What It’s Like to Teach English and Live in South Korea

When I left in 2016, I thought I’d be back in California come March 2017. Well…one year turned into four years because I fell in love with teaching English and living in South Korea. To be honest, the only reason I left is because I had the opportunity to live in another country and I wanted to leave while I still loved it.

I could probably write a whole book on the four years I spent there – and probably will through all the blog posts I have planned! – but since I am presenting on this subject to The Nomadic Network today, I wanted to write about some of these things for those who couldn’t make it, plus some things I won’t have time to talk about in my hour-long presentation.

I worked in a Korean public school as part of GEPIK (Gyeonggi-do English Program in Korea), so keep in mind that what I write here will be from that perspective. However, other ways you can teach English in South Korea are: hagwons (private after school academies), universities, and international schools.

My fourth and last contract 2019-2020

What to Expect as a Public School English Teacher in South Korea

Some might say that working in the public school system is “easy” compared to working in hagwons. Your hours are generally 8:40am-4:40pm, lunch hour included, and you don’t have to work more than 22 teaching hours – or you get paid overtime. Work days are Monday to Friday, so you have every weekend to yourself.

Other than teaching classes during the school year, as a public school teacher you must also hold English Camp during summer and winter breaks. These were some of my favorite weeks because English Camp is just a fun way to teach students the language. Camps are usually themed and you can focus on arts & crafts or games rather than formal language teaching. Some camp themes I had in the past were, “Survivor Camp,” “Sports Camp,” “Party in the USA,” and “Harry Potter Camp.” Can you guess which one of these was my fave?

Starting out, school culture might be something that you have to adjust to. It’s common to eat school lunch, just as Korean teachers do, and after work you might have to attend hweshik 회식 from time to time. This is a huge part of Korean work culture where co-workers and colleagues gather for dinner and drinks (sometimes all night long). Each month you pay into a school community fund which is used to pay for things like snacks in the teachers room, hweshik 회식, or other events and outings.

Two of the biggest things you should expect as an English Teacher are: deskwarming and the “last minute” culture. These are two things I mentioned in my last post on what I wish I knew about teaching English beforehand.

The Benefits of Teaching English

Now, deskwarming and the “last minute” culture might be enough to make some re-think, but when you think about the benefits of being an English Teacher, I find that it balances out.

Between the furnished apartment, the numerous vacation days (26 a year!), flight allocations, move-in bonus, severance pay upon completion, renewal bonus, health insurance and pension (of which your employer pays half!), and the fact that U.S. citizens working for Korean public schools don’t have to pay Korean taxes for the first 2 years, there isn’t a whole lot you can complain about.

There is a collective agreement among American teachers (at least amongst my friends), that the healthcare benefit in and of itself is one of the biggest perks:

Pro: Health insurance. An emergency room visit plus medication cost less than $100! It may be expensive for some but I’d take that over the emergency medical and medication costs here in the U.S. South Korea’s health insurance is efficient and cost-effective.

-Brian T.
Students solving an Escape Room for Survivor Camp 2018

Is Teaching English in South Korea Worth It?

Obviously, this is an objective question. Overall for me, it was a dream come true. I was able to combine my passion for teaching and desire to work with youth while satisfying my wanderlust. For me, it was a privilege to have the opportunity to do that in South Korea.

That being said, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. My first year could’ve been a disaster. The Head Teacher at my school was sexist and I lowkey think he didn’t like me or thought I wasn’t qualified because I was Asian; yes that’s a real thing.

Con: […] the idea that you’re not “foreigner” enough if you’re of Asian descent but raised in Western culture.

 “Wow, you speak English very well” is a phrase Mel and I have been hearing the most. Also, experiencing the stigma of ‘Not good at teaching English because we are Asian.’ I’ve had some of my students’ parents ask my Korean co-teachers if Mel and I are qualified to teach English because of our Asian ethnicity.

-Melanie & Brian T.

The previous English Teacher at my school didn’t have any problems with this Head Teacher, but he would always question my decisions, activities, etc. going as far as to tell me a song I chose for the students was a “bad choice” in front of the whole class and sending me back to the office before class even ended. He even used to say things like, “Well, Iris* (name has been changed) did it this way. Why don’t you try that?”

Even with his overbearing demeanor, I built a relationship with my co-teacher and handler who fully supported and advocated for me, taking the brunt of this Head Teacher’s BS. I grew close with my high school students, created connections and even inside jokes with them, and did my best to foster a fun and easygoing environment.

Some of my high school students who are probably college grads now!

The second school I taught at for the next three years was totally different. My co-teacher and handler was the most laid back and chill supervisor I ever had. The last two years I worked with my best friend, and we came up with some incredible lessons. Teaching elementary students required a ton more energy than I’m used to, but having more leeway and teaching easier curriculum allowed many avenues for me to let my creative juices flow.

On top of all that, teaching English led me to finding some of the best friends in my life and making memories for a lifetime. So in a nutshell, yeah, it was worth it.

It might not be worth it to the person who’s only doing it for the money. It might not be worth it to the person who is doing this because it’s an easy way to travel but doesn’t want to immerse themselves in the culture. It might not be worth it to the person who doesn’t get out to know others or build a relationship with their co-teacher, but you should because that’s how you’ll make it through.

