Okay, so you want to be an English teacher in Korea? Here are all the details you need to know about teaching English in South Korea, including how to get that much coveted university gig. Keep on reading this ultimate guide for everything you’ve ever wanted to know and more!
Everything you Need to Know about Teaching English in South Korea
Here are the answers to the most commonly asked questions about teaching ESL in Korea. Are you ready? Let’s get into the answers!
What about Teaching ESL in Korea with a Kid?
“I am a 51 year old American with a 9 year old daughter. Would I be able to bring my daughter with me if I got a teaching job in Korea?”
I’m answering the question assuming you’re a single mom. If you’re married, your husband could home-school/take care of your child and none of the stuff I talk about below will be a problem. Unfortunately, if you’re a gay couple, you may have a difficult time getting a spousal visa as gay marriage isn’t recognized in South Korea.
Anyway, bringing a child to Korea as a single person is kind of a terrible plan for the following reasons.
What will your Child do for Education?
I certainly wouldn’t put a foreign kid into a Korean public school for a host of reasons including: large class sizes compared to Western countries (ie: no one will hold her hand), inability/unwillingness of anyone in the school to speak English to her, Korean being quite a difficult language to learn for an English speaker, lack of communication between you and the teachers and finally, the biggest reason of them all: bullying.
Foreign teachers in Korea with kids leave before their kids enter school
It should say a lot to you that many English teachers here who are married to Koreans and have kids leave precisely when their kids get to school age because they don’t want them in the Korean school system. I mean, it’s not terrible, but there are a lot of things not great about it, especially the obsession with the test at the end of grade 12 that basically defines your entire future. This obsession starts way too early.
Koreans are Not Kind to “Different”
Your daughter will most certainly be bullied by her classmates because in Korea, people seem to seize upon any and every opportunity to assert their superiority over just about anyone who is perceived to be inferior, of which your daughter most certainly will be due to her lack of language skills.
Teachers are also known to bully the weak. There was just a report in the news only a few months ago about a teacher being disciplined for her repeated bullying of a mixed race kid. But, here’s the thing: her punishment was less severe because she had won an award of some sort at some point in her career. Crazy. And certainly not recommended.
Korean Parents = All Kinds of Crazy Action to Avoid Korean Schools
Let it be indication to you that Korean parents are almost willing to give their left arm in order to get their kids out of the education system here. They’ve even been known to forge passports and other such crazy stuff to get their kids into international schools. Speaking of that…
Are you Independently Wealthy?
Where does that leave you? International schools? Also a pretty terrible idea unless you’re independently wealthy. This is probably not the case though if you’re coming to Korea to teach English. They’re ridiculously expensive and are for-profit businesses so it’s unlikely that they’ll have lots in the way of scholarships, etc.
If you work for an international company, your employer will probably pay for this schooling for your kids. As an English teacher? Not a chance.
Home-Schooling? Not a Great Plan
Home-schooling? Yes, it’s possible. But, what is she going to do while you’re at work all day? Due to the language barrier, you’ll have kind of an impossible time finding someone to look after her. And assuming you find someone who can speak English, it will just be way too expensive and impossible for you to actually make any money after paying for that.
English teachers do make a decent wage, but it can be hard to support a family on, especially if you’re paying for childcare costs.
A 10 year old I guess could stay at home alone. However, it’ll be pretty terrible in a foreign country when she’s totally and completely alone, would it not? And for the entire day? I don’t think this is an ideal situation for anyone involved.
Office Politics Tips for Teaching English in South Korea
How much Contact Do you Have with your Coworkers? Drama is Directly Proportional to This
At my previous university there was a fair bit of drama because most of us lived together in the same building, had offices all in the same hallway and classrooms next to each other. We also lived in the countryside and so ended up being friends with each other and spending time together outside of work, generally because it wasn’t really easy to meet other people. This meant that you saw a lot of your coworkers and sometimes more than you actually wanted (for certain people).
My Current Situation: Ideal!
At my current university, we have three campuses so I never see some people. Like never, except at the meeting at the beginning of the semester. We share offices with a couple other people, but again, it’s kind of rare to actually see a coworker in the office. Our classrooms are spread out around the campuses so it’s unusual to just run into people randomly.
We live in a big city so everyone has their own friend groups, which most often don’t consist of coworkers. And, there is no university provided housing. I literally live on the entire opposite end of the city from some of my coworkers. Because of these factors, drama is non-existent, which I love.
Don’t gossip about other people!
NEVER speak badly about one of your coworkers. Assume it will always get back to that person. Not that trusting no one is a good way to live, but at work…it’s not such as terrible idea, especially when you’re new and don’t really know what the established relationships are. Looks are sometimes deceiving.
