Is Ulsan the next Detroit?

In a recent class wih a group of adult students we discussed an article about Detroit which depicted the rise and fall of the city. I was expecting a discussion about the global financial crisis and other economical issues, and therefore I was shocked when they claimed that Ulsan was set to be the next Detroit.

 Hyundai Motors, Ulsan plant.

For anyone who is unaware of Ulsan, I will give you a brief introduction. It has been dubbed the ‘industrial armpit of Korea’, because it houses Hyundai Motors (the worlds largest car assembly), Hyundai Heavy Industry (the largest shipyard) and SK Energy (the second largest oil refinery). Ulsan is currently the second richest city in South Korea, and therefore the second most expensive city to live in.

Detroit car assembly line.

Evidently, there are a few similarities between modern Ulsan and Detroit in the early 20th century. In recent years there has been several strikes in the industrial sector as employees have attempted to get pay rises. The big companies have struck back, and steadily more and more work has been shipped abroad to countries with lower wages. People who live near to the industrial centre have claimed that the neighbourhood has gradually been getting quieter; a few years ago it would be lively at clocking out time, but now many of the restaurants and bars are quiet. There are tales of empty office blocks, and rent has dropped significantly in the past five years.

The affinity of the two cities becomes unnerving the more you look at it. Obviously, a multitude of cities go through financial difficulties, and with the current popularity of gentrification has put a positive spin on economic collapse. Even Detroit – the biggest American city to go bankrupt – is currently undergoing a transformation as money is siphoned back into the city. However, it is still massively concerning to consider how Koreans would handle the financial ruin of city like Ulsan after spending so many years growing and becoming stronger.


Teaching The Ant and the Grasshopper

I recently taught Aesop’s The Ant and the Grasshopper to a class of elementary students. It brought stories from my youth rushing back to me, and as tends to be the case when you revisit these tales as an adult, I realised that I didn’t fully appreciate the moral back then. There’s something particularly unsettling about returning to books and movies from your youth and interpreting them with a mature mind. Therefore, I decided that it would be interesting to study a fable with my adult students.

Every time I teach this group, I walk away feeling that I’ve learnt so much from them, (sometimes I worry that they teach me more than I teach them). They are intuitive, interested in learning and generally well-rounded, and they didn’t fail to impress me during this class. As I expected, there is a Korean version of this fable, and the students were familiar with the moral of the story, but this didn’t detract from their enthusiasm.

There was a wide range of ideas about the story – which obviously created an interesting discussion. One student recalled a modern version of the fable where the grasshopper is a famous singer whilst the ant is a labourer who becomes sick from working too hard. It was a darkly comical outlook on modern society, and when I researched modern takes of the fable, I found that there is a multitude. If I teach this lesson again I will probably encourage a discussion of how the tale would unfold in modern life.

Below is a copy of the worksheet that I used. This class are intermediate, but the worksheet could easily be adapted to other levels.

The Ant and the Grasshopper Fable
An Aesop’s Fable

In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; “we have got plenty of food at present.”
But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.
When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer.
Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

Moral of Aesop’s Fable: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

Chirping Carrying
Content Need
Bearing Tweeting
Toil Prepare
Moiling Delivering
Lay up Fulfilled
Distributing Hard work
Necessity Labour


Is there a fable like this in your country?

Do you enjoy reading stories with morals?

Do you relate to the ant or the grasshopper?

Which would you rather do, work hard or play hard? Is there a time for each?

Why didn’t the grasshopper work hard?

What do you think this story is trying to teach?

Discuss the phrase: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Discuss the phrase: “Prepare an umbrella before it rains.”
Do you think the ants should help the grasshopper?

How do you think the ant felt watching grasshopper play while she was working so hard? Have you ever been in a situation like this?

Do you think the grasshopper will help gather food next year?

Do you think any of the ants will choose to sing and dance rather than work to prepare for the winter?





CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)

When I first moved to Korea in 2014, I got an online TEFL qualification in order to beef up my CV and hopefully secure a decent job. The course was pretty mediocre; it seemed to teach a lot of basic grammar (concepts that you could do a quick internet search in order to refresh your memory), but it failed to increase my confidence when it came to teaching. As a first time teacher, I wanted to walk into the classroom with a bit of certainty about my teaching ability, but it took a while for to build my self-confidence. Since then, I’ve realised that most teachers over here don’t have a TEFL qualification, and I’ve seriously wondered whether it was a waste of time and money.

During my first stint as a teacher, a couple of friends spoke positively about their experience achieving the CELTA qualification. When I researched CELTA, I was deterred by the hefty price tag (around £1,300), after my less than positive experience with TEFL (a program that is considerably cheaper than CELTA), I just didn’t want to feel let down. However, after a considerable amount of time debating the pros and cons, I decided to sign up to complete the course during my time back home. 