Teaching English is “worth it” if you know why you’re doing it and recognize the privilege and opportunity you have to do so in a country that holds learning this language with enormous respect – enough to incorporate it as a required part of their curriculum.

I met a couple [of] people who seemed to think we needed to be there because, “How else would South Koreans learn English?” and honestly I strongly disagree and I think it’s important to talk about how much of a privilege it is that English is considered such an important language that people are allowed to live there just to do that. I was so grateful for the opportunity but I just feel some type of way about the dynamics in that regard.

-Vi D.
Ariel & I in a water fight with our students during Sports Camp 2019

Being a Foreigner in South Korea

Living in any country as a foreigner, teacher or not, is its own adventure. Generally speaking, it’s not hard to be a foreigner in South Korea – especially as an English Teacher. Due to the number of English Teachers plus American military bases, the foreigner community is quite large.

Itaewon and Hongdae are two areas of Seoul that are frequented by foreigners, and it’s not tough to make friends, find hobbies (like dancing, sports, hiking, music), or find comforts of home if you put even the slightest bit of effort into searching. Whatever city or town you live in outside of Korea, even if you’re the only foreigner there, you can still build a community.

Pro to living in Korea as a foreigner is being a foreigner. Lol I felt like Korean people were very kind to me and it was easy to build relationships with the owners/managers of places I frequented…I think becos i stood out. Idk maybe I’m wrong lol.

-Ariel C.
Finding your fam away from home is crucial.

Pros about Living in South Korea

The consensus amongst my friends who offered their opinions about living in South Korea is that it’s convenient.

Public transportation in and to different cities is easily accessible. Healthcare is affordable and you don’t need appointments to be seen. Food and some kind of entertainment (noraebang, PC bang, cafes, etc.) are always nearby. Fast internet access is readily available.

Because English is widely taught, it’s not imperative that you become fluent in Korean. Would it make your life easier there? Yes. Is it a way to further immerse yourself into the culture? Yes. Will people hate on you if you don’t learn the language? Maybe. I lived there for four years, learned to read Hangul (the Korean alphabet), and spoke enough Korean to get by, but as an English Teacher, no one harked on me for not becoming fluent.

[Speaking about her specific neighborhood] Despite the language barrier, you can feel how interconnected everyone is with the community. For example community parks and gardens were beautiful to walk by. The various places to eat, study, or work. I loved the cafes! I initially was worried about not having a car, but our immediate community had everything we needed at walking distance. So it was a bonus just to travel anywhere else via bus or subway.

-Melanie T.

Regarding safety, while you should take general precautions in any place you live, Korea is safe. I personally never felt unsafe walking home late at night or being out by myself. If you’re at a cafe and leave your laptop and bag at a table to get up and use the restroom, everything will be right there when you get back. This is not to say that there aren’t any bad things that happen, because yes, I have heard about women being sexually assaulted, raped, or people being attacked.

But all in all, it is pretty easy living in South Korea.

Making friends at dinner who wanted to speak English with you was not uncommon.

Cons about Living in South Korea

There are some flip sides to a few of the things I previously mentioned. While convenience was an overall agreement, as a foreigner not being fluent in the language, some of the simplest tasks can be inconvenient or complicated.

Since you stand out, it’s likely that people will be in your personal bubble and space, and even go as far as to invade your space physically. I have seen Koreans stand with their face an inch away from my Black friends because they’re so fascinated with their hair or touch their hair without asking.

Along the same lines, it’s not uncommon that many people might even ask to take a picture of or with you – or have their kids take a picture with you. Sometimes it’s unnerving, and other times you’ll just laugh it off.

And it goes without saying that racism happens everywhere, even in Korea. Whether it’s people donning blackface or students in the classroom laughing at a darker skinned person they see in a presentation, it exists. As a darker skinned Filipina-American, I always used pictures of people from all different races to expose my students to the fact that all foreigners aren’t just blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

There is nothing too severe among these cons that would’ve deterred me from making the decision to move, but are things to be aware of. Oh! It is likely that you will also be approached by a cult…. be wary if someone approaches you with the words, “Do you know God the Mother?”


As it is, there is no way I can encompass everything that comes with teaching English or being a foreigner in South Korea, but I hope that this has provided some insight for you. Follow along on the journey as I do have more travel tales to tell of my adventures in and around the country and other parts of Asia!

With wanderlust & ‘til next time,
Ava

5 comments

  1. Hello Avagail! Thank you for your blog. I really appreciate your writing, especially since you are a woman of color. I have been dreaming for years to teach English in South Korea. I am worried though, being Mexican American. Have you seen any Latinas teaching English in South Korea? Do they face any issues? Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alex! I am so glad that this resonates with you – this is exactly why I am doing what I do, so I appreciate that. I can’t think off the top of my mind any Latinas that I know personally, but that’s not to say there aren’t any out there. Gina is Gina Bear’s Blog is a Latina who has taught in both South Korea and Japan. She’s half Italian and half Mexican, so I would suggest checking out her stuff! I totally think you should go for it though! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome to Korea! I am glad you are enjoying it here. I’ve been teaching and living here since 2009, so I know very well about the good, the bad and the ugly of living and teaching here in Korea. If you ever have any questions, comments, or want to chat with a veteran teacher, must message me! I’d be glad to help in anyway I can.

    Liked by 1 person

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