Teaching in Korea: When is it time to go home?

Teaching in Korea-It's time to go home

It’s Been a Decade

Well Korea, it’s been a decade. And we’ve had a good few years, filled with enough awesome to last a lifetime. Seriously. I feel like I’ve compressed 50 years worth of living into 10 and I’d never trade my time here for anything. And I have absolutely no regrets about moving here after uni, nor do I have any regrets about staying as long as I did. Except that now it’s not as awesome as it once was and it’s time to go and I kind of feel like my departure date can’t quite come soon enough, despite trying my best to enjoy the last few months here and maintain the positive outlook that has gotten me through the years in good stead, without becoming one of those crazy wayguks that you read about on ESL Cafe.

Bad Feelings in Pit of Stomach

People ask me all the time how I know it’s time to go home after teaching in Korea. I’m not really one to make a ton of decisions on “gut feelings” but like as I thought about signing another 2-year contract at my university, I just had this bad, bad, bad feeling in the pit of my stomach and I knew it would be a terrible, terrible, terrible mistake that I would regret the instant I did it. Now, I could leave it there I guess, but I’ll try to break it down-why I think I had that bad feeling and what underlying factors helped me make the decision to leave.

Am I too Idealistic to Deal with the Academic Misadventures?

There are just so many things that can fall under the category of “academic misadventures” in Korea that I’m not sure how anyone can stomach it for any longer than 8 or 10 years without it destroying their soul. It’s been chipping away at mine over the years and maybe I’m just a naive idealist or something, but like the diploma mill thing eats me up on the inside. Pay your tuition, get your paper. Maybe I’m ridiculous and equate a university education with knowledge and scholarship and other such honourable things. Maybe I’m just stupid for importing my Western style values to the land of the little white envelopes and if living here has taught me anything, it’s this: everything has a price tag attached to it.

And, yes, I really do have to take these f$%*ing ridiculous attendance papers from female students who get excused from classes each month due to their female bodily functions, because of course, universities here in Korea give out points for simply sitting your butt in a chair and breathing the air in a class. My university says to give 30% (no, that’s not a typo) of the final grade in attendance, but I only assign 10%. A wee protest of sorts. And like that’s just a tiny, tiny example- I could give you at least 20 more equivalent ones.

Whatever, maybe I just shouldn’t care. Life would certainly be easier here. Except I do and I hate it. And no amount of vacation time is going to make what I have to do feel good. It was enough for a lot of years but it’s not anymore.


Do I Care Less About the Money than I Once Did?

I have this theory that basically everyone comes to Korea to teach English for the money and that those who say otherwise should be treated with suspicion and questioned further. I mean, there’s a reason why tourists don’t come here and instead go to Japan, China, Hong Kong, SE Asia or just about anywhere else in Asia. I once cared about the money and working in a university really is an excellent way to pay off debts, or save a ton of money for investing, grad school, a down-payment on a house, or traveling the world. Whatever you want to do-it’s possible after a few years teaching in Korea and working some OT. And sure, the money thing kept me going strong for a lot of years because I really did want to pay off my student loan debt and then invest a ton of money in the stock market.

Except now I’ve done those things and I’m at the point where I have very few financial worries (See: How working abroad in Korean universities set me up for financial awesome) and I mean, who would actually choose to live in Korea if you weren’t mostly motivated by the money? While I haven’t lived or traveled in another country besides Korea for longer than a 10 week period, I have traveled to something like 50 countries and I’ll just say that when I was coming back on the plane, I felt like I was returning to a land filled with workaholic, desperately unhappy robots trying their best to keep the parents happy, no matter what the cost to themselves. Robot style certainly isn’t my style, but you know, it kind of rubs off on you and the general, desperate unhappiness of the average Korean person starts to get to you after a while. Like it just seeps in and start to get you down. And, as kind of an aside, most educated Koreans who speak English would be willing to give up their left arm to escape, which says a lot I think.

Sunday Funday and Day Drinking

English teachers in Korea are all about Sunday Funday and day-drinking. It’s like really, really normal and what else should you do on a Sunday afternoon besides kick back with some friends and have a few adults bevvies? Except I have a suspicion that this really isn’t normal in many parts of the world. Is it? Please comment below and tell me. I think my reality of the outside world has been warped.

Anyway, why do foreigners do this in Korea? Because it’s so, so stressful to deal with life here sometimes. Ridiculous, crazy stuff happens all the time and if you stop to actually think about it, instead of just drinking away the crazy, your head might feel like it’s going to explode. I think it’s time for me to live in a place where life isn’t so stressful and you don’t have to drink away your unhappiness.

