Next up in the “Teaching in Asia” interview series is my friend Philip, who some of you may know as ToLokyo on YouTube. Philip graduated from university in 2003 with a degree in English Education – Secondary and a certification to teach grades 6-12 in Florida. During college, Philip did an internship abroad in Saipan. After graduating, he moved to South Korea in the summer of 2003 and started teaching English. Then, in mid-2005, Philip moved to Japan, where he made his living as a freelance English teacher until the summer of 2010. He is currently traveling around the world filming a YouTube video series called “Caught Doin’ Good,” that highlights individuals and organizations all over the world who are doing good things to build up the communities around them.. With seven years of experience living and teaching in both South Korea and Japan, Philip’s observations on living and working in Asia are extremely insightful and nuanced. Furthermore, as a formally-educated English teacher, his perspective on foreign-language teaching is much deeper than that of the average, run-of-the-mill ALT. He is also one of the most genuinely happy and fun-loving individuals that I have ever met; every time I see him, I am surprised by his positivity and enthusiasm. If you’d like to read more about Philip, his ‘Caught Doin’ Good’ project, or watch his YouTube videos, please follow these links:
Philip/ToLokyo’s website: http://www.locomote.org
Caught Doin’ Good homepage: http://www.cdg2010.org
ToLokyo on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/ToLokyo
Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?
Philip: When I graduated from university, I considered teaching around Asheville, NC in a high school. I knew I’d had enough of South Carolina and Florida, and I was ready to start something new. At that time, it was the beginning of the war in Iraq, and massive funds had been diverted from education programs all over the nation to be used in the war effort. I heard horror stories from friends who graduated the year before of having to teach with no textbooks or resources. In one fateful week, I randomly encountered about 5 teachers. They all had the exact same advice: “RUN~!!!! You’re young! You can do something else! You don’t have to be stuck in this hell of a job! Get out while you still can~!!!!” I took the hint and decided to look into a website I had heard of a few years back called Dave’s ESL Cafe.
Constantine: What sparked your interest in Asia?
Philip: I’ve always been fascinated by places I know nothing about. Beyond using Hook-ups trucks on my skateboard in high school (a company famous for t-shirts using Sailor Moon characters) and a friend or two who were into Japanimation films like Akira, I knew nothing at all about Asia. I felt absolutely ignorant when I considered it, which was by far the most appealing point. To go somewhere I know nothing about – that seemed like the greatest adventure I could imagine at the time.
Constantine: You ended up teaching English in Korea first. Why did you pick Korea over Japan or China? Did you apply to any teaching programs in Japan or China?
Philip: This is a very simple answer. I posted my resume on Dave’s ESL Cafe’s free message board, and within 1 hour I had over 40 job offers in my email box, mostly from Korea, and one phone call directly from Korea. I remember sitting in my brother’s apartment staring at his computer screen in shock and pacing on the balcony as I tried to ward off the Korean recruiter on the phone who claimed he had already bought a ticket for me to Korea, and I was to leave 3 days later on Saturday morning. It was obvious – there was MASSIVE demand for a teacher of my qualifications in Korea at the time, and they were willing to go out of their way to accommodate me. I was very hesitant and spent over a month searching through job boards and reading experiences of other teachers in the area. I still kept my options open for Taiwan and Japan. Japan seemed like the ‘coolest’ of choices, but the demand coming out of Korea was overwhelming.
Constantine: Did you study Korean (or any East Asian language) before going?
Philip: Not at all. The first time I ever really studied any language was a couple weeks after arriving in Korea. My family is French/English bilingual though.
Constantine: Who did you work for and how did you learn about the program?
Philip: I finally decided to take a job at Dan & Pete’s English Club, in Changwon, Korea. I found it in the job boards on Dave’s ESL Cafe. The school’s director spoke to me directly and even contacted me by phone a few times. He took the time to answer any question I could come up with. I could tell that it was a small-time operation with just a couple staff, and that this director’s word was more valuable than any contract I could get anywhere in Korea. Korea was infamous for schools that treated teachers unbelievably badly, so I felt that my personal relationship with this director was my best defense against that.
Constantine: What was the application process like? What qualifications were they looking for and what documentation did you need?
Philip: It was a pretty simple application process. After posting my resume once, I was flooded with offers for weeks and weeks, none ever asking for any more information than what I had already given. I had to show that I had a passport before going, but that was about all.
Constantine: Did your employers pay for you ticket to Korea? Did they help you with your move in other ways?
Philip: Yes – they paid for my ticket there, and they provided a fully furnished apartment, completely equipped with two cute Canadian girls (other teachers at the school) and every appliance imaginable.
