|Last update: January 2016|
he cliché that South Korea is a poor, postwar country of rice paddies is childish and outdated. It is a small country but has quite successfully industrialized and modernized so that in the early twenty-first century Korea is the world’s thirteenth largest economy. Small farms and traditional markets coexist with bullet trains, skyscrapers, and cafes full of Wi-Fi smartphone users. It has a maturing higher educational system which increasingly requires foreign faculty to train a workforce which wants multilingual skills to build its knowledge economy.
This site is a guide to teaching and professorial jobs in South Korea, for those interested in a potential career in lecturing at the post-secondary level in either English language/literature, or in another subject discipline. It discusses the mechanics of finding work and understanding the work environment here, and while it is not primarily a website on Korean culture or language it does touch on such issues.
The information here is directed at potential instructors and not tourists. Some of the information has been gleaned from discussion forums and no doubt there will be people who have been here longer or have had different experiences who will disagree with my opinions. If you want to come here it is a good idea to consult more than one source anyway. Caveat emptor.
I have lived in Korea on and off since 2003. Sometimes I complain about Korea here, and I may potentially give offense. No one likes to hear criticism of their nation from outsiders. Please consider what I have written in context and with some understanding of my sense of humor where I exaggerate for effect.
There are legitimate nettles which irritate expatriates here, just as there are in one's home country. But overall it is a rewarding country to reside in, there are nice people and beautiful things to see, and life can be quite pleasant; much of my griping is done with affection. Teaching here is not a prison sentence, and if you feel that it is, the same airplane that took you here can take you home. I was very unhappy in my first year in Korea and it helped to keep reminding myself that it was my choice to come until I began to adjust and to enjoy being here.
In writing this guide, I will keep my present and past employers nameless. I have attempted to use my experiences to portray a generalized portrait of what prospective instructors and professors may see in South Korea, rather than a description of particular institutions. Nevertheless, my thanks to students, friends, online participants, and co-workers throughout the last ten years for their conversations and ideas. This is not intended to be a technical or historical text, and any obvious factual errors remain my own.
The Present Situation
Why would anyone wish to teach in South Korea, particularly at the university level? In short, some come here for adventure or a mid-career change; some come here simply because of a lack of job opportunities back home.
In my case, both conditions applied. I am an English professor here with a doctorate in English Literature and Composition/Rhetoric; my dissertation was on Chaucer and Middle English Romance. Although initially my teaching positions in Mexico and Korea had little to do with literature, I taught ESL and then worked at several universities, including re-training Korean English teachers and then in an English support program in a small International Business and International Relations college. I now teach high-fluency students in English literature and the subjects of literature/composition. Along the way I have been involved in managerial and administrative duties in my workplaces, including curriculum design, web design, student recruitment/retention, and faculty hiring.
In faculty searches my workplace typically received curiously small numbers of applications, relative to the deluge of resumes for typical North American vacancies. While I am concerned about the job prospects in North America, I am puzzled as to why more do not want to come here when the employment opportunities are actually fairly decent, particularly for English instructors and professors.
The employment market for humanities professors in North America is so bad that it has taken on elements of black humor. Not long ago I asked for a reference from one of my old thesis advisors, who replied that it would be inappropriate because he had applied for the same job. Competing with your teachers for employment inspires less than confidence in one’s career choice! It’s been remarked that the list of “Just Don’t Go” jeremiads written nearly comprises its own literary subgenre. It will be an interesting irony when someone gives a course on it.
The number of blogs written by bored expatriate teachers presently in Korea is enormous, and many journalists and expatriates have written posts and columns about work conditions in South Korea. While the average stay of foreign faculty in Korea is a dismal four months according to Education ministry surveys, this obscures a vast range. It might be better to recognize that teachers and professors have varying temperaments. Some clearly are not cut out for life here and its challenges and leave immediately. Some stay a contract or two and make the best of things, deciding like Milton’s devils that hell might be tolerable with some air conditioning and carpeting. But many do go native, marry, learn some of the language, and make Korea their more or less permanent home. I have coworkers who have taken Korean citizenship and intend to retire here.
Similarly, discussions about Korean culture also tend to assume everyone behaves the same, and of course, they do not. There are fifty million people, all with their own personalities and thoughts. My experience is that the country is generationally-cleaved. The elderly generation is practical and stoic, having literally lived through a war; the ‘486’ generation (named for the CPU chip), the equivalent of the counterculture / boomers, is activist and nationalistic; the young generation is exhausted from endless study and vaguely aware of some country up north that does not like them as they sip lattes to jazz music and play on their smartphones. The country has economic disparities and isn’t totally the economic miracle that its media trumpets, but as the “shrimp between whales” of Asia (i.e. China and Japan), it has ridden out the recent global financial crises well.
How this plays out is that Korea is enthusiastic about raising the quality of its school and university system even as its fertility rate shrinks its student numbers, and has a strong interest in globalizing and increasing its citizens’ English fluency. At my previous university one-tenth of the faculty were foreign, and these numbers are generally rising.
Lest this site sound like a romance novel, a surprising number of my colleagues originally came to Korea because they developed a romantic online relationship with a Korean woman through a dating website. Other co-workers were ethnic Koreans who were born or grew up in western countries and came to Korea for family or also for employment reasons to make use of their English and cultural skills. There are of course many reasons and combinations of reasons why people do come.
Why do People Leave?
Not long ago, Nobel economics laureate Thomas Sargent was hired at Seoul National University. He left within a year. Robert Laughlin, a Nobel Physics Prize winner, also did not finish his initial contract as president of KAIST. These are rather rarified cases for those of us who do not have Nobel prizes, but there is an awareness in Korea that foreign faculty have difficulty accommodating to the work culture.
I have met many difficult and troubled foreigners in Korea, to be frank—people escaping failed careers or marriages who often were the architects of their own disasters. Any criticism of the handling of foreign faculty in Korean universities must be prefaced with the concession that there are some foreigners who come here who have terrible attitudes or personal problems that guarantee they will be dissatisfied and confrontational no matter what conditions they experience. Some people have legitimately unfortunate pasts, but often we make up their minds in childhood to be happy or unhappy regardless of circumstances.
Unfortunately, regard for English does not automatically translate into regard for those who teach it. The country remains culturally xenophobic with an ‘us-and-them’ binary. Foreign teachers at private institutes are periodically demonized by Korean journalists as AIDS-filled drug addicts here to corrupt their daughters, and one can feel the love in the recent abortive efforts to replace ESL teachers with teaching robots. While this institutional and media insularity is not necessarily reflected in everyday treatment—generally Koreans will be quite welcoming to expatriates and may display warm hospitality—the culture shock of alien food, customs, and language can demoralize some newcomers.
Foreign university professors tend to be seen in a more benign light than the private institute teachers and somewhat escape their negative stereotype as backpacking, good-time girl-chasers. This partly because university-level expatriates are usually older and benefit from the traditional deference given to educators. Foreign faculty still must contend with such barriers as the difficulties of ordering things online or obtaining smartphone contracts or credit cards as non-citizens, as well as again the general acculturation problems of living in a society where initially one can feel rather helpless.
From my experience, perhaps I might list some typical specific problems I have observed with foreign faculty in Korean universities which often leave to resignation, excluding again the people who I must say brought it upon themselves.
University administration imposes foreign faculty upon resentful department. I see this problem where a university administration with a more business-oriented viewpoint wishes to globalize and improve the university’s standing with more foreign faculty, and the more conservative and closed department fights it passive-aggressively. I have seen departments advertise on Chronicle for foreign faculty for insultingly bad salaries and terms, because they don’t want anyone to apply but need to satisfy an administrative order to post the vacancy. Typically foreign faculty in this position become quickly frustrated at being left out of decision making and when they get nothing to teach but sections of Freshman English Conversation.
Failure to differentiate between English as a subject discipline and language teaching. I write this admitting that it is perhaps one of the windmills I tilted at in Korea for many years. While I will cover in more detail the warning that ‘English’ courses in Korean universities are more language learning and less subject discussions of literature and theory, I will not deny that being given an ESL conversation textbook can feel demeaning to someone with a fresh doctorate in Woolf, particularly if this happens in an English department where the senior professors are lecturing in your discipline in Korean (again, yes, I have seen this happen). It can be dispiriting for English professors to be treated as ESL conversation teachers no matter what credentials they have.
Failure to accommodate dietary restrictions for Muslim professors. This sounds trivial, but it’s not if you are Muslim in one of the provincial or smaller cities and everything seems to have pork in it. Seoul has ethnic communities which will allow Muslims to find grocery stores, but in my university in Daegu I had two co-workers whose resignation was at least in part caused by their exasperation in trying to find food they could eat.
Problems with educating children. While it is admittedly beyond a university’s control, English-language schools for faculty children are difficult to find and are expensive. If your children are very small and you do not mind them starting a public school education in Korean there is less problem, but should you wish them to learn in a western-style English school, there are few options. Some English schools are set up for embassy or military families and may charge US$30,000-40,000 a year. Although these prices are often heavily discounted for non-governmental (i.e. civilian professor) families, this is less likely in Seoul where competition to enter such schools is keen.
Then Why Do People Stay?
If there are such problems, then why does anyone stay? While the country’s mixed signals to foreigners can be tiresome, there is an optimism here lacking in the United States. When I was last there in Las Vegas in 2009, while there was still some Yes-We-Can post-election hopefulness, there was overall a pervading sense of defeat that the empire is hollowing out. The roads were deteriorating, budgets were shrinking in my department, my daughter was printing out her homework because schools couldn’t fund photocopies, and this was even before MOOCs caused English departments to huddle and await the end, when the machines will penetrate and destroy Zion.
One of the most interesting things about my ten years on-and-off here is seeing a country physically and abstractly improve. Streets become smoother, better lit, and cleaner. Parks grow and architecture becomes more concerned with aesthetics and less with functional grey concrete. Transportation becomes easier. Police become more honest and the rule of law improves. International restaurants evolve from overcooked pasta with kimchi to authentic tacos, donairs, and pho. Supermarkets go from having two bottles of foreign wine to two aisles.
The students, of course, also vary. In a country with a weak concept of diminishing returns, it is still the norm for high school students to have an exhausting study load in an educational model designed by Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind, and to graduate with plenty of facts but poor communication and critical reasoning skills. Grade twelve is chiefly spent studying how to take tests—a model which President Obama bizarrely praises and which is actively sought by some U.S. reformers. Nevertheless, in a sentence, I would summarize Korean education as a poor system offset by highly motivated students and families; the exact opposite of what I often saw in the U.S. systems. Both are intractable problems, but my belief is that the Korean system can be repaired more easily than American attitudes.
Being a foreigner in Korea is not for everyone. But Koreans are generally meticulous in their dress, conduct, and politeness to those they know; their kindness and innocence can be refreshing (“Why wouldn’t my daughter walk home from her math school at midnight? What could happen?”). After many years in Korea, perhaps I can view Koreans with more sympathy and affection. Societies are capable of changing, and their nationalism certainly does not prevent Koreans from being overall generous and well-meaning hosts.
It is also a university system where conditions are improving and where pay may vary from US$30-60,000 a year, with housing and at local costs of living. Korea deserves more consideration as a valid and growing employment destination. The jeremiads may apply here someday, but not yet. Thus this site has been written in order that it may help prospective teachers or professors who both feel wanderlust and a sense of righteous anger that they deserve better than a lifetime of substitute and adjunct work.
Types of Positions
So that you are clear, I will begin by defining my terms. An ESL instructor is a teacher of English as a Second Language: someone who teaches students to use English. Some specialists disagree with this term and use English Language Learners (ELL) or other acronyms such as TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language) or EFL (English as a Foreign Language). EAP (English for Academic Purposes) refers to students preparing for university-level subjects.
This morass of acronyms is of concern to academic professionals in Second Language Acquisition (SLA), but need not be an issue at this point. I will use ESL for simplicity as most Koreans recognize the term despite its limitations, but I also suggest EL (English Language) teaching as a better general term. As well, I am using the term to cover anything from a private or public school teacher to university instructors who teach Basic English conversation or writing.
It is also important to carefully distinguish between instructors who teach the English language and those who teach another subject in English. Foreign teachers in Korea also include professors who lecture on subject disciplines such as literature, linguistics, history, philosophy, education, or sciences in the English language. In practice the distinction is not always clear between the two, as I will explain, but as a general rule, for language teachers the process of learning the language is the main goal, and for subject teachers the content is primary, with the assumption that the students understand what is being discussed.
The above chart is not law and employers can usually hire who they want (with the exception that non-Koreans must have a bachelor’s degree to work legally, which is law), but generally your education level, and to an extent your experience, is going to determine your place on the food chain. As well, it is Korea, and so there will be gradations within these categories. I have taught in each bracket except for the black market. Please do not make things harder for legit people by trying to teach here without a valid degree.
Forecasts and Prospects
The fertility rate in South Korea is presently below replacement levels at 1.2, an issue of some demographic concern as the country ages. This is also a potential problem for educational institutions as the numbers of students will also inevitably decline.
At the post-secondary level, I remain cautiously optimistic. While Korean student numbers are declining, many universities are opening up to foreign students from Asia and even Europe and South America. These students need to learn to use English at a post-secondary level. There will likely be very good opportunities for foreign lecturers to find work as EAP (English for Academic Purposes) in Korean universities in high-level conversation and writing coursework.
At the subject-discipline level, I also believe the long-term prospects are good in Korean universities for foreign faculty. It is improbable that any Korean university will attempt to shift to an all-English European-style model anytime soon, as it would appear ‘un-Korean’ and would be simply unworkable; there simply aren’t enough people fluent in English right now to populate such a campus. But there are English-only colleges, departments, and course offerings where foreign faculty are at an advantage in prestige and employability. Gradually, these positions will fill and departments will become choosier. As is the case in Japan, a master’s degree is increasingly not enough. But within at least the next decade the opportunities here are likely solid for doctoral holders.
There are numerous English-language academic journals in Korea which focus on issues of second-language acquisition, and fewer (but some) which deal with scholarly issues in subject disciplines such as literature criticism or cultural studies. In terms of professional organizations or conferences the pickings are slim. For language teaching the best known is KOTESOL (Korean Teachers of English as a Second or Other Language), which has regional and national conferences. The academic rigor of some of their conference sessions is questionable, but KOTESOL is still a useful resource for those interested in discussing or networking on language acquisition issues. For subject disciplines Japan is the place to travel, and for literature or creative arts such as music composition, Japan is considerably advanced over Korea in hosting performances or conference activities.
