When I moved to South Korea in 2010 to take a job as an English Teacher, I thought I had done an exceptional job of preparing for such a big transition. Before I stepped on the Korean Air flight from London to Seoul I had memorised the Korean alphabet, read all about the country’s Confucian culture, bought a pair of plimsolls from Primark which would act as my indoor shoes, and brought some gifts from Scotland for my school’s principal, as I’d seen suggested on a few forums. But what I hadn’t realised at the time was that no amount of reading, research and planning can fully prepare you for moving to a country which has such a drastically different way of doing things.
At the moment there are approximately 20,000 native English teachers working in South Korea, from countries including the UK, the USA, Canada, Ireland and South Africa. Thousands move each year to take jobs in Korea’s public school system and private English schools, enticed by the exciting prospect of living overseas and the opportunity to save money (more detail on that below). There’s a multitude of advice I could give someone preparing to move to Korea, about the job, the fellow foreigners and the practicalities of daily life, but I think it’s more fun and rewarding for those moving to discover these things for themselves. I’ve limited this blog post to seven general things I think anyone moving to South Korea should know before they go.
Try to get a job in a public school rather than a hagwon
Most English teaching jobs are either in the country’s public school system or a private English school which is known as a hagwon. I would advise you to try to get a job in a public school. As the system is government run there tends to be much more job security and professionalism and you are guaranteed to get at least four weeks holiday a year, while in a hagwon you will be lucky to get two (and often you can only take a few days at a time). Every English teacher in Korea has heard hagwon horror stories, like people turning up for their job one day only to find the school had closed and the owner had run off with the money, and of teachers who hadn’t been being paid for several months. There are terrible public school jobs and very good hagwon jobs but in general it is safer to plump for the public school. However, it was reported last year the government in South Korea has cut many of the teaching jobs in public schools so I am guessing it will now be a lot more competitive.
Don’t move to Korea with the intention of teaching there forever
I would not advise moving to Korea to teach English as a long term career plan. Most of the contracts are only for one year so teachers need to wait ’til they end of each year to find out if they need to scramble for a new job. There are very very few opportunities to move up; in the public school system there are none and in a hagwon maybe there’s the opportunity to become a manager but the chances of that are very slim. There’s few opportunities for foreigners in South Korea to branch out from teaching and do something else – even if you want to open a business you need a Korean person’s name on the contract.
If you love living in Korea and don’t mind potentially looking for a job at the end of each year, obviously go ahead and do it but just be aware of the situation you will be in. I do know people who moved to Korea to teach English and have ended up staying permanently, often marrying a Korean person, but their job opportunities are limited.
My advice for someone moving to South Korea to teach English would be do it for a few years, enjoy it, and have half an eye on what you want to do next. If you want to continue to teach, either in your home country or other countries, your teaching job will be good experience. If not, most jobs usually allow you enough free time to learn a new skill that will help you get a job after you leave. For example, when Paul and I lived in Korea we used our free time to build a website, teaching ourselves about web development and digital marketing. This helped us get jobs in the field when we moved back home to Scotland.
Use living in Korea as an opportunity to save money
Teaching English in South Korea is a great opportunity to save money. The majority of jobs will pay for your flights there and back, pay your rent and give you a month’s salary bonus at the end of the year. The cost of living in Korea is very cheap – public transport is cheap, you can get a good Korean meal such as bibimbap or jjigae for a few dollars, and if you drink Korean beer in the bars, socialising will be very cheap too.
However, you can spend as little or as much money in South Korea as you want. You can go to fancy bars and restaurants and buy food and drink that will cost the same as back home. You can decide the apartment your school gives you isn’t big enough and spend your own money on a bigger one. You can decide to buy fancy clothes, video games or things you don’t need (someone we know bought a car – for living in South Korea for two years when the public transport is so good? Why?).
We know people who lived in South Korea for years and didn’t save a penny. But Paul and I lived there for two years, went out for beers pretty much every weekend, travelled around Korea, went on three holidays outside of Korea, and still managed to save a lot of money. It can easily be done.
There will be times you’ll need to grit your teeth
In my two years of living in South Korea I had a few experiences which left me angry and frustrated. If these things had happened back home I would undoubtedly have expressed how I felt and tried to right the situation. As a foreigner living in South Korea, this was very difficult to do.
Korean culture is rigid and uncompromising and this can be very difficult for a person from a Western country to come to terms with. As a foreigner, you will also be an outsider and your opinions will lack the validity of a Korean person. It sounds extreme but you realise you are relatively powerless.