Constantine: What kind of visa do you need to work in Korea? What was the visa application process like?
Philip: I needed a work visa. The application process was extremely cryptic, and the school was happy to keep it that way. I basically stood and smiled while the director took care of everything in Korean. My visa belonged to the school, and if I quit, I had to leave the country. The office kept my passport for about 2 weeks, and then returned it to the school with my work visa stamped in it. If I hadn’t trusted the school’s director, there would have been A LOT of things about that process that would have been stressful.
Teaching and Living in Korea
Philip: Dan & Pete’s English Club was a very small hagwon (language school) on the 2nd floor of a commercial building in small-town Changwon. My students were from around 4 to 17, mostly in the younger elementary school ages. Most of the students between 7 and 14 were hellians. They had no manners whatsoever, and had utter disrespect for my authority. I was never expected to keep them in line or teach them, simply to entertain them with a little bit of English mixed in on occasion. I did have one group of 4 and 5 year old girls that were absolute angels, and the high schoolers were generally bored and disconnected, aside from the girls who regularly liked to ask me the size of my…you know…or other awkward questions.
Constantine: What was your typical day like?
Philip: I generally woke up around noon, had a shower and got dressed before walking toward the school. I usually picked up lunch along the way, and started lessons around 2-3pm. I would teach 55 minute lessons with 5 minute breaks back to back most days until 9pm. It went by very quickly, and left me tired and thirsty at the end of the night. I usually then headed downtown to the local Irish Pub to have a few pints and play pool or darts with the other weiguk (foreigner) friends I’d met there. I’d stay out usually until 3 or 4am, and then head back home in the unbelievably cheap taxis. Almost every weekend I left on Friday night to go explore other parts of Korea and came back around Sunday night.
Constantine: How much control did you have over lesson plans and classes? Do you work with a Korean English teacher?
Philip: I had absolute control. There were no lesson plans, but textbooks available. I was alone in the lessons, and usually taught from the book for the first 20-30 minutes and then played any number of games with the kids while trying to figure out what they said in Korean for the rest of the lesson.
Constantine: After about 7 months, you started teaching at a different location in Korea. What was that like?
Philip: My 2nd job was at Yongin High School, a public high school about 45 minutes south of Seoul. My students were about 80% girls in high school grades 1-3. The school was relatively countryside, and they had never had a foreign teacher before…I usually had 2-3 lessons a day on a typical busy day. However, there were A LOT of days where I had 1 or 0 lessons. On those days, I was still required to come in and look busy on my computer in the office. On rare occasions I played games, but often I used the time to discover the world of blogging. It was a relatively new phenomenon at the time.
Constantine: Were you involved in any extra-curricular activities?
Philip: I joined a Samulnori club for a little while. It’s a traditional percussion performance group. The students were insanely strict, and my part there was just as a bit of a observer/giggle-inducer for the girls. When they didn’t realize that I was around, the older students were ridiculously harsh on the younger ones, using berating and corporal punishment regularly for tardiness or slacking off. That weirded me out a bit… Korean high school students don’t think so highly of their teachers these days, but they live in extreme fear/respect of their elder students, especially the ones that lead their extra-curricular activities. When the elder students walked by them in the hall, they would stop talking and often bow deeply in a very military-like fashion. I’ve never seen that happen in the US.
Constantine: What were some of the differences between Korean students and American students?
Philip: Korean students were surprisingly undisciplined with foreigners, seeing us as toys that their parents paid a lot to let them play around with. Korean teachers used a lot of corporal punishment to keep them in line, but they weren’t meant to stay in line in our lessons…I’ve always prided myself in being an educator. The biggest challenge was dealing with the fact that I was a well-paid toy, and my students were most likely not learning anything.
Constantine: What are your thoughts on the Korea education system?
Philip: Parents are often deceived by the big business of education. They often believe that if their kids are at an educational facility that has a facade of formality, they must be learning, and if they come back home with smiles on their faces, the school must be doing a good job. The business side of English education is very well-developed and is extremely profit-driven. Students spend unbelievable amounts of time at school, and a shockingly small amount of that time actually studying. It makes for peaceful, compliant young people who generally are well prepared for compulsory military service. Recently the internet is undermining that system a bit, and I’d be interested to see how it’s evolved even just since I left 5 years ago.
Constantine: In Korea, how much were you paid? What was your standard of living like?
Philip: I was paid about the equivalent of US$2000/month, plus my apartment and utilities were all covered. Compared to my broke college days, I was living like a king, never even considering how I threw my money around. I was really foolish with finances.