English Teachers in Korea: Haters of Anyone Who Succeeds at Anything

The Korean forums over on ESL Cafe has this really, really terrible reputation for being an extremely unfriendly, mean kind of place where people get pounced on for a whole host of things. I post some blog entries or whatever on a few Facebook groups for ESL teachers, both in Korea and around the world. For example, if I post something about my book, The Wealthy English Teacher, people outside Korea will leave comments like, “Awesome! I need to read this,” or, “Wicked! I want to get my finances in order.” The people in the Korea groups will say things like, “Who are you? What are your qualifications?” or, “What a rip-off! You’d be a F%$&ing moron to pay $3.99 for that book.”

Not to be a total hater, because there really are plenty of supportive people in Korea who love the books that I write and my websites or whatever. But, there are just so many angry, angry people here who seem to hate their life and have nothing better to do than hate on any foreigner who try to make a go at anything besides ESL. It’s just not a friendly, supportive community, at all, which I find super-depressing. When someone here does something awesome, I try to be the first one to give them a real, or virtual high-five and a bit of encouragement. Maybe my expectations of people are too high and it’s actually my own fault for having too much faith in people.

10 Years = Now or Never

A few years ago, I formulated this theory about foreign English teachers-if you did it for 10 years or less, you could escape easily enough and settle back into a normal kind of life back home. Longer than 10 years? It’s pretty much impossible. Some of the most unfortunate people I’ve met over the years here in Korea are those that have been here for 15 or 20 years, were in their late 40s or early 50s and still were holding onto this dream that one day they’d go back home, find a job and start a life there. Sure, if you do this with $300,000 in the bank, it’s going to probably be fine. Except what English teacher abroad actually has this much? Almost nobody. Let’s just say that I think those people are going to be in for a pretty rude awakening. Time to put my money where my mouth is and roll on outta here.

Let’s Sum This Up

I hope that explains, at least somewhat the terrible feeling in the pit of the stomach at the thought of signing a new contract at my university. Time to get those golden handcuffs off, and the sooner the better.


  1. Jorge

    I suppose it is down to each individual’s personal experience. I think fluency in Korean and an appetite to integrate with the locals can make life quite comfortable here actually, so long as you focus on the good people in your daily lives, the ones that give you energy and make you happy. In terms of the career, ESL has its limits but a job is a job; the vast majority of people on planet earth would be very grateful to be in the position you are/were in here in Korea. I agree with you though, follow your gut instinct. I wish you luck in your next move 🙂

    1. admin

      Thanks Jorge, I appreciate it. And, I am thankful that I’ve had the jobs that I’ve had in Korea for the past 10 years. They were great for many years, but it’s time for new challenges and adventures.

    1. Mick

      Freaking awesome candidness, Jackie. There’s undoubtedly an existential grimness about Korea that’s hard to ignore no matter what state of mind one happens to be in; or is able to PLACE oneself in at will, for that matter. I’m here 4.5 years and just surf it at this stage. Easy job, zero lesson planning, cool co-teachers (blessing!) in my (small/poor area) public school number BUT I’m a big reader so the desk warming time doesn’t freak me out too much, also use the time for study. Short vacations BUT free aircon summers and free heating winters that doesn’t come out of my pocket….you’re dead right, if you are not here for the money, you’re not here – or you shouldn’t be, at least. But if you ARE here for the cash? Batten down the hatches, boys, and man-up: It ain’t always easy but the chi-ching is certainly there to be had. At least for now, and all that could change at ANY time. Hey! It is KOREA after all….Aristotlean logic don’t dice ’round THESE parts!!

        1. Mick

          Actually, Jackie, one of the most worthwhile desk-warming sessions I’ve had (and it’s 18-20 hours per week this semester, if you can believe that. No after school, no extra classes, just co’ing regular classes.Heaven!) in recent times was to plough through Isabella Bird Bishop’s ‘Korea and her Neighbours’. True, the language and terminology are very dated – and it’s not exactly politically correct, either! BUT, as far as insights into the Korean mind go, how it works, and what its motivations are, I’ve found this book to be invaluable, both as a source of information AND regarding my day-to-day dealings with Koreans in general.
          One would think that a 100++ year old book was pretty worthless, perhaps, but actually not much has changed. Modern Korea is just faster and flashier, today, that’s about it. All the modern stuff vomited out in recent years (A Geek in Korea, anybody? Ugh!) – and I’ve read it all – doesn’t TOUCH old Isabella, God rest ‘er soul, Fascinating, fascinating stuff. Billions upon billions in western investment, combined with a sycophantic army of utterly corrupt ajeossis with whom to enjoy the spoils, and a ready-made mass (upon mass) of willing serfs who are, and will remain in, in TOTAL servitude – THAT’S the Korean miracle as far as I can make out. Shit, they could do the same thing in the freaking Congo, if the will was there!
          …..just think of the chi-ching, just think of the chi-ching…..

  2. Frankie

    Without your own uterus, you can’t really judge what a woman goes through during her time of the month. Are you saying you only gave them 10/100 for attendance instead of the 30/100 that the university suggested? Or did you mean the reverse?

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