Unless I return to the Land of the Morning Calm at some point in the future, this will likely be the final chapter I write in The Korea Kronicles. As I finished typing these words, I was hanging out at a cafe in Taipei, the city where I plan to move in just a few weeks. This post is intended to be the final take on my experience working within Korea’s competitive, cutthroat, and ruthless education-industrial complex—phraseology I use almost entirely unironically—and a resource that will prepare other individuals who either are considering or have already decided to make the move to Korea.
Mostly, I want people to realize up front that while teaching in Korea can be an altogether amazing and enriching experience, it is almost just as likely be deeply dark and intensely negative. The reality is that, like most human experiences, it will often tend to be some cocktail of the two. While my own time tended more toward the former than the latter, I need people to be aware that it really is mostly the luck of the draw as to whether they will end up loving or hating Korea. So, if you, the reader, are the sort of person who’s contemplating a move to this country because you’ve convinced yourself it will be perfect and easy and amazing the whole time, then you need to stir in a little rationality with all that sunshine in your coffee. I’m reminded of the line from the song “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service: “Everything looks perfect from far away.” Korea is no different, and, as a place inhabited by human beings, it comes complete with all the normal—and quite a few unique—human problems and frustrations.
The 8 Stereotypical Foreigners You’ll Likely Meet in Korea
Let’s start out with a list of the different types of people I was able to identify working as English teachers during my two years. If you’re planning a move to South Korea, I think it’s important that you be prepared for the sort of people you’re likely to encounter. This list by no means accounts for every single person I met working as an English teacher there, and in many cases I met people who could easily fall into two or more of these categories (I would consider myself a mixture of numbers 1, 3, and 4). This does, however, fairly thoroughly describe the types of fellow foreign teachers I met while living and working in South Korea, listed in order of the perceived frequency with which I encountered them.
- The Indebted Young Graduate: It should be noted that this generally did not apply to the Canadians, English, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans I encountered. It’s true, a college education in the United States is absurdly expensive and an easy way to wipe out that debt is working in a country like South Korea, where English teachers make a decent amount of money and enjoy a fairly low cost of living. For me, all but my cheap utilities bill was money in my pocket that I either used to fire broadsides at my student loan debt or beef up my savings account.
- The Teacher-Tourist: Sometimes, people want to take a year or two after graduating college to travel before beginning their professional careers but want to make and save money at the same time. Teaching jobs in Korea include at least two weeks of vacation per year (many include four or more) and many people will use this vacation time and the money they save strategically to visit all or most of the tourist hotspots in Southeast Asia. There are also the teacher-tourists who do the bare minimum at work while living for the weekends when they can party it up in Itaewon. It should be noted that the term “teacher-tourist” has a slightly negative connotation given the (not completely inaccurate) stereotype among Korean employers of foreign teachers being booze-swigging tourists first and teachers second. (There’ll be more on this later in the post.)
- The Money-Saving World Traveler: In my entire life, not counting my home country and airport layovers, I have been to five countries: Jamaica, Mexico, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan. By contrast, I met people in their 30s and 40s in Korea who had spent most of their lives working odd jobs and traveling the globe, some of them racking up countries-visited tallies totaling 50 or more. If you’re smart with your money, you can work for a year or two in a place like South Korea and save up enough cash to finance a year or so of traveling around the world on the cheap.
- The “Eat, Pray, Love” Type: Maybe they just went through a messy divorce, the loss of a cherished loved-one, coming out as gay or lesbian to their conservative families, or some other significant life event and these people need a year or two away doing relatively easy work to “find themselves.” They will stay overnight at Buddhist temples (for a more important reason than just crossing it off their Bucket Lists) and spend a lot of time climbing mountains, reading Eastern philosophy, and getting involved in cultural and language exchanges. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, I’m just letting you know it’s quite likely you’ll meet someone who embarked for Korea on a journey to discover the meaning of Life.
- The Professionally Incompetent and Inept: For whatever reason, these are people who have just never been able to make it work as an employee of a company in their home countries. In some cases, they possess a personality quirk or defect which makes them impossible people to work with. In extreme cases, they have succeeded in thoroughly burning every last bridge to gainful employment in their places of origin and feel their only option is to move to a place like Korea where the barriers for entry into the field of ESL teaching are almost laughably low. Those barriers are, with only mild exaggeration, a bachelor’s degree, a clean background check, and a pulse.