Make friends outside of work
If you’re having a hard time at work, vent to them and not a coworker. You’ll also be unable to talk about common coworkers, which is usually bad news and doesn’t do good things for your mental health. Your friend is also way more likely to be impartial and give you some solid advice about whatever problem you’re having than someone else on the inside.
Take the housing allowance
Live away from your coworkers, if possible. I’d take housing allowance over provided housing for sure, and I actually wish that I’d organized my own housing years ago. It was far easier than I thought it would be.
Tune it out
Use the giant headphones if you have a shared office because they give off the vibe that you’re doing work and not available for gossip and drama. Preferably, find another place to work such as a coffee shop or at home and avoid the cattle pen altogether.
Be friendly, but not too friendly
Attend all social activities and make an effort to actually get to know your coworkers, on a friendly, but not BFF level. That said, I have made many good, life-long friends working at Korean universities but the key is to be cautious at first. Give it a few months and a few interactions to see if they’re someone who can be trusted not to share your inside information with everyone else on staff.
How Old is too Old for ESL in Korea?
A reader question from Blair, wondering how old is too old to teach in Korea He’s tried EPIK, as well as some recruiters and has gotten the same response from all of them, “You’re too old,” or no response at all. His question is whether it is worth it to apply to unis in Korea and China, and if yes, how to go about this. He wants to work for 6 months-1 year.
Ageism in Korea: Alive and Well!
I’d deal with the age thing first. I’ve had a couple coworkers who were in their 50’s or 60’s and I’ve met some foreigners teaching in various kinds of jobs that were that old as well. So, it certainly is possible.
However, in most places, it’s the younger and the more handsome/beautiful, the better teacher you must surely be. If you’re willing to work in the countryside, then you would have a much better chance at getting a job but being the only foreigner within 50 square kilometers is not so appealing to most people.
If public school and hagwon hiring is any indication, school generally prefer to hire the fresh off the boat blond/blue eye girl from North America than someone with years of teaching experience in their 30’s, 40’s or even older.
My theory is that Koreans generally don’t see foreign teachers as “real” teachers so experience doesn’t really matter. Why not have someone pretty to look at?
Universities are kind of the exception to this and experience and qualifications actually do matter at getting the job.
Do I sound jaded? I am. But, it’s also the reality for English teachers in Korea.
What about China or Japan?
Well, China is certainly a much bigger place so I’d say your chances are higher of getting a job there. I would venture a guess and say that there is probably not a lot of demand for those 4000-6000 RMB jobs which you see all the time of ESL Cafe.
6 Month Contracts?
NEVER say that you only want to work for 6 months on your application to Korea. This is because all places want a minimum 1 year contract. Break your contract if you must, but it’s far better to just finish the year because of the return airfare and bonus money. I have seen various places in China offering 6 months contracts so that might be a better option for you.
Some types of university jobs (unigwon for example) may be more open to hiring an older teacher than others.
What are Some Signs of a Sketchy Hagwon in Korea?
Many foreign teachers get their start at hagwons in South Korea, which are basically cram schools. They are a decent option for getting started, but it’s certainly a case of teacher beware.
Keep on reading to find out some of the top things to look for in a sketchy hagwon. The goal is to help you avoid getting ripped off.
Teaching English in South Korea: Due Diligence is Required
I get plenty of questions through this blog from people contemplating a move to Korea to teach English and a lot of them seem quite apprehensive. And not without good reason: there are indeed a huge number of horror stories about teaching ESL in Korea, especially at Hagwons (private institutes).
10 years ago when I came to Korea for the first time, the Internet was a thing but there certainly wasn’t that much information on it about specific schools in Korea. These days however, it’s very easy to find information about a certain school, even a small one out in the countryside. Google and Facebook are your best friends in this case and you really need to do your due diligence. Ending up at a sketchy hagwon these days is kind of the fault of nobody but yourself.
The following signs of a sketchy hagwon can be useful in helping you screen out the worst of the worst. From there, you can get more specific information on Facebook or the current (former is better!) teachers at 2-3 schools you’re considering.
Top 5 Signs of a Sketchy Hagwon in South Korea:
Without further ado, for teaching in South Korea in a hagwon, here are some of the things you should pay attention to.
#1: You are the Only Foreign Teacher
If you are a newbie to Korea, this could potentially end up being your worst nightmare. The more foreigners, the better off you are when you’re a newbie. As long as you’re not weird, you’ll have an instant group of friends and people to help you settle in. Plus, it’s quite useful to have some people to band together with in case things start to go bad at work.
