So you’re going to teach middle school in South Korea

They don’t make greeting cards for this type of situation but if they did, they would undoubtedly be sympathy cards. Middle school is renowned for being the toughest kind of EPIK job, so if you have just found out you’ll be teaching middle school, you might be feeling like you drew the short straw. But don’t decide you’re going to have a terrible time before it’s even begun – yes, it’s tough, but there are a lot of great things about teaching middle school too. Some people are much better suited to it than elementary school, and you might find that you’re one of those people.

When I first came to Korea, I was all bright eyed and excited to teach adorable Korean kids. On the final day of EPIK orientation, I was handed an envelope informing me that I would be teaching at a girls’ middle school. The orientation had been dedicated almost exclusively to elementary school teaching, and we were informed that almost everyone was to be placed in elementary school, since the funding for middle school was so low. To say I was confused is an understatement.

I’m still figuring it all out; I’m no expert and I definitely don’t have all the answers. But there are many things I wish I had known when I first started that would have made things a lot easier, and that’s why I decided to write this post.

A little bit about middle school


Teacher, watch a movie?

When I first arrived in Korea I had very little concept of middle school, because in Ireland we just have secondary school from age 13-18. Korean students begin middle school at 12 or 13 and finish at 15 or 16, in western years. There are three types of middle school; boys, girls and co-ed. Boys’ schools are definitely the toughest and require a huge amount of energy. Girls’ schools are easier, though they have their own set of challenges. Some co-ed schools have both sexes in the same class, while others separate the classes by sex.

Think about what you and your classmates were like at that age. You were probably full of hormones and pissed off about everything. Maybe you were a good student, but you can probably remember how much grief your teachers g0t from other kids in your age group – especially anyone not perceived to be a ‘real’ teacher, like substitutes.

I’m not trying to scare you, but I think it’s important to have a realistic idea of the challenges you will face. I certainly didn’t, and it made the adjustment very difficult. Here’s one thing I wish I knew when I started:

You will probably be a terrible teacher in the beginning

I look back on my first few months in Korea and shudder to think I sucked so much. And you, too, will suck. Everyone does in the beginning. It’s just a fact, and it’s not worth getting upset over because it passes.

In the beginning most of my students refused to listen or participate in class, my co-teachers had no interest in co-teaching and my lessons were diabolical. But with time and a lot of perseverance I eventually managed to really enjoy my job. So even when it seems hopeless, just hang in there, don’t give up hope and don’t beat yourself up when things go badly. If your class goes terribly, it’s not your fault. You are in a really tough situation, and you should be proud of every day you manage to get through. Take it one day at a time and be sure to stand back and notice all your little improvements.

And in those tough moments, be sure to take care of yourself and take time to do things that will make you feel better – venting to your friends, a glass of wine, your favourite food or TV show.

Here is some advice that should help you get off to a good start:

Ask ALL the questions

If you are very lucky, the outgoing teacher might make contact with you before you arrive. If this happens, ask them a whole load of questions, such as:

  • How many students are in the school and what are the class sizes like?
  • How many co-teachers will you have?
  • How many classes will you be teaching each week? Will you have any after school classes?
  • Will the co-teachers have rules in place, or should you make your own?
  • What is the co-teaching situation like? Will you be expected to plan and deliver lessons alone, or is there a lot of co-teacher involvement?
  • Do the co-teachers generally handle discipline problems, or will you have to do that? What is the procedure for when individual students or most of the class behaves badly?
  • Is there any reward system for classes or individual students?
  • Will you have your own classroom, will you visit the students in their homeroom classroom or will you share an English classroom with other teachers?
  • What is the seating arrangement, how often do the students change seats and whose responsibility is it?
  • What textbook will you be using?
  • Is it possible for them to leave you some lesson plans and materials? (Ask nicely!)

If you haven’t had any contact from the outgoing teacher, ask your co-teacher a lot of questions.  I did’t have any contact with the outgoing teacher and I thought I would seem like a nuisance if I asked my co-teacher too many questions. I assumed she would just tell me all the important things I needed to know in order for me to do my job properly. I was very wrong. So ask all the above questions, as well as when you will be teaching your first class, and what you should prepare for it.

Handler co-teachers run the gamut from those who are delighted to answer all your questions and help you any way they can, to those who see your presence as unnecessary and do the bare minimum to help you. If you don’t get answers to your questions, don’t panic – you’ll meet all your other co-teachers on your first day of work and you might find some of them more helpful than your handler co-teacher. It’s anyway best to spread your questions around a bit, so you don’t burden your handler teacher too much.

Before you start teaching

There are a lot of things you can do before you start work , that will make your life a lot easier once you begin.

  1. Make a tracking chart

If you teach middle school you will probably see each of your classes only once a week (or even less) so it can be hard to keep tabs on things like cancelled classes, class rewards, non-textbook lessons and games you covered, any behaviour problems and so on. I keep a clipboard with one page for every class,  so at the start of each lesson I can easily see all the relevant information about that class. It only takes a minute to write but it saves a lot of confusion. At the top of each sheet I write the class, number of students, English captain and co-teacher. Your columns will depend on your reward system and other factors, but these are the columns I use:

  • Date
  • Lesson
  • Points
  • Reward
  • Comment
  • Incidents

2. Make your rules 

When I began teaching, I thought having a few broad rules would be easier. But I quickly discovered that specific, tangible rules are better. For example, the rule ‘Bring your book and pen’ is much easier for students to understand (and therefore easier to enforce) than ‘Come prepared for class’.

It took a lot of trial and error, but these are the rules I find most useful for my middle school girls:

  1. Be on time
  2. Bring your book and pen
  3. Be kind
  4. Listen
  5. Try to speak English
  6. Clean up

You might need different rules, depending on the types of problems you encounter at your school. But whatever rules you implement, try to keep them positive as you don’t want to put ideas into their heads. I would also strongly advise against having ‘Don’t speak Korean’ as a rule. This just alienates the students who are already struggling, and makes them hate English.

3. Make a self-introduction presentation 

At my EPIK orientation one speaker said you should only do a self-introduction presentation if you come from a very unusual place. I disagree completely, I think everyone should do one. Your students will be fascinated by pictures of your family and home country, no matter where you come from.

If you just stand there talking about yourself (or any topic for that matter), most of your students won’t understand you and they will get bored. You will spark their interest a lot more if you use a lot of pictures, talk about them and get them to guess things. For example, you can show them a picture of you with your siblings when you were little, and get them to guess which one is you. Or ask them ‘Which food is my favourite?’ and show them a picture of three foods like pizza, burgers and ice-cream. Make sure to include an animation so you can reveal the right answer when you click the mouse. You can also ask your students questions about themselves, so you’re relating it back to them and not just talking about yourself (Do you have siblings too? How many? Is it better to have brothers or sisters?).

Also make sure to include ‘Question time’ at the end. You’ll probably get questions like ‘Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend’, ‘Is that your real hair color?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘How tall are you?’ and ‘Why did you come to Korea?’ Make sure to mentally prepare answers in simple English for these kinds of questions.

4. Think of a way to get your students’ attention 

Ask your co-teachers if they have some way of getting the students’ attention, such as a clap or chant. If they don’t, I would highly recommend implementing  your  own method because ‘Sssshhhh’ doesn’t usually work. You will need this to get your students to pay attention at the beginning of class, when there is too much talking, and when they are engaged in an activity but you need to address them. Initially I used a clap, where I would clap in a particular rhythm and the students would clap back at me. But it didn’t work very well and my hands got sore from clapping several times before all of the students would respond. I have had much more success with verbal methods. Below are some examples that you could use, or you could make your own. Just practice it a few times in your first class until the students know the drill.

  1. Teacher says: Eyes on me. Students respond: Eyes on you
  2.  Teacher says: 3-2-1. Students respond: Zip!
  3. Teacher says: Listen. Students respond: Carefully. (This is the one I’ve used most and it has worked best for me)

5. Make a reward and punishment system

While it’s generally agreed that students need deterrents for breaking rules, rewards are a lot more controversial. Some people believe reward systems create lazy, entitled students who only do things for the promise of a reward. Learning should be the reward in itself, shouldn’t it? I’m sure that’s true in most western countries but you will be working in Korea, and it’s not that simple here.

Korea’s education system doesn’t foster a lot of creativity or a love of learning. Students are pushed way too hard, they’re exhausted and they’re trained to memorise and regurgitate.

Another problem is that you are a foreigner. This won’t create too much of an issue if your co-teachers are really good at managing behavior. But if you’re left to your own devices, as I was, you might find yourself standing at the top of the classroom at the start of class, trying to get 35 running, shrieking teenagers to sit down and listen to you. Yelling won’t help – some students won’t understand you, and others will just think you sound funny.

You aren’t a magician; you can’t transform tired and pissed-off students into self-motivated and enthusiastic ones. Unless you give them a good reason to obey the rules and participate, they will use your class to chat to their friends or put their head down and have a snooze. Of course a lot of discipline problems can be avoided by making interesting, fun lessons. But that won’t always be enough.

Individual rewards and punishment

a) Individual Rewards

When I taught my first classes, I would ask ‘Who wants to demonstrate?’ and in each class there would be precisely zero hands in the air. Then I began using a little Hello Kitty stamp which the students could later use to get rewards like sweets, chocopies and k-pop stickers. Participation increased massively. I used some plastic pockets from Daiso to hang the prizes in the classroom, so the students could easily see what was on offer.

The next semester I used pretend dollars with various k-pop stars and cartoon characters. I actually prefer this, firstly because the students love the surprise element (who will be on the dollar?), and secondly because the students can pool their money together to buy things together. I made the dollars on the website Festisite.

Some teachers like to do a lottery, where they give out tickets and hold a lottery for prizes every month or half-semester. I know people who have had great success with this, but I have heard of students feeling aggrieved when they earned lots of tickets but didn’t win anything in the lottery. With stamps and dollars, a students’ rewards are directly connected with how much they participate.

It’s also important that you aren’t spending half your pay-check on Chocopies, so make your rewards a bit ‘expensive’ for students to buy. I have Chocopies, stickers and keyrings for $10, fun size bars for $5 and one small candy or chocolate coin for $2. If a student participates well, they will take about 4 classes to earn a a fun size bar or 2 candies, and about 8 classes to earn a Chocopie. That doesn’t break my bank at all. Also make use of shops like Costco and Emart Traders so you can buy in bulk and you won’t have to go candy shopping every weekend!

Just one other note about individual rewards. You will probably be teaching classes with very mixed abilities, so it’s best if individual rewards aren’t always connected with how well the student performs. Of course you’ll have games where the higher level students are most likely to win, but you should also include activities where students get rewarded just for speaking, no matter how mangled and incomprehensible their English is. You want to foster the idea that trying is the most important thing.

b) Individual punishments

As for individual punishments, it’s best to talk to your co-teachers and decide what you’ll do with misbehaving students.

For things like talking too much, throwing paper, passing notes etc, you can get students to stand up at the back of the room for 5 or 10 minutes. For more serious things, you could have an arrangement where your co-teacher takes the student outside of class to talk to them about their behavior. And if a student is causing persistent problems, you might need to get your co-teacher’s help to discuss the matter with their homeroom teacher.