I have just mentioned China and Japan. Why South Korea? Why not a more exotic country such as Vietnam? Why not a more westernized country such as Mexico? Why not a warmer country such as Thailand? Those are all legitimate choices and they all have their own benefits and drawbacks. I spent a year previous to my time in Korea in Mexico, and that was wonderful. But in sum I think Korea is an optimal overall choice, and here are some of the reasons I considered in first deciding to come here in 2003.
|South Korea||Good pay and opportunities; familiar four-season climate; modern infrastructure and transportation.||Monocultural; limited variety of food; chilly winters.|
|Vietnam / China||No winters; exotic culture; low living expenses.||Wild west regulations and unreliable pay; culture shock; poor transportation.|
|Japan||Very good pay; westernized comforts.||High cost of living; pressure to learn Japanese; fewer opportunities without doctoral degree.|
|Thailand / Mexico||Beaches; sun; party atmosphere.||Poor regulations; pay around $500-1000 a month, though slowly getting better; Mexican jobs are mainly in language schools and not universities.|
|Europe||It's Europe! Architecture, food, culture, minimal culture shock! Who wouldn’t want to live there?||High costs of living in Western Europe; competition for jobs from English speakers with EU passports; university positions are uncommon except in linguistics.|
|Middle East||Excellent pay and benefits||Can feel isolated on compounds. Restrictions on nightlife and worship. May require a doctorate. Hot weather.|
I made the decision to go to Korea after judging that spending a few weeks on a beach vacation in a developing country was better than living there and working for peanuts. Wages and benefits are rising in Southeast Asia and will probably give Korea tough competition in the next ten years, but they are not there yet. I lived on $600 a month in Mexico quite well, and the costs of living in Vietnam might also allow you to have a good time, but if your intention is to pay off a student loan, to school a child, to fly home frequently, or to save for the future these places are not yet a good long-term plan.
To me, Korea is a good balance. There is a reasonably regulated teaching industry and the pay is good. Typical wages will be about US$2000-3000 a month at the private institute level, and anywhere between US$3000-5000 a month at the university level. Both will usually include a paid or subsidized flight to Korea, and free or heavily subsidized housing. I would estimate living costs here at about 67-75% of what they are in North America, and taxes at about one-half or less.
You could possibly also augment your salary with private lessons or editing, but if you are saying, “That is all?” your expectations may be beyond what South Korea can offer you. But for a new Liberal Arts graduate, it is good pay. A Canadian might call Korea “Fort McMurray for English majors.”
South Koreans are mighty sick of the ‘Korea Discount,’ the economic and tourism costs associated with having an endlessly aggressive semi-failed Stalinist state on its border with nuclear weapons. As noted, their positions are fairly generational. Elderly Koreans have a great deal more personal bitterness toward North Korea; the middle generation (unfortunately, also the ones who tend to make laws and run the media) are more sympathetic and sometimes as likely to be hostile to the United States. The younger generation which you teach will know the basic facts and news reports but often have little personal interest in the matter.
In terms of your actual safety, obviously an actual invasion or bombardment of South Korea would be extremely dangerous, and foreigners would be a target of incoming armies. This needs to be weighed against the fact that all-out war is extremely unlikely. While the North Korean regime is agile at giving the impression of being insane or suicidal, much of this is carefully orchestrated for show in order to secure aid or attention.
I cannot guarantee anything, and much of what I write on this could become dated the next day. I can only presently observe that South Koreans are far more dismissive of Pyongyang’s theatrics and threats than CNN is; they have lived with such bluster for over sixty years. It is of course prudent to keep current on events occurring here, but to me avoiding employment in South Korea because of your relatives fretting that you will go up in atomic dust any second is childish hyperbole—what place on earth is totally safe from such a fate? Statistically we are all at higher risk driving to the airport or eating a hot dog while waiting to board.
Finding a Faculty Position
University jobs form a continuum between conversation and writing instructors teaching general English courses to professors lecturing and publishing in their disciplines. Insofar as foreign faculty are concerned there isn’t normally such a thing as ‘adjunct’ positions, both because part-time positions cause legal problems with visas and because of the practical necessity of housing foreigners. Contracts will be one-year at the bottom of the food chain, and two or longer at the top. Most universities have two semesters, March to June and September to December. Occasionally short semester-break courses or ‘camps’ are offered.
University positions will range widely based on responsibilities and benefits. Subject professors may receive comfortable 9-hour-a-week tenurable positions with 3-4 months of vacation time; language professors will typically teach 12-15 hours; ‘conversation instructors’ may do 18-24 hours with perhaps a month of vacation in both summer and winter. Assistant or associate professors typically have a private office, but visiting instructors may share an office or even be assigned a cubicle. A private computer is standard, but for some reason departments always seem tightfisted with printers.
It is possible to cheat the dark gods and obtain a faculty position with a master’s, or even in rare circumstances a bachelor’s, but generally there is no free lunch. Some university English and language lab positions are contemptuously called ‘unigwon’ jobs. Some questionable universities, like one I considered in Daegu years ago, have ‘affiliated’ hagwans and will try to coerce you into teaching children during winter or summer breaks. Be suspicious of a university where all of their English ‘professors’ are BA holders or there is large faculty turnover at the end of every semester. Just as few people sell a used car for running too well, a university with infrequent openings may be a good sign that it is a desirable place to work with fewer faculty wishing to leave. Conversely, a unigwon which is always hiring should ring alarm bells.
The clunky attempts to computerize teachers speaks volumes about how wanted foreign ESL teachers are here, but my observation is that conditions for university professors are better and improving, with tenure now at least a possibility and some departments actively supporting publishing and research. As noted, many professors who come to teach in Korean universities complain that they are the token foreigner and are ignored in meetings or given nothing but freshmen conversation classes rather than subject courses in their own fields. Other universities are more welcoming to foreign expertise and may even assign graduate students to them.
The Chronicle of Higher Education is a useful website for finding postings, but it is best simply to go to the university websites themselves. Whereas hagwan pay is usually fairly consistent from school to school (typically around 2-2.5 million won a month, US$2000-2500), university salaries vary widely and there is probably more scope for negotiation in matters such as housing and publication support.
If I can give you three rules of thumb I have learned: 1) the most prestigious universities do not necessarily pay or treat foreign faculty well, as they have little difficulty finding new applicants; 2) private universities pay better than public ones as they are less restricted by government regulations; and 3) pay tends to rise as you get nearer to Seoul (responding to higher living costs).
As with hagwans, Korean universities vary widely in respectability. There are presently far too many considering the shrinking demographics of the country, and some are degree mills. Traditionally, once Korean students got into university it was party time and everyone passes. The four years were seen as a reward for the years of public school slavery. Plagiarism was prohibited but often winked at and seldom seems to be prosecuted. In a former position I taught in it was not possible to assign a grade of less than 80%, even if a student did nothing. This is changing, but it is an evolution in progress.
I stress the point again that teaching general conversation at a two-bit university may have worse pay and conditions than a reputable hagwan chain or school program. But better campuses now, or at least special programs and departments within them, have more academic rigor as universities compete for students and attempt to distinguish themselves. I have expelled students from my courses for plagiarism and have been fully supported by administration. If anything, I hear more complaining now about plagiarism from peers in Middle Eastern universities.
The climate of South Korea varies from north to south, but I would compare it to that of the northern United States. Seoul is not very different from Chicago in weather, Busan is somewhat like Portland in climate, and Jeju perhaps like northern California. It does snow during a short winter season of about two months. Koreans always feel the need to point out that the country has four seasons, as though this is somehow an exclusive accomplishment, but it is best that prospective instructors realize that they are not coming to Thailand; anyone who comes to Korea expecting year-round surfing and bikini girls will be disappointed. The beaches are nice, but the water is only warm enough for swimming for a few months, and at that time everyone else on the peninsula has the exact same idea. But the beaches are a pleasant getaway, and Busan’s beaches are pretty. Daechon on the west coast (near Daejeon) is nice too.
Maybe Korea is better known for its mountain parks, especially Seoraksan in the North-east (names ending with san indicate a mountain). The mountain parks are stunning, particularly in autumn. It is very hard to beat Korea for beautiful hiking trails, and they are designed for comfort— sitting in an outdoor pub after a hike with some booze and some warm Korean pancakes (jih-jim) is very pleasant. Some of my Korean students will tell me that winter is their favorite season, and I believe they are insane. To me spring, with its gorgeous white cherry blossoms, and autumn, with the changing leaves, have the gentlest and most enjoyable weather.
I think it is a shame that expatriates automatically insist on working in Seoul. It has the action, the nightlife, the western amenities (such as they are), but also the highest prices and the most crowded... everything. There is no such concept as rush hour; when are roads not insanely jammed in Seoul? A better compromise for the claustrophobic might be one of Seoul’s bedroom communities such as Incheon, Songdo, or Ansan, which will still allow easy weekend visits to the city. My most frequent complaint about Seoul is that it takes so long to get anywhere in traffic or in navigating its spaghetti-tangle subway system.
You could also consider Daejeon or Daegu in the interior of the country, if you like the mountains, or Busan, if you like the beach. I am a beach bum, and I went to Busan for my first job in Korea. The traffic jams were just as bad as Seoul sometimes, but I find the city more interesting, the culture more authentic, and the weather is gentler and much like a Vancouver climate, despite its too-rainy summers. I find people in Busan more down to earth than in Seoul and the women more tomboyish and attractive, but that is just me (to Korean men, often the more northern the better, as such women are seen as more feminine). Some like Daegu, and I admit the drier weather and wider streets are an improvement on Busan’s haphazard, narrow roads and sometimes rather rough-and-grimy seaside nature. Daegu’s downside is that it is a conservative city (“the Regina of Korea”), and often there simply is not much to do in ‘Deadgu’ for younger teachers.
Many people disparage the countryside but I do not mind a smaller city or village if it is near a KTX station, the bullet train of Korea. In that case you will not feel isolated at all because you can easily do a day trip to Seoul or another large city. The pay can be good because fewer foreigners want to go to a rural area, and I find the people friendlier and the pace of living easier. I had a small motorbike and felt much safer on the roads, and I loved hearing frogs croak at night from my window. The western part of the peninsula, Jeolla, is not to everyone’s taste as it feels backward and seems stuck in the eighties, but some people like being closer to the old Korea and a more rustic life among the rice paddies.
Some expatriates head to Jeju Island (Jeju-do), billed as “the Hawaii of Korea.” My opinion is that it is overrated. If you go, you had better like seafood because there will not be much else. The island has palm trees but it gets winter like anywhere else, and because there is a perceived mystique about Jeju the schools pay poorly. Mainland Koreans think of Jeju people as a little quirky and find their dialect odd, but admittedly the climate is closer to tropical and the waterfalls are beautiful. Personally, I would find Jeju too isolated. If you want to spend time in Jeju I would work on the mainland and go on a weekend trip as it is a quick jump by airplane—a very cheapie flight could run as low as around a hundred dollars. I will put out the extra money to go to Thailand anyway even if it means fewer holidays.
I am told it is actually possible to find some form of teaching position in North Korea, as the regime needs a limited number of teachers and translators. I am skeptical and I will not say anything else about it as I have not been to the North and know nothing about such opportunities. Obviously I wouldn’t recommend it except for the courageous and those with some experience in Asia. Whether you are supporting the gangster-regime by teaching for it or helping to open people to the outside world is an ethical question you might wish to consider.
Universities and more established programs have set start dates for semesters and will allow you more freedom in arriving earlier if you wish. My experience is that they prefer at least two weeks before the start of classes so that you can settle in to your new living arrangements and prepare your coursework.
When you are hired, usually the employer will provide airplane tickets in advance, or will arrange compensation for tickets, and will help with matters such as work visas. You may have to send your original diploma papers for verification (strongly insist on them permitting scanned prints or color copies as sometimes documents get lost). Koreans are very big on pieces of paper and forms proving qualifications, and interviews may be only that. Thankfully Korean interviewers generally do not care about your “mission statement,” or ask about your favorite color or your worst personal attribute. In two of my jobs in Korea I was hired by e-mail with no formal interview at all. By the time you are invited to a Korean interview the bulk of the decision has likely already been made.
There are several classes of work visas in Korea. The most typical is E-2, for hagwan and public school teachers. Professors can get an E-1, and all instructors can get an F-2/6 if they have a Korean spouse. The F-2/6 is optimal because you will be able to legally teach students privately, assuming your contract permits it. In the past, it was fairly easy even for E-2s to teach extra classes illegally, but as of late there has been an increasing government and media vendetta against foreign teachers, and E-2s are sometimes busted and deported. One other immediate consequence of the bad apples is a recent requirement for E-2 applicants to have AIDS tests and criminal record checks. I can only tell you to not blame your employers as they certainly do not choose these hassles.
Either before or after arriving in Korea, you will need to go on a “visa run,” typically to Japan, to get a work permit. Some or all of it will be paid for or compensated, which you should find out in advance. If your costs are covered, don’t complain; Fukuoka is a fun place to spend on a short stay and the women are easy on the eyes. You could even perhaps justify a fast trip to China or elsewhere for this purpose.
The contract will state your pay, responsibilities, benefits (such as housing), and conditions for termination or resignation. A return flight may be compensated yearly, or at the end of the contract, or perhaps at the end of your final contract. Pay may be in Korean won (US$1 equals about 1 thousand won) or in dollars. To me it makes no huge difference, as the money will probably be deposited in your account as the equivalent amount in won according to exchange rates anyway.
Normally your rank, an important distinction in the Korean university pecking order, will be stated. From top down, they are, in general:
- Full professor
- Associate professor
- Assistant professor
- Language teacher
It has been explained to me that Korea follows the 'German' model, in which you may be an assistant professor on a tenure or non-tenure track; as well, only a full professor may be tenured. Tenure has only recently become actually possible for foreign professors and so it is presently rare (it takes many years to work to the level of full professor, along with a substantial publication record), but it can be done.
These are, as usual, not absolute categories and there may be explicit or implied gradations between them in benefits and salary, based on experience or other factors. It is normally quite taboo to talk about salaries. Your department head may not know what you are being paid. Normally you will be included in either the general national pension plan or the better teacher’s private pension plan and assessed pay deductions.
Staff positions in the organizational structure of a university will also have their own levels and terms, with deans and associate deans and managers and coordinators and assistants and such. These may be rather fixed in terms of who has power over what, but in general it is Korea and the usual rules of thumb apply: whatever the job title says, the powerful person in the office is likely to be the oldest, and usually male. Just as with western universities, office clerks and secretaries can be powerful allies or antagonists, and they are well worth keeping on your side by being polite.
Some foreigners are occasionally hired for staff positions and not as teaching faculty, or as combinations of such. Commonly, a former instructor with decent people skills or Korean language ability might be a public relations representative for the university, a student recruiter, or perhaps a foreign faculty liaison. I’ve never been interested in such positions as they tend to involve the same long hours as Korean office staff work, typically 9-6 or so, and do not necessarily pay better. But for those who decide they are not really teachers or who enjoy travel or participating in administration they are legitimate placements within a university.
