Monday, September 10, 2012

Tutoring in Korea

I've been putting off telling this story, because I've known that it would take me a very long time to tell.  Finally, here it is.

My experience with illegal tutoring in Korea.

My story is neatly zipped into two parts: Before and After Christmas.

It was Before Christmas when all I had was an outsider's perspective.  I had done some research online before arriving in Korea, and I knew that tutoring was a thing.  Just a thing.  When I got here, I heard rumors about some friends of mine sneaking away to meet with Koreans for tutoring. I did more research and found that it's illegal and can in fact be very lucrative for the tutor.  Still, it was something that other people did and something that I had no first-hand experience with.  I was fine with that, anyway.  I sure didn't want to risk being deported for what I saw to be a major time-sucker.

The second chapter goes a little differently.  (It's also much longer, beware.)

When I returned to Korea after Christmas Break in America, something had changed.  It was as if I had this new invisible badge on my chest that told people I knew what I was doing and could be trusted with secrets.    Those things were more true after Christmas, I was much more familiar and comfortable in Korea than I had been back home.  Apparently, I had made it through some test and was now a firmer fixture in the country and culture.  I knew not to look at people in the eyes on the street.  I craved kimchi.  I preferred chopsticks.

That's my theory, at least.  Who knows, maybe I was just never in the right place at the right time.  Or maybe, the turn of the school year (which happens at the end of February here) got the parents on the look out for their children's education.  Regardless, something changed all at once, and people started to approach me about tutoring.

I'll tell you the end of the story then go back and fill in the details.

I could be making at least an extra 400,000 per month with tutoring.  That's roughly $355.  I've been offered that much and more in exchange for basically hanging out and talking with people in English for an hour or so each.  How crazy is that?
Now, here are the individual stories.

#1 - The ajumma from the hair salon
In January, I got my first in-Korea hair cut.  And for only 10,000!  The hair dresser knew no English, but I had gotten a Korean friend to write down what I wanted in Korean, so that was no problem.  It wasn't a problem when the ajumma (older lady) next to me started to chat with me in English, either.  Through both of our broken foreign languages, we communicated that she had a daughter in the States who was studying viola.  I was an English teacher at a nearby hagwon.  And she might have said I was pretty (or maybe I just like putting that into all my stories with Korean people now).

The direction of the conversation changed with this one sentence of hers.
"You teach me."
Ahhh, so this is the kind of exchange I'd heard about.  Well, I didn't want to do anything illegal, but if this lady wanted to chat over coffee, I was pretty sure I could swing it.

She quickly laid out her plan by asking me to meet her at this same hair salon the very next night.  I was not expecting something so rushed, but I said sure.  She also mentioned that she would pay me, and I was so caught up in the hurry, I said okay to 40,000.

When I arrived the next night at the hair salon, the stylist recognized me and had me some inside and watch Korean TV while I waited for the ajumma.  I waited for a long time.  In fact, she never came.  Instead, a middle aged woman and two middle school kids came along.  The stylist motioned that I should go with them.

There are times when my gut tells me that I should slow things down and think things through before I do something rash.  I usually barge ahead instead.  This was one of those times.

I followed the small family down the street while making very small talk with the mother.  I gathered that she was taking me to the ajumma's house.  Without seriously considering whether I should or not, I trusted her even when she led me into an apartment building and up to the fourth floor.  She knocked on a door in a dark hallway, and then I saw the familiar face of the ajumma.  (She was still a stranger, too, but for some reason I felt safer when I saw her.)

The ajumma opened the door to her home and smiled at me very big.  She ushered me into her living room.  She brought another middle-aged woman into the room.  This new lady began to speak to me in English.  She told me that the ajumma I met at the hair salon was her mother.  She told me that she wanted me to tutor her mother. her 6-year-old daughter (who had yet to make an appearance), and also the two middle schoolers I had seen earlier.  She told me they would pay me and have me for as many lessons as I had time for.  Once a week?  Twice a week?  What do you think?

Woah.  Woah, woah, woah.  This was nothing like what I expected.

I was shocked, and we know how I behave when I'm shocked.
I did my best to go with the flow.  "Um... sure?  Wait, no wait, I can't do this every week, I will stand up for myself.  Sort of.  Okay, every other Friday?  Sounds good...  Yes?"

I spent the next two hours trying to figure out what the heck I should be doing when given two middle schoolers and then a preschooler + grandma to teach.  No curriculum, no plan, just... um... wing it!  (It wasn't too much of a disaster, but I definitely wouldn't have taken notes and shared them as tips for teachers.)

I promised to return in two weeks, swapped phone numbers with the mother, and held onto the money she pressed into my hand.  For the following two weeks, however, I felt that money burning my conscience.  I've been brought up in a way that doesn't allow me to break the rules.  (That doesn't include No Trespassing signs, I'm afraid.)  Korea's rules are: you must be registered if you're going to tutor for money, and you may not be a paid tutor otherwise.  The very next time I saw the mother, I gave her the money back. She protested very, very much, and she tried to assure me that they wouldn't rat me out.  No one would know.  We were all going to be safe.  Please don't worry, and please take the money.  (It is a thing in Korea to turn in possible illegal tutors to the authorities, and the mom and I both knew that it was possible that the other one of us was a mole.)

