Sunday, June 25, 2006

Goodbye Shawn

About a month ago Shawn Matthews the author of "Korean Life Blog" [and subsequently when he left Korea for China he wrote the "China Life Blog"] died. He committed suicide in Beijing, China by jumping off the roof of his 15 story building. I am so shocked and saddened! If you look at the "Links" section of my blog you will notice that "Korean Life Blog" is my first link. I have been thinking about the situation and it has taken me a while to decide if I wanted to blog about it and if so - just exactly what I wanted to say.

I didn't know Shawn personally but still I felt such a connection to him. I had bought both his "Korean Life Blog" book and his book "Island of Fantasy" from Lulu. His book "Island of Fantasy" was wonderful! It was about his experiences being an American English Teacher on Koje-do, or Geoje-do [depending on how you want to spell it] a small island just off the coast of Busan, South Korea. It was warm and rich and funny and so very honest. He seemed to be fearless in both his ability to capture and replicate authentic sounding dialogue and his ability to tell the truth of even his intimate experiences even when they were not so flattering to himself. I admired him greatly for being so brave and when I finished the book I felt that I had both had an adventure and made a new friend.

He was actually my inspiration to begin my own blog. He was a teacher in South Korea like me and he had written about his experiences and even published [via Lulu - a self-publishing company] two books about his experiences. So, basically, he had done [at a much younger age] exactly what I wanted to do. I dream of writing a book about my adventures here in Korea and I am trying to use this blog to not only record my experiences but to try and hone my writing skills.

Here are some links to some of the information I mentioned above about Shawn and his books.

  • Korean Life Blog The best blog I ever read about living as an Ex-pat in Korea. I suggest you check it out since now that Shawn is dead it might someday be taken down for lack of current postings or at least I worry that it might. Since I'm still pretty new to blogging myself I don't pretend to understand how these things work when you stop publishing, etc.

  • China Life Shop where you can buy Shawn's two books This site used to be where Shawn's "China Life Blog" was located but several weeks before he committed suicide Shawn deleted all the content of his blog - maybe because his sometimes brutal honesty caused him to be harassed [in cyberspace] by Ex-pats in Korea.

  • Lulu Self-publishing Company This is an awesome company where you can publish your own books. I ordered Shawn's books from here. They are still showing up here just search under "Island of Fantasy". I highly recommend this book.

  • Blog Posting on Shawn's Suicide This posting talks about the fact that other Ex-pats from Korea were harassing Shawn and his ex-girl friend.

  • Best Post about Shawn's Suicide by his friend Jake I had a problem making this link work but thanks to "Old Army's" comment I was able to cut and paste the link and now it seems to work. THANK YOU! I am still somewhat new to blogging so all help is greatly appreciated.

  • I am left feeling sad and depressed that someone I admired and wanted to emulate is dead by his own hand. I am not condemning his actions, though, the older I get the more I realize that I can never really judge someone else and their actions. Each person's pain and despair is their own. Suicide is a very complex problem and not something I am qualified to pass judgment on.


    This situation has left me with a need to reflect on the life of an Ex-pat in Asia and the impact that can have on a person's well-being and emotionaly health. Don't get me wrong I love my life here and the amazing opportunities I have had. However, living in a country where you don't speak the language [or at least not fluently] and where you get stared at daily for looking different than everyone else can be an alienating experience - to say the least.

    The support of other "Westerners" could really help with those feelings of alienation and culture shock. However, to be completely honest a lot of the other "Westerners" here are not only not supportive but sometimes your encounters with them can leave you feeling even more alone.

    What do I mean by that?

    Well, because Korea is a homogeneous society everyone looks alike [they all tend to be thin, of short to medium height and have black hair and black eyes] so when you see another "Westerner" they stand out and you notice them. I always smile and at least nod to them but the majority of the time my greeting is met with either a blank stare or a haughty look. This is so surprising to me! We are both strangers in a strange land you would think that we could at least acknowledge one another's existence. Canadian and American friends of mine who teach here have remarked on this, too. I am not sure why this is but it is an unpleasant reality of life here.

