After 10 years, my time here in Korea is coming to a close and I only have one final week of “teaching.” By teaching, I actually mean playing some awesome board games with my students like Settlers of Catan, King of Tokyo and Puerto Rico.
Anyway, whenever I meet newbies to Korea, it’s really striking how different my life is from theirs. They’re living out of a suitcase of two, often as cheaply as possible. But, for the past few years, especially since I moved to Busan, I’ve been living like it actually is my real-life here in Korea and I’ve been doing things differently from the majority of expats I meet.
So, just because everyone else is doing it, didn’t mean I needed to as well. Here are a few ways that doing things differently has made my life in Korea happy.
Transportation: Get Your Own
Most foreign English teachers in Korea rock the public transport. I did too for about five years. But, the day I upgraded to a little 125cc scooter was the day I was free.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend the scooter if you live in Seoul or Busan because it’s actually quite dangerous, but I lived out in the rice paddies of Chungcheongnam-Do. I’d cruise around, going camping to Anmyeon-Do and Daecheon Beach, check out little temples in secluded, out of the way spots, and go for a ride to the ocean.
The best part was just stopping wherever I wanted to stop. You know all those cool looking places you see, cruising by on the bus or train? I stopped there. And loved it.
Then when I moved to Busan, I upgraded to a car, which was awesome. It’s a little bit stressful driving in the chaos, but you get used to it after a while. And I’ll certainly take the stress of driving in insane traffic over the stress of dealing with public transportation crazy. Used cars in Korea are reasonably cheap, as are repairs and insurance.
Housing: Get your Own
Most teachers in Korea live in housing provided by their employer. But, employers usually make terrible landlords. Think sketchy hagwon boss going into your apartment any time they want. Think fighting with your public school over who is going to pay to repair your washing machine.
Finally, think moldly, cockroach infested hovels where your bed is 2m from your “kitchen,” above a bar, with student neighbours. Not my style to say the least. Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean that you should. Take the housing allowance and do your own thing. It’s easier than you might think to organize.
When I moved to Busan, I got myself a sweet apartment and although I pay extra beyond what I get in housing allowance, it’s totally worth it. I LOVE having a nice place to live and am convinced I actually save a lot of money by living here because I hang out a lot at home.
Most days, I have no motivation to leave my sweet couch, with a cat on either side, a view of the mountains and a cup of coffee in my hand. And, I also feel comfortable having people come over because my place isn’t a shit-hole. Eating and drinking at home with friends is ALWAYS cheaper than going out to the bar.
Commute: Avoid It
Here in Busan, most foreigners want to live in places like Seomyeon, KSU, Gwangali, or Haeundae. I guess in Seoul the equivalent is living in Haebongchon, or Itaewon and cruising all over the city to go to work. I chose to live in the ghetto of Hadan because it’s a 7-minute drive to one campus and a 15-minute drive to the other two.
My thinking is that I HAVE to go into work each day so it’s better to make it as painless as possible. Everyone at my university who commutes for an hour each way HATES it. Like really and truly hates it, and I know that I’d certainly be miserable doing this.
Pets: Get Some!
I hear foreign teachers all the time talking about how much they miss their pets back home. If you love animals, get yourself a pet. Except, don’t be one of those sketchy foreigners who abandons their pets in Korea when they go home.
In the process of taking my two cats back to Canada, I’ve discovered it’s actually not so difficult to bring them back to your home country. It just takes a bit of legwork and some money. And of course, please adopt instead of buying. There are so many animals here who need good homes.
See: Animal Rescue Korea.
Find out what It’s Like Living in South Korea
Drinking: Not all the Time
A lot of foreigners really love to drink. I’ve never been one to hit the bars hard, but I’ve even cut back more than normal in this past year. And, waking up without a hangover on Sunday morning has made me feel really happy. I’m actually doing this post at 7am on a Sunday morning and I feel really good about it.