- The Socially Incompetent and Inept: In the same way that a person can be professionally incompetent, people can also be socially incompetent. Have you ever met those people who, despite their best efforts, have the sort of abrasive or annoying personalities which invariably alienate them from those around them? If not, you will in Korea. I suppose these people feel that a fresh move to a new place with an unfamiliar culture where (hopefully) no one knows them will allow a second chance to build meaningful relationships. Sometimes it works out for them but, unfortunately, it often doesn’t and they end up even more lonely and miserable than they were before they made the move to Korea.
- The K-pop and/or K-Drama Junkie: It is unlikely that you will encounter another form of artistic expression more vapid, more finely-tuned to short-term consumption and mass appeal than the K-culture industry—excepting Korean cinema, which is generally very high quality. Sure, some of it was good and, I have to admit, even I’m not immune to boy band pelvic sorcery but K-pop is, on the whole, vomit-inducing, drivelous junk. People are free (and probably will) vehemently disagree with my opinion, as is their right, but I’m just reporting what I saw. Korea’s contemporary pop music industry took off under the careful stewardship of the Korean government and corporate industrial interests in the late 1990s due to their belief that Korea needed a cultural export. While Koreans have a ridiculously outsized estimation of K-culture’s popularity in the world, there are a few of the obsessive types in Western countries who latch on to K-culture (sometimes they meet the descriptions in number 6 on this list) and decide to move to Korea to immerse themselves in it.
- The Rice King (and Queen): I was surprised not to meet more of this type, but there were a few. You’ll meet Western guys who are stir-crazy for Asian girls and move to Korea so they can find a Korean wife. Sometimes these men do this because they’re weird and Western girls won’t have anything to do with them (again, they meet the descriptions in number 6 of this list). Sometimes they just want a wife who is more amicable to waiting on them hand and foot. This can also apply to gay men who practically fetishize Asian—and, by extension, Korean—men. Personally, I find Korean men attractive and dated two of them for a while, but I don’t find them any more attractive than I do men who are white, black, Indian, or any other race.
ESL Teaching in Korea: The Good
Now, let’s just be real, shall we? The biggest reason why the vast majority of people who move to teach English in Asia do so, especially to Korea, is for the money. Whether you’re a young professional like me looking to pay off student loan debt, a traveler looking to work for a year or two to finance a global sojourn, or just someone looking to earn a good paycheck that will mostly end up as money in your pocket due to lack of rent and other expenses, Korea is the place to go. Japan is categorically a nicer country to live in, but there isn’t as much money to be made, it has a very high cost of living, and it’s a lot more competitive to get a teaching job. China is fine and offers decently competitive money if you don’t mind getting black lung disease from breathing the smog-laden air or dealing with its slightly uncivilized culture. Taiwan is comparable to Korea (more pay and lower cost of living but slightly fewer benefits so it mostly evens out) but it’s is a bit more competitive there and has higher barriers to entry, such as most jobs requiring at least a substitute teaching license and 1-2 years of experience. It’s possible to work elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, but very few places can compete with Korea in terms of money to be made and ease of finding employment.
Additionally, for those hoping to travel, it is extremely easy and cheap to go to places like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia when living in Korea. For example, it’s routinely possible to get a roundtrip ticket from Incheon to Manila for under ₩300,000—about U.S. $280. Korea’s cost of living is actually a bit higher than most places in the U.S. (especially where I’m from in Oklahoma, which is one of the poorest states in the U.S. and, ergo, has one of the lowest costs of living) but given that most English teachers in Korea don’t have to pay rent or automobile expenses, it turns out to be lower for them. Very robust and highly efficient mass transit systems mean that it’s quite easy to get around, both within Korean cities—even the smaller ones—and between cities in Korea.