#2: The Contract is too Vague
Things like not listing working days (Monday-Friday) or working hours (10-6, 3-10, etc.). The contract should also list percentages for things like tax, health care and pension. And, there should be mention of how a “teaching hour” is calculated. For example, it’s pretty standard that 50 minutes counts as one teaching hour.
#3: The Hagwon Has a bad reputation on the Internet
If a hagwon has a terrible reputation on the Internet, it’s probably for good reason. If it’s only one bad report, take it with a grain of salt. But, more than that? Steer clear, even if the reports are a few years old. Evil owners or managers are evil owners or managers and it’s not likely that they’ve made a big change for the better in recent years.
The Facebook group for the expats in that city is a good place to start your research because they’ll have “boots on the ground” so check there if you see only 1 negative report for the most up-to-date information.
#4: They’re a New School
Financial troubles often cause new schools to close within the first few months or year. You’ll lose your job, as well as your housing, bonus and airplane ticket home. You can find a new job, but it’ll be a pretty rough first year for you. The best schools are those that have been around for 5+ years and have more than 5 foreign teachers. That way, if they start to lose some students, they can just not replace a teacher at the end of a contract instead of letting someone go.
#5: No Flights, Health Care, Pension or Housing
Flights and housing are still standard for Korean hagwons. A contract without these things would have to offer a ridiculously high salary, but it’ll be pretty difficult to organize your own housing when you’re a Korea newbie. And a contact with no mention of health care or pension? Sketchy! These things are mandatory by Korean law and all foreign workers should have them.
Tips for Teaching in a Shame Based Culture Like South Korea
It usually hits you almost as soon as you get off the plane, but once you’re here for a bit longer and dig deeper beneath the surface, you realize that it truly is present in almost every single social situation, including your classes. There are a million and one unspoken rules in Korea, far more than in most of our Western countries for what is okay and what is not okay.
The Language Reflects This when Teaching English in South Korea
Even the language itself shows this. For Koreans, it’s so important to know the age and rank of the person they’re interacting with so they can address them correctly and avoid shame.
Some Real-Life Shame Examples
Koreans will feel shame for a myriad of things: appearing smarter than others, appearing less smart than others, appearing less well-dressed, not doing homework when everyone else did, doing homework when everyone else didn’t, having weak second language skills, etc, etc. The list goes on and on and on.
In classes, the smarter and more well-prepared students will be reluctant to show their true colors because they’re afraid of making their lesser classmates feel shame. It used to seem really crazy to me, but it’s one of those things that I’ve learned to accept as the reality I have to face living here.
How to Teach in a Shame Based Culture
1. Never put students on the spot
NEVER. Always give students a chance to practice something with a partner or small group before you pick an individual student to answer. Even then, warn students before the time with their group that you’ll be selecting people to answer the question in front of the whole class.
2. Make a team or group answer instead of an individual
I usually choose a team or group to answer and one person has to do it out of that team. In this way, the weaker students can hide behind the stronger ones and nobody feels shame for looking stupid in front of their classmates.
3. Ask for volunteers, but give an incentive
These days, I teach English major students who actually like speaking English. I can ask for 5 volunteers and get 10.
It’s like a breath of fresh air.
But, when you’re teaching other students who don’t speak English well, a reward system will be your best friend. A chance to earn a participation point. Or, another trick of mine is to say that they can go home once 5 students have given me their answers. The hands usually shoot up quickly.
4. Don’t embarrass students for wrong answers
There are plenty of ways to deal with mistakes that don’t involve doing this. You can get their partner to help them. Praise what they did right, but then offer the right answer. Encourage a culture of risk-taking with language, etc.
5. Discipline should happen in private
In most cases, if you need to discipline someone, do it outside the classroom 1-1. Students in Korea seem to respond far better to this than calling them out in front of the class. I think when it’s 1-1, they see you as a real person, someone with feelings, etc.
There doesn’t have to be a winner or loser-you can both get on the same page and be winners together. In front of the class, it can get pretty confrontational and shame plays a big part in the whole thing. There’s usually a winner and a loser in this case, which is what you want to avoid at all costs.
What’s the Deal with the Korea Teacher’s Pension Plan?
In Korea, there are two basic pension plans that foreign teachers will be part of. The first is the national pension plan which all hagwon teachers, most public school teachers, and national university teachers would contribute to.
The second is the Korea Teachers Pension Plan, which is what most university teachers in Korea are part of, including myself for the past 8 years, as long as you teach at a private university and not a national one. I’ll be talking about this second type of plan in the remainder of this post.
KTPP Website for the Loss
Since I’m leaving Korea in a few months to return to Canada, I was wondering what my payout would be because it’s mainly what will fund my move as well as see me through the first year or two. The Korea Teachers Pension (KTPP) website is really confusing and it’s mostly written in Konglish, such that is almost impossible to calculate your own lump-sum payout.
