It’s a Dog’s Life: One Expat English Teacher’s Story

It’s a Dog’s Life: One Expat English Teacher’s Story

By H.D. Southerland

Editor’s note: At the end of March, 3WM became aware of a situation where an expat English teacher basically faced extortion at the hands of a language institute after having undergone major back surgery.  We ran an abridged version of his first-hand account due to his fear of being identified by individuals at the institute.  He now is in another country and has given 3WM permission to run his full letter.

I never expected that when I came to Korea from the USA I was going to be some kind of hero, or that people were going to give me any kind of respect that I didn’t earn. I went to work as a teacher with a smile on my face and an understanding that there would be challenges ahead. Within two years I have been rudely awakened by the motives and intentions of a couple English Language learning companies. Obviously I am no great writer, first of all, let me put it out there that I love kids. I’ve been an uncle since I was 3 years old and I’ve cared for two of my nephews  from elementary school now to high school. Though teaching in Seoul can be stressful at times, I easily remind myself of my actions as an elementary student and repeat the mantra “they’re only kids.” Kids’ actions are predictable, sometimes annoying, but seldom motivated or driven by malice or vengeance.

However, once in Korea, I was greatly surprised by the actions of the companies allegedly molding and shaping these children’s minds so that they may learn and acquire the skills to speak English. I’ve worked primarily with two after-school programs. By the end of my time of employment with both companies, I left feeling abused and saddened. I’m not sure which emotion is stronger at this point. I’m saddened because I see smart children, many eager to learn. I see many forced unwillingly into the class by starry-eyed parents with hopes that their children will conquer that challenge they shied away from in the past. Forced or eager, I see kids that are able to learn something new as hagwon2long as you try and keep them interested.

Now let us address the companies responsible for helping to mold and shape these kids so that they may learn the skills they need to speak English. Two companies, Edubest and WinEducation, have proven that behind their smiling words of encouragement and confidence in their company’s abilities, they have taken off the masks and gloves while clawing through the money bags and carefully accounting for each coin. Like many hagwons and other various English programs, there is one primary concern: not to effectively teach English to students, but to acquire as much possible money from as many possible people on a consistent basis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fool and am quite aware that these companies are businesses. The goal of a business is to be profitable. That said, they should provide the worthwhile and effective product they are promising to their consumers.

In my first company, Edubest, the teachers were practically left to their own resources as far as extra books, pencils, markers, etc., though in the contract we were told money deducted from our checks was going toward these items. Initially, they advised against me signing up for the national education pension because it would mean more money in my check. They also told me they would not provide national health insurance, but they would help me and assist in anyway if I needed help setting it up myself (they didn’t; they gave the website address).

They asked me to set up a bank account that only they would have control over, though it was in my name (shady/illegal) for the school to pay into.  Then they would pay me from that account into my personal account. I was brand new to Seoul, here only a month, and compared to the hagwons, it appeared OK. It seemed like easy work with short hours.  The key money for my apartment (which they charged monthly interest on) was fair, and the pay wasn’t terrible (until I found out what the school was actually paying).

In the contract our classes were supposed to receive some type of party, usually pizza and cola, every 1-3 months. I was taking over another person’s contract then so my contract was only for nine months. In my nine months of employment, I saw one pizza party (this was also somehow to be partially deducted from our salaries). Then toward the end of the year, we were notified by email there would be no more pizza parties and that instead the kids would be given gifts on special days/holidays. For Christmas they received a pen with the company’s name on it. Oddly, in our contract, the difference between what the school paid us and what the company paid us differed by up to 2-3 million won. The company explained that this extra money was used for materials, pizza parties, books, and so on. Are you starting to see the verbal irony? Luckily my Korean co-teacher was an angel and together we managed to do our best and make do with what we had. Our books were produced by the company and filled with errors.  They denied us to purchase books outside of the company’s production due to cost. At the end of my contract, they offered virtually no incentives in order for me to stay aboard. Maybe I wasn’t a good teacher? How would I know there was never any feedback.

So upon finishing the contract, I waited for my -company- controlled- bank- account-paycheck and to my immense surprise, the school paid me directly the entire amount of what they pay the company for my employment! They fucked up and the sum was well over 4 million won! Of course, without announcing this to my company, I withdrew the sum and closed the account.  They were furious. They hounded me on the phone and through email saying that I was embezzling, that they would report me, etc., but they had lied about my actual salary the whole time. They simply had been pocketing the difference between what they were charging the company and the amount they told me I was due. This is where the nails and teeth come out, but I need a drink  so we’ll get back to that shortly.

Next, I started with another after-school program, WinEducation, and I thought it was going to be great. I was honest about the former employer, I had a great reference from my former co-teacher, and I was eager to take on a new challenge. I thought I had arrived as far as salary and benefits were concerned. I heard some small warnings about this company from a friend, but I swatted them away. “Our company is much bigger!” they proclaimed as they bragged and boasted about their dominance over Seoul’s after-school program market. I thought it strange that they didn’t offer any paid sick days, but considering myself a rather healthy individual, I figured what the hell. If you were sick and could verify it with a doctor’s note, you were penalized 100 thousand KRW. But after 2-3 months employment, I received an email saying that they’d changed their policy and now, even with a doctor’s note, we would be charged 150 thousand KRW for absence (around 30 thousand KRW higher than the daily salary) and 200 thousand KRW for an unexcused absence or personal day.