    Nothing will change the fact that a very talented writer and fellow blogger is dead. But at the very least I hope that Shawn's untimely death will wake up some of the other Ex-pats who can be so bitter and hostile to one another. I just wish that people could realize that we are all in the same boat [so to speak] we are strangers in a foreign land who are just trying to find some kindness and human connection. At the risk of sounding like Mr. Rogers or Oprah Winfrey - I do want to urge everyone to try and be a little kinder to one another. It's a small thing but it can made a big different to someone who is already feeling at the end of their rope.

    Sunday, June 18, 2006

    Geumgang Park, Busan

    I recently went to Geumgang Park in Busan, South Korea. To get there my friend "Ray" and I took the subway to Oncheon-jang [subway stop # 127]. Then we walked for about 10 minutes to find the entrance to the park. There didn't seem to be any signs that I could see but luckily "Ray" had been their before and remembered the way so I just followed him.

    Ray at Game of Chance

    On the way to the park there are dozens of booths set up where you can try your luck at games of chance and try and win a prize. This is a picture of "Ray" at one of the booths where he won a shell keychain which he gave to me.

    Shell Keychain Prize

    Here is the shell keychain that I have as a remembrance of our day at the park.

    Display at Park Enterance

    At the entrance of the park is a display. This is a picture of part of the display.

    Thatched Roof Hut

    This is a close-up picture of a thatched roof house.

    Water Wheel

    Part of the display is a wooden water wheel.

    Also, in this display part of the park there are some Korean men working there who are dressed in traditional Korean clothes. Unfortunately, I can't understand the signs [just when I think my Korean is improving, boo, hoo.] So, I am left to guess that the display is but it seems to show the way Koreans lived in the past. Sort of a "historic village display" or at least it seems that way to me.

    Walking into the park we see a large sign advertising a "Rope-way" which means a cable car that will take us to the top of the mountain.

    Sign Showing the Cable Car

    This sign shows the way to the "Rope-way" but in Korean it says "Ka-oi-bul-ca" or the way we would pronounce it "Cable Car". We decided it looked like fun and a great picture taking opportunity and, also, we [me especially] were feeling lazy. Let me tell you a cable car is the easy and fast way to get to the top of the mountain.

    For about 5,000 won [a little over $ 5.00 Canadian Dollars] we got a ticket to take the cable car up the mountain [and back down again]. The view was breathtaking! However, I have to admit that I was a little surprised [and not pleasantly] by the smog. The haze you see in the background hanging over the picture is not heat waves it is smog. In fact, it was cold enough up the mountain that I wore a jacket and was glad for its warmth.

    Cable Car

    Here is a picture of a cable car coming up the mountain and the city of Busan spread out in the distance.

    Forest and Busan City
    Going down the mountain I was by the window and was able to take this shot of the side of the mountain and the city of Busan. I like the contrast between the nature and the cityscape.

    Looking Straight Down the Mountain

    Here is another picture I took from the cable car. I tried a dramatic shot looking straight down the mountain. Not such a great idea since I am afraid of heights. Yipees!

    Pound a Monster Game

    On the way down the mountain after we get off the cable car there are some games. This game was a "pound a monster" kind of game. I wish I had one at home. It is fun and a good way to get rid of frustrations at the end of a hard day teaching school.


    There are, also, rides for the kids. Here are some Korean kids enjoying a Merry-Go-Round. I guess some games and rides are universal in appeal.


    It was such a nice day and it is amazing that it takes only about 20 to 30 minutes to get to this park. It's right in the middle of the city and accessible by public transportation. I definately want to go back and since there seemed to be a cool breeze it will be a nice place to visit even on a hot summer day.

    Sunday, June 11, 2006

    FAQ's about Working in Korea

    Why am I writing about FAQ's of Working in Korea, you ask? Well, because I have gotten a number of e-mails from people who want to try and find a job teaching English in Korea. They ask my advice and about my experiences here. I try to answer as many people as I can individually but since lately time is in short supply for me and since most people want to know the same things - at least initially I decided to do a posting about FAQ's [Frequently Asked Questions] about working in Korea.

