Sarah is a friend I met seven years ago whilst traveling in Asia. She was about to face what she didn’t realize would be the greatest challenge of her life. Moving to South Korea (SK) to teach English. When I found out about her story, it made me very curious to find out more. I asked her to tell me about her tough start as I thought this may help fellow travelers planning to do the same. How did she end up on the other side of the world in such a different culture? A guy she met in Delhi told her about how good teaching jobs were in South Korea. Good money to be earned, great lifestyle and free accommodation. Sarah had finished two years working in Australia and just completed her years visa in New Zealand. Like many other travelers, she was not ready to go home to Newcastle in the United Kingdom. Sarah had no teaching experience, but she still applied and did not have an easy start. However, it is an exciting story to tell.
She had to confront a foreign language, but was nevertheless excited to submerge herself into a different culture. There was so much to check out: the hyped Korean fashion and cosmetics, local foods and tourist sites. She wondered if she would really like teaching. After some time, Sarah was able to offer some tips.
The new life and loneliness
I must say that my experience may be very different from others. I have been teaching in a town called Chungju for the past three months. I worked at a small Hagwon (private academy) in the countryside. Living there sounded good on paper. A population of over 200,000, two Universities, beautiful mountains but the reality was it was very lonely and isolating. I never truly understood the true feelings of loneliness always being surrounded by friends, family or like minded travelers. The sad thing about being lonely is that you only really think about yourself! I now know I’m a city girl who likes to escape to climb mountains. Not live in the middle of them unable to communicate in the local language . The only two places I would consider living now in SK would be Seoul or Busan. If you are a person used to living in small towns and like a peaceful quiet life, then living in the Korean countryside may suit you more.
The teaching experience
I have found working at a small Hagwan to be very repetitive and boring. They don’t follow a curriculum but just move classes onto a different level of a set of books. It’s a very play CD and repeat after me kind of environment. Once you get in the swing of things, you don’t even need to plan. I tried doing extra activities in the start but was questioned as to why I was spending my valuable time doing so.
The thing that kept me going was the kids (who wouldn’t; they are the cutest) and trying to make learning English fun for them. Some had been going to the Academy for too long and really didn’t want to be there. Other kids, especially the younger kindergarten age, loved it.
The first questions the kids would ask when they met you was your age and if you had a boyfriend. There is a high importance attached to being in a relationship in SK; the more time I spend here the more obvious this became.
I couldn’t get my head around how some kids from the age of seven have dyed/permed hair, wear lip tint and have their nails painted. No wonder they are obsessed with beauty!
South Korean education system and cultural habits / focus
My eyes were soon opened to the bizarre Korean education system. Most Korean kids have a 12-hour school day. This made me realize how much leisure time kids in other countries have in comparison. I taught classes till 9:30 pm; most of the later classes were elementary (8-13yrs). I had kids falling asleep in class and when I asked them what they were doing on the weekend, it’s usually school on Saturday and homework/studying on Sunday. When do these kids get to be kids!! They are like little robots since being successful in Korea is sadly defined by two things…..brains and beauty. Those who don’t hold a University degree get looked down upon. Almost 70% of South Koreans aged 25-34 hold a bachelor’s degree, making SK one of the most educated countries in the world!
Top 5 reasons why I left
- The main reason was the location. It was very isolating in the countryside where not many other expats live.
- I felt sad as I didn’t have any friends apart from the other foreign teacher I worked with. We got on great but she spent most weekends with her boyfriend.
- I spent most weekends in Seoul (1 hour 40 minutes away). Shopping and eating out, I wasn’t saving any money!
- Working from 2:00-9:30pm, back-to back-classes (with one 10 minute and one 20 minute break) takes its toll.
- I felt like a robot and not a teacher. I had no time to prep; they just wanted the kids to memorize the book.
Things you should know before moving to South Korea ?
Unlike most people who relocate to Korea, Sarah didn’t really do much research. I was my own biggest problem at first she says. Here are a few tips to note from her. If you are applying for a teaching job, don’t just take the first offered to you without doing some checking. There are plenty of teaching jobs out there, so get a good feel for what you’re looking for and where you think you will be most happy for a year. Sarah notes that you cannot go to the school directly and instead recommends some useful websites that she found to help with her job hunt:
Pack well as there are four distinct seasons. Currently, I wear 4-5 layers on a daily basis and it hasn’t even hit the coldest part of winter yet. It can get down to -15 degrees! Sizes are small over here. I’m generally a UK 8 and wear a size L to get more arm and leg length! Also, if you are a girl larger than a UK 6 shoe size, I would bring some comfortable footwear with you. You will also pay more for good quality leather. Pack towels as they are mostly hand size. Stock up on a good deodorant as Koreans don’t need to wear it. Yes, they have a gene for no underarm odor – how lucky!
