On Saving Lots of Money in Korea

I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.

I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.

About one year ago, I wrote a post titled “On Not Saving Any Money in Korea.” I encourage you to check it out for a reality check if you are currently considering moving abroad to do TEFL, currently living in South Korea as an English teacher, or interested in my bank account. Sorry, phishers. There’s only a screenshot without any info.

The post is almost wholly negative. I griped about the cost of living in South Korea. I griped about the possible inflation of saving possibilities by TEFL recruiters. I griped about how expensive the visa process was. I griped about my projection that I would only save about $2400 total during my year in Korea.

And guess what? I was wrong. Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

I miss my old apartment, too!

I miss my old apartment, too!

I blame my apparent lack of maths skills for the miscalculations, but there are other factors at work. As it happens, that post is one of the most-read ones on this blog. It consistently shows up in the top ten posts on the left there, and it seems that quite a few people are interested in the topic. In the interest of not being one of the many (MANY) out of date TEFL in Korea blogs out there silently sabotaging potential teachers’ dreams with incorrect and scary-sounding information, I want to correct that post with this one.

Some of what I wrote last July is true. Exchange rates are generally shitty, no matter which end I find myself on (I’m finding this to be especially true as I prepare to move to the UK for graduate school, and my tuition keeps fluctuating literally thousands of dollars based on the ups and downs of the market.). The global economy is still getting dragged through the mud somewhat, don’t let the talking heads deceive you. I still have semi-expensive tastes in food and clothing. And above all, saving money is hard work, no matter where one happens to find themselves. But the crux of the article, that it is difficult/impossible to save money in Korea while teaching is flat false.

At the end of my time in Korea, I had a little over $11,500 in the bank.

Yeah, that’s a shitload of money. My calculations were off by almost 500%, if I did my maths correctly this time. I was able to put away almost $7,000 in the months after I told the internet I wasn’t saving any money in Korea. Almost exactly the $1000 a month promised by my recruiter before I came over. Whoops. Perceptions can be wrong!

I miss those kiddos most of all!

I miss those kiddos most of all!

After I completed my contract, I received even more cash injections into my bank account. I got $4,000 in severance and my final paycheck (I left just after we’d all been working our asses off in the Winter Intensive schedule and got a little overtime). Last, but certainly not least, I got my pension money back at the end on March. Already in India for over a month, I suddenly saw $1,800 show up in my bank account.

Furthermore, I paid almost no taxes this year. Because I earned almost all my income in Korea for 2012 and the US has awesome tax treaties with the ROK, I was exempt from paying federal and state taxes. I paid taxes in Korea (around 3% of my income…that is ridiculously low), but I got to write off everything else as non-taxable income. US citizens who teach in Korea for two years or less are able to take advantage of this kickback. It’s a pretty huge one.

And now, it looks like at the end of the summer I will have almost exactly that $8,000 I wanted in the bank from the original post. Even with traveling in India for 2 months. Even with a month in England. Even though I’m only working part-time this summer.

Shit! My financial situation turned out way better than predicted!

I may need to keep this in mind as I as I lay awake at night regularly worrying about graduate school finances and apply for an exorbitant amount of loan money. Hmm.

Despite the awesomeness of my finances post-Korea, a few words of caution. The over-arching theme of that July 2012 post remains important; don’t make the experience of living in Korea suffer for the hypothetical payoff of traveling or graduate school after the contract ends.The Incredibull India experience certainly brought that home.

Far too many teachers I met in Korea spent a lot of time indoors playing MMORPGs and eating instant noodles as their only sustenance. Surprisingly many of these folks eventually ended up staying on for multiple years after the initial drive to travel turned into a desire to plant roots, meaning that the fabled travel for which they were sacrificing just never happened. Then again, everyone has their own financial preferences and circumstances. I know of several teachers in Korea who had moved abroad in large part to afford health insurance, or to pay off student loans. It would be harder to save as much as I did if those were concerns.

Circumstances also change. Last July, I thought I’d be living in the States again for graduate school. After the application process went slightly differently than planned, I’m moving abroad again (and getting a visa AGAIN). I’m also in a long-term committed relationship, which was in its infancy last summer. We can share resources and effort, and I’m not in this alone. My finances have to adjust to the new realities that come up. DSCN1994

Bottom line: It is definitely possible to save a lot of money teaching in Korea. Don’t let my old, mathematically-inaccurate, and pessimistic article discourage you.

As a final note: I am always thrilled to talk to those who want to get a TEFL career started, who want to travel more, or who want to study abroad. It’s part of my job, but it’s also my passion. Contact me today with your questions. I promise to get back to you quickly.

South Korean Education: Filling the Pail

South Korean students are arguably some of the best in the world. They consistently score highly on standardized aptitude tests and out-perform many other developed countries in Math and Science. Where the USA scored 17th in reading, 31st in Math, and 24th in science on the PISA test, South Korea scored 2nd, 4th, and 6th respectively (source for 2011 data). University enrollment is at an all-time high. Children as young as three are in English-language kindergartens. 97% of students complete secondary education (an insane number when one considers that at least 25% of US high school students drop out before graduation).

It would seem that South Korea is doing everything right when it comes to education. Indeed, many western newspapers have suggested that the United States and others ought to follow in the footsteps of South Korea if they want to garner a competitive advantage in the coming century.

I’m not sold.