So when I found out my landlady was going into my apartment when I was working to look around? Nothing I could do (particularly as your school pays your rent). When I found out my colleague had gone around the school telling the other teachers about a very upsetting experience I had as if it was a funny story? Nothing I could do. When the Korean teachers at my friend’s school went out a staff day trip and deliberately excluded him and the other teacher even though they’d already paid for it? Nothing they could do.
My two years of living in South Korea was an education in how to grit my teeth and bite my tongue. Because in the situations above, if I’d got angry or upset and expressed my displeasure at the behaviour, I would have been seen as the bad guy. When living in Korea you are living in a foreign country and how a foreign country does things can be very difficult to understand.
That’s not to say you should always let things pass – if there is a situation where you are clearly being taken advantage of, pick your battles and fight them. Paul and I had experiences where our Korean co teachers, who were supposed to be in the classroom at all times, would leave us to teach 40 kids who could barely speak English on our own. This is not okay – make it clear it’s not okay. We also heard experiences from friends about witnessing sexual harassment. Clearly, that is not acceptable either.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, life will be difficult
In the process of applying for my teaching job in South Korea, several people from the recruitment agency phoned to tell me about the job and what life in Korea entailed. When they found out I was a vegetarian, they spent a significant amount of time stressing how difficult this would be. “It is the worst country in the world to be a vegetarian,” they said repeatedly.
When they told me this, I dismissed them. At this point, I had travelled most of the way around the world. Certain countries in South East Asia and Central America were very difficult to be vegetarian in. Korea certainly couldn’t be any worse, I thought.
I was wrong and they were right. Korea is quite conceivably the worst country in the world to be a vegetarian in and if it’s not the worst it’s one of the worst.
Every Korean dish has meat in it. If it doesn’t have meat in it, there is meat in the stock or the sauce. When I lived there in 2010-2012, the concept of vegetarianism didn’t exist (maybe it is better now). Even when I learned to say in Korean “I don’t eat meat and fish,” a lot of the time the restaurant would leave it in “But it’s ham?” one puzzled server asked, when I showed him my dish after asking him to remove the meat.
I remember one kid in my school came up to me in class and asked me if it was true I really was a vegetarian (apparently this had been a source of much discussion among the teachers at my school). I told him, yes, I was, and asked why he had asked. “Just… fascinated,” he said, gazing up at me in disbelief.
So how do you live as a vegetarian in Korea? I dined at non Korean restaurants whenever possible – when I went to Seoul at the weekend there were plenty to choose from and there were Indian and Chinese restaurants in the town I lived in outside Seoul. I asked my colleague to write a note in Korean which categorically stated I did not eat meat and fish which I then showed to restaurant staff. For weeknight dinners, the staff at my neighbourhood Korean restaurant got to know me and knew I didn’t eat meat and fish (as I pretty much told them every night for the first few months). For neighbourhood joints, dine in places where the staff are familiar with you and are used to omitting meat and fish from your food.
Try to travel around South Korea and neighbouring countries as much as you can
Living in South Korea is a fantastic opportunity to explore neighbouring countries that would be much more expensive to travel to from your home country. When we lived in Korea we travelled to Japan, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. There are quite a few budget airlines like Jeju Air, Eastar Jet, T’way Air and Air Asia which offer cheap flights. Japan in particular is so easy to get to; it’s only a one hour flight away and there are regular cheap flights.
On your time off, try to see more of Korea too. The two biggest cities, Seoul and Busan, are definitely worth a visit, and there are some genuinely spectacular national parks such as Seoraksan and plenty of beautiful beaches and islands. The Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea is also an absolute must visit – it is fascinating.
Embrace your time in South Korea
I realise a lot of the advice I’ve given above has a negative tone. For the avoidance of doubt, let me state this clearly – I am very glad I spent two years living in South Korea. It was a fascinating, thrilling experience that resulted in a multitude of memories and friendships I will treasure for a lifetime. Living in such an unfamiliar culture was so exciting; getting the bus through the countryside every morning to teach a class of cute, hilarious Korean children, going home to eat a bowl of bibimbap or jjigae, dishes which were completely alien to begin with but after a while become as familiar as beans on toast, spending every weekend in Seoul dazzled by the neon lights singing in a noraebang (singing room) til three in morning before stumbling into a jjimjilbang (public bathhouse with sleeping rooms).
Getting the opportunity to live in a different country and learn about a different culture is a privilege. Take in the quirks; the taking your shoes off when you go inside, the ajummas (older women) in their ubiquitous uniform of visors and tracksuit, the taxi drivers with tvs in their cars, the street food stalls serving fish shaped pastries stuffed with red bean paste, the kimchi served on the side of every dish. There are the details that will spring into your mind years after you’ve left and it all seems like a distant memory. You will most likely only be in Korea for a year or two and it may be your only experience of living overseas in your lifetime. Embrace it.