Why South Korea?
Got a bachelor’s degree and find yourself working at a dead-end job you’re not particularly enjoying?
Thirsting for a chance to see the world and have some fun?
Just feeling a tad bored with the same old people at the same old bars?
Ten years ago I was a little bit of all three. I’d graduated from university with my Bachelors, had a short-lived life in Newcastle working at a supermarket, and then inexplicably found myself back in my hometown working at the very same Bi-Lo I used to make fun of my friends for working at.
It became a weekly occurrence to have some former teacher ask me if I was still studying or what I was doing in town. I enjoyed my job and liked my life, but it was a little humiliating to tell people that my fourteen hours a week at Bi-Lo and the occasional night out at the Glen Innes RSL was my life.
“…it was a little humiliating to tell people that my fourteen hours a week in retail and the occasional night out at the RSL was my life”.
How I Ended Up in South Korea
I kind of fell into the whole Korean experiment. The older brother of a close friend of mine had been bugging me to get out a travel for a while, and when a friend of his was looking for somebody to work at a hogwan (private academy) in Gwangju – he put my name forward.
I’d had a particularly crappy day at work when I submitted my application and had mostly forgotten about it by the time I received a firm job offer three weeks later.
It was all a whirlwind. While it took some nudging from friends and family to get me to seize the opportunity, I barely had time to second guess myself as I hurriedly arranged passports and said my goodbyes.
Before I knew it, I was standing alone in my Korean apartment with a carton of milk in one hand and my suitcase in the other. It was a Saturday morning and I had no idea where I was or how to speak a word of Korean, and I was terrified.
And it was the best thing I’ve ever done.
Why Teach in South Korea?
Why teach in Korea? There are dozens of reasons why it’s something I recommend to anybody who will listen, but I’ve chosen the choicest ten.
10 – It’s Paid Travel!
Sure, Korea might not be near the top of most people’s travel lists – but I’m of the belief that no corner of the world should be left unexplored. I’ll be honest and say that I had zero interest in exploring South Korea prior to taking up the job, but I found it to be every bit as exciting and intriguing as the other countries I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
Paid travel? You heard that right. Most reputable employers will pay for your flight to South Korea – so the only expense that’s left to you is arranging your visa. If you see out your twelve-month contract, they’ll also fly you home. You won’t find many holidays where your return trip is paid for.
9 – Rich History
There aren’t any samurai or ninja here, but that doesn’t mean Korea isn’t a nation full of history and fascinating cultural experiences.
With a history stretching back 2333BC and beyond, there’s a wealth of stories to hear and sites to uncover. And while the temples scattered throughout Korea may not be as aesthetically beautiful as the ones you’ll find nestled in Japanese cities, there’s still a sense of supreme calm when you’re standing in an ancient temple with only the wind and the whistling of birds for company.
A great many ex-pats in Korea are of the belief that ‘if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all’, and there is some truth to this. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few exceptions to the rule. Check out the idyllic Daewonsa or seaside Yonggungsa in Busan for a truly remarkable twist on the cultural norm.
Seoul’s tourist friendly Insadong district is full of manufactured brushes with ‘old Korea’ and Kyongju/Gweongju isn’t known as the museum without walls for no reason. Busan, the last bastion of South Korea during the infamous Korean War, is the nation’s largest port city and has a history all of its own – and there’s plenty of geological history on display on the volcanic island of Jejudo in the very south.
What makes the history and culture so accessible is that some customs and some of the older traditions persist today. People might have kimchi drawers in their fridge to prepare the nation’s signature dish – but for every high tech fridge, there are a dozen ajummas on the sidewalk with vegetables for sale. For every sky rise there’s a farmer’s tiny house built in the traditional style. It’s a place of living history, and that’s becoming a hard thing to come across.
Interested in learning more about kimchi? I attended to Gwangju Kimchi Festival.
8 – Experience a New Culture
Part of the whole adventure for me was not only experiencing a new culture – but experiencing one I’d known very little about prior to arriving. Everybody knows that sushi is Japanese and that you can have a siesta in Mexico – but very few people know much or anything about the Land of the Morning Calm.
Just stepping out of my apartment that first cool morning in November 2007 was a learning experience for me. The neon crosses vying for control of the skyline, the erratic driving, the nocturnal children, and the enchanting inquisitiveness of its people were all complete surprises to me.
Whether I was eating delicious Bibimbap (rice, vegetables, and meat in a hot pot) after a hangover or devouring spicy ddeok galbi (chicken, noodles, and vegetables) – I learned that there was an entire world of food I’d never even heard of to fall in love with.
It’s a nation that offers everything from breathtaking hikes to the dizzying sight of a kitted out PC room full of kids playing StarCraft as if it were life or death.
