Living and Teaching English in South Korea
A Great Country to Start a New Life
Like many young people living in Western or westernized countries, I was overwhelmed by the endless possibilities of the modern age; too much individual freedom can be paralyzing. I graduated from university with a major in Philosophy only to work odd jobs. There were not many job opportunities in Australia and so I made the decision to venture out into the larger world. Teaching English overseas was to be the ticket.
I found an English teaching job in the paper. The position offered was advertised as either for Shanghai or Seoul. It turned out to be Seoul. “When do I start,” I asked? “We want you there in a week” was the reply. I discovered a few days before I left that the job was actually in Daegu, another city in Korea, where I ended up staying a year and a half.
Teaching English in South Korea
I arrived in Daegu on a Sunday morning. The next day I started work. I was handed a book and tossed into the classroom without training. In the West there are stereotypes about Asian kids who are polite and quiet. Within the first ten seconds of my first class that prejudgment was swept swiftly away--the kids were yelling, screaming, running around, and hiding under the tables.
In a Hagwan (private academy) classroom management is essential. When I first started teaching, the goal was just wanted to have fun with the kids. At first it was in fact fun, but soon enough students took advantage of the freedom I had given them. Class sizes are usually quite small in a Hagwan—about ten students—but they can still get out of control. I discovered that if your lessons are both structured and interesting, then the kids are naturally engaged and participate, and there is less noise and disruption. Discipline is also necessary along with rules for occasions when students are simply not as interested. Without a foundation of interesting classes and discipline your voice and tolerance will quickly wither and your frustration and anger will increase. That being said, Korean kids are very cute and quite fun and I really enjoyed teaching them.
The desire for education is running wild in Korea, as it is necessary in order for young people to get into a good university and thereby acquire a good job. Kids go to school all day and to private academies all night. Do not be surprised if some students fall asleep in your class. When I asked my students what they like to do, they said: sleep. On Sundays, many Koreans, young and old, just stay at home all day and rest. They call this bankoq.
Peter with his students.
Living in South Korea
South Korea is not just a place to make money; it’s a good place to live. South Korea has managed to maintain its cultural identity and integrate it into modern life.
Some of the many activities to check out while living in Korea are:
- Jimjil Bang: A huge Sauna building-usually 3 stories or more. One floor is for men to wash and soak naked (be prepared to be stared at) in various pools and rooms with different temperatures. Another floor is for women to do the same. Finally, there is yet another floor for both sexes to walk around in orange-colored-loose-fitted-pajama-type-clothing and sit in both heated and cooled rooms. Families will go to the Jimjil Bang for 11 hours just to relax. There is a restaurant. Some even have movie rooms and singing rooms. You can stay the whole night. There are women who take care of you. If you look cold, they will put a blanket on you. If it looks like your neck is aching, they will bring a towel and place it under your head. Remember you are sleeping on the ground, but when you are visiting a city on a budget, the entry charge of about 10,000 won ($10) is better than paying for a $50 or more for a hotel room.
- DVD Bang: A place with little rooms where you can watch DVD’s. Selections often include a range of foreign movies, and it is a great chance to see some Korean movies (with subtitles). Two movies to check out are Welcome to Dongmakol and The King’s Men. However there is a bit of a stigma about these places because some young Korean couples go there to be intimate.
- Mountains and Temples: In Korea, where there’s a mountain there’s usually a Buddhist Temple. Mountains are the place for temples and cities are the place for churches. Korean mountains are great for hiking and getting away from the busy city, while temples are very peaceful and beautiful.
- Martial Arts: In Korea, the martial arts are still thriving. Many children learn Taekwondo, Gomdo, or Hapkido. Staying a full year offers the opportunity to learn one of these forms of martial arts quite well.
- Learning Korean: In order to enhance your experience of Korea and to make life easier, it is really worth learning how to read Korean. If you apply yourself, you can learn how to read in a few hours to a day. Reading and being immersed in day-to-day life, you may soon begin to learn how to speak Korean, and you will be able to read signs and menus. Unlike English, Korean is phonetic; how you read is how you speak it. To learn Korean you can also enroll in a course at a university or in a cheaper course at the local YMCA. Or you can find a language exchange partner who already knows enough English to explain and teach the basics.