Foreign Teachers in Korean Universities for the Win
I asked for some information in this Facebook group, Foreign Teacher’s in Korean Universities and struck gold: a number to an English speaker at the Korea Teachers Pension office. The number for the office is: 02-769-4404 and the guy answering the phone speaks strangely good English.
Like for real. He seems like he’s a gyopo or something.
Cha-Ching: That’s Some Coin in the Bank
Anyway, he asked for a bit of basic information such as my Alien Registration number and name and then told me the happy news. As of now (7.5 years), my payout would be 28.5 million and after 8.5 years (next year), it will be 32.2 million, after tax.
Vitamix: You’re Coming Home Soon!
I may perhaps even get myself that sweet, sweet Vitamix that I’ve had my eyes on for years as a welcome back to Canada present to myself. Plus, I can go into any grocery store and have like a thousand fruit and vegetables to choose from instead of like the 10 that you can buy at even the biggest supermarkets in Korea so I’m gonna for sure kick my green smoothie making into high-gear from the medium gear which is the best I can do in Korea.
Pro Tip #1 from Jackie
A tip: although the exact time frame is uncertain (after 5 years, 5 years +1 month, or at 6 years-perhaps phone the office), you get a significant bump in your payouts at that time so if you transfer jobs, it is in your best interests to transfer the plan to your new job instead of taking a lump-sum payout part way through.
Like for real, you could lose thousands of dollars. DO NOT take the lump-sum part-way through.
Pro Tip #2 from Jackie
I’m always working hard for you, my readers offering you good value for your money, you know? Here’s pro tip #2: while it was possible to transfer your time on the national pension plan to the Korea teachers Pension Plan about 10 years ago, it is not possible now. But, of course check for yourself.
Is it Possible to Save $20,000 a Year Teaching English in South Korea?
I ran across an interesting thread over on ESL Cafe where someone is talking about how, before they came to Korea ten years ago, lots of bloggers were talking about how it’s possible to save $20,000 USD per year teaching in Korea. However, these days, she struggles to save more than a thousand a month on a 2.2 million Won salary. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to say that 1000 Korean Won = 1 USD.
A few of my thoughts on this.
10 Years Later: Still Making 2.2?
I totally get that times are tough in Korea and fabulous jobs are few and far between. It’s really difficult to get a university job in Korea these days. But, after 10 years in Korea who is still making 2.2 million Won and working at what seems like a kindergarten hagwon? That is my very definition of living hell on Earth. Seriously, what has this person been doing with the past 10 years of their life?
“Of course, money isn’t everything. Living in a new country/culture has it’s own invaluable rewards that should not be overlooked.”
My theory is that anyone who says they didn’t come to Korea solely for the money should be treated with suspicion and questioned further. If you didn’t care about the money, you’d most certainly go somewhere with much better weather and much happier people who weren’t studying and working zombie robots. The extremely high suicide rate in Korea is no fluke.
- Bolen, Jackie (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 120 Pages - 02/24/2020 (Publication Date) - Independently published (Publisher)
Why Only 550,000 Korean Won?
This person has debt to pay back home (students loans?) but is only sending back 550,000 each month. This seems ridiculously low. Compound interest can work for you, or against you and in this case, it’s certainly working against her.
The interest payments are probably killing her. Who hasn’t paid off their students loans after teaching English for 10 years in Korea? Why hasn’t she just locked it down and gotten serious about paying them off instead of going to ESL Cafe and lamenting/whining about her situation? Here’s why:
“Admittedly, I am, and always have been, terrible with money.”
If you’re terrible at managing money, why not get educated? Take some responsibility for your life. Use the Google machine to learn something.
Free Lunch + 350,000 on Food
She mentioned that she gets a really good free lunch at school, but that she also spends 350,000 a month on food. What is she eating? 2 meals a day on weekdays, and 3 meals a day on weekends equals about 70-75 meals a month, which is 5000 Won per meal.
If I were in this dire of a financial situation, I’d have locked that food spending down years ago. When I was paying off my student loans, I made the free lunch at school my biggest meal of the day, had only a small breakfast, since snack time at work came soon enough. Then, a modest dinner consisting mostly of vegetables and tofu or beans for a grand total of 4000 Won per DAY on food.
Here are some of her entertainment choices:
“Coffee, beers, eating out, dates, baseball games, trips, etc.”
Don’t you know that coffee, beers and eating out are ridiculously expensive, especially if you go to Starbucks and expat bars? Baseball games can burn through $50 without even realizing it by the time you go out after. Trips? $200. Why isn’t she locking it down? Going for walks. Inviting a friend over for dinner. Joining a book club. Seriously.
