I am now 31 years of age, and although I think I look and feel a lot younger, I do wonder just how great it would have been if I had come to Korea much earlier. I contemplate just what a fantastic experience and opportunity it would have been for me when I had just left university. Don't get me wrong, going to teach in Korea is a fantastic experience at any age and I would thoroughly recommend it, but my gosh would it have been useful to know about at 21. This is my guide for graduates and anyone thinking of coming to Korea to teach. I think that you can infer from what I have written, that I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to come.
There is a rather multi-faceted reason for me saying this, and I will break it up as follows;
There is a massive problem in the west at the moment with graduate unemployment. There are a few reasons for this, which range from rather pointless degrees to just simply not enough jobs. With this in mind I am amazed by the amount of friends I have that have never thought of teaching in Korea, Japan, China, or many other places around the world for that matter. At 28 years of age my reasons for coming to Korea were to fund further study and to be employed, as jobs were becoming more difficult to come by. Seems to me that times at the moment are even harder, and some reliable employment and experience would be a great idea. It is easy to get a job in Korea, all you need is a degree (not even a good one), a clean bill of health, and not be a criminal. If you tick all these boxes and can't find a decent job in your own country, what are you waiting for? It is a guaranteed job and you really don't need to be amazing at it to keep it and even extend it if you fancy staying for longer than a year. The only way of losing your job as an English teacher in Korea is if you do something considered criminal or if you want to go home. The only responsibility is showing up for lessons.
In 2001, when I left university, I had a very small student loan of about £3000. Not very much, but still enough to be annoying. Some of my friends, however, were up at around £15 000 and are still paying this back. Now student debt at the end of university is even higher. It's a huge amount that most people will spend a large proportion of their life paying off. For the average student upon leaving university, the money doesn't exactly come rolling in either, particularly in the current economic climate. If you are lucky enough to find a job, the pay is not usually too spellbinding. This is where Korea can save you. I think it is very possible to save £8000 in a year teaching in Korea, maybe more. You can comfortably live, go out to bars and restaurants, go travelling, and live the good life and still save about £6000 in one year. So spend one year in Korea and that's already a significant chunk of your student loan paid, stay for two or three years and if your student loan is not too great, you might be able to pay off the whole lot. If you're not interested in paying your student loan (or are lucky not to have one), many teachers have used the money for further study or even to travel the world or fund an adventure, small business, or other project. For example, a good friend of mine used his money, saved teaching in Korea, to fund a bicycle trip home to England from Korea. The trip took him about nine months and I think he still had some money left over! So teaching overseas must be one of the most sure-fire ways of making money immediately after leaving university, and this money can be used to fund a myriad of different opportunities to suit the person. Another good reason to come to Korea to teach!
By this I don't just mean the experience of travelling to another country and experiencing a new culture, but also gaining valuable work experience. This is especially relevant if you are planning a career in the teaching profession, but also the work experience that you can get by teaching in Korea, can help improve many things from public speaking, organisation, responsibility, communication, and confidence. There is nothing like actually working to give you experience, this is something that many a university graduate is currently having trouble with in western countries. 'Everywhere is asking for experience, but I don't have it and I can't get a job to get the experience they require!' This is a complaint that I commonly here in my country of birth. Teaching in South Korea might not be a completely relevant position to your chosen career, but I guarantee that it is better than sitting on your backside without work. The large wedge in your back pocket at the end of it all can also buy some relevant experience with volunteer work if need be also. On top of the employment experience there really is a rich cultural experience to be had in a country that is about as far from ours in ways of thinking that there is in the civilised world. Even teachers that have come to Korea, and it's all been too much for them and they have quit early or just hated their year here, I am sure have learnt so much about themselves and have broadened their minds further to the world in general. I myself, out of the nearly two and a half years I have spent here so far, have not enjoyed much of it. I had a terrible start to my time here, and spent most of my first nine months wanting to go home. The following year I had the boss and job from hell, and hated much of that. Only now am I happy and settled in a job that I really like, and have no other problems. This is not the case for most teachers and I am sure they have a blast in there time here, right from day one. Most of my problems were due to my own personality and a large chunk of bad luck, but even through all these problems Korea was a fantastic experience, and I have never learned as much about myself or life in general from any other experience in my life. Period. Without any other advantage to coming to Korea, the vast experience you can gain from coming here, or any other Far-Eastern country, is something worth the trip on it's own.
Perhaps I am not the best person to comment on this one, as I am poor at getting myself out there and socialising with people. I hate drinking, bars, spending money, and coffee shops, which is a problem. So I feel like I don't meet enough people in general, but I do have a few good friends that I have met in my time here from a number of different countries. The point is that, in coming to Korea, you don't just meet Korean people but you can meet people from all over the English speaking world. Sometimes I think it's easy to take for granted the fact I have gone out hiking for the day with an American, a Canadian, a South African, an Australian, a Scotsman and an Irish woman. If you go to even a small city in Korea for a night out you can meet any number of different nationalities, all open to talking to you, because you are all in the same boat and doing the same job. You will meet lots of Koreans too, the women are usually much more open to being friends with you than the men, but it is always an interesting and different experience when you are socialising with them.
Time for Reflection
One of the hardest things in life is to figure out exactly what you want to achieve. What are your ambitions? What career do you want? On leaving university graduates may already know exactly what they want to do, but many don't. A job for a year in Korea will not only give all the above benefits, but will also give you the time to reflect on things and come up with a plan of action. There are very few worries in Korea, everything is easy, money is not a worry and accommodation and bills are zero hassle. It may also provide time away from your own country to get some perspective. The job also has few stresses and this all combined with the different ways of doing things you will see all around you will give you tremendous food for thought.
