4 Ways to Avoid an Expat Horror Story


A lot of people come to Korea with wild expectations of big money for little to no work.  When asked to stay a couple extra hours each month for extra tutoring or testing they consult a forum and get all up in arms about it going against their contract, when in reality they are working fewer hours than already were agreed upon.  I read a lot of posts every day from ESL instructors complaining over and over again about work they must complete or hours they must fulfill that would be completely normal (if not easy-going!) in North America.  Sure, there are situations that would be incredibly tough to deal with, but realistically most these people are delusional if they think that these reasonable and simple tasks wouldn’t fly in The United States or in Canada.  Their mention of going to the labour board over certain things makes me puzzled, but it also makes me laugh.  If you’re accepting a position abroad and are not prepared to put in the work, then perhaps you should re-evaluate moving.    

If you don’t need the backstory of my job experience pre-Korea, scroll down to the introduction to the list!

When I was working in the telecommunications industry as an account executive I had a pretty cushy life.  I was paid well and on time, had amazing benefits, and an expense account.  I could eat lunch at my desk and take an hour to see my personal trainer once a week during the day.  I had flexibility with my schedule meaning that I was usually in at 9 AM unless I had an offsite client meeting and if I was working with a client in a different timezone I might stay at the office up to 3 or 4 hours beyond 5 PM to make the sale (depending on what it was worth!).  Most of the time, I was out of the office just after 5, however.  I had 2 cell phones – one personal and one company issued, and if an e-mail or call came in it would be answered at all hours of the night and even on weekends.  Sure, I had a base salary, but I was living in Toronto and with an opportunity to make commissions and bonuses so I hustled hard for greater opportunities.  

When I moved on to marketing, sales, and event planning/ management in the food and beverage industry there was no 9-5.  The idea that you could come at 9 AM, wine, dine and paint a picture of your company’s menu, decor, music, and entertainment to a client who also works a 9-5 is ludicrous.  I was working around the clock and every so often would be thrown a day in lieu.  Ultimately the frustrations beyond the contractual and unspoken responsibilities of the job combined with a few other issues and, most importantly, a big ol’ thirst for travel got the better of me.  I decided it was time to head to Korea. 

You will always have responsibilities outside your punch-card in a “real world, big girl job” scenario, and if you love what you do and can manage a work/ life balance it’s a non-issue.  Balance is the key, and any great employer will recognize that, but you also have to make them recognize your worth.  In Korea (and most other countries) this is done by having a positive attitude, altering your schedule when it’s important, and putting the job first sometimes.

TL:DR If your employer asks you to do something extra is easy enough and that will not dramatically alter your life, plaster a smile on and accept it willingly.  Extra reading class once a week?  NO PROBLEM!  Staying after school for testing once a month?  ALL GOOD!  You picked a job here, now get that job diggity done.

To Avoid a Hagwon Horror Story

Contrary to popular belief, there are some WONDERFUL Hagwons (Private English Academies) in Korea.  I’m exceptionally lucky to have it as good as I do, however most of my friends have great jobs, love their students, and when asked what life is like in Korea the first word that comes to mind is “simple”.  I wanted a big life change.  I wanted a new career and time to take care of myself (cooking, working out, SLEEPING for once!).  

Before coming to Korea I had read about a number of Hagwon Horror stories, especially from the Hagwon Blacklist.  This site is user generated, so reviews are not always verified, but it’s a pretty safe bet that if the school you’re courting is up there you might want to think twice.  In the first part of a series on Expat Horror Stories, I’ve put together some steps to Avoid a Hagwon Horror Story.  

Stay tuned for my advice in Part 2 on what to do if you blow off the following…

1. Make sure to vet your recruiting company thoroughly

If your recruiter is not giving you the answers you need to hear, chances are they’re piling up candidates and going through the motions assembly line-style to make a quick buck off a decision that will change your entire life.  A lot of recruiters don’t understand (or don’t care) that we’re getting rid of most of our worldly possessions and packing up our entire lives leaving family, friends, comforts of home, and often well-paying jobs to come to Korea.  You need to find someone who will be honest and transparent with you and who has your best interests at heart rather than a recruiter who is just money hungry.  

I live in Busan and would recommend RBIKorea.  I used RBI and have a number of friends who have had positive experiences, too.  Don has lived in Vancouver and Christine is definitely hands on and good at remembering details (and hand-holding!).  They were completely honest about my current school and didn’t try to sugarcoat anything.  In fact, they probably could have talked my school up even more, but I’m sure they wanted me to speak with the staff there to get a better sense of where I’d be working.  This takes me to step #2 and #3.

