Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lonely Planet: GDA

As you should know by now (unless you are JUST tuning in) I'm off in the Himalayas for another two weeks.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there's a lot of stuff I did in Korea that I never blogged about.  I did, however, begin this tongue-in-cheek guide to working for a hagwon at the end of my second stint there, and I've never done anything with it.  So I reckon the time has come for me to use it, by way of intro to the next few posts.  I hope you'll enjoy it...and for starters, that classic Lonely Planet Caveat, about prices changing and things closing, etc, is definitely true for this post - which I have not edited much - because it was written seven years ago...
The Author
Becky the Great worked as an indentured servant for GDA for sixteen months before returning to America to seek a position in art education with an international school.  Having accomplished this she returned to Korea for five months; Heaven only knows why, but you're free to speculate.  She is currently in the Kingdom of Bahrain (that's in the Persian Gulf, for all you geography majors out there) trying not to be abducted on camelback by rich oil sheiks.  If you want to contact her for information on directions around Korea, information on getting the hookup with an international school, or negotiation tips when it comes to leasing your soul to Satan, feel free to email her at (actually, if you really want to email me, you should look at my profile).

Introduction
Welcome to a little corner of the world called Bundang!  You are about to enter a fantastic, frustrating, fulfilling, and often futile world where parents will have a huge influence on your life and you will (probably) get your first grey hair.  If you think that this life is going to be a cakewalk, you've got another thing coming.  However, the growth that you experience - personally and professionally - will be such that at the end of the year, you will look back fondly on all challenges.  Or if that doesn't do it for you, the money you've made, or the travelling you've done, or the fun nights you can't remember after one too many bottles of soju might.  So strap on your helmet and kneepads (the helmet is for the kindergarteners...you might not need the kneepads if you're not planning on kissing ass, it IS optional...) and get set for a year (or more) that can best be summed up in one word:  random.

FACTS ABOUT GDA
History
GDA (Great Dreams Academy) Junior was opened in Bundang in 2002, after the Powers that Be decided they should expand.  The original school is in Seocho, and was known for a number of years as SLP.  I have no idea what that means, but apparently someone (presumably Mr. Jin) decided if they were paying that much to run under someone else's name, they should just shell out and become their own company.  Since then, GDA has become "the" hagwon for intensive kindergarten in Bundang, for a number of reasons that I'm sure you have no interest in.
Climate
Since GDA is one of the satellite regions of Hell, you'll find that the weather alternates from bitterly icy and cold to blisteringly hot, depending on your proximity to the inner circle and whether or not the Powers that Be are in a mood.  Seriously, though, Korean weather is much like the American midwest.  Spring and fall are pleasant, summer is sweltering (the air is so humid you can swim through it), and the winter is bitterly cold, with dry Siberian winds blowing down from the north.

Yes, you are going to be working for these crazy mother-father-gentlemen...
Government and Politics
GDA Bundang is owned by our queen, Park Ji-Soo.  She is a lovely lady but a bit like a ghost.  If you see her, you will probably mistake her for a parent (actually, she does have a son, but he's way too old for our school now).  Mostly your life will be annoyed by these assholes.  The Korean ones will be passive-aggressive and never directly tell you what is wrong.  The kyobo (Koreans raised abroad) ones will get in your face and tell you that if you mess with them they WILL F^CKING END YOU.  You may have different management preferences depending on the day.  Behind closed doors they are just as annoying to each other.  Just try to do your damn job and you'll do fine.

Population and People
The majority of people who go overseas to teach English are freaking crazy ass black sheep.  GDA is no exception.  Everyone from the monkey man you'll be calling "Master" down to the lowliest IK-1 baby class teacher is nuts.  If you were relatively sane when you first came, by the time you leave this will have changed (the author had been in Korea for six months the first time she stomped into the staffroom and swore like a sailor.  Seriously.  My family hardly recognized me on my return).  The stories about teachers at GDA - of which there are 15 foreigners - are too numerous to go into here; someday I hope to write a complete book about it.
Language
Korean and broken English.  You should learn to read Han-geul, not only because it will help you and look really impressive (nine years later and I'm still banking on this skill!) but also because it's a totally kick-ass alphabet.  The Koreans LOVE the king who invented it, Sejong Dae-Won, who saw that his people were illiterate because the pain-in-the-ass Chinese characters they were using and rectified the system.  Here are some phrases you may find useful:
Annyeong haseyo: Hello
Kamsahamnida: Thank you
Sillye hamnida: Excuse me
Chuseyo: Please
Annyeongi kaseyo: Goodbye
Yang-o seon-ssaeng-nnim: English teacher
Hagwon: private academy
Chuggollae: Do you want to die?

