I lived in Seoul, South Korea for 2 years: a year and a half as a teacher and six months as an exchange student.
As a student, I loved my classes and studying Korean, and it was insightful to meet new people from South Korea and worldwide.
As a teacher—well, that’s a whole other beast.
Although my affection for South Korea is unconditional, there are several reasons that prompted my decision. I hope that regardless of your reasons for wanting to go to Korea, you do what’s best for your future and happiness. Buckle up. This post will be a little bit of a ride.
Why I Went
In my childhood, I gravitated toward Asian culture through Asian art. I adored the piece of an elegant woman in a Kimono on my grandmother’s wall. As I got older, I was fascinated by World History class learning about Asia: China, India, and Japan. When I learned about Korea, I fell in love with the language, resonated with the culture and media, and admired the history.
I learned about teaching English abroad and met those who’d done it with great experiences. I was unsure of my future, but I thought living abroad and teaching my favorite subject would be more interesting than being an English teacher for secondary education in the States.
Yet, I was uninterested in pursuing education as a career, so I rejected the English education degree and settled more on Professional Writing. I set the goal to study abroad in South Korea while in college, so I resolved to save money and apply for scholarships.
The Academia Effect
In high school, I never considered myself a ‘college’ type; I didn’t think I had the intellect to succeed. I admired those like my sister who entered with high GPAs and SAT scores as if they were on mountain peaks I could never reach. From the first day, I had a battle with academia’s expense. According to income, I didn’t qualify for grant consideration. In reality, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for anything college related except a few groceries.
College turned out to be the most pivotal part of my life. I enjoyed my—albeit small—campus, but the professors and staff were incredible. The English Department at Slippery Rock University was full of fantastic professors who genuinely cared about your performance and well-being. I gained confidence in myself as a scholar and a writer. They saw something in me I always felt too intimidated to pursue. I fell in love with my major and wanted a career I could be proud of.
My father was already tied to my sister’s student loans, and my mother’s credit was too poor to sign the Parent Plus loan for me. By a miracle, they accepted my mom’s co-signature for my first year of college.
I spent days anxiety-ridden over not getting the chance to go to college. Was I making a mistake? Was I really smart and disciplined enough to pull this off? I dedicated my life to my studies to make the investment worth it and to apply for future grants and scholarships.
I wanted to be successful and make my parents proud. I saw how much they struggled, and I didn’t want that for myself; I wanted to help them if I made enough money in the future.
My priorities changed, but I was still in love with South Korea. A dozen scholarship applications later, I was awarded a couple. With that and my savings, I made it to Seoul and studied there for a challenging yet inspiring six months.
I wanted to go back. I formulated a plan.
The Popping of the Bubble
Although I love English, I didn’t want to be an English teacher as my career. I knew it would be a temporary job in Korea, and my main goal was English editing or copywriting. I wanted to work in that kind of position while studying Korean, and I thought I could network and interview while teaching.
I set realistic expectations and knew there was a huge possibility that I wouldn’t find something other than teaching. But I thought…I won’t know if I don’t do it. Despite COVID, many teaching positions were open, but the interviews were lackluster.
I was a marketing intern with an electronic security company, gaining familiarity with the professional world and office conduct. The level of unprofessionalism I witnessed during most of the interviews for private academies was shocking (interview stories for another post), and they made me suspicious and anxious to the point where I almost didn’t go to Korea at all. I had no interest in traipsing to the other side of the world to be exploited for a job that wouldn’t even be my career. The added warnings and “Teaching in Korea” blacklist posts added to my weariness.
I was fortunate my final interview was with my future manager. We had a mutual understanding of the industry and its reputation. I felt respected, and I had a positive impression of her. In fact, my mom had a good impression too as she sat off-camera during the interview for moral support.
I accepted the position, and I was off.
The Fear of Confinement
Many people know that Asian countries have a more conservative culture with significant family values, rigorous education, and place a greater emphasis on the group. But sometimes, socially, Korea’s homogeneous nature can be as isolating as the peninsula’s physical geographic positioning for foreigners.
Korean society still has social hierarchies that foreigners haven’t yet fit into. Things will begin to change with newer generations. There’s still a lingering Otherness that alienates foreigners even as they attempt to integrate. I had many Korean friends from my college days who introduced me to others; making new ones outside of a university setting or without prior connections can be difficult. There are language exchange meetups that can alleviate this, but if you’re living outside of hubs such as Seoul, it’s more complex.