There are centres for the CELTA worldwide, and you can find the most suitable place for you on their website, and each location has different options. I chose the full-time course which takes four weeks. The program ran Monday to Friday 9-5, with a couple of half days over the duration. There were 11 students split into two groups; each group spent two weeks teaching a lower-intermediate class and two weeks teaching upper-intermediate. For each lesson that we taught we received in-depth feedback from our peers and tutors, who would observe the class. We were also given guidance on our lesson plans and time management in order to adapt the material to the students. Each lesson that we taught was graded as a ‘below standard’, ‘to standard’ or ‘above standard’.

As well as teaching our own lessons, we were provided with the opportunity to observe qualified teachers in order to accumulate an array of teaching methods. Our tutors did seminars on complex grammar, various tasks and styles of teaching for the classroom; they encouraged us to incorporate these into our own lessons. The general feeling was that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel as there is a multitude of resources out there created by qualified teachers.

There are four assignments over the duration of the program that you have two chances to pass (and the tutors will offer you guidance if you are struggling). Each assignment was relatively different so that most trainees found at least one easier than the others. These assignments – along with your lesson grades – go towards your final classification.

I thoroughly enjoyed completing the CELTA. It was obviously very tiring, and there was a lot of work to be done outside of the classroom, but I believed that it broadened my capacity as a teacher and it boosted my confidence. Over the past month, I’ve been implementing some of the concepts into my Korean classroom, and I’ve been really happy with the results.

11 Months Travelling/11 Months Unemployed

Many people dream of the day when they can quit their job and head off travelling for a few months or longer. I was lucky enough to spend 11 months doing just that. In the years prior to my trip I saved huge portions of my wage and planned the locations that I was itching to visit. The last day of work was an emotional rollercoaster as I said goodbye to my students and colleagues at the small private academy in Korea where I’d spent the past 20 months teaching English. Sitting on the late night flight to the Philippines, I shed a tear as the wheels lifted off the Korean soil. Korea had been my home for 20 glorious months, and at the point of leaving I was uncertain whether I’d ever visit again. 

For just over 6 months I explored the beauty of South East Asia; revelling in their culture and sampling exotic food. For the final 5 months of my period of unemployment I travelled around the UK and the USA. During this period of luxury I tried to relish every spectacular encounter, but without much structure in my life I felt that the days were moulding into one. I drifted from one delicious meal to the next, collecting amazing experiences as I went. 

I’m not saying that there was anything negative about the time that I spent travelling, but perhaps I just spent too long in this state of euphoria. For a long time, I’ve believed that you can’t truely appriciate pleasure without pain, and this trip epitomised my philosophy. Without the trials and tribulations of working life, I began to be desensitised by what I was experiencing. 

Therefore, it was with great enthusiasm that I accepted a job teaching in South Korea (again). The time that I spent travelling taught me a multitude of things, but there’s one fact that I’ll cherish as I step back into the working world: a weeks work makes the weekend so much sweeter. 

Testing Season

Korean testing season is renowned worldwide, because It coincides with the dates where suicide rates amongst the youth peak. It is during this time that adolescents will traipse through the streets like the walking dead. They appear to be living off convenience store snacks and coffees, as they’re never at home long enough to truly recuperate. Students religiously stay up past midnight during this season, only to rise again in the early hours in order to repeat the grueling process of studying with the purpose of achieving that all important 100%.

Growing up in England, only the most impeccable student would ever achieve full marks in a test. To put it simply, human error was almost guaranteed to cause you to drop a few marks, but Korean’s don’t seem to have this problem. Many students achieve the prestigious 100% grade, and those who drop a few measly marks act as though they have failed the test. Understandably, it is these high levels of expectation that drive the youth through these insane study periods.

Of course English tests in Korea are quite different than those in many other countries. The room for error is very small due to all the questions being multiple choice. Study preparation generally consists of completing hoarders of past papers until you’re guaranteed minimal mistakes. 

As a foreign teacher, working in an academy, these test seasons can be quite daunting. Many students will appear pale and they’ll always be complaining that they’re hungry and tired. There’s a guilty weight on teachers shoulders during this period. Our jobs are created because of this highly competitive culture, which feeds their desire to overwork. When you see a child’s eyes dropping in class because they’ve stayed up too late the night before, it is our fault by proxy.

Personally, I feel this guilt rather strongly. I don’t set any homework during testing season, because I can see how overworked and exhausted the students are already. Also, I tend to incorporate more game and free time into my lessons. Obviously, this isn’t what the student’s parents are paying for, but if it was one of my students who decided to end their lives because the burden of their studies, I would never be able to forgive myself.

Teaching about Paris

It took me a while to come to terms with the Paris attacks. I knew that as a European teaching in Korea I should broach the subject with my students, and attempt to encourage some kind of understanding about something that is so preposterous. However, my initial response was a refusal to read any of the numerous articles depicting the horrific events of Friday the 13th.

