A day in the Life

…of a guy trying to make a living as a freelance English teacher.

I don’t think this is a rant but a warning to others who might look for this kind of work in South Korea. To some extent I am, not thinking ‘aloud’ but thinking ‘atext’; working things out on paper. Welcome to the way my mind works. Caveat lector!

Yesterday I left the apartment at 8:30 with the expectation of returning home around 7:00 and working four hours during those ten-and-a-half.  Things didn’t work out that way and I am not sure what the result was.

First, I went to a factory that had been taken over by a multi-national which wanted all or most of the employees to speak English. I was there to administer an oral level test of ten employees.  I was never made aware of all the end results of my judgement. I know  in at least some cases, the students were tested to see what sort of English class would be a good fit. All the people I interviewed spoke about job stress and drinking too much alcohol. It is possible that if an employee’s level did not improve, they might be let go. I’m not saying that will happen but, some of the employees seemed tense. The range of ability was from very low to nearly native speaker level.

After the interviews were done, I spoke with the organizer. She works at a corporate English recruiting firm – does that company description sound right? She had placed an ad on Craig’s List for corporate private teaching and similar work and I had applied. Anyway, the original position was to teach an executive at this company. I was accepted. Then the executive decided he would rather have a Korean English teacher. Then they offered me this level testing gig. Then the executive decided he wanted a foreigner and I might have that job. The level testing gig was moved to a new day. …

The people at the recruiting firm were not exactly jerking my chain. As middle-men, they had to adjust to a variety of schedules and whims.

Another similar company has also hired me to teach a few classes in October that will conflict with teaching the executive. I may have to cancel or reschedule two days. It didn’t seem a big deal to me because of all the rescheduling I had been through at the hands of the recruiters.

We discussed this and the recruiter is delivering messages to and fro to see what to do when I miss those days.

So we separate and I have three hours until my next gig, which is maybe forty minutes away. I buy a drink at a Paris Baguette and type for a while.

At the next job I am replacing a teacher who had to return home for a funeral. I actually don’t know how much I will be paid. I had the time free and feel this is the compassionate thing to do. I do expect to be paid.

And when I get there, I learn they have nothing for me to do and I should go home.  I had already worked there Monday and Wednesday and had a schedule for Friday. No, they tell me, I am not needed because the students had come in the day before. I did not raise my voice but noted that I had organized my day around this work and had traveled a hour to get there and would travel an hour more to get home.

I am not good with money.

In this case, as noted, I wasn’t expecting to receive a lot of money for the work, but I do need to convince myself to fight for the hours to be paid for. It hardly mattered what the rate was, I deserved it for the 2.5 hours I had expected to work there.

I think I will be paid for a satisfactory amount of hours there.

At home two hours early, I checked my email and saw an email from the second recruiting company. This is the company with work in October. They have offered me a two day Presentation Skills in English class and a three day Presentation Skills in English class. They interviewed me for the two day class and offered the the three day one as well.  Both take place a significant distance south, in the same town but for different groups in different locations. The two day event will pay X won and the email I received asked me if I would do the three day class for X won. The pay for two days is good if not worth dancing over. The pay for three days – the same pay or 1/3 less per hour – is still good. Better than sitting at home, not being paid.

I am not good with money. Imagine a Victorian trying to explain inter-racial sex to another person’s children and you have an idea of how uncomfortable I am in walking the line between appearing to be greedy and having a desire for fair pay.

After I finish this post, I will craft an email explaining my point. My main concern here is that the same company is hiring me to teach similar material -but of differing durations – at the same cost. If a sixteen hour course is worth X, then a twenty-four hour course should be worth 3/2X.  A complicating point is that the money offered per hour would not be enough for one hour or even two. It would be worthwhile for four or more because I only travel once and the activity causes only one conflict rather than a continuing stream of them.

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5 Responses to “A day in the Life”

  1. Kevin Kim (@bighominid) Says:

    My sympathies. As you look at your budget (you’ve got a wife and at least one child, yes?) and consider your options, you’ll naturally get better at judging your own worth, setting your standards, and fighting for better pay without feeling bad about doing so. Remember that it’s not just self-advocacy: you’re doing what you do for the sake of your family members as well, and you can’t let them down.

    Setting standards will, of course, mean setting conditions that will create “deal-breakers.” E.g.: you decide you won’t settle for anything less than work that pays W50,000/hour; an offer to teach a class for W45,000/hr comes along, and now you have to decide whether W50,000/hr really is your absolute deal-breaker condition. Turning such a class down is going to feel painful, but I’d say that, in the long run, if you don’t compromise, you’ll end up netting more and more classes that pay according to your sense of self-worth. If you don’t hold to high standards, the habit of compromise becomes easier and easier, and you’ll end up doing a series of crap gigs.

    I understand the queasy feeling that comes with self-advocacy. I don’t like to toot my own horn in job situations, either, but in your case, since you’ve chosen the freelancer’s path, tooting your own horn and defending your standards are some of the most crucial skills you’ll have to develop. Another crucial skill is acquiring a nose for which gigs are good and which are bad (Koreans call such perceptivity “nunchi/눈치,” a kind of social awareness). The best gigs will be the ones that come to you from trusted sources—friends on the peninsula, former colleagues, etc. In Korean culture, as you know, arrangements happen through intermediaries: person X wants to work at company Y, so person Z, who is trusted by both, puts X and Y together for a meeting, and things roll forward from there.

    Is your wife Korean? If so, I’d bet her nunchi superpowers are quite impressive, and she might be able to offer you insights about how Koreans handle business arrangements, which jobs sound good or bad, etc.