You should also ask your KET if it’s possible for you to take part in the school-wide punishment system. It is likely that the Korean teachers give students points for bad behaviour, which are logged onto the computer, and their parents are called when they reach a certain amount. Learn the Korean word for these points, and use it to threaten those students who test you the most. If they persist, follow through and write their name on the board, and ask your KET to help you log the points later. I think this method can be really helpful when students think they are not subject to the same standards of behaviour in your class. But I’ve known second grade boys who have amassed over 150 points, so it can only do so much!

Another weird tip that actually works is to suck up to the naughty students. Take time to talk to them outside class and, give them an extra bit of candy here and there. If you show them you like them and you’re interested in them, they will be much less likely to act out in your class.

c) Whole class rewards and punishments 

For your whole class reward system, think of a fun theme that your students will like. One semester I had a space race, where each class had a little rocket and used their points to move through the solar system, picking up rewards when they arrived at different planets. I have also done a movie race, where the students got stars on a movie clapperboard every week. Rewards were things like watching a music video, playing a game unrelated to the lesson, or eating candy.


My space race reward system


My movie themed system

The type of reward system you use will depend largely on your situation.

If your students are generally well behaved and your co-teacher is on top of discipline, you won’t need to do much, if anything. You could have a simple system where 1 point=bad, 2=okay, 3=great. You can reward the points at the end of class and then ask the students questions like ‘Why did you only get 1 point?’ (‘We talked too much’) and ‘What should you do next class?’ (‘We should listen carefully’). You can then put the points on some kind of themed chart, giving them prizes when they reach certain milestones. Of course a physical chart will only work if you have your own classroom – if you don’t, you can keep a chart on a PPT and show your students their score on the projector every week. You could also use Class Dojo, but instead of tracking all of your individual students, just assign a whole class for each ‘student’. I know that sounds confusing but it will make sense if you start using the website.

If your students are quite unruly, it’s best to connect your reward system directly with the rules. For my movie race, I laminated the rules and stuck them to the board using magnetic tape. Then I cut out some yellow stars (+ points) and black stars (- points) and glued them into magnets. When the students were obeying a rule, I stuck a yellow star on that rule. When they weren’t, I gave them a black one. For example, if the students were chatting among themselves and not listening to me, I would put a black star on the rule ‘Listen’. If you use pictures on your rules, every student will understand what rule has been obeyed or broken, even if they can’t understand a word you’re saying. I would usually ask ‘Why did you get a black star?’ just to make sure. Often the action of slowly picking up a black star and moving it towards the rules would make the classroom fall into silence. At the end of class we would minus the black stars from the yellow stars. That was their score for the lesson, and that’s how many stars they got in their clapperboard.

In my second school I used a system called a ‘European Adventure’ where each class had a train and would pick up rewards when they arrived at different countries. I didn’t have my own classroom so I made the race on a PPT slide. I printed and laminated a long train track with numbers from +5 to -5. I also printed and laminated a little train. The class started on 0 and moved up to 2 if everyone was on time and had their books and pens. Throughout the class they moved up or down, depending on how it was going. Again, I often only had to move my hand towards the train and the noise would die down.

Before I had a class system, I had huge problems. Whole gangs of students would come in 10 minutes after the bell, with no books. They would proceed to chat away, throw paper around and ignore me completely. Most of my co-teachers didn’t care and let them away with anything. With this system I had far fewer problems because students (especially at middle school level) care a lot about what their peers think. Nobody wants to be the one who costs the whole class a rewards.

But you will still have times when the best reward system in the world won’t help you. There will be classes where everyone is wound up, unruly and unable to concentrate, and nobody seems to care about points.

For situations like this, I really recommend downloading some nice, relaxing classical music from YouTube and putting the file on your computer’s desktop. Get your students to sit up straight with their hands on their laps, and to breath in and out slowly, while the music plays softly in the background. Do this for a few minutes, until the atmosphere is calmer. This should calm your students down a bit and it also allows you to have a little break, rather than just ploughing through when it’s just not working. I only started doing this in my third year of teaching, but i really wish I thought of it sooner.

You an also use time. There is a 10 minute break between classes, and you can keep them back if they are really bad. I wrote ‘break’ on the board, or ‘lunch’, if it was the period before lunch. Every time the noise level got too high, I crossed off a letter. If all the letters were crossed of, they had to stay back for 1 minute, and I wrote ‘1 minute’ on the board. Then I did the same thing again for 2 minutes, 3 minutes and so on. At the end of class I waited for everyone to be completely silent, then start a countdown timer on online stopwatch. If anyone talked, I paused the timer and stared at that person. Once the room was silent again, I continued the timer. It sounds kind of awful, like training animals or something, but it works!

6. Prepare some icebreakers. 

Since the first grade will all be coming from different elementary schools and won’t know each other, I would do getting-to-know-you icebreaker with them and a different one for the second and third grade.

Whatever ice-breaker you do, make it really simple and make participation optional. You don’t know what your students’ level is like yet so it’s not good to push them too much or make anybody uncomfortable.

First grade icebreaker  

I like to play a mingling game called ‘Find your friends‘ (that’s what I call it, anyway). Show a simple question on a slide, for example ‘Which season were you born in?’ Use pictures to illustrate all the possible answers. In this case I used a graphic showing which months belong to each season, in case any students were unclear. Also show an open-ended bonus question related to the first question, like ‘Which season is your favourite, and why?’ Show an example answer like ‘Summer is my favourite season because I can go swimming in the sea’. Ask the students to also name some good things about spring/autumn/winter. Then the students walk around asking each other ‘What season were you born in?’, then make a group with all the other students who have the same answer. Give them a few minutes to mingle and then check the groups by asking ‘Where are the spring people?’ etc. Then ask the bonus question and give a reward to the students who raise their hand and answer.

Other questions could be ‘What English speaking country would you like to visit?’ ‘How many siblings do you have?’ and so on. Just make sure to give only around 4 possible answers. I tried to do this activity with more answers (What is your birth month?) and it was just too messy and confusing.

Second and third grade ice-breaker 

I like to use a variation of two truths and one lie, which I simplified for lower level students. I made a handout with four sentences to complete, relating to their winter vacation:

  • I spent winter vacation with… (Ex: my parents / my siblings / my cousins)
  • I went to… (Ex: Seoul / Japan / Jeju Island)
  • I played… (Ex: Smartphone games / Jenga / Tennis)
  • I ate… (Ex: Chicken / pizza / bibimbap)

Under each sentence, there are ‘True’ and ‘False’ boxes.

First I go through a PPT with pictures to elicit possible answers to each question. For example, one slide will show the question ‘I went to…’ and a picture each of Seoul, Japan and Jeju island. I ask the students to tell me some more possible answers to each question and I write their suggestions on the board. Then I give them the paper, and they write their questions, and tick either ‘true’ or false’. Then the students volunteer to read a sentence, and then we do a show of hands to see who thinks they are lying and who thinks they are telling the truth. If they manage to fool most of the class, they get a reward (dollar/stamp).

The first day of the semester

Korean schools are really fond of ceremonies, and there will probably be one on the first day of the semester. The bad news is that you might have to go on stage and bow in front of the entire school, but the good news is that you are unlikely to have class on the first day.

You should also be given your computer, textbooks and timetable on this day, so make sure to inquire if you don’t get any of those things. When you get your timetable, find out when your first class will be and which classes are with which co-teachers. It’s really important to meet your co-teachers and have a chat with them before you teach with them. Ask them what will be expected of you, but know that you probably won’t get a straight answer. Korea is a high-context culture so communication is mostly indirect. This is one of those situations where you’ll need to read between the lines. Your co-teacher will never say outright ‘I intend to use your class to catch up on my paperwork and let you get on with it.’ Interpret their language carefully and you should get a good idea of how it’s going to be.

Your first class

Your students will probably be quite well behaved on the first day, but don’t let that make you complacent. Once they get used to you they will test the boundaries.

This is the format I like to follow for a first class:

  1. Self-introduction presentation. Remember to leave time for questions at the end.
  2. Rules. Get the students to read each rule, and ask comprehension check questions. (What should you bring to class? What kind of things are kind? What kind of things are unkind? Where should you put your rubbish?).
  3. Reward systems. Introduce your individual and class reward systems. Its really important to outline everything that will happen when students are good, and when they are bad. Ask comprehension check questions like ‘What can you get if you demonstrate?’ and ‘What will happen if you talk too much?’
  4. Ask for a volunteer English captain/s. Especially if your classes are very big, it’s good to have one or two students to help you with things like cleaning the boards, passing out handouts and whiteboards, drawing up seating charts, updating the reward chart, maintaining behaviour and so on. You can give them rewards, like stamps or dollars, and appoint a new one every few weeks or once a month.
  5. Ice-breaker.

After you have taught a class with every co-teacher

Once you have taught a class with each of your new co-teachers, you should have some good idea of how things are going to be with each of them.

The absolute best case scenario is that your co-teachers are all confident English speakers who are happy to plan and teach lessons with you. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality for a lot of people.

The beginning is the time to tackle any problems – once the situation becomes the status-quo, it will be so much  harder to fix things. This is the most common problem at middle school level:

My co-teacher doesn’t want to co-teach

Your co-teacher strolls in 10 minutes into class and then sits at the back reading a book or going on their laptop. On one hand it’s wonderful to have the freedom to do whatever you like in class. But when co-teachers use the class to do other stuff, they send a message to the students that the class isn’t important. Student’s behaviour and participation deteriorates as a result. In addition, low level students can’t keep up because they aren’t getting the help they need in Korean.

There are many reasons a Korean teacher might not want to teach with you. They might be genuinely busy, or they might be embarrassed to speak English, or they might think you’ve got it covered and don’t need them. When I had this problem I thought ‘I’m a young and inexperienced teacher. I can’t tell these professionals how to do their jobs’. But there are ways to tackle the situation without insulting anybody.

The first thing to remember is that many KETs are used to teaching English entirely through Korean, and they might not be comfortable speaking English in front of a native speaker. Don’t take it personally if they look like they want to run away whenever you talk to them. Just be friendly and approachable, and don’t correct their English unless they ask you too – and for the love of God, never correct their English in front of the students. You’ll learn quickly that saving face is so important in Korean culture.

Approach your co-teachers and ask them what think about your lesson ideas, or if they have anything to add. You might just get brushed off with ‘It’s your class, do whatever you like’. If this happens, flatter them – tell them they’re so much more experienced than you and they know the students better than you, so you’d be so grateful for their help. If they’re unwilling to plan with you, write lessons plans and outline in them which parts the Korean teacher needs to do. Give them the lesson plans, but also go through them, saying things like ‘Could you please translate the key expressions?’ or ‘I think the students will understand this activity much better if we model it together’. If you are using any extra materials or handouts not in the textbook, give them to your co-teacher in advance so they can familiarise themselves with it, in case any translation is needed. They will really hate you if you ask them to translate something they’ve never seen before in front of 30 students.

If your co-teacher still refuses to teach with you, you’ll just have to do the very best you can without them. Use a lot of pictures, provide Korean translations on your slides, and offer rewards to students who can explain the material in Korean for the rest of the class. But if you find that you can’t cope and the situation is really detrimental for your students, it might be time to go through the EPIK chain of command to find a solution.

Your first textbook lesson

This is where you set the tone for all the textbook lessons so try and make it a fun one. Let go of the idea that you’re going to make these kids into fluent English speakers, because it’s not going to happen. Just concentrate on helping them to enjoy speaking English. Be relaxed and flexible – if the lesson isn’t going to plan but your students are enjoying themselves and speaking English, just go with it. Also, make sure to reflect on every textbook lesson and make changes as needed. You will probably have to teach each lesson several times, so your Monday morning classes will be the guinea pigs.

