Korea Sparkling: or On living and working in Seoul

Anyone who has read my blog, even a little, knows I love Korea. I love teaching, and I love where I am at now.  I have worked here and left here and come back.  I think Korea is fairly easy to live in, and it suits me well.  I’m always excited when someone I don’t personally know contacts me, and I’m always happy to help someone who wants to teach or who needs some help with living here.

So, I have gotten a comment and a few e-mails asking me about teaching in Korea.  So I thought I’d do a post on the good, the bad, and the really weird about teaching in Korea.   I teach in a public school, so I have a pretty good job. The other options for teaching are hagwans (private academies, usually after school) and universities.  If you don’t have a master’s or PhD, getting a university gig is not easy.  It is possible, especially small colleges outside of the major cities, but you do have to be already here, and have completed at least one 1 year contract.   If you want to teach English as a second language, you have to be from an English-speaking country, (USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, and South Africa)- but at the university level, if you are teaching another subject, you can still get a job teaching ( for example, a lot of IT and computer professors are from India and China.) —  I know that there are people from other countries that actually speak English better than some native speakers, but those are the rules according to Korean Immigration–  although some people do work here illegally, I cannot in good conscience recommend that option. If you have questions on what is legal and what is not,  you can look up your own situation here:  http://www.immigration.go.kr/indeximmeng.html

For hagwon jobs you can go to:  http://www.tefl.com/ or http://www.eslcafe.com/ Hagwons hire all year round, and they are pretty easy jobs to get.  It is a risk, because you never know exactly what you are getting into until you are actually here.  The best you can do is make sure you are doing a lot of research (do take the complaints posted anonymously on the internet with a grain of salt) Talk to the people who are working there now, not just by e-mail, but by phone if you can.  Hagwons have a bad reputation, and some of it is deserved.  Immigration is trying to right some of the wrongs, and they have more protections for foreign workers and organizations like  http://atek.or.kr/ are doing a lot to help foreigners get settled and mediate if there are major problems.

That said, I have had good experiences with the hagwon I worked in when I came back.  I worked for Reading Town in Incheon, and I had a great time.  Hagwons have some advantages– you don’t need a lot of experience, nor do you need an English or education degree. They usually have their own curriculum and books, and you don’t need to know what you are doing to teach a decent class.  The teacher’s guides usually lay everything out for you.  You just follow their program.  Because they hire throughout the year, you usually have other foreigners who you are working with, and they can show you around and help you get the ins and outs of life here.  Hagwons also pay a bit better, but you don’t have as many days off, and they are harder to schedule. A lot of hagwons only have vacation days when the school is closed.

Most of my experience has been with High Schools. I must admit it is the age I like to teach, and also the conditions I like the most.  If you want a public school job outside of Seoul, you should look into EPIK,  English Program In Korea  http://www.teachenglishinasia.net/english-program-in-korea-epik but if you want to teach in Seoul, S.M.O.E, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education  http://english.sen.go.kr/index.jsp is what you are looking for.  Neither will hire directly, you do have to go through a recruiter.  I went through footprints http://www.footprintsrecruiting.com/ and overall, I was very happy with them.  I recommend that you start the application process early, as there are a lot of documents that need to be submitted. The process is not quick.

I think Korea is a great place to live. There are a lot of good things. Seoul is easy to live in, there is great public transportation, and you can find most anything you want or need.  I love the work  I do, and the job itself isn’t that stressful.  Plus you do get some great vacations the 20 days on the contract, plus you anytime the school is closed, and all the major public holidays.  Korea is beautiful, and there are a lot of opportunities to travel within the country.  Seoul to Pusan is only 4 hours on the high-speed train, this weekend I’m going to Jinhae  for the cherry blossom festival through  http://www.meetup.com/ and they have a lot of other activities and group outings going on all the time.  Everything from temple stays to major mountain hikes and climbs.  Korea has skiing and scuba diving, tae kwan do, cycling, dancing, museums, festivals– you would be hard pressed to be bored. (and even in the small towns there is usually a lot to do; I think if you are bored here, it is because you are a boring person, but that is just my opinion)

That said, not everyone shares my opinion on how wonderful Korea is.  It is an adventure, and like all adventures there are usually a few harrowing cliff hangers between the wonderful beginning and the happy ending.  Korea isn’t always so easy to live in, and even though I do have a lot of experience traveling and living abroad, I still sometimes feel awkward or uncomfortable.  Korea is in many ways a paradox.  In some ways it embraces technology and the world, and in other ways it wants to be dragged into the global  community kicking and screaming.  It is a very modern place steeped in ancient traditions. The Koreans by and large are kind, friendly, extremely loyal, and genuine.  They can also be stubborn, prickly about their “face”, and they have a very hierarchical  society.

