Pros vs. Cons of Teaching English in South Korea
I had heard that teaching English in South Korea was an excellent opportunity to make a good amount of money, save money, and, of course, to travel! That, and South Korea is an incredibly modern, safe, and beautiful country to live in and explore.
It was difficult to find a job in Seoul since I was looking last minute, so I settled for a job I was offered in Sejong. Sejong is located in the center of South Korea. It's about a 3 hour ride to Seoul, which in the northern part of the country. It's a brand new and up-and-coming city built to attract people from Seoul to lessen the population there.
I moved to Sejong, South Korea in August of 2015, anticipating to stay a year, but only lived there until January, 2016.
Why did I cut my year-long contract short? Because the work environment of my hagwon (training center) was that miserable.
First, the pros of living and teaching in Korea:
1. Cost of Living and Pay
I worked at a hagwon, which is a for-profit private academy for young students to attend after school. While working there with just a Bachelor's degree, a little experience teaching in Thailand, and no TEFL certificate, we earned around $1,900 USD per month or 2 million Korean Won. Almost $300 was deducted each month for taxes, pension, and other things, so I ended up with around $1,600 USD for spending money.
The best part of teaching English in South Korea, though, are the benefits, such as:
free airfare to and from Korea
free accommodation or extra money for rent
This was huge, since airfare and rent are so expensive and usually take up a huge chunk of your salary! That meant that pretty much everything I got paid was for whatever I wanted! So, I was saving a huge percentage of my salary.
My accommodation was free-- and out of this world. I had an extremely modern, clean, and huge apartment! Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen with an oven (those are rare in Asia), and even a computer in the wall for seeing who rings your doorbell and for security! Oh, and we had a heated toilet seat on one of our toilets. That's the best when pooping in the winter!
Korean food blew my mind. There is such a huge variety of delectable options, there's just no way you could try them all-- but you could certainly attempt to because I sure did! Here are some notable ones:
Korean Barbecue 고기구이 (around $11-$20 per person, depending on where you go)
Imagine: you sit at a table, surrounded by your pals. In the center of the table is a grill with charcoals sizzling and snapping underneath. Plates on plates of various cuts of juicy and succulent meats arrive. You place the meat on the grill, cooking the slices of meat to perfection. While waiting, you're given a multitude of side dishes: lettuce leaves, sauces, kimchi, garlic, onions, bean sprouts, rice, eggs, and more. When the meat's done, you mix all of that up in a lettuce leaf with plenty of glasses of Cass (popular Korean beer) and soju (popular liquor) to wash it down.
And let the good times unfold. This was my favorite thing to do and I did it almost every weekend. I miss it constantly! Best. Food. Ever.
Jajangmyeon 자장면 (around $5 or so)
One of my favorite dishes! It's a dish with thick and long noodles topped with a sweet bean sauce, chunks of pork, and sometimes vegetables. To die for! The most fun part is cutting the extra-long noodles with a pair of scissors!
Budae Jjigae 부대찌개 (depends, but definitely didn't break the bank!)
This dish combines American processed food, like hot dogs, spam, baked beans, and sliced cheese, into a Korean stew with packaged ramen noodles. Talk about sodium! But, oh my, was it satisfying! I got it often because it wasn't expensive, it was nice to share with friends, and it came with unlimited rice!
Mandu 만두 (could be as cheap as $1 for a big one!)
Mandu is Korean-style dumplings, usually stuffed with meat and vegetables. As popular as these guys were, I wasn't a huge fan of them. They were good at first, but their relatively bland flavor bored me rather quickly.
Kimchi 김치 (free with just about every meal!)
Kimchi is seasoned and fermented cabbage. It's a staple in Korean cuisine and served with almost every meal. When eating out, you get it for free with just about anything you order (maybe not a hamburger or pizza, but Korean dishes for sure). I fell in love with kimchi there and still feel a bit strange eating any dish without it!
Tteok-bokki 떡볶이 (maybe $1-$2)
This is a popular fast-food dish, especially for Korean children. It's stir-fried rice cakes in a red, spicy, and thick sauce. Although it's mainly popular with the kids, the kids clearly know what good food is because I loved this stuff and seriously couldn't get enough of it! I also often got fried vegetables in that same sauce. Killer and a must-try!