Professors may also have some administrative duties should they be appointed as departmental heads/chairs or be hired as college deans, and even at the hagwan level there may be senior teachers with additional pay and responsibilities, usually more of the latter than the former. These positions may be formally contractualized or may be merely ad hoc arrangements with the university or school.
Sometimes vacation time will be spelled out explicitly as a given number of days, and in some contracts it is simply taken for granted that employees have some liberties during semester breaks. Schools and departments become nervous when teachers leave the country for vacations without notification, and so there is often a form or nominal procedure for obtaining ‘permission’ to take holidays abroad, though for professors this may not happen at all. My experience at the university level is that permission is usually very perfunctory during semester breaks, especially Christmas, and less so during the semester. Faculty who wish to attend conferences during the class term are advised to make sure their administration has given consent.
As with many things in Korea, contracts are legal and binding, except when they aren’t. In the west there is a stronger assumption that contracts represent an agreement between two equal parties, whereas Koreans see them as slightly closer to a feudal arrangement of indenture and protection. Unfortunately, the university will see itself as having more discretion to alter your contract when conditions necessitate it than you do.
Do not assume that a university position guarantees you will be treated like a professor. At some ‘unigwons’ faculty are just as expendable as any hagwan. A university program I worked for was run by the ministry of education, but I was still occasionally deducted wages on questionable grounds (in my case it was disputes over vacation pay). They also exploited a legal loophole to avoid paying instructors on sick days. Another institution agreed to a 12-hour teaching week, and then attempted a sophist’s argument that they really meant 12 credit hours and not 12 chronological hours. If you negotiate courteously and avoid making anyone ‘lose face’ you may succeed sometimes in such disputes, but these occasional morditas (little bites, as the Spanish say) do happen.
While I have occasionally seen competent professors let go, sadly, due to departmental politics or other unfair reasons, typically I admit many co-workers brought it upon themselves by lazy, unprepared teaching, being hung over during work duties, or by feuding aggressively with administration and coworkers. Whether you agree with this or not, boat-rockers and troublemakers are far more likely to be let go than lackluster classroom teachers who stay under the radar.
It is rare for universities to fire an instructor or professor during or between semesters; it would normally require doing something supremely irresponsible. I have only seen it happen once, when a playboy co-worker dated a string of female students and a parent complained to administration. It is much more common that unsatisfactory faculty simply do not get their contract renewed—these will generally be 1-2 years in length, depending on rank. Universities tend to give annoyingly little notice about being renewed or not, as they are highly risk-averse to the idea of an angry instructor who has been notified of non-renewal sabotaging his or her remaining days. In fairness, this probably happens, and again, for many co-workers I have seen let go it was fairly obvious to all that things were not working out.
Maybe it is a good idea right from the start to think about whether you have the right disposition to be an instructor in Korea. I think this is almost as important as your academic qualifications. Consider my analogy:
A foreman hires a team to dig a ditch to lay a pipe in. On the first morning, everyone shows up and is given teaspoons to dig. One group of workers tells the foreman, "This is ridiculous—why don't we use shovels? This will never get done!" The foreman answers, "Thank you for your opinion. This is how we do things. Go dig the ditch as we asked you." The group protests and complains until all are either fired or quit in frustration. The second group shrugs and says, "As long as I get paid, I'll dig with a toothpick if they want me to. What the hell do I care if the ditch is ever finished?" This group can last a long time, but at times they feel bitter for having prostituted themselves in this way. A third group says, "I am paid to dig a ditch with a spoon. Maybe I can quietly use a tablespoon or a soup spoon without causing problems. It will not be perfect, but at least I'll feel like I'm making things better." This group, while technically breaking the rules, is the happiest on the team and has the best relations with the foreman.
Teaching in Korea can be like this. You need to use the soup spoon. You may be obligated to use crappy, cheap textbooks; you may have pointless meetings; you may have limitations on grading which are not fair; you might have rules for the sake of rules. If you are the sort of Type-B person who can roll with it and make the best of things, you can get through bad days. If you imagine yourself organizing everyone to rise up and demand shovels, spare yourself an ulcer and do not choose this career.
I have taught in a hagwan and in a university long enough to almost predict who can last and who will burn out. Type A people— the highly ambitious, those who feel strongly about improving education, women’s status, getting ahead, etc.: they do not last. Type B people, the type who are willing to, within limits, tolerate arbitrary policies which sometimes hinder their work, and can laugh about it and be content to do their best and work around things— they can last. Simply put, neither Korea nor your employer are primarily concerned about your culture or your personal philosophies. They care about you being on time, doing your job, and producing satisfied students and parents.
Keep a little idealism, but accept that the system is not going to change quickly. Why do I have to attend a special meeting which is held in Korean when I can’t understand it? How does my having office hours, arranging paper clips for two hours, help anyone? Why is this person my superior because he’s a man and has three degrees in an unrelated discipline, when he has no classroom experience in his life? How can the grammar memorization method of teaching English be better when it hasn’t worked since World War I? If your blood pressure is already rising, maybe you should rethink this.
To repeat, there are departments which accept foreign professors resentfully, assign them sections of ‘Freshman Political Science English Conversation,’ and monopolize all of the subject-level courses. Students may avoid courses taught by a foreigner, believing them too difficult. Yet many colleges do welcome foreign faculty and encourage them to design new courses and to publish, and some students enjoy the foreign experience and language exposure. Plagiarism, once tacitly unnoticed, is becoming taboo and punished with teeth. I have removed especially egregious plagiarizers from my classes and assigned them community service, with full administrative support.
It is not easy for Korean professors to obtain faculty positions in their own country, just as it is not easy for you to find one at home. The temporary growth of opportunities for foreign faculty does not apply to Koreans, and many have some justification in feeling irritated that they can only land a teaching position with great difficulty and foreigners can sail in with much less effort. Ironically, graduate degrees from Korean universities are much less likely to obtain anyone a Korean faculty position, and so your Korean colleagues have probably gone through difficult years of study abroad. You will need to navigate these feelings tactfully so that you do not encourage resentment of your position.
Traditionally, the college years were meant to be a reward for the titanic marathon of memorization that is high school, and at shoddier universities attendance is minimal, grades reflect scholarship “needs” and not achievement, and most energies are spent in drinking and dating. This model is fading as global realities of employment impose. It may also reflect selection bias that foreign faculty encounter such free-riders less frequently: in my case I have felt less pressure to pass everyone because it is those students who want more rigor and substance who tend to choose foreign faculty-heavy programs.
Stanley Fish’s dictum to save the world on your own time is well-heeded here. Korea remains conservative, and while Korean administrators do increasingly want foreign faculty to make a difference, activist professors fare poorly. University power hierarchies are still fairly top-down, and overwhelmingly my experience is that screamers and agitators are the first to be non-renewed rather than the less qualified or diligent. I am not discounting the horror stories of those who were legitimately treated poorly, having seen such cases myself. But as a generality the culture strongly favors respectful negotiation over bluntness or a race to arbitration.
How teaching affects a professor’s long-term career remains disputed. Leaving here can become difficult when North American universities can hardly be bothered with a Skype interview while they have 200 applicants standing outside the door. You are also thousands of kilometers away from conferences and other opportunities to network. On the other hand, having current teaching skills is valuable for many search committees. You may be across the world, but you are actively teaching while some of your competition in North America is adjuncting or working in coffee shops.
For those intending to lecture at the university level, faculty meetings will likely be more egalitarian than in a hagwan, and you will probably have more autonomy on choosing texts or negotiating courses or schedules, though you will have trouble justifying any textbook over twenty dollars, as half the students will not buy the ordered copies and will photocopy the book no matter how much you lecture them on intellectual property rights. These students will get a shock when they attend a program in North America and discover what textbooks cost.
As well, expect decisions to be overruled sometimes by university administration, and to have changes made with little notice. Korean workplace culture is infamous for meeting deadlines at the last minute with a huge fuss, and foreign faculty will always be the last to be informed about anything. If there is a string concert on campus on Tuesday, it will be announced on Monday, and an English announcement will be gotten around to on Wednesday. The person in charge of handling Korean-to-English translation and notifying foreign faculty is unlikely to be an important person with immediate access to information.
I suppose what I have found most exasperating in the past was being unable to get co-workers and administrators to consider me an English professor at all and not a language teacher. Even if you are actually in an English department you might be relegated to freshman conversation / composition courses— there is a prevailing attitude that “anyone can teach English” if they have a degree and speak natively. Even in an unrelated discipline such as a social science you might be nudged to teach non-credit English seminars or classes. Unless you are quite high in the food chain of subject-discipline teaching there is little support for professional development in Korea, and if you wish to upgrade your education or attend conferences it will be on your own time and cost.
Although this will probably change as Korean universities gradually emulate Japanese and western ones, it is the nature of Korean bureaucrats to trim down the flower that grows faster rather than to nurture it, regardless of whether you are Korean or foreign. Administrators strongly prefer steady stasis to unpredictable change, and too much ambition is more likely to be punished than too much complacency. At one of my workplaces, far from being rewarded for writing a class textbook, I was scolded for the 'problem' of a few leftover photocopies at the campus print shop. I used the soup spoon and put it online.
If you are older and work in a university you are in a somewhat better position, but there is still going to be an innuendo attached to your presence that foreigners have a predilection for loose morals and a weak sense of loyalty to their employer. Admittedly, I have seen damaged individuals here who had personal problems back home and the stereotype may occasionally have a basis in fact. Nevertheless, you will need to counter such perceptions and to build trust.
On campus or at work you do not need a suit and tie every moment in Korea as you might in Japan, but it is important that you dress well. Wearing short-sleeve dress shirts is tolerated in hot weather, but short pants are not advisable. Appearances are important here and you will notice that the Koreans generally clothe themselves quite meticulously and conservatively for the workplace. Students may dress as they please, and the males may dress like dandies and the females may wear skirts that leave very little to the imagination, but this liberty does not apply to instructors and staff to the same extent.
You can wear what you want after work. This does not mean there are no consequences. Perhaps because I have been here longer, I now find the western attitude that “I have the right to dress how I like but you have no right to make judgments about me” both childish and an unfair double-standard. I do not have the license to mistreat you should you dress like a biker or stripper, but I do have the right to make whatever assumptions I wish. And whether you approve of it or not, Koreans certainly will make negative conclusions about your goatee, snake tattoo, nose ring, and Goth hairstyle. People will stare at you for it and students, co-workers, and administrators will make judgments and decisions based on it; in Korea, tattoos and piercings equals being a gangster.
Korean education is structurally much like the elementary / middle / high school K-12 system in North America, although schooling is typically augmented with hagwan classes in English, music, mathematics, or a science. The school year is divided into February-July and September-January, like university but longer. Students may even have study classes between semesters. Public school used to be six days a week but is now five, though some still have study days on Saturdays. Many students will spend early evening in school as well, theoretically also in supervised study but often with a great deal of sneaking out for smoking and smartphone-playing.
I have consistently railed against this system. The school system itself emphasizes memorization and high-speed bubble-filling on exams with little emphasis on creativity or high-level evaluation or synthesis of ideas. Many Koreans are aware of this and bemoan the system but feel powerless to change an educational practice designed to produce quantitative numbers for university entrance evaluation.
It is doubly frustrating to see educational reformers in the United States praise this system, confusing high Korean motivation and respect for education with the poor pedagogical methods in the actual system. North Americans notice that Asian students tend to excel in U.S. schools and reach the conclusion that this is because Asian schools are better. This is a false conclusion; despite the huge variations in the quality of their schools, American learning models are generally sound ones, and when motivated, ambitious Koreans are combined with the U.S. school system both strengths are played to. Such students may succeed to an extent they would not necessarily experience in their home countries.
To make things worse, Korean education has no concept of diminishing returns, believing that more time spent studying will always be better. Some students will spend all day in school and then most of the evening in hagwans or studying, and the practical result is that many are half-awake all day from exhaustion and learn little overall as a result. It can be vexing to have students plead that they deserve a better grade on their assignment solely because they spent eight hours on it, particularly because Korean society often openly endorses this attitude in the workplace.
In summary, there are certain challenges and strengths in Korean students which you will need to anticipate and adjust for. They generally have weak critical thinking skills and poor independent work habits; they read less than you might expect and simply cannot sustain long reading assignments. While good at understanding concepts within contexts or relationships, they are often poor at analyzing or making logical arguments. If asked to create, they may simply imitate what they see on television. On the plus side, in comparison to a western classroom Koreans are respectful and deferential to teachers, and discipline is a near non-issue. Their affability to professors and their innocence can be refreshing. Typically, I would compare them to pupils in a good preparatory high school in the U.S. in their deportment, maturity, and knowledge levels.
The fact that you are teaching in English complicates classroom matters. Professors who inflexibly expect to lecture to fluent speakers on Post-Structuralism in Derridean Intertextuality will not last long. Unless you are one of the blessed few at the pinnacle, every foreign professor inevitably does some language teaching here, even those who are professors of subjects such as history, philosophy, or cultural studies such as German or Spanish. I would call my classes here 3/4 subject teaching and 1/4 English for Academic Purposes (EAP), meaning that sometimes I still need to teach the English language.
Overall, the learning style of Koreans in primary and secondary school is passive, and students do not grow up asking many questions or independently synthesizing ideas. Professors who want students to challenge them may become frustrated, as it is simply verboten to disrespect a professor. The students would probably be quite happy to have you prattle on in a lecture while they text on their smartphones under the tables. Koreans do quite well with group work once in a while, and it is a good way to force them to talk if they have to report to you or present their results to the class. I also have good results in having students record video or podcast presentations, as their English fluency will often improve when they have the lead time to prepare.
You may not be terribly physically comfortable in the classroom, as Korean universities are usually, shall we say, rather parsimonious with heating and air-conditioning. Yet even at a crappy university it would be unthinkable to have a classroom without a computer and overhead projector. You should have no problem using overhead notes or videos or slides in your class, and one annoyance I experience teaching here is how Korean students are absolutely addicted to PowerPoint. I do not like it and think PowerPoint dumbs down learning by reducing complex ideas into oversimplified bites, but each to their own.
Overall, if you want to integrate IT into your class or have students use laptops in class you will be pleased here. The problem is that, due to some strange legislation and a culture which does not foster large-scale entrepreneurship well, Korea has excellent consumer electronics and poor software and web design—your classroom computer may well be running Windows XP and IE6. Eventually this will change, through either sheer national embarrassment or when newer foreign software and websites simply fail to run. For now Korea is not very supportive of non-Microsoft operating systems on PCs, and you can expect headaches with a MacBook, but mobile applications are becoming very iPhone and Android-friendly. WiFi is easy to find and some campuses have their own networks.
Every semester I turn into a sort of mother hen with my students, and then every grading period they break my heart. This is because instructor evaluations are very much a part of the process, and because Korean students have an odd arrangement where they can request higher grades: the grade appeal period.