For every textbook lesson you will have some language function, and your job is to get the students to use that function in a natural way. The functions can be things like ‘Saying thank you’, ‘Talking about favourites’, ‘Ordering food at a restaurant’ and so on. You might have access to the previous teacher’s lessons, and you can also search for your textbook on Waygook you’ll see what others have done for each lesson. Exercise caution though – there is lots of great stuff on Waygook, but a few dodgy things too. I mainly just use it as a source of inspiration.

You’ll find plenty of information in your orientation handbook about how to structure a lesson, so I won’t say too much about that. But basically, this is the format I follow.

  1. First I greet the students and ask questions (What did you do at the weekend? What will you do this weekend What did you have for lunch?). I give them points if everyone is on time and has their book and pen
  2. Then I go through the schedule. I show a schedule slide, and I also ask the English captain to write the schedule on the board so I can tick things off as I go along, and the students can always see what’s next. It really helps to prevent a lot of behavioral problems if the students know the plan.
  3. Then I review the previous lesson. A review might also be as simple as showing a picture and asking a few questions about it. For example, when I reviewed prepositions, I showed the students a picture of Van Gogh’s bedroom and asked them questions like ‘Where is the table?’ (it’s between the chair and the bed) ‘Where are the clothes?’ (They’re behind the bed) and so on. I also often show a slide with about 3 pictures that we can use to review some of the sentences they practiced the previous week. For example, to review a lesson about health problems, I showed the question ‘What’s wrong?’ along with a picture of a person with a tooth ache, another person with a fever, and a third person with a broken leg. Then I just got the students to say what’s wrong with each person, and then what other health problems they remember from last week. It’s so simple but it works!
  4. Then I move on to my introduction. This could be a song, a picture, a video, basically anything to elicit some of the target language and see what the students know. If the lesson is about ordering food, you might show a picture of some people eating at a restaurant. Then you’d have a chat with the students about it (Where are these people? Yes, they are at a restaurant. What can you say when you order food at a restaurant?). If the lesson is about transport, you could show a slide with some pictures of different types of transport, and have a chat about those (What is this? Yes, it’s a an airplane. Have you been on an airplane? Where did you go?). You can also throw in a few unusual ones like hot air balloon, Soyuz etc. I also like to make little comics where one character says something and the students have to predict how the other person will respond. For example in a lesson about asking and responding to ‘How are you?’ I used a picture of Bart Simpson with his leg in a cast, and Lisa Simpson asking ‘How are you doing?’ The students had to predict Bart’s response (I’m not doing so well).
  5. Then we go through the key expressions. Usually the key expressions are just language structures that you can plug different vocabulary into. For example in a lesson on chores, the expressions might be ‘What do you do for ~ [your mom / your neighbours etc]? and the response ‘I ~ [wash the dishes / pick up trash etc]. So I usually show the basic structure, and then get the students to plug vocabulary into the expressions, using a picture or two to prompt them. For example I might show a picture of a teacher, and a picture of a student cleaning the board. This should elicit ‘What do you do for your teacher?’ And the response ‘I clean the board’.
  6. Then, depending on the language function, I do a pair and share or maybesome practice slides. For a pair and share, I get the students to talk in pairs about a particular topic with their partner, and then share with the class. It helps a lot if you make it into a competition. For example if you are teaching the expression ‘I go by ~ [bus / train / plane etc]’, you can have the students write down as many types of transport as they can think of, within 3 minutes. The pair with the most words wins a reward. You can write down all their words on the board, and then ask the other pairs if they thought of any more  words, and write those down too. For practice slides, I usually show part of a sentence, with a picture to help the students to complete it. If you are doing this, remember to include an animation to reveal the complete sentence. For some language functions it’s also good to have students raise their hands and give some suggestions. For example, if you are teaching the expression ‘You should’, you could show a picture of a person holding their stomach, to elicit ‘I have a stomach ache’. Then you could ask the students to give advice (You should take a rest / You should take some medicine etc).
  7. Next, I do the text-book. I don’t like to dwell on this too much because most of the students don’t like the text-book very much. But we just talk about the pictures first, then listen a few times, they answer, and then I ask some comprehension check questions. Make sure to always reveal the correct answer on the screen and leave it there for a minute so anybody who didn’t get the answer can write it down afterwards. For the  longer dialogues, I show the script and we practice reading it as a class – one half of the room plays one person, the other half plays the other person, and then they swap.
  8. After the text-book, there will hopefully be about 15 or 20 minutes left to play a game or do some kind of activity to help cement the target expressions. I will write more about that a bit later.
  9. After that, we count the class points and see if there is any area they need to improve on for the next lesson, or praise them if they were really good. I make sure the classroom is tidy enough and then say goodbye. Done and dusted.

Sometimes you’ll have a language function that makes you wonder what on earth you could do to practice it. But there is always something. For example, I once had to practice ‘Someone left me a ~’. For ages I couldn’t think of what to do for that lesson. In the end I got three students to come to the front, and everyone else to close their eyes and put their heads on their desks. I gave a candy to one of the students and told her to put it on another student’s desk. Then everyone opened their eyes. The student with a candy on her desk had to say ‘Someone left me a candy!’ and then guess who it was. The students loved it, for two reasons – the surprise element, and the candy.

It’s very helpful to repeat the same activities and games with different content, as your students will know the drill. There are so many resources online where you can find ideas for activities, so I won’t go into a lot of depth here. But here’s just a few that I like to use again and again:

1. Sleeping Elephants

This is a game played in teams of 4 and it’s a great way to get everybody participating. Each student on each team will have a number from 1-4. First, all students put their heads down on the table. You individually call each number, and all the students with that number will look up and memorise the word or statement on the screen. When all four numbers have been called, give the students some time to discuss, and then write their answer on their whiteboards. The link above is a really simple and excellent little template. This game is great for a lot of different language functions.

For example:

Giving directions: Each team has a copy of the same town map, with a designated starting point. Each time you call a number, show a part of the directions. You can make the directions simple (‘Turn left’) or complicated (‘Walk straight ahead for two blocks’) depending on your students’ level and the key expressions in the textbook. Ask the students to write the destination they arrived at on their whiteboards, then reveal the right answer and give points to the teams who got it.

Asking for and giving reasons: If you have to teach ‘Why’ and ‘Because’, Sleeping Sherlock works great. Think of some ‘Why’ questions and then think of four reasons for each question. One reason should make sense and the other three shouldn’t. Call the numbers and show a different reason for each number. When all of the students have seen a reason, show the question and allow the students some time to choose the correct one. For example:

  1. Because it’s his birthday tomorrow.
  2. Because it’s raining today.
  3. Because it’s her birthday on Saturday.
  4. Because I’m late for school.

Question: Why do you need to buy a present for your mom?

As you can see, the first reason is meant to confuse the students a little, while 2 and 4 should be quite easy to rule out. The type of reasons you give will depend on your students’ level, and you can always edit them after the first class if they are too easy or difficult.

2. Going backwards

I’m not sure where I first heard this idea, but I really love it because the students have to listen to each other in order to do well. Each team has an answer or solution, and they have to give hints so the other teams can guess what they have. To make it a little easier, it helps to leave a slide up with all of the possible answers. Again, it’s a versatile one. Here are some ways I’ve used it:

Practicing ‘You shouldn’t’: Show your students a series of pictures of places (school, a library, a plane, the park, the zoo etc), and ask the students what you shouldn’t do there. Give each team a card showing one of the places, and get them to write three sentences using ‘You shouldn’t’. Tell them not to let the other teams see their card. Ask each team to read their sentences, and then ask the other teams to guess the place on their whiteboards.

Giving job advice: Show your students a series of jobs, and ask them to give advice for each job. For example, ‘astronaut’ might elicit sentences like ‘It’s important to be brave’ and ‘You should study science’. Give each group a job card and ask them to write three pieces of advice for that job. Ask them to read the sentences, and then ask the other teams to guess the job.

3. Bring your home country into the classroom 

For lots of language functions, it’s good to use leaflets and other materials from your home country. When I had to practice ‘Let’s ~’ and ‘Why don’t we ~?’, I used a theme park leaflet from my country. When teaching ‘Would you like ~?’ and ‘Please try ~’, I used a menu from home. Always try to think of ways you can bring elements of your own country into the lesson, as this will really grab your students’ interest.

 4. Mingling activities 

Fair warning: Only do mingling activities if your students can be trusted not to run around and go crazy. In principle it’s great to get your students out of their seats but it can sometimes be chaotic, especially if your classes are really big. I like to do things where every student has a card and they have to ask questions to find their match. Again, this is a good one for problems and advice – you can give half of the class a problem card, and half of the class an advice card. The students mingle to find who has the advice to match their problem. If they think they’ve found their match, they can ask one of the teachers if they got the right answer.

5. Board games

Board games can be a tough one because you have to trust your students to actually play, rather than use it as an excuse to chat among themselves. Your text-book might have board games but if not, it should be easy enough to make your own, according to the language function you have to teach. Include surprise elements like ‘swap places with another player’.

6. Bomb games

You can find loads of bomb game templates on Waygook. They make my students go a bit crazy so I try to use them sparingly, usually just twice a semester for revision.


There are loads of ways to use videos. I really love to use the Just for Laughs pranks. Some aren’t suitable for kids, but there are plenty of good clean ones like the cellphone prank and ice-cream prank. I just show some stills to elicit vocabulary, write the vocabulary on the board, then ask the students to predict what they think will happen, based on the still pictures. Then we watch, and they write and perform the the role-play. Really simple and a lot of fun.

8. Hidden pictures

There are few instances when you will have every eye glued to the screen in concentration. Hidden pictures is one of them. You can find hidden picture games on Waygook, and just replace the pictures with your own. You can do these for pretty much any language function. For example, you might have to teach the expression ‘What do you want to do?’ And ‘I want to ~ (go hiking / go swimming / watch a movie etc). You could make a hidden pictures game featuring pictures of various activities. When a student thinks they know what activity is on the picture, they raise their hand and give their answer in the form of a full sentence, for example ‘I want to go swimming’.

9. Bingo 

If there’s one shared love among Korean kids and old people in western countries, it’s bingo.

There are two basic ways to play. The first is to print some blank bingo pages and have your students fill in the squares. You could do a pair and share (see point 6 under the heading ‘Your first textbook lesson’), where you give the students a set time to list as many words as they know relating to the theme, and then share with the class. You could also brainstorm as a class, having the students suggest words for you to write on the board. For example if your key expression is ‘Please try some ~ [cake / hamburgers / pizza etc] you could have the students name different foods. Whatever method you choose, once you have a selection of words on the board, hand out blank bingo cards and get the students to choose any 9 (3×3 bingo) or 16 (4×4 bingo) words from the board, and write them in their squares. Make sure the students are clear about what constitutes a ‘bingo’ – horizontal, vertical, diagonal etc.

The second way is to print your own bingo cards. Print-Bingo is a really handy site for this – it’s free, you can input your own words, and you can print up to 4 cards per page.