Money: Live Frugally, but Not all the Time
I’m kind of convinced that most foreigners in Korea fall into two camps:
- Spend freely, saving nothing
- Spend as little at humanly possible. Need help? See: 101 Frugal Living in Korea Tips.
I fell into the second camp for my first couple of years in Korea, but it’s a pretty depressing way to live. The first camp is fun, but you’ll leave Korea with absolutely nothing to show for it and Life After ESL is perhaps going to be pretty scary for you.
Balance is best. My life in Korea has been so much better since I bought myself a stand-up paddleboard, sweet bike, and a car. I spent last summer going surfing a few days a week. I took an epic bike trip across Korea with a friend of mine. Korea is a beautiful country to be outside in.
Whatever you love, do it. But, just make sure that you’re actually going to use whatever you buy. I spent around 600,000 on the board, but I’ve used it probably 200 times. My bicycle was around 500,000, but I’ve ridden it more than 4000km. See: The Cost per Use Model for help in making big purchases.
Work: Don’t Take it too Seriously
Call me a bad person, or whatever, but I’m convinced that the happiest people in Korea are those that don’t take work too seriously. Korea really isn’t the place for serious English teachers. See the previous link when I outline all the reasons why. But, let’s just say that I’ve met a lot of people here who:
- Worked at hagwons and took their job way too seriously. Hagwons are all about making money. Education is usually a distant second. Putting education above money and not thinking from the owner’s perspective causes nothing but stress.
- Worked at public schools with totally and utterly incompetent co-teachers. The foreign teacher would then stress and worry, thinking that the students weren’t learning anything. The secret is that they’re probably not going to learn much in your class when they only see you for 45 minutes once a week, even with a good co-teacher so don’t even worry about it. Put on the movie and get your serious chillaxing on.
- Worked at universities, teaching freshman English for an hour or two a week. Again, how much can generally unmotivated, apathetic students learn from you in only a single hour a week? Basically nothing. Don’t worry about it.
Put your Best Foot Forward, Sometimes
Anyhoo, if you have a good situation, then put your best foot forward. For example, I’ve done some extra teaching for really highly motivated students who are desperate to leave Korea and need English to get there. I gave them everything I had as a teacher.
I’ve taught some excellent 3rd and 4th year English major students who were highly-motivated, smart, and dedicated. I did everything I could to make my classes as useful as possible for them. I’ve taught some small groups of awesome students in exam prep classes (TOIEC speaking/listening, TOEFL) and I pushed them really, really hard to help them get the highest score possible. This meant I had to be on my A-game, but I was happy to be there for them.
But, when you’re thrown into a situation where there is no possible way for you to succeed? Don’t even waste a single ounce of mental energy on that mess.
Writing Books and Starting an Online Business
I’ve never, ever regretted spending lots of my free-time self-publishing books (see: How to Self-Publish on Amazon) and building websites (see: A Beginner’s Guide to Starting an Online Business). This isn’t what everyone else is doing. I’ve made a bit of money doing this stuff, but that’s not the best part. The best thing is the skills I’ve learned along the way, which has opened up lots of options for me that don’t involve teaching English.
It will never hurt you to spend some time developing skills outside of teaching which could potentially transition into a job back home. Sure, it’ll involve going out less than other people, but it’ll totally be worth it in the end. And think about who an employer back in your home country is going to hire.
Someone who taught English at a hagwon for five years, but had nothing going on besides that. Or, someone who taught at a hagwon for five years and had ABC solid skills, and XYZ requires serious motivation and follow-through thing on their resume.
The Moral of This Story
Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean that you need to as well. Live how you want to live. Do your own thing. Make life in Korea comfortable. Think about what life after teaching in Korea is going to look like. Don’t stress about bad work situations.
What Do You Think?
Are there things that everyone is doing while teaching in South Korea, but you’re not? Leave a comment below and let us know what you’re not doing just because everyone else is doing it.