Choosing Korea

2012 marks my fifth year in Korea. Five years ago, this very month, I was graduating and getting my documents in order. I often get asked why I chose Korea over other ESL/EFL destinations, why I have stayed so long, and when I will be returning to Canada. My answers vary depending on who I am speaking to and my general mood at the moment asked. If you go way back in the blog’s archives you can see why I chose Korea over China and Japan. I chose it because it was the lesser known of the three, and the pay and benefits were suitable. I stayed as long as I have because of the people I know over here. At the present, I don’t have concrete plans for returning to Canada.

If I were starting my ESL adventure in 2012 would I still choose Korea considering what I know about the country? This question isn’t as easy to answer. My understanding of all things Korean is significantly deeper due to my experiences in Daegu. I know the ins and outs of the culture. I understand how the ESL industry works in Korea, both the positive and negative aspects.

Back when I chose Korea over Japan, in 2006, China was a distant third. At the time, China wasn’t very appealing to someone who had a mountain of student loans to pay off. In 2012 pay-rates in China have been going up, especially in the larger cities. China is also an interesting place to be these days, as it’s gearing up to be a major global player. The only downside is internet freedoms, but they are easily found if you know what to do beforehand (I managed to use my iPad freely in Beijing’s airport because I set up a VPN app).

Japan remains a bit passé to me on an intellectual level. Not to offend anyone of the Japanese persuasion; it’s just that Japan remains so well-known, it doesn’t offer the intellectual riddle Korea does for me. Japan is a fairly safe choice if you want to do the ESL thing. It’s clean, modern and has nice people (Korean talking points here). Its culture and food are global and I am acquainted with them. Teaching in Japan is also very well documented, so it’s hard to feel like you’re breaking new ground.

I think if I were graduating in 2012, Japan would swap with China for third place. China offers quite a bit and has the luxury of still being an enigma to most Westerners. Living and teaching in China would also give one the ability to use Mandarin. If I were able to use Mandarin at the same level as I can Korean, so many doors would be open to me (it’s an international language whereas Korean remains restricted to the peninsula).

The ESL market in 2012 looks a lot different from 2007’s. Other countries are also gearing up and trying to tap into the English boom. You have countries in the Middle East offering embarrassing loads of money for teachers (if you can live with the sometimes crushing limits on your freedom). Other Asian countries like Singapore are also offering cushy jobs.

Having traveled to Singapore in January, I definitely wouldn’t mind living and working there. It has all the amenities of Canada (minus the winter) as well as a multi-cultural smorgasbord of other countries. It’s easy to get around with the metro transit system. The city is situated in an area that makes traveling to other countries a cinch. It’s clean and modern. The people are great (although you might run into millions of rich Western tourists).

What do I now know about Korea that might detract from it? The broken education system no one wants to fix. The superficiality in dealing with others, especially the bureaucracy. The xenophobes dictating government policy concerning foreigners. The shady aspects of the hagwon industry.The lack of a clear direction for the EPIK program.

However, even knowing the above, I would probably still choose Korea as my destination to teach. Korean history is extremely interesting to me, and access to historical sites is ridiculously easy. The country is small enough to provide easy transportation between locations. The cost of living is still very, very low (as long as you’re not paying for housing in the big cities). There’s a vibrant arts scene. The climate isn’t too different from Canada (same goes for the flora). There are many opportunities to escape to rural locations and get away from the hustle and bustle. There are many opportunities to escape from the mundane rural life and enjoy the kinetic energy of a metropolis.

If you’re reading this in the West and wondering “should I teach in Korea?”, I still endorse this country. Over the past five years, I have seen the (respectable) expat community explode, providing you with many mentors and role models. Korea’s a country that rewards perseverance and hard work. If you’re willing to put in the time to be a good teacher, you’ll find many doors swinging open for you. It’s not without its challenges, of course. But if life were challenge-free, it would hardly be worth living.


“Five years? Wow, so long! Why have you stayed?”

I am not making a separate entry for this. I’ll probably get asked this a million times in the future, but here’s an attempt to stem the flow.

1- The Friends

The number of friends in Canada? Practically non-existent, aside from less than half a dozen individuals. Most of the people I know are strewn across the country, or are living abroad. When I return to Ottawa, there’s only one friend I have in that city (because I spent nine years in Halifax before going to Daegu).

