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. In fact, I loved my time living in Korea (just look around the site), but this article explains why it is that I chose to stop teaching English in South Korea after just one year. In truth, it turned out not to be the last time I lived in Korea as I came back to Korea (Seogwipo, Jeju) to live for a second time, although second time around, I wasn’t teaching English and I loved my time even more on that special island. This post is specific to my experiences in Daegu, the place that I first lived. Please don’t take this as a slight against the country because it isn’t – it is an explanation of my feelings at the time I stopped teaching. 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. The acid test is this – would I allow someone I cared about to teach in Korea? Yes – both my long term girlfriend and brother went to teach in Korea after I did and I was happy for them both to do so. To highlight how much fun I had, here is a little video I made fore my friends reflecting on that first year I taught in Korea.
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 and offering a great opportunity to save money.
I love Korea and I will visit the country again – probably not to live as I have lived there twice already – but as a visitor who has time to explore more. The country is rich in culture and beauty, and I would love the opportunity to experience and indulge in more of this. 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…
THE DESIRE FOR AN UNCOMFORTABLE LIFE
Living in Daegu, South Korea, I had an incredibly comfortable, high quality of life. I had enough money to go out for dinner multiple nights a week, I took taxis because I didn’t like waiting for buses, I went away on trips at the weekend, and I had a secure job that could be enjoyable. On paper, everything was perfect, because I had every form of security that a human being could hope for. However, as human beings, we are all very different. What I needed from my life was more risk and more of an unplanned lifestyle – a more uncomfortable life if you will. I understand why so many people stay in South Korea for so many years and why so many come back after they have left – rarely anywhere will you find quality of life as good as you will find it as an English teacher. It just wasn’t what I was looking for. I left my comfortable life in South Korea to hitchhike around Europe and live in a tent, technically ‘homeless and unemployed’. Most people would hate this life, but it was exactly what I needed.
Since the time I left Korea, I have spent many years living an unorthodox life and I like the path less trodden. It excites me, it challenges me, it reminds me that I am alive. I do miss Korea and I think back on it fondly. Could I ever live there again, not as an English teacher? Maybe – it has a lot to offer. But here is a small selection of personal difficulties that I had during my time in Daegu.
Due to the nature of 12 month teaching contracts in South Korea, there is a very transient nature to the place for foreigners. One of the things that I loved most about Korea was the amazing friends that I met along the way and the people who were huge parts of my life. We spent so much time together and became very close. As teaching contracts work on a 12-month basis, many teachers in Daegu would move schools or leave Korea at the end of their contracts. I was sad to see so many good, great, wonderful people leaving all the time and I found it difficult to cope with. 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.
Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular all over the world and with good reason: Some of it is really awesome and the communal way of eating brings people closer together. However, Korean cuisine is notably not vegetarian friendly and I have been a vegetarian since I was seven. I would often go out for dinner with my meat-eating friends who loved the cuisine and find myself eating short grain, sticky white rice which is not to my personal liking. There are vegetarian dishes available, but not in every type of restaurant, particularly as I often went to barbecue restaurants with my meat-loving friends. And to make this worse, I didn’t take the time to learn Korean properly which made it hard to communicate the concept of being a vegetarian. There almost isn’t a translation for the word vegetarian in Korean, and I often used a phrase that loosely translated as ‘vegetables only.’ Even when I knew dishes on the menu, they often had subtle variations and on more than one occasion I ordered bibimbap (tasty vegetables and rice), only to find beef in the dish. One occasion springs to mind when I told a lovely, English speaking waiter that I wanted bibimbap without meat because I was a vegetarian and he said it wasn’t a problem, then bought me bibimbap with beef in it. When I pointed it out to him, he said it wasn’t a problem because it was only a little bit of meat. I don’t like to be difficult, so after this I used to tell restaurant staff that I was allergic to meat and this worked better.
