Before reading this post, please note that Korea holds a fond place in my heart and there are many things that I love about the country. This article however, explains why it is that I wanted to stop teaching English in South Korea. In truth, I did return to Korea (Jeju) to live for a second time, although second time around, I was not teaching English and learnt to love my time on the island. I could write another post on the good side of Korea, but this is focused upon why it is that I wouldn’t teach there again and is specific to Daegu, the place that I first lived. Please don’t take this post as a slight against the country. The most important point you should get from this article is this: each of us is a different person and we must live life in a way that is correct for ourselves – I wanted to teach for a year and I did it, but I don’t wish to do it again. It’s as simple as that.
Shortly following my graduation from university, I spent a year teaching English as a foreign language in Daegu, South Korea.
Whilst recovering from a broken back, I had a lot of time to consider which country I would teach in. After weighing up the pros and cons of each country, I eventually settled on teaching English in Korea due to it being financially lucrative.
I love Korea and I hope to visit the country again one day – not to live (I have lived there twice already) – but as a visitor who has time to explore more. Yet despite the many benefits of teaching English in South Korea, upon leaving, I said that I would never go back to teach there again. This is why…
Most dishes in Korea use a chilli paste which is not to my liking. I like trying lots of different foods and some cuisines I like, some I don’t – this particular flavour was not for me. It is smothered on vegetables, noodles, and, well, almost everything vegetarian! It forms an integral part of kimchi which is a Korean speciality made from pickled cabbage in spicy chilli paste, and normally served in side dishes. It is served with most meals as there is not a large distinction between breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they are simply times that you eat. An alternative to the chilli paste is Doenjang, which you can sometimes ask for as a replacement. It tastes a bit like miso and is often used to make soup and I do like this.
Short, white grain rice that sticks together is also served as part of most meals. I’m not a huge fan of rice and if I was to eat it, I would probably go for a darker less sticky grain. I am biased against Korean cuisine because I am a vegetarian and Korea is a very un-vegetarian country, but many of my meat-eating friends love the cuisine. In fact, there almost isn’t a translation for the word vegetarian in Korean, and I used a phrase that loosely translated as ‘vegetables only.’
If you are looking for vegetarian travel advice in Korea, please read A Guide to Being Vegetarian in Korea because there are options for vegetarians. Also, if you like cheese (I love cheese), bare in mind that it is both limited in supply and expensive in Korea – as is most dairy.
Lack of Variety Within Cities
When reading this, please remember that I lived in Daegu. Certain Korean cities are monotonous and hard to tell apart. Within bigger cities, it is very difficult to tell which part of the city you are in. Sometimes it is hard to tell which city you are in altogether, except for certain areas such as the shopping streets or beaches. The first few times that I walked through the streets, I was fascinated. After this, the novelty wore off. I am a country person at heart and I find myself feeling out of place in cities all over the world, so often feel like this in cities, regardless of the country I am in. When I lived on Jeju, I was very much happier with my surroundings. Also, I am from Europe where cities are typically very old and ornate which is very unlike Daegu.
Difficulty of Connecting with Locals
I have travelled all over the world and made friends with people from all continents (except for Antarctica for obvious reasons). However, I found it hard it Korea to connect with people because of the environment I lived in. It isn’t that Koreans are difficult people; quite the contrary. I found Koreans to be quite lovely and polite people. The difficulty came with cultural differences and the fact that I was in an environment where I was surrounded by other foreign teachers. It may be because I enjoy adventuring that I found it harder to connect with the locals, but in my year in Korea, the vast majority of my friends were not Korean (there were a few special Koreans who I was good friends with). As I was a teacher, I was surrounded by communities of foreign teachers and I didn’t make enough effort to break out of these comfort groups. Normally when visiting countries, I am surrounded by like minded travellers and I often encounter this problem in every country that I choose to reside in for an extended period of time.
It’s Not Real
Due to the late hours when teaching in after school programmes coupled with the surplus of money for the first time, it is very easy to go out late, live a crazy lifestyle, and not have any financial problems or disciplinary repercussions. This can be seen as both a blessing and a curse but I found that it made me rather anti-productive at times. You can legally smoke inside [as of July 2013, smoking has been banned inside], turning restaurants and bars into blurry fog pits which can, if not careful, merge with the fuzziness of life itself. Walking down the streets, locals run up to say hi as you are a novelty and talking to members of the opposite sex can be a high-school style nightmare. Kids and adults alike have large obsessions with computer games and karaoke which are not so much to my liking. If you dare to venture into a PC bang (room) or norse-bang (singing room), you might emerge several days later wondering where all the time went. After several months in Korea, I looked at myself and I wondered, Why am I here? and Where am I going? Incidentally, since leaving, I still have no idea.
Despite all the negatives I have to say about Korea, I did enjoy myself. A big part of this is the amazing friends that I met along the way and the people who were huge parts of my life. Teaching contracts work on a 12-month basis and once a contract is complete, teachers normally move schools or leave Korea. If I was to go back, I am sure that I would find a new, great group of people to spend my time with. But sometimes it is better to take hold of the best memories, slip them into your pocket, and walk away smiling, safe in the knowledge that they can never be taken away from you.
Shh.. Sometimes I Miss it
Despite all of this, I am happy for the experiences that I had and for the people that I met. I don’t hate Korea and some days I do think about it. It was my home for a year of my life and when I see pictures of it, I will always feel that happy touch of nostalgia.
In support of this, to see some of the good things about Korea, read about the benefits of teaching in South Korea or read about the top 10 things to do in South Korea. It may even be true that I missed my number one reason from the list of why I would never go back to teach English in Korea; I like to travel. I like my world changing, different, new. When I am in one place, I get itchy feet. I have lived in Korea, I have had both good times and bad times, but now my time is done. I move on. I find somewhere new to live. “Take the good memories, hold them close and continue to walk your path.” Well, something along those lines anyway.
Update: I Went Back!
I never thought it would happen, but I went back to South Korea to live there for another six months. I decided to start fresh and I lived on the island of Jeju which is a lovely place (especially for cycling, festivals, and abandoned buildings). I wasn’t teaching English (which I love, but don’t want to do long term) and I wasn’t in a crazy big city which considered together, I think positively affected my experience. Korea, you have a curious place in my heart. I was sad to leave and only left to live on a farm in Norway, then walk across Iceland with my brother.