Protect Yourself From Corrupt Hagwons in Korea. You Have Options.

This is (almost) my first non-food related post on this website. Usually I would hesitate to write such a post on a site so clearly dedicated to food, but I feel this will explain my two-month absence away from posting recipes. Also, I hope to help others in similar situations, which seems to be happening to more and more teachers in hagwons. If it weren’t for a few key friends who helped point me in the right direction, I wouldn’t have known how to protect myself. The whole endeavour would have ended quite differently. Likely with more question marks. And more tears.

Teaching in Korean private academies (hagwons) can be extremely beneficial in many ways. For four years, my experience teaching at hagwons has been far from perfect, but I’d always considered myself to be in relatively good situations. That is until two months ago when the shit hit the fan.

I found myself being treated very unfairly by my employers and trapped in a scam. After sacking me and another foreign teacher for unjust reasons, my employers informed me that if I wanted my release letter (necessary for visa transfer), I would not only have to repay the airfare they provided to get my out to Korea, but I would have to pay a 500,000 won recruiter’s fee. The latter was not stated on my contract and it became clear to me that my employers were going to hold my release letter hostage for money.

When in Korea on a teacher’s visa, one cannot just switch jobs. This is because our jobs are tied in to our employers. Employers can choose to release their teachers, or not.  Immigration laws for foreign teachers tend to be strictly enforced, while laws regulating hagwon abuse seem to be few and far between. It is a very unfortunate, problematic issue and it is not uncommon for hagwon owners take grave advantage of this.

After battling back and forth between thoughts of waiting to see what happens, fleeing the country and fighting tooth and nail for my rights, I decided I needed to protect myself. I did. And it F-ing worked.

Here are the steps I took:

I wrote out my grievance and thoroughly prepared all my evidence and documents including pay slips, conflicting statements and scrutinized my contract with the school. I also started secretly recording conversations with the owners on my phone.

Next, I found out my rights and read about commonly used deceptive practices by hagwon and hagwon owners on this very helpful site created by foreign lawyers who know Korean laws.

I read discussion boards on and various other places to see what steps other teachers have taken to protect themselves when in similar situations.

I called the Korean immigration hotline and told them my grievance. They set up an appointment. I was hoping they would be able to switch my visa from an E-2 to a D-10. D-10 is a “looking for work” status and is a relatively new option for foreigners. It provides more time to those in urgent situations to take more time to look for work. They weren’t especially helpful as they informed me I needed a claim slip from the labour board before they could do anything.

So, I called one of the Labour officers at the Seoul Global Center and the Support Center for Foreign Workers to get their professional opinion of my case. After they, and everyone else I spoke to about it said my case sounded quite serious and that I wasn’t being treated fairly, I decided the best way to protect myself would be to make a claim with the Labour Board against my employers. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this in English. I had a Korean friend help me translate my grievance and fill out the claim form.

This was incredibly nerve wracking for me. I had never had to take actions such as these in my life and I was unsure of what the outcome would be or how long it would take to process. So, I read more discussion boards where people shared their stories of woe and triumph after making a claim against a employer with the labour board. I was relieved to find out that it seems the labour board has gotten so sick of hagwons breaking contracts and using so many deceptive practices to cut costs that they have really begun cracking down on them.

When a claim is made by a teacher, the labour board takes the hagwon to court. This looks really bad for the hagwon. Since they are concerned about the reputation of their establishment, they will often begin making offers to the teacher to get them to cancel the claim. The labour board knows this and informs the hagwon they have a few days to settle the dispute before they begin the investigation. Since I didn’t have the time, nor did I want to go through a painful legal battle, I was banking on my hagwon making offers to me as soon as they heard from the labour board. They did. I got my release letter and pretty much everything I wanted that day and it only took a few days.

Teachers, do not despair. You have options and there are ways to protect yourself. Don’t run away or give up without fighting. Before accepting any position, be sure to check your next potential employers on all the Hagwon Blacklists and be smart about scrutinizing your contract well. Good luck.

Here are photos to help remind you that you love Korea.

P1230126Seoul FortressKorean children doing stretchesPajeon and kimchi

Korean Fist-Rice with Fried Seaweed, Prosciutto and White Truffle Oil

Korean Fist Rice with Fried Seaweed Prosciutto and White Truffle Oil 2

Of all the comfort foods I have grown to love here in Korea, Joomeok Bap, or Fist-Rice has become one of my favourites. This snack is healthy, tasty, easy and satisfying to make. It is perfect to bring on a picnic or as a pick-me-up when outdoors.

Korean Fist Rice with Fried Seaweed Prosciutto and White Truffle Oil

Fist-Rice is traditionally made by hand-mixing various vegetables, as well as ground beef or dried anchovies with rice. The mixture is then tightly packed into individual, fist shaped balls.  The best of the bunch uses crumbled seaweed (kim ga-ru). This is because Korean seaweed is deep-fried, salted and flavoured with sesame seeds, perilla oil and a pinch of sugar. The stuff is salty, greasy and delicious, so it’s easy to devour an entire bag in one go.