My avoidance proved nearly impossible due to social media, so I deleted my apps in order to shelter myself. Personally, I found there to be far too many opinions screaming throughout the internet. People were literally telling you how you should feel about an event that is so horrific that it will clearly affect us all differently. It is absurd to assume that there would be a common response to this tragedy, and social media only reiterated this fact as people flocked to their keyboards in order to portray their emotions about the attacks. Opinions were varied in many respects which caused numerous online disputes. Watching these arguments unfold I felt a dark dread about the future of humanity. How could something so horrific encourage so many more feuds? Shouldn’t a disaster like this encourage us to tread down the peaceful path? Apparently not, so I buried my head in the sand and dealt with my own grievances.

Eventually, social media calmed down, and I came to terms with the situation enough to plan a debate class for some of my older students. I purposely avoided leading the pupils down a specific path of thinking; instead I encouraged them to voice their own opinions, and insisted that there was no right or wrong answer.

First, I had them brainstorm the facts that they knew about the Friday 13th events. Then we moved away from the evidence and broached the opinions. I asked an array of questions in order to gauge the feelings regarding the attacks. Similar to what the internet was proclaiming, many of the students had contradicting beliefs, and I allowed them to rationally discuss their reasoning. The most poignant questions for me were: ‘How do you feel about ISIS?’ and ‘How do you feel about Islam?’ Some student’s response didn’t differ between the two queries; they felt that both contained a certain badness that needed to be eradicated. However, many of them acknowledged the distinctness of the two, and alleged that one instilled a sense of fear, whilst the other did not. Their differing opinions didn’t cause aggressive disputes, (such as the ones that were playing out on the internet), instead they accepted their diversity.

Another point of the discussion which struck me as significant was whether more police officers and CCTV should now be employed to protect the public. This was greeted with a unanimous affirmative. I will hazard a guess that possibly none of the teenagers at my school have yet to read 1984, so they might not completely comprehend the paranoia that infects a lifestyle where one is under constant observation. However, they are neighbours and relatives with a country that employs some of these tactics on their own citizens, and the regime in the North is not exactly viewed positively. These students are aware of how surveillance can turn against the people it is supposed to be protecting, but they remain hopeful that their own country will only use these strategies to protect them. 

Korea’s Obsession with Appearance 

In a recent class debate, the question was raised about the increasing obsession with appearance. This infatuation is rife in Korea, which boasts the world’s highest percentage of plastic surgery per capita. It’s not only permanent alterations that are prominent, but also perms and hair dyes, which children procure from a ridiculously young age. Also, many teenage girls undergo cosmetic surgery for their birthday when they are approaching university. The most common procedures are a nose job or blepharoplasty, where a crease is inserted in the eyelid in order to have a western style double eyelid. 

Appearance is a constant concern for many of my teenage students. There have been numerous occasions when I have observed one of them spending the whole of break time peering into their handheld mirror and perfecting their selfie. Or I will struggle to maintain a straight face whilst I teach a girl who is sat with a roller pulling her fringe into the perfect curl. Therefore, I was worried that this concept would fail to rile any kind of discussion amongst students who appeared to view a flawless appearance as the norm. However, they amazed me (as they often do), with their open-minded recognition of the situation.

One student highlighted that it is very difficult to look and dress differently in Korea, because you will attract unwanted negative attention. There is an aversion to this scrutiny in Korea which stems from Confucianism which is the foundation of the society. Confucianism emphasises the importance of others evaluations of you, in contrast with your own beliefs about yourself. This stands in opposition to the common ethos in the west that you should follow your own path irrelevant of those around you, and you should strive for individualism.

Generally, Koreans are very stylishly dressed, and there’s a tendency to wear sleek asymmetrical clothes. Despite their stylish exterior there is something that reeks of conformity. It is rare that you will happen upon a Korean who is dressed in a distinctly unique fashion, or wearing an overly revealing outfit. By dressing in the style of the collective you become a part of society, and this idea is mirrored in the cosmetic industry. Korean’s who undergo surgery tend to gravitate towards an optimal image of beauty. That is one with a V-shaped jaw line, big eyes, high cheeks and a ski-slope nose. Plenty of the girls parading around Korea comply with this image, and their clothes are often so similar that they could even be clones.

Another student commented on the compelling beauty of most of the actors and singers. She claimed that you rarely see a successful celebrity who isn’t good-looking. Unlike the former comment, this is also applicable to the west. Television screens are overrun with dazzling beauties, and this paints a picture that attractiveness comes hand in hand with success. This impossible ideal leaves people feeling insufficient, so it becomes understandable that they opt for plastic surgery in order to bridge the gap.

Often I feel contempt for what appears to be an unashamed compliance with vanity that runs through Korea. However, I’ve grown to view it as an issue of self-confidence, where people are unable to be their natural selves. We’re all unique to a certain extent, and we should be proud of our weird and wonderful characteristics. I feel sympathetic to those who comply with an accumulated identity instead of reveling in their own individuality.