Getting a job in the public school can also be a big risk.  Training is anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks, and then you are sent to a school.  You don’t get to meet your c0-teachers or principal until you get there.  This is very stressful. A lot depends on the school you are assigned. If you get along with everyone, and the school suits you, life is good.  Sometimes that is not always the case.  Part of it is culture shock, part of it is an unwillingness on the new teacher’s part to go with the flow, part of it is that the school really didn’t want a foreign teacher and they don’t want anything to do with her/him, and sometimes it is no one’s fault; the school is good, and the teacher is good, but the chemistry is bad.  Sometimes bad luck happens.

Most foreigners who come to Korea do so because they want to experience an adventure, they are just out of school and want different work experiences than they can get back home, or because the economy is so bad, they think this would be a good place to ride out the storm back home (so to speak)– they are cool, and they are some of the best people to hang out with and do things with. They can also be people you form life long friendships with.  I know I have with more than one other foreign teacher.  But. Some foreigners come here to escape a bad situation at home, or re-invent themselves – this rarely works out well.  Some foreigners come here expecting to live out a James Clavell novel; they want everyone to be dressed in traditional clothes, but think like a modern westerner and they will naturally rise to the  top because of their intrinsic specialness.  This rarely works out well.  Some of the men who come here because they either can’t win a girl back home because of a serious douchebaggery problem or they just want a wife/girlfriend that is subservient. This also rarely works out well.

I am going to assume you are one of the cool foreigners, coming here for all the right reasons, and you have an open mind, and an open heart.  Still, living abroad can be very stressful.  Korean culture is profoundly different from western culture.  Food can be a big problem, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan. It isn’t that Koreans are cruel, they just really don’t get the concept.  You will be eating lunch at your school, and you have to remember that the lunch ladies are cooking for all the students and teachers in the school. They really don’t have time or energy or desire to make a special menu just for you. And that is one thing a lot of foreigners forget. Korea isn’t set up for you. It is set up for Koreans.  “Travelers never think that they are the foreigners.”  ~Mason Cooley

I find that Korea can be overwhelming. It is very crowded, and even in the country there are a lot of people. The subways make you feel like you are suffocating, especially during rush hour.  Just standing on a crowded corner in Hongdae or Myondong, you can be harrowing, you are bumped and shoved, but it isn’t personal. It is just the way it is. I do not recommend going grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday, as it can be claustrophobic.  It is also a male dominated society. Men expect and mostly receive deference in everything. If you are waiting for a cab or bus, a man might just push you out of the way.  Feminism is making inroads, but this is something a lot of foreigners don’t get.. it isn’t your country, and it isn’t  your battle.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t help, but really, how would you feel if someone from another country started tell you how to do things.  I don’t think it is my place to say what needs to be done.  This doesn’t just apply to feminism– across the board, it is advisable to just remember – This isn’t your country and these aren’t your battles. You can offer material support and comfort, but it isn’t your place to tell others how to do things.

It isn’t just food and crowds that make culture shock, there are other stresses as well.  Living abroad can be lonely.  It can be difficult to find people who are similar to you, and like to do the same things you do.  It can be hard to find a balance, because many Koreans haven’t lived abroad, so they really don’t know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, and you don’t want to be that foreigner, the one who doesn’t have any Korean friends.  Koreans value family, and conformity much more than most westerners do, and that can be difficult to understand or deal with. If you are not small, finding clothes that fit can be a real challenge. If you are older, sometimes it seems everyone is either 20 years old, or 80 years old.  If you do decide to come to Korea, you are going to get sick, it seems that the first year you are fighting a cold or suffering from a cold.  The air is dry, so your skin is dry. Really dry.

It is easy to get into a negative space, and just focus on all that is wrong or different or bad.  But overall, I think Korea is awesome, and I have had a wonderful time here.  I have done things I never would have dreamed I would be able to do here.  There are so many wonderful experiences I’ve had here.  I’ve had people go out of their way to help me more often than not, and most of the people I’ve met, both foreign and Korean, are truly amazing. And I quite like the food. (although it does help to have a very open mind)  Many people come for one year, and stay for much longer.  Many people go back and return often.   It isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding.

I hope this helps, and I hope I see you out and about on the streets of  Seoul.

at city hall

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