General / behaviour
Koreans don’t wear shoes inside so you always must take them off at an entrance and wear your socks or “inside shoes.” Eating out in restaurants is cheaper than cooking for one especially when you eat local Korean food. Western-style groceries are expensive; so is fruit. If you are vegetarian and living outside of Seoul, you will struggle as most Korean dishes contain meat. SK is one of the safest countries with a low crime rate. Guns are illegal and drugs have stiff penalties. It’s very safe to walk the streets and travel alone late at night.
Arrival – Medical test
SK is one of the most homogenous countries in the world; they are taught from elementary school that they are “ethnically homogenous.” As an expat, you are easily spotted and identified as a foreigner. Koreans are very polite people and will always do what they can to accommodate you and make you feel welcome. When you first arrive for any teaching job, you will be put through a medical screening. This includes everything from blood tests, eye tests, chest x-rays, urine samples, to even a quick visit to the dentist. If you get a job at a Hagwon, you may be flung into the deep end like I was, which means that on my first day I was teaching eleven classes (30 hours / week) on my own. My advice is to stay calm and do a quick intro in front of each class explaining that your new to Korea and just want to get to know everyone. This was my approach and it seemed to work! And had a few games up my sleeve. See ESLKidsgames.
The emissions are a danger for your health / the downside of being in South Korea & abroad from home (UK)
After one week of being in Korea, I caught a cough so violent that I even pulled a muscle in my rib, which was pretty painful. The other foreign teacher working at my school and I were both taken to local doctors with a Korean teacher from our school taken along to translate. It was quite an experience as we both had similar symptoms (coughing, mucus, temperature), but they sent me off to get a chest x-ray while they had the other teacher on the weighing scales (she was not even slightly overweight). We both left with what looked like a package from a candy shop – 15 tablets a day over 4 days. This seemed very excessive and after slight deliberation, we decided to give it a go. Three months later I still had the deadly cough! I managed to find an English-speaking doctor who treated the cough like an allergy and that cleared it up. I now go around wearing a mask on days when the air quality is bad. The air here is ranked as one of the worst places in the world for exposure to dangerous levels of fine dust in the air. All in all, this wasn’t a good start to my SK adventure; it is a common thing for foreigners to become sick when they arrive.
Other difficulties that I faced / biggest challenges I wished I would have known beforehand
- Having no sim card or bank card for the first month. These things sound relatively simple but the reality of getting them. You pay $40 month for a foreigner sim basic package.
- If you are vegetarian, think again about living here as Koreans have meat in 99% of their dishes. Unless you are living in Seoul, you will be very restricted when eating out.
- The initial language barrier and overcoming the feeling of being alone.
Things I love about South Korea
First, I have fallen in love with Korean food with so many different specialties to try. I recommends:
- Kimchi, a pickled cabbage that every Korean eats with most dishes.
- Bulgogi Pork, a sweet BBQ meat that is very mouthwatering. There are lots of vegetable side dishes.
- Bibimbap, a bowl of rice, mixed vegetables, and an egg all mixed together.
- Tteokbokki or Korean rice cakes in a red fish paste sauce. Hangover stew with pork meat falling off the bone.
- Chimaek is their famous fried chicken with a beer.
- Mandu Korean dumplings steamed or fried.
The list goes on, but these are some of my favorites.
As well as great food Korea, a fantastic infrastructure is incredibly developed, yet you can still see traditional temples, especially in Seoul. Wi-Fi is everywhere and very fast. Public transportation and taxis are cheap and efficient. Shopping for clothes and cosmetics is lots of fun and very reasonable. Just the overall experience of being part of a new world, where couples in matching outfits from top to toe is considered “cool.” There is the intense hiking gear, and I mean intense; the old people love this look. I like the way guys carry clutch bags and have no problem carrying their girlfriends’ handbags while shopping. There is an obsession with cute things. I have never seen so many cute things from stationary to coffee shops.
Sarah’s recommendations before accepting a job in Korea ?
- Do your research before saying yes. Speak to another foreign teacher at the school via email or skype. Watch some YouTube videos to make sure the Korean education system and culture agree with you.
- Make friends in Korea before coming or get to know Korean people living in your country.
- Join a wide range of ex-pat groups that can be found on Facebook for language exchanges, activities, networking, and to see what’s happening in your area.
- Know some survival Korean such and hello, goodbye, thank you, and the alphabet (Hangul).
- Have a smart phone. Google translate will be your new best friend!
After living overseas for over three years, the past three months in SK is where I have done the most growing as a person, making me a stronger and more resilient. I’m now looking forward to starting a new chapter teaching at an English village in Seoul.
Thanks to Sarah for her great insights and good luck in her new teaching job. Comment underneath if you want an update in six months.