life in korea

Why I Loved Teaching English in Korea... And Why I Left



If you’ve been following this blog, you probably already know that my round the world travels began in 2015 when I quit my jobs, packed up my life in North Carolina, and moved to the big city of Seoul, South Korea.  

For over a year I’d talked about teaching abroad.

I took a TEFL course after graduating college, and I’d started considering where I wanted to go… but even to me, the thought of actually DOING it seemed absurd. So absurd that even I kind of doubted that I ever actually would… until I did. Twice. 

Teaching in Seoul was a great experience and Korea was an amazing, highly underrated country.

Here’s why I loved it… and why I left.

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Throughout my time in Korea, I taught literally hundreds of students ranging from Western age 4 to 14. I wasn’t properly prepared, trained, OR certified to do so, but I quickly found myself teaching MUCH more than just English.

I basically taught everything, but IN English… basics like the ABC’s and phonics to subjects like science, debate, social studies, art, and even cooking. Though some of these posed a real challenge for me at first, they also made me get creative and put my teaching ability to the test. 

I really enjoyed teaching and living in South Korea. I was able to learn about a new country, got involved with local organizations like Teach North Korean Refugees, and learned a little bit (but not nearly enough) of the language. I discovered a passion for education, language, culture, (food), and a deep love for the innocence, hope, and joy that comes with spending time around children.

Unfortunately, for all the positive aspects of this experience, there were several negative ones too.

 

The education system in Korea is extremely intense and competitive. From a very young age many kids are involved in numerous extracurricular activities. They go from their regular elementary school to academy after academy, and, when they finally come home, they study even more, sometimes with an in-home tutor.

As a teacher at one of these private academies, called hagwons, I found myself going through multiple textbooks a month with my kindergarten students, giving scantron tests to seven year olds, and memorizing speeches with kids who, months earlier, didn’t even know the English alphabet. At school and at home, many of them never have time to just play and be kids.

In a parent teacher meeting at my third (and last) school, I had a mother tell me that, lately, her child didn’t want to study at home… that he seemed to be getting burnt out on phonics. This came as a surprise to me because this kid loved phonics at school…. Every day he would literally choose to practice writing new vocabulary words over having playtime with his friends. 

After spending hours at school (then going to whatever afterschool classes and extra-curricular activities he was involved in), I can only imagine that, once he got home, he wasn’t too keen on studying anymore. After all, he was only 6… and already learning about the silent k in “kn” and that “ph” actually makes an f sound.

A few minutes after trying to reassure her… since she seemed concerned… she then expressed that she felt he wasn’t learning enough in comparison to a kid in their neighborhood. This competition between parents is not an uncommon occurrence.  

Parents are highly concerned with their kid’s success… and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what some of them fail to understand is that more textbooks don’t necessarily mean more learning. Unfortunately, in my experience, the administration at many hagwons will cater to these parents and allow them to call the shots…. Making it feel more like you’re working at a business than a school. If the parents want more books, then you’ll find yourself cramming more material into your already rushed lessons.

The heavy emphasis on fast, textbook learning is stressful on teachers and students, and, overall, it isn’t doing anyone any favors. In my experience, kids who may have been incredibly book smart lacked skills like creativity, critical thinking, and were unable to work as a part of a team. They were afraid of making mistakes… a harsh reality that likely comes from not getting nearly enough time to play, explore, and just be kids.



I worked at three different schools during my time in Korea, and while the overall job was pretty similar, each one’s administration and organization was exponentially worse than the last. The expectations became higher, the pay and resources become lower, and my stress level absolutely sky rocketed.

At my final school I took a significant cut to my salary. I initially didn’t mind because the working hours were (seemingly) much shorter. I quickly found out that less working hours doesn’t necessarily mean less work.

Though I was supposed to be out by 5 pm every day, I found myself staying anywhere from one to two hours later, just so I had time to finish correcting books, writing comments, and preparing for the next day. This happened multiple times a week, but was never considered overtime, and I was never compensated for it, since it wasn’t technically “teaching hours,” (just the time it takes to prepare for teaching, which, in my opinion is almost more important… but, anyway, I digress)…

I was doing a lot more. Making a lot less. And dealing with a lot more bullshit.

This school was the most unorganized by far. The constantly changing administration had zero clue what they were doing, and frequently sprung things on teachers with little to no notice. They didn’t take into consideration the time or effort that went into doing the job and doing it well, and were constantly raising their expectations and our work load.

Though my students were tough to handle at times, they were nothing compared to the stress I felt working under such a disorganized and inexperienced administration.

 

“Comparison is the thief of joy” is a pretty adequate quote explanation of the situation I found myself in here…. because even though the school and its management were an absolute mess, I still really loved teaching and all the little monster students in my class… (even the one little bundle of energy and enthusiasm who couldn’t sit still, colored on the walls, and plugged the sink, intentionally flooding the hallway a few times).

If I hadn’t had my previous schools to compare it to, I probably could have stuck it out here… but, I DID have those comparisons… and I knew that this school was seriously ripping teachers off, and taking advantage of the ones who didn’t know any better.