- Places to Visit: There are many interesting places to visit in Korea, so it is worth your time to get out and explore. Some of my favorite places include: Gyeongju, which has a long and rich history; Jiri Mountain which is set in a beautiful location and covered with ancient temples; and Geojedo, which is a very rugged island on the island-dotted south coast of Korea.
View from a Korean mountain-top.
Islands off of the south coast of Korea.
Cultural Differences in Korea
Before arriving in Korea it does not hurt to know a bit about Korean culture, so here are a few tips and cultural pointers to help prepare you.
- In Korea, politeness is very important. But being polite is expressed in a different manner than in Western countries. Korea is a hierarchical society-with age being at the top. If someone is older than you, you are expected to show them the appropriate respect, even if they are just one year older. After making Korean friends of different ages--hanging out and joking around together-- I was surprised when one of the friends showed formal respect in the way he spoke to his friend, who was just one year older.
- Bowing is very important, especially to older people (the older the person, the lower the bow). When you shake hands with an older person you need to support your elbow with your left hand. (since their status is very heavy). If someone hands you something, make sure to receive it with two hands (there are some exceptions to this custom, but try to do it with everything initially).
- Korea’s politeness is often the reverse of what is practiced in the West. In the West it is polite to open doors for people, and to move aside on the sidewalk to let people pass. In Korea--perhaps because of the population density--people generally don’t do these things. But they don’t get angry about it. They calmly accept that someone didn’t hold the door for them, or move aside-it would be considered rude to get angry.
- Koreans are friendly but they can be a bit shy. Even if you are on the street with a map in your hands and a confused look on your face they may not approach you to help. You need to take the initiative to ask for help. Even though most Koreans have studied English, they are often too embarrassed to use it, so it is best to be gentle but proactive.
- One of the most uncomfortable aspects of life in Korea for Westerners is the spitting. Koreans spit quite a lot. But whilst they spit in public, blowing the nose is a private affair and it is rude to do so in public.
- Koreans do not write in red. Make sure you do not write your student’s names in red if you are a teacher.
- Korea is homogeneous. If you are not Asian you will stand out. People may stare at you, especially in smaller cities. If you are of Korean ancestry, people may expect you to be Korean in every way, and that includes speaking Korean. As foreigners we are considered different de facto, so Koreans do not expect us to behave like them. However, you may wish to try to blend in as much as you can out of respect for their culture.
Practicalities in Korea
The minimum monthly salary is usually 2,000,000 won ($2,000), which is more than enough to save a fair amount. You can receive more than this and salaries are still increasing. The first month you will need to pay for your own expenses. I personally recommend having at least $1,000 ($2,000 is better) in case your school turns out to be a horror story, or should you have an accident and the school has not already paid for your medical insurance.
Many foreigners (and that includes Western and non-Western countries) dislike Korean food. Some even not hate it with a passion. At first the cuisine may be appealing, but soon many people grow extremely tired of it. I find Korean food at once bland and extremely spicy. If you don’t like this combination of spicy bland food then make sure you work in Seoul where there are more options, such as foreign restaurants or being able to cook at home. If you cook (which is what I did since I enjoy cooking and it helps save a lot of money) then bring a lot of ingredients from your home, such as herbs and spices. In Korea, you can sometimes find them but they are much more expensive.
Korea is extremely convenient. Usually, wherever you live, there is a convenience store just around the corner open 24 hours; there’s a small restaurant (often open 24 hours); there’s a bus every 5-10 minutes from early in the morning to late at night; and almost any time of the day there is a taxi to be found in the big cities. And Korea is as safe as it is convenient, so no need to worry when going out any time of day or night.
Thank You Korea
If you feel that your life is not going anywhere, or you just want to work and live in another country, then Korea is a great country to spend some time. Korea offers a rich and unique culture where I made many friends (both Korean and expats) and where I enjoyed many memorable experiences