The best way to cross off the words is to have the students ask each other questions. For example, in a lesson about favourites, I went through a series of 9 slides, each with a different category (What is your favorite book? What is your favorite subject? etc). I told the students to write down their favorite in each category, in any square. Then I got a volunteer to pick another student and ask a question. For example, if the student says ‘Sumin, what is your favorite subject’ and Sumin says ‘My favorite subject is art’, then all the students who have ‘art’ on their bingo page cross off that box.

In another lesson about hobbies, I used Print Bingo to make 5X5 bingo cards, with a hobby in each square. The students took turns asking each other ‘What’s your hobby?’ and answering ‘I like [watching movies / playing computer games / shopping etc].’ If they found that hobby in their bingo card, they could cross it off.

When you play bingo, always leave a slide on the screen with 3 things – the basic question and answer structure, an example sentence and answer, and a picture to show what constitutes a bingo.

Surprise lessons and games

Occasionally you might have an extra class with a particular group, when you have already covered the text-book with them so you’re not sure what to do. You might also want to play non-textbook games with your students once in a while as a time-filler or a reward. Here’s a few ideas for both of those situations:

1. Pictionary 

Write down a list of words that are relatively easy to understand, but fairly difficult to draw and guess (it’s no fun if the word is ‘apple’ and the student’s turn takes 5 seconds). These could be things like ‘principal’, ‘K-Pop’, ‘university’, ‘summer’, ‘angry’ and so on. Print out the words, cut them out and put them into a cup. Ask a volunteer to randomly pick a word from the cup and then draw it. The student who guesses the right answer gets a reward and becomes the next player. The Game Gal has some good ideas for words.

2. Pantomime / charades 

I like to play this game just with actions. But rather than ‘running’, ‘swimming’ etc, make it a bit more difficult to guess. Use simple words but funny and convoluted actions, for example ‘Washing an elephant’, ‘Riding a roller coaster,’ ‘Finding a spider in your sandwich’ or ‘Feeding a baby’. Again, Print out the sentences, cut them out and put them into a cup. Ask a volunteer to randomly pick a word from the cup and then act it out. The student who guesses the right answer gets a reward and becomes the next player. Again, check out The Game Gal for some ideas.

3. What am I thinking about? 

I love this one because it requires absolutely zero prep and it’s a lot of fun. Ask a student to come to the front and tell you a word. It could be anything – a person, a food, a place etc. Once they have told you, they stand at the front and take questions from the class, for example ‘Is it a person?’ Remind the students to use full sentences, not just ‘Person?’ Remind them what has been established, for example ‘It’s a thing, it’s in this classroom, but it’s not a desk or chair’. Again, the person who guesses the right answer gets a reward and can have the next turn.

4. Music video judging 

This lesson involves watching three music videos and judging them on criteria like costumes, vocals and so on. It’s a really nice, relaxed one to do after exams.

5. Last one standing 

This music game is one I like to play as a warmer at the beginning of class, but you could play it for longer too. It’s incredibly simple and even the very low level students have a chance of winning.

6. Guess the idioms 

You might have to teach a text-book lesson on idioms but even if you don’t, it’s a fun extra lesson to do. Tell your students an idiom (using a picture if possible) and give them two or three options to guess what that it means. For example, you might use idiom ‘couch potato’ and ask them if it means a) hungry person, b) lazy person, or c) tired person. Give a point to each team that gets the right answer.

7. Compound words

Compound words are really good for a little warmer at the beginning of class, but you could do a whole quiz too. the simplest example is ‘foot’ and ‘ball’ (football), but you can make more complicated ones, such as a fire and a picture of someone working (firework). Give a point to each team that gets the right answer.

8. Apples to apples.

Even if you don’t know apples to apples, you probably know Cards Against Humanity. This is the same idea, but suitable for kids. This version on Wayook is great because it has pictures too. There’s a lot of printing and cutting of cards involved but it pays off. There are a couple of words that I would consider inappropriate, so just use your own judgement and leave out any cards you think aren’t suitable.

A few final tips

Model, model, model

When I first began teaching, I would explain an activity as clearly as I could, and then I would walk around to assist and monitor. Then I would realize that the students had the wrong idea altogether, and were doing something different to what I asked.

Rather than explaining, it makes so much more sense  to show them how to do it, usually by demonstrating with your co-teacher.

If you say ‘Do you understand?’ Your students will say ‘yes’, even if they actually have no idea what you’re on about. So ask comprehension check questions like ‘What question will you ask your partner?’ ‘What should you do when you’re finished?’ and so on.

Always ask questions

It might seem counterintuitive, since you’re a teacher and all, but you should be asking your students questions for the majority of the time. Standing there saying stuff will make you as useful as a white crayon. Your students will be so much more interested and engaged if you are constantly asking things (Where is she? What is she eating? What kind of cake is it?). Try to relate things back to them (What kind of cake do you like the most?). Always be on the lookout for opportunities to talk to your students about their own interests.

Write on the board a lot 

Your students will pick up a lot more if you write things down, rather than just telling them. I like to do a lot of spider plans (AKA mind maps). For example, one of the times when I taught ‘What’s your favorite ~?’, I made a spider plan with lots of categories like TV show, movie, hobby, book etc. I got the students to raise their hand and give their suggestions, and they used the ideas to make role-plays later on. I like doing this for two reasons. Firstly, when you write down what a student says on the board, that lets them know that what they said is important. It also makes life easier for lower level students – if they don’t have the vocabulary, they can just choose one of the options on the board.

Be flexible 

It happens to all of us. We make a lesson we think is the best thing ever, only for it to fall flat on its face. But you will most likely teach the same lesson several times, so if it sucks you’ll have to figure out what went wrong and fix it in time for the next class. All you can do is keep trying out new things, and trying to do a little bit better every time.

Get to know and love your students 

They might seem like horrible, scary monsters in the beginning, but each of your students is a unique person with his or her own interests and talents. Talk to them outside of class, learn about what they like and use those things in your lessons. Try really hard to learn their names and to remember little pieces of information about them. They will love you for it. Middle school students wear name tags so if you can read Korean it shouldn’t be too hard to learn at least a few of their names. Having fun with your students and getting to know them well will make your job so much better, and the they will behave much better in class.

And if you can’t see the light, just remember this…

You can do almost anything for a year

Most people end up really enjoying work, even if it’s tough at the beginning. But if your situation is truly awful, try to make the best of it and stick it out for the year. Do everything you can to make your work situation bearable and see some of the great things to be seen in Korea. Tell your friends and family how you’re feeling and get as much support as you can. Leave when your contract is finished, feeling like a proud and stronger person.

If you absolutely can’t stay, the right thing to do is give your notice and say goodbye. A midnight run is never the answer and your students don’t deserve it.

Any questions?

I hope this post will help some people out a little bit. Middle school is a lot of fun, you just have to learn to harness the madness. Have fun, don’t take things too seriously and don’t let work take over.

As I said before, I am definitely not an expert. But if there’s anything you think I might be able to help you with, don’t be afraid to get in touch :). Also if there are any other middle school teachers reading this, feel free to comment with your own tips!

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5 small struggles of being an Irish person in Korea

My apologies for the drought in blog posts over the past few months! My only explanation is that I have been doing other stuff and haven’t really been in the mood to blog. I did sometimes think ‘Maybe I should blog about doing things’. But it feels a bit like being in primary school and writing my ‘news’ every Monday morning. ‘Today is October 15th 1995. It is cloudy. We went out to buy a new toilet seat on Saturday. We had a roast chicken and watched The Waltons on Sunday’.

If I end up seeing or doing something particularly interesting I might write a post about it. But for now, here’s a few things that can make it hard to be an Irish person in Korea.

1. Our political setup makes everyone have kittens

When I had been in Korea for just a couple of months, I was required to go to an open class at another school so I could see a more experienced public school English teacher at work. The teacher in question happened to be from Belfast. Inspectors from the office of education were there too, and we exchanged some polite small talk before the class.

Inspector: Where are you from?

Me: I’m from Ireland.

Inspector: Oh, that’s unusual. We don’t have all that many teachers from Ireland.

Me: Yeah there’s not too many of us! But actually [Belfast teacher’s name] is from Ireland too.

Inspector: Oh really? I thought he told us he was British.

Me: [Awkwardly fumbles around, trying to explain].

As if that wasn’t awkward though, some Korean people think the UK is comprised of England, Scotland and Ireland (poor Wales just seems to fall under the radar entirely).

Every time a celebrity makes that particular faux pas, there is media-fueled outrage in Ireland. Waterford Whispers even made a tongue-in-cheek Guide To Overreacting When Someone Thinks Ireland Is Part Of The UK. It happens so often in Korea that you learn to just keep your pants on and explain the situation in a calm fashion.

Ireland and Korea actually have fairly similar histories, in terms of being colonised by our close and more powerful neighbours. So it might seem as though Koreans would understand and empathise with our situation, and many of them do. But there is also a lot of confusion, and I think these are just a couple of the reasons for that:

  • Northern Ireland: Many people find it confusing that it’s just six counties that are part of the UK.
  • Koreans know Irish people as English teachers, since that’s what most of us do here. While Korea has retained its own language, most Koreans have no idea of the existence of the Irish language, or other aspects of Irish culture and history that differentiate us.

To be fair the situation is pretty confusing, even for an Irish person. Source: Wikimedia

There is, however, a whole chapter in my school’s current text-book called Welcome to Belfast. It does a great job of describing some of the tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. But it doesn’t really do anything to provoke understanding of the political situation, as they just have Northern Ireland floating there like an island, severed from the republic. And hundreds of years of turmoil is summarised as ‘bad relationships between local people’. I know they have to be concise but that just makes it sound like someone was cutting their grass too early on a Sunday morning or leaving their wheelie bin out for too long.


2. … And sometimes people think we’re from Iceland 

Korean person: Where are you from?

Me: Ireland

Korean person: Iceland?

Me: No, Ireland

Korean person: *Puzzled expression*

Me: It’s close to England.

Korean person: Ah, Ireland!

Who would have thought that Iceland is more to the forefront of the collective Korean consciousness than Ireland? And are there also Icelandic people the length and breath of  Korea, sighing because yet another taxi driver has mistaken them for an Irish person?

Having said that, some people do surprise you with how much they know about Ireland, especially in terms of cultural commodities. People have mentioned everything from Dracula author Brahm Stoker, to soccer player Roy Keane, to the Glen Hansard musical Once.

There are also a huge amount of popular Irish Actors and musicians that people don’t actually realise are Irish. Often the conversation will go like this:

Korean person: I don’t know any famous people from Ireland.

Me: Do you know Hozier / The Script / Westlife / Michael Fassbender/ Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell etc.

Korean person: Oh yes! But they are American, no?

Me: (.﹒︣︿﹒︣.)

3. Nobody knows what we’re on about

Technically this one really applies to anyone living in Korea who isn’t from North America, as teaching English here without a North American accent poses a few challenges. American English is often considered to be the standard, to the extent that some Hagwons (private academies) only people from North America.

My accent doesn’t cause a lot of problems when teaching, though I do have to be careful saying words like ‘money’, ‘bus’ and ‘fun’ because of the extreme ‘U’ sound with the Irish accent. But in my opinion the Irish accent isn’t a bad one for EFL learners because we we tend to emphasise our ‘T’s more than Americans and our ‘R’s more than English people. Take the word ‘internet’:

North America: In-er-net.

England: In-teh-net.

Ireland: In-ter-net.

Of course this is a massive generalisation since there are so many different ways of pronouncing words within all of those countries.