2. Do your research, Interview your interviewer, and take a fine-tooth comb to your contract

Before even organizing an interview, make sure at the very to least run the school’s name and location through a Google search.  Don’t waste the school’s time if you’re not interested in living where they’re located, and if there are too many recent, consistent bad reviews about the school then there’s no point in giving them a shot.

The best way to get a sense of your school is to speak with their current staff.  If the Head Foreign Teacher is conducting the interview and the Head Korean Teacher isn’t saying boo, chances are their English isn’t exactly up to snuff, but they want to hear your voice and see your pretty face.

During your interview ask LOTS of questions about the school (how the schedule is based, what ages you’ll be teaching and how the teaching style/ curriculum changes for different grades, different subjects you might be teaching, etc.).  Make sure to ask about the area in which you’ll be living, but go ahead and do your research first.  If the school is in a major metropolitan area, look up the “gu” or district on a map.  With Google at your fingertips there’s no reason not to do a little research in advance.  Ask about accommodations as well.  You should have housing within 10 minutes walking distance unless the housing is in a more desirable part of town (example: your school is in a remote area of Busan, but they’ve got you living in a villa steps away from Gwangalli Beach.  Score!).  Recognize that the majority of the information you need will come from your contract as well as your discussions with current foreign staff (but we’ll get to that in a minute).  You want to show that you’re coming to Korea to be a good worker and a good teacher, not that you’re just focused on the benefits associated with this contract.

After a successful interview, you’ll be e-mailed your contract.  I plan on writing another post about how to get your first job in Korea, but essentially you’ll want to take a look at the hours (max teaching hours do not include prep time you will have to put in), your salary (of course!), vacation days (usually 6-10 days for Hagwons), Severance Pay, and National Health Insurance.  It will also mention whether you have to work Saturdays (I’ve heard of some Hagwons in Seoul stating one Saturday a month in language that was open for interpretation, and having teachers work…more than that, we’ll say).  You should have information about accommodations, as well.  You should have single housing (NO ROOMMATES) with a bed, and usually either a table and chairs or a desk, a fridge (this seems obviously but it isn’t always a given), and laundry in your unit.  Beyond that it’s really up to the discretion of the previous teacher to leave you cutlery, dishes, pots and pans, and cooking utensils.  

If you have friends who have taught or are teaching abroad, let them read your contract.  They will highlight any language or terms that are open to interpretation, and raise any red flags you should consider.  If your recruiter is worth their salt, they’ll explain these issues without using the words “it’s okay” or “don’t worry”.  Gut instincts come in handy around this time.  If something feels off it probably is.

Don’t sign on the dotted line until you’re 100% confident that this is the right move for you.

3. Speak with at LEAST one Foreign Teacher

If the school doesn’t want you speaking to the current foreign staff, chances are they have something to hide.  My school was very open to me speaking to a variety of people and seeing the resources of the school.  They wanted to be the right fit for me just as they wanted me to be a good fit for them.

In most GEPIK/ EPIK positions you’ll be the only foreign teacher at the school.  If this is the case at a Hagwon I would be less likely to take the position.  Beyond the fact that a fully economically functional academy would require 2 or more foreign teachers, it sometimes gets lonely when your colleagues are rattling off in the Teachers’ Room in Korean and you don’t have a clue what they’re saying or how to participate.

With Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, instagram, and the variety of other social media creeping tools, it’s unlikely that you’ll have trouble finding information on current staff at that academy or one of their partner schools.  Ask to communicate one on one with the Head English Teacher.  Get the goods from them.  If they’re hesitant to speak openly about the school then I would take it as a warning and move on.  If they’re speaking openly about their current situation and you still aren’t comfortable with what you’re hearing then just keep moving on.  If a foreign teacher is happy with their current situation you’ll know it.  Chances are they’ve either taken consecutive contracts with that academy and are moving back home (or to another city/ country), or are moving closer to the area in which their boyfriend or girlfriend lives.  This is another time to rely on your gut instinct.  If something feels wrong, don’t take the contract.

4. Don’t rush!

You don’t have to take the first contract offered to you.  If anyone tries to rush you to sign or move too quickly for comfort, then don’t do it!  Your contract is usually for a year of your life, and as a foreigner you can’t just pick up and move onto the next school if things don’t go your way (we’ll talk about that in Part 2!).  This is a big, life-changing decision.  Don’t rush it!

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