 

Despite the negative circumstances I left under, I still love Korea - it was my first overseas home away from home, and the place where I met the love of my life. I loved teaching, and will never forget my students or the close connections I made.

Moving there and documenting the travels that followed allowed me to rediscover my love of writing, and uncover new hobbies like photography and video. Due to my draining, toxic work situation, I found myself with little time or energy to dedicate to these personal passions… so finally, after having two different directors, and three different co-teachers in a three-month span, I decided enough was enough and put in my notice. 

After roughly three years of teaching in Korea, it was time to move on…

 

I took a few weeks to detox in Vietnam, took advantage of some pretty big partnerships while I was still in Asia, then made a quick stop through Thailand before returning home.

I decided that it’s time to pour more of my time and energy into fulfilling my own goals and less fulfilling every unrealistic whim of ungrateful, parent-pleasing, hagwon bosses. It’s time to be closer to my family and friends… and to be around for the things that are important.

 I loved Korea, but it was time to leave.

It’s time to begin new adventures and take on new challenges… So that’s what I’m going to do.

 

So, what’s next??

Well, stay tuned, y’all… cause I’m moving to Europe!


*Disclaimer - My perspective of teaching in Korea and my decision to leave was entirely dependent on my personal views of education, and the experiences I had in my work environments. Other individuals may have vastly different views depending on their experience and the type of schools they worked in.

For example, teaching in the EPIK program is very different from teaching at a hagwon, and each hagwon varies greatly. Other factors like the neighborhood you live in, the status of your housing, and personal relationships with coworkers and other staff also come into play.

I have both lived, and heard my fair share of horror stories when it comes to teaching in Korea, but still believe there are plenty of great companies to work for.

For legal reasons, I’ve chosen to not fully disclose any names or specific situations I dealt with, but if you are considering teaching in Seoul and have any questions or concerns about the interview process, contracts, or specific schools, feel free to contact me for the full, unedited scoop.

The Truth About Making Friends in Seoul - Memoirs of a Small Town, Introverted Extrovert

One of the biggest questions I get asked, right after the annoying, post-college small talk starter "So... what's your plan?" and the very common "How do you get a teaching job in Korea?" is "How do you make friends in Seoul?"

Chances are, if you've ever asked me the latter of these questions, I've put my rose-colored glasses on and given you a highly sugar-coated response about how it's really easy to meet people here. 

If we've had this conversation... I'm sorry... because that's kind of a white lie.

Sure, it's easy to meet people... what's not easy is meeting the good ones. So, here's the truth... Making friends in Seoul kinda sucks.


Seoul is a massive city... one of the largest in the world... and, when I moved here in 2015, I was so overwhelmed. I come from a teeny tiny, North Carolina town called Pleasant Garden. A place that, for much of my childhood, was a one stoplight town. I hadn't practiced "the art of making friends" in a REALLY long time. Most of the people I'd met at home just kinda WERE my friends by default I guess.

Let me paint a picture of my small Carolina town for ya. There is a cow pasture beside my house... a house where my parents still live. I spent my summers playing outside, walking back and forth to my cousins' houses, fishing at the pond, and getting yelled at for playing with (chasing) the cows. I knew the majority of my neighbors (because I was related to most of them), and many of my friends and acquaintances were people who I'd grown up with.

When I went to University, I went as far away as I could... just not over the state line (because have you SEEN those out of state tuition rates). This led me to four years in Wilmington, North Carolina... a little beach town made famous by One Tree Hill.

Again, this was a fairly small town. I ran in to the same people on campus, had the same people in my classes, and spent my time with, mostly, the same group of friends... just not the people I went to high school with (because, at that point, I'd realized that some of them kind of sucked). Actively trying to make new friends wasn't ever a thing... Because when you work together, study together, and see each other everyday, you might as well get along and enjoy the occasional two (or 20) beers.

The big city vibe was NOT something I'd ever really experienced before, so, for me, Seoul might as well have been the largest city in the universe. When I arrived here and started my first job, I did it with the small town mindset that everyone I met would just be my friend... We were, after all, in the same boat, right... Foreigners abroad just wanting to meet people, travel, and have a good time, right? Wrong.

 

Enter... let's call her... D... - coworker, Cali girl, and unbeknownst to me, my arch nemesis. She, for whatever reason, had it out for me from the start, and proceeded to shut me out and exclude me from virtually every office outing, joke, and conversation.

This threw me for a huge loop. I'd encountered plenty of girls who were mean for no reason, but never one who was so upfront and in my face about it.

Looking back, D was both a blessing and a curse. A curse because, for awhile, I was pretty sad and miserable about being excluded from everything... A blessing because she made me wisen up to the harsh reality that not everyone is going to want to be your friend... and that's okay.