FACTS FOR THE VISITOR
Visas and Immigration
Congratulations, you've just become an alien.  Immigration is the office in charge of making sure you're not in the "illegal" category.  Specifically you're a resident alien, which means that the government knows you're here, you'll be here for a while, and it's kosher.  In your first 90 days you have to go to the immigration office and declare your residency or something.  Usually this falls under Mr. Han's jurisdiction (and is done in the first month), so when he asks you for three pictures and your passport, it's not because he plans to sell you into white slavery.  It will be about 2 weeks before you get it back, and he'll also give you your alien registration card which you should have on you ALL THE TIME.  P.S. Losing it is a bad idea. 
If you are a Canadian, and you want to leave the country during your contract, you will need a re-entry permit.  It costs - well, who the hell knows?  Do I look Canadian to you? - and is obtained through the immigration office, where you got your resident card and whatnot.
If you are American, you automatically have a reentry permit with your original visa.  If you choose to extend or renew your contract, you WILL need to get a re-entry permit if you plan to leave and come back.  This can be done at the same time as the visa extension, if you make a point of asking for it, and will you an indeterminate amount of money - ask Mr. Han (or Mr. Bae, or whoever the hell is doing that job at this point).  You can get it at the airport, but you're better off having it ahead of time, since there is no guarantee that you or the necessary officials will have the time to take care of it then.
MONEY

Exchanging Money
You can exchange money at the airport when you first arrive in Korea, but you will not get the best rate this way.  Banks give a better exchange rate, and Woori (where you will have your account in Korea) is just down the street from the school.  If you are in a pinch in Seoul, you can exchange money after bank hours in shops in Itaewon (recognizable by the "Money Exchange" signs on their windows, dumbass) or in the markets (there are ajjummas with black bags sitting in the alleys of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun...this probably isn't entirely legal and you won't get a good exchange rate, but in a pinch...)

ATM's and Credit Cards
Not all ATMs will take your foreign card.  You'll find more in Itaewon as a rule.  In Bundang, the closest is in Samsung Plaza.  Go down the escalators from the 3-2 bus and hang to the left in the atrium.  Go down the hall to the right after you pass the jewelry section, and you'll be able to use the ATMs next to the door.  As a general rule, if you see the Visa/Mastercard/etc. sign on a shop, they will take your foreign credit card.  This is not a hard and fast rule, though.

International Transfers
Depending on your spending habits, you may never send a dime home the whole time you are in Korea.  In case you do, you will need your paystub, passport, and the routing and account numbers for your bank back home (most easily located at the bottom of your check).  The boys upstairs at Woori bank speak English well and will help you through the process.  Woori charges W20,000 for international wires.  You will also (probably) pay $15 to an international clearinghouse, which receives the money before sending it to the bank where your foreign account is held, who will take another $10 (at least, this is how it works for Bank of America).  Sending home money orders is supposedly cheaper (I have never done this because no one at home has access to my bank account), but there is a $10,000 limit on exporting money this way.

COMMUNICATION AND POST

Email and Internet Access
The school has a computer lab that you can use for your basic computer needs (no, pornography is not a basic need).  They can also help you establish an internet connection for your apartment.  If, like me, you are technologically deficient (ie, you don't have a computer), you can use an internet cafe (PCbang in Korean), which is recognizable by the letters PC.  They are, literally, everywhere, because Korean gamers prefer not to game themselves to death at home for some reason.  It's around W1500 for an hour (or W1000 for 40 minutes).