When compared to many other places in Asia, Koreans on the whole have a far higher level of English proficiency. Many of the people I know who have moved to new jobs teaching English in Japan were surprised to find that so few people in Japan know any English at all, which is ironic in a sense, given that no one is surprised that so few Americans know any Japanese. In any case, the fact that so many Koreans already have a decent foundation in English means that its more likely to be an easier environment in which to teach. The fact that Koreans tend to be better at English on the whole is because there is currently a massive and insatiable demand for English instruction in Korea. In a sort of “Keeping Up with the Kims” race, Korean parents see little Min-Seok in apartment 506 is only in Kindergarten and his English is nearly as good as his Korean and they panic because their son Yeong-Jun is already in second grade and is still learning his English numbers. That’s when they shell out the big bucks to send him to an after-school English academy. Everything in Korea—from education, to jobs, to finding a partner—is immensely competitive and parents see English as a way for their kids to get a leg-up on the competition. This means that there is currently a massive demand for English teachers in Korea, demand that is likely to continue for at least the next 5-10 years and probably longer. It’s this high demand that gives rise to the very low requirements to get a job teaching, which is why so many (even perhaps yourself) are considering doing it.
ESL Teaching in Korea: The Bad
Unless people intend to work for a government teaching program (such as EPIK or TaLK), they should understand that the private English education industry—which includes things like private English Kindergartens, after-school academies (hakwons), English villages, etc.—is profit-oriented and ultimately exists to make money for the owners of the institutions. In general, it is not a vital interest to the owners and operators of most of these private institutions for the students who attend them to actually become proficient in English. It is not important that the teaching practices employed are effective or that the teachers who work at them receive the support they need. If you are an experienced and/or trained teacher looking to work in a well-organized and effective educational setting, then you will quite possibly be making a massive professional and personal mistake by moving to Korea to teach.
You may ask, “But wait, doesn’t Korea have one of the top-performing education systems in the world? How can it be the way you describe?” Well, one, you’d be referring to the public education system, which is entirely separate from the private English education industry. Secondly, what the Korean public education system excels at is preparing students to perform well on standardized tests, which is currently the major, in-vogue method used to determine how well an education system performs. Public education and, to a large degree, English instruction in Korea is built upon rote memorization, a practice which has historical roots in Confucianism and the civil service exams required in Imperial Korea for people to enter the ruling yangban class. Even after teaching here for two years, I am still amazed at the deficiency of Korean children’s skills in creativity and critical analysis. But, those things have little value in Korean culture, which emphasizes obedience and conformity above essentially everything else.
Furthermore, if you get a job working in a hakwon, you need to be aware that by the time you see your students every day (typically around 4 or 5 p.m.), they will have been in school since 8 a.m. They will then spend five hours or so at the hakwon before they go home and study for a couple of hours and then finally go to sleep around 11 p.m. or midnight. They will do this every week day and then spend half of the day in school on Saturday; if they’re lucky, they might get a few hours on Saturday and Sunday when they can take a break from studying to play soccer or video games. You may be thinking, “But that’s insane! THEY’RE JUST KIDS!” If you’re thinking that, then you’re exactly right. They are just kids and it is insane. It makes no sense. Even Koreans know that it makes no sense, and yet cultural inertia and an unquenchable desire to get ahead mean that it’s perpetuated with no end in sight. I’m also convinced that this is intended to prepare kids for eventual entry into the Korean workforce, where they, as young professionals, will be likely to work upwards of 70-80 hours a week and be always on-call (I’ll discuss Korean work culture more later on).
I didn’t work at a hakwon (I was at an English village), but based on innumerable conversations I had with people who did work at hakwons, they were seldom anything they considered “good jobs.” Even the best hakwons were basically places students went after school to complete English workbooks supervised by a native English-speaking teacher who could offer assistance if needed. The worst hakwons often don’t make salary payments on time, attempt to get teachers to work longer hours without pay, and will fight tooth and nail to get out of paying contractually- and legally-mandated benefits, like severance and airfare reimbursement. Even the government-run programs like the ones I mentioned earlier require foreign teachers to come into their school offices on certain days when the students are out of school and sit at their desks for eight hours doing nothing (most would watch movies or play video games) in order to complete their contracted “work hours.” While some public schools are great to work at, others are notoriously awful, like junior high and some technical high schools in the major cities.
