When is it Time to Leave Korea and Teaching? | Life After ESL

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When is it time to leave Korea?

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

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!

Someone Also Thinking about Leaving Korea

What Do You Think?

When is it time to leave Korea? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.


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  1. Most of the folks I know of who have left Korea have not found their fulfillment elsewhere (either). Few folks are qualified and can compete for the few full-time/good-paying ESL jobs in their home country. Most folks have fallen behind in the rat-race in other fields of work – older with less recent experience in whatever profession/occupation they came from or prepared for. I’m not saying “don’t go home” — but I’m saying the other end of the rainbow ain’t where you think it is.

    1. admin

      I’m planning on being a hippy, going surfing a lot and working on an organic farm on Vancouver Island, so the rat race is the furthest thing from my mind. I’m pretty confident life is going to be different, but better for me back home.

  2. Steve

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one with such feelings. Sometimes I really hate the daily life here. And as far as teaching goes, a lot of the time I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall.

  3. You are a great writer Jackie! I see a huge future in it for you…please consider making a youtube channel and just talking about stuff, it would be interesting for your readers to connect with you more in that fashion and would be a win-win situation getting your books out there and articles, etc. peace.

  4. Gormenghast

    One thing about leaving Korea and going to N-America/Europe is that you appreciate things a lot more – the manners, the food options, nature, variety, concerts etc. Korea is just too miserable a place to enjoy (for me at least), but I am sure you will feel a lot happier once out of that place. Good luck!

  5. Bill

    The pressure to be successful ( make money and but a better apartment) here, is huge. It’s ingrained in kids as young as 10. There is conforminity here…confirm to the group ….they are generally risk avoidance. They pay a heavy price….in terms of depression….drinking…..burn out.

    1. admin

      For sure, it’s kind of depressing. I met so many desperately unhappy Koreans during my time there. Canada…there’s unhappy people but there’s not the same level of resignation to one’s lot in life.

  6. I have spent 3 years in the boonies of korea, teaching at a university. I’m just moving to daegu now, thinking there will be more stuff to do. (That’s significant, no?)

    I wonder about a more healthy response. Yes the job can be tedious, and you mostly have to design ways to trick the students into learning (unless they’re the type to do anything for the grade), but there’s also opportunity to broaden one’s life in other ways. Since moving to korea I’ve learned to ride a motorcycle, become a licensed yoga teacher, acted in a play, been engaged, called it off, started a literary journal about life abroad, met some tremendous people. There’s tremendous opportunity (though perhaps outside the work.)

    There’s also tremendous appeal in moving to the west coast of the US to grow marijuana. Ah life!

    Anyway, thanks for the article. It hits close to the samgyupsal-clogged aorta.

    Just realized this post is from 3 years ago. Wonder how this happened! Anyway, that’s my 3 years late response.

    1. admin

      I’ve since moved to Canada, almost 3 years ago now. It was the best decision I’ve made in a long time, although I do miss Korea almost every single day for many of the reasons that you mentioned.

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