FOOD
Pizza: Pizza Hut (1588-5588), Papa John's (1577-8080), and Pizza Itariana all deliver and speak enough English to call in an order.  Mr. Pizza, Nilli, Basta Pasta, and Pasta Roll are all in Samsung Plaza and have pizza as well as pasta dishes that are pretty good (I'm a big fan of Pasta Roll's lasagna). 
Mexican: La Merce (in Samsung Plaza)...I don't like it, but I'm not a big fan of crazy stuff in my burritos...I suggest Dos Tacos in Gangnam and Chili Chili in Itaewon for a straight up burrito, and Pancho's in Itaewon has a good variety of dishes as well as salsa dancing, but is a little more expensive.
Thai: Yuldong Park is home to one of the best Thai restaurants you could ever hope for.  It's called Thai&Joy; be sure to save room for dessert, because their steamed bananas in coconut milk is to.  Die.  FOR.
Indian:  There's a place out beyond Yuldong Park, as well as Thali (second floor of the Outback building in Samsung Plaza), and Ganges.
Vietnamese:  Pho Bay, behind Krispy Kreme.
American Restaurants: Bennigan's is near Samsung Plaza (walk back to the corner from getting off the bus coming from Seoul, turn a left and you'll see it ahead).  TGIFriday's is a large block north from the bus stop on Bus Street.  Get off the 3-2, walk to the corner, go right, and you'll come to it.  For Outback (Should this be considered Australian?  Well, whatever, all us white people look the same, right?), walk forward to the corner after getting off the bus coming in from Seoul, and you'll see the sign on the corner of the building.
American Chains: Subway, McDonalds, KFC, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin' Donuts, and Baskin Robbins are the main ones, and all have locations in or around Samsung or closer.
Korean Food: Where you want to go depends on what you want.  The Kimbap Palace (actually Kimbap Cheon-guk in Korean), had a wide range of food.  It is completely acceptable to see what all the Koreans are eating, and point out what you want to eat to the ajjushi or ajjuma who takes your order.  There is a restaurant that does galbi on the Seohyeon Road as you walk toward McDonald's, before the HiOB.  Be warned: Korean food is often very spicy.  Watch out for dishes with a reddish-orange color; they are flavored with gochu-jang, a red pepper sauce.  If you only want a little spiciness, ask for "chokkeom mae-hwa!"  Some of the most popular Korean foods are bulgogi (marinated beef with veggies), kimbap (Korean "sushi"), samgyeopsal (barbecued fatty pork - like extra thick-cut bacon - eaten in a wrap of lettuce), dolsot bibimbap (veggies, rice, and an egg served in a sizzling hot stone pot), dalkgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken), mandu (dumplings), and chap-chae (glass noodles served with meat, usually pork).

GETTING THERE AND AWAY
Someone (almost definitely Mr. Han) will meet you at the airport.  He actually speaks some English, so don't be shy!  If he doesn't talk to you, take it as a bad sign (I'm just joking).  It will take a while to get to Bundang, because Incheon is hella-out-of-the-way, and if, for some reason John picks you up, he will probably get lost (no, he's not some random psycho who is kidnapping you right "off the boat" so to speak...or at least, he's not kidnapping you right off the boat).  In future trips out of the country and back, you will either need to get a cab (expensive) or take the airport bus to/from Samsung Plaza.

GETTING AROUND
Samsung Plaza is going to be a big part of your life here.  To get there, take the 3, 3-1, or 3-2 bus from about a block away from the school (or at strategic points around the back of Taehyeon Park) until it gets to a big building that says - surprise! - Samsung Plaza.  Or you can get into a cab and say "Somsung Puhrajah" or "Seohyeon Yuck."  Bus costs W650, cab fare should be between W2500-4000.
There are two streets people will give directions with reference to: the Bank Street and the Bus Street.  The Bank Street (thus named for the location of our branch of Woori Bank) has two saunas, a grocery store (GS, beneath Woori bank), the closest Kimbab Palace, a Japanese place called Miso-ya, and a jjajjang restaurant.  There really isn't very much on the Bus Street except for the buses.

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