How Teaching and Living in South Korea Changes Your Life
The royal Gyeongbok Palace near Seoul in South Korea.
Working in South Korea will change your life. This is guaranteed. Exactly how it does this depends largely on how you begin. There are three keys to being a successful “native speaker,” as you will be known.
The first is to find the right working and living conditions. The second is to understand Korean culture and attitudes toward work. The third, and probably most important, is your own attitude.
South Korea is a country of rugged and unsurpassed beauty, covered with mountains, surrounded by seas. Its people are some of the warmest and most generous on earth. Its culture is ancient, refined, and filled with vitality.
There is little crime here—cars are left untended and running, house doors unlocked, and goods out in the open. For a westerner, the way Koreans trust one another seems at first naive, almost childlike. Soon one realizes this is the way
things should be. Spending a year in a country with its social fabric still largely intact is endlessly refreshing.
As far as work goes, it is plentiful—South Korea’s citizens place a (sometimes disturbingly) high value on English acumen. As a result there is a booming expat community in every major city. With a college degree
you are virtually assured of a position. Living is cheap, and money can be saved without a great sacrifice in one’s quality of life. But in the end it is the secondary benefits that make teaching in Korea a wonderful deal.
Essential Questions for a Good Start
The bulk of English teaching jobs are in hagwons, private language institutes. Schools and colleges also hire native teachers, but these posts often go to people who’ve done a stint in a hagwon or are
in the country already. College jobs are plums. The public school positions vary—most offer more time off than hagwons (school vacations), but there is little difference in pay. Generally, the higher the grade level, the better the job.
Those with previous teaching experience, TOESL certificates, or the ability to get to Korea on their own (without travel expenses) may want to look into schools and colleges.
Think of Seoul as New York, Busan as San Francisco, smaller cities like Daegu, Incheon, and Kwangju as Seattle or a milder upstate New York. The rural areas are like…rural areas. Expect less pollution, more cultural
immersion, and fewer native speakers to consort with.
A village in South Korea.
Something else to consider: the age of prospective students. The younger the children are, the more your vocal cords will be strained. Kids are kids—though they are more rambunctious than disrespectful.
There is some “police” work to be done in a large classroom, and the language gap can make this especially difficult. Of course, with children, the emotional rewards can be greater. I taught many kindergarten-age classes and grew
to love each student. If you enjoy kids, or you feel your ability to teach English might be less than spectacular, go young. If you want quieter, less chaotic days (or have a weak larynx) request adult classes.
Many Korean schools and hagwons use recruiters to secure their foreign workforce. It doesn’t really make a difference whether you are hired directly by a company or through a headhunter—in fact, it
can be a blessing to have a third party involved. Usually they will mediate any disputes. What’s more, school directors are often harried. If you’re smart or neurotic or both, a lot of questions will occur to you during the hiring
process. While it’s the full-time job of the recruiter to answer these, a busy school employee will have much less time for niggling questions about the layout of your apartment.
Either way, you want to be sure about your situation. Ask for the email address of a native teacher currently employed by your potential bosses. This should be no problem. If it is, you might wonder why. Look up the institute
or school using your favorite search engine. If there is a lot of negative feedback on Internet bulletin boards (see Wonderland Institute), you might look elsewhere. These bulletin boards can be wonderful sources of information in general (see links below). Scour them.
Once you’ve engaged with an employer, they will walk you through the bureaucratic side of things. This usually involves mailing copies of passport and university transcript and degree, some back and forth with the
Korean consulate in Washington or New York for the E-2 teaching visa, etc. This takes a few weeks and provides a good opportunity to feel out your prospective job. You will be sent a contract at some point. Read it closely, ask questions, and
Your travel to and from South Korea will always be paid for. Once you get there, you’ll have the choice of going half and half with your employer on medical insurance, or doing the same on each doctor’s visit
as it arises. Medicine is generally very cheap. Most foreigners, however, get sick at least once. If your constitution is hardy, you might want to pay as you go. Otherwise, the insurance option is your best bet. Taxes should be about 3.5 percent
of your monthly income. (Note: if your employer is not paying the tax office, but still deducting from your salary, you are entitled to get it all back at the end.)
Salary and accommodation are the two biggest concerns. 1.8-3 million Korean Won (about $1,600.00-$2,400 depending upon experience) is the benchmark for a 30-hour teaching week. This is often slightly negotiable, but if you ask for more, you might offer to work
an extra hour or two a week. There’s no need to be greedy, however. The average family of four in South Korea lives on less than what you’ll make. Unless you plan to stock up on electronics or be a nightclub high-roller, you’ll
easily sock away half your salary each month. With the slightest frugality, you can save upwards of 75 percent. (Warning: a side trip to Japan for more than a weekend will eat up a month’s salary, easy. Prices in Nippon are ten times those
in South Korea. China and Thailand are much more economical.)