In addition to the difficulty of establishing my vegetarianism, many dishes in Korea use a chilli paste called 고추장which 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 (possibly because it was often mixed with fish or shrimp paste). 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. In fact it served with most meals as there is not a large distinction between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they are simply times that you eat, so I often used to cook myself – when I cooked with this paste, I didn’t mind it, which is why I think many restaurants must have mixed it with something fishy. 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 really like this.
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), bear in mind that it is both limited in supply and expensive in Korea, as is most dairy.
BIG CITY LIFE
Certain cities in the world are monotonous and hard to tell apart, and I found this to be the case in some of the bigger Korean cities, such as where I lived. Sometimes I found it hard to tell which city I was 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. Also, being from Europe, I have a fondness for cities that are typically very old and ornate, very much unlike Daegu. What I did love about the Korean cities is that things remain open all night. There are corner shops everywhere, so I often used to pop down to get a chocolate milk at 4 in the morning if I couldn’t sleep.
By comparison, when I lived on Jeju, I was very much happier with my surroundings. I was constantly in wonder at the nature and despite being on the island for six months, I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what I would have liked to explore. Again, this is personal preference and Korean cities are great fun.
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, when you live in a place, it is not always easy to make friends with the locals and I found it hard in Korea to spend time with Koreans 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. And because I didn’t learn to speak Korean. 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 – in short, I didn’t interact with locals for reasons that are my fault. 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. I suppose like-minded people attract, hence why I was attracted to the other people who had travelled across the world on a whim to teach English.
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 in Daegu. 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, I was constantly treated as a novelty which became tiring. Computer games and karaoke are very popular culturally, neither of which are to my liking, but the overwhelming difficulty I had was the fact that teachers seemed to get away with almost anything. After several months in Korea, I looked at myself and I wondered, Why am I here? and Where am I going? This strange world was both a blessing and a curse, and at times I miss it.
Incidentally, since leaving Korea to hitchhike and live in a tent, I still have no idea, and I have moved transiently through many different life situations. I could probably now write this same post about every other place I have lived / everything else I chosen to do at life because I haven’t done the same thing for more than year.
DO I MISS LIFE IN KOREA? YES
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. I am happy for the experiences that I had and for the people that I met, and I am glad that it was part of my life that I still think of fondly. However, I left at a time that was appropriate for me to leave because I don’t think that I – myself as an individual – could live anywhere for a great length of time, doing the same thing each day. It’s just in my nature.
WHAT WOULD I DO DIFFERENTLY IF I COULD GO BACK?
If I was to go back to Korea I would make more of an effort with everything. I went to Korea because I wanted to teach English and I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I think I was an OK teacher and the kids liked me, but I didn’t push myself to be better which is something that I fundamentally feel driven to do in life. Three things that I think would have made my life better would have been to:
- Learn Korean so that I could interact with Koreans better.
- Do an English teacher qualification so that I could be a better teacher. Why be average at anything?
- Make the most of the weekends and mornings to explore all that I could as Korea has a lot to offer.
DO I THINK OTHERS SHOULD TEACH IN KOREA?
If you want to teach English, Korea is a great place to start with numerous benefits, so I would never advise anyone against doing it. In fact, my little brother went out to Daegu and I was happy for him because I knew that life there was good and he would enjoy it. That’s the ultimate test really – would I let my family do it after me? – and the answer is yes.
What I will say is that if you can’t get a job in South Korea, don’t worry, because there are so many wonderful places in the world that I’m sure would be amazing in their own way. To help more people realise their dreams of teaching English somewhere in the world, I have teamed up with some recruiters to offer English teaching jobs in different parts of the world which you should have a look at. Try and throw away your preconceptions and give each place some fair thought, and also bear in mind that every country is hugely diverse within its borders (such as the differences I experienced between living in Daegu and Seogwipo).
ORIGINAL JEJU UPDATE: I WENT BACK TO KOREA!
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.