It sounds like a strange tradition—why wouldn’t every student request a higher grade?—and it is a part of the post-secondary system which I am uncomfortable with. Having an official period set aside where students are expected to challenge their grades very much normalizes and legitimizes this action, and indeed every December and June I receive e-mails where students are arguing like lawyers about fine points of their assignments (always politely, mind you) or pleading that they will lose their scholarship or some other benefit. Even though you have told them otherwise, the students will still see grades as something you parsimoniously dole out and not as a metric of their achievement.
I generally do not raise grades unless I have made an error, or unless the number is statistically trivial (a 0.3% adjustment would raise the grade to a B+, for example). Some universities will have a maximum number of A’s or B’s permitted to shield professors from such endless wheedling. Other than this I can only advise you to treat the grade appeal period as a game students play and not to take every plea personally or to believe every sob story. Over time I have come to realize that end-of-term extra credit assignments are generally a sham, allowing the student to cynically throw something together at the last minute to replace a semester of learning and thought. I would not take the bait of accepting a request for one as a compromise.
All of this presumes that your department has your back when you fail students. Some universities have tangles of minimum or maximum grades or curves, and some unfortunately have a culture where few or no students fail, instead getting a sort of ‘gentleman’s C.’ You will need to get a sense of how your head or chair or other administrators feel about this, and whether they support a tough-buns-the-professor-is-always-right policy or waffle: “Please understand their situation.” You may need to read the wind and make a principled decision on how and where you draw lines, as refusing to bend at all might mean students begin to avoid your classes the next semester.
Yet overall student evaluations in themselves are unlikely to cause instructors much problem. Departments which are looking for a pretext to get rid of a troublesome professor can certainly use a bad student evaluation as ammunition, and I have seen deans use them as a subtle threat, but my experience is that they are mainly used to flag a truly terrible teacher. Within reason, they should be seen as a tool for you to improve or assess your classroom technique or materials.
Teachers on an E-2 visa are not allowed to work outside their employers. Other visas may allow outside work but you may be prohibited to do so in your contract. There are nationalists in Korea who enjoy acting as snitches to catch teachers doing under-the-table work, and if caught it could result in cancellation of your visa and deportation in a worst-case scenario. But in practice, some teachers and professors take advantage of lucrative outside opportunities for private tutoring or editing to supplement their incomes, and most ethical individuals try to ensure that it does not negatively impact their primary employment. Most employers in practice overlook outside work so long as your job performance is unaffected and prefer a don’t-ask-don’t-tell modus vivendi.
There is, of course, a wide variety of arrangements for private tutoring. At one end, a student who invites you out for dinner to practice his English is simply combining an enjoyable social outing with improving his skills. At the other end, you might be asked to make a formal schedule of twice-weekly meetings, for example, where you tutor someone or a small group with textbooks or materials. I do not enjoy teaching groups as inevitably there are problems and disagreements with people not showing up or paying, or with students requesting constant schedule or location changes. But some do not mind this sort of flux; it also tends to pay well.
University instructors may be invited to teach evening classes or semester-break ‘camps’ for adult students or children. I also do not enjoy such camps as students generally have much less motivation during the semester breaks and the classes tend to progressively shrink as the weeks pass, and for that reason I would avoid any employer which attempts to mandate you teaching such camps. Should you wish to teach one, they are of course legal as they are under the auspices of the university, and it is relatively reliable and good pay.
A third common form of outside employment is editing, whether in the form of thesis abstracts, application essays, or some very odd types of writing such as proofreading translation subtitles of television shows! This sort of occasional outside work is optimal for some as it allows you to establish your own scheduling and has the least impact on primary job duties (the best case is where your own university offers such casual opportunities), but others find editing tedious. Some people even act in bit parts for television and local movies.
Trying to find employment in a store or a bar (hof) or restaurant in Korea is not wise, both because part-time work pays poorly and because you are unlikely to be hired without decent Korean language skills. Worse, it is the sort of public employment which will attract the eye of Korean immigration. I have known foreigners who formed bands and played small club gigs, but even this seems to irritate authorities and can lead to investigations into who has what class of visa. For what you will be paid for playing a bar, I would suggest foregoing the hassle and simply performing for drinks or some other casual non-monetary benefit. This may change in time, but for now Koreans prefer that entertainers have entertainer visas. These tend to be held by Filipino bands or by Russian women who ‘entertain’ around stripper poles.
At the very top of the outside-work food chain is university departments which pay faculty for writing published academic articles. Publication output and rank is important for Korean universities in maintaining academic reputations, bragging rights against competing universities, or securing other benefits or sources of funding. Many Korean universities reward English-language publication in international journals handsomely, with stipends often in the thousands of dollars or with accompanying research funding. This is worth asking about in contract negotiations.
The Thompson-Reuters SSCI (Social Sciences) / A&HCI (Humanities) indexes is highly regarded in assessing publications here, and ironically Korean journals not in these indexes are not highly valued or compensated for. Korean journals may even have shades of ‘pay-to-publish’ where small charges will be assessed to have articles published—I once reluctantly paid about US$300 under such an arrangement. This is of course a contentious issue in academic publishing, but it should be pointed out that Korean journals are in my experience generally not high-profit vanity article-mills, and tend to charge fees to enable open access on websites. While it is easier to secure publication in one, they are mostly not in the same class as the illicit predatory journals commonly originating from Southeast Asia.
If you like being around people, are open to new experiences, and able to take care of yourself, ESL can be a good career. There is nothing as pathetic as someone 55 who is broke, trapped in ESL, and hitting on 20-year-old students; but many stay here, have families, and enjoy happy lives. Some upgrade their qualifications into higher levels of theory, such as a MA-TESOL degree. Others spend a year or two here, make some money and have a good time, and then move on to a different career.
The teaching of English at private institutes (hagwans) in Korea has grown since the 1980’s, had its heyday in the late 90’s, and is now in some decline. There is still just as much fervor for teaching children English as a prestige language and one with career or university entrance benefits, but two factors have caused the demand for foreign English teachers to plane and begin to decline. One is that there are simply fewer children; the other is that some of the youngsters who were taught English in the 1990’s are now English teachers themselves.
In the long term there will probably be enough Korean teachers with sufficient enough capability in English to teach it in public schools competently. The Korean government would strongly prefer this, partly to dispense with what they see as troublesome foreign teachers, and also because the hagwan industry is a financial drain on the country. In Japan the private English industry has withered in recent years, with large school chains such as Nova and Geos declaring bankruptcy. This may not happen in Korea yet, but wages have remained nearly stagnant for ten years, an ominous sign. ESL in Korea is a good short-term but a poor long-term career. ESL will probably boom in China and southeast Asia in the next decade and you will likely fare better west of Korea in future if you are looking at years ahead.
Language teaching pay is usually fairly consistent from school to school (typically around 2-2.5 million won a month, US$2000-2500). Jobs typically divide into working in a hagwan and working in some form of government-sponsored program such as EPIK in a public school, often with a co-teacher. Government programs may have set start periods but hagwans usually hire on a continual basis year-round. Hagwans may be privately owned or may be franchises in large school chains. Government programs will try to place you in your choice of an elementary / middle / high school. Hagwans seem to generally divide into ones for children and ones for teens / adults.
Some people are content with teaching small children, and if so, Korea is your oyster. You will have a better choice of jobs, locations, and better pay and easier hours. Many older North Americans have a 1970’s cliché that Asian children are well-behaved, quiet, and studious. Excuse me for a moment: bwahahahahaha! They're still kids; they yell and run. You absolutely need to like children to do this, or else you will not last.
Teenagers offer fewer classroom management problems, but they can be a motivation problem because they are usually exhausted after their carefree sixteen-hour schooldays. High school students in Korea have ridiculous schedules of endless school and after-school prep classes and hagwans, all for that one hellishly stressful college entrance exam (the suneung), which determines whether they will be heart surgeons or bricklayers. Many teachers become frustrated with trying to literally wake up their teenage classes and make them say anything, and others have a gift for engaging this age level.
Teaching adults is perhaps the most enjoyable, with certain caveats. You can have adult conversations, and maybe have more of a social life—the eight-year olds are not going to invite you to the bar for drinks after class. You will not be bothered by helicopter mothers who all believe their gifted son will attend Seoul National University and be a doctor, engineer, and president. I liked teaching adults. The downside is that you will have to be less fussy in taking a job, and adult hagwans often have split days which can be draining. I worked from 7 AM to 11, and then from 5 PM to 9. I learned to have mid-day Mexican siestas.
Finding a job teaching ESL in South Korea is easy, but finding a good one less so. Here the cliché is true that if you want something done right you must do it yourself. The scared-stiff might simply try one of the larger and more reputable chains such as YBM, or the government-run teaching program (EPIK). These are both quite doable options as large organizations offer better resources and teaching choices, and are fairly efficient at placing a first-time teacher.
I strongly advise that you avoid listing your name with a recruiting agency. Private recruiters are far more interested in collecting a commission than in placing you in a good school. When I first came to Korea, I tried a recruiter and had to argue with her every day before breaking off with her; with each phone call she would try to fast-talk me into a job teaching small children, which I was determined not to do. Some teachers are given promises that are simply ignored by the school when they arrive, as many unscrupulous recruiters will say anything to make a teacher agree to come. If you can tolerate being called constantly with yet another hard sell and have an extremely high ‘bullshit detector,’ then go ahead, but I do not recommend it. These people have no personal investment in you being a comfortable and well-functioning teacher like a school director ought to have.
What websites are good? Look through the offerings on websites such as Dave's ESL Cafe or TEFL.com. If you choose a different website, make sure it is not just a recruiter site (“funny how only one company is hiring in Korea!”). It is not hard to distinguish the single-school advertisements from the recruiter ads on the website boards. The former will be for one school or one chain of schools, e.g. XYZ English Schools, and may have a director or head teacher as a contact. The recruiter ad will give no geographic details or specifics on openings— it will just have giant-type ads such as this one:
FUN FUN FUN COME TO DYNAMIC KOREA EARN up to NINE MILLION WON A WEEK YOUR WILDEST DREAMS COME TRUE CALL US NOW ANYWHERE YOU LIKE IN KOREA HIRING ALL CITIES NOW NOW
These ads will never give any specifics, because the agents have so many different openings in their file. Like a job selling vacuum cleaners on commission, do not believe the salary promises as they will be ridiculous. So how do you choose a job? I can only give you a few bits of advice.
- Avoid private recruiters. They are used car dealers, not educators.
- Do not assume a government position is iron-clad. There are reports of the same old contract violations with state positions. In August 2009, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education hired a massive number of foreign teachers, and then reportedly told a portion of them they were not needed the day before they were flying to Korea at their own expense.
- So what is fairly legit? Really, I would value your instincts. Are the benefits and pay good without sounding suspiciously over-the-top? Does the person you are communicating with work there and does he or she provide you with details and information, or do they fudge and dodge? Is the school willing to give you contacts of teachers who work there? Do they give you a vibe as decent people?
- Do not get jaded by the online forums. I cannot say it enough that there are honest and well-meaning directors, like mine was.
Frankly, ESL is a slightly shady world. Along with the many kind and competent directors there are dishonest ones who ignore contracts. English school directors are often considered little better than criminals by many Koreans. And, it must be said, there are westerners who take unfair advantage of the Korean desire to learn English. Some ‘teachers’ have phony degrees; others are only interested in partying or womanizing. If you do not have a university degree, you risk being caught in one of the periodic purges that the government launches against fraudulent ESL teachers. Please do not try to come to Korea with a degree you purchased in Bangkok; if you still want to teach, consider countries like Mexico or possibly China where a high school diploma might be acceptable.
Generally, private institutes must walk you through considerable government paperwork but try to make it fairly trouble-free for you to show up and settle in, as they will likely have continuous schedules and want you to start teaching as soon as possible. I have heard horror stories of people stepping off the airplane jet-lagged and being shoved into a classroom with a textbook ten minutes later, but generally you will have a few days to acclimatize.
The conditions of your workplace can vary. Sadly, many hagwans and even lower-tier universities care little about education and everything about making money for the owners. Some legitimately want to have English taught and have effective books and resources, and others just want a token native speaker working there because it looks good, regardless of whether he or she is supposed to do anything meaningful. Some foreign teachers start to get a throw-the-monkey-a-peanut feeling when they are just used to show off to the mothers that the program has a real, live foreigner.
My experience is that directors will give you considerable freedom in your teaching practices. My schools gave me a schedule, a textbook, a box of activities, and off you go. Maybe because the directors often are not educators and want to preserve the distance between the two roles, they are more willing to leave you alone. Where most directors will give you little freedom is in making suggestions about the curricula, resources, or other practices of the school. In the west, meetings are sessions where ideas are shared and discussed freely. In Korean meetings, the bosses talk and everyone nods and then goes out to eat roasted pork. In a way, Korea can be like Imperial Rome. Getting permission to do anything at work will be impossible, but if you just do it and it makes things work better and does not create difficulties for anyone, forgiveness is easier.
It would be easier to start out if you have taken at least some ESL certification or short course to go with your degree(s). I did not have any, and I must admit that I had to learn to teach while in Mexico. I am not one of those cynics who says that teachers do not need training to teach, as this demeans the profession, but I agree that some people are just better suited for it and have more empathetic people skills. If you feel intimidated by the basic idea of setting up a class, most novice teachers simply follow a textbook at the class’ speed (you can see some samples at Cambridge’s site) and augment it with some games and photocopied handouts depending on age and fluency level. As the years went on I just progressed into using better texts and materials and then making my own.
If you work with Korean teachers at the hagwan, be nice to them. They are often more qualified than you are and are paid less, treated worse, and given more paperwork because they are not native speakers. Realize that discrimination which works in your favor can be just as unfair. Some pleasantness might smooth over the resentment Korean teachers can have over working with alcoholic backpacker teachers in the past who have shown up late and unprepared and then hit on them. Oddly, at my first hagwan job the foreigner teachers were not sociable and I was closer to some of the Koreans.
If you are in a government program which places you in a public school with a co-teacher, mileage may again vary. You may get a principal and co-teacher who are supportive, and you may get a school which grudgingly accepted you and has a lazy co-teacher who muddles through the textbook and undermines your efforts. But respect works both ways. Why should people respect you as a foreign teacher if you spend every night in a bar and do nothing to conduct or improve yourself as a professional? I have seen both sides: the lazy foreign teacher who shows up hung over and with no preparation other than a Nerf ball and a cheesy word game. Take the time to plan your lessons and have back-up activities; improvisation does not go over well here. Try to read at home; real reading, not just internet sites. Your ability to speak English will actually deteriorate without time or vacations in an English-speaking country.