The craziest part about it is that she seems to be deluded and thinks that she’s living frugally. Let me tell you. This is not frugal. Frugal is rice and beans, beans and rice and not seeing the inside of a restaurant unless you’re working in one.
Victim Mentality and Teaching English in South Korea
Reading her post made my skin crawl. It’s like she’s all about playing the victim and not being a grown-up, taking some responsibility to make positive changes in her life:
“But if I had no debt…”
“…the majority of us work one job and private lessons are much harder to come by these days.”
“I only make 2.2mil/mth.”
I was in the exact same place she was 10 years ago when I first came to Korea. Working at a kindy hagwon for 2.2 Million and paying off students loans. Except I realized that this is not what I wanted for myself 10 years later. Why has it taken her 10 years to figure out that her situations sucks?
Honestly, she still sounds like the fresh off the boat 22 year old straight out of uni their first year in Korea. It’s all good to live in that world for a year or two. Have fun. Experience a new culture. Make new friends. Travel. But, 10 years later? It’s sad and disturbing.
Why Hasn’t She:
- Gotten a better job after 10 years teaching English in South Korea
- Found some privates. SURELY she must have some connections after 10 years. I get approached for private teaching at least a couple times a month (but I never do it because I get so much overtime at my uni job).
- Stopped going out all the time (But….everyone is doing it!).
- Taken some responsibility for her finances and stopped whining on ESL Cafe.
- Educated herself about finances.
- Started living frugally.
- Read the Wealthy English Teacher and started following the 10 steps?
20,000 a Year in Korea: Is it Possible?
Yes, in fact it is. I just wrote a blog post a couple days ago about how I managed to save $22,000 USD per year during my time in Korea. I could have saved a lot more too if I didn’t take exotic vacations twice a year (Europe, Africa, SE Asia, Canada, USA), have a car and two cats, and bought myself a sweet bike and stand-up paddleboard. Probably closer to $30,000 if I had stayed super-serious about frugal living as I was in the beginning when I was paying off debt.
However, the average person coming here for just a year or two? It’s kind of impossible these days and the ESL industry in Korea is in serious decline. But, if you are here for the long-term and can (SHOULD!) work your way up to better jobs? It certainly is possible, if you man or woman up and get serious about your financial future.
Tips for Public School Teachers in South Korea
I recently attended the Kotesol International Conference 2015 and went to a presentation by Annie Im about Co-Teaching between Korean English teachers and Native English speaking teachers from places like Canada or the USA in Korean public schools.
I’ve never taught in a public school in Korea, but I’ve had plenty of friends who have and the stories they tell make me curious about what it’s like on the inside. From what I hear, there is often a lot of conflict between the Korean teacher and the foreign teacher, so I wanted to find out what that’s all about and how people could avoid it.
Anyway, here are my top 5 tips for public school teachers in South Korea, based partly on her presentation, and partly on my own thoughts.
You are Coming into an Existing Environment
The school is already functioning very well without you, so when you go into a public school you need to be respectful of this. You will not be able to change the school culture within your first few months there. Instead, try to fit in, observe and find spots where you actually can make a difference. Focus on that. The foreign teachers I know who went in with the attitude that they knew everything there was to know about teaching English didn’t do well and often crashed and burned.
Ask for the school calendar so you can find out important days and holidays for yourself. It’s on the school’s website and yes, it’s only in Korean. Yes, this means you should learn basic Korean and figure this stuff out instead of bugging your co-teacher all the time.
The more things you can figure out for yourself, including students’ names, the less annoyed your co-teacher will be! They might even have some energy and time to help you out with the really big stuff if they’re not helping you with the small things.
Public School Teachers in Korea: You’re at the Bottom
You are quite literally at the bottom of the pecking order. And your co-teacher who is looking after you is probably the second lowest. You got dumped on them because nobody else wanted you. Your co-teacher likely has no power to do things like get you out of desk-warming days or give you permission to go to the bank during school hours. Don’t hassle them about this.
Nothing is Free at your Public School
The cookies and snacks and pizza you’re always eating probably aren’t free. The other teachers are paying for it. The school trips you’re going on aren’t free. There is a fund that pays for it. The markers you’re using maybe aren’t free either. You need to ask about this stuff and again, be proactive.
Ask your co-teacher about it and find out how you can contribute your share. Never, ever demand things such as school supplies, but instead politely ask about how you could acquire them and whether or not there is a budget for it.
Reciprocate and Be Thankful
Your co-teacher isn’t getting paid extra to look after you. They’re just doing it because someone forced it on them. Every nice gesture they make towards you is simply because they are kind and not because they have to do it. Always remember this and be sure to reciprocate with even a small gesture.
