TEFL in Korea: The Good

Unadulterated Awesomeness, courtesy of Whasabi
Unadulterated Awesomeness, courtesy of Whasabi

I wrote a long post about the bad parts of teaching English in Korea a while back, in response to some of the issues I’d been having reconciling myself with working in an educational business, cultural differences, and a few other annoyances. Since then, I noticed that a fair amount of traffic to my site was coming from people searching for how to get into TEFL and those about to move to Korea. I don’t want to join the chorus of negative blogs about teaching here, or to give the impression that it is all negative and horrible.

I’ve taught English in three countries now (the USA, Chile, and South Korea). My first endeavors were in the Starbucks on Baseline in Boulder, CO…struggling to explain what a fart was through a language barrier the size of Il Colloseo to my Saudi conversation partner. It was snowing, and it was 2009. Three years of further honing my craft have led to a more nuanced view of TEFL and the world itself, and through the experience of teaching with the English Opens Doors program in Chile I gained the baptism by fire necessary to call myself a true teacher. The list of negative blogs about Korea is long and full of either misinformed or willfully unrepresentative stories of no import on the true experience of living in Korea.

Let me be clear: TEFL in Korea is a cakewalk compared to TEFL in many countries. Read on for a few of the reasons why teaching English in Korea is easy and fun!

1. The Downtime

Oh, the downtime. I remember wondering how in the world I got so lucky when I first got here, because I had time to sit down during my day. I could even go get food sometimes if I really wanted to! And use the toilet!

Totally worth it, but not exactly a hospitable landscape in Patagonia
Totally worth it, but not exactly a hospitable landscape in Patagonia

To put this in perspective, when I taught in Chilean Patagonia I was on my feet for hours without breaks. I moved so much in the classroom that I developed a massive hunger, but often did not have enough time for lunch. I can remember deliberately stuffing students out the door of my classroom and locking the door for fifteen minutes during which to stuff my face with an apple and mate from my thermos (the students were banging on the door with all their might and genuinely seemed like they might knock it down.  Me time? Don’t be ridiculous.

Happy spoon with your coffee?
Happy spoon with your coffee?

Most “foreign” teachers I know in Korea find themselves with plenty of time to spare both at work and at home. I know
several people who’ve started to cultivate a new craft while here, or who are learning a martial art. A large number start blogging (take a walk around any foreigner-friendly event in Seoul and you’ll see 25 cameras of various quality clicking away at the same fucking thing…all with their own unique snowflake of a blog take…more on that some other time). The downtime is perfect for yoga, working out, writing, or whatever you don’t have time for now.

I even know a few people who nap at work, without repercussions! At the very least, you should be able to go get a coffee with relative relaxation.

2. Mini-Communities For All

A good bit of advice from my mid-February self...
A good bit of advice from my mid-February self…

Along with all that time, you should be able to find a small community of like-minded people for just about any activity or interest. Like Salsa dancing? Perfect. Want to learn to knit? Great! Play Dungeons and Dragons? You’ll find people from all kinds of players’ books and from the old veterans to the young rogues. We even had an “adventure” class at my hagwon based on D&D. Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Straight-edged punk rock. Movie-making. Music. Running. Hiking. BDSM. Atheism. Cooking. Wine. Philosophy. Leather-working. Bible study.

Yes, there is a community for everyone in the Korean expat community at large. I feel as though I’ve barely done anything in nearly a year living here, but the Meetup groups and organizations literally cannot be avoided. Try to stay away from Mannam, though. They’re less of a community and more culty than I would suggest.

3. The National Korean Health System

It.

Kicks.

Ass.

Now, I may be biased because I come from a land where 45,000 a year (one every 12 minutes) are sacrificed to the great gods of no insurance. It may seem to some of my international readers inconceivable that some would be forced to leave their own country and attempt to get coverage in another through teaching English, because their medical condition is simply too costly to live with at home. Yet this is one of the reasons why people come to Korea to teach.

All this medication at the ER for less than $50.
All this medication at the ER for less than $50.

If your school is at all legitimate, they will either pay for your national health insurance or take the premium right out of your paychecks. Mine costs 58,000 KRW and is worth every penny. I get sick fairly often, and especially when I got two strains of flu at once, the insurance saved my ass. A visit to the doctor for a worrying allergic reaction? That’ll be $2, please. I was certain I’d misheard. Antibiotics for secondary infections? Another $3, sorry it’s so expensive. My trip to the emergency room in

Tamiflu, brand name. Less than $25.
Tamiflu, brand name. Less than $25.

September, which would have cost me about $1000 in the States, cost less than $50. Tamiflu cost $25.

Some argue that the Korean health system pushes too many medications and unnecessarily pressures doctors to see as many patients as possible in a short amount of time. Though both are likely true, the system still functions leaps and bounds better than the one in the US. Being here, able to afford basic health care on my own paycheck…it’s a dream.