Becoming friends with people from different English speaking countries here has also made me realise that the Irish brand of English is very idiomatic and a bit nuts. There are so many expressions I just presumed all English speakers say, until the blank faces of my friends from other countries told me otherwise. Only Irish people talk about putting things on the ‘long finger’, for example. (For any non-Irish readers, that means postponing something for a long time). One of my American friends suggested someone should invent a translation App to help everyone else to understand Irish people, and I think she’s right.

4. We can’t get (much) of the good stuff 

This one really applies to Irish people living in most non-Western countries. I’m led to believe that if you live in a place with a higher concentration of Irish people, like Australia for example, you can find a certain amount of familiar products in the supermarkets. In Korea though, Irish food products are few and far between.

Not only that, but other western countries are likely to have more similar  eating habits to us, so getting good quality familiar-ish food isn’t that hard. But here many restaurants adapt western food to suit Korean palates, which is fair enough since it is Korea. Sometimes the results can be amazing, like the whimsical and creative world of Korean style pizza. But I don’t like my garlic bread doused in sugar or tomatoes in my fruit salad, thanks very much and all. The Korean staff at my school are often shocked when I ignore the ‘western’ element of the school lunch and just eat Korean food. ‘But Clare, don’t you like this delicious salad of lettuce, overcooked pasta, bacon, raisins and chopped apples doused in thousand island dressing?’

It can also be hard to find the products that we consider basics in the western world. In the little corner shop near my apartment I can buy about 10 varieties of dried seaweed, but for a block of cheddar cheese I have to go to the big Home Plus (Tesco), and pay a princely sum. Other things can’t be found at all, like a good hearty loaf of brown bread or butter that doesn’t taste like shite. Side note: Why does butter taste terrible in every country apart from Ireland?

I honestly love Korean food and I’m going to miss it like crazy when I go home. But sometimes you just want to eat something comforting and familiar. Thankfully my folks are very good at sending stuff, otherwise life would be pretty difficult!

5. We are forced to be pedantic every time someone says ‘Innisfree’ wrong

Believe it or not, there is a very popular chain of beauty shops in Korea named after the fictional island in Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree. It’s actually quite a decent shop, but everyone fails to pronounce the ‘sh’ sound at the end of ‘Innis’. Obviously it’s not their fault, but I can’t help wincing when it happens. Even worse, there is no ‘f’ sound in the Korean alphabet so sometimes Koreans will talk about going to ‘Innis-pree’. The humanity!

All of this means I’m forced to correct people and then bore them by going on about the poetry of W.B Yeats.

In all seriousness though, it is an absolutely gorgeous poem. If you don’t know it, it’s about escaping to a peaceful place in nature – totally relatable if you live amongst all the madness in a big city in Korea.


Innisfree, one of Korea’s post popular beauty shops. Source: Fashion Daily

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Five sentences that only make sense in Korea

Language tells us so much about a culture. Just for fun, here are five sentences that  can provide little snapshots of Korea.

1. I’m in the mood for a nice bit of Chimek

Sometimes I play a game with my students, where one student thinks of a word and the others have to try to guess what it is. This was the shortest ever game:

Student 1: Is it a food?

Student 2: Yes.

Student 1: Is it chicken?

Student 2: Yes.

If you’ve never been to Korea, it might surprise you to hear that Koreans are absolutely nuts about fried chicken. It doesn’t really seem like a very Korean thing to eat, but it’s incredibly popular.

Chimek (치맥) is a combination of the English word ‘Chicken’ and the Korean word ‘Mekju’, meaning beer. So chimek refers to the glorious combination of chicken and big jugs of beer. Restaurants serving this combination are everywhere in Korea.

Just like pretty much all food in Korea, chicken is adjusted for Korean palates. Often it is served with ddeok, a Korean rice cake, as well as any number of weird and wonderful flavourings and sauces.

I regularly come home to find a promotional fried chicken magnets on my apartment door.

Photo Collage Maker_uWOhGg

Korean style chicken with ddeok (bottom) and some of the many chicken restaurant promotional magnets I’ve found on my apartment door (top).

2. Can I have your Kakao ID? 

When you move to Korea, there are a few essential things you must do. These include getting your Alien Registration Card, signing up for a phone contract, getting a bank account and downloading KakaoTalk.

KakaoTalk is pretty much the Viber of Korea except that it’s even more popular, has more functions and is really wacky. A huge 93% of Koreans use KakaoTalk on their smartphones.

Among the foreign community it’s pretty much just a communication tool, with the added bonus of being able to send a character with an ass for a head to your friends and call them with an hilarious cat voice. But there are lots of other features that I can’t be bothered with, like playing games against friends and getting special offers from various brands.

My favourite thing about KakaoTalk is the emoticons because they are absolutely nuts and there seems to be one for every situation. They are so culturally prevalent that they feature on merchandise – for example, several of my students adorn their school bags with keyrings of the aforementioned ass head.

I also find it amusing that when people flirt in Korea, instead of asking ‘Can I have your number?’ they say ‘Can I have your Kakao ID?’

KakaoTalk emoticons, including the famous ass head, or ‘apeach’. Source: honeybearsweetiepie 

4. Lets gawi-bawi-bo for it

Gawi-bawi-bo (가위 바위 보), meaning scissors-rock-cloth, is the Korean version of rock-paper-scissors.

Rock-paper-scissors is popular in many countries but in Korea it seems to be the standard way to make every type of decision.

Who should go first in a game? Gawi-bawi-bo. Who should get the last bit of Gimbap? Gawai-bawi-bow. Actually, it really wouldn’t surprise me if I heard an important political decision was made in the Korean parliament using gawi-bawi-bo.

Gawi-bawi-bo has even become absorbed into the foreigner community. When in Korea, make decisions as the Koreans do!

Scissors rock cloth (가위 바위 보) Source: Ilbe

4. The chips were service

Ah, glorious service. A wonderful Korean phenomenon where someone hands you something for free and says “Service!”

Service comes in many forms. In restaurants, it’s not uncommon to be given soft drinks or side dishes for service. In beauty shops they will often throw free samples into your bag, which are really handy for travelling or using at the gym. There’s never any need to buy tissues, wet wipes or hand fans in Korea, because promotional versions of these things will be handed to you on the street on a regular basis.

In supermarkets, random items will often be sellotaped to other items. Why buy one brand of milk when the other brand has a free yogurt drink sellotaped to it?

But perhaps the weirdest form of service is the huge packs of toilet paper that can be seen outside many phone shops. Sign up for this two year phone contract, it comes with 32 rolls of toilet paper!


Some of the things I have accrued for ‘service’: beauty products, sun cream, hand fans and tissues. As the picture shows, promotional tissues can advertise a really wide range of things – from Soju to churches!

5: My co-teacher dropped a ‘maybe’ 

Like many Asian countries, Korea is a high-context culture. This means that communication is indirect and words cannot always be taken at face value. To understand communication, you need to look towards the culture as a whole.

When a Korean colleague says “maybe” something will happen, this tends to mean it will definitely happen. And if they say you “should” do something, this means you have to. So if a Korean colleague says “Maybe there will be a staff dinner tomorrow and you should come”, this means “There is a staff dinner tomorrow and you have to come”.

Living in a high context culture with very little knowledge of that context can be very difficult. It doesn’t take much to upset a Korean person because you were supposed to infer something even though they didn’t directly say it, or because they inferred something from your words or actions, that you didn’t mean at all.

I managed to deeply offend a Korean friend when she asked what kind of restaurant I wanted to go to and I said I didn’t mind. When she suggested a pasta restaurant and I said it looked a bit expensive, my friend was silently fuming. It turned out that when I said “I don’t mind”, she inferred that I was giving her the full responsibility to choose the restaurant, and then went back on my word by moaning about money. And because Koreans are not big on talking about things openly, it was a long time before I learned what a boo-boo I’d made.

Another Korean friend assured me that a lot of the time even Korean people have trouble figuring out one another’s meaning and get their wires crossed easily. So it’s not just us dumb ass foreigners.

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Ireland vs. Korea: Weddings!

Even though I have difficulty picturing myself getting married (any time soon at least) I am a huge fan of weddings. The excitement, the romance, and most important of all, the cake. So when I was invited to the wedding of a Korean friend, there was no way I could say no.

If you want to learn about traditional Korean weddings, this is a really interesting post by a western woman who married a Korean man in a traditional ceremony.  However, like most Korean couples these days, my friend had a Koreanised version of a western wedding, so that’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.

It might strike you as a bit impersonal, but most Korean couples choose to marry in a wedding hall that can cater to several weddings in one day, often with more than one wedding sharing the same buffet dinner. If you consider the population density, and therefore the amount of couples getting married, it’s not surprising that using the facilities of a hotel or a country house for the day isn’t within the price range of most couples.

The turn around between getting engaged and getting married is also much faster in Korea. While Irish couples usually have to book their venue at least a year in advance, my Korean friend got married less than four months after getting engaged. 

The invite

In Ireland it’s pretty standard to be sent a wedding invitation that will tell you whether you’re invited to the full shebang or just the afters, and whether you can bring a guest. You then RSVP so the bride and groom can have an accurate idea of numbers.

My friend told myself and another Korean friend about her impeding nuptials over a Vietnamese dinner one day. After all the initial congratulations and excited noises, my friend said ‘Clare, we can go together!’ I was mortified, and wanted to say ‘Would you hold your horses, we haven’t been invited yet!’ However it turns out that in Korea merely telling someone you are getting married is as good as inviting them. A head count isn’t required and Korean couples like to have a lot of people at their wedding, for reasons that will become clear later in this post. 

My friend later sent me an online wedding announcement which included the time and location of the wedding, and the wedding photographs. Yes, the wedding photographs were on the announcement. Korean couples have a wedding photo shoot well in advance of the wedding. My friend told me that this is so there is plenty of time to Photoshop the pictures and use them in the online announcement, as well as displaying enlarged photographs at the wedding itself.

The photos were taken in a studio and also infront of the Gwangalli Bridge, a famous Busan landmark and a popular background for wedding photo shoots. My friend wore five different wedding dresses (all white), while her husband rocked the same tuxedo in each picture. There was also one photograph featuring traditional Korean dress known as Hanbok, as well as some shots  of the bride and groom in casual but well coordinated outfits, looking like a pair of models in a fashion catalogue.

 The automatically translated invitation also contained this beautiful verse: 

Pulkkot profound fragrance under the spring sunshine
to parties signed a pair of young love ties.
Two people close to starting a new life
highs, please bless this bliss.

The service

In Ireland you don your fanciest clothes, go to the location of the service (usually a Catholic church) and settle in for a solemn but happy affair.  The groom stands at the top with his groomsmen and then the bride (usually fashionably late) walks down the  aisle with her father, followed by the bridesmaids. There is music, poems and readings, they exchange vows, throw the rings on and sign the marriage document. Everyone listens quietly and patiently, and a few happy tears might be shed. 

Pretty much everything was different at the Korean service I attended. It was a non-religious service and took place on the 23rd floor of a building in town. 

As for attire, there wasn’t a fascinator or a six inch heel in sight. Some people were a bit fancy, but most people were dressed smart casual. There were even few people in jeans and t-shirts. 