Apartments in Korea can be nice. Mine was a small studio in a brand-new building. It had a balcony, sliding glass door, and ample light. Some employers will give you the choice of sharing an apartment or living alone. If
you share, chances are you will get a larger space. Living alone, however, may be a better bet, else you may end up living with a couple or someone unpleasant. Korea is a very safe country, so the security of living alone should not be a concern.
If you liked the way you lived in college, or if you have no choice, ask for any potential roommate's email addresses, if possible. The apartments will be furnished (often a TV, microwave, wi-fi, and even a rice cooker are included). There are
horror stories in this realm, of course. Question your correspondents closely on living arrangements. Proximity to the school is important. As is your neighborhood (industrial? commercial? residential?). Will you be living in one of Korea’s
ubiquitous high-rise concrete blocks? (Likely, if you share.) Or in a smaller building of studios (“one-room apartuh,” as they are known).
You may request some email pictures of your apartment. Not everyone will do this, though. In the end, where you live is often a matter of luck. The more questions you ask, the more you are able to read into the answers,
the less a leap of faith this area will be. But it will always be a leap of faith. Which leads us to…
Going to South Korea simply to make money is a bad idea. You will not like it. There will be too many bumps. For instance: South Koreans work harder than westerners and will expect more from you. Yes, it says
the job is 30 hours weekly. But that is solid classroom time. Planning is done on one’s own time (which, depending on your ability and enthusiasm, ranges from twenty minutes to more than an hour a day). If full-time, you’ll usually
spend from 35-40 hours a week at your school. The Korean work week is 55 hours, so they will have little sympathy if you complain about this. They also get little time off. If you are constantly sick or absent, you will not be well-regarded.
This will lead to problems. In a hagwon, expect two weeks of vacation time a year, mostly unpaid. If you don’t mind hard work, on the other hand, and hold up your end of the bargain, you will usually be rewarded by your boss (half-days
off, banquets, respect).
There are other obstacles. You might get a bad apartment. You might hate the food. (It is truly delicious, but if you’re not an adventurous eater, or if you don’t like bold and spicy food, think twice about going
to Korea at all.) You will be homesick on holidays (both Korean ones and your own). The language is difficult (though not the writing system: learning its basics takes a week or two).
If you come with an open mind - to learn a new culture - these things can be handled without too much problem. If you come, however, to make easy money, and hold up your culture as the end-all of civilization, if you complain
and are inflexible, these issues will pile up and bury you. You will be miserable, as will your Korean co-workers, your boss, and most people you talk to. This seems like the simplest thing in the world, but nevertheless countless foreign teachers
I met in Korea suffered from a cultural superiority complex, in which they compared every situation they came across in Korea to “how things are at home,” criticized everything, and never stopped to think that different doesn’t
always mean inferior. They were guests in the country, but acted as if it should be more like a quaint suburb of the West rather than a 2,000-year-old civilization with its own norms, rewards, and penalties.
Not to say the Koreans aren’t modern. Their technology is cutting edge. You can rent DVD rooms (little personal movie theaters), sing with your friends in private karaoke chambers, or play online games at the high-speed
Internet cafes one finds every five steps in Korean cities. They are quickly assimilating many ways of the West, and their cities are concrete warrens of neon-lit restaurants and shops. Over the past 15 years they have become fully accustomed
to foreign teachers, and in many cases go out of their way to accommodate them.
Basically it boils down to outlook. If you see the world as a place rapidly (and rightly) developing toward western norms, with yourself as favored son or daughter, you will not be happy in Korea. If you come to learn, to
grow, and to experience a way unimaginably rich, with the trappings of modernity wrapped around an ancient core, if you act as a respectful guest, a temporary citizen of Korea, neither better nor worse than a native one, then South Korea will
reveal itself for what it is: a jewel in the heart of Asia; a land of song, of incense-scented temples, misty mountains and calm seas, of people with huge hearts and keen minds. You will be rewarded and enriched, and carry this country in your
own heart for the rest of your life.
Warning: Though Koreans are generally less cynical than westerners, they are surely not saints. Like anywhere else, you can fall into a shady situation, find a bad boss, or get scammed. Often you’ll
be able to get some sense of who you’ll be working for during the hiring process. However, if you arrive in Korea and find things are not as they should be (this is not the norm), you have two options: there is a foreign worker complaint
board, and there is the much simpler “midnight run,” in which you secretly gather up your belongings and high-tail it back home. I do not recommend this last option except in the most extreme circumstances, meaning those in which
your employer has lied or been otherwise duplicitous. This method loses you the money it costs to get back home (unless you hide out in a yogwon [cheap hotel] or another city and find another job), and it costs your employer your airfare. It
is ethical only in cases of gross misrepresentation—not if you don’t like the food or don’t like teaching. If you prepare well for your adventure, understand what you’re getting into, and screen your employer carefully,
there should be no need for this kind of thing.