ESL Teaching in Korea: The Ugly
I’ve heard it said that the owners of private English institutions in Korea are equal parts human and snake. While this is obviously not universally true, and some hakwon owners are very globally-minded, I’ve heard enough horror stories to place at least some merit behind the assertion that hakwon proprietors are not on the whole the most scrupulous lot. It’s happened to some teachers that they get a job working at what appears to be a reputable hakwon only to arrive and discover that it’s a start-up and hasn’t even gotten off the ground yet. As I said earlier, the private ESL industry in Korea is extremely competitive and a large percentage of start-ups fail in their first six months. When that happens, teachers are often left unpaid without any recourse and forced to pay their own way out of the country. It’s also been known to happen for a hakwon owner to find a reason to terminate teachers during their eleventh month of employment to avoid having to pay them their legally-mandated end-of-contract severance. While I’m not sure how common this is currently, especially given that teachers have started fighting back by lodging complaints with the Korean National Labor Relations Commission, it has been known to happen and people should be aware of it.
On another matter, at virtually no point in its history has Korea ever been known as a particularly welcoming place for foreigners. Many may already be aware that North Korea is often referred to as “the Hermit Kingdom” due to its self-imposed isolation from the international community. That term has deeper roots just than the Kim family dictatorship in Pyongyang, however. “Hermit Kingdom” originated with some of the first European explorers in the Far East who quickly discovered that not only did imperial Joseon-ruled Korea have no interest in opening up its ports and borders to international trade with them, but its relations with neighbors China and Japan were also negligible. Foreigners were not permitted free travel within Imperial Korea and international trade—and even the presence of non-Koreans—was limited to a handful of specially-designated zones, often given the name 왜관 (“Waegwan“) or “Foreigner House.”
While this antipathy toward non-natives is markedly less zealous in the Twenty-first Century, vestiges of it certainly remain. It isn’t unheard of, for example, for a couple consisting of a foreign man and a Korean woman (or even vice versa, sometimes) to be heckled or assaulted for walking on a sidewalk or riding a public bus while holding hands. It’s also been known to happen at times that young men who’ve gone to college, completed their two years of compulsory military service, and are then unable to find a well-paying job in Korea’s tough and competitive economy will get drunk and go looking for a foreigner to rough-up. Young Korean men and women often resent foreign teachers for making so much easy money doing such a (relatively) easy job. Furthermore, it probably goes without saying that, as a traditional and latently-Confucianist culture, Korea is not particularly embracing of LGBT people. Older Koreans often go so far as to claim there are no LGBT Koreans and that it is nothing but a disease brought in by foreigners. The younger generations are growing to be more accepting and Korea has a decent gay scene if people know where to look, but there is still much progress to be made.
In much the same vein, most Koreans are highly image-conscious and will often not hesitate to comment, in as much English as they can muster, on what they like or dislike about other peoples’ appearances to their faces. If if a person is plus-sized, they might say, “You are very beautiful/handsome, but you are fat. You should diet.” If someone has body hair, children (and sometimes adults) might come up to you without invitation or introduction, start petting you like a dog, and say, “You are a monkey?” If they can’t manage that much English, it might just be, “털?” In Korean, 털 (“teol”) means fur, usually animal fur. If you’re a redhead and/or have freckles, Korean kids might be afraid to let you touch them or they might say, “Why are you so dirty? You should take a bath.” In response to the recent outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa, one particular bar in Seoul posted a sign in its window indicating that no Black people would be admitted because they didn’t want to be infected themselves. Essentially, what this boils down to is that a lot of Koreans have a very unfortunate tendency to be highly ungracious and insensitive when it comes to dealing with people who do not look like them, specifically like what they think the ideal man or woman should look like. If you plan on moving to this country and have a thin skin, you might want to reconsider your plans in the interest of your own mental and emotional health.
