Teaching English in Korea

By Lindsay Nash

Ahead, on the sidewalk, steam rises from an orange tarp-covered table. A woman wearing white gloves sells sun-dried squid and red fiery rice cakes so spicy your eyes water and your throat constricts just looking at them.

In every direction, mountains jut out of the rugged land, masses of brown and green rising out of the concrete. On every spot of spare land not taken by tall rectangular apartment buildings, bent farmers work in small plots, pulling cabbage, tossing seeds, spreading dirt. You walk into a non-descript building, concrete, of course.

A banner of multi-colored signs haphazardly covers one whole corner of the building. You’re not sure what they say. Inside, all of a sudden, you are barraged by a group of students.

“Teacher!” “Teacher!” Nice to meet you!”

They never can remember to say “Nice to see you,” but you smile anyway and pull out your books. And class begins. No, you’re not dreaming. It’s real. Or it CAN be real.

If you’re ready for some adventure, willing to adjust to a world dramatically different than your own, and brave enough to be an “alien” in a world where any color skin other than beige and any hair and eye color other than brown will garner stares, questions, and a hell of a lot of “Hello!”s.

Maybe you are a recent university graduate. Maybe you’re a nine-to-fiver itching to break out of your cubicle. Maybe you have some debt built up, like my husband and I did, and you need to pay it off, but not with a boring desk job during a struggling economic recession where the threat of lay-offs gets worse every day and the new foul-mouthed F word is furlough.

Or maybe you are single and looking for an adventure outside the Friday night bar scene. If you’re any of these or more, well then you’re in luck.

Living and teaching abroad is an increasingly popular club. Thousands of native English speakers are leaving their homes every year to explore far-flung shores. People are learning that to really travel, to really see a country, they must live there. And there is no better window to a culture than the children, who not only serve as your students, but also a unique peephole into the colorful kaleidoscope that is Korea.

There are currently some 20,000 registered native English teachers in South Korea, and the number is increasing rapidly, according to the Korean immigration statistics.

There is a thriving insatiable job market here for foreigners with college degrees and a native English tongue.

Why Teach English in Korea? Why is it SO Popular??

Good money. The jobs pay a good salary (starting at two million Korean won a month. Free roundtrip flights. Your school will pay for your flight there and back on the condition that you complete your full 1-year contract. Free housing. Schools provide a comfortable apartment. The only expenses not paid are the utilities (usually less than $100 total per month). It’s a job where you can easily save at least $500 to $1,000 a month and travel Asia in your free time.

An insatiable job market. As the country has quickly escalated into a prominent player in the world market, they continue to hire more foreigners to teach English to everyone from cute kindergartners so young they can’t stay awake in class to eager students in starched school uniforms to smartly dressed Samsung executives. Learning English is a must in Korean society and education is a top priority in this Confucian nation. Parents not only pay for extra English academies for their children, but also for private English tutors. And this is on top of their regularly required public school English classes.

The Land of the Morning Calm is not considered as sexy as China or Japan, but it is Asia (East Asia, to be exact), a continent with a culture worlds apart from North America, England and any other English-speaking countries. In many ways, it is everything North America is not—in good ways and bad. It is almost completely homogenous, which means it’s not easy being green, or white, or black, for that matter.

Children will still giggle when they see you, your different skin tone, your big eyes, the freckles on your face. The country, roughly the size of Indiana, has few foreigners, a fact that pretty much guarantees movie star status on the streets. Big eyes? Brown hair? White skin? You might as well be Julia Roberts.

So what is Korea like?

It’s crowded. There are currently 50 million people living on the peninsula of South Korea, a landmass about the same size as Indiana. It’s a virtual island, currently cut off from the rest of the Asian continent by the communist regime of North Korea.

The roller-coaster relationship between the last divided countries in the world changes monthly, so it’s best to stay informed of what’s going on. North Korea does not like the current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, who has taken a harder line against its northern neighbor.

But South Korea is working toward reunification, and you can see signs of it along the 38th parallel, also known as the DMZ (de-militarized zone) on the border of the two countries where the South has already built a train station that would connect it to the north. “Not the last station in the south,” it boasts, “but the first station toward the North.”

It’s quirky, from the permed hot-pink jump-suited ajumma (old women) power walking around ponds to the studious youth who spend six days a week at school. It’s smart. The country has a 97.9 percent literacy rate. The government spends 15.5 percent of its budget on education, according to the United Nations.

It is also one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Everything is bali! Bali! (fast fast!) Korea went from dirt poor to pay dirt in world-record time. Four decades ago, the GDP per capita was comparable with levels in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia. In 2004, South Korea became one of the fastest growing economies of the world, joining the trillion dollar club of world economies. It now boasts the 13th largest economy in the world.

Every day, Korea becomes more westernized. Baskin Robbins, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks are now Korean staples. At the same time, the country continues to hang by its tough worn fingertips to the cliffs of tradition. Buddhist temples still abound on hidden mountain crags. Women are still second-class, though they have a growing presence in the workplace. Family, bloodlines and filial piety remain highly regarded ethos on the divided peninsula.

It’s a country that will seduce you with their spicy food and beautiful traditions and drive you crazy with their rigid conservativeness and stubbornness to change. Koreans are often characterized by their tenacity, doggedness, and inflexibility. But at the same time, they are warm, friendly to a fault, and immeasurably proud of their country and heritage. Living in Korea allows you to see up close and personal a country hinging between past and present.

And put simply, teaching in Korea allows you to save money, pay off debt, and live and travel in an amazingly interesting place. It’s one of the best kept secrets of those of us with an unabated attack of wanderlust trying to pay off old bouts of itchy feet.

Lindsay Nash is the owner of Say Kimchi Recruiting