    Here are some of the questions I have gotten and my answers:

    1. How did you find your first teaching job in Korea?
    I had a friend who was teaching here and I used her recruiter. He was a Canadian guy who lived in Ottawa, Canada and had taught here in Korea a number of years himself. However, from my experiences I think it is better to use a Korean recruiter because someone back home in Canada [or USA or Britain or wherever] can't help you much once you get to Korea. They are usually a very long and expensive phone call away.

    2. Did you [does one have to] pay for your flight over to Korea?
    No, I have NEVER paid for my flight to Korea. I know some people who have paid for their own flights to Korea with the "promise" that they would be reimbursed when they got here but in a majority of these cases they never received their money back. I consider it a bad sign if the school either doesn't have enough money or enough faith in me [their new Employee] to front the cost of the ticket.

    That said, most contracts only provide you with a one way ticket so I advise everyone to have either enough money in travelers' cheques or a credit card with a high enough credit limit on it that in an emergency a plane ticket home can be purchased.

    Moreover, most contracts state that if you don't stay and complete the first 6 months of the one year contract you must reimburse the school that hired you for the money they spent on the airfare to fly you over to Korea.

    3. Can I apply from here at home [Canada, USA, Britain, etc.]?
    Yes, you can. It's quite easy actually. There are a number of websites that list job openings in Korea. Using a computer and e-mail and a telephone you can apply and get a signed contract all before ever leaving the comfort and safety of your own home.

    4. What is required to teach in Korea?
    You must have a Bachelors Degree [the major doesn't matter - they like English majors but that is considered a bonus if you have that it is NOT A REQUIREMENT]. You have to have a valid passport that will remain valid for more than 6 months [the Department of Immigration makes the 6 month validity requirement - not the schools so this is not negotiable]. You, must be a NATIVE English speaker. *** That said I know some people who are actually French Canadians who teach here and do very well but I wouldn't advise it.***
    You need to be from Canada, USA, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa [However, at this time Korean Employers prefer Native Speakers who have a North American accent but again this is a preference NOT a requirement].

    5. How much money can I make working in Korea?
    You can expect to make anywhere from 1.9 million won to 2.5 million won although the average salary is now about 2.0 to 2.1 million won. The lower salary would be for an inexperienced teacher and the higher salary for someone who has more experience and/or more qualifications [like a TEFL or TESL Certificate or a Bachelor of Education Degree]. The exchange rate varies from day to day but this is more than 2,000 dollars Canadian a month and your apartment is provided free of charge [you pay utilities] so you can save a lot of money. To check out exactly how much money this is check out this currency conversion website.

  • Currency Exchange Website

  • 6. Why do so many people go to Korea for their first time teaching over-seas?
    I can't speak for everyone but there are some general reasons that Korea is a good first job overseas. For one, you don't have to pay your own airfare to get over here. Secondly, your housing is provided free of charge [you pay your own utilities of course but you are living rent-free]. This means that you can save a lot of money to pay off student loans or save to travel to other countries. Thirdly, Korea - although not exactly a first-world country - is pretty civilized so that medical care and technology are on par with what they would be in most "western" countries.

    7. How do I apply for a job in Korea?
    You can apply on-line through websites like Dave's ESL Cafe or Pusanweb. I am attaching the links here.

  • Pusanweb

  • Dave's ESL Cafe

  • Also, you can apply directly to a recruiting company. I recommend Kim N' Joe Recruiting. They are a company I have used twice. They are located in Busan, South Korea and they have helped me from everything from picking me up at the airport to helping me get cell phone service. I realize more and more how fortunate I am to have connected with such a good company. Having read horror stories on the internet makes me realize how rare it is to have such a good relationship with my recruiting company. Here's the link to them. Their website has lots of information about what is required to work in Korea and lots of helpful links.

  • My Recruiting Company

  • Here are some pictures of the staff of my recruiting company Kim N' Joe. I still have contact with them and I let me tell you how nice it is to see friendly faces who understand my job and can help me with everything from Culture Shock to everyday living problems. I go every couple of weeks to their office and have lunch with them and they always make me feel so welcome. I have noticed lots of other teachers they have placed stopping by, too.