Constantine: Did you have many opportunities to interact with other foreigners in your job, or were you the only foreigner for miles around?
Philip: There were the other two Canadian girls at first, and then another Canadian guy came later. Also there was my best friend Daniel, from England. He lived about 5 minutes walk away and taught at a different school, but we shared pints most nights. At the second school, there was 1 other teacher who came in halfway through the year. She wasn’t extremely social, but I spent most of my weekends in Seoul. I had gotten past the desire to be around foreigners at that point, and spent most of my time with Korean girls I’d met. Occasionally I joined foreign outdoor groups on rafting trips or the like, but their negativity always brought me down. I much preferred weeknights with local Korean friends and weekends with Seoul ladies… Before long though, I have to admit that I became far too easily intoxicated with how easy it was to catch the attention of beautiful women. I spent a lot of my free-time going out and drinking. Unless there was another specific activity lined up, I often ended up at the local Irish Pub shooting pool or darts and chatting with friends. After moving to Seoul, I was usually in clubs with pseudo-friends every weekend or some kind of fancy date. I went hiking at times, and during my second job, I got a motorcycle and did a lot of touring around Korea as well. My best friend had a bike too, so we went on some really fun road trips.
Constantine: Did you ever have any problems with your employers not following your contract? If you did, was there anything that you could do about it?
Philip: The first school tried to fire me one weekend when I decided to put my earrings in. I came back on Monday with a couple of captured-ball loops in my ears, and soon learned from one of the other teachers that the director was trying to find a way to fire me. I sometimes went out with the director for drinks after work, and he invited me out a few days later. He spent about 2 hours trying to convince me that it’s ok for me to admit to him that I’m gay, and that he has no problem with gays whatsoever. He had even “seen one or two once when he was in California, so I could be honest with him.” I continued to explain that I was not in fact gay, and that I simply wore earrings because I thought they were cool. I would be happy to take them out and not put them in again if that would make him feel better. That was the only time I ever had any trouble.
Constantine: Wow…that’s really amazing. Did you experience any culture shock?
Philip: Nope. I really didn’t…I was waiting for it, and expecting it. I just enjoyed myself massively every day. I was in paradise – I lived like a king, drank whenever I wanted, killed time through a few hours at work each day, and had the pick of my choice with my newly-discovered love for Korean women. I was having way too much fun to consider culture shock.
Constantine: Did your language skills improve? How much time did you spend studying Korean?
Philip: I found myself shocked at how successful I was with Korean. At first I actually believed Koreans when they were impressed at my few words, but then I realized that they do that with anyone who knows a single word, so I stopped judging myself by that. After a couple weeks there, I decided to seriously study the writing system, and after an hour of focused study, I couldn’t believe how much of the text around me I could pronounce. 2 or 3 more hour-long sessions, and I had mastered the writing system. Sadly, that was about the only “study” I did. I picked up quite a lot of Korean over drinks, but my main skill was the ability to observe and imitate their culture. Looking back, I think my Korean language was horrendous, but my ability to act like them let them be very comfortable including me in their social activities, which then surrounded me by more and more of the language. Soon I had a decent vocabulary, and I could hold my own at most basic social situations. I mastered the art of pulling out just enough language to make random strangers laugh and convince them to buy me drinks. It was lots of fun for a while, but I never felt the want/need to get much language beyond that.
Constantine: What were some of the biggest cultural differences between Korea and the US? …Or the ones that you noticed.
Philip: Korea is an extremely homogeneous society – they look the same, dress the same, act the same, and in many ways think the same. That’s obviously very different from the US.
But on a more practical level, their take on alcohol is very different, I think. Alcohol is a vital part of society, to the point that it’s almost a daily routine for many Koreans. I think Americans are very different with alcohol depending on where you are, but where I come from, consuming alcohol daily is generally considered a disease. From that perspective, the majority of Koreans are alcoholics, and if you aren’t an alcoholic, you’ll often face pressure and rejection from your peers and superiors. I don’t know many places like that in the US.
Constantine: In some ways, that’s similar to how people like to describe Japan. How did your perceptions of Korea change?
Philip: I had expected Asia to be a paradise for teachers, with students maintaining an almost scary respect for authority. I soon found out that that’s not always the case, and in most situations, students will rebel and lash out in their own ways. More than anything, they’ll do their best to ignore teachers if possible, and I think probably some bad Korean teachers encourage that behavior.
Constantine: Did you experience any negative reactions to your presence in Korea or any racism?