I can’t speak to the global implications of pitting students from hugely different backgrounds against one another solely through a multiple-choice test administered to 15-year-olds every year (and since I am a teacher of students of the same age, I can honestly say that they probably take it way less seriously than the OCED does). I can’t talk about the public education system in South Korea, as I’ve never set foot in a public school. I can’t truly understand the motivations of parents, seeing as I can’t even call them for a chat if their child acts up in class due to my personal massive language barrier. Yet I’m still against adopting South Korea’s education culture.

Let me put it this way: in the nearly six months since I moved to Suwon, I’ve collected enough anecdotes to tell me that I would not send any child of mine into the Korean education system. The pressure is far too high, the returns for the years spent sacrificing and living to study are low, and the whole system stifles the skills that should be the very core of education.

1. The Pressure

In South Korea, it is not uncommon for students as young as eleven to commit suicide. I would let that sink in a moment, but it bears mentioning just how common student suicides are in this country. 353 student suicides were recorded just in 2011. That’s nearly one per day, every day.

Given the high numbers of suicides in general in the ROK (Republic of Korea), this may be more culturally normal than not, but those very numbers doubled in the years of economic boom and the advent of South Korea’s role as a global education and business leader, reaching their current level of 40 per day for the general population.

For a country this small, it’s insane. As a teacher, I see how miserable the constant pressure to perform, memorize, and achieve makes most of my students. Many times when I ask them to come up with something that would make them happy, they write either “Explode Avalon” (my academy) or “No more school.” I’m terrified that one day I’ll give a student detention and that will be the final straw. I’d feel that the blood was on my hands.

Suicide aside, the joy is sucked out of my students. They don’t have time to enjoy things. Their friendships grow and fade not with the tides of adolescence but the competition within classes to be the best. They say things like “I don’t believe in free time.” They don’t like to waste time drawing pictures and even the young ones sometimes go to school from 8AM-10PM (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s up to 70 hours per week without including homework). Some of my students tell me that they only get to speak to their parents ten minutes per day due to their study and work schedules.

An entire generation is growing up visibly miserable, and it’s mostly due to the fact that they aren’t allowed to simply be kids.

2. The returns are low

The huge cost involved in raising a child in this education system has pushed the birth rate in South Korea to plummet faster than in any other country in the world. In 1960, the average South Korean woman had six children. These days, they have 1.15. The cost of sending one child to school, and academy, and eventually university is simply too high. Add in the time and (dare I say) childhood cost, and it becomes clear that this is a country that invests a huge amount in education.

That should be a good thing, but it’s not possible to build a whole country of doctors/dentists/opthamalagists or the market gets saturated and over-education ends up making it extremely hard for even the highly-educated to get by. Most ROK citizens believe it is hard to get any job without a degree, leading to 82% enrollment in colleges after high school. That’s up from only 5% in 1977.

In the economic collapse, those with degrees have suffered as much as in any other country, but considering the massive investment of time, money, and energy on the part of themselves and their families, the net cost may be higher. Up to 43% of graduates are unemployed, leading some to question what the point of all the sacrifice and hard work was.

3. An Education, rubber stamp or ongoing process?

All this pales in comparison to the way that the culture of rote-memorization and overloading students from the time they enter the world with study and pressure destroys the true meaning of education. The real reason that I would never want my own child to be raised in the system of South Korea is that I want them to have a different education. I might argue a “real education.” Social, cultural, philosophical, and imaginative development all bow to the great gods of test scores and class rankings here. My students fight amongst themselves all the time, thinking that the stars I draw on the board have some intrinsic value other than keeping track of who participates.

The point of education is to develop young minds into the kind of citizens that can support their country and our shared world. Ask almost any foreign teacher in the ROK education system what activity is the most difficult for their students, and the answer will almost always be “Problem-Solving.” Second hardest in my mind are lessons about things without immediately obvious value…art, music, poetry, dance. It’s as if anything that doesn’t help a student to gain the next rote rung on the education ladder isn’t worth the time wasted thinking about it. Besides, who cares about philosophy when there are English definitions to memorize from my vocabulary book?

The product of this type of education system may have been rapid economic growth, but the roots are beginning to unravel. People who lack critical thinking skills and at least some appreciation for intrinsically important but memorization-incompatible knowledge are not truly educated. In my mind, pushing so many so hard only serves to cheapen the results of the system as a whole. 

When I lived in Chilean Patagonia teaching English as best I could to wildly unenthusiastic middle-schoolers, I caught a glimpse of a wildly different education culture. I was disturbed by the lack of focus within my school and the overall inequality and confusion of the Chilean education system. I often felt as though I was fighting a Battle of the Blackboard, trying to eke out an inch of serious academic work. I tried to fight that system, mostly fruitlessly. I learned to know better than to believe that my tiny opinions, served from an outsider’s perspective and tempered with my own biases, could truly make an impact on the system itself. Yet in my classroom, during my limited time with those students, I gained something of a reputation as a hard-ass.

In South Korea, I’m considered an easy teacher. I don’t always push my students hard enough, in favor of a tangential talk about something that really matters in the lives of the little minds in the room. I often don’t hurry them hard enough to finish all the book work. They see my system of strikes as a cakewalk compared to the gauntlets their parents and teachers put them through daily.

I’m just fine with that. After all, these are only children. Fourteen years old at most. I’m happy to subvert my tiny corner of the Korean education system, and in my tiny way make some tiny impact on the lives of my few students. I may not be able to convince them that education is more than what they’re told it is, but I may be able to give them a tiny glimpse that it’s not the same everywhere. Maybe that will make all the difference.