When I first came to Korea, I tried to teach as I would in Canada or Mexico. The Korean mode of teaching is top-down. If you give students a lot of choices or run the class like a democracy, they may be confused or complain to the directors that the class is disorganized. Be sensitive to the fact that younger adult students will defer to older adults, and often women will defer to men. Many students find a foreigner’s English class somewhat liberating from these social expectations, as English does not formally mark levels of respect like Korean grammatically goes. But such distinctions are ingrained in the culture and creating a space where they are lessened will require some time.
As I said, lesson planning usually is not difficult at a hagwan because you can mostly just follow the text, but that can get dull and so you should be working on building activities and handouts to augment it, or at least working on picking out parts of the textbook that will be more useful or interesting in class. Koreans tend to learn English in public school the way western students learn Latin or French. They know the grammar intimately but have little feel for informal conversation. If you try to teach grammar you might find your students know more than you do, and my advice is that you find yourself a book or site on usage so that you will not be embarrassed when you are asked whether something is a gerund or a participle.
Go with your strengths as a native speaker, which is your knowledge of cultural semantics and expressions— that is, saying natural-sounding things appropriate to the situation. For example, Korean has levels of respect built into the statement and English does not, so beginner Koreans do not understand the difference between “Give me a hamburger” and “I would like a hamburger.” They do not know the meaning or significance of current expressions like you do and this is a more productive area to discuss. The culture makes very little use of sarcasm and Koreans often need help understanding western humor. If you personally have a dry or sarcastic sense of humor you need to check this around students as they will often have no idea when you are being serious or not.
To me, freely discussing issues or encouraging creative, non-linear thinking are good things in class, but you have to introduce these classroom styles gently as it has not been a large part of Korean education. Older Koreans may appear uncreative and by-the-book, but they often do respect creativity in those who have it. Sometimes art or music goes over well in a class if it is not too unconventional. Again, if you are teaching children you can have more games and be more freewheeling, but for older students classes need to be fairly predictable and organized. The style of Koreans in the workplace is bali, bali, bali! (Hurry up!). Classes do not need to have long periods of reflection and calm; your students will prefer to have lots to do and to move on.
The most common problem with teaching English in Korea can be reduced to a simple self-fulfilling syllogism:
- Foreign teachers are assumed to be drunken, incompetent losers who are only after the local women.
- Serious and qualified teachers get frustrated with the poor treatment and contempt, and leave.
- The remaining teachers tend to be drunken, incompetent losers who are only after the local women, justifying the prejudices of everybody else.
Be aware that you are being judged by people on your actions and that the media image of ESL teachers is a negative one. Do not assume that the Korea Herald and Korea Times are on your side because they are in English.
Much is made on Korean discussion boards about dismissals and contract violations. I have had fairly good luck myself, but it can happen. Contracts simply are not enforced well here, as eastern cultures generally see contracts less rigidly than westerners do. Here are things that typically happen in hagwans when things are not going so well.
- We have to let you go because you are a terrible teacher. Well, maybe. But maybe it is not, and the director just wants to get rid of you eleven months into your twelve-month contract, usually to avoid paying you the one-month severance bonus that institute employers must pay after a one-year contract is finished.
- Times are tough, and we have to reduce your salary / have you teach ‘special classes’ of Chinese chemical engineers on Saturdays / tie salaries to student levels / be late with the pay.
- Oops! Your employer forget to contribute to your government-mandated pension plan, but still deducted pension contributions from your pay. Funny how that happened!
- Worst case scenario; the director just will not pay, period, and refuses to pay your airplane ticket or one-month severance bonus.
I do not have experience with these nightmare scenarios, and you should not let fear of these extreme events stop you from coming. But be aware that sometimes the worst happens. If so, try to reason with the directors— they generally respect a polite but firm business negotiation. If you can get partial payment, maybe it is better to be satisfied with that than to tilt at windmills. If not, there are somewhat effective legal solutions open to you, but be realistic; you are a foreigner in the legal system, and even for Koreans justice moves slowly. Koreans also have less patience for litigious Americans who run whining to courts without attempting diplomacy or compromise. Some hagwans will also count on the fact that while you have no job you may have no legal means of remaining in the country.
Despite the cynicism, there are government labor boards here who will honestly try to protect you from the most egregious offenders. I do not encourage teachers to do the infamous midnight run— simply packing up and sneaking out of the country in a huff—as it makes things harder for everyone else. If you must do so, understand that it should not be over something petty, as if you want to return to Korea someday it could come back to you.
Nevertheless, your employers are human beings (at least most of them). The kindhearted directors are not so newsworthy on the ESL forums. My first boss picked me up at the airport and got me on my feet, and I still drop by the school periodically for a chat. Be pleasant and realize that building a friendly and respectful workplace relationship means a huge deal here. It may happen that if the hagwan owners say they are having a rough time with the finances they are telling the truth. Maybe you want to find out what kind of car they are driving.
Your apartment will probably be included in your contract, although some schools may give you assistance in finding your own place if you are an old hand. It is a small country, short on space, and most apartments will probably be snugger than you expect, particularly in Seoul. Westerners grow up with the idea that middle-class or wealthier people live in houses and that apartments are in the ‘projects,’ occupied by lower-class or transient residents. But in Korea it is the norm to live in an apartment, and some suites are luxurious and packed with space-age appliances and roomy balconies. Houses in Korea, unless they are very modern and posh western-style suburban townhouses, are usually Chosun-era hovels for farmers. The typical assumption in Korea is that someone lives in a house because they can’t afford to live in an apartment!
An employer will usually have its own housing arrangement for you, but some will offer you ‘key money’ to find your own place, particularly if you have a family. Some Korean apartments take straight rent (wolseh), some are owned, and a third system which is not common in North America is jonseh. In a jonseh setup, a large payment of anywhere between US$100-400,000 is paid to an apartment management. The management invests the money and pays it back when you move out, usually with a two-year commitment. The hagwan may pay that money for you and then charge you the interest payment. It is not a bad system, although a hagwan which owns housing straight-out makes things simpler.
A supplied apartment is probably not going to be a penthouse suite, but as with work, conditions vary. Do not take a position without specifics on the living arrangements, and do not accept excuses that a poor apartment is “just temporary” until a better one is readied. It never will be. My first suite in Korea was in a low-income area, what Koreans call jugeong (subsidized housing), with the typical vegetable trucks yelling out their wares on megaphones at 7 AM, schoolchildren playing their regular Saturday game of scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-in-the-parking-lot-for-eight-hours, and the worn-out, overcrowded bus taking me to work. They even turned off the hot water supply in summertime. I think those old folk stories about filling a bathtub with boiling water from a teakettle are rubbish; it certainly never worked for me.
But I have also seen decent and sizeable places. My second apartment was in a quiet area of campus with each instructor in their own comfortable suite. Even my first place had a nice ocean view, was near a beach, and was furnished. That is a plus; older Korean apartments usually do not come with anything other than basic appliances, but schools will usually take care of these things for you so that you will not have to worry about basic furnishings like beds and drawers. It is worth asking about before you come.
Check to see if the supplied housing is free or if the school deducts part of your pay for rent, as mine did. The various fees you pay for water, telephone, internet, or ‘guard’ fees (my guard only watched the inside of his eyelids) can add up. Cable television, internet connections, and cell phones are cheap and the technology is very advanced. Heating is generally provided by an ondol, a system of hot water pipes under the floor. Some Koreans like to sleep on the floor where it is toasty, and it is admittedly very nice on a cold winter night.
Apartments are usually quoted in pyeong, which is a measurement of area squared. One pyeong is 36 sq. ft. or 3.1 square meters. How many pyeong you will need to be comfortable depends on your situation:
|Pyeong (Square Feet)|
|5-12 (200-400)||This is ridiculously tiny, and may be a dorm room. Avoid; you don't want to live next door to other students who will get drunk and watch soccer at three in the morning.|
|12-20 (400-700)||This is tight but liveable for someone single, or even for a couple without many furnishings. Probably a studio or one bedroom and kitchen.|
|20-30 (700-1000)||This would be comfortable for a couple with a child or for someone who likes more living or storage space. Probably 1-2 bedrooms besides the main area.|
|30-45 (1000-1600)||This would be very large for provided housing, and probably has 2-3 bedrooms and a sizeable living room or balcony area.|
|45-60 (1600-2100)||This would be a king-sized apartment and fine for several older children, with perhaps 3-4 rooms. E-mail me so I can apply for any job that gives you a place this size!|
By western standards, home bathrooms are small, and typically people wear slippers in them as water is seemingly always on the floor. It would be unusual to be placed in an apartment without a built-in clothes washer, though dryers are not common for some reason. Apartments nearly always have decent-sized balconies, really more for clothes drying and for keeping potted condiments or plants outside than for lolling about in the sun. The indolent can, though, probably quite easily and cheaply find someone to do laundry service for them. There will always be a speaker in your apartment for irrelevant announcements in Korean from the building management periodically, typically nagging the ajoshis (older men) not to smoke in the parking lot, which they will do anyway.
Many people will not drink the water, but I lived in the countryside and Brita-filtered water was fine for me. You can cook, and basic foodstuffs and cooking equipment is quite cheap, but if you are a lazy bachelor like I was, you can get addicted quickly to Korean convenience. Your apartment door will soon be covered with take-out pizza or chicken flyers, and delivery by adrenaline-crazed chain-smoking motorcycle driver is free and quick. Some places, like Chinese food restaurants, even send someone back later to pick up the dirty dishes from your hallway. Learning to order delivery in Korean is a highly useful skill.
There is some haggling in the street markets, but one thing I like about Korea is that you do not have to fight over every price the way you often do in Southeast Asia. The peddlers in Vietnam and Bali pestering you to buy something all day are not here. Usually the prices of goods are more or less fixed, and there is no ‘Chinese prices’— i.e. triple for foreigners— to irritate you.
You need never go to a street market if you do not want to. It was quite different even ten years ago, but now it is easy to buy most appliances or home furnishings you need in departments stores or through online shopping. Korean electronics tend to be monopolized by Samsung / LG, and few Koreans would be caught dead buying a Japanese product, so the result is that some electronics, such as computers, cameras, and televisions are surprisingly expensive. But overall things such as microwave ovens and toasters and most home furnishings will be about the same price or even less in comparison to the west. Some people find Korean electronics slightly effeminate looking as they tend to be smaller in size and covered with perhaps too much glitzy decoration, but they are products designed for smaller living spaces.
It is not difficult to arrange a bank account here, but smartphones and credit cards are both nuisances. You will need to move heaven and earth to get either one, the assumption being that every foreigner will flee the country after running up a bill. You will probably at best have to settle for a debit card which can be used as credit card. Smartphone shops are everywhere, but you may need to try a few to find one where English is spoken and someone is willing to give you a contract. Normally there will be a down payment and then the rest of the price of the phone will be built into the monthly bill. Monthly costs for smartphone service is fairly cheap by North American standards, and you might get away with a skeleton plan which will cost peanuts, up to Cadillac plans of unlimited minutes and data. It is Korea, which means a smartphone is seen as being as much a human need as air, so you are sooner or later going to want or need one.
This is now a fairly short list. Most creature comforts from North America and Europe are now available in Korea since the recent free trade agreements have vastly expanded the variety of goods. It might be wise to bring exotic products such as your favorite Newfoundland spices or ingredients (I have a weakness for Canadian sardines). Many expatriates complain that it is problematic to find socks or shoes that fit here, and it is difficult to find non-Korean electronic brands in Korea, though Apple products are making rapid inroads. You can bring appliances from home, but you will need to buy a 220 volt converter if it is a North American product, unless it is dual-voltage. The only absolutely necessary purchase I would make before coming to Korea is a Kindle (such as you are probably reading this on) or an e-book reader of some sort, as English reading materials in Korea are still scarce. In a pinch you can read e-books on a monitor or laptop, but an actual e-reader will be easier on your eyes and is more transportable.
Compared to the first time I came to Korea, I am impressed by how pet-friendly Korea has quickly become. Apartments seem to have a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy with pets, and in practice there will be no problem with bringing your pets from your home country or buying them here. Unusual animals such as lizards or rare tropical fish will not be found, and birds remain rare, but common companions such as fish, turtles, hamsters, dogs, and cats are all available and food and other supplies such as litter, tanks, and toys are readily found in pet shops, supermarkets, and home shopping websites. You will not be able to let animals go outside freely as they will be assumed to be strays and will get treated harshly or run over, but if you are with them the locals can be fond of pets. The older generation, remembering when food was scarce, may see the idea of keeping a pet dog as a foolish luxury, but younger adults may pamper and spoil their dogs with fur dye and ribbons and clothes, and there are even simple pet ‘hotels’ in veterinary clinics.
Your only issue will be getting your pet here if you want to do so. When I flew from America this summer it was an expensive surcharge to bring pets (US$150 each for two cats), but I was able to keep them under my seat instead of checking them into cargo, and this is less stressful for your dog or cat. Airport immigration will look at the pets to make sure they are visibly healthy and they will require forms showing that they have had shots (I find the smaller airports, such as Busan, easier for this), but otherwise having a pet is very doable here. There are also many pet shops in Korea for new pets, though for cost and moral reasons I recommend you inquire into adopting from an animal shelter in the larger cities.
If you do not want to walk, local taxis run on meters, and if you want to negotiate the price it is usually fair. By North American standards taxis are reasonably priced and can be cheaper than buses if you are sharing the ride with others. Cab drivers are not pillars of society anywhere in the world, but they are pretty honest in Korea and I have never been cheated here. The only trouble stories I hear originate at Incheon Airport where drivers quote inflated prices, but again, it has not happened to me—the reverse has happened, where I’ve had too much to drink, was short a thousand won or two, and the driver forgave me the difference. Sometimes the cabbies are friendly and are curious about you. Taxis can even be filled with flashing lights and music, like a tiny disco to get party-goers into the mood.
Subways and buses can be impossibly crowded, but they are safe and fairly cheap. Seoul, Daegu, Daejeon, and Busan have large subway systems and you can buy tap-cards instead of putting in change on the turnstiles. If you are teaching adults in a hagwan, keep an idea of how far you have to travel to work; you might be making that trip four times a day if you have a long break in the afternoon and want to go home for a nap. In a small town or countryside, you could pick up a bicycle or a used scooter cheaply. If you intend on riding in a big city— well, it was nice knowing you.
Getting around from city to city is relatively easy and inexpensive, especially if you are near a rail link. The high-speed train (the KTX) is pricier but zips across the country in only a few hours. It is an ideal system— frequent, easy to use, and clean, with nice seats: everything that North American cities should have. The subway systems link to the KTX stations as well as a network of intercity buses. Some people like the buses but I find them slow and only convenient for places not connected to rail. An exception is the very plush airport buses connecting Incheon Airport to the cities.