The school was the normal after school English education drill; which means they wouldn’t give foreign teachers a projector, computer, Internet access, or much of anything aside from a CD player in the classroom. In contrast, the Korean homeroom teacher had access to all of these amenities in her classroom where she slept everyday after her day was over at 2pm. Absurd to say the least, but just another challenge.  Next, barely into my first month at my new school, my old company arrived four people deep demanding that I pay them what the school paid into my former bank account. They interrupted my classes and refused to leave (of course they did this after first going to the principal’s office and slandering me). They called me names, told me I was a horrible person, and repeatedly told me to shut-up when I tried to speak. They ignored all my words, and would accept no reasoning or the proof I had of their misconduct. They made threats that they would file lawsuits, call the police, and pursue other legal actions.

Then near the end of November, my luck headed south. I was running myself pretty hard, working full time, putting up with this previous teaching job bullshit and rehearsing for three ex-pat theatrical performances (which the editors at 3wm didn’t ask me to name for some reason of incompetence or garden variety philistinism.)  I developed a heavy cough but wrote it off to smoking a little too much. Finally, it became a bit unbearable so I went to the clinic and found I had a pretty serious strain of pneumonia and had developed a hyperthyroid. I had to take a mandatory 10-days off work. The company called the doctor in an attempt for him to release my medical records to prove I was telling the truth even after I had sent a medical certificate from the doctor. The doctor denied for reasons that nobody asked, so the company arrived at my house unannounced in the evening to verify that I was sick. After a few days, they arrived again unannounced to say they wanted to take me to see the doctor so that they may speak with him. I obliged. After going back to work for a week, three kids left the school diagnosed with pneumonia.

In addition to these initial difficulties, at this job  my co-teacher and I didn’t click. There was never any bad incident or justification for it, I was just constantly ignored or given an attitude without warrant. I tried talking to the company and they smiled saying they would address it. They never did and it only worsened. Then after I had been late three times, my dismissal occurred. One of the times was entirely my fault, and I owned up. The second time I had been stuck in a medical clinic because by the time I finished work for the day at school, all the clinics were closed. The third time, I had been in a car accident while driving a friend’s car back from the airport. In bumper to bumper traffic, the driver in front of me stopped then started, then quickly stopped again and I rear-ended him at less than 5km/hour doing some minor damage to both vehicles. The police had to find an interpreter so the process of filing the report took a bit of time.

They asked me to work until the end of February which was fine. However, I was nervous: “Did I have to leave my apartment immediately (they had paid the key money)? ” I thought. I asked my contact in the company and he told me I didn’t have to be out immediately and that I could take my time. He was unclear about how much time. I was under the assumption that a tenant has 30 days to vacate, so I planned that I would be out March 31.

Then bad fortune knocked again.  I had to have emergency surgery on my lower back. This was not completely out of the blue—I injured my back playing soccer in college in California when I was 19.  I tried years of physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractors, and some minor surgical procedures such as cortisone shots and epidurals. Finally in 2007, I was losing feeling down my left leg and in extreme pain. My disc between L4/L5 had pushed out almost entirely into my neural column.  I was advised that if I didn’t have surgery to partially remove the disc, I ran the risk of paralysis.  The surgery helped for a couple years, but I started having similar symptoms until finally it felt like I almost constantly had a knife digging into my left lower back and leg.  I needed surgery.

Before my surgery on March 19, my company again arrived unannounced and demanded that I pay rent that according to my pay stub I had already paid. Then they told me I would have to pay out of pocket for the next month’s rent that was due the next day. They asked for the money immediately (this included threats via IM that mentioned police connections). They had no paperwork with them to explain their claims, nor did they have proof of much of anything. The company worker (we can call him Brad) told me I would have to pay a penalty, plus last rent, plus this rent but couldn’t explain why. He is a new employee and the associate I spoke with initially conveyed a much different message so I was confused.

I explained about my surgery, and how I didn’t have the funds to pay that money yet.  I explained that once I sold my furniture from my house, I could pay what he asked. He asked me if he could make a copy of my key so that he could show prospective tenants my apartment in order to avoid the penalty. I complied. As I sat in the hospital, he used the keys to enter my apartment without my permission and changed the locks (with my passport and daily medicine still inside).

While in the hospital, I was still initially covered by Korean National Health Insurance. The company, knowing I was to be released March 25, called the health insurance department and canceled my insurance the day I was to be released. Mind you, they had the option to do so from February 28, yet delayed until they knew I would be utilizing it to pay my fees. Afterwards, they told me I might as well stay in the hospital and think over my situation because they had changed my locks. After I had contacted a lawyer for advice from my hospital bed, I received multiple threatening messages on my phone again boasting how big their company was and that I shouldn’t bother. When we attempted to pay the hospital bill, they informed me that my insurance had been canceled and the bill had nearly tripled. Under the advice of a Labor Law Firm, I had my friend go to my apartment with the police in an attempt to open the door just so that I could get my medicine. After many hours of waiting, arguing, debating, etc., our request was refused and we were told it was a civil matter.