I wasn't going to be having her money.  And,  I didn't need to, but I felt responsible for these students who were dropped in my lap.  I told the mom that I would continue to tutor them without pay.  I convinced her to let me, and we all lived happily ever after until I started taking dance lessons on our usual meeting day and they found a different tutor.

The end!

#2 - A friend of a friend

Just as I passed on my first students to someone else, I had someone pass a student to me.  A friend of mine took me to this student's house because, and this is important, the student is a middle aged adult.  We will call her Ann.  Ann studies English on her own, but wants a native speaker to go over her notes and to answer any puzzling questions about the language.

When we were introduced, I told Ann that I wouldn't be accepting money.  (I'd learned my lesson with the previous story.)  She also protested very much.  She told me, "If I do not pay you, how can I ask you to come and help me study?"  I told her, "Well, then we will just have to be friends."

And that's what's happened.  Ann and I are very good friends, actually, and I love her very much.
Looking over everything again, I'm fairly sure that it wouldn't have been illegal had I been accepting money from Ann because she's not a student-student.  She's not in school, I mean.  But, keeping money out of the equation leaves room for real and deep relationship.  I like it.

The end!

#3 - A stranger at Yongsan station

In March, my friend Drew came to Korea.  We got to meet each other for the first time since his arrival a few weeks later.  We met at Yongsan station.  He got there first.  As soon as I spotted him from the top of a long flight of stairs, I ran down to hug him.  Two English-speaking foreigners makes quite a scene, I suppose, because we were quickly noticed and approached by a man who started to speak to us.

"Hello, I am looking for a tutor for my son.  He is 17.  He wants to study English."

I was totally miffed that this stranger was encroaching on our reunion.  The natural reaction to strangers is politeness, but I wasn't having any more of this "Teach me English!" silliness.  I told him, very solidly, No, we are not interested.

The end!

(And there's still one more...)

#4 - A supervisor at work

All of these stories happened around the same time, by the way.  In Korea, the school year turns in early March.  That's when teachers are coming in, classes are changing, and tutors are leaving.  People start looking for people, you see.

One day at work, one of my supervisors called me over.  Her voice was quiet but confident.  She told me that one of the teachers who'd left our school had been tutoring some adult friends of hers.  She asked if I'd like to pick up those classes.  There'd be payment of course.

I'd already committed my dance class, so I had a legitimate excuse to point to when I really just wanted to start keeping more time for myself and to continue to stay out of people's business.  I politely told her no thank you.

The end!

I have not had any propositions since this last one.  I won't be accepting any others, either.  I've stuck with my friend Ann, we've become very involved with each other's lives since our beginning, but it's friendship, not really a teacher-student relationship.

But do you think I could put volunteer English tutor on my resume?

A few quick words to potential English tutors in Korea:
  • For the record, after living in Korea for 13 months, I've still never heard of foreigners getting caught tutoring.  Getting caught brings serious consequences, though.  Deportation, jail... good stuff like that.
  • I do agree with the idea behind restricting tutoring, and I do not believe that the Korean government is being racist at all.  
    • I mean, for crying out loud, if the government wanted to be racist, they wouldn't allow foreign teachers in at all.
    • People in Korea do not need the issues of illegal tutoring in order to be racist, anyway.  There are plenty other more obvious examples.  Like MBC's story about "Shocking Truth About Relationships with Foreigners."  Oh my goodness.
  • Also, there are legal ways to tutor for money.  Admittedly, I don't know how extensive the registration process is, but it is available and apparently is easier if you have an F-2 visa.  Also, looks like you can be approved by the school who sponsors your visa.  
Kk, that's all!


  1. It is still existing nowaways, I think.

  2. Oh my goodness! WHAT an adventure!!!

  3. So, this comment is pretty boring, but I just wanted to say that was a fascinating read :)

  4. It was really neat being a part of the issues and also learning about them. I'm glad for the experience and the stories.

  5. I know a few people who got in trouble. The worst part is, guilty until proven innocent and an awful bureaucracy that makes it extremely difficult to sort the matter, make a formal complaint, defend yourself at all. This is absolutely an unspoken issue in Korea. No one who gets caught speaks up. I doubt that there is faithful legal system that is handling these cases. "Oh, you have the name of a foreigner you think was tutoring. Good! He's guilty!"

    1. Wow, yeah. I never heard stories of people getting caught, but I know friends who tutored who were EXTREMELY cautious about it.

      I was approached out in the open at a large subway station by a well dressed man asking if I'd tutor his son. He was probably legitimate, but something felt off. I wonder if people try to nab foreigners that way.

      Thanks for your input!


Thank you for sharing your thoughts! If there is something you want me to respond to specifically, feel free to send me an email; I'd love to chat.