Philip: Many Korean men were very protective of their women. There’s a lot of direct prejudice against US military, but I didn’t look like them, so I didn’t get much of that. One time I was in a club with a friend and two Korean girls. Some Korean guys came up and literally picked a fight with the women in Korean, trying to convince them to slip out the club away from us so that they could have a fist-fight with them. The girls cooled the guys down before we knew what was going on really, but I was shocked at the boys’ insistence to fight the women. They never made any moves on us at all. I grew less and less fond of Korean men through experiences like that, but I’m sure they’re not all like that.
Constantine: What’s the craziest thing that happened to you in Korea?
Philip: The 2nd night after I arrived in Korea, my roommates decided to introduce me to a bit of Korean culture. We started out the night on Dong Dong Ju, a very raw form of rice wine that tastes something like a sweet porridge. I never drank growing up, so I was clueless about my limits. The night continued with lemon-soju, a more refined rice liquor that goes down easily. I was amazed by all the neon lights, cheap prices, and extravagance of every bar we entered. Far into the night we ended up back at the apartment with large bottles of cheap gin and tonic. The next image I remember is myself half-undressed sprawled across the bathtub and the next day my roommate had bite marks on her arm that she never would tell me about.
So many other insane nights just blended into one after that, so that’s the craziest that I can remember as a solid whole…A couple times Korean men tried to “see what a foreign man’s feels like” while I was sleeping at bath-houses. That’s always a traumatic experience.
Constantine: Would you recommend the program you did in Korea to potential teachers?
Philip: I would recommend it only to beginners just out of college who want to get their first taste of a foreign country. It was easy, well-paid, and extremely forgiving of all the blunders I went through finding my place out there. There was no support system at all, so I had to figure it out all on my own. That gave me confidence and taught me to be innovative, but I made a lot of mistakes along the way as well.
Teaching and Living in Japan
Constantine: Why did you decide to move to Japan?
Philip: About 6 months after moving to Korea, I took a ship across the East Sea (Sea of Japan) from Pusan to Shimonoseki. While soaking in the on-board bath, I peered out the frost-ringed windows through the dark, snow-filled sky and across the pulsating sea. In the distance, I saw cliffs rising out the sea in the horizon – my first glimpse of Japan. I decided that I had to live there someday.
Constantine: Did you apply to an English teaching job in Japan or did you immediately start freelancing?
Philip: I started at an English language school called American Language School. I applied while I was in Korea and did an interview over the phone.
Constantine: How did you get your Japanese work visa?
Philip: The school prepared my first visa, and then a year later, I had it renewed as an instructor visa by a girl’s high school where I took a part-time job. The high school renewed it again the next year for 3 years, and I used that until leaving in 2010.
Constantine: How did you get involved with freelancing and what sort of jobs do you do?
Philip: My school got increasingly more successful after I started teaching, and I could tell that I was helping them out a lot. Almost every student that came in for a trial lesson signed up, and all the old students were very happy. With all the new students, my schedule became busier and busier, but the school refused to pay me any extra for the success I was handing them. I told them that they would have to pay me better, or I would have to move on. At their refusal, I gave them 1 month’s notice and began searching for possible opportunities. I started by creating a website for teaching and printing out flyers for private lessons. I stood in front of the station in a suit and handed out the flyers saying “onegaishimasu”. I got a lot of strange looks and not a single email or call. But at the same time I was making many connections online and soon I had contact about my first private student through an online teaching agency. At the same time I created a voice demo and took some modeling pictures, and I went across town applying with acting agencies. I also worked for culture centers teaching English to retired Japanese people, and I got a part-time job at a girl’s high school that found a way to take care of my visa. It took about 3-4 months before I was financially viable, but from then until around the end of 2009, my work became busier and busier, and I enjoyed a couple of years of successful freelancing. Over the years I often stumbled across work opportunities or created them myself. For example, I contacted a website called JapanesePod101.com that I had used for studying Japanese a bit at the beginning. I asked them why they didn’t make any teaching videos, and their response was that there wasn’t anyone who could do it. I offered to take it on, and now they’ve got a healthy and growing video department.
Constantine: What is your typical day like as a freelancer in Tokyo? What kind of students do you have?
Philip: Right now, it’s quite slow, and most of my morning lessons have faded out, so most of my days start between 11am and 6pm, and run until about 9pm. When I was busy, I had lessons as early as 7am, and as late as 11pm, and up to 6 one hour lessons in completely different parts of Tokyo in one day. Today I just had one lesson from 8:15-9:15pm.
Acting jobs can be very short or very long. For example, when I rehearsed for a musical, I had 3 days of intense work from 9am to 10pm. Voice-acting jobs tend to be under 1 hour.