Bibimbap 비빔밥 (around $6 or so)
Bibimbap literally translates to "mixed rice." This dish is served with rice, which is topped with an array of vegetables, a chilli pepper sauce called "gochujang," and an egg. You could get some meat in there, too. It also comes with the common side dishes, like kimchi! It's one of my favorite Korean dishes! So simple, cheap, healthy, and divine!
Gimbap 김밥 (4-5 pieces for around $2)
Gimbap is basically Korean sushi. Inside the seaweed-wrapped rice, you'll typically find vegetables, egg, spam, meat, and other things. However, for me, I did not care for it. To me, it has everything I don't want in my sushi. Carrots? Nah. Eggs? Nope. Spam!? No, thank you!
Fried chicken 치킨 (prices vary)
Fried chicken is huge in Korea-- and it's no surprise why. Every time I ever got fried chicken there, it was always juicy, crunchy, and filled with flavor-- both inside and out. They have a variety of sauces and every single one is delectable! It's also really fun to get some fried chicken and beer with friends for a late-night, alcohol-soaking meal.
Onigiri (around $1-$2)
Onigiri is originally a Japanese food, typically found in convenience stores. It's usually triangle-shaped rice filled with various types of flavors (meat, cheese, fish, vegetables, sauce) and wrapped in seaweed. Onigiri is also popular in Korea and can be found in their convenience stores, too! They're delicious, cheap, and a convenient quick snack! My favorite flavor was the tuna and mayo. Yum!
Ramyeon 신라면 ($.50-$2)
Ramyeon is basically Korean ramen. It's very popular with Korean children and you can often find them slurping a bowl of this down in any convenience store at any given time. They have them in packages to make in a pot and to make them in a microwave. They mostly have spicy flavors, but I often ate one brand that wasn't spicy. I ate it so often and would sometimes put a slice of processed cheese in there. No wonder I gained so much weight in Korea! Whatever. It was delicious!
It's very easy to go out to eat in Korea because it's affordable and mostly healthy! But, what about grocery shopping?
I often would go to Home Plus, which is sort of like their Wal-mart, or small shops closer to our apartment building. Home Plus had everything, though, from food to electronics! It was also extremely affordable, even with the tons of food we'd get! However, ground beef was expensive-- around $20 for a little less than a pound! Yikes!
3. Things to Do
What should you do when you’re not working and eating?
Go bowling! Korea takes their bowling quite seriously and it’s a great time!
So much fun! You get to hang out in your own room with my friends and tons of alcohol. And, belt your lungs out!
There are tons of parks in Korea to explore and even go hiking in. The biggest and the one I enjoyed the most in my city of Sejong was called Sejong Lake Park. There are mountains, a pond, shops, and even a stage!
If you're willing to go to Daejeon specifically, you could go to a baseball game at the Hanbat Baseball Stadium! I never personally went because it wasn't baseball season when I was there, but I'd heard great things about it! It's very different from baseball games in America, as it turns out.
You could also go to various cities around Korea to attend plenty of other baseball games!
You could also go to Seoul, which is one of my favorite cities in the wold! That supplies you with endless amounts of things to do, such as a huge and fun amusement park called Everland.
South Korea has the best nightlife I've ever experienced! I loved going to some bars, karaoke, bowling, and eating barbecue with friends. I also frequented sports bars where I could play darts, beer pong table, and even virtual sports on a giant projector screen! One bar that comes to mind that’s particularly interested for expats in Seoul is Thursday Party. What a wild scene that is!
The nightlife in the whole country is phenomenal, especially in Seoul. They say New York City is the city that never sleeps, but I happen to think that Seoul is truly the city that never sleeps! I went out once there, ate barbecue at a packed restaurant at 12 AM, then went out the clubs and bars until around 8 AM. ...And I didn't leave at that time because the clubs closed or anything. There were still tons of people there and the clubs were bumpin'! I was just exhausted! And wanted McDonald’s.
Best nightlife so far. For sure.
They got it all! That, and they're all efficient, clean, inexpensive, and easy to use. You can buy a T-money card and fill it up at any convenience store, then use it to access almost all transportation!
