But … Really … Why Korea?

The first big question about teaching in Korea is why?  With the world available to you, why choose South Korea?  There’s a line of reasoning that Korea is everyone’s plan B, but that’s not really true.  It’s nowhere near that high.  No, most people don’t grow up dreaming of Korea (and those that do may have some strange fetishes).

Any street, any night in Seoul

South Korea is found along the path of least resistance; it’s a place that will fly you there, give you free rent, and sometimes even a bonus couple hundred dollars to get you on your feet (read: afford soju).  As Mike Gamble, an English teacher for two years, puts it “South Korea offers the best package for people with little experience when it comes to ESL in Asia.”

Island getaway

Hiking the mountains


That said, there are a lot of different reasons to come to Korea.  Rachel and I came back to save up money for a big trip.   Chad Rooks, a teacher who has been in Korea for 3 years, “chose South Korea over Japan because someone I thought I was in love with was here. It didn’t work out, but I stayed anyway.”

dum dum dum … Another bites the dust.

Others came because of friends, like Kelsey Brown, who came because her cousin had taught there for 3 years.  Or Brian Dealer, who always knew he wanted to teach in Asia, but chose Korea because it paid the best.  The best story I’ve heard, though, is from Emma Gladman, who was traveling the Australian outback and randomly bumped into a stranger who recommended it.  A few weeks later, she was in Seoul and ended up staying for three-and-a-half years.

Evening Skyline

Although Seoul is in-part a modern city, there will be some challenges to living in a new place.  At first glance, it appears much like New York or Tokyo, but the longer you stay the more you learn about cultural differences.  The struggles you go through increase the further away you are from the blonde haired, blue-eyed end of the spectrum.  I have a Mexican-American friend who was fired because she wouldn’t die her hair blond.  Many schools won’t hire people of Asian descent even if they have lived their entire lives in the US, Canada, or the UK.   Koreans can be xenophobic, and by western standards have a tendency towards sexism.  People with dark skin, women with large chests, and overweight men or women can/will have a tougher time of it.  And not eating meat or not drinking alchohol can make it quite difficult to have a social life, especially if you’re not in Seoul.  A well-traveled Straight-Edge friend of mine only lasted a few months in Daegu, a large but uber-provincial city.

Koreans love hiking.

People staring at you, cutting in front of you in line.  Old ladies shoving you.  Collectively, they can add up and give you some seriously negative head space.  With that in mind, here is some advice gleaned from people with years of experience teaching for those thinking of coming now.  (Some of it is, in fact, contradictory, but you’ll quickly find the ones that resonate with you.)

  • Don’t worry so much when you first come, nothing is as difficult as it seems. Don’t come if you’re not going to work hard. Try and make as many friends as you can (and go places with them)!  (Chad Rooks)
  • Find the nearest Costco, say yes to every invite, beware B151. (Kelsey Brown)
  • Don’t say no to any food, try everything! Go to Busan in late spring, that way the beaches won’t be TOO crowded. Try to have FUN with your students! (Dylan James)
  • Bring home comforts like decent food, get a good support system including Koreans (they’ll help you loads) and research the job and school before signing a contract.  (Emma Gladman)
  • Pack a shit ton of movies, books, shows, and painkillers from back home (the first year’s rough); Don’t say ‘yes’ to everyone you meet or suffer the expectation to do so; remember: in Korea, YOU’RE the foreigner (Brian Dealer)
  • Explore your neighborhood and see what’s out there! Do an activity like going to a gym, taekwando, learning the language, etc. Meet people!  (Stephan Nemeth)
  • Don’t assume people around you/on the subway etc don’t understand English! Learn how to read Korean, even if you don’t really learn much of the language. Don’t be afraid to stand up to your boss/superiors when it comes to your job – usually they will cave, they just hope foreigners don’t realise that.  (Emily Baughen)
  • Make some Korean friends, you will get so much more out of the experience if you do. It is by no means necessary, but learning the language helps in so many unexpected ways. Be bold and try new things! Time goes by so fast here. (Mike Gamble)
  • Organise things to do on the weekend, either with co workers, or through groups when you first get here to avoid feeling overwhelmed in the huge city. Don’t take anything home once you’re finished for the day. (Fiona Boddy)

Everyone’s best memories involved the great friends they met here.  Everyone makes about the same amount of money, has the same or similar time off, and everyone wants to meet new friends.  It’s the closest to the first couple weeks of college that you can get to, but it lasts forever here.  (The flip side is that your good friends are constantly leaving.  Stay in Korea long enough, and each weekend seems to greet newcomers or say goodbye to good friends.)

Frozen Palace

Creatures abound in Insadong


A couple of the most spectacular memories:

  • When I first arrived I confused the Korean word for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when speaking to an ajumma. She of course was trying to feed me a fully intact fish in which I had no interest in eating. The look on her face when she realized she had a willing foreigner (or so she thought) was priceless! In her defense, it actually turned out to be quite delicious. (Mike Gamble)
  • Visiting Sokcho and Seoraksan for the first time with my girlfriend (by far the best spot in S.K.) in mid-October. first get away for us, and the mountains were so misty and mysterious. the other hikers were beyond friendly and supportive, and of course the scenery along the way was absolutely EPIC.  (Brian Dealer).

