Living and Teaching in Korea

Teaching English in Korea has become quite popular in recent years. It is still continuing to grow as a viable economic and adventurous path chosen by many young University graduates and older persons as well. You may feel a unique freedom of being a foreigner in a new and strange land. Locals will treat you well, and even be curious to meet you, at least for the most part. Like all places we take the good with the rude. In Korea I have found very little rudeness and extreme respect seems to dominate relations of all kinds. Also, teaching English in Korea can be a challenge and hard work but also fairly laid back as far as jobs go.

One of the biggest reasons for moving over ten thousand miles to teach English, is the economic benefit. The pay is quite reasonable but mostly one can benefit from very low expenses while in Korea.

Income tax is very low, 3-5%. Apartments for most schools are provided rent free to you, the ESL teacher. In some cases, especially for working at a University, an extra monthly housing allowance is given. Airfare to and from Korea is provided. Severance pay equal to one month salary is given at the end of a year contract as well as a lump sum pension of similar amount. Not all schools may be involved with pension contributions and you should consult with the school.

The cost of food is relatively cheap, especially local Korean food either to cook at home or even local Korean restaurants. Western ingredients at are bought at a comparable price as well as western style restaurants, which can be expensive, just like in the west. A steak dinner out is much more expensive than if made at home or compared to a local Korean restaurant such as a rice dish and soup.

Public transportation is highly efficient and cheap. City buses, inter city buses, city subways, inter city trains, and even city taxis run at a decent rate of cost. Driving your own car in a city in Korea can be daunting for many people due to high traffic levels and is one expense you can live without. You may want to sit back and enjoy the freedom of having no car and let the public transportation take you where ever you want to go.

Moving to Korea for the first time can be an adventure of a life time. For me it was my first time over seas, experiencing a new culture and new people for me, but also an ancient and different culture. Things are done differently, which does not mean negatively, just different. I had to adapt to the new environment, meet new people and friends and learn how to do a new job. To leave the familiar of home and seek the unknown is a vast project in one’s life.

For most of us, this new experience will be the first time to have some understanding of what being a foreigner and a minority is like in another country. At first I had never thought of the word foreigner and what the word implies. But as I lived and worked within the communities of Korea, I began to notice within a fairly short time, that I stood out a little. There were very few westerners I could see on a daily basis. Some days I would see none. Then one day on a beach I noticed I was being stared at by young local children. I was beginning to see what I was, a foreigner. I had heard the word a few times while over hearing some conversation back home, but had not given it any real thought.

I had become the foreigner. My first time in Korea was in June of 2001. Today there are many more foreign English teachers and other professions living in Korea and we do not stand out so much, but you will still notice you do stand out.

Like an Asian person staying in the Bible Belt, Utah, USA, young children will sometimes point and say something to their mother, like ‘foreigner’ or in Korean, ‘wagugi’. This is not bad, just different than what I am used to. Even in rural and the mostly homogenous culture of Eastern Canada, children do not point at other people, who appear different. Many have actually grown up in this area, with parents from different parts of the world, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Korea, and more.

The interesting difference I found is that in Korea the locals are curious to meet me. Where as in the west people do not tend to stand out so much, but are also mostly ignored. In Korea I would often get a hello in the street from mostly young adults, or elderly. But generally from any age. Many are too shy to start a conversation. I found if you smile and say ‘hi’ first, you usually get the same in return and questions like, ‘where are you from’, and ‘how do you like Korea’ are asked and more. The most common question from locals is usually, ‘why did you come to Korea?’ There is a real genuine desire to learn of your culture and personal background from many of the locals.

And talk about polite and respectful. Bowing to strangers and formal greetings can be nice, though in the west we tend to wave a hand and say ‘hi’ to anyone. In Korea the language is used as a formality as well, such as a formal greeting to ones elders and informal to younger persons. But this respect really seems to count most in the classroom.

Imagine teaching at your old high school, in any grade. Try and picture some of the students. Perhaps all of your fellow classmates were well behaved, courteous and respected towards teachers. Well, not in my days of high school. Some students were often late, rude to teachers, fighting after school, and often displayed some kind of disrespect in general.

Now picture a Korean high school, uniform wearing, innocence one may compare to the 1950’s suburbia life in the west, but with even more respect for teachers and each others, even bowing to you, the teacher when greeting you each day. This was the high school I taught English at in Korea 2009 to 2010, an international public boarding school. Most students were from Korea and went home on weekends. But talk about study hard. They went to school from morning to evening, and then studied in a large study room every night until 11pm. Yes, well studied and very well disciplined as well as very respectful of others.

You may not actually teach in a school like this. Most high schools are similar, but in a Junior High, students tend to be less responsive and bored in class. In an elementary school students tend to have lots of energy and loud in class, just as in the west. But the main difference here is that as a foreign teacher you will actually have less control over any students, especially younger ones, and especially in the smaller private schools.

Imagine yourself as a student in Junior High School, or at least some of the bad kids you remember, and you get a new teacher to teach a foreign language. In fact, this teacher is a foreigner and he or she does not speak your language much at all, and even if they can, will not use it in the language immersion driven class. As a young student you may not show a lot of respect for this teacher.

And thus like a two sided coin, Korean students tend to be very well behaved in school, but mostly only for local Korean teachers, who demand respect. As for the foreign English teacher, gaining this respect is more difficult and comes with time, patience and work. Unless you are fortunate to teaching in a high school, that of which most of the students are all driven to study hard in the first place, especially an academic school, otherwise you may find teaching English difficult as far as focused students go.

There are also private classes, Universities, adult schools and corporate classes and more. For these classes students tend to be driven to perform well and teaching made all the better for it.

For the most part you will find many differences in Korea as far as living and teaching are concerned. The Korean culture tends to hold respect for others as a very high importance and value in society. Students tend to study and strive greater than in the west. Older and mature students will respect foreign teachers as well, whereas younger students tend to be the opposite. It is possible to teach young students well, with effort and patience. Overall living and teaching in Korea for me has been a wonderful and growing, as well as eye opening experience. I would recommend it to anyone.