WRITTEN BY KRISTA BEAUVAIS
What is it like to teach English in South Korea for a year? What is it like to live in a country whose language you can’t even read? To eat food you’ve never even dreamed existed? To learn a whole new way of life?
Just after my 22nd birthday, I boarded a plane for South Korea. It was my first step toward living the life I wanted and I was blissfully excited! I had nothing but promises in an email from a stranger but I didn’t care.
I was making a move into the unknown, taking a risk to live the life I wanted to live! This dream would take the entire next year of my life to accomplish. And, without knowing it at the time, Korea would forever become a part of our family.
South Korea in 2000
When I moved to Korea in October 2000, there were very few other foreigners there (apart from the US army guys living on base as part of an ongoing stability effort re: North Korea).
The children used to pass me in the street and stare, their mothers trying to drag them along. ‘Way-goo-gin,’ they would say as they stared and pointed. It means ‘foreigner.’
I have been back a few times since and this no longer happens; the ‘way-goo-gin’ is far more prevalent in Korea these days.
South Korea hires foreign teachers to teach ESL in what’s called ‘hagwons.’ These are basically after-school schools that the Korean children attend to work on essential skills like Maths, English, and Music.
South Korea is a heavily populated country and most people therefore value education as they know it is the only way they’ll rise above the crowds and have a good quality of life.
This means that parents pay good sums of money to send their children to all sorts of hagwons – and when they send them to a good English hagwon, they expect their kids to be taught by foreign native English speakers.
How to get a Hagwon Job
Therefore, if you have a TESOL or ESOL or ESL Certification, you can get a job teaching English in Korea.
If you want more information about teaching in specific hagwons in South Korea, you should check out Dave’s ESL Cafe, which is the primary online hang-out for English Teachers in South Korea.
If you accept a job in Seoul, you need to be prepared for the size of the city! Lots of teachers choose to avoid Seoul and look for jobs on the South coast in a city called Busan that is very nice.
I got lucky and avoided the hagwon situation, which can be an unhappy experience if you end up in a poorly run hagwon.
Instead, I was fortunate to find a job with a company that specialized in private tutoring for small groups in private homes. I taught in living rooms and wrote with white-board markers on the glass doors of their balconies.
It was incredibly rewarding and I managed to save a reasonable amount of money as I was earning between 30,000 won and 35,000 won per hour (equivalent to $35 USD at the time).
This company doesn’t operate any longer so I can’t put you in touch with them.
A lot of teachers supplement their teaching income by doing some private tutoring on the side. I didn’t do any of this as it was illegal at the time and I didn’t want to risk being deported. It is now legal to do, provided you follow some rules.
When you arrive, you should ask your employer and other teachers about what to do. You don’t want to violate the terms of your contract as it could find you unemployed and with no flight home.
Never accept a teaching contract if they do not provide return airfare. It is standard procedure to offer return airfare and you should ensure that your safety is protected.
If you get a job as a teacher, you’ll be given accommodation. The accommodation is likely to be very small.
After being collected from the airport by the man who hired me, I was dropped off at my new apartment, which I was to share with another teacher. I still, after all these years, remember the name: Shin Dae Jin Apartments in Incheon, just outside Seoul.
It was on the 10th floor of the building and it was TINY! The entire apartment was not much larger than the bedroom I grew up in as a child.
The entrance led into the kitchen, which led into the lounge/bedroom, which led to the enclosed balcony. There were two other doors off the kitchen: one to the small bedroom I would occupy and one to the bathroom.
Everything shocked me about Korea when I first arrived! And, in the entire year I lived there, not a day went by that I didn’t chuckle about something or sit and stare in amusement at some of the ways they choose to do things.
I spent a lot of time inside lots of different Korean homes and the protocol is always the same. You ALWAYS take your shoes off at the door.
Sitting on Floors
A lot of living still happens on the floor (but that is rapidly changing), so you typically eat sitting on cushions on the floor, at a coffee table.
This type of floor lifestyle extends everywhere you look. At least these men chose to sit on newspapers during their soju break.
Soju is their version of vodka and it’s strong and cheap! Lemon soju (soju mixed with Lemonade) became my drink of choice when we’d meet to socialise on the weekends.