Help them with designing the classroom, cutting out stuff, take them out for lunch, grading multiple choice tests, photocopying, making a PPT, crowd-control during their class, etc. etc. The list of stuff you can do is endless. Be proactive and find ways you can make your co-teacher’s life easier. They’ll appreciate the gesture, if not the actual help.
Public school teachers in Korea: I think you’d probably do well if you followed these tips!
What are the Negatives to Teaching English in Korea?
Today we’re going to go down the road to the negative stuff. The reasons why Korea is not such a fabulous place to teach English.
#1: Learning Korean is Kind of a Waste of Time
Let’s be real-learning Korean, in most cases is a total waste of time. Although it can help you while you’re actually living here, it’s totally useless the second you leave.
You’d be far, far better off learning French, Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, blah, blah, if you have an eye on that helping you get a job in your home country. Mandarin in particular is a huge one and if you use your time abroad in China to become fluent, well, your future might be paved in silk.
Don’t call me a hater. I really do think all foreigners in Korea should learn at least basic Korean in order to be able to function in life reasonably well, but beyond that? Only do it if you’re interested but it’s truly not necessary or useful.
#2: Salaries are Stagnant
Salaries in Korea for English teachers have remained basically the same for the past decade or so. All the while, costs for just about everything have increased. There are no signs of salaries rising, as teacher qualifications have been increasing on the whole and good jobs are becoming more and more scarce.
However, despite the stagnation, it really is still possible to put away about $1000 a month without a whole lot of effort. So, it could be good for some with weak job prospects back home.
#3: Competition for Good Jobs is Fierce
It seems like just about everyone and their BFF is doing an MA TESOL. This means that even the lesser uni jobs and good public school jobs have some serious competition. When I first came to Korea 10 years ago, I was friends with a bunch of teachers at the big Christian university down the road from me in Cheonan.
They quite literally got hired straight out of university with a BA and no English teaching experience or teaching certifications. Those days are long, long, long gone. Even someone with an MA and teaching experience kind of has to know someone on the inside to get a university job in many cases.
#4: Demographics = Grim
The stats vary, but basically Korea has had an extremely low birth rate since around 2000 and it’s in fact one of the lowest in the world as of today. There are no signs of things getting better despite some rather weak government efforts. These efforts include making a 5 day work-week and giving additional holiday days if a national holiday falls on the weekend.
This basically means that there are fewer and fewer jobs for teaching children. There will also be fewer jobs for university teachers in less than 5 years. The writing is on the wall and there’s basically nothing anyone can do about it.
#5: Xenophobia = Alive and Well
Please don’t hate on me for this one but Korea really isn’t an easy place to live for expats because as one stereotype begets another, Koreans are often quite xenophobic and don’t think that highly of foreigners. They most certainly don’t respect us as teachers and often don’t really respect us as people either.
Of course, foreigners in Korea sometimes aren’t the most stellar of people and we perhaps deserve at least part of the terrible reputation we have. But, the part that I hate most is that I (and the 100s of stand-up expats that I personally know) get lumped together with the few bad ones.
It’s not like it’s terrible but living in Korea makes you grow a really thick skin because ridiculous S&*# goes down just about every single day you live here and even though you don’t notice it anymore doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. Some days, I can’t even be bothered to leave my house because I just don’t feel up for dealing with it, and like I’m actually quite a social person who generally likes being out and about.
I bought a car a few years back almost entirely because I loathed dealing with the crazy that always seemed to go down on public transport here. I’d far, far rather take my chances with the mostly incompetent drivers on the road.
10 Things I Don’t Miss about Living and Teaching in South Korea
Well, I’ve been back in the Great White North that is Canada for years now and there hasn’t been a moment where I’ve doubted my decision to leave Korea after 10 years.
Of course I’m still in the honeymoon phase of reverse culture shock, so I’m sure some difficult times are still ahead. But, mostly I just feel happy. Really, really, really happy. Here are 10 things that I most certainly don’t miss about Korea:
#1: The Pushing and Shoving
Korea is a small, small little country with a ridiculous number of people in it. I get that. But, it’s not an excuse to be all pushy and shovey and rude. Gone are the days of fighting to get off the subway while rude people are pushing on before they should. Gone are the days of fighting off some ajumma or ajjoshi in the line for the bus. And finally, gone are the days of getting totally taken out while walking down the street and no apology.
#2: Ridiculous Prices for Fruits and Veggies
I’m all about eating fruits and veggies. Seriously. All about it. Probably 90% of what I eat on a normal basis consists of these two food categories. Except in Korea, they’re all so expensive. I get that most of them are imported so maybe that’s why? But, even the stuff grown in Korea is too much! Canada: 10 pound bag of potatoes = $3. Thank you very much! Bunch of banana = $1. Don’t mind if I do. Small bag of onions = $2. Put that crap into my cart right now.