In Korea? The majority of my friends in Korea are actually Korean. I have a few foreign connections, but they are dwarfed with the amount of Korean friends I have accrued over the years (in Daegu I was exclusive to Korean-only circles). I enjoy being a part of each others’ lives. I’ve seen my friends study at university, go through military service, get married, get pregnant, etc.

In 2011 I made a fair number of foreign friends due to my closer proximity to Seoul. They also play a role in my general happiness towards Korea.

2- Professional Connections

It’s no secret I have had pretty good connections in Korea. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve taught a cousin of the ____________, the ____________ of one of Daegu’s _________, and a few ___________ working for the __________ etc etc. I wasn’t joking when I mentioned I’ve rubbed elbows with some of the movers and shakers in Korean society. Has any of this helped me? Well, it’s given me some pretty solid references. Probably lent extra weight to my EPIK application that resulted in approval mere hours after I submitted it.

I’ve etched out my own little niche in Korea, starting from the bottom all the way to the top. The longer I stay in Korea, the stronger my position becomes. Leaving for Canada means losing a considerable amount of progress on the professional front.

3- International Flavours

Being in Korea means being in contact with people from all over the world. For someone such as myself, this is incredibly awesome. My fellow English teachers hail from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US. As part of the blogging/YouTubing crew in Korea, I’ve met good people from all over the place.

This is one of the things my family in Canada doesn’t often think about. Chumming around with an international crowd opens a whole new perspective on things. Attending events or meet-ups means getting together with a hodgepodge crowd of different nationalities. Being part of an expat community is something “regular” folks don’t take into consideration, and it’s empowering in a sense. Traveling back to one’s native land all of a sudden you encounter people who have never ventured outside the confines of their culture and have no interest in doing so. It’s a little dull once you’ve lived the other life.

4- Brain at 150% at All Times

Teaching in Korea means my brain has its gears turning at a highly accelerated rate at all times. How so?

Teaching English like I do isn’t as simple as it seems. While my mouth is moving, my brain is thinking two sentences ahead for vocabulary the students will understand; it’s making sure my body language is appropriate to convey understanding to students who don’t get English; it’s anticipating questions to the lesson’s content and thinking of the answers; it’s being mindful of Korean culture so I can put things in context; it’s keeping track of students’ facial features to gauge enthusiasm, energy and understanding; its listening to any Korean and translating it to see if what is being said has any bearing on me. All this is happening at the same time.

Teaching English in Korea (or even living in Korea) is like playing a game of chess, where you have to plan several moves ahead. Some people find this to be severely tiring and stressful, but I’m somewhat addicted to it. My mind needs to be active. To achieve this effect in Canada, I need to retreat into my hobbies. And they don’t exactly pay the bills.

5- Adapted Too Well

There’s an argument to be made that I have adapted too well to Korea, and that when I return to Canada things don’t quite make as much sense. In Korea, there’s an internal logic to things, and I seem to in tune with it. I’m not quite as well synced to Canada’s. You can call it reverse culture shock if you want.

When I’m in Korea I know how to get around. I know where to get information if I require it. I know what stores carry what food. I know the proper etiquette. Being in Korea is actually more comfortable than being elsewhere. In Korea, I feel as if I control what happens to me. In Canada, I often feel at the mercy of different elements (probably because I am more of a guest than anything else).

6- The Students

I have invested a great deal of time and energy in my students, and they have done the same with me. While in Korea, I am afforded the opportunity to teach some of the brightest young minds the country has to offer (which is true, since many of my students have gone to elite schools over the years). I take my job and responsibilities very seriously. I also relish the chance to engage my students in the eight hours I am at school every day (most of the time).

On Sunday afternoons and evenings I am usually chomping at the bit to go back to school. During exam period I am bored because I have no one to teach. When this enthusiasm dissipates it’ll be the death knell to my stay in Korea.

7- Etc etc

There will always be numerous explanations for why I’ve lasted the five years. Life in Korea gives me time to pursue my numerous hobbies. Life in Korea gives me an inexhaustible source of kimchi. Life in Korea means I can stroll around a country with 1000’s of years of civilization. Life in Korea means I can hone my multi-lingual skills. Life in Korea means I can experience some of the most cutting-edge electronics. Life in Korea means I can settle disagreements with rock-paper-scissors. Life in Korea means I have a place to call home.

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