It’s a nation of scary ajummas (old ladies), drunk ajoshis (old men), and kids who split their curiosity between the distant Western world and their own unique hobbies and games. Learn to play Go-Stop with a bunch of ajoshi over a bottle of soju, and you’ll never want to stop playing the addictive and fast paced gambling game.
It’s a proud country that is struggling to maintain its rich history while also rushing to join the Western world. The kind of place where you’ll see a tent restaurant wedged between two towering buildings packed full of chain restaurants and bars. The kind of place where you’ll step out of a smoky night club and grab a quick bite to eat from an old lady pushing a
The kind of place where you’ll step out of a smoky night club and grab a quick bite to eat from an old lady pushing a wagon full of dried squid. It’s these sharp contrasts that made me fall in love with the place, and even after three years there, I barely managed to scratch the surface of the culture.
Sure – there are hundreds of other cultures I want to explore and experience – but Korea’s one that is ready-made for travellers. There is a constant demand for English teachers, and while that remains, you’ll find it far easier to spend a year or two in Korea than in the more glamorous locales such in Europe or the Americas.
7 – Cheap Booze
Maybe paying $7 for a draft beer at Sydney bars has put this into harsher focus for me – but getting drunk in Korea was infinitely cheaper than anything I’ve encountered in Australia or the United States. The beer might not be quite as good as you’ll find at home, but after a long day of teaching screaming kids – an ice cold Hite or Cass hits the spot just as well as an overpriced Corona with a wedge of lemon crammed down its neck.
It’s not just in bars either. You’ll find 1.5-litre plastic bottles of beer at supermarkets, and you’ll find supermarkets on just about every street corner in every city in the country. It’s criminally easy to grab a few litres of beer before heading down to the beach or out on a hike at any time of day.
Not a beer drinker? Soju is a local drink similar in taste to vodka, although not as potent and definitely not as expensive. Whether you’re shooting it, passing a bottle around, or mixing it with Powerade to form Poju – you’re never going to pay more than the equivalent of a dollar or two for a bottle.
Hell, you can get it in anything ranging from a two-litre jug to a cute little juice box.
Wines, while not as commonplace as you’ll find in a lot of other countries, can still be picked up cheap in larger grocery stores.
What does this mean for the average traveller? Good times abound!
I spent many long nights in a foreigner bar sinking beers and singing raucously. Plenty of hot summer days on the beach with a Hite in hand or at home playing drinking games with some soju and some good friends. It’s a fantastic social lubricant, and even if you’re not a big drinker, you’ll find plenty of potential friends who are.
Want to learn more about Korea’s drinking culture?
6 – It’s the perfect launch pad to explore Asia
Korea might not be your cup of tea, so why not make use of one of your two annual vacations to see some of its neighbours?
Japan lies just a short flight or boat ride away, so even a weekend junket is possible. China is just a few hours flight away and offers a rich culture that most will be more familiar with.
Flights to Southeast Asian hotspots such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines are often cheap as well. I’ve even had friends who spent their holidays in such exotic spots as Mongolia, eastern Russia, and Brunei.
But there’s no reason to leave Korea. You’re in a nation where an ancient civilisation blends with the 21st century. There are countless temples and historical sites to explore, mountains to hike, beaches to lounge on, and cities offering the more modern pastimes such as live sport (baseball and football abound), theme parks, bowling; night clubs, and zoos.
A great many international artists include Korea on their tour schedules, as do the WWE and a number of prominent sporting teams. The local K-League regularly produces contenders for the Asian Champions League continental cup – which affords a chance to see the heavyweights of Asian football in action.
5 – The Boryeong Mud Festival
Korean festivals are a unique and amusing way to participate in local Korean culture, and no festival is quite as much fun as the annual Boryeong Mud Festival every summer.
Picture a quaint beachside town, a hell of a lot of foreigners, a dose of summer sun, plenty of beer and soju, and a liberal splash of mud to make it just a little raucous and you get the idea.
I attended the Boryeong Mud Festival in 2008 and 2009, and had a blast on both occasions. Whether you’re going to the Boryeong Mud Festival with friends or going to the Mud Festival as a couple, it’s got something for everyone.
4 – Foreigner Bars
In some ways, this goes hand and hand with #7. But the foreigner bars aren’t solely about drinking. Hell, in hindsight this could have been just ‘foreigners’, but bars are going to be your likely meeting point with a lot of the coolest people you encounter, so I’ll leave it as is.
Gwangju, where I spent my first two years in Korea, was served by a foreigner-friendlyfriendly bars when I first arrived. All three of them make appearances in my count-down of the Top 10 Favourite Bars, and more can be found on them there.