#3: Scary Drivers
Seriously. How did I not die on the road during my 10 years in Korea, initially as a pedestrian and for the last 5 years as a driver? It’s scary road hell out there. Running red lights. Blowing through cross-walks. No shoulder-checks. Bali-bali craziness. Drunk taxi drivers. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that I’m a bit surprised I’m still alive. Be careful out there old friends. Never trust the green walking man, okay? You gotta check, always. It’s how I’m not dead right now.
#4: The Communication Barrier
Now it’s totally and completely my own fault for only speaking basic Korean after 10 years in Korea. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I also thought it’d be an utter waste of my time once I left so I didn’t bother and instead focused on other pursuits.
Anyway, I got pretty tired of having to get help for anything beyond the basic stuff. Here in Canada, a quick phone call to wherever and all my problems are solved, by myself. Self-reliance = killer.
#5: Teaching English
March 1st is rolling around soon enough and I’m so, so, so glad that I’m not going back into the university classroom. Korean university students are generally sweet, and eager enough.
But, teaching ESL is kind of mind-numbing when you do it year after year. Brain rot ain’t a good thing so I’m happy to make a break and challenge myself with new things.
#6: The Stares
I felt like an animal in a zoo sometimes. The stares have decreased over the years and it’s also not so bad in the big cities, but still, it was annoying. I like just being an anonymous person here, going about my business and doing my stuff, minus all the little eyes following me around.
#7: The Hordes of People Every Single Place You Go
In Korea, I often couldn’t even be bothered to leave my house, especially on the weekends. Sure, I’d love to have gone for a walk around that famous temple, but I never felt like doing it with 1000 other people. Yeah, I like the road trips most definitely, but the gridlock on the highways that is a weekend in Korea? No Thanks. I like me a chilled out coffee shop. But, not when there are 20 shout-talkers within 10m of me.
#8: The Lack of Variety
Korea is an extremely homogeneous country. Don’t want to pollute up that Han blood with the dirty foreigners, you know? Canada is a land of immigrants. I like that. A lot. It means different languages. Fantastic restaurants. Differing viewpoints. Acceptance of things that are different.
#9: Noise + Light Pollution
In Korea, there is no sense of noise or light pollution. It’s always in your face. Canada is quiet and I feel like I can breathe, relax, be calm. Living in Korea means living with this low-level stress all the time. It’s really hard to unwind.
So far in Canada, things are chill. Real chill. I’m surrounded by goats and chickens and little cabins in the woods and it’s dead silent all the time mostly.
#10: Depressed People
Koreans are not happy people. They’re mostly studying and working zombie robots who have very few choices in their lives. There have been a few reports in the news recently (including this one) about how young Koreans would basically cut off their pinky finger in order to be able to leave.
Not to be all patriotic or whatever, because I actually think that crap about sewing a Canadian flag onto your backpack when traveling is so, so ridiculous, but in Canada, you’re free. Free to be out of the closet. Like protected by law against discrimination. You’re free to do any sort of job you want. Trades. Okay! Small companies. Sure! Entrepreneur. Killer! Hippy on a farm. Why Not?
When is it Time to Leave Korea?
When I first told my friends, colleagues and random Internet acquaintances that I was leaving Korea at the end of this contract (plane ticket is for Feb. 15th!), they mostly acted quite surprised and said they thought I was a lifer. A lifer is someone who has made Korea their home and plans to stay for life (a life sentence?).
In a lot of ways it was a compliment. It means that I made Korea my home, and it’s something I certainly tried to do. I attempted to have a really positive attitude about every aspect of working and living in Korea and for the most part, succeeded.
Am I an Old, Bitter, Crusty Expat?
Except one day I woke up and realized that I didn’t like living here anymore. And I found myself becoming one of those old, bitter expats who hates Korea and life here (there are usually plenty of them hanging around the expat bars). The thought of signing another 2-year contract at my university made me feel sick to my stomach and I have one of the best university jobs in Korea.
Instead of feeling that way and staying, out of stubbornness, lack of options, or being trapped, I decided to go. Once I let myself get out of the positive at all times state of mind, the floodgates opened and I barely recognize myself anymore. It’s kind of a weird feeling. I’m angry at lot more than I used to be. I complain about Korea when I would never do that before.
I have almost no patience for Koreans who ask the same ridiculous questions all the time (You like spicy food? Do you know Chuseok? You must miss your family, right?). I’ve started to annoyed at my students for things that I’d usually just let slide.