Things People Should Know About Korean Work Culture
Korea is traditionally a culture oriented around a unique brand of Neo-Confucianism. For those not well-acquainted with the tenets of Confucianism, it is a philosophy that arose in China centered around the teachings and writings of Kǒng Fūzǐ, a man who lived in the 500s BCE and whom Westerners generally know as Confucius. Though Confucianism is far less prevalent in contemporary Korean society, ideas and cultural practices that have their roots in this philosophy persist to this day. Essentially, Confucianism is a philosophy that teaches, among other things, moral behavior, loyalty to king and country, and love and piety toward the family and ancestors. Clearly, it is a philosophy that looks good on paper, but it has dark sides as well, as do most human philosophies. In all actuality, Confucianism is really only a good deal if you’re male, old, or high status (on that third criterion, read “rich”)—and preferably all three.
Work culture in the modern Korean workplace flows out of the model of a Confucian family, with the boss as the patriarch who enjoys absurdly special privileges and the people beneath him working far harder than they would otherwise. The first person to leave the office every day is the boss and if the boss decides to stay until 8 p.m., then everyone is expected to stay until 8 p.m. even if they have family or non-work obligations. Actually, no Korean worker is technically supposed to leave work until everyone who outranks him or her in their highly elaborate hierarchy has left. There is also the tradition of 회식 (“hweshik“), or “dining together,” in which a boss will announce to his workers (often with less than an hour’s notice) that they will get drunk and sing karaoke together that night. Whether the workers want to or not (it should be noted that Korean workers almost universally hate hweshik), they are expected to go and stay until their boss announces that the festivities are over. Many times, these work “parties” will last far into the night, sometimes on a night when the involuntary guests have to work the next morning. If my tone sounds slightly scalding, it was intentional on my part. I don’t see any point in giving dumb and/or destructive practices and traditions a pass just because they have roots in a nation’s culture. I should also point out that some foreigners don’t mind (or even enjoy) this; personally, I can’t think of much else more potentially volatile than getting drunk with your boss and coworkers. While foreign teachers don’t experience this to quite the degree that native Korean workers do, foreigners moving to work in Korea should probably be prepared for some hweshik.
In a related point, Korean work culture is still highly sexist, even though women have made inroads in recent years. The current president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is a woman; she is also the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the dictator in the 1960s and 70s who laid the groundwork for Korea to become the economic and manufacturing powerhouse that it is today, so she had some help. Despite this and other advances, Korean work culture still has a long way to go before women enjoy the equal treatment they deserve. On a related matter, I don’t want to insinuate a belief that the West is the paragon of gender equality it often likes to think it is because that is not how I feel at all. We all know that the United States in particular has much progress to be made. Even so, Korean work culture is roughly at where the U.S. was in the 1950s, so we’re arguably ahead in the game.
Things People Should Know About Contemporary Korean Politics
As I’ve hinted at earlier, there is currently a bit of blowback in Korean political and civil discourse against the high number of foreign language teachers working in the country. For one, foreign workers who come from Western countries (only native English-speakers holding a passport from the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand can obtain an E-2 teacher visa from Korean immigration) are willing to work for far fewer hours than their Korean counterparts. While a decent contract for a foreign ESL teacher will limit teaching hours to 30 or fewer and total hours to 40 or fewer, Korean workers, as I’ve said, are expected to work far longer (for less pay) regardless of what their employment contracts state. Moreover, the high demand for teachers has meant that employers can’t be as selective as they would like; after all, there is a finite number of people who are willing to move across the globe to a still relatively unknown Asian country to work as English teachers. This has meant that some otherwise shady and degenerate characters have gotten jobs teaching children in Korea. At one point, I was working with two out-and-out alcoholics at my job and, around the beginning of my second year, a ring of twelve English teachers at other schools in Daegu was arrested and deported for drug use (it was just marijuana, but it’s treated the same as cocaine or heroin in Korea).
Along with general across-the-board cuts to government programs funding foreign English teachers, it became widely known (it was announced years earlier) in the fall of 2014 that the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education was completely eliminating foreign English teachers from schools within its jurisdiction. While this was primarily the result of budget cuts and the current South Korean president’s purported dislike of foreign English teachers in general, it also arose partly of a perception that the only thing English teachers in Seoul did was party in Itaewon on the weekends and show up to work hungover on Monday. The degree to which this perception is true is largely dependent on one’s point of view, but it is true that a sizable number of the foreign English teachers in Korea are young, fairly-recent college graduates who still have some party left in them. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I did a fair amount of partying myself and that I see nothing wrong with adults doing so as long as they refrain from general stupidity, as most do.