    I admit, I am not entirely unbiased but I do have the experience of having used another recruiter for my first job in Korea so I do have something to base my comparison on.

    Below is the Kim N' Joe Staff:

    Amy at work

    Amy at work.

    Mini at work

    Mini at work.

    Jessie & Simpson

    Jessie at work with Simpson in the background.

    Kelly at work

    Kelly at work.

    Sunday, June 04, 2006

    Sun Worship vs. Fear of the Sun

    Now that the days are getting nicer and spring seems to finally have come to Busan, South Korea I am noticing a phenomena. Where I am from in East Coast, Canada we rarely see the sun and so when we do we worship it. In the summer we flock to the beach and try to get a good tan. We go to tanning salons to try and get an early start on our tans. And, having a tan [even in these days when we hear about and fear skin cancer] we still see getting a tan as a goal worthy of our efforts.

    In fact, in the middle of a long hard winter in Atlantic Canada a tan has become something of a status symbol. If you have a tan it means that you actually have enough time and money to have had either a vacation "down south" or that you have the extra time and money to spend hours at a tanning salon achieving that golden glow.

    In Korea, the exact opposite is true.

    Shopping for Parasols

    Shopping for the most essential summer accessory- a parasol in Lotte Department Store in Symyeon, Busan, South Korea. May 2006.

    It sort of boggles my mind but most Korean women carry parasols when they go out in the sun. I have even seen some of them wearing white gloves. I thought parasols and white gloves belonged to the past - to those days of 18 th Century English garden parties. It seems like something I would watch in a movie like Pride and Prejudice and not something that people in this day and age actually do.

    Walking with a Parasol

    I took this picture May 21, 2006 here in Busan, South Korea. It was a warm day and sunny and sure enough the parasols started making their appearance.

    So, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the situation here in Korea and contrasting it to my past experiences back in Canada. After much consideration, it seems to me that in Korea [at least for women] having white skin is a status symbol. Most women's make-up products here have the word "WHITENING" on them. And, a lot of the advertisements seem to emphasis that point in their marketing. It seems to be an important selling point.

    Whitening Products

    Above are some of the women's make-up products I am talking about. They all have the word "WHITE" on them and they all claim to "whiten" skin.

    This makes me think about why this could be. In Canada in the winter I get so ghostly white that people always think I am sick and ask me "How are you feeling, now?" I used to go to tanning salons for a few sessions in the middle of winter just so that I could get a little color and not look so ghastly pale and sickly.

    In contrast, in Korea in the past poor people used to have to work in the fields to make a living. In fact, in China the peasants [who are sometimes called "Coolies"] who make their living working outdoors and are therefore very dark are looked down on for their low economic status which is shown by their dark skin color. I guess maybe no one in Korea wants to be mistaken for a Chinese "Coolie".

    Also, it seems that since Koreans are actually quite dark skinned it is being "white" that takes work and money and is therefore a good indication of social and economic status. To have pale skin here means that you have enough money or a good enough job that you don't have to work outside and in that way you can protect your skin from the sun. Also, the "whitening" products I mentioned are usually quite expensive so in that way, too, pale skin can show social status.

    Market Ladies with a Parasol

    Even the older ladies who sell produce in the street use either an umbrella or parasol to try and protect themselves from the sun.

    Scared of the Sun

    This girl is at the beach but she is completely covered in towels from head to toe. Notice the girl standing beside her is wearing a hat to protect her head and face from the sun. Even the people in the background of the photo are all wearing t shirts, shorts, and hats in an attempt to protect their skin from the sun.

    Swimming in Clothes

    In case you think it is only the women who seem to cover themselves from head to toe take a look at this picture. Here is a man swimming at the beach wearing a t shirt and pants [not even shorts].

    Fisherman with towel on his head

    In case you need more proof that it's not just ladies who try to protect their "complexions" from the sun. I saw this fisherman with a towel on his head, a long sleeved shirt and even gloves on his hands. This was in June 2005 on a warm 22 degree Celisus day. It wasn't even especially hot or bright. For example, I with my pale [prone to fleckle skin and burn] skin wasn't even wearing sun screen.