Teaching English in Korea: Richelle

In keeping with a certain resolution to “travel to more places to learn more culture,” I decided to get in touch with friends who are teaching English around the world. What’s ESL like in places besides Spain? First up, here’s Richelle Antipolo to tell us all about teaching English in Korea!

After studying photojournalism and Japanese at the University of North Texas, Richelle joined the EPIK English Program. In September 2011 she packed her bags for South Korea, where she currently teaches English at a technical school for girls. She gives us the scoop on a typical school day, Korean views of Americans, and plastic surgery.

 1) So, Richelle, how did you end up in Korea? 

Originally I wanted to teach in Japan because I studied Japanese in college. However, I didn’t get accepted into the JET program. But it turned out for the best because the disaster happened which would have made living there even more expensive than it already is. So I picked Korea because Korean would be the next easiest language to pick up.

Anapji Pond, Gyeongju National Park

2) Tell us a bit about where you live.

I live in Gyeongju, South Korea. It’s awesome and beautiful—it used to be the old capital so we’re the only place left in Korea that still has a lot of traditional buildings. I live in a small efficiency complex that the schools generally find for us. I love it…the size is perfect for me!

Gyeongju National Museum

3) How the culture is different from that of the US? 
Many I don’t even know where to start. This would be too long but I guess I’ll keep it simple…the US is an individualistic society whereas Korea is a group society. The goal is to fit into the mold while in America you try to find what is most unique about you. Anything strange or foreign to them is always under scrutiny. And appearance is everything here. I mean EVERYTHING!

 4) How is the school system structured? (i.e. schedule, dress code, course offerings, extracurricular activities, etc.)

Students go to school allllll the time! What I mean by that is…school starts at 8-9 a.m., the school finishes at 3-4 p.m., then after that they have after-school class for about an hour. After that they have to go to a cram school or two until they go home around 11 or 12 at night.

I teach in a technical school so I have a bunch of lazy students that don’t do cram school. Extracurricular activities are part of the curriculum. In America we can choose our interests but here everyone is required to do music, art, etc.

School elections!

All schools except most elementary schools wear uniforms. The government and parents control education. Everything is forced rather than encouraged or cultivated. The goal is to be the same or number one so there is a lot of pressure for the students here. Also, Americans take the college entrance exams many times but in Korea you can only take it once a year, which adds more pressure. Employers look for students that have gone to universities in America. To make it worse it’s all about appearance–you have to be attractive and graduate from a well-known school here or in the US. That’s why Korea has the highest suicide rate.

5) Is there an emphasis on post-graduate education?

Any education is emphasized here! You would think cram schools start in high school but they start in elementary school. Not to mention there are several TV channels that teach school subjects. PBS doesn’t have anything on the educationa; TV programs here. (Totally irrelevant: they censor “grotesque” visuals such as surgeries, the victims on CSI, etc.–though education is so enforced there are certain things that are censored, making them a little naive I think.)

My students call me this chocolate…Minishell…because Richelle is too hard to say!

6) Funny classroom-story time, please!
We were playing a game where you have “who” questions, and it had to be about 4 people. This time the 4 people were my American neighbor that my students all have the hots for, my “boyfriend”, a good looking teacher at my school, and this good looking waiter from a local coffee shop. Except for my neighbor, all of the guys were Asian. So they asked who had the biggest dick (of course not fluently)…and sure thing the cards landed on the white guy.

What’s wrong here?

7) What have been some of your most challenging moments?
I teach in a girls technical high school so I’m teaching at the lowest level school in my city. I’m teaching elementary topics to 18-year-old girls….a little frustrating but I do have some good students that I like. Just the whole superficial thing is really disgusting for me. In America, we can enjoy being a girl with makeup, earrings, and clothes but here it is a necessity. You have to look a certain way, brand-name things are so important (most students have North Face jackets and if you don’t you’re not cool…but it can’t be the $250 North Face coat because that’s for losers…it has to be at least $500 to be cool), plastic surgery is common…you can walk outside and see more than 20 people who have had cosmetic surgery.

Students will carry makeup and curling irons or straighteners in their backpacks so when their main school is finished they doll up and hike up their skirts on the bus. The minimum wage here is around $3 [an hour] so much of people’s hard work goes to appearance and education. Disgusting! Sure, it’s good to spend money on education but they do it on a superficial way.

Visiting Jeonju, South Korea

Richelle has her own photography website–check out her portfolio here!

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  1. This is great! I can’t wait to read more of these posts!

    Wow, I really don’t know much about South Korea, so it’s super interesting getting a little peek into the life of an English teacher there. Does Richelle have a blog?

  2. Cassandra

    Thank, Kirstie! Check back soon, there are more interviews lined up.

    Richelle doesn’t keep a blog about her experiences in South Korea but maybe she will after this (hint hint, Richelle)!

  3. Very interesting post! Someone encouraged me to do the JET program, but I don’t think I could hack it in Japan.

  4. Cassandra

    Thanks, Kaley. Although teaching Spain is already a significant cultural leap, l really admire those who haul anchor to Asia!

  5. What a great idea for posts Cassandra! And this one was such a fun read. I had no idea that S. Korean culture was so into appearances. I would never have guessed! It must be such an interesting experience to teach in a culture so different from our own. I’m looking forward to the next installment!

  6. Cassandra

    It surprised me to hear of their obsession with appearance, too; I can’t help but wonder if this emphasis on beauty differs at all when comparing students from technical and regular high schools.

  7. Fascinating stuff. I hear you can make a crap load working the summer and winter schools in Korea and then come back and live on that for a while. Strange language though – I think it would be very tricky to learn. In the meantime I’ll keep on with the Spanish.

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