Yes, I was an English teacher in Korea…as well as half the American population come to find out. Any time I mention to someone that I was teaching English in Korea I get this response, “I know someone who did that.” I knew it was really popular to go to Korea; money’s good, experience a new culture and the kids are ridiculously cute but shit, everyone and their mother taught English in Korea.
Here I thought I was an adventurer and turns out, not really. I will say going to Korea afforded me a life of vacations to places I never thought I would go in my lifetime; Myanmar, India, Cambodia and so on. I remember my mom saying on my first visit to Thailand to be careful, as she was really worried but when I went to Myanmar, which I think outsiders would consider a more dangerous place, she was like, “oh, ok”. She had no idea where it was, it could have been in Europe for all she knew but the less she knew the better.
The worst though is when anything happened in North Korea my mom would call and say to be safe and tell me if anything happens to go to the US embassy. After her frantic calls I finally told her, “Mom, if anything, they will bomb America or Japan, not South Korea, so really you should be careful! “ She didn’t like that. While living in South Korea nobody ever fret about North Korea; North Korea said this, North Korea did that. Sort of like how the US Government says we are going to improve education and lower our deficit, terrorists!!!. Nothing really changes or happens in the end.
South Korea is just not a familiar country to most people, except for the droves of English teachers making their way there. We teachers are always amused when our friends and family back home ask if we have clean water or if we are in the North or the South of Korea but you can’t really hate on them, I didn’t know much about the country either until I started to research teaching positions.
Usually fresh faced young adults that are straight out of university come to Korea, most of whom had never had a “9-5” job. I usually heard them complain about the long hours and how they were being treated unfairly. But right after that, telling me about their 3-week vacation to Thailand and how they are planning another trip in the next 3 months. Life was rough I must say. Some schools were pretty bad though, sometimes you didn’t get paid and you had to pass a child even if they didn’t deserve it to make the parents happy. I saw the very bad part of the “for profit” education system. When people ask me about my time while in Korea I just say “it was good,” end of story. I used to try to explain to them the culture, the people, the customs, the child labor laws that were being broken by keeping kids in school for over 12 hours a day at the age of 10 but I finally gave up because nobody really understood.
Hence why you find a kinship with other people who taught in Korea, as they understand what you are saying when you say “last night i went to a nordabang, i snuck in a couple sip-up’s of soju, got some free anju of dried squid, peanuts and seaweed and then sang my heart out to Girl’s Generation (well I just sang the English parts and lots of gee’s and baby’s), got into a fight with my friend about whose turn it was for a song, made someone go out and get more beer and sneak it in unnoticed under their shirt, got yelled at in Korean for sneaking in the beer, pretend we don’t understand what we did wrong, that it is merely cultural differences and then finally leave for Family Mart for last rounds, yup, regular Tuesday night in the ROK”. The weekend included usually the line “I had a nervous breakdown at Costco” and you have never seen a crowd until you go to a Costco in Seoul on the weekend.
I left Korea almost two years ago and have settled in to my new life here in San Francisco, California. I moved here about 6 months ago and I should go out and meet people but I don’t feel like trying, I have become quite lazy these days and I have been focusing on building a small business that I really believe in.
Luckily, I did have a corporate job for 3 years prior to teaching English in Korea so that afforded me some job opportunities when I came back but the big dilemma for many, including myself, is what to do after leaving Korea. Your peers have climbed the corporate ladder, had babies and got mortgages and this makes it a bit difficult to break back into mainstream America as you don’t have those things and you are not sure if you want them. Korea was a lot like being bipolar, extreme highs and extreme lows. One minute, I just got back from trekking the Himalayas and feel like I am on top of the world and the next minute was “what am I doing with my life, I have no future!”
Almost all teachers after residing in Korea for over 2 years will find a sweet gig where you work a couple hours a day which allows you time to blog about traveling or teaching english in Korea or both. I was a little late to the punch on the blog though, starting it now. Going to Korea was one of the best choices I ever made and living abroad is something everyone should do once in your life as you learn a lot about the world around you and yourself.