Kimchi, Karaoke, and all things Korean
by Kate Kim
Before moving to South Korea, there are a few things that you’ll need to consider to be sure that it’s the right place for you. You’ve likely already decided that you’re ready to move away from the comforts of your own country and that you’re okay with meeting new people, working in a country where English isn’t the first language and trying new foods. These are all things that you’ll definitely encounter daily but what you might not have contemplated is if you’re ready to be immersed in an intense culture which can be both amazing and challenging at times. Teaching in Korea, you’ll have opportunities that most people can only dream of and if your experience turns out to be anything like mine, you will be unwittingly creating your future and changing your life forever.
There are very few types of jobs that expats can do in Korea due to challenging visa restrictions, but by far the most common career is teaching English as a second language. So this is the type of job that I’ll focus on – it requires an E2 visa, which along with your job, is most easily acquired with the help of a recruiter. Unlike in Canada, there are many companies (called Hagwons) that place teachers in public schools and after-hours academies.
It’s important to note that the differences in contracts often vary from province to province if you work in a public school and from academy to academy if you teach in the private sector.
My experience teaching was at a public boys high school in the south west province of Jeollanamdo. A typical day had me at school from 9am to 5pm and consisted of about 4 hours of actual teaching per day, with the other half reserved for prep, skype calls home and surfing the net. It was, at times, the easiest job I will ever have in my life.
There was a break for lunch, which was a hot meal served at the school for all of the staff and students, and for a delicious, authentic Korean meal daily, I was expected to supervise the school’s cleaning time where the students worked together to clean the school.
The level of English that Korean students study at varies in ability, as does our own ability to speak, read and write French in Canada. Some students enjoy learning English, but for others you’ll have to fight to keep some students stay, let alone attend your class – if you work in a public boys high school, you’ll deal with the norms we have in Canada, like skipping school, back talk, dirty jokes and bullying. Never forget, although we may speak a different language, have different cultural traditions, and look different, we’re all human. So a 15 year old boy in Korea is not much different than a 15 year old boy in Canada…bring your patience, and sense of humour to work every day and you’ll have a great time.
If you have the itch to travel, there will be plenty of opportunities to explore neighbouring countries like China, The Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia, just to name a few. There are multiple holidays that may fall around a weekend which allow you to sneak away for 3-4 days to Japan or China, and on longer school breaks in the winter when you’re given between 3-4 weeks vacation to go home or to go on a tour of other countries that peak your interest.
Compensation played a big factor in pulling me to the southwestern province in Korea, along with having a more authentic experience, the pay was higher in Jeolla-do than in provinces closer to the capitol Seoul. The Korean Won can make you a millionaire, literally. You will be paid anywhere between 1.8-2.3 million Won per month depending on your experience. This is equivalent to about $1,600-$2,100 CAD and is way beyond what you’ll need to survive, considering that your apartment is fully furnished and paid for and food/entertainment (especially dining out and alcohol) is very inexpensive.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to enjoy a Starbucks every morning, you’ll have trouble finding a good coffee shop unless you find an actual Starbucks (which aren’t on every corner like in Canada), so you will likely settle for Korean instant coffee which you’ll find for free at school or end up paying $6 for a terrible cup. The good news is, if you like green tea it can be found everywhere and is grown in Korea. A weekend trip to the town of Bosung will bring you to the gorgeous tea fields, which are lit up with colourful lights in the winter months when the bushes are covered in snow. You can also taste green tea ice cream while you’re there, which is pretty much worth the trip.
Korea’s nightlife is like nothing else that I’ve ever experienced. There’s no such thing as ‘last call’, the beer is cheaper, but prices are climbing steadily, and a tray of free snacks even shows up at your table when you sit down before you order a single thing. Karaoke is one of the most popular ways to start or end your drunken night and is a hilarious and authentic experience to have. There’s carnival style games to be played in the streets, the number of older men you’ll see drunk in public is shocking, and if you go for a run at 7am you’ll find the hardcores still out and finishing off their last bottle of soju at their favourite pork bbq restaurant. This is all a result of the drinking culture in Korea, which mirrors the patriarchal culture in general. That would require a whole other blog post, so I won’t get into it now.
South Korea is full of beautiful mountains, beaches, cuisine and people. It’s rich culture shines through in their traditional dress on holidays and weddings. The abundance of spicy food is overwhelming at times, and the work ethic is admirable. My heart will always long to live there again, and someday, I likely will since I met and married my husband in his hometown, the city where I worked. We’ve been back to visit with our son since and were shocked at how quickly things have changed in three years. New roads, restaurants, bridges, the city’s expanding. It’s amazing to see how a country so rich with culture, heritage and pride is developing into something that seemed so familiar to me, in a North American sense, yet still only feels like my home away from home.
If visiting Korea, a great website to reference would be www.visitkorea.or.kr where there’s plenty of information to get you started, and beyond that, just ask a local.
You never know, they may just invite you in for some rice and kimchi.