Just outside the room where the service was going on, there was a desk with lots of white envelopes. In Korea people generally don’t give wedding gifts, just cash. There are different recommended amounts that depend on your relationship with the person getting married. You simply put your cash in the envelope and then write your own name (not theirs!) on the outside; you don’t even include a card. You then stand in a queue to hand in your envelope of cash, and in return you are handed a ticket for the buffet. So essentially you are paying for your meal. I know this whole idea will horrify a lot of people but it does ease the financial burden on the bride and groom and it means no stressing about what to buy the couple. 

In another room my friend was sitting on a beautiful ornate couch in her white dress, looking like the queen of everything. We joined another queue, this time to have our picture taken with the bride.

The first people to walk up the aisle were the mothers of the bride and groom, and they were also the only people wearing Korean Hanbok. The groom followed behind them, and the bride came in a few minutes later. The whole ceremony lasted less than 30 minutes, and the only very Korean element I noticed was when the bride and groom bowed to both sets of parents. 

There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen, and I’ve heard it just isn’t something they do in Korea. Sitting quietly and listening are also not big traits of Korean culture, and everyone was just talking loudly throughout the entire thing. 

Along with the loud chatter, there were also many fancy things going on with spotlights. Altogether it feel a bit more like a disco than the lifelong commitment of two people. But that’s the way they do it in Korea and it works for them so forgive me if I sound like a Judgemental Judy! 

One thing that really surprised me in a good way was that the groom’s high school students were not only in attendance at the ceremony, but also part of it, as they performed a very cute little song and dance. The groom happens to be in a rock band, and they also performed a song. Then there was the cutting of the cake, with an enormous knife that looked more like a samurai sword. I was surprised that all of these things took place at the ceremony, as in Ireland those kinds of things take place at the reception. However since the ceremony is the only part of the wedding that exclusively for the guests of that particular wedding, it makes practical sense to have those personal touches at the ceremony itself. 

The afters

In Ireland the bride and groom go off to have their photo shoot in some nice scenic location while the guests go to the reception (usually at a hotel), to have a few drinks and socialise. When the bride and groom come back everyone has dinner, followed by a live band, followed by a DJ until the early hours.

By very stark contrast, the afters at my friends’ wedding was a lunch in a massive buffet hall in the basement of the building. I’ve been to quite a few staff dinners at buffets and the wedding buffet wasn’t much different to those. There was an enormous variety of food, from pizza and potato wedges to sushi. We loaded up our plates and found a space to sit down. The drinks on the table were Soju (a Korean liquor similar to vodka), Cass (the cheapest Korean beer) and ‘Cider’ (essentially Sprite).

There was a distinct lack of any wedding cake and when I asked my friend about this, she said the cutting of the cake is actually just for show. Honest to God. I’m not sure if they go and patch up the cake and then use if for the next couple, but there is definitely no wedding cake for the guests. 

Short, sweet, efficient

Attending a wedding in Ireland usually takes up your entire day, and the next day will probably be a write off too because of the hangover. In Korea you can attend a full wedding in about two hours, and then go about the rest of your day. 

When you’ve only experienced those long, grandiose Irish weddings, a Korean wedding can feel a bit contrived and impersonal. There’s the cash gift, the noisy ceremony, the pretend cake cutting and the sharing a buffet with other weddings. But Irish couples spend massive sums of money on getting married, while I would hazard a guess that it’s possible to actually make money at Korean wedding, if you invite enough people and get enough of those white envelopes. And it definitely is possible to give a Korean wedding some nice personal touches, like the students’ performance at my friends’ wedding.

Everyone is different, and everyone wants different things from their wedding, so I don’t think it’s fair to say any one type of wedding is the best. I’ve never fantasised about my dream wedding, but I do know one thing for sure – If I ever do get married and someone decides to talk through the ceremony, they will be promptly asked to get out! 

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Six things I noticed when I went back to Ireland

My body clock said 5am, but it was 6pm in London. I was at Heathrow Airport, about to take the last leg in my three flight, 20 hour odyssey from Busan to Dublin.

I had eye bags that should have been checked into the aircraft hold, and a stupid grin on my face. I arrived at the boarding gate and did nothing for a solid hour but sit and listen to the Irish accents around me. I must have been a weird sight, but I was too tired and happy to care.

There was a gang of lads on their way home from a rugby match, plenty of young professional types and a few families with kids. They were the kind of people who hop over to London and back regularly, and were far too relaxed for my liking. I wanted there to be a sense of occasion, so that my surroundings would mirror how I was feeling. I wanted to tell everyone that I was about to have my first hug from my mammy in a year. But I just kept grinning like an idiot.

In Dublin I took my luggage off the conveyor belt and found a mirror to stare into, trying for something like composure. It turned out to be pointless. I walked through those doors and saw my mother and sister standing there with Valentines Day balloons (it happened to be the 14th), and I only managed to say ‘mum’ before bursting into tears.

Over the next fortnight I stuffed my face with all the food I’d missed, caught up with friends and family, and met all the babies who were inconsiderate enough to arrive while I was out of the country. There were nights out and nights in, trips down to the wilds of West Cork and up to the Big Smoke of Dublin.

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Some pictures from my time in Ireland (including a belated Christmas dinner).

There were moments when it felt like I never left Ireland, and moments when I wondered if I had really only been gone a year. The latter is what I want to focus about in the rest of this post – the times when I realised my ‘normal’ had changed, and I was looking at Ireland through a different lens than before.

1. Everything looks so different

On the way home from Dublin Airport, the first thing that struck me was how flat everything looks in Ireland, and how much sky you can see. Korea is very mountainous so there is very limited flat land on which to build. I had gotten used to looking up at mountains, tall buildings, and even tall buildings on mountainsides.

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Ireland’s gentle slopes compared with Korea’s mountainous landscape.

Orientating yourself is also very different in both countries. I had a new appreciation for being able to get into a taxi and say ‘number 30 X road’ rather than ‘It’s on the green line between X and Y subway station, on the right hand side just after the Angel-in-us and before the Baskin Robbins’. In Korea the streets don’t have names so places are described by way of subway stations and landmarks.

Another thing that that struck me is how much easier it is to find shops and businesses in Ireland because most things are on the ground floor. In Korea you’ll hear about a great new restaurant on the 7th floor of a building, so you walk down the street craning your neck as you try to find the sign without bumping into anyone.

I also found Ireland to be a lot cleaner than I remembered. In Korea rubbish bins are pretty much non-existent in public places and you are expected to hang on to things until you get home, which is too much for a lot of people. As well as this, the normal way of distributing businesses cards in Korea is to ride and scooter down the road and throw them in every direction (the first time a business card comes flying in your face is a bit disconcerting). So the pavements are littered with those godforsaken business cards, as well as disposable coffee cups and food wrappers. I know Ireland has its problems with litter but it could be a lot worse.

I also noticed that Irish streets looked very neat and almost monochrome in comparison with the neon and clutter of Korea. It was nice not to have to navigate around such obstacles as old women crouched on the ground selling fruit and vegetables, waving inflatable men, and people shoving leaflets in your face. Ireland’s streets are easier to traverse but there is certainly a lot more to look at in Korea.

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Grafton street in Dublin (top) and Seomyeon in Busan (bottom).

2. Korea has changed me

You spend months learning how to come across as a polite person around Koreans. You try to consciously remember a whole range of etiquette until it becomes second nature. Always poor others’ drinks and allow them to pour yours. Share food. Give and accept things with both hands. Bow with your whole back; a nod isn’t a small bow. And for the love of god, don’t walk into someone’s house before taking off your shoes.

Even though I still make plenty of faux pas in Korea, it wasn’t until I saw myself through puzzled Irish eyes that I realised how many Korean mannerisms I have adopted. The first instance was when I was stocking up on Dunnes Stores knickers and handed the cashier my tenner with both hands. There were several after that. I even found myself getting irked by people walking inside with their shoes on, even if it was their house and I was a guest.

I think this video definitely captures what it’s like to experience this aspect of reverse culture shock and it’s pretty hilarious too:

3. People talk an awful lot of shite

I say ‘people’ because I don’t just mean Irish people. I’m sure Koreans talk a lot of shite too, but the difference is that when I go about my business in Korea I’m unable to understand most of what’s being said around me. It’s all just background hum, so I spend a lot of time either in my own thoughts or absorbing things around me through my other senses.

Suddenly regaining the power to eavesdrop was a shock. No matter how dull the conversation, I found myself unable to tune out. Concentrating on a book or magazine became impossible.

Korea definitely makes me a more reflective person, but mostly because I can’t sit back back and listen to the gossip about who shifted who at the weekend.

4. Irish lads are the loveliest lads in the Lovely Irish Lads Competition

(Please brace yourself for a moment of extreme shallowness.)

Asian men are rarely the protagonists in Hollywood movies. When cast at all, they are often just the comic relief (that dude in The Hangover?). The media don’t expose us to a lot of handsome Asian men, so I was surprised when I came to Korea and saw absolute crackers everywhere I went.

In Korea, ideas of masculinity are very different to in Ireland. This is an ridiculous generalisation, but Korean men tend to put a lot effort into how they present themselves, they care about style and are very well groomed, whereas Irish men tend to be handsome in an effortless, rough-around-the-edges way.

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Different ideals of masculinity – TOP from K-Pop group Big Bang on the left, and Irish musician Hozier on the right.

I became so accustomed to Korean ideals of masculinity (partly under the influence of the middle school girls I teach) that I forgot about all the ride-bags in Ireland. When I came home I noticed them all over again.

If I am ever in a position of having to explain homeostasis to someone, I’ll tell them about the time I left Ireland for Korea and my perception of attractiveness adjusted to my new surroundings.

5. Irish drivers are actually pretty sound

How bad is the driving in Korea? So bad that when I came came back to Ireland and stood at a zebra crossing and the cars actually stopped to let me cross the road, I inwardly squealed.

If they think they can get away with it, many drivers in Korea will break red lights, park like assholes and ignore the rules of the road in general. The footpath isn’t safe either – scooters, most of them delivering fast food, speed down the pavements and endanger everyone from toddlers to old people.

Eat your Kimchi did a pretty good run-down a while ago:

South Korea is near the bottom in terms of traffic safety among the OECD countries. Adjusted for population size, 3.2 times as many people die on Korean roads than Irish roads every year. The problems stem from very lax law enforcement, the power of the big car companies like Kia and Hyundai, and how ridiculously easy it is to get a driving licence.

After living negotiating the chaos of Korean roads for a year, the roads in Ireland seemed unbelievably safe and orderly. I know we have our problems, but at least you have to get actual lessons before your test, and the laws are enforced for the most part. In Ireland you can even ride a bicycle relatively safely, something I have only ever done in the safe confines of a park in Korea.

6. Standing out is hard to do

When I first came to Korea I would see another white person on the subway and think ‘Wow, he/she stands out like a sore thumb’. Then I realised that I must look like that too. Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, so as a foreigner (particularly one with light-coloured hair) looking different is a part of life.

But it’s not just looking different, it’s feeling different too. I take on the helpless child role whenever I have to ask Korean friends for help with things I could easily do back home – banking, phone contracts, doctor visits and so on. I work at a place where I am the only non-Korean out of about 750 people. I’m the one who can’t properly take part in conversations or understand announcements.

I am a person with thoughts and opinions, but due to my limited Korean, I can often portray little more than my ethnicity.

When I came back to Ireland, I appreciated being seen as just a person, rather than a white person. I enjoyed every moment of polite small talk, as well as being able to ask for something in a shop or order from a menu without any struggle at all. It even felt wonderful to speak our gloriously weird Irish brand of English. It was really the sense of belonging and feeling normal that I was basking in.