Thanks to a Korean friend’s intervention, the hospital agreed to lower the bill to the insurance price and I was finally discharged Monday. I was in so much pain, and could barely walk. After debating, I resorted to a locksmith so that I could at least enter the apartment for my medication. Murphy’s law prevailed and the landlord (who disliked me thanks to my company’s slanderous remarks) arrived as we attempted to open the lock. He sent the locksmith away. I finally conceded to meet with the company representative, but asked that he meet me halfway or in between because doctor’s orders were I should stay off my feet. Following constant refusals, they offered to pay my taxi fare to come to their office (they didn’t pay). They now had paperwork to show how/why the supposed money was due. Still a bit confused and dazed from the hospital, I listened quietly and negotiated a bit. I had multiple people interested in my items for sale and renting the apartment, yet none of them could enter the apartment with my friend to look because of the locks. I repeatedly told the company if they would let me sell my items and find a new tenant, then I would have the available funds they requested. At the end of the day, I paid them 200 thousand won just as a bit of insurance so they’d open my apartment. My Korean friend was with me and they kept asking her to pay the amount for me. They continued to make multiple unannounced visits requesting I pay a small amount of money to show good intent, and even took my PlayStation 2 as collateral.

The sad thing is that these companies force us to misrepresent student’s progress in order to make a profit. Underachieving students are forced into higher-level classes just to make room for new paychecks, I mean students. There are students forced into the program who have no interest in studying English, and provide a constant disruption. However, when asked to write a report on their progress and behavior I’m told I can’t make negative comments. If I write negative comments, parents will be upset and take their money, I mean child, out of the program. Personally, if I’m hired to teach students English, I’m going to work diligently so that I can see progress or areas that need improvement. The primary focus is not the progress of students, but the progress of profits. Unfortunately, both the students and teachers are getting screwed. And companies are convinced that their employees are unaware of the laws that protect them. Sadly most teachers and employees are unaware of the rights that are in place to protect them. In addition, it’s intimidating to many people to pursue any type of complaint in Korea due to the language barrier and fear that it will be a drawn out and expensive process. Due to these and other confounding factors, companies are able to easily exploit employees confident that there will not be any repercussions. When an ex-pat attempts to make a stand, as I tried to do, these institutions do all they can to denigrate and intimidate in order to deter their actions. They break their own contracts, and then attempt to convince you that there was no breach. They change their policies mid-contract without first letting you review and agree to the adjustment. They assume you will roll over and just accept what they tell you as fact, and unfortunately many of us do.

Korea’s an amazing place at times. The food is delicious, the land is beautiful, and I’ve met some of the sweetest, most caring people you’d never think existed. However, after my experiences with English language programs there, there was still a sour taste in my mouth when I finally was able to board the plane.

Editor’s Note: 3WM has maintained contact with Mr. Southerland and received an email from him after he arrived in another Asian country.  Per our request, he offered his thoughts about the situation after having had some time to reflect:

It’s hard to say exactly how I felt about leaving Korea.  I definitely felt rushed and saddened I didn’t have the time to say goodbye to some friends.  I was

H.D. Southerland in his new location sans much of his stuff but with his freedom.

also frustrated by how quickly I was being pushed out of my apartment, and never really had the time to go through my belongings and pack appropriately.

I was a bit nervous at the airport that my company would somehow be lurking in the wings waiting to pounce.  I didn’t have much time to plan my departure, or to research my destination.  I had sold just about everything I owned in order to support my departure and living expenses while looking for a new job.  Once I walked through security and handed in my Alien Registration Card, I breathed a sigh of relief for sure.  I felt safe and comforted that I would be able to leave.  As insane as my company had behaved in the past few months, I was worried that they’d attempt some way to sabotage my exit.

Korea was a wonderful place for me in so many ways.  The food was delicious, the land beautiful, and I had the pleasure of meeting so many kind, caring, and thoughtful people.  However, the experience of working as an English teacher left me with a bad impression.  The constant stereotypes surrounding English teachers/expats were at times unbearable.  I frequently felt as if people were looking down on me regardless of the fact that they entrusted their children’s well being into my hands daily.  I left feeling sorry for Korean parents who trusted various English Language programs blindly without asking questions or seeing success stories from the program.  I feel that two years was the right amount of time for me in Korea.  For others, I understand it is at times much longer or shorter.  I was sad to have to leave so many good people, but also relieved that I would not have to continue to lie to myself or others concerning the progress of their children.

Aside from these thoughts, I’m still sorting out how I feel about my experience.  In every country east to west, north to south, there are good people and not so good people.  I definitely experienced both, but am now sorting out which affected me with greater strength.
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