Incheon Airport has some nice layover hotels nearby, but if you need a convenient place to sleep in your travels, there is always a love hotel somewhere. Love hotels are usually located in plentiful numbers near nightclubs, train stations, singing rooms (norebangs), or beaches. The call-girl cards strewn on the sidewalk and the rent by-the-hour or by-the-night prices should clear up any doubt about what love hotels were designed for, but if you can get past that they are cheap, safe, and can be fun to stay in with their porn-movie décor, flashing lights, and general cheesiness. Chuka-wow! And not everyone there is having an illicit affair; people taking an early flight or even travelling families enjoy their convenience. But if you want to rent a movie, you can guess what type of videos are available at the desk. It is an experience, I suppose; Korean pornography is quite tame, like the humorous and silly U.S. adult movies of the 1970’s.
One of the unfortunate drawbacks for international tourists in Korea is that there are few actual hotels in the country other than the pricey high-end ones in major cities. You will never see a mention of love hotels in tourist brochures or websites because they have such an embarrassing innuendo attached. It is a cultural difference that Koreans do not quite understand; where young tourists see a quirky, trashy, fun novelty, Koreans are embarrassed by what they see as sleazy nuisances built for seedy affairs.
The first Korean who learns to laugh at the love hotels and accept them has a good business opportunity—few or none of them can be found online. You will just have to trust my word for now that the yeogwans are usually just fine for the pinched or the adventurous, and that if you trust your instincts, they are everywhere and many are tidy, clean, and surprisingly well-appointed with entertainment systems and whirlpools. I have even heard of teachers temporarily living in them. If the ajumma cooked for you it might really not be so bad.
Typically, your contract will have vacation time spelled out. It may vary from a few weeks to a month, and university positions may give you anywhere from a month to a whopping four months a year. Again, read the fine print. Because classes are out does not mean that you are on holiday. Korea, even if it is emerging from the developing-world ranks, is still a country with a frustrating amount of “show-up-ism.” Being at work is being productive, whether you are teaching or staring at your pencil sharpener. You may be required to have office time or to come in for extra administrative work or special classes.
Nevertheless, two holidays are fairly sacrosanct in Korea: Chuseok (Thanksgiving, late September/early October) and Seollal (Chinese New Year, typically late January/early February). At those times travel is frustratingly impossible as roads jam, train tickets are gone, and airplane tickets zoom in price, but they are not bad times to relax and mill around with friends. Oddly, Seoul is a good getaway destination during these Chuseok and Seollal because everyone leaves there to go home. Some cheapskate employers will give gifts of soap or toiletries; regrettably, Spam is a popular gift. One of my former workplaces had a bizarre habit of giving instructors toothpaste for holidays. But some schools or departments will give quite lavish cash gifts on these holidays.
It is getting easier to buy tickets online, and there are numerous travel agencies in Korea which have someone who speaks English, but the best deals are to be found by having someone who speaks the language, as there will be more local sites and competition for your business. I would recommend, though, that you avoid the quickie Korean all-inclusive package deals. They are deceptively cheap, but corners will be cut as you will be rushed around, you will be pressured to buy expensive upgrades, and nothing can be sadder than eating stale Korean food with so many wonderful local dishes tantalizingly out of reach. I have had much better luck buying flight and hotel combinations and making my own itinerary.
Food & Drink
In brief, the Korean diet is tasty and healthy, but the lack of international dining alternatives can be wearying.
If Chinese food seduces you with sweet sauces, and Japanese food delights you with aesthetic harmony, Korean food does neither. It slaps you on the back while you crunch and choke it down and then wash it back with fiery booze. And then the next day: you want some more. Literally (as much of it is fermented in buried pots) and figuratively, Korean food is earthy. With lots of roots, hard vegetables, and raw greens, it is an oddly tactile, physical cuisine.
Koreans traditionally do not eat much meat at home. Home-cooked meals are full of vegetables, kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), and rice— a nutritionist’s dream— but restaurant meals are surprisingly carnivorous, with galbi and samgyupsal, both variations of meat-cooked-over-a-grill, highest in popularity. Beef is pricier than pork but it is around. Also nice are samgetung, a type of chicken stew, and bibimbop, a mix of greens, rice, and egg. There are several tasty noodle-and-beef soups such as galbitung. Street snacks such as gimbab, a sort of vegetable sushi, is also common, and in winter there will be little pancakes and skewers on sticks to warm you up. If you are flexible with your palate, you will not go hungry, and it is generally easy to find something to eat on the street somewhere.
You will also see street food at stands or in little ‘soju tents’ with plastic tarps in wintertime. Again, Korean tourism unfortunately seems embarrassed by them, but they are fun. One caveat is that street food, or dishes such as dakgalbi (chicken) or duc boki (rice ball, noodles and egg) should wait until you are acclimatized to the spice level, which can be ridiculous. Koreans will prattle on endlessly about how healthy their food is, but too much gochujung (red pepper sauce) can damage your stomach, and some college students seem to feel it is a contest, just like westerners can act like frat boys with hot chicken wings. The rate of stomach cancer is high here from all the spice. Too much ramyeon is not good either, as it is full of MSG. Some people like squid (ojinga), but for those who do not (like me), sometimes it is hard to avoid tentacles in your dinner. Few foreigners like bundaygee (boiled silkworms!), but a few do. My favorite snack is hote-duck, a sort of cinnamon pancake that is wonderful on cold days.
It is not difficult at all to be a vegetarian in Korea if you are not too strict about it, and the concept will be easily understood. Many Buddhists do not eat meat, and elderly Koreans grew up seeing meat as an occasional luxury only. It is much more difficult for vegans, as Koreans will tend to see vegetarianism as a dietary or financial choice and not an ethical one involving animal or environmental issues, and vegans may get frustrated continually explaining the reasons for their choices.
I do sympathize with Muslims and Jews and those who do not eat pork, particularly in the countryside and in pork-loving Daegu. As noted, I have had colleagues give up and leave Korea over this in despair. It is difficult to avoid deji-galbi in broths and dishes, and many Koreans simply will not understand the total dietary prohibition against pork that some have on religious grounds. In Seoul or possibly Busan life will be easier, and there will be halal / kosher grocery stores around houses of worship or other foreigner districts.
Korean restaurants are usually not like western ones which have extensive selections of dishes. If you want noodles, you go to the noodle restaurant; if you want pork stew, you go to the pork stew restaurant. Menus will be very simple, and often there are none—there may simply be a menu printed on the wall. There may also be pictures of dishes, which is something handy when you initially do not know the language or script.
On the table, some large bowls are individual, but most are shared between everyone at the table. In many restaurants you will sit on the floor on a mat and the table will be low. Most people use metal chopsticks, but spoons are also used. Water always seems to be served, in small tin cups, and there seldom seems to be other things to drink except for alcoholic drinks or perhaps bad machine-coffee after the meal. In very roughing-it diners there will be a roll of toilet paper on the table, but this is rare now and more commonly you will see small linen napkins. In nicer places the napkins will be heated in cold weather.
Korea is not a tipping culture in restaurants or any service situation. If you leave money they will likely assume you have forgotten it and will return it to you. Typically, Korean restaurants are small affairs where the wife runs the restaurant, and service will be cordial but minimal. Like the Europeans, employees are there to bring your dinner and leave you alone, not to be your best friend or to ask you if “you’re still working on that” every five minutes. You can get up and get your own water, and I’ve even gotten my own beer bottles. At the end you will need to ask for your bill or simply walk up to the register. In a rural mom-and-pop restaurant it can feel much like dinner at home in its informality.
Western TGIF-type restaurants will be more familiar, with tables and chairs and waiters, though they can be surprisingly pricey. Groceries must be imported, and like Korean coffee shops, the higher prices are almost a deliberate mark of prestige. Cut Koreans some slack if you order a steak somewhere, as they will not know whether well-done means American-style (charcoal briquette) or European-style (still mooing); you may simply have to explain carefully what you want.
Koreans have quite a lot of mealtime rules of etiquette. They do not like to drink from the bottle, and beer will always come with glasses. Typically, others may fill your glass for you. You can do this too, but wait until someone’s glass is empty so that they do not feel rushed. As with anything else, when giving or receiving something it is considered polite to use both hands. If you ask your students about table manners they will always tell you not to blow your nose at the table; I do not know a culture which likes that sound, but Koreans find it particularly grating. Koreans tend to eat quickly and do not have a lot of conversation until after the meal, and some older people will not drink anything until after the dinner when there is time for chatting. Overall, milling around after the meal is usually pretty minimal. When dinner is done, it is time to move on to the next round!
Westerners, if it is a group of friends, will usually go out for supper and then split the bill in some manner, whether it is everyone throwing in ten bucks or a to-the-penny calculation. If you go out with your class or with a student in Korea they will usually insist on paying. If you go out with them often you should sneak away to pay for everything sometimes. The students will make a theatrical show of protest, but they will appreciate you doing so. It is a delicate social nuance you should learn so that no one feels you are becoming a freeloader.
Everyone has pet peeves about Korea, and I suppose one of mine is the food nationalism. Again, I like the food, but if you get sick of it you are out of luck. If you live in a small town or eat in a school cafeteria, it will be Korean food, every meal, every day. It is gotten better; when I first came here in 2003 I was a hero if I could find a tin of beans. Now I can find some increasingly odd things in the more international supermarkets such as Italian pastas or cheese (Koreans usually do not like cheese except on pizza). There are some things which Koreans generally dislike the taste of, such as mint and root beer, and these will be next to impossible to find. I have never met a foreign teacher who did not like Mexican food, and sadly it is rare here. This may change, as Mexican restaurants are beginning to appear in Seoul. I notice that suddenly taco chips are all the rage as bar snacks.
As far as restaurants or cafeterias, there will be little besides Korean food unless you are in a university district or in Seoul. Even the fast food will be Koreanized, with potatoes on the pizza and kimchi in the hamburgers. Busan is a city larger than Vancouver. When I lived there, this city of several million had some Japanese sushi restaurants, two or three Indian, a few pricey American-style eateries, two Vietnamese, and that is it. A Mongolian barbecue restaurant opened and closed within three months for lack of customers— to be replaced by yet another grilled-pork restaurant. Younger Koreans, or those who have traveled, will be open to other dishes, but I was told of a tour group that went to Italy and never even tried the food—they brought their own. You are just going to have to get used to it, or be prepared to buy more expensive imported groceries. I know some tenacious teachers who do this.
Koreans will complain that western food is greasy and salty, and that desserts are sickeningly sweet. Admittedly, western food is somewhat so in comparison—when I moved to the U.S. I found I had lost the taste for some dishes and my tolerance for grease, salt, and sugar was reduced. Nevertheless, remember that most Koreans have only had western fast food, and assume that everyone eats nothing but pizza and hamburgers in America. Many seem surprised to learn that westerners eat salad and vegetables.
Things will be somewhat better in Seoul, which is more westernized. Here you will find the trendy cafes and the Italian or Greek restaurants, next to the opera house. For a wider choice of food or art or culture, you ultimately need to go to Seoul. You might not feel very authentically Korean if you are eating bruschetta and sipping on your low-fat latte to Herbie Hancock, but there are some advantages to living there.
When Koreans do adopt a western habit it spreads like wildfire. Ten years ago there was little coffee except for traditional coffee shops called tabangs, which were often fronts for prostitution; do not use that word if you went to a Starbucks the night before or your students will giggle. Korean cafes now are no longer truck stop-like coffee houses, and sadly, donuts remain rare. Think overpriced lattes, soft jazz music, bad English poetry on walls (“loving you rainy everyday”), mousse cakes, and Euro-ambience. They are quite French—except that in Paris the coffee is cheaper.
Koreans, particularly the women, seem to have gone coffee-crazy in only a few years, and the culture of sitting with a fashion magazine or laptop or chatting while sipping foamy drinks has taken off quickly. Even in smaller centers, there are cafes everywhere. I once went to a movie theater complex where the theater was bordered by eight cafes in a row. If you eliminated the cafes with cutesy faux-French names and the pubs with draft beer and fried chicken from Korea, half the country’s GDP might be gone.
There are also many different types of teas, from green to black (orange pekoe) to all sorts of roots or fruits or Chinese flavors. Oddly, though Korea is historically known for its teas, it is mostly now consumed at home.
Bread actually is not native to Korea and is believed to originate with Portuguese traders. It is hard to get good bread in Korea, although you might occasionally find familiar flavors in a bakery, and like everything else with foreign food in Korea, things are getting better. Koreans seem to traditionally view bread as a dessert snack, and so you might bite into a piece and find it too sweet or filled with some type of chalky jam. I once brought a bread maker back from home and started to make my own. Canadians will miss their donuts but there is the odd donut shop.
What's in the soup?
Korean beer is predictable but abundant; it tastes like generic American lagers and is cheap. Hite is, well, better than nothing. Cafri tastes suspiciously like Corona if you add a lemon slice. My favorite is Cass, if I must have domestic beer. If you have draft beer you will have to put up with this, though restaurants and bars are lately stocking more foreign beers in bottles. Guinness drinkers will have to shop around, but it can be found, and there is even pricey draft Guinness to be found in some fashionable pubs in Seoul. The country is changing fast, and I am beginning to see more craft brew pubs and unusual beers in supermarkets such as Belgian or South Asian brands. For some reason Hoegaarden can be found everywhere, and Koreans grudgingly do drink Japanese beer freely.
Oddly, for all the prattling about Korean cuisine, Korean alcohol is underrated, especially for a culture which likes to drink so much. Soju, a kind of Korean vodka-ish moonshine made with potatoes and shot straight, is rather slumming it but has a nice, sharp bite and is less than a dollar a bottle! Older male Koreans may think of beer as a kiddy drink and will insist on soju (they have to have something with all the coffee shops sissified out of reach). Other variants are bekseju, a kind of mix of soju and wine, and bokbunja, which is like a sweet raspberry wine. Macalee and dongdongju are strong milky beverages, nice after a hot day of mountain hiking. Japanese saké is surprisingly uncommon outside of Japanese restaurants and will be expensive. I find Chinese alcohol indistinguishable from glass cleaner, and so far it is rare here, but this may change.
Actual wine is not popular here, although it is becoming trendier for social climbers. I find good wine hard to find as most of the plunk is sparkling wine or too sweet for my taste, but things are definitely getting better as the EU free trade pact takes effect. In 2003 your choices at a supermarket were pretty much “the red one or the white one,” but now some stores have wine aisles and sommeliers to help new drinkers choose! Mixed drinks are available but are expensive—try finding tequila—though vodka and gin imported from Russia is often dirt cheap, and gintonic, as it is called, is popular with businessmen.
The level of English fluency on the street is rising in Korea, but it is still low and diminishes the farther you are from Seoul. Many Koreans who do know English are shy to speak it— if you are a Canadian, you likely learned some French in school, but try using it now in a conversation! For your own sanity, you need to know at least a little Korean for when you go out. At the very least learn some Hangul so that you can read a restaurant menu or a bus sign— and so that you do not look like a total Neanderthal to others. It is obvious that you are a non-native speaker, and you will never be expected to be fluent, but no one appreciates someone who makes no effort to learn your nation’s language in any country. And Koreans, especially, will praise even the most halting attempts.
