea with you.

Your ESL group should let you know that they’ve received it all.  They will then forward it to EPIK.  Then wait for your appointment package, and your invitation to the embassy to get your Visa – usually issued around the end of June/start of July.  Orientation in South Korea should be taking place around August 16th.

Now it’s time to start making those travel arrangements:)

The UK apostille process for South Korea ESL applicants

Amends made 7th September 2o12 – FCO address.

If you’ve already got the ball rolling and you’re in the middle of filling out your application form and gathering your paperwork, then you might be reading this with a headache – probably brought on by the apostille procedure no doubt!  Information on the procedure, how to get it done, why you need it and all that is very scant indeed.
Essentially the apostillisation is a legalisation procedure that confirms that your forms have indeed been certified/notarised correctly, and by someone who had the authority to do so.   This is all necessary so that the documents can be used in a legal capacity in the country they are destined for.  It’s a bit of a faff, but a necessary one for South Korea.

Demystifying the terms… certify, notarise and apostille:

They are different procedures but they are all to do with authenticating your documentation.

  • Certifiying is the act of authenticating a genuine copy of an original document – a Degree photocopy for example.
  • Notarising is the act of authenticating a genuine government issued/official document – a Criminal Background Check for example.
  • Apostilling is the process of authenticating that your documents were certified/notarised correctly, and declaring them valid legal documents in the destination country.

What’s involved:

The certification/notarisation process can vary in cost, you’ll pay more for authentication from a Notary specialist law firm.  I went into a high street law firm (an injury law firm in fact) near where I work, and to notarise and certify both my CRC and degree photocopy was £5 per document.   It shouldn’t cost you more than £10 per document in most high street law firms.  The person doing the authenticating doesn’t have to be a specialist lawyer or notary – any practising and accredited lawyer can do it for you.

After the certification and notarisation, you then have to get them apostilled.

There are some law services that can do the certification, notarisation and apostillation procedure for you, but you will pay extra.  One company is Heald Law ( who come on the recommendation of ESL Starter.  Another is Hague of the Apostille ( which comes on the recommendation of a couple of people I’ve chatted to now, and is apparently one of the cheapest services around – they are especially good if you are a UK citizen who is currenly based outside the country.

If you still wish to do it yourself though (and save some money), then here goes…

  • Dust off your Degree certificate and get a photocopy/scan&print  of it – easy.
  • Keep the original within easy reach though, as you’ll need it again later.
  • Apply for a basic CRC (Criminal Record Check ) from Disclosure Scotland – ( – yes, it’s open to all UK citizens.
  • You only need the basic one for South Korea.
  • This costs £25 and they say it can take 10 days or more – I got mine back in less than a week though.
  • They also require with your application, a scan/photocopy of a recent utility bill (showing address) and a scan/photocopy of proof of birthdate (Passport, driving license or birth certificate).  These can either be posted or emailed.
  • This is important to note:  EPIK want the original CRC, not a photocopy!
  • So, once you have your CRC and your Degree certificate photocopy in your hand, pick up the original degree certificate too, and head for any high street solicitor.
  • As you walk in, you should have three documents in your hand:
    • Your original CRC
    • Your original degree certificate
    • A photocopy of your degree certificate
  • Head to reception and kindly request that you’d like two documents certified.  Any solicitor can do this for you and it only takes a few minutes.  Hopefully someone will be free to come and do it.  If not, you may have to make an appointment.
  • Show the solicitor the original degree and the photocopy, he or she should then stamp, sign and date the photocopy.
  • The stamp will read something like – ‘I certify that this is a true copy of the original document which I have compared
  • However, you want the CRC to be stamped with an ‘original document’ message, not a ‘true copy’ message.
  • If for any reason, the solicitor doesn’t have a genuine document stamp (mine didn’t), then he or she can simply cross out the offending part of the message, like so:
    • I certify that this is a true copy of the original document which I have compared
    • I certify that this is a true copy of the original document which I have compared
  • It usually costs around £5 – £10 per document.
  • The stamp is sometimes replaced by an attached slip in some law firms.

Right, now your documents are ready to be apostilled.

  • Head to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (link) and take a good read of the requirements.
  • Then download and print this form – link
  • Fill as much of it in as possible.
  • Next head to this part of the site (link) where you can process an online payment.
  • You’ll be apostillising two documents (£30 each), and with return postage for £6 or £12 (Fed Ex insurance) this should come to £66 or £72.
  • After you’ve processed your online payment, write in the payment code, and time & date of payment into the form.
  • Next, stick the completed payment form, your original CRC and the Degree photocopy into a firm A4 envelope – or stick a few sheets of card into a standard A4 envelope to help keep it flat.
  • Then post to:
    • Legalisation Office
      Foreign & Commonwealth Office
      PO Box 6255
      Milton Keynes
      MK10 1XX
  • Sending it via recorded post is probably best and should only cost you a few pounds.
  • Within a few days, all being well, you should have your documents back with an indented stamp mark and a little apostille slip glued to the back of each.
  • Photocopy these documents twice – do one set for yourself, and one set to send off with your originals.  EPIK want the originals with the slip attached, and one set of copies.
  • Done.

Simple eh?   No, not really.


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