Which way home?

As with everything, there’s a positive and a negative.  Both sides tend to skew toward the extreme in Korea. It’s truly a best of times, worst of times kind of place, but even the worst times should help you learn and grow.  And the best times?

Well, they’re the best.

Some of the positives:

  • Korea is a country that never sleeps so there is always something to do at night. Transportation costs are stupidly cheap. You will meet an incredible amount of awesome people. (Mike Gamble)
  • Korea itself (everything from transportation/nightlife/people). Travel opportunities. The way it changes you. (Chad Rooks)
  • People, food, paying peanuts for a lifestyle that would break the bank back home (Brian Dealer)
  • Cheap cost of living, feels safe, infinitely more exciting (nightlife, restaurants, cafes etc) than London.  (Emily Baughen)
  • Cheap and tasty Korean food (also good for bowel movements), summer street/park/river drinking/nightlife, travel-both to other countries, around Korea, and efficient subway! (Fiona)
  • The hiking, food, nightlife with friends. (Stephan Nemeth)

Some of the negatives:

  • Pushing on the subway, directors/managers/head teachers monitoring your classes from the window for no reason, friends always leaving to head back home/travel.  (Fiona Boddy)
  • Korean food, stupid policy changes (from the school), being leered at/hit on by creepy Korean men. (Emily Baughen)
  • Old people (adjumas), some taxi drivers, passive aggressiveness (Kelsey Brown)
  • Everything can be extremely frustrating at times. I’ve never had a boss that wasn’t immature or knew how to actually be a boss. I’m sick ALL the time. (Chad Rooks)
  • You can be taken advantage of at your job, hard to find some foreign foods and when you do they are expensive, the language barrier (Dylan James)
  • Lack of the idea of personal space, crappy schools.  (Emma Gladman)

Chingus til the end

Sum it up and it works out like this: sometimes crappy weeks (due almost invariably to dodgy schools), and almost always awesome weekends (which can involve anything from drinking until 7 am, hiking mountains, biking along the Han river, exploring markets, shopping in massive malls, or countless other things).  But the kicker is that it’s pretty easy to save money.*  As an end, Korea is quite pleasant.  But as a means to an end, it’s fairly exceptional.   Saving a thousand dollars a month, you can have a great year and then 14,000 saved up and a free flight to anywhere.  (Or, as many do, save less but travel more during your vacations.)

Korea might not be the right place for many, but it’s right enough for just about anybody.  It’s no paradise, but it is only a short flight to several of them.

* Not true for everyone.

Pretty city

Scroggin eating menace


9 responses to “But … Really … Why Korea?

  1. What an interesting post! I’ve never had plans to teach English in another country (or anywhere for that matter). However, it’s fascinating to hear about the experience. No matter what, it sounds like it will provide stories for years to come!

  2. You’re right; there are stories aplenty. I think a reality tv show set in Korea starring various teachers would make for great entertainment.

  3. Why the footnote on saving money? Is it dependant on the person or where they end up in the country?

    Its funny, the only real reason I ended up in China was because it was my path of least resistance. I’d initially intended JET all the way, but when I didn’t get the app in on time China was sort of a next-best thing.

  4. China is probably a lot like Korea, but maybe they don’t pay for airfare/housing quite as much as Korea? I also think China is far more on the radar of most North Americans, at least.

    It does depend on where you are (Seoul having more places to spend money than Daegu or Busan or smaller places), but I was more referring to the fact that most people in Korea are more into “the lifestyle” and less into long-term saving. An equally valid choice, of course, and one I probably should have gone more into. Good question!

    • Mine did, but I have no idea if that was representative of the norm or not. Agreed about being more visible, though. A lot of people seemed to see teaching as a step towards learning the language and culture in order to résumé it later.

  5. This is over-generalization territory, but I think there aren’t that many people who are all that interested in Korean culture (certainly when compared to Japan.) And many who initially are quickly become disillusioned upon arrival.

    • Yea, true, but I think a lot of that is just through familiarity? In the US, at least, I feel like we see a lot more exported from Japanese culture than Korean. I wonder, though, if the whole Psy thing will have the future-ESL-Teachers-of-America leaning a little bit back the other way?

      • Yeah, it’s hard to yet say if Psy is something different or just the biggest Kpop star to date. I suspect it might be the latter, but it will be interesting to see.

        As to the culture, you’re right of course. But also I think Korean culture is in a pretty weird place–simultaneously 15 years in the future and 50 years in the past. And tinged (if not infused) with socially acceptable xenophobia. Not the easiest place to really sink into the culture.

      • Going back to overgeneralizations, but I remember feeling that much of East Asia was like that. I need to head back to that area and visit S. Korea, though. I never made it a priority when I lived in the region but its definitely somewhere that seems like an interesting experience.

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