Purists will notice that my spellings of Korean foods are more phonetic than standard, if there can be said to be a standard. There are at least two systems of representing Korean characters into English, and misspellings abound anyway. When I first came here I was confused and thought Busan and Pusan were different cities. They are just two ways of spelling the same one, just as you will see Jeju /Cheju and Daegu / Taegu.
"Where Koreans come from" is a touchy subject, with the DNA evidence suggesting that Koreans are more racially heterogenous than is usually claimed. The language is a different story. Most linguists think that Korean descends directly from the Ural-Altaic family (which includes Mongolian and Turkish) and not from Chinese— though the Chinese influence is strong, just as Latin influenced English, a Germanic language. Korean is an agglutinative language, whereas English is analytical. What this means is that English builds a statement by putting words in order (The dog bit the man) whereas Korean makes a statement by adding the parts together: (Dog-object-man-subject-bite-did).
It is a difficult language for English speakers, although I would say that Japanese is even harder and Chinese is more difficult to learn to read because of its non-alphabetic system. There are few instantly recognizable words in Korean as there are in many European languages, and the grammar is very different from Modern English. It lacks the massive vocabulary and variety of expressions of English, although there is a literary tradition of poetry and philosophical writings in Korean. Korean can also be more compact than English. Pronouns are normally omitted, plural endings do not exist, and articles (a/the) do not exist. Normally the determiners ‘this’ and ‘that’ suffice.
Modern English has only one level of respect (you), but Korean has numerous levels based on relationships. Koreans often ask lots of personal questions to a new person, partly because (I think) they are inquisitive people, but also because they need to know what grammatical level of respect to use in speaking to you. The most common involves a -yo ending on verbs, and when you first hear Korean you seem to hear a lot of yo, yo, yo all the time. East Asian thought processes tend to look for relationships and contexts rather than the Greco-Roman mania for categorization and analysis (look at Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought).
For this reason the language seems to stress your relationship to the person you are speaking about rather than compartmentalizing things. While it lacks some grammatical terms which English has, it compensates by establishing a context first so that such words are not necessary. In English we might say, “I’m going home” and be understood. A Korean might mention having to do chores or something similar and then simply say ‘home-go’ and be understood; the situation makes it clear who is doing it. English speakers might concede that our insistence on pronouns often belabors the obvious; when we say “I’m hungry” in a sense it’s silly to specify myself—I cannot feel your stomach.
Early Koreans wrote their words using Chinese characters, but around 1446 scholars under the famous King Sejeong created a writing system for Korean more or less ex nihilo. It is one of the only true alphabetic writing systems in Asia, and Koreans are justifiably proud of their efficient and phonetic Hangul. It is not difficult to learn even for the lazy, and the written words are mercifully lacking in the exceptions and silent letters that English has. Many Korean scholars of the time snobbishly thought that Hangul was too easy to learn, even for mere women, and that Chinese was a more sophisticated system. Though Koreans can lay it on thick about how scientific and fantastic Hangul is until your eyes roll, it was actually not widely used until the 19th-century Christian missionaries employed it. Though it is terrible at representing English words despite Korean claims (lacking b/v and p/f distinctions and th and sh entirely), it is excellent at representing Korean ones.
Korean and Japanese writing is unrelated, though both make some use of Chinese characters. The old Korean scripts run vertically, but modern Korean runs left to right and uses most western punctuation and emoticons. Hangul is very different from Chinese in that the latter uses characters to mean words or sometimes word-parts, whereas Hangul is a true alphabet. This may not seem so at first appearance as Hangul characters are usually grouped in triangular chunks of threes, but in theory those characters can be arranged in any combination to make syllables or words.
I learned Hangul by noticing that the characters slightly resemble the shape your lips make when you say them. Modern Korean writing does borrow from English, though, in its left-to-right arrangement and in the punctuation marks (older books have vertical letters). One other nice thing about Korean is that, unlike languages such as Vietnamese, you do not have to worry about tones. And unlike English, all syllables are unaccented— that is, they are equal in volume. You need to remember this so that you are understood. It is our natural tendency to emphasize the first or second syllable in words, and that accenting will confuse Koreans. English says “We went to-the beach,” saying some words slowly and others very quickly, but Korean does not so much; it is not a stress-timed language the way English is.
The standard form of Korean is the Seoul dialect. There are many regional variants and a certain social stigma attached to using them. As a beginning speaker, you do not need to worry about this as the dialects are mutually intelligible, although Koreans do complain that Jeju dialect is difficult to make out, and refugees from the North are also said to have an antiquated and strange vocabulary and pronunciation. I first lived in Busan and my wife is from there, and so my Korean has lots of Gyeongsang dialect expressions. You should know when something is not standard, but Koreans often find it endearing when foreigners use dialect, particularly if they are from that area of the country. As you are not a Korean, social distinctions of dialect will not apply to you.
Many learn-to-speak Korean books are outright garbage, and either teach stilted forms already archaic during the Korean War, or they simply list complex translations of phrases without teaching any grammar. Some of the university texts are better. Roadmap to Korean by Richard Harris is very good. Pick up phrases from students or friends. Look at some internet learning sites such as Learn-Korean.net, for a start; or watch the cheesy but light Let’s Speak Korean show on Arirang TV, which is also available on YouTube. If you are very serious about language there are free or highly subsidized classes for foreigners such as YMCA courses.
Try to take what I say with a sense of humor and a grain of salt, and realize that I complain with some affection and dry humor. You are going to meet a lot more people when you live and travel abroad than in your home town, local and foreign; some will be kind and a few will be mean or difficult.
One of the best and worst things about internet discussion groups is that anybody can add their opinion. Among the intelligent and funny posters at Dave’s ESL Cafe and social media sites are the Korea-haters, the Korea nationalists, and the usual America-haters, fundamentalists (both Christian and atheist), and trolls who try to stir up flame-wars. It can be fun but reading too much of this is a way of scaring off potential teachers and can make you feel alienated and cynical. Korea will start to sound like hell for foreign instructors, plagued with cheating directors, xenophobic institutions, and a culture with a martyr complex perpetually blaming its problems on others.
Sadly, there can be institutional and social stigmatization of foreigners. It is generally the little things, known as acts of “microaggression”: the alien card you must carry; the difficulties in getting credit cards and cell phones; the woman who takes your money at the counter and gives the change to your Korean friend in order to avoid dealing with you; the people who make a racket or enter the room to get photocopy paper during church because it is only an English service; the drunk man in the park by the train station shouting abuse at you for being with a Korean woman; every seat on the subway full except the one next to you... it all drives home the point that you are a well-treated guest in Korea but never accepted.
The nationalism can get equally fatiguing. The media are incredibly sensitive to insults or slurs by foreign celebrities or media. During the World Cup it sometimes feels like soccer is just an excuse to be a yay-for-us Korea fan with the sport an afterthought. Newspapers cannot cover a municipal bond issue without bragging about the “Korean wave” or taking a cheap shot at Japan.
But consider four things before passing judgment.
Don’t overgeneralize. People tend to remember only the bad. You can get worn down by the occasional incident, but there is no shortage of jerks and racism in North America too. Do not forget the bystander on the street who gave you directions; or the old woman in the restaurant who did something nice for you without charge; or the fellow who told you welcome to Korea; or the curious girl who sat next to you on the train and flirted with you in her best broken English. Korea can have a bad attitude collectively sometimes, but so can Americans or Canadians. There are some Koreans who know very well that the country has problems but are embarrassed to discuss them with foreigners. How many people want to air their dirty laundry to outsiders?
Korea is geographically a small country, hemmed in by China on one side, Japan on the other, and Russia and North Korea on another. The country is faced on all sides by potentially or explicitly hostile forces, thus the saying that Korea is “a shrimp between whales.” People here can be forgiven for having a little unease about foreign influences.
You are not the only one pressured. Though it may feel that you are taking the brunt of feeling outside, Korea is a conservative culture. Younger Koreans also experience being scolded by their elders, and subordinates are berated by superiors in the workplace to a degree which few would tolerate in the west. Women are often poorly treated. While gyopos (Koreans who have been raised abroad) benefit in terms of being ethnically accepted while having fluent English skills, they must deal with regularly being abused when they are expected to understand Korean natively. (I was once amused by a Korean waitress’ confusion when she was taking an order from a gyopo friend and me, as I spoke some Korean and he spoke almost none.)
The influence of Confucianism. This is key to understanding the social nature of Koreans. The country is slowly shedding its old value system, pressed by international influences such as Christianity and globalization, but Confucianism (or more accurately, Neo-Confucianism) casts a long shadow. The modern west espouses a system which values change and equality. Confucianism stands for stability and hierarchy. Everyone fits tidily into the pecking order based on factors such as gender or age, and there are several basic social relationships, such as a father and son, a husband and wife, or a ruler and subject. The ajoshi (older man) who pushes in front of you to pay for a candy bar at the 7-11 may not be conscious of what you take to be rudeness; he does not know where you relate to him in the hierarchy. After an introduction he could be very genial.
I am no fan of Confucianism and its variants. Its tenets can lead to rigidity and stagnation, and I can only look wistfully at South Asian cultures which value joy and fun more highly. But Confucianism is also the reason that teachers are treated with a relatively high amount of respect, and why students give you candy or compliments. As a traditional saying goes, a man is allowed to cry only twice in his life: when his king or teacher dies. There can be a lot of affection and loyalty in hierarchical relationships. Koreans won’t do anything for a stranger, but they will do almost anything for someone they like and accept. Confucianism can create workplace inertia because no one ever challenges the boss, but Korea is also relatively free from the western obsession with individualism and its social problems. There is little public charity in Korea, but partly because there does not need to be; the social expectation for family and friends to support each other is stronger.
I only hope that Korea eventually synthesizes the best of both cultures, because, to be honest, now that I have lived in Las Vegas, the attitude of I will-do-what-I-want-and-you-have-no-right-to-judge-me seems selfish and irritating. Walking around in sweat pants or low-riding jeans and calling people “Yo!” is unlikely to be tolerated here. Sometimes you will get bumped in the streets, and Koreans seldom say ‘sorry’ to strangers the way westerners do. But overall it is a culture that emphasizes respectable conduct, particularly between students and teachers.
I think nearly every expatriate teacher at some level feels tension between wishing there were more familiar comforts from home and realizing that some aspects from home would be harmful to people and destructive of the culture which make life here different and interesting. While I like Singapore it often feels a little too familiar and mundane. Did I really travel this far just to have the same pizza I could order at home?
I suppose everyone has a deal-breaker, and as much as I try to have a When-in-Rome attitude I do dislike how callously animals are often treated in Korea, reflecting a not-too-distant and hungry past when kindness to animals was an unrealistic extravagance. Near my apartment complex, a small dog lived a miserable life chained to a post in a junkyard. A family of cats and kittens recently took refuge under my apartment block, which I fed occasionally for a year through snow and heat until someone poisoned them—for meowing at night. I am only heartened by the fact that when the cats were there they seemed suspiciously healthy. I gradually discovered that a good half a dozen other people also felt sorry for them and were feeding them! The country and its people are changing, and in being here you are an influence. Your ethics will determine what kind.
Ajummas, technically meaning ‘married woman’ or ‘auntie,’ but with the humorous nuance of ‘crotchedy old nag,’ can be pushy and loud and can have the femininity of a cement mixer, but they work harder than anyone else in Korea, and sometimes they can be inexplicably motherly to you. If it is raining at the bus stop, they might share their umbrella!
Busan ajumma (badpermus volumae maximus) cooking at an outdoor stand.
There is something strangely fun about older ajummas on bus-tour holidays. The way they dance drunkenly at a truck stop blasting cheesy music, like they are in a 60’s disco, absolutely not giving a damn what they look like, is somehow impressive. The cliché of Koreans is that they are dour and unsmiling, and only care about work. This isn't true. Admittedly, you are not going to see many spontaneous outpourings of joy on the street like you might see in the Philippines, or a lot of lovers smooching on a park bench. But Koreans are more romantic and social than you might think (all Korean pop is love songs). The standard Korean outing is to go out for supper with a group of friends or co-workers, and then for another round at a lounge, and then a third round at the norebong (singing room) for karaoke. More rounds might follow if anyone can still stand up; the entire evening is often soaked in booze, and it is amazing how good some Koreans are at singing after all that drinking.
Church in Korea
Korea is nearly a majority Christian nation. You will see the reddish-neon crosses everywhere in Korea, as there are churches ranging from giant cathedral complexes to little office-suite congregations in office buildings. The problem is that all the services will be in Korean, and you will have to look for the odd one with an English service or which has simultaneous translation over headphones. The dominant denomination here is Presbyterian and Catholic, but there are pockets of many other types, and Presbyterianism here is a very large tent containing a variety of practices. The traditional faith system in Korea is Buddhism, but I do not meet many who actively practice it. Like the problem of many European Christian churches, the participants in the Buddha’s birthday celebrations are an elderly demographic, not a good sign for any religious body.
There is not a lot of what I would call liberal Christianity in Korea. I am often met with surprise when I tell students that I both go to church and enjoy a beer. Christianity is still growing in the country, but at times people can take it a little too seriously and will try to evangelize the class every minute. Some of my foreign co-workers who are not religious get very irritated by the in-your-face people in subways singing and proselytizing, though to me it is less annoying than the western Liberal Arts atheists who condescendingly want to ‘free’ everyone’s mind here.
Something I do cherish about Korea is the nonchalance about public religious celebrations, particularly for a culture so generally uptight. In December, in downtown squares you will see giant Christmas trees and nativity crèches; for Buddha’s birthday in May there will be lanterns and candle processions. In North America the sky would fall as people fight and litigate over the display of religious ornaments in the public square, but in Korea no one bats an eye: ‘If you don’t like it, no one makes you watch it.’ There is occasional ugliness when rude fundamentalist Christians try to out-volume Buddhist proselytizers in front of the train station with bigger amplifiers, but in general Korea is admirably libertarian about religion and public displays of it. Many universities here are Christian or Buddhist in foundation, but this does not seem to cause friction in practice.
Korean church services can be hardcore fire-and-brimstone at times, but the English services will be tailored more toward the expatriate community and will vary in style and theology. I have seen female pastors and fairly liberal service formats. My only general gripe with the English-only services is that some Korean parents will send their children there for a freebie ESL lesson, and they will be unsupervised and noisy. You will also find mega-church type services in Korean with headsets with English translation. Korean Christians, as with most Koreans, like being in a club, and so the churches often have extensive group activities and social outings. If you are religious, church is a good place to meet people who are not in your narrow school circle, and it will not kill you to befriend some locals.