Without question, everyone’s experience is different, and how long you stay is based on your goals and personality. Despite the challenges, the social aspect of living in Korea didn’t bother me nearly as much as the professional challenges.
The root of my anxiety in Korea? The bleak outlook of having a career in the field I worked so hard to obtain a degree in.
I didn’t want to spend years in Korea outside of my field that would render my degree useless. That terrified me the most, and I had to make a decision quickly.
Foreigner Job Market
The job market in Korea—at this time of writing—is an incredibly strenuous place for everyone to navigate, even Koreans. On paper, I qualified for English copywriting and other related positions, but the legal visa requirements were the problem. I will discuss the visa phenomenon in another post, but to make a novel a sentence:
I couldn’t coordinate leaving my contract as a teacher to enter employment with another company without losing my long-term visa status.
You can seek employment elsewhere freely upon completion of the contract, but that’s IF a company happens to be hiring your desired position at the same time AND is willing to sponsor a visa.
There are job-seeking visas (D-10) that I could’ve obtained after finishing my teaching contract to give me time. BUT—my apartment was connected to my employment, and there must be a certain amount of money in the bank to show immigration as a financial plan for living costs (you cannot work part-time on a D-10 because you’re seeking). Also, keep in mind that you can only obtain a D-10 if you’ve been on another kind of visa in Korea for at least a year.
Finding a job outside of language instruction is unpredictable unless you’re married to a Korean national or graduated from a Korean university. I didn’t want to risk draining my savings to find housing (guaranteed low-quality because Seoul is expensive) and support everyday living costs.
I take chances, but I wasn’t willing to take that financial risk. Not when I have student loans to pay back this summer. Not when I could take those savings, start over in my home country, and find a position to kickstart the career I’ve yearned for since college. Compared to others, I know that this other avenue I have is also a privilege despite the mild recession the US entered.
I took on another six months to save enough money to prepare for expenses for living back in America (car, car insurance, etc.) and left.
Are There Options for Foreigners?
Just like anything in life, everyone is in a different situation. There are foreign nationals who make ESL their career, so it doesn’t hurt them to stay in Korea for years.
Some people join university Korean language programs to attain more points for the long-term residence (F series) visa, and they’ll also attend to take a break from teaching.
Others enroll in a master’s program (international relations being a major one for foreigners) in Korea. While I looked into this option, I ultimately chose not to.
Aspiring entrepreneurs put themselves through the D-8-4 (Business Startup Visa) following completion of Oasis Visa.
Some come on a Working Holiday Visa (but it must be within one year of graduating; 18 months for Americans and must apply in your home country*).
And some are simply content with their teaching positions and value their lives in Korea over the life they had in their home countries. They work their jobs and slowly accumulate points for a long-term visa, or they may meet a Korean national, get married, and naturally receive a more flexible visa. And unfortunately, in some cases, it depends on where your passport is from and which university you graduated from (Top 100).
So, is it possible? Well, there are some possibilities, but if your career is a priority and not related to teaching, I do not recommend attempting to come to Korea to work unless you have significant prior experience in your field at a major company or organization. Korea does not currently support digital nomad visas, though they’ve been in discussion for a while.
After gaining that work experience, you can either network from your country about positions in Korea; or, depending if you come from a country with a visa waiver agreement with Korea, stay somewhere for 30 days and find a job that way. The visa application requirements may vary since you’d be applying for an E-7 specialized worker visa.
There are other details that I want to discuss in other posts. Online, you’ll see many people ranging from retelling their horror stories of being in Korea to ardent defenders.
Life is nuanced, and there are positives and negatives to every choice we make; we make a choice, we observe both sides, and then decide which negative consequences we can live with. I will speak only for myself and (hopefully) help any reader who’s curious about this topic.
I will continue to post regularly on my blog and document my professional and personal endeavors. I’m looking into moving cities soon and want to continue my “Follow Your Gut” Series here in America!
You do not have to stick with me through my slight change of content. I’m grateful to those who’ve read my blog. It means the WORLD to me.
Thank you, thank you. ❤️
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