Without a doubt, teaching in Korea is a very privileged life. For the most part we are respected and regarded with interest. So I know my experience is different to that of many foreigners living in Ireland. But as I walked the streets of Dublin in February, I saw people of various races in a different way than I had a year before. I could finally understand what is to be outsider looking in, to constantly encounter reminders that you are different.

Back in the land of the rising sun…

They say that when you leave home for an extended time, you can develop an idealised picture that doesn’t match up to reality. But I can honestly say that I didn’t experience this at all. Ireland has its flaws and a lot of problems to sort out but it’s home. So coming back to Korea wasn’t easy (and not just for the reasons outlined in the previous post!), and I wondered if I’d made the right decision.

But I know that eventually all the trips, nights out and catching up with friends would subside and I would have to try to find a job and figure out real life. That’s something I’m not ready to do just yet. So Ireland, I love you and I will be back. Just not yet.

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The never ending journey: Ireland to Korea in 10 million hours

My granny used to say that everything that happens in life is ‘grist for the mill’. With that in mind, I decided to use my eventful trip from Dublin to Busan last weekend as material for this blog post.

This is a story of mental anguish, physical pain, and paranoid thoughts of death and destruction. But don’t let that put you off, there’s some good stuff in there too.

It all started last Saturday morning in Dublin airport. Barely functional after four hours sleep, and emotional about saying goodbye to my family for another year, I arrived with my ticket. Dublin-London-Tokyo-Busan. Three flights, all on one ticket purchased for the princely sum of €960 on The main flight (London to Tokyo) was a British Airways premium economy seat and included a big luggage allowance of two bags at 23kg each. I had emailed to make sure I would be able to check my bags in to their final destination and receive the big allowance on all three flights, and was assured it would be fine. Two weeks previously I had checked my bags in at Busan and collected them off the conveyor belt in Dublin. I had no reason to think anything could go wrong.

I arrived at the Aer Lingus desk and showed the staff member my ticket. She looked puzzled and then went to speak to a manager. ‘You can only check in as far as London’, she told me when she came back. ‘After that you will have to collect your bags yourself and lug them from Terminal 2 to Terminal 5. Oh, and that’ll be €10 for every kilogram over Aer Lingus’ 20kg allowance. Over €200 please and thank you.’ (I may have paraphrased a bit there). She told me that Aer Lingus would not check my bags past their own flight because then they would become liable if anything happened to them along the way. I told her I had paid a lot of money for a through ticket with a big luggage allowance, that I didn’t have the extra money, that I live in Korea and needed to bring back a lot of things, and I didn’t know if I would have enough time to bring my bags to the other terminal. Her response was essentially ‘not my problem’, even as I burst into tears in front of her.

I asked to speak to a manager, who agreed to waive the excess luggage fee but insisted I had to collect my bags. There was only 1 hour and 40 minutes between the flights, but she said would make it. I asked her if there was a shuttle bus I could catch and she said there was.

Both Aer Lingus staff members were unsympathetic and downright rude. They treated me as a problem to be got rid of, rather than a human being.

I said goodbye to my worried family. I would have cried anyway, but the stress and uncertainty added to the pain of saying goodbye and I was in floods of tears.

I went through security red faced, puffy eyed and fighting back tears. ‘That’s the wrong bag’, the security guard said as I put a small freezer bag with my liquids on the tray. I mumbled ‘Sorry, I didn’t know.’ ‘It’s on all the signs and it’s the same in every airport’, he said crossly. ‘You don’t have to be so rude about it’, said Clare Hartwieg, lifelong dodger of confrontation. ‘You said you didn’t know so I’m just telling you’, he replied, taken aback. ‘Yeah well there’s a nice way to say things and a not nice way. I’m having a really bad day and you’re not helping’.

In my head I re imagine my conversation with the security guard. I say to him:

‘You’re dealing with people in sensitive situations, people leaving their families for a long time and traveling to funerals and God only knows what else. Have a bit of cop on and just be nice to people. Your nastiness could be the last straw for someone.’

As the plane approached London, we began swooping down only to suddenly swoop back up again. Another plane down below had a technical problem so we circled over the airport for a while before landing.

I waited at the luggage carousel and looked at my watch. one hour, 15 minutes left. Then, loaded like a packhorse with well over 50kg of luggage (a big rucksack, a big suitcase, a carry on rucksack and a handbag), I followed the signs for Terminal 5. In the lift an American tourist, complete with fanny pack and London Underground map, asked me ‘Is Paddington the downtown area?’ I wanted to tell him to fuck off but managed a polite ‘I don’t live in London, I’m sorry’.

A sweaty trek along seemingly endless travelators, to an underground train station. The sign said 10 minutes until the next train. I cursed the Aer Lingus manager who had let me believe I could catch a quick shuttle bus.

I finally made it, huffing and puffing and red faced, to Terminal 5. There was only 30 minutes until take-off. I found a British Airways staff member and told her I was worried about missing the flight, and was there any way I could be rushed through? ‘There’s not enough time, you’ve missed it’, she told me. Tears again. The woman was baffled by my situation. ‘Did you definitely tell Aer Lingus you have a connecting flight in London?’

I was brought to a desk where another BA staff member called Aer Lingus in Terminal 2. ‘I have a lady here who’s missed her flight to Tokyo. The reason she missed her flight is because the ground staff in Dublin refused to let her check her bags through. She’s a young lady on her own and she’s very upset about this. I hope you’ll put her on another flight and look after her in the meantime.’ He came out from behind his desk, helped me to turn my trolley around and asked me, with genuine sympathy, if I’d be okay. After the two unpleasant Aer Lingus staff members, his kindness was a relief.

I sat down to calm myself before making the long trek back to the Aer Lingus desk in Terminal 2. There, I was offered two choices: A hotel tonight and the same flight tomorrow, or a flight at 9pm tonight with an 8 hour layover in Bangkok. Desperate to get the hell out of Heathrow and put my head down, I went with the first option. I wouldn’t arrive until 1pm on Monday, meaning I would miss the first day of the new school year. In Korea, missing work for any reason is like walking down Grafton Street in your bra and knickers; you just don’t do it.

At the hotel I enjoyed a bath, a three course meal and He’s just not that into you in high definition. I was tempted to go out and see the sights for a couple of hours, but in the end heeded my mother’s advice to ‘Go to bed, cover your head and don’t get up till the morning’.

After taking full advantage of the hotel breakfast buffet, I arrived at the airport a cautious three hours before my flight. I was greeted with the news that Aer Lingus booked me in the wrong class with the wrong luggage allowance. Those scamps. With the mess sorted out, I boarded the plane which then stood on the runway for nearly an hour. The pilot announced that the delay was due to the engineers trying (and ultimately failing) to put the new movies for March on the system. Because people want to watch the latest movie releases more than they want to get to their destination in a timely manner.

Two thirds of the way into Men, Women and Children, it occurred to me that if the flight was late leaving London, it might be late arriving in Tokyo, and I might miss my connection to Busan.

After getting off the plane I found a ground staff member standing with a sign bearing my name and those of two other passengers. Myself and another passenger, a 12 foot tall Norwegian man, waited while he shouted for a ‘Ms. Lee’ who didn’t show up. I queried whether Min-su Lee could be a man, as Min-su is a man’s name in Korea. ‘Mr. Lee. Whoops.’ He temporarily abandoned the search for poor Min-su and told us we had missed the connection to Busan and would be put on another flight – in eight hours’ time. ‘Oh right. Another thing has gone wrong’, I said to myself. It was difficult to register any emotion about the whole thing.

I was given a new boarding pass and an invitation to the Japan Airlines Sakura lounge. A smiling lady gave me a map showing the restaurant, bar, private showers, private sleeping rooms, massage parlour, business lounge and so on. ‘So do I have to pay for things?’ I asked. ‘No, it’s all free’.

For a while I basked. I sipped wine and Irish coffees and watched the planes. I had a hot shower and a full body massage. I stuffed my face with delicious Japanese food, and then I stuffed my face some more. ‘I could happily live out the rest of my days here,’ I thought.

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Some luxury at the JAL Sakura lounge in Tokyo

Then I was overcome by a tiredness that alcohol and sugar couldn’t help. By the time I boarded the flight to Busan I hadn’t slept in almost 30 hours. The shakes were setting in, as well as paranoia. I checked my pulse. 108 beats per minute. Surely that’s not normal? My stomach feels sick. What if I puke? Or faint? Everything has gone wrong up until now, what if the grand finale in this messed up trip is a horrible plane crash? I’m only 26 and I’ve done barely anything with my life. What would my obituary even say? I started to cry silently, hoping nobody around me would notice. I cried about Aer Lingus. I cried about having to work at 8.30am the next day. I cried because I was such an embarrassment crying about everything all the time.

I never thought it could feel so good to be back in Busan. I had longed for it, craved it, fantasised about it throughout those 50+ hours since leaving Dublin. A taxi driver with little interest in the rules of the road brought me to my little apartment. I ate a packet of Monster Munch and went to sleep; the strongly worded letter to Aer Lingus could wait until the morning.

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Everything you need to know about packing for Korea

This post is inspired by a chat I recently had with someone who is moving from Ireland to Korea next month, about what’s available in Korea and what she should bring from home.

Unfortunately she was just as confused as I was when I was preparing to come to Korea, because there is so much conflicting information online. I would hate for anyone to spend a fortune on excess baggage charges to bring over load of stuff you can get easily and cheaply in Korea. That’s why I decided to make this little guide (and also because I’m desk-warming* and very bored).

I’ve put each item in bold letters so if you don’t want to read the whole thing you should easily be able to scan through and find information on the things you’re most curious about. I’ve also included some shopping links and resources that I’ve found useful.

1. Clothing and footwear 

This is an area a lot of people have concerns about, especially those who are a little bigger or taller.

I’m not really in a position to comment about men’s clothes, but I would estimate that if you wear above a size large or are very tall, you should bring plenty of clothes from home. Focus on bringing things that don’t have a lot of give, like trousers, shirts and jackets. Hoodies and t-shirts should be less of a problem for the bigger-boned gentleman to find.

Now, on women’s clothes. A lot of the style in Korea is what you might call ‘frumpy chic’, so there are plenty of loose tops and dresses that can accommodate many body types. Just tuck your top into your skirt or throw a belt around your dress if you don’t want to look like a house. However, if you’re above a UK size 14 and you prefer fitted clothes to loose ones, Korean shops will be a pain in the ass and you should take plenty of clothes from home. It’s also important to note that if you wear bras over a C cup, you won’t find any sufficient over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders in Korea. Again, stock up before you come. 

If you’re into your high-street brands, in Busan there is H&M and Zara but not a whole lot else. Both are also a bit more expensive than back home. You will find many more international brands, as well as clothes for bigger people, in Seoul, and in particular the Itaewon area. Make sure to also look out for Uniclo, a Japanese brand that is everywhere in Korea and very popular among foreigners.

The big international clothing brands can be found in the shopping streets and the more upmarket shopping centres. This is H&M in Seomyeon, Busan. It’s exactly like H&M back home, but with more Koreans. 