Almost every city with a sizable foreigner population boasts a well loved foreigner haunt. There’s P-Bar in Mokpo, The Wolfhound (and about two dozen others) in Seoul, and too many I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting in other cities. And while their main purpose is the Saturday and Sunday night binge drinking sessions that tend to give foreigners a bit of a bad name from time to time, a lot of them offer more than just cheap booze and loud music.
Gwangju’s Speakeasy offered live sport Sundays, fortnightly trivia competitions, and occasional charity events of a non alcoholic nature. The German Bar once hosted open mic nights. Not a night owl? Some of the best excursions I’ve been involved in have stemmed from the people who run the foreigner bars.
They care enough about the local scene to have invested their time and money into a bar, so it makes sense that their love extends beyond drinking. Touch football games, baseball games, summer camping trips, and even short films have been conceived in the dimly lit confines of a foreigner bar.
That’s not my endorsement of a narrow minded approach to nights out either. Some of the best bar experiences I had in Korea were off the beaten track. I had the lucky of attending my good friend Cody’s bucks night in which we intentionally steered clear of the well known foreigner haunts and instead ate suspicious food and sank soju in one of the tent restaurants we all habitually overlooked on most nights.
And after it’s all done? In a nation that never really sleeps there’s always greasy food to be had and oddly placed carnival games to be played. Win a teddy bear for your sweetheart or just vent some frustration by shooting ducks with an air rifle. Hit up a batting cage or splash out $5 or so for a noraebang (singing room) with a dozen of your closest friends.
3 – Meet Like Minded People
It takes a certain kind of person to uproot their humdrum life and just move to a far corner of the world, and while you’re not going to get along swimmingly with every single person you meet in Korea, odds are you’re going to make a lot of fantastic friends.
There’s your drinking buddies and your wingmen, but there’s also the hiking friends and the people you meet up with for coffee and dinner. There’s social clubs that engage in rock climbing, language exchanges, and weekend excursions. There are foreigner newspapers and web-pages you can contribute to; foreigner radio stations; and volunteering at an orphanage for the charitably minded. No matter the kind of person you are, you’re going to make some fabulous friends in South Korea.
There are social clubs that engage in rock climbing, language exchanges, and weekend excursions. There are foreigner newspapers and web-pages you can contribute to; foreigner radio stations; and volunteering at an orphanage for the charitably minded. No matter the kind of person you are, you’re going to make some fabulous friends in South Korea.
There are foreigner newspapers and webpages you can contribute to; foreigner radio stations; and volunteering at an orphanage for the charitably minded. No matter the kind of person you are, you’re going to make some fabulous friends in South Korea.
Some may only be friends for as long as you’re in the country, but others will be the kind of people you visit in their home country a decade after you last parted ways.
2 – Save Cash
I’ll be up front – South Korea isn’t the best place to teach English if you’re looking to save money, but it’s a damn side easier to save money there than it would be living a comparable lifestyle back home.
The average pay rate of $1,500 to $2500 a month isn’t particularly exorbitant, but with your rent being paid by your employer, a low tax rate, and a ridiculously low cost of living – chances are you’ll be able to put aside over half of every monthly pay check to go towards student loans or credit card debts.
Saving up for a big trip after your contract done is easy as well, and the low cost of travel within Korea means you can still do some exploring without blowing your budget.
1 – Challenge Yourself
It took me a long time to narrow down this list to just ten things, but the one that was never in doubt was the reason that I am so glad I went. I arrived in Korea as a naive country boy with no real life experience and low self esteem. I left having made some amazing friends, learned a great deal about myself, and having a laundry list of unforgettable experiences to carry with me.
If you’re at work and thinking that you can be doing more with your life – I urge you to consider taking the plunge.
There’s the challenge of a new culture and meeting new people, but there’s the not small challenge of teaching English to children who don’t speak a great deal of it. Step into a classroom with a textbook you haven’t read and teach a bunch of students you’ve never met, and you’ll know you’ve earned your pay check. It’ll be trying sometimes, and you’ll have kids you just can’t stand – but I guarantee you’ll be sad to leave them when the year is done.
And sure, the moment where you realize you’re a few thousand miles from home and don’t speak a scrap of Korean is terrifying. I won’t lie. I cried myself to sleep the first night I was in Korea after an hour of battling with the phone in an attempt to phone home. There will be days when you hate every single thing about Korea and swear you’d give it all up for just one comfort from home. You’ll miss your friends back home and in some cases, you’ll realize that you weren’t so unhappy at home after all.
But you’ll never know if you don’t take the risk, and I’d say that 99 times out of 100, you won’t regret it.
So there you have it, my ‘case’ for teaching in Korea. I loved it so much that I’m headed back next year, and that’s a big endorsement from a guy who can’t stand still for more than a few minutes without getting antsy.
Want to know more? I’ve written a detailed guide on how to find a job in South Korea.