Although many students gain independence from their family through university itself, if graduates come to Korea after university they can get a true feeling of independence in a new and very real world. This can teach self-reliance and strength of character.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the food and health situation in Korea is much better than in our own countries. It is possible (with an open mind) to be introduced to healthier foods and living habits in Korea, which can last a lifetime. I know my own personal eating habits have changed significantly since living in Korea, and almost entirely for the better.
After a significant time spent in a country it is possible to really understand their culture and if you are very good, their language too. Far East culture and language is something of a mystery to most people in the west, but after your teaching experience in Korea, it won't be for you. Things are not always rosy in Korea and for some people they can be just plain difficult. But, if you can accept that difficult times will come and that you can learn as much if not more when times are hard, a huge wealth of knowledge and wisdom can be swept your way.
An Asian Travel HQ
Many of the people I have met in South Korea have used Korea as a base to be able to travel to other countries in Asia. Many work for a couple of years in Korea and travel to many countries during their vacations. (Note: if this is a priority reason for working in Korea you must work in a public school, private academies do not allow enough vacation). Many teachers just jump from one country to the next teaching English (e.g. Thailand, Korea, Japan, and China). I have to admit that this would have been an attractive option for me if I had not married a Korean woman. However, what strikes many foreigners when they first come to Korea is just how many people stay for longer than a year. I couldn't believe it when I first arrived, everyone I met had been in Korea for over 3 years, I really couldn't understand it. Once I returned home for a year I did understand the reason, and that is that life really is good in Korea. It is a nice life for many of the reasons I have already stated above. I am sure most people plan on just one year, but so many (including myself), stay for much longer.
This is an awfully long list, and an honest one. I can't promise that everyone will have a good time in Korea. Indeed many people are very negative in their time spent here, the culture differences can be too much for some people. But I think it is possible to promise a valuable experience and a learning experience, with a bonus of not being short of cash while you're at it.
There are some things that people shouldn't come to Korea for, however;
To meet a woman/find love
It is not unheard of for people to find love in Korea (I myself am an example), but it is certainly not common. Relationships with Korean men or women can get very complicated. Korean women are generally a little more conservative than in the west. It took a friend of mine a few months for a kiss, and for some girls sex before marriage is a definite no no, not on religious grounds but on purely cultural grounds. The men can have quite a chauvinistic attitude sometimes and this might be difficult to swallow for independent thinking western women. If you get past all the possible dating pitfalls, then you have to meet the family, which I promise you is a daunting task in many Korean families. Koreans have a natural cultural distrust of foreigners and many parents will not accept a foreigner into their families. I myself was lucky, but it was certainly not all plain sailing. There are also still some prejudices that exist in Korea about mixed race couples and you may find yourself open to some subtle abuse (outlined in a previous blog). Korea is not South East Asia, and although you may find that they (usually women) may have a facination with you, (particularly if you are white) this in most cases will not turn into a date or relationship. You will be called 'handsome' or 'pretty' more times than you will be able to remember (even if you are ugly), but I can assure you that this is unlikely to mean that it might be your lucky day.
To party hard and get drunk
Don't get me wrong you can certainly do this and many people do, but personally, I wish people that visit Korea would have a slightly better understanding of how their behaviour is perceived sometimes. Excessive drinking and bad behaviour is a charge that is regularly levelled at at foreign teachers in Korea, as many people see westerners behaving particularly badly when drunk in the evenings. The problem is especially prevalent in Seoul and bigger cities, but with the advent of more teachers in smaller cities and rural areas too, it is a problem that is spreading and Korean people really hate it and it tarnishes all of our reputations. To give an example of one of the few nights that I have been out and had a drink this year. One of my party decided to urinate outside the bar on the street, when the toilets were no more than 10 yards away, then proceeded to threaten some Korean passers-by who saw this and were upset. The same man I later learned then urinated out of a 17th floor apartment onto the street below. This stuff is not acceptable in any country but it is really unacceptable here, due to the cultural suspicion of foreigners in the first place. Drink responsibly and party hard, but have some awareness of what you are doing. Besides good tasting alcohol is rather expensive here anyway.
To run away from personal problems
If you are already in a negative frame of mind upon entering Korea, I can predict that you might have a few problems. Living in Korea is not easy sometimes, and if you are in the wrong frame of mind, the cultural stuff can really blow your mind. Many people get stuck in a negative mind-set, where it is difficult to enjoy yourself or learn anything. If cultural issues are bothering you, you must (for the moment at least) accept them as just different and unchangable. In our own countries we tend to think of issues of freedom and injustice as changable by anyone with passion and strong action. In Korea you will change nothing and you will especially change nothing by being angry and upset, they just won't give you a 'foreigner' a second thought, and they rarely do to Koreans either. You are going to have to accept it. Don't just put up with everything, though, do voice displeasure and greivance, but don't get too hung up about it all. Change will occur eventually, but recognise that it will only occur slowly, and maybe the change will be unrecognisable during your visit. These cultural problems are rarely that much of a big deal, however.
Unless graduates are walking into great jobs after university (which is not happening at the moment) I can't think of a better option than to head over to the Far East for a possibly life changing experience. You won't regret it and you might just discover who you really are, what life is about, and what you want to do with it while you're there.