 

In the beginning, I spent my fair share of time feeling sorry for myself. I resented D and my coworkers who blindly went along with her. Then, one day, I snapped the hell out of it and realized that I did NOT come this far (7,071 miles to be exact) to let my happiness be determined by one catty individual. I decided to enjoy the new city I was living in, whether it was with other people or not. 

I went to art museums by myself. I went to bars by myself. I read books, taught myself to read hangul, and spent hours writing by the river. I sought out volunteer opportunities. I tutored North Korean refugees. I did things that made me happy, and, even though I was doing them alone, I didn't feel lonely... because, after a certain point, I'd started embracing my solitude. I found that when I started doing things I cared about, I was meeting people with similar interests and passions... and even when I didn't meet people, I didn't care.

I thought I was pretty selective from that point on, but, in hindsight, turns out I'm still a pretty horrible judge of character.

When I tell you I've had horrible experiences with friends and relationships in this city, I mean it with every grain of my being. I have some downright tragic tales to tell.

You see, unlike the small town vibes that I was used to... in big cities, people don't have to be nice to you by default. Most expats know they won't be in Seoul forever, so they're reluctant to get too attached... and they probably don't give a damn about your feelings. The likelihood of them ever seeing you again is slim to none. Those are facts... Facts that empower a lot of people to be dicks (like D) for no reason. (Every Seoul friend I've talked to about this has agreed... we're all guilty of it).

When everyone's putting up this hard, cold, front, it makes it really hard to meet good friends... and so, for a long time, I didn't.


 Okay... this all sounds really sad, and this isn't meant to be a sad post... but it's the truth. I let myself be disappointed by other people more times than I care to count, but that never stopped me from continuing to try to find the diamonds in the rough.

I think that, no matter where you are in the world, the older you get, the tougher it is to find people who you really vibe with... and who also vibe with you. That's life.

Thankfully, when it comes to Seoul, for every shitty person you meet, there's about a dozen good ones right around the corner... but, if you hole up in your apartment feeling sorry for yourself because a couple people didn't like you, you'll never meet the good ones.

The key to making friends in this city is this - Grow up.

Make like Amanda Bynes in She's the Man and rub some dirt in it. 

You're not everyone's cup of tea and everyone doesn't have to be yours either. If you can make plans to pack up your life and move to a massive city on the other side of the world, then you can let the actions and opinions of a few shitty people roll off your back.

Keep doing you. Be yourself.

 

Instead of sticking your nose in the air when you see other expats around town, like you've somehow "assimilated better" than them, SAY HELLO. Don't be a dick. When you come across someone who's new here, take them under your wing. Show them the cool stuff. Go on group trips to new places with a bunch of, possibly super annoying, strangers. Maybe you vibe with them, and maybe you don't.

I've made friends at bars. I've made friends on random weekend trips. I've made friends by joining one friend at a group outing where I wasn't going to know anyone else. I've even made friends from apps like Tinder and Instagram (yes, tinder). Some of them I still keep up with, and some of them fizzled out.

When it comes to making friends in this big city as a small town, introverted extrovert (who loves going out and doing all the things, but also staying at home), the bottom line is this... if you want to make friends here, you will... as long as you don't close yourself off to meeting new people.

 

Of all the lessons I've learned as I (continue to) master the art of making friends, these are the most important.

  1. It's not supposed to be easy. Stay true to yourself. No matter how many assholes you encounter, don't let it reflect in the way YOU treat people. When you meet someone who sucks, make like a duck and let it roll off your back. Not everyone is for you.

  2. When you find good people, hold on to em! Tell them you appreciate them in the name of good vibes and positivity (the world needs more of it)!

  3. Everyone who comes here has their own goals, plans, and, likely, is headstrong afffff (because it takes a special kind of soul to up and move to a country where you don't know anyone). You WILL butt heads with your best friends sometimes... know when to get over it.

  4. The friends you meet in this city will come from all over the world. They will have different experiences, speak different languages, and challenge the way you see things. Your nights out will be a mix of making fun of each others accents, sharing childhood stories, and teaching each other new expletives.

  5.  Not having everything in common with your friends is a GOOD thing. This allows you to learn and grow.

 

And the NUMBER ONE lesson I've learned in this massive city is that the most important relationship I need to work on is the one I have with myself. 

 

All the "friends" who turned out to not be so friendly after all, made me much more self-aware and self-relient. I realized that, whether you live in a small town or not, you should never be friends with someone by default. Choose your circle wisely... and when someone shows you their true colors, believe them.

To the people who have literally screwed me over... I genuinely wish the best for you (and luck to all who encounter you). I hope that you eventually see the light, and change your ways. Moreover, I thank you... because you showed me exactly how NOT to treat people, and gave me a firsthand glimpse of the type of person I never want to be.

To the amazing, beautiful, kind souls who have entered my life since I began this Asia adventure, I am so grateful for all of you. You make life sooooo much more fun, and I wouldn't trade the hours, days, weeks, or years I get to spent with you for anything.

 

Bottom line: If you're moving to Seoul... fear not when it comes to making friends.

It will take time, but you will find your people.

In the process, be prepared to find yourself.