As for shoes, if you’re a woman who takes a UK size 6 or under, or a man who takes a 10 or under, the glorious and often amusing world of Korean shoe shops is yours to enjoy. However if your feet are bigger than that you should definitely bring some shoes along or else prepare for a few Itaewon trips. Don’t just bring your ‘good shoes’ and runners – you will most definitely also need a pair to wear in work. These are indoor shoes but I wouldn’t go as far as to call them slippers. Most of my colleagues wear some kind of sandals with socks, which is definitely not uncool in Korea (indoors at least). I just wear a pair of light ballerina flats.

If you’re lucky enough to fit into Korean clothes and shoes, the cheapest (and often the wackiest) can be found in the markets and underground shopping streets. This is the underground market in Seomyeon, Busan.

Some sources claim that it’s very difficult to find woolen socks and socks that go over the ankle in Korea. Codswallop! You will see plenty of the trainer liner variety (the kind that stop just before the ankle), but all the other types are also available. I absolutely love Korean socks. They start at 1,000W (about 75c) per pair and come in all kinds of snazzy designs. So don’t bring too many socks to Korea and allow yourself to become a sock-o-holic during your time here.

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Tell the scare mongers to put a sock in it. Korea is big on socks, to the extent that stalls selling socks are everywhere (top left). In additions, sockmobiles (my word) traverse the land to make sure citizens don’t have to go all the way into town for a new pair of socks (bottom right).
I heard you like socks so I got you some some socks with some socks on them

Finally, Korean clothing and shoe sizes are a bit bamboozling at first, but thankfully Seoulistic have this handy guide.

2. Food, glorious food

For the most part I have been very pleasantly surprised at the range of familiar food available in Korea. Though I probably shouldn’t be surprised, considering the extent of globalisation in this day and age. 

Tesco is branded as Home Plus in Korea, and there you will find almost all the comfort food your heart desires. Just think of it as Tesco in the UK or Ireland, if entire aisles were dedicated to things like soy sauce and noodles. You can buy pesto, cheese, olives, pasta, fajitas, baked beans, Heinz ketchup, Nutella, Haribo, Pringles, Doritos and a whole lot more besides. I even recently saw a very small range of Cadburys chocolate, which is an exciting new development. But, alas, no Crunchies yet. There’s also plenty of Hershey’s and Reese’s chocolate for homesick Americans.**

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Some of the familiar products you can find at Home Plus: breakfast cereals, Tesco Finest products, tinned vegetables, tinned fruit, Pringles and ice-cream. Busan or Ballyfermot?
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Fellow chocolate lovers, rejoice! Korea has ample opportunities for you to ruin your diet. Here you can see Lindt, Kinder, Ferrero Rocher, Merci, Toblerone, Werther’s, Thorntons, M&Ms, Reese’s, Hershey’s and much more.

However, Home Plus is a little expensive and the foreign foods especially so (if you want to eat cheese regularly you better do some overtime). I usually buy day-to-day things in the Korean traditional markets and supermarkets, and just go to Home Plus when I feel like a taste of home. Try to eat like a Korean person most of the time. Your wallet will thank you and you’ll feel good for buying local and not giving too much of your money to massive conglomerates.

I’m veering off the point. The moral of the story is don’t stuff you suitcase with  comfort food from home, because you will find most things here. Except for your favourite non-perishables like tea and Tayto or King crisps, of course. 

I’ve seen a lot of sources saying it’s impossible to find many herbs and spices Korea – poppycock! Just look at this glorious tower of spices. 

Avoid arousing suspicion at the airport security by buying your oregano in Korea instead of filling your luggage with it!

As for health foods, you probably won’t find everything you need in the shops here. You can bring things from home but most expats just order from iherb. I’ve found them to be very reliable and good value.

Baking supplies are easy to find, though not as easy as in Ireland since baking isn’t very popular here and most people don’t have an oven. I got a very cheap mini-oven (about €25) on Gmarket so I dabble a little.

Bakers, behold!

3. Hygiene and grooming 

Some people get very worried about not finding their favourite shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, moisturiser and so on in Korea, so they cram their suitcase full of lotions and potions. Liquids are a real killer when it comes to making your suitcase overweight, and Korean shops have most things you can get in Boots. Trust me when I say you just need to bring a few travel miniatures for your first couple of days, then get the bigger stuff once you get a chance to go shopping. 

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Don’t panic, you can still buy all your usual shite! Brands like Nivea, Pantene, Neutrogena and L’oreal are abundant. Don’t forgot to try a few Korean brands too!

Several blogs say that Koreans don’t wear deodorant so it’s almost impossible to find, except at extortionate prices on the black market. This was probably true some years ago, but these days you will find many familiar brands at the pharmacy chains like Olive Young. They are a little bit more expensive than in Ireland but not much.

You can also disregard what you’ve read about sun cream being unavailable in Korea; it’s plentiful. Last summer I even got a free sample from a shop assistant in Olive Young who was concerned about my crimson pigment.

I’m not going to pussyfoot around the the issue of periods, pun fully intended. Most Korean women only use sanitary towels and they are everywhere. You can even inspect display models in the supermarkets. Tampons haven’t really caught on in Korea, but the applicator type are widely available. However I have never seen non-applicator tampons so if you’re used to using them, bring a few boxes over. They’re light so it’s not like you’ll have to pay any tampon-related excess baggage fees.

4. Home and electronics 

Most things you need will probably be supplied with your apartment. The rest you can buy cheaply online at Gmarket, at a chain of shops called Daiso, and from the ads on Waygook and Koreabrige. In February and August many EPIK teachers leave and have to get rid of things, so those are good times to pick up things like blenders, mini ovens, clothes horses and so on. 

This is Daiso. You will pop in for some washing up liquid. You will come out with some candles, cute writing paper, origami paper, stickers, Chocopies ‘for the students’, a scarf, a hair band and some lip balm. And no washing-up liquid.

Having said all that, there just a few small things you might want to bring from home. 

Don’t forget your adapter. You don’t need to spend money on a fancy worldwide one – Korea has the same sockets as mainland Europe, so a cheap UK to Europe one will have all your three-pronged plugs ready for their Korean adventure.

The teaspoons sold in Korea are really small and I haven’t seen egg cups at all. If, like me, you’re very particular about eating your boiled egg from an egg cup with a normal sized teaspoon, bring those with you. 

What are these? Teaspoons for ants?

5. Bedding and towels

Even though a few things are a bit tricker to find than others, you can get anything you need in Ikea, which just opened in Seoul last month. 

You may have read that Koreans place a thin quilted blanket on their mattress instead of using bedsheets, so they aren’t sold here. My bed actually came with both, but even if you’re not so lucky you can easily find fitted sheets here. 

Duvets with separate covers are a bit more difficult to find, as people generally use fluffy quilts instead. Your apartment will probably be supplied with a quilt, but if you really can’t live without a normal duvet you could buy one in Ikea. I just use the quilt on its own and this is only a problem when I wash it, as the whole thing has to go into the machine. I just make sure to wash it in the morning and give it a good spin, and it’s normally dry by the time I go to bed. If you want to use your quilt but don’t want to wash the whole thing every time, you you could buy a duvet cover in Ikea or have one sent from home once you know the size of your quilt. 

I’ve heard it said that Korean pillows are very hard so if you like soft or feather pillows, you should bring them from home. My bed came with a perfectly soft pillow, though I know friends who were supplied with hard ones. Either way, it doesn’t matter – you can buy soft polyester filled pillows and feather pillows in the big marts as well as Ikea, so there’s no need to waste all that space in your suitcase.

Most towels sold in Korea are hand towels but, contrary to what you might have read, bigger bath towels are easy to find too. If you’re coming with EPIK you will most likely get a big towel for free at orientation. 

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Bath towels, fitted sheets galore, fluffy quilts that Koreans use instead of duvets with separate covers, pillows of all varieties.

6. Stationary and art supplies 

Don’t bother bringing these things from home! Korea has excellent shops selling art supplies and stationary, including my favourite shop that has its own resident grumpy cat. You will also find a huge array of cheap and beautiful notebooks, cards and writing paper. Also do you think stickers are for kids? Wait until you experience the wonderful world of Korean stickers! 

동아측기 in Seomyeon: customer catisfaction guaranteed! 

The only thing I would advise bringing is Blu-Tack and/or White-Tack. It isn’t available anywhere in Korea and it’s a pretty essential item for the classroom. Any time someone is sending a package from home and asks if I want them to throw anything else in, the answer is always ‘Blu-Tack!’

7CDs, DVDs and Books 

CDs and DVDs are definitely harder to come by in Korea than in Ireland. Some bookshops include a small CD and DVD section, including the Hottracks chain. When you’re living abroad it’s anyway best to come with as little as possible and not amass too much, so it just makes sense to download and stream if you don’t already. At the very least, leave all the boxes at home and bring your CDs and DVDs in a compact case.

Books are a lot easier to find, so just bring something to read on the plane. In the big cities there are plenty of great bookshops with English sections (though books in English are a little more expensive) and space to sit down and have a read. You can also have new and secondhand books delivered from expat owned What the Book. If you’re the kind of person who can read a book and then let it go, then you could stay old school and just pass the books on or swap with other people when you’re finished. If, like me, you like to highlight bits and come back to them later, it’s probably better to use an E-reader rather then spending a fortune shipping books home when your time in Korea is up.

You will have no problem finding books in English, including this very important title

8. Teaching materials 

Learning a language becomes a lot more interesting when you can get away from the textbook and use genuine materials. You don’t need to spend any money, just pick up some tourism brochures, business cards, take-away menus and the like before you come to Korea. 

Bring plenty of leaflets, especially ones for family attractions

9. Gifts

Last but not least, it’s very important to bring some kind of gift on your first day of work, and in my opinion it’s more special if you bring it from home rather than getting it in Korea. I brought a few silver Celtic design book marks to give to my co-teachers, as well as some Butler’s chocolates to share with the rest of the staff. I also brought a few nice Irish postcards, pens, notebooks, key-rings, mini calendars, phone charms and so on, to uses as prizes in school and to give to new friends. If you’re coming from Ireland, definitely pay a visit to O’Carrolls before you come.


You’ll quickly find that your students get very excited about anything from your home country (even if it is made in China!) These phone charms and keyrings featuring irish dancers, shamrocks and sheep are a big hit with my students.


This has been a long one, so I really hope it’s useful for some people.

Just try to be honest with yourself about what you genuinely need to bring. I remember seeing people at orientation struggling with suitcase upon suitcase and wondering what they were bringing that they couldn’t just buy here and then sell on to someone else before leaving Korea. Packing is also a good opportunity to go through all your stuff and bring the things you don’t need anymore to the charity shop.

It’s also important not to let the packing stress you out. Focus on enjoying those last few weeks at home with your family and friends and remember that they’ll be happy to send over anything you forgot. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t forget the two most important things to bring to Korea: a positive attitude and an open mind (I couldn’t resist)!  

I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible but I’m sure there are things I have left out. If you have any questions just leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer you! The same goes if you live in Korea and have noticed I’ve omitted anything or made any mistake. 

*Desk-warming is a phenomenon in Korean public schools where you have to come in and sit on your arse during the holidays even though there’s no students and nothing to do. This is to avoid the scandal of ending up with more holidays than stated in your contract. 

**If you are reading this as a person looking to send a care package to a friend or family member in Korea, please ignore that paragraph and all the pictures of chocolate. Korea actually has no crisps, sweets or chocolate at all, that’s why Koreans are so skinny. Send treats immediately.

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