I would recommend the same if you are not religious. Try to join a sport or band or hiking club or Korean class or some other activity. Koreans like playing soccer and I have even seen an expatriate ice hockey league. You need that sometimes for the days when you are sick of your job and everyone you work with and you need to get away from it.
Safety & Lifestyle
It is a safe country. I have been attacked and robbed on a Mexico City subway; I have been threatened in England for declining drugs; I have had car stereos stolen in Canada. This will not happen in Korea. You can walk down nearly any downtown street at night without anything happening. Try this in Cleveland. There is white-collar crime such as embezzlement or bribery in Korea, but personal theft is unusual; in how many countries can you forget a camera on a park bench and still find it later? In some ten years, I have only had a bicycle nicked. In a way, there is a touching innocence here. Schoolgirls walk home late at night from their evening schools without a thought. The USA averages 30,000 gun deaths a year; in Korea it is about ten.
There are only a few situations you must avoid in Korea in terms of personal safety as an expatriate:
- Stay away from political demonstrations, particularly obviously anti-American ones; protesting that you are Canadian or Australian might not help. The media will not report such stories, but I have heard of foreigners put into the hospital in 2002 after U.S. soldiers accidently ran over two Korean schoolgirls. Sticking your nose into politics or protests could also get your visa revoked if you become a nuisance.
- Be careful while walking or driving. It is a densely populated country and compliance with traffic rules is still evolving. There is a considerable number of traffic injuries here, and one of my colleagues died on a motorcycle on a city street after being hit by a taxi.
- The police take drug possession extremely seriously, even for marijuana. Just. Do. Not. Do. It. Being booted out of the country is a best-case outcome, and you might do jail time before deportation. Worse, the Korean media will seize on it and every foreign instructor will be freshly demonized because of your action.
- Do not be completely careless with personal possessions; there still is some burglary and theft, particularly in Seoul.
- Be discreet about showing affection with a Korean girlfriend in public.
This last point needs explanation. Men are funny people. Women just bring out the ape in us. Everywhere I have been in the world, men seem to feel that foreign women are more sexually available (aaarooo?), but we are often jealous of our own women from foreigners (rurhr! rurhr!). If you were in a bar and saw a man hit his girlfriend, you would probably be angry and protective— but think how additionally incensed you would be if the man was of a different race or ethnicity and the girl was a local.
While this has become increasingly less of an issue as the country opens up, older Koreans can still be hostile about foreign-Korean relationships. It is best not to be obvious, and be especially careful at night in nightclubs, flashpoint areas between American soldiers and Koreans, or near train stations where older men idle and drink. This sort of thing does not happen in reverse— i.e. with a foreign woman and a Korean man.
If things do get ugly and someone tries to make it an issue, keep cool and walk away without eye contact if you can. If you cannot, I am told that taking pictures or videos on your cellphone often discourages troublemakers. But avoid escalating the situation by chivalrously fighting back to defend your lady’s honor or others may join in—and not on your behalf. Korea is not a country for hotheads or heroes. The last thing you want is police involvement in such a situation, as you may be accused of instigating the quarrel.
But keep things in perspective. Relative to most of the world, if you are not looking for trouble your personal risk in Korea is fairly minimal. In ten years, I have had two such incidents. That is not bad. Again, it is a safe country. The worst physical attack I ever had was in Cape Breton, a rural part of Nova Scotia, Canada—really the last place I expected anything such as this to happen.
If there is an Alsace-Lorraine of controversy about any topic among expatriate instructors in Korea, it is romantic relationships between foreign men and Korean women. As I have mentioned, many Korean men (and some eye-rolling western women) are extremely touchy about this matter. It simply cannot be discussed calmly on any discussion forum without descending into a screaming match of racial epithets and stereotypes.
There are certainly western men and Korean women who justify the stereotypes by trolling the nightclubs looking for adventure and easy sex. The problem is that there are thousands of such relationships, and they all have their own complex shades of emotions and motivations, some based on love and/or marriage and others not. I am not going to judge these relationships at all, except to state an obvious fact: if you work in Korea, most of the women you will encounter on a daily basis will be Korean. It is simply more likely that you will form a romantic relationship with a Korean. This being said, it is useful to look at the issue in terms of ethics, bearing in mind I am generally addressing males.
It is unethical to date someone you have a relationship of power over. Dating students is generally accepted in ESL, but this is in language institutes where there is minimal or no grading, and the students are often close to the same age as you. But for you to date university undergraduates ten years younger than you, and whom you or your colleagues may give course grades to, is a breach of professional conduct which may result in the censure of your co-workers or eventual loss of contract. In one university I worked, parents complained about such a relationship and ‘eventual’ meant “fired that week.” Your job is to teach and not to hit on hot students.
It is unethical to date under the guise of “just friends.” It is culturally more common in the west than in Asia for men and women to form platonic friendships, and if you think going on a picnic with a Korean girl is “just friends” you may be leading her on. Make your outings in larger mixed-gender groups if you do not want someone to think you are courting her, or else make it explicit that your relationship is one of friendship only. Conversely, it is wrong for Korean girls to use you for free English lessons under the ruse of ‘dating.’
It is unethical to project your views of sexual availability onto Koreans. Koreans in general are certainly not as daisy-fresh pure as they claim to be, but they do tend to be comparatively sheltered about sex. I am hardly complaining about girls wearing miniskirts in summer, but do not assume that such girls are sexually liberal or mature because of what you culturally see as ‘easy’ attire or allow this judgment to affect your conduct toward them. Young women wear school uniforms because they are obligated to, and it is not in accord with any Sailor-Moon adult fantasy you might harbor.
It is cruel to parade your love life spitefully to female expatriate coworkers. This sounds bizarre, but I have seen this: Many male instructors here were not successful with western women. If we were, the probability would be higher that we would be married and not here. If you suddenly have a Korean girlfriend, do not take out your spite for western women on your foreign female co-workers. Female foreigners have their own particular difficulties without you adding to them.
Think about the public example you're setting. If you're a player, you're probably not going to take advice from a website anyway, but for everyone's sake don't be a jerk and take advantage of a "good girl." Casual sex is seen differently here; in a marriage-minded society (and in "the biggest small town in the world"), you can ruin a woman's reputation if you're just in it for a booty call, and you might bring on yourself violent reprisals. If your lifestyle is easy sex, go to the nightclubs and stick with the women who know what they're getting into. Most of all, don't incite the locals' fury by bragging to people online about it; you make things harder for everyone after you. Online forums have been closed down over this (the English Spectrum incident, for example).
A last note about alternative sexual orientations. I am not going to pretend to know what it's like, but being open or defiant about one's homosexuality may result in you looking for a new job, even in relatively liberal Seoul. I am not making a moral judgment; I am telling you how it is. There are homosexual districts in Seoul and in the large cities, but they are like Fight Club: you don't talk about it. This may change in future, but for now Korea is conservative about sex as a whole. This may also affect the sort of reading or discussion topics or sources you use in a classroom, especially if your students are younger.
I cannot speak as a woman, and I know western men are not perfect. Sometimes I cringe in Korea when I hear hip-hop in cafes and think about what values my culture is promoting in the lyrics, hoping shamefully that no one understood what is being said. When you visit home you will look differently at the simpletons who think every Asian girl belongs in a porn movie. But one of the good things about North America is that women generally have the positive traditions of Germanic Europe, which had more equitable gender roles (the women of Beowulf are strong and influential), as well as the positive influence of Latinate Europe, which endorsed chivalry and the courtly gentleman. Classical Asian society offers women neither equality nor chivalry.
There is the occasional stereotype here of the Busan ajumma who henpecks her husband, but generally women are circumscribed by traditional attitudes to gender in Korea. Korean women joke (a little enviously?) about how poorly men are treated by their wives in Canada. In Korea the cards are stacked the other way in laws and hiring. Wives are expected to serve both husband and his mother; spousal abuse is certainly not legal but is more accepted and common than in North America. Child custody may not be given to the mother after divorce, as often happens automatically in the west. Unmarried women are constantly nattered at to find a husband, and overweight women can be treated with overt cruelty, with people suggesting diet plans to them in front of groups. Smoking is largely a male prerogative, and women who smoke need to be discreet or else someone will hassle them.
The workplace is not always better. Women with degrees are often expected to make photocopies and coffee while the men are in the meeting doing important things. Prostitution, despite claims that it is only degenerate foreign soldiers supporting the industry, is a pervasive social institution. One statistic claims there are more sex trade workers than school teachers in the country, despite the occasional government crackdown on red-light areas. In some barber shops and coffee shops there may be clear hints that there are more services than a haircut available. For some older men, a night out of drinking might include a massage parlor, or hired girls in the norebang.
Young foreign women face a triple handicap in Korea. One, they have the disadvantage of being a foreigner. Two, they are foreign women, and may be disrespected by older males. Third, things can be worse for blondes because they may be mistaken for a Russian prostitute, particularly in Busan. Moreover, the foreign men are often dating Korean women— some of them came here bitter over western women already— and the foreign women are left alone. Unless you are in Seoul and into the G.I. scene, one of the problems many single foreign women face here is loneliness. I had a few female co-workers who I thought were developing drinking problems because of it. A foreign woman living alone can also be seen as a vulnerable target. In general Korea is safe, but take the same obvious precautions you would anywhere.
I sometimes had problems in my classes with older men treating younger female students rudely. I will not allow this, but my experience is that western females who get on their soap boxes and lecture about womyn’s empowerment and ‘the male gaze’ will just be tuned out as another mouthy know-it-all foreigner. Again, it is not a country for fierce non-conformists or social activists. I treat my female students well and respect their opinions, and I think by modeling such attitudes it does more good than by being doctrinaire. Koreans may be ready for Helene Cixous in twenty years, but they are not now.
I keep qualifying myself by saying some. I do not want people or former students having hurt feelings. I know there are good, caring men in Korea as anywhere else; I have seen Korean teenage boys who are cute in their innocence, and fall in love like puppies. Some older men take to the idea of chivalry quickly and can be generous and fatherly to younger females. Some Christians can be pushy about their faith in Korea, but on the whole it has made men gentler. The younger generation of males is very different now, and a lot of the older attitudes are fading; I see young men dressing better and being more concerned with their conduct and appearance. As the country demographically shifts to having fewer women, young men are learning to treat women better or they will stay single. I do sometimes now see passive men with mean or materialistic girlfriends. But overall foreign women still need to be stronger to survive here.
One last sensitive point is race. Women and men of African or similar skin tones need to be doubly tough in Korea as they are unfortunately not always treated with respect. It may be part of the reason why schools always want a photograph with your application. Happily, that is also changing a little with the younger generation. I think the election of President Obama has also been helpful. Still, sometimes I walk through a craft store and see some ‘minstrel-show’ figurine set that makes me cringe. As Koreans get used to seeing these things exposed and criticized in international media this may change too and the tolerance for racial jokes and slurs may fade.
Sometimes I wonder why I left.
|Holidays in Mexico: Girls dress in skimpy outfits in a street parade for some peasant boy no one remembers, who became a saint. Everyone dances and drinks.||Holidays in Korea: Everyone spends all day in traffic to go home to honor their ancestors and lament how the nation has suffered... suffered!|
My apologies again if I sound peevish. I think it is better that I give my honest opinions. There are things I like about Korea, but to me it is not a very pro-fun culture. This can be a difficult country to accommodate to, as it is not a society which praises leisure time or festive, public expressions of joy. If you are going to live here, as opposed to existing, you will need to cultivate friends and interests other than retreating to your apartment and surfing, or sitting in bars. Not that there is something wrong with drinking in a bar— Koreans, like the British, have an excellent pub culture— but you need more to do in your free time or you can become unhealthy and cranky. I honestly wonder how foreign non-drinkers cope in Korea.
Koreans do like to enjoy themselves and to go out. One feature Korean cities shine at is nightlife, and when the sun goes down and the neon comes on, the downtown or shopping districts can be a fun place to mill around and shop and people-watch over coffee or beer. Korean tourism advertisements for the outside world are abysmally staid and dull, relying on hokey traditional images of what foreigners should do (put on Hanbok and sit in rustic temples drawing Korean letters with brushes), rather than what they might want to do. While I have never liked the Gangnam Style song, the video is admittedly a refreshing representation of the grittier, playful, and more rough-and-ready side of Korean life.
One of the best activities here, especially for foreigners used to the western mania for won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children overregulation, is sitting in a plastic tent on the street drinking soju and eating grilled pork, without being fined or yelled at— and then singing in a norebang or crashing in a love motel room full of neon, all trashy fun activities which seem to mystify tourism dignitaries. I truly enjoy milling around in street markets seeing exotic foods and goods and the grit and noise. I have no idea why Koreans want to hide such things from tourists.
Because Koreans prefer to do everything together, westerners often seem like lonely people to them. It is true that too much isolation can be a hazard. Try to get exercise. Try to get out of the city. Try to take advantage of the limited cultural activities there are, whether it is orchestras, museums, plays, festivals, or the jazz club hiding in a backstreet. Buy a Kindle and read in the park or on the beach. Try to have hobbies, whether it is some volunteer work, church, sports, or just walking or taking pictures. I do think that Korea is a beautiful country for photography. When the cherry blossoms come out in May or the leaves turn color in October the scenery can be stunning. Korea excels at places for hiking, for little fish markets or odd buildings or unusual plants or trees, and it is sad when foreign teachers get so miserable that they stop trying to enjoy these simple pleasures. Maybe then it is time to go home.
I want my last topic to deal with something happy. What’s one of the best things about teaching here? You can build experience on your CV, write and publish, and make some surprisingly decent money. You can make things better for people who want to learn. I have taught in North America too and I missed teaching classes of motivated undergraduates who valued education. Generally, the students in Korea do not view school as wasting their time until they can begin their glamorous careers as international models and hip-hop gangsters. You can meet some nice people or students and go out and have some fun. You can enjoy a new culture and lifestyle.
Moreover, instead of teaching in Thailand or Vietnam for peanuts, you can go there in style on your holidays. Places such as Bali, Thailand, and the Philippines are close by, and flights within Southeast Asia are relatively cheap and are not taxed to death and beyond and back like U.S. and Canadian ones are. When it is snowing or just plain miserable in Korea, take your holidays. If you want to stay in the country, there are things to see within Korea as well, such as beaches and mountain parks.
One last difficulty: you might miss the place and the people while you are gone. I have given you the horror stories, but on the whole it has been a rewarding time for me. One of the greatest occupational dangers of teaching abroad is that when the bug has bit you, it can be hard to give up teaching abroad and go back home. Some of my co-workers in Korea never have, and have settled into careers with families. There are not many jobs in your home town which will ever be this interesting. When I came back to North America, I experienced a bit of reverse culture shock. I missed not being able to telephone someone and have dinner delivered for free on a motorbike. I missed the politeness of store workers and students. I missed the pretty girls. One of my students here once said that living in Canada is “boring heaven.” You may find yourself missing “interesting hell.”