Koreans = Studying and Working Zombies
Being a hater certainly isn’t my style. I don’t want to get my hate on in such a public forum, but let’s just say that Korea is a place filled with mostly unhappy, study and work ’till they drop zombies and even if you’re not like this yourself, it starts to wear you down as the years go by.
There most certainly is good reason why Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD (2.5x the average). And there most certainly is good reason why Koreans (and expats too) hit the alcohol hard-life is stressful and there aren’t many other outlets for dealing with it. Drinking is so entrenched into life here that even those who don’t like drinking find themselves doing it a ridiculous amount.
Will it Get Better? I was Hopeful
It was kind of around that time when I realized I didn’t like Korea that I also realized teaching in a Korean university isn’t for me. I always kept thinking that things would get better and I’d like it more as time went by. I always thought to myself that I didn’t like it because I was teaching low-level students out in the boonies (literally in the paddies).
Then I moved to the big city. And thought to myself, I don’t like it because I’m teaching these totally unmotivated and apathetic engineering students in freshman English.
Then I moved into the English department. And while my students are far better, I still don’t really like it.
I remember when I first moved to my new university and a coworker was asking about whether or not it’s different at any other uni. Let me tell you-it’s not. Same old shovel. Same old shit. If you’re unhappy, don’t think changing jobs is going to make it better. Consider me your friend telling you this over a beer in the bar, okay?
I don’t Like Teaching Robots
Teaching Korean university
robots students who’ve only memorized facts for tests their entire lives is tedious. And, freshman boys often have the social skills of middle school children which borders on the ridiculous.
I do my best, but I often think it’s too late and that I can’t really make a difference. Perhaps I could have helped them in middle school? Elementary school would have been even better. An intensive year with Jackie to help you think for yourself! Question authority! Analyze something! Write something! It would do a lot of Koreans a lot of good I think.
Am I just a Terrible Teacher?
Do university English teachers in Korea really make a big impact on their students? Maybe it’s just me and I’m a terrible teacher, or whatever, but I don’t really think so. This isn’t how I want to live my life. It’s depressing.
Traveling: Does it Have the Answers?
You know what else I’m tired of? Traveling. I’m in a book club and last week we were talking about whether or not traveling could answer the big questions in life, whatever they are. And also whether or not those who haven’t traveled can be truly happy because they don’t know what else is out there.
The group was divided. The two of us who are leaving Korea soon said that traveling certainly doesn’t have all the answers and that those who stayed in one place their entire lives can be just as happy as that globe-trotter. The others thought that unless you’ve gone and experienced the world, you don’t really know what you want for your life.
For Me, Certainly Not
I used to think that going to Africa, or Cambodia, or Thailand and seeing how other people lived and connecting with people from around the world would make me feel happy, enlightened, like I understood the world better.
It usually just made me feel like a rich white person who was paying the locals a pittance to cater to my every whim. I saw how the disparity between rich and poor was wide, so, so, so wide and it depressed me. It didn’t make me feel enlightened. I felt sad.
Except I’m mostly powerless to change this situation, unless I were to devote my life to a cause like helping orphans in Cambodia. But, I’m not. Another trip to Thailand certainly does not hold the key to my future happiness and understanding of the world and so staying here for that reason is not a great plan.
Don’t People Teach ESL For the Money?
I’ve been talking to someone online recently who is not connected to the ESL world in any whatsoever. I was telling her about my book, “Life After ESL” and I mentioned that everyone who went back to their home country emphasized the need to have a big pool of money. She was surprised that people didn’t have this-isn’t that why everyone goes abroad to teach, she said.
Yes, mostly. Unless you’re the do-gooder type, but in this case you should probably do it somewhere that isn’t in the first world and work at an orphanage or something. For free.
Korea is no longer the prime place it once was for those looking to make some serious cash. Wages haven’t risen in a decade. Cost of living most certainly has. The Korean ESL industry is a dying one and I feel like I’ve already been hanging around a couple years more than I should have. Things are only get to get worse in the next few years.
Random Thoughts about When it’s Time to Go: Take What You Will From It
Maybe you’re asking yourself, “When is it time to leave Korea?” I have no answers. But just remember these 5 rules:
1. Feeling of dread in the pit of stomach at signing on for another year is usually a bad sign.
2. New job won’t make your feel happy, if you’re not now.
3. You really want to help people? Korea is not the place.
4. You really want to make money teaching? Middle East all the way!
5. Bitter, crusty and angry? Tough break if you’re trapped. If you’re not, roll on out. It’s a big world out there people!
Have your Say about Teaching English in South Korea
Do you have any tips or advice for someone thinking about teaching English in South Korea? Any questions for us? Leave a comment below and let us know. We’d love to hear from you.
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Last update on 2022-06-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API