Bikes: I rode my bikes everywhere in my city because it's a very bike-friendly city, much like the rest of the country!
Buses: Buses are everywhere and used very often by practically everybody. They're cheap, too, and go all over the country.
Subways: I didn't have subways in Sejong, but there are subways in practically every other big city, like Daejeon, Seoul, Busan, and others.
Taxis: Taxis are abundant in Korea. As in most cities, it is the most expensive mode of transportation-- of course! However, it won't break the bank because they're pretty affordable, for the most part.
Trains: Korea has three different trains available: the commuter trains, semi-fast trains (ITX), and high-speed trains (KTX). They are all dispersed throughout the country fairly well (here's a map). They're all fairly affordable, but the fastest the train travels, the more it will cost you. A one-way ticket for the fastest train, the KTX, which reaches speeds of 190 mph (305 km/h), will depend on where you go. The first stop from Seoul would cost you 13,000 Korean won, or $11 USD. The last stop from Seoul, which is Busan, would cost 56,000 Korean won, or about $51 USD.
I rode all three of these types of trains and they were all an experience! Clean, convenient, comfortable, reliable, and affordable!
6. Local People
I found people in South Korea in general to be incredibly friendly and helpful. Even if they didn't speak English, which was quite frequent, they were very willing to help you if you needed to help. I'd never get eye-rolls for not speaking Korean, which was very comforting. I really loved Korean people and never felt threatened by or uncomfortable with them. They're some of my favorite people in the world!
Most of Korea has the typical four seasons with a moderate climate. It's similar to the weather in New York: hot and humid in the summer and cold and snowy in the winter. There doesn't happen to be extreme weather there, either, which was nice. So, the weather was overall great!
Except for the pollution that comes from neighboring China. Sometimes, the air quality could be bad, so it would be hazy some days. However, as far as I could tell, it didn't affect me very much.
Now, the cons:
This is particularly a problem for hagwons. I worked in a hagwon, which required me to work Mondays through Fridays from 1:00-9:00. However, most hagwons will require you to work on weekend— and all day most weekends.
I’ve heard similar stories and qualms from others who worked in hagwons. The hours were extremely demanding. I mean, I barely had a break during my 9-hour shifts! Some days, I didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom.
2. Lack of variety in the food
Korean food is delicious, but they just really don’t have overwhelming options for you to eat. It’s pretty easy to get sick of the food there because it can be quite repetitive.
3. Horrible treatment from your boss
It’s a well-known stereotype that bosses in Korea are extremely demanding, rude, and cut-throat. If you ever do anything they don’t like—even something minimal— they will let you know and not in a kind, constructive-criticism sort of way.
And that was the case with my boss, which was the precise reason I left my job early in Korea— because she was so belittling, forced us all to overwork, and was downright crude.
4. Not much culture
If you’re personally looking for a place that is far different from your Western home country and everything you know, Korea may not be the place for you. Korea is extremely cozy and comfortable. For some, that may be a positive, but I put this as a con because when you move and live abroad, most times, you’d like to be in a country and experiencing a completely new culture. However, Korea is extremely modern and Western-like!
Conclusion about Living in Korea
If you want to live in Korea, the best way to do so is by teaching English. You have a variety of choices: international school, hagwon (like we did), public school, or university. There are jobs everywhere in Korea. Whether you're a native English speaker or you just speak the language well, it would be relatively easy for you find jobs there. It would be easier for native English speakers of course, but if you're not one, then you could find something, too.
However, I would not suggest working in a hagwon like I did. My job went horribly wrong. Everything I was promised I did get, granted, but I didn’t sign up for a boss who was verbally abusive and worked me to misery. Unfortunately, that's common to find when working in hagwons in Korea.
How can you avoid getting a shitty job in Korea? Do your research on the place you're applying to. Talk to other people in a similar position as you’d be in and who work at the place your applying for. Get their contact information and talk to them outside of working hours to get their authentic feelings on the job. Pay attention to your gut feelings. Then, hope for the best!
I would never teach English there again unless it was somewhere like a university or primary school, but I'd love to go there again one day! It was an incredible country in every way.