Korean Fist Rice with Fried Seaweed Prosciutto and White Truffle Oil 1

The combination of flavours in this dish are so glorious, it brings tears to my eyes. Land and sea take hand and make beautiful fist shaped babies.

Korean Fist Rice with Fried Seaweed Prosciutto and White Truffle Oil 3

Korean Fist-Rice with Fried Seaweed, Prosciutto and White Truffle Oil


  • 2 cups of uncooked sticky or glutinous rice
  • 4 cups water
  • 70 grams (about 1 ½ cups) Korean crumbled seaweed
  • 100 grams thinly sliced prosciutto torn into small pieces
  • White truffle oil


Rinse rice two or three times and drain. Pour the measured water on the rice in a pot and cover. Bring to a rolling boil on high heat for 10 to 15 minutes.

Lower heat to the minimum temperature and allow the rice to cook for another 30 minutes. Never stir the rice. To check if it has absorbed all the water, simply tip the pot on it’s side. If the rice slides, it needs to continue cooking. If it doesn’t slide, it is ready to be removed from heat.

Allow the rice to cool enough that it doesn’t burn to touch with your hand.

Combine the seaweed and prosciutto with the rice. Grab small handfuls of the mixture and squeeze to form tightly packed spheres.

Drizzle white truffle oil over the fist rice and devour.

No Korean products available near you? Order here. Or here.

Garden Pesto + Job Hunting in Korea

To the minor detriment of finding time to write posts, I have been focusing on finding a teaching job in South Korea for the past few weeks. It’s been a little slow going because I’m being very picky and haven’t actually applied to many positions. Luckily, as ESL teaching positions are quite plentiful, I can afford to be somewhat picky, but a large portion of me just wants it over with. Job searching gives me ulcers. Gah.



Good things come in threes.
Good things come in threes.

Actually, this won’t be my first time out there. I will be returning to SoKo after a year away. I first left North America (as a dual citizen of the States and Canada, I claim North America as my home) in August 2008. My intention was to stay for a year, but it just ended up being too good an opportunity to leave then, so I stayed an extra 2 and a half years.


In that time, I made friends with people from all over the world, traveled to about 25 countries, paid off all of my school loans and ate a metric ton of kimchi. Maybe two. As a Seoulite, I always found plenty of things to do, see, eat and experience. Seoul, like any city, has its plusses and minuses.

#1 plus- the amount of people

#1 minus- the amount of people

I’ll let you ponder that.

 pesto makings 2

I look forward to experimenting with traditional Korean dishes (which is saying a lot- Korean food has such a wide array of strong flavours that experimentation could be extreme) as well as getting to know some more people in food circles upon my return to Seoul. I will keep you updated as things progress. Until then: Pesto!

 pesto bowl

This summer and fall, herbs were ridiculously plentiful in mum’s garden. It was difficult to find ways to use them all. We were stuck with excessive amounts of (among other things) basil, parsley, cilantro, arugula and yellow wood sorrel.


Oxalis stricta
Oxalis stricta



Yellow wood sorrel is a delightful, clover sized plant that happens to be extremely and surprisingly sour. It’s kind of like eating a flat, dry and green lemon. Well… kind of. It grows everywhere and chances are it is growing in a green space near you. You most likely think of it as a weed, but I can assure you of its usefulness. It is wonderful as an extra salad green, gorgeous as a garnish and a delightful addition to anything needing tang. The entire plant is edible (although the stems get harder later in the season) and loaded with Vitamin C. It has some medicinal properties and will help treat skin rashes, swelling and inflammation. It can also be used as an orange/yellow dye. Thanks yellow wood sorrel for being so fabulous and helping to flavour my pesto to perfection!

 pesto in jars

My recipe yielded a very large amount of pesto. Luckily, pesto freezes perfectly and months after making the stuff, I’ve still got containers full and it’s still gorgeous. It also makes wonderful gifts.

pesto makings

Garden Pesto


  • 10 cups basil, arugula, parsley, cilantro and yellow wood sorrel mixed
  • 3 ½ cups walnuts
  • 1 ½ cups grated parmesan cheese
  • 20 cloves of garlic
  • 1 ½ tbsp salt
  • 2 ¾ cups olive oil
  • water

or for those who lack freezer space

  • 2 cups basil, arugula, parsley, cilantro and yellow wood sorrel mixed
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1/8 to ¼ tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • water


Using a food processor, blend herbs, nuts, garlic, salt and olive oil in small batches. Add small amounts of water for extra blending lubrication. Blend until beautifully smooth with bits of green.

pesto spin

Once the ingredients have finished blending, mix the parmesan into the rest until well incorporated.

pesto bowl 2

Pesto can be frozen for many months and keeps well in the fridge.

garden pesto crackers 2


Omit parmesan for a vegan version and add a touch more salt. Or use a salty hard vegan cheese (any suggestions?).

Roast garlic if you’re garlic sensitive, although I would never recommend omitting garlic entirely.