All this to say that it might become more difficult to get a job as an English teacher at a public school in Korea in the coming years. Certainly, the EPIK program is becoming far more selective in who it admits and the trajectory is a steady raising of the bar in terms of requirements and prerequisites to work in the program—this in marked contrast to the program’s reputation in the not-too-distant past of accepting essentially anyone who applied. As of the most recent EPIK application period, the program wasn’t even interested in applicants unless they had a TESL certificate and one year of teaching experience. So, in short, people with no prior experience who are interested in moving to Korea to teach English and want to live in a major city like Seoul, Busan, Daegu, or Daejeon might have to settle for working at a hakwon. Unless these people have a Master’s degree and teaching experience, in which case they should get a job as an English conversation teacher at a university.
Well, I admit, this has been a lot of information, and a very long post. If you, as the reader, feel that I have neither painted an entirely rosy nor an entirely bleak picture of life and work in South Korea, then I’ve succeeded. I had bad days and I had good days. I had awful days and I had unbelievably great days. Most days were forgettable, while some were so amazing that I doubt their memory will fade until my mind starts to slip away from me in old age. For those of you reading this post because you’re making preparations to move to South Korea to teach English, I have three pieces of advice.
- Do Your Homework Before Taking a Job. If you’re applying to work at a hakwon or other private language institution, ask the hiring manager to put you in touch with a current or former employee. If the hiring manager won’t do it, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s probably not a good place to work and you should move on. If you’re going to work in a government program, talk to people who’ve worked in that program before; if you can, try to find someone who worked at the school you’re assigned to and gather some intelligence about it. Research the cities you’re considering living in and don’t accept a job in the countryside unless you’re aware of what it entails: long travel times to the city and possibly mind-numbing boredom.
- Stay Flexible, but Don’t Let People Disrespect You. You are a human being and you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Be aware that a fair number of people you encounter may never have seen or interacted with a foreigner before and they may not be sure of the proper way to do it. Nevertheless, if your boss treats you disrespectfully, you are well within your rights to tell him (or her), “I don’t appreciate the way you’re treating me and if you want me to continue working for you, it will stop now.” If students say something insulting about your appearance you can (and should) have a conversation with them about politeness and showing the same respect to foreigner teachers as they would to their Korean teachers. Obviously, respect the culture and remain flexible to misunderstandings and differences, but know where the line is between cultural sensitivity and simply permitting people to walk all over you. This will likely be the difference between enjoying your time in Korea and growing to despise it.
- Know When It’s Time to Leave. For the vast majority of people, there will come a day when it is time to leave Korea. This time comes at different points for different people, but, mark my words, it will almost definitely come. When it does come, you will no longer find the cultural quirks humorous or have the ability to maintain a positive attitude in the face of those things that, for whatever reason, just really irk you. For some people, they fail to realize the arrival of this point and remain in Korea for far longer than they should and become full of bitterness and bile. I recognized the onset of this in myself, which is one of the reasons I elected to leave the country instead of finding another job and staying longer.
So, anyway, here we are. We’ve come to the end: the final paragraph of the final chapter of The Korea Kronicles. As I look back on the day when I learned for sure that I would be moving to Korea, I can definitely say that I never foresaw most of what happened in those 24 months and that nothing yet in my life has had as big of an impact on my worldview as they have. It was only two years, but it felt like ten, and in a mostly good way. There were days when I was confounded by conflicting feelings that I had both just arrived and that it was all I had ever known. If you decide to take the plunge yourself, even if for just a year, I wager you’ll have days when you feel the same. Perhaps the most valuable outcome of the time I spent in Korea is that I now feel a rapacious thirst to drink in all that the world has to offer, which is why I’m not going back to my comfortable and familiar home in the States to settle down and live a normal, run-of-the-mills life. Nothing against people who live normal, run-of-the-mills lives, though, because it’s actually those people who make the world go ’round. For me, though, a life like that would feel like death, which is why I’m getting ready to take off on another adventure. I hope you stay tuned, as I’m really excited to tell you about it.