You always bow when you enter or leave a home and children are ALWAYS expected to stop what they’re doing and come to the door to greet the guest, and then to see the guest off.
The ‘ajuma’ of the house (‘ajuma’ means married woman) feels it’s her duty to serve you to the utmost extent while you are there. The standard treat to serve guests is a platter of peeled, sliced fruit, which is a wonderful treat! And, of course, green tea in beautifully potted tea cups.
Some homes will still sleep in the traditional style. During the day, the rooms that branch off of the lounge will be used for study and activity. Then at night the mats are laid out and you sleep on the floor. They’re very comfy!
Things I Adore about Korea
Korea is one of the most beautiful countries to visit in Spring! Magnolia trees are prolific, with their huge blossoms to be seen everywhere through the cities. Also, cherry blossoms are thick and fragrant!
You will also be amazed by the amount of neon signage this country can manage to squeeze into every square inch of it’s neighbourhoods! It’s always very pretty at night to wander around and enjoy the free show.
Koreans are gentle, humble and hard working. You’ll see more of this traditional style of work outside of Seoul. Inside Seoul, most of the working you’ll see is in offices and shops.
You will always be passing some beautiful gate to some beautiful pagoda. These are not ‘on display’ for tourists; these are true parts of their heritage that are very well preserved and utilised. It is one of the real points of beauty about Korea.
Nowadays there is English on signs and more people can understand and speak English so it’s not as crucial to read Korean as it was when I was there and there was no English in sight!
Still, it’s such fun to read Korean and it’s pretty easy to get your head around. My friend Rose taught me and if you’d like to know more you can read my article about learning to speak Korean (pending).
This is perhaps the thing I loved most about my year in Korea. The food is wonderful and I’m very blessed that my friend Rose is an excellent cook and has taught me many wonderful dishes I can now cook myself.
It’s a communal experience and you always get served lots of little dishes when you sit down for a meal, particularly a BBQ meal. I almost never cooked at home and always ate out as the food was cheap and incredibly delicious!
Some of my favourite dishes include:
- Kimbap (like a california roll; a great healthy snack)
- yooboo cho bap (fried tofu pockets filled with sweet, tangy rice)
- Bibimbap (bowl of rice with vegetables, egg, and sauce
- Bulgogi (beef strips sauteed with onions and special sauce)
- Kalbi BBQ (beef ribs BBQed at your table, rolled in sesame leaves with rice
- Kalbi tang (beef rib soup)
This is their national dish and it takes some getting used to. It’s basically spicy fermented cabbage. For me, it was at first a terrible experience, but over time, trying a little with each meal, I developed a taste for it.
Dining is very communal and friends will share a BBQ in the middle of the table. A platter of whatever raw meat you’ve ordered will arrive and you’ll cook it on the grill yourself.
Then you eat it with rice and other condiments, all wrapped neatly inside a sesame leaf or other green leafy vegetable. It’s wonderful!
More Things to Love
There is so much more I could say about Korea! So many other things to share:
- no-rae bangs
- traditional bathhouses
- yogwans (love motels)
- soup trucks
- parking attendants
- bar lockers for your bottles of alcohol
- maeshil ju
- Sorak San
- recipes of dishes
…a whole host of things to talk about! But I’ve already written too many words.
The most important thing to know is that South Korea is a special country that really needs to be lived in to be fully appreciated! Simply visiting will not give you access to the deep aspects of the culture that make it such a special country.
Part of my Family
Korea is now forever a part of my family!
I loved my experiences in Korea so much that I suggested my brother join me. He did and he ended up living there for about seven years. He met a wonderful Korean girl and they’ve since married and now have a young son together.
My mother assisted the school I was working for by arranging for a home-stay experience for a few students. That has since grown to become a successful home-stay program that is helping many Korean students achieve their dreams.
So you can see, Korea is now forever a part of my life and our family. I think of the country fondly and I always look forward to my return visits!
I love Korea and I highly recommend you take the opportunity to live there if the opportunity arises!
KRISTA HAS ALSO SHARED
- See her profile page for the full list
- Written, formatted and edited by: Krista Beauvais
- Trip Dates: October 2000 – October 2001
- Photos: all photos are courtesy of Krista Beauvais
- Email: krista [at] wodara [dot] org
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