The busy times can be exhausting, but really fulfilling. The slow times always give you just enough fear that it won’t get busy again that you start to create new opportunities, only to find yourself swamped again in a few days. Looking back, I have to say that the busy times are by far the best. The only regret I have there is the toll the busyness takes on your social life, often making it where your social life and work life are generally indistinguishable.
I have a wide variety of students, but for the most part they’re very successful or serious about becoming successful. I have one student who regularly makes the #1 spot on Amazon.co.jp with his business books, and a large number of my students are professionals like doctors, accountants, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. Sometimes I teach young business-people, but they usually are just studying for a specific purpose, so they don’t last too long. I have a couple students who are living typical monotonous office lives, but they had good English experiences when they were younger, so they like to maintain it for old time’s sake and for the possible future benefits.
Constantine: There are a variety of ways to be a language teacher in Asia; government programs, private companies, freelancing, etc. Which do you ultimately prefer?
Philip: For me, I prefer freelancing. Or entrepreneuring. If I were to stay in Asia, I would be developing some kind of business plan to create something that could keep me challenged and reward my efforts – probably something integrating education and video. I think government programs provide the most stability, but don’t offer much room for growth. Private companies are the easiest to get in and out of, so they’re good for people who see themselves as extremely transient. Freelancing/entrepreneuring is the least stable and requires the most effort and self-discipline, but offers potential for the highest payback and gives you complete control over your fate.
Constantine: Do you need to have decent Japanese language skills to be a freelance English teacher in Tokyo?
Philip: No. You don’t need to have decent Japanese language skills for anything that involves English teaching in Asia, but understanding the culture is vital. In a company, there are Japanese staff that deal with creating a sense of professionalism and comfort that is needed by the students, but as a freelancer that’s your responsibility. Understanding their concepts of those things and working within those boundaries is very important. Giving them your foreign culture in digestible doses is an art-form.
Constantine: Were there any big differences between Korea and Japan that you needed to adjust to?
Philip: Very much so. The Japanese personality is absolutely different from the Korean. Koreans are very open with their thoughts and feelings. A normal day walking into school involved hundreds of screaming girls making heart shapes at me with their hands from the windows, but as soon as I did something they might not like, they were well prepared to lash out in anger. Japanese students are much harder to read. You don’t know if they like you or not or if you’re getting through to them at all – even sometimes after teaching them for 3 years. You just have to do what you feel is best without getting feedback or really knowing whether it’s being effective or not. It requires confidence in your teaching abilities and sometimes a bit of a thick skin.
Constantine: If you were to compare living and working in Japan with your experience in Korea, what are some of the pros and cons of each place?
Philip: Korea is easy to get into. They pay for more things, so your expenses are lower, and the money you make goes much further. For me, that made me lazy and indulgent, and I became selfish and arrogant. It’s harder to get started in Japan, and there is a much larger group of established long-termers that you have to compete against. If you aren’t willing to put in some effort at creating your place in Japan, you’ll end up in a bit of an extension of the poor college student life-style. Japan is a place where you either make money or spend money at all times. If you learn to enjoy the making money part, you’ll be very successful.
Constantine: What are your future plans after you leave Japan?
Philip: I’m going ’round the world!! I’ll travel for at least a year from this August, making videos and continuing my world education. I want to learn the cultures and histories of the places I visit and use what I learn through that and what I’ve learned here to propel me into bigger and better things in the future. I don’t have a clear plan of what that’ll be, but I’m looking forward to finding out!
Constantine: What advice would you give to people who are interested in teaching abroad in Asia?
Philip: Listen to people who are there or have been there. Ask questions. Think about what the different options are and what you want to get out of the experience. Use the amazing abundance of information from bloggers, YouTubers, and forums online to your advantage. Learn from others’ successes and failures. Be flexible with your culture – don’t be afraid to take on characteristics of another culture when you’re around it. And most importantly, avoid negative people like the PLAGUE!! It’s great to be critical of things and not just be blind to the negatives, but not when you’re trying to adjust to living within that culture. You will not change it. The negativity will console you and give you something to relate with other negative foreigners or natives about, but do you want to leave a place only having learned why you shouldn’t have gone there in the first place? It’s much better to focus on what in that culture can benefit you, and use that to make yourself a more complete and self-aware person. Staring arrogantly down at the idiocies of a culture will only leave you trapped in your own ignorance.
Very well-said, Philip. Thanks!
Tags: Caught Doing Good, constantine in tokyo, constantineintokyo, Japan, Japanese, Japanese culture, Korea, life in Japan, life in Korea, South Korea, teaching, teaching English, teaching English abroad, teaching English in Japan, teaching English in Korea, ToLokyo, Travel