    I wasn’t sure what you meant when you wrote, in your post, “I am not good with money.” Are you talking about saving, spending wisely, making a budget, etc.? If so, I can share some wisdom I’ve picked up from years of making mistakes. Rule Number One, now and forever, is: never spend beyond your means. This means avoiding the use of credit cards, avoiding loans, avoiding huge and/or frivolous and/or impulsive purchases, and avoiding anything else likely to break the bank. I’m still digging myself out of the deep hole I’d created over the years.

    In a Korean household, the wife is often in charge of finances—is your wife in charge of your household’s? If so, and if she’s good with numbers, you’d do well to follow her advice. If not, you can do what I did and create a massive spreadsheet that charts out your finances for several years.

    Of course, it’s easier to chart out your finances if your income is steady and stable, so obviously, your primary goal, in freelance work, is to acquire the momentum to achieve steady, stable income. If you’re unable to do this after a year or so, I respectfully submit that you should think about getting back into university work, which would provide steady income while also allowing you the free time to work more on the side.

    Back to budgets, though. In basic accounting, you need to track three columns of figures, as you doubtless know: credits (income/revenue), debits (payments/expenses), and balance (current total in account). The point about making a spreadsheet is that, once the basic numbers are all in place, you don’t have to keep going back to the chart, except occasionally, and only to make tweaks as new circumstances arise. The spreadsheet does the hard work for you, automatically recalculating every change in trajectory based on this or that financial perturbation.

    Creating a budget, however, requires a high degree of awareness and self-honesty. How much are you really paying for lunch, for example? Your “ideal self” might say, “Oho, I never pay more than W3500 for lunch!”—but in reality, you pay W6000 for your main meal, then later on, you go out and get a bottle of juice and maybe a snack, neither of which you factor in to your lunch cost. By the time you’re done, your lunch total is closer to W10000. Little things like that can skew your budget calculations, so to get an honest and accurate impression of your expenditures, you’ll need to take a hard look at your receipts and at the numbers in your bank book (tongjang). Figure out a one-month average after looking over three months’ expenses. Pad that figure by 10-15% to get a conservative estimate, then use that figure when you make a budget.

    Money is boring, but if you ignore it, it’ll go away. The saying “a fool and his money are easily parted” is a basic truism. If you’re not good with money now, and if you’re freelancing, but income isn’t steady and stable yet, the need for financial acumen is strong. Making a budget is tedious work, but trust me, it’ll be beneficial in the long run, especially since you’re taking care of a family.

    OK, sorry for the long homily, and apologies if you’ve already set up a rigorously plotted-out budget. Good luck, man.

  2. surprisesaplenty Says:

    Thank you, Kevin.

    One point I need to contest. you are right in theory about credit cards, but in Korea, credit card use comes with a tax rebate or deduction. I think that the paper trail a credit card leaves reduces various forms of fraud.

    Your lunch and snack discussion well describes my difficulties with money. You are especially perceptive in this regard although your your whole essay is correct.

  3. Mom Says:

    It is time for Economics 101!!
    Good advice from Kevin

  4. Kevin Kim Says:


    Well, you obviously know more about Korean credit cards than I do (I only use my one lone American credit card), but I’d still caution against any feeling of safety that comes from using credit cards and earning rebates/deductions: the “return on investment” (ROI) probably isn’t all that big, although I admit that, after hundreds or even thousands of purchases/transactions over the course of a year, the returns can add up. But… to how much, really? That’s homework I leave for you. If, at the end of the fiscal year, your return is something like W300,000, you might try imagining what that amount of money translates to in practical terms. To me, W300,000 would be ten or twelve Korean-style pizzas. If I were still living in Ilsan, it’d be 60% of a month’s rent. Either way, W300,000 might seem like a lot at first, but in truth, it’ll be there and gone.

    Credit cards are designed to screw you, like signing a blood contract with the Devil. They charge unfair interest rates, and credit-card companies absolutely love it when you only pay back the minimum amount every month. I can’t speak for Korean credit cards, but in the US, credit-card interest rates can vary from 12% (considered “fair”—ha!) to a monstrous 36%, which is barbaric (there’s one big downside to capitalism!). If I’m not mistaken, credit-card interest rates are compounded, so by paying only the monthly minimum, you protract your own debt and end up paying back far more than what you’d originally borrowed.

    If you’re disciplined about paying back your entire credit-card debt every month, however, then I congratulate you. Credit cards aren’t inherently evil (despite my previous mention of Satan); if used well, they can be a way to get out of a tight spot or to make large, one-time purchases or transactions. But credit cards do come freighted with the temptation to use them often, and the debt that accumulates on them isn’t visible when you look at your bank account: it’s a totally separate debt that just sits there ponderously, like a giant monster perched quietly on the roof of your house, waiting for you to step outside. Sorry if that’s an overwrought metaphor, but my point is that credit cards should be taken seriously and used with great caution.

    And let me take a moment to tip my hat to your mother, who apparently reads your blog entries and the appended comments. Madam, I’m often a vulgar, uncultured person on my own blog, but now that I know you’re here, reading, I’ll do my best to mind my manners. Brian’s a good soul; you raised him well. He and I often lock horns about politics, but I can tell he’s a decent sort, and I’d be happy to sit down and have a drink with him one of these years.

  5. surprisesaplenty Says:

    Thanks, Kevin. Right back at you.
    You are immensely good at sharing personal-but-not-private details about yourself. I have been hesitant to suggest meeting up for a hike or such as my impression from your posts is that you are more extroverted online than off. Still, now that I live nearby, I will find a time to suggest a hike or something.

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