4. Cup Cake

At some point,  someone will walk up to you and force a Dixie cup of cake into your hands (Receive it with both! Don’t be rude!). They will then walk away, confident in your self-sufficient cake skills.

No no no no, you've got it all wrong.
No no no no, you’ve got it all wrong.

Cup cake is one of my favorite things about Korea. It’s so convenient. I can eat it with the chopsticks I keep on my desk at work. I don’t have to push the cake around on a paper plate, thereby losing some of the delicious, delicious cake to the inevitability of the paper’s absorbency. Cup cake is a bonding ritual in my office, over the rushed birthday celebrations we subject each other to. It’s one of my first memories in Korea, and it remains as something of a comfort. When I leave in February, I will certainly celebrate with cup cake.

5. High Level of English from Students

April 4 2011, Two of my students from Chile.
April 4 2011, Two of my students from Chile.

Notes from a conversation with my Chilean students, after four months:

Tia: Hello!
Student: Hello!
Tia: How are you?
Student: Eihn?
Tia: Hooow aaaree youu? 
Student: Eah?
Tia: Como estas? How are you? How are you?
Student: Bien, y usted? 
 
July 10 2012, one of my Korean students.
July 10 2012, one of my Korean students.

Notes from a conversation with my Korean students, after four minutes:

 
선생님: Hello!
Student: Hello!
선생님: How are you? 
Student: I’m fine, thanks, and you? 
선생님: I’m a little bit tired. What are you doing?
Student: I’m preparing a presentation for my parents. It’s pretty hard because I haven’t memorized it yet. 
선생님: *Blink Blink* Um…*Blink* How old are you? 
Student: I’m nine, but I’ll be ten soon. 
 

Now obviously there are huge degrees of separation between the economic, social, and personal situations of my current students and those I taught in Chile (and even their Korean peers). My students may very well be the exception and not the rule, but overall the comprehension and language use of even the lowest-level students here overpowered me at first. I remember asking my coworker, “Can they read the instructions in the book?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Yes, they can.” Almost, “duh, n00b.” But he was too nice to say that.

Korea puts a huge emphasis on English, and many students live abroad or attend one of the massively popular English immersion camps or an English-only kindergarten. They continue to amaze me, because they are achieving the goal set out by so many countries …communicative competence. Many of them may never live outside Korea. Their TOEFL scores may not be impressive (Then again, they might be immense…one of my students scored a 112 this semester on the full four-hour test. She is eleven and in fifth grade.). But they will be able to communicate basic needs and ideas on a level that even my adult conversation partner in 2009 couldn’t dream of.

Sometimes it's all a blur.
Sometimes it’s all a blur.

Teaching in Korea is a challenge at times, and there can be minor annoyances. But allow me to get on my soapbox for a moment.

If you don’t want a challenge, and you want it all to be exactly the same as your own country, your own culture, your own community…

What the hell are you moving abroad for?!

Six years of international travel have done more for my anxieties, my confusion about myself and the world, my desire for change, and my fulfillment than any amount of sitting around in my own country and my own city (as wonderful as they both are) could ever have done. I don’t even recognize the shy girl who threw up in the airport after security in 2007. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t recognize me, either. Travel has transformed me, made me adult, made my perspective richer and deeper than I would have thought possible.

June 2007 vs. December 2012
June 2007 vs. December 2012

You can seek out the negative spin about Korea (including mine) on the Internet, and get all scared and anxious that you won’t have enough deodorant or that your hagwon will try to kill you. There are real horror stories out there, but without your own the experience will not enrich you the way it otherwise might.

So cast off for the distant shore with only one suitcase! Wander into the unknown here in Korea without fear. Have faith that the good people of Korea have some way of obtaining deodorant, and that you will be able to find your own here. Stop trying to prepare for every eventuality and start embracing the country. If you can’t face life without perfect circumstances, I hate to break it to you: Staying home won’t save you, either.

Move abroad. Teach TEFL. Stop complaining. Human up.

*Climbs down from soapbox*

And while you’re at it, these small but happy things about Korea may seep into your existence. If they don’t, you’ll find them all on your own. Without even trying.

4 Comments

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  1. One of my very good friends taught English in Korea for three years, and he loved it! He just moved back for his MBA!

  2. I must admit, I ADORE it here in Vietnam (especially now that I’ve moved up into the cooool green hills of wondrous Dalat), but…

    I too, had heard mostly negatives from my fellow EFL teaches about Korea, but your nicely balanced notes prompt me to rethink it. I may well head to Korea one of these day.

    • Korea is easy, and tends to attract the already ill-adjusted first time abroaders. Then they all have their own little blog on which to rant. Then the Korean education system sucks pretty systematically. Then they rant.

      If you have been fine living in Vietnam, there is no reason why Korea would